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Are you a freelance designer who needs work? Lori Haller has some great advice on entering the 'direct marketing' design niche.

Direct-Marketing Design
5 Steps to a Great New Career Opportunity
By Lori Haller

When was the last time your job truly inspired you? The last time you were consistently stimulated, were as busy as you wanted to be, had comfortable working conditions … all while earning a handsome income and having the time to enjoy it? Did you ever have such an experience? Can you even imagine it?

My name is Lori Haller, and that’s exactly what my job is like. I am a direct-marketing designer. But I don’t work for an agency or design firm. I work for myself from home, which means that I also get to spend plenty of time with my 3 young boys.

Graphic design falls into 2 categories. The first is “advertising agency” or “Madison Avenue” graphic design. Most ads on TV, in magazines, and newspapers fall into that category. This is the kind of design that most people think of when they hear “graphic design.” The designs are often hip, artsy or clever. Sometimes they are even so vague or cute, you can’t even tell what they are selling.

I’m the first to admit that “Agency” or “Madison Avenue” design jobs are glamorous. Top “agency” designers win prestigious Clio or ADDY or awards. The problem is that for the long hours and stress their jobs don’t pay very well.

However, there is a 2nd category of graphic design – the sector I work in, and it’s called “direct-marketing design”. This kind of design is simple and straightforward — and always has a definite call to action. You may have never heard about this sector before, but your life is touched by it many, many times every day…

Like when you receive a sales letter in the mail, or glance at a space ad in the newspaper that has an order coupon in the corner, or are tempted to pick up the phone to order a great product you saw advertised on TV.

The thing about direct marketing is it works! And as a result, it’s a huge industry.

In 2008, companies are expected to spend an estimated $183.1 billion on direct marketing in the United States. And total US direct marketing sales are expected surpass $2.158 trillion.

Thousands of direct-marketing companies need graphic designers to produce layouts for sales letters, email promotions, catalogs, and more. Since this is the “hidden and less glamorous” sector of graphic design — a sector that not even professionally trained designers know about— there is plenty of work and plenty of opportunity out there.

It’s Easier to Learn than Other Types of Design

The good news is that you don’t really need a degree from a prestigious design school to get started in direct-marketing design. Since direct-marketing design is straightforward and follows certain principles and rules it is relatively easy to learn even for somebody without any previous design experience.

5 Action Steps towards a Career in Direct-Marketing Design

If you are interested in pursuing a career as a freelance direct-marketing designer, here are some action steps that will help get you started.

1. Start Saving “Your Junk Mail”

You want to learn as much as possible about the materials that you will be designing. Keep the sales letters you receive in the mail and start collecting them. Although I have been designing for over 20 years, I still collect the pieces I like best and learn from them. Start sorting the letters and mailers into categories: Health, Financial, Leisure, Fitness, etc. Look at each piece closely. What attracts your attention and makes you open the envelope? What entices you to read the promotion? What colors are used? Is the order form uncluttered and easy to fill in? What pictures if any where used? And which of the promotions did you want to throw away without opening them and why? Write down what you find out. You can learn a great deal about direct-marketing design, just by studying the promotions that are out there.

2. Become Knowledgeable About Direct-Marketing

Earlier in this article I gave you a brief overview of the direct-marketing industry. Here are some organizations that can supply you with information about the direct marketing sector:

1) Direct Marketing Association (DMA)
1120 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036-6700

2) Your local Chamber of Commerce

You can also get valuable information about direct marketing from the following industry publications. You can find them in your local library or look for their websites on the Internet.
1. DM News
2) Target Marketing
3) Catalog Age Magazine


3. Get the Training You Need

There are many great resources available about graphic design. Start reading on the Internet, and visit you local library. Check you local bookstore for graphic design magazines and resources. Visit a local printer and learn about the printing process. Many print-shops are willing to give you a tour once you tell them that you are a graphic designer looking for a print shop to refer future business to.
You may also want to invest in a home-study program on direct marketing design. Make sure that you order from a reputable source that offers a 100% money-back guarantee and is backed by the Better Business Bureau. One example is AWAI’s Graphic Design Success program


4. Get Ready to Take on Freelance Work

Here’s what I consider to be more important than any other self-marketing tool: Instead of looking for ways to get business; look for ways to help somebody out. Do this and you’ll automatically start finding opportunities instead of expecting them to find you.

Helping others starts with listening. Instead of talking about yourself and all that you can do, just listen to the other person. Once you know what the other person wants or needs, you can explain how your services can help him.

Start with small assignments to build your portfolio and gain confidence in your new skills. Designing a direct marketing postcard or coupon is a prefect project when you are just starting out. Small jobs done well can lead to big jobs later on. Besides, if you can get a small job knocked out in a couple of hours and make $200 in the process —why wouldn’t you?


5. Find Clients

There are many great books and resources dedicated to finding clients, but here are some tips that I find particularly helpful…

  • Join your local Chamber of commerce and volunteer to do some design work for their events and programs. Use the opportunity to network.
  • Start mining opportunities right in your hometown. Present your business card or brochure to local printers, and direct mail service companies.
  • Get to know copywriters. They are often looking for designers to layout the copy they write. You can find names through the DMA or other direct-marketing organizations. Look them up in the local phone book.
  • When you see ads for full-time designers, contact the companies and let them know that you’d be happy to help them handle overflow on a freelance basis. Once you got a foot in the door the company will keep sending you business even after the position is filled.


Understand that success is not a 100-Yard dash: no matter what field you are in, there is no quick and easy road to success. And it’s no different in direct-marketing design. After all, direct-marketing design is not a “get-rich-quick scheme,” but a rewarding and fulfilling career that offers financial freedom and plenty of opportunity.

Lori Haller is a freelance designer and has 20+ years experience creating successful direct-mail packages for a wide variety of markets such as health and fitness, financial, and various associations and services.

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