Skills they don’t teach in design school – An interview with Michael Janda

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As a designer you’ll put your heart and soul into your portfolio… and if your portfolio is the best in the world, you’ll get clients, right? Sadly your design work alone won’t lead to success. To be a successful graphic designer you’ll also need to develop interpersonal skills to get your dream job, or to attract and work with clients of your own.

In this episode, Michael Janda, the author of Burn Your Portfolio shares the skills you need to develop beyond design. We also discuss how to calculate the cost of a logo, and his approach for using Instagram to position himself as a thought leader.

Michael Janda is an executive level creative leader with more than 20 years of experience in both in-house creative departments and agencies, working with some of the greatest brands in the world, including Disney, Google, HBO, Google, Fox and many more.

The Logo Geek podcast is sponsored by FreshBooks, the small business accounting software that allows you to spend less time on accounting and more time designing logos! Sign up for a free 30 day trial here.

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Books & Resources Mentioned




Michael Janda Interview Transcription


Ian Paget: You’ve wrote the book Burn Your Portfolio, and that runs through the they don’t teach you in design school but really should, and I think that’s a fantastic book. As the title suggests, a portfolio isn’t that important for success. I know quite a lot of people listening that’s not already familiar with your book might be thinking, “Whoa, portfolio? That’s the most important thing, that’s what I put all my time and energy into.” Why do you feel it’s not the most important thing?


Michael Janda: So, there’s no question it’s important. But it’s only the key to the door. That’s the big misconception, is that we as designers, we spend so much time thinking, “Oh, our portfolio, our portfolio. We’ve got to get out portfolio done.” And the subtitle of my book is, “Stuff They Don’t Teach You in Design School, But Should.” It really … the purpose of the book is to teach these principles that lead to success that aren’t the portfolio related stuff.

You go to design school, and from day one, you’re working on stuff you can put in your portfolio so that when you graduate, you’ve got this portfolio that allows you to go out and find a job. But that portfolio really only opens the door for you. It gets you the interview, but your ability to succeed in that company is all about your production skills, about your ability to collaborate with coworkers, your bosses and clients. It’s about your attention to detail, not just in design, but in the whole flow of a production.

So, it’s about relationship building too. You know, success has so much to do with you building quality relationships with your clients, understanding their real problems, solving those problems, and then repeating that over years and years of time. It’s not all about the portfolio. So, the portfolio, don’t get me wrong, is super, super important. But it only gets you access to the interview and from that interview, you’re going to be selling yourself, the bigger picture you, your ability to see problems, client problems, your ability to interact with a team. It’s just, there’s so much more than just the portfolio that leads to your success.


Ian Paget: I totally agree with that. I’ve seen some really talented people out there, but they’ve struggled to get work. But in comparison, I’ve seen people and I’ve thought that their work’s not particularly that great, but they’ve been able to make all of the right moves to be booked out months in advance. So, there’s definitely skillsets that are far more important for designers beyond just their graphic design skills.


Michael Janda: Totally. I’m one of those people, you know? I’m a good designer, there’s no question. Above average, and I’ll say that with the morsel of humility that it takes to say I’m above average because … but I do have a really great art director eye. Like, I can critique and level up designers. I’m really skilled at that. But I’m not Draplin, man. I’m not this mega designer, I’m not going to go down in history as, “Oh, look at Michael Janda, the designer czar.”

But my business was super successful and it was all because of my ability to run a business. So, business fundamentals, business understanding. I have a good intuition for that. But it was more about my ability to build relationships with clients to build a relationship where they feel like … they trust me, they want me to do the work. I think there’s a misconception, and I have some posts planned for this, but there’s a misconception in the quality of work needed to succeed. Because most clients out there will … your marketing will be successful with like 80% quality design in it. It doesn’t need that comm arts award-winning polish to be able to drive traffic to your restaurant, you don’t need that level of quality.

Now, as designers, we love to strive for everything. Let’s make it award-winning, let’s make it amazing. But amazing isn’t always necessary and it’s actually usually not necessary to have the marketing be effective. I think that that’s a message that hopefully resonates with a lot of designers out there who admire these amazing designers, but they just can’t quite get there themselves. That doesn’t mean you can be successful. There are a lot of soft skills that can lead to your success over the people who have mega polish, great design, but are lacking those soft skills, those intangibles.


Ian Paget: I think that probably gives a comfort to quite a lot of people because I know imposter syndrome is very common in the graphic design space. You know, people are looking on Instagram and Christ, some people’s work … because you’re seeing the very best in the world, some people’s work is incredible and…


Michael Janda: It’s incredible. It inspires me, you know?


Ian Paget: Yeah, but I look at it and sometimes I wonder how am I able to get any work when there’s people out there that are doing work that good. But like you say, there are other skillsets beyond graphic design that make you a successful graphic designer.


Michael Janda: Yeah, and some of those people, they’re like savant level designers. But when you’re a savant level anything, it comes with debilities in other things, you know? You look at people who are those mega geniuses and they’re not going to be the one to lead a meeting. They’re not going to be the one to scope a project. But they have this genius level design. And we look at those people as these designers that we admire, but oftentimes, they’re lacking some of these fundamental skills that will lead to success that you could have even though you don’t have that high level polished quality.


Ian Paget: Very much so. Now, I know you’ve spoken about these fundamental skills, and I know in the book you mention about developing your interpersonal skills and that should really be what you focus on. I mean, once your design works to a certain point, then you should start to focus on your interpersonal skills. Do you mind talking through what you mean by that, and also, how graphic designers can go about improving and working on those skillsets?


Michael Janda: Yeah. I love that, and that’s one of the things that I’ve worked hard on. I feel like I have some natural ability towards that, but I have also learned from experience and from study on what interpersonal skills you need to have and how to develop them. So, let’s just list off a few and then I can give some pointers on where to start.

Leadership, for example. Take a design environment, you can be the greatest designer of all time, but if you can’t inspire and motivate and mentor other people, you will never be promoted to be an art director or creative director. You’ll just be sitting there pushing the pixels. So, at some point, in your career, your design ability is going to open the door for a promotion. And when that promotion happens, you have to be able to step into a creative director level role that you got because you’re a great designer, but in order to succeed as a creative director, you’ve got to be able to sit over the shoulder with other designers and give them feedback in a way that doesn’t make them hate you.

You have to be able to sit in a client meeting and discuss their business and start scoping a project or a solution to their problems, you got to have some intuition and understanding, and some maturity in your ability to speak with others to be able to have the client trust you and sign off on you being involved in their project. Has nothing to do with your ability to design. It all has to do, everything, with your ability to come across as trustworthy and educated and smart.

You have to have presentation skills. You know, the ability to stand in front of clients, or a design organisation, or a convention of some kind to stand in front of people and deliver a message that is thought out and eloquent and actionable. You’ve got to be able to do that. These are all interpersonal skills, your ability to relate to others in small settings, medium settings, and large settings. So, those are the things that are so, so important. Now, how do you learn these kinds of things?

One of my favourite books of all time is How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, it was written 100 hundred years ago. It’s a must read for anybody in the world. It would make the world a better place if we all abided by the techniques in that book. So, that’s a great, great place to start. Read that book. It’s broken up into … there are probably 100 principles in the things, and you could take one principle each day and work on it.

So, one of the principles is to smile; smile, that it conveys a message to other people and know it brightens other people’s days, it makes them feel warm towards you. It actually makes you feel good inside. That’s biologically proven that when you smile, it changes … it releases endorphins and changes the way you actually feel. So, you could take a principle like that and practice that for a day. So, today is my smile day. I’m going to practice smiling at others, and not like weird, creepo smiling. But just that simple smile of smiling at other people, and you’re going to practice that today. And then, the next day it could be about how to ask engaging questions with other people. So, how to show genuine interest in other people by asking them questions. And you can practice that technique, and that’s the technique you’re going to focus on tomorrow.

And then, over time, you just pick one of these principles every single day from that book and practice it, and over time as you do this, they become naturally part of who you are. But interpersonal skills like anything, can be learned. We have to educate ourselves, practice, and implement those things in our lives until they become part of us. We all do this with design. We start by designing, we look at other people’s design work, and we start by copying other people’s design work to figure out how did they do this. But over time, you get to where you’ve ingested so much design work from other people and you’ve practiced so many things that you can open up a blank Photoshop document and create design right out of your brain. But most people can’t do that when they first start, they have to go and educate themselves and do it methodically. It’s the same thing with interpersonal skills or business skills, or any of the things that we’re talking about here. You got to learn it, practice it, and then it becomes part of who you are.


Ian Paget: I’ve read How To Win Friends and Influence People a number of years back, and there’s a lot of stuff in there that it just seems so obvious that you should do that, but once you read it and you do start actually taking action, it’s surprising how much of a difference it makes. And also, I think in terms of some of the skillsets that you mentioned. For me, I personally had to learn a lot of those because I was thrown into them. Like running meetings, for me, I’ve always been quite an introvert, and having to do that, at the beginning it was daunting, but the more you do it you get used to it.

And in terms of communication skills, it’s one of the reasons why I do this podcast. I’ve always been quite an introvert, and never naturally that good at conversation. So, I think it’s good to find ways to put yourself into these situations so that you can learn to develop those skills, whether that’s just through a hobby. I was speaking to a friend earlier, he was talking about Dungeons and Dragons and one of the reasons why I don’t play it, is because you have to speak to a group of people. But actually, that’s a really good way to get used to talking to a group of others. So there’s loads of ways that you can develop those skills outside of a professional environment.


Michael Janda: Yeah, and it is something that needs to be practiced. I’m naturally introverted as well. And you know, I think a lot of designers, there’s no real middle ground. Like, a designer is really … it seems like, just from my couple of decades of observation, that designers are either very outgoing to the point of flamboyance, or they’re introverted. There’s not a lot of like, middle of the road people. You know, a designer is very insecure or very mega outgoing, and it’s kind of rare that you have the middle ground. And by nature, I’m introverted as well. That’s kind of … I was the hide behind my mom’s leg kind of guy when I was a little kid, you know? Just super insecure and nervous. I had to break out of that.

It’s still my natural tendency. When I give a lecture, I go to a conference and speak in front of a thousand people and my natural tendency is, “Oh man, I’m insecure.” And I have to fake it until I get over that, which usually happens in the first few minutes. Between I fake it like, “Okay, I’m going to go in there. I’m going to pretend in my head that I’m confident and going to go after this,” and I act the part. But over time, if you act the part enough, you become the part. It’s kind of like method acting, you know? You hear about these method actors that become the role and they take it on full boar. Well, you got to do that in your life. You got to be a method actor with interpersonal skills until they become naturally who you are.


Ian Paget: Yeah, exactly. And I think when you are working for a company, and you’re within that team, you are somewhat forced into these specific roles and you have to work through that. So, I totally agree it’s worth developing those skills and working on those skills. In terms of people that work for themselves, freelancers, is there anything that freelancers could do to work to develop those skills? Because like I said, when you work for an agency or a company, you’re typically forced into those things and you just have to work through it, otherwise you don’t have a job. But when you’re working for yourself, or you’re building your own agency, it’s easy to not pick up the phone-


Michael Janda: Totally. Hide behind your computer, yeah.


Ian Paget: Yeah. Do you have any advice for people that do work for themselves to push through these more challenging things?


Michael Janda: Well, it’s interesting because you said if you work for a company, you’re forced into it, or you don’t have a job. Well, if you’re a freelancer and you don’t force yourself into it, you’re not going to have a job either. You have to force yourself to get in front of clients and to be a people person, or you’re not going to have any clients. They’re going to use people that they know, like, and trust. That’s the quote. People work with people they know, like, and trust. And you’ve got to be there, man. You got to be in front of those people to be able to build those relationships. So, you’ve got to force yourself to do it until it becomes comfortable for you. It’s just so, so important.


Ian Paget: Yeah, I’m glad you said that. It was the answer I was hoping for. So, I know-


Michael Janda: Okay, so it was a leading question.


Ian Paget: Yeah, it was. So, I know a key part of what you’ve spoken about so far is relationship building. And I know that’s critical for anyone that wants to be successful in their career. What advice can you give to help people kind of meet and connect with people that could be potential clients?


Michael Janda: Well, the first one, I would say is don’t discount anybody as a potential client. You don’t know if they … I’ll give you an example. When I first started my agency, one of my very first clients was ABC Family. It was the family channel on TV and Disney had purchased it from Fox and rebranded it as ABC Family. One of the producers there was somebody who was an intern at Fox Studios when I was working at Fox Studios. I had one interaction with her while I was at Fox Studios.

She was an intern going to school at UCLA, and my interaction with her was that she came to my office to get the style guides for our Fox Kids brand, which were stored in my office. I was a creative director at the company at the time. She got those style guides and I stopped her at the door, I handed her the style guides, and I started asking her, “Hey, how do you like your internship here? How’s UCLA? I would have loved to go to school there,” and I just had this normal conversation with her that I didn’t think anything of it. And then, over time, she graduated from UCLA, got a job at ABC Family and started sending freelance work to me. It was a lot of freelance work. It was the foundation of my business for the first three years of my business, of my agency, they were my biggest client.

And so, five years into my agency, I was in LA, I took her to lunch, and we had been to lunch a lot of times and had a great friendship and things. She said, “Hey Mike, you know why I give you all this work?” And I said, “No, I don’t. I assume because with do good work and we like working together.” And she said, “Do you remember that time I came to your office to get those style guides at Fox?” So, this if five years earlier. I said, “Yes, I totally remember that time. That was the first time we ever really talked.” And she said, “You talked to me and you were nice to me.” That was her message. That was the foundational conversation that led to what became a seven year long client relationship to the tune of a million plus dollars of revenue for my business because of that one conversation.

I think the lesson here is that I could have thought, “I’m the Creative Director, get the pee-on intern out of office. Yeah, get the style guides and go about your day.” I could have taken that approach. You know, this proud approach of thinking I’m better than somebody. But I didn’t. I treated her like a person and I was genuinely interested in her and I didn’t do it with the intention that, “Oh, maybe someday she’s going to be a client of mine.” I had no idea of that. She was just a normal person, you know? There was no evidence that she was going to be some great producer in Hollywood.

Anyway, so, it became a foundation. So, I think that the lesson here is when you’re going to go start trying to build relationships and find clients, don’t make the assumption that somebody doesn’t have value to you. That the relationship with somebody doesn’t have value with you because they’re lower on the totem pole than you, or that they’re still in school, or who knows what. You just never know what is going to come of these relationships. So, it’s called relationship arrogance. There’s a networking group that I belong to for a number of years called Corporate Alliance, and they coined the phrase relationship arrogance. When we look at a relationship and we arrogantly think that it is no value to us. And we have to not have relationship arrogance. We have to view everybody as a real person and worth our friendship time. And just let work opportunities come as a byproduct of that, not as the intention for the relationship.


Ian Paget: That’s a really nice way to look at it. I spoke to someone last season, it was Joana Galvao and she spoke about networking as well. I know a lot of people go to networking events to meet potential clients, and what people typically think is that you go in there with your sales pitch and this sort of stuff. But her approach was just be nice to people, make friends, become the person that they like to see every time that they see you. It goes along the same lines as what you were saying, that you just … just be nice to people and make friends, and that seems to be the best way to go about working on this type of thing.


Michael Janda: It is. It’s because it’s so relationship based. Buying creative services from somebody is so … it’s either … there are two ways that it’s done. Number one, it’s completely based on price, that the buyer cares nothing about the person. They just … they don’t care if it’s a robot, they don’t care if it’s a downloadable logo. They don’t care at all, they’re just price shopping. So, that’s one side of the coin. The other side of the coin, and where the higher dollar jobs are is based on relationships, based on building trusting, real relationships with people. Those are really the only two options in selling clients creative services.

I chose the relationship side of the business. But there are businesses out there that choose the financial attractor. They create a library of logos, you choose this icon, you type in your text, it exports the logo, you know? They’re just targeting price shoppers. I target people who are looking for a real relationship with somebody who can be an extension of their team, that can solve their marketing and design problems, that’s who I targeted and those people are found in different places than the price shoppers. You can go to networking events and usually networking events are filled with other people that want to build relationships. They want to have that connection with people. And over time, I think I would say that the two methods there are be nice to everybody, like you said, that that lady shared with you. Totally agree with that. Be nice to people over time.

And then, number two, don’t hide what you do. You don’t have to sell them on what you do, but don’t hide it. Nobody likes to be sold stuff, especially now. I mean, the tolerance for it 30 years ago was a lot higher than what it is now. Now, people want to have this perception of making their own buying decision. That’s why influencer marketing is so popular, product placement is so popular. Because it works in today’s buying environment. You go back 30 years ago when people were selling vacuum cleaners door to door, and it was a legitimate option to go and try and sell people on stuff. And it doesn’t exist that way anymore. Anyway, so, build real relationships and don’t hide who you are. Those are the two keys to it. And let the purchase decisions come as a byproduct of those two things.


Ian Paget: Okay. So, just to expand on from that. When you say, “Don’t hide what you do,” what do you mean by that? How do you let people know what you do and keep it in mind what you do? How are you going about doing that?


Michael Janda: Okay. So, I didn’t do it … before this call, I didn’t do it intentionally, but said, “Okay, just want to make sure. How much time do we have? Do you have something after this?” And I said, “Oh yeah, I have a business coaching call and I think it’s at 11:00,” and then I checked my calendar and it was at 10:45. What did you learn from that?


Ian Paget: I learned that you do coaching calls.


Michael Janda: Exactly. But I didn’t sell you on business coaching, you learned it from just natural interaction. And I didn’t do it on purpose. I didn’t do it to try and sell you or your listeners business coaching. I never do it because of that. I get coaching all the time, I get new coaching clients all the time just from my Instagram marketing and I barely ever say anything about coaching. But people know that I do it because they’ll hear me make a mention like that, or they’ll be interested in my content because they know I’m design related and they’ll see me on a video talking with somebody. And they’ll say, “I wonder what it would be like,” this is subconsciously what happens, “I wonder what it would be like to be on the other side of the call with him, with me asking him my problems. I wonder what that would be like.” They go to my website, they see my coaching page and they fill out my inquiry form and then we start a dialogue.

But I’ve never once said, “Hey, my name is Michael Janda. If you want coaching, call me. It’s only x-amount of dollars. A three month special.” I never do anything like that. It’s never salesy. So, it’s just in natural conversation when you talk about what you do and your business. That’s the not hiding who you are or what you do, just make it part of the natural communication that you have with other people.


Ian Paget: When you had your own agency, you was working with some incredible companies including Disney, Google, NBC, YouTube, basically an endless list of incredible companies. Did you utilise relationship building to attract clients like this, or was there another intentional approach you took to get clients at that scale?


Michael Janda: Yes. The short answer is yes, it was all relationship building. The beginning of my agency was all fear-based business. I started my freelancing during the tech bubble burst, the tech recession in the early 2000s. It was 2002, and all the dot coms were failing and publicly traded companies were going under and it was a miserable time. That’s when I start freelancing. And they were all for my original relationships. My first three clients were ABC Family, which was part of Disney, Sony, and Warner Brothers. They were three people that were my coworkers at Fox when I was working there.

So, they started sending me work, and when I started doing work for them, I would visit them, take them to lunch, and they would inevitably bring a coworker with them to lunch, and now I was making friends with a new person at the table that I didn’t know before. So, I started building relationships with all of these people inside these first three original clients. And then, over time, they refer to friends of theirs that work at similar companies, or Joe from ABC Family leaves and goes to work at TV Guide. And now, TV Guide calls me and I have a new client because Joe left his job and got a new job.

So, over 15 years of … I owned my agency for 13 years. I sold it 13 years into it, and then I worked for the agency I sold to for two years. So, I had this 15 year agency run. It was almost exclusively that type of sales process. It was build relationships and patiently wait for new opportunities to fall from the sky. It was exponential growth. It takes, like compound interest, you put a dollar in the bank and over … and the bank’s a bad example because interest rates are so low on my savings account. But let’s say you put a dollar in an investment, and in the first year, it’s worth $1.07 and the next year that $1.07 grows by 7%. And over time, over 40 years of time, that one dollar becomes $10,000. You just had to wait for it to compound on top of itself.

And that’s what happened to me and I think happens to a lot of people in business is that those first few years, it’s tough. You might start with three clients and to get from three clients to six clients might take you three years of time. But then, all of a sudden, something happens because you hit a certain relationship quantity threshold, that six clients becomes 12 clients in one year. And 12 clients becomes 24 clients the year after that because you hit this kind of critical mass moment, or this tipping point as Malcolm Gladwell talks about. Where you’ve hit this mass of relationships and now referrals start happening to grow your business.

So, it’s a long cycle. But it’s more effective than it is, than going and running Google ads trying to cold call people through Google ads. You’re going to be more effective working relationships over time, and the client relationship you have through those is much deeper. I had clients that would make up projects for me so that they could use up the rest of their marketing budget before the budget ended. And that’s the kind of clients you want. When they’re sitting there thinking, “Okay, we have $20,000 left in our marketing budget for the year. What should we do with it? Well, let’s invent this project and spend it on Riser, Mike’s agency.” When you get to that, that’s a gold mine of opportunity. But it doesn’t come without building relationships.


Ian Paget: So is a key part of building those relationships for you actually physically meeting up with them quite frequently, catching up with them for food, drinks, like you would a friend?


Michael Janda: Yeah.


Ian Paget: Yeah, it’s interesting because I know a lot of people now … well, me personally, a lot of my clients have come through Google search. I think it’s interesting that a lot of the people that I’ve spoken to that have been incredibly successful, it has been through face to face meeting and networking and basically doing what you’re doing. And I totally understand why you say to read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People because that is exactly what you’re doing with this, you’re being a likeable person and they probably want to work with you because they like working with you.


Michael Janda: Yeah, it works. I never did … this is the big trick too, is that you can’t do it because you’re trying to get anything from them. Like, that’s the big key because people will smell that and they will majorly turned off if you’re being fake in that relationship. So, you genuinely have to do it because you want to be a nice person and you want to make a new friend. You genuinely have to do it that way. You can’t do it because you’re thinking in the back of your head, “I got to be nice to this person so that they give me work.” If you do that, people are smart and they’ll sense it. They’ll sense the falseness in that.

You mentioned Google search, let me just comment on that. Because Google search, you know, that’s an awesome, effective way for you to get a lead but not necessarily to get a client. So, leads are important, but man, if I was getting Google searches or getting these cold leads, people I’ve never met before, my very first thing that I would try and do would be, “Hey, thanks so much for the lead, I’d love to jump on a call with you. Do you have 10 minutes tomorrow that we can jump on a call?” Or even better, “Hey, thanks for reaching out. Do you have 10 minutes tomorrow that we can jump on a Skype call so that we can get to know each other for a few minutes and I can ask you a few questions about your project?”

And then, boom, you’re trying to change that cold relationship into a warm relationship that is a budding friendship that’s starting. And that’s how you turn a cold lead from a Google search into a longterm client for five years that gives you marketing work. So, you can’t just be an order taker, you can’t just be a robot taking orders from them, that they have a logo they want to design and you say, “Okay, I’ll send it to you tomorrow.” Man, get on the phone, build that relationship, because that relationship could be more work from them and it could be work from their coworkers and it could be work from their spouse who’s at home. It could just be … who knows where it goes. But you got to get your relationship quantity built up.


Ian Paget: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. I totally agree with that, I know personally, all of my best clients, they are the ones that I’ve had long conversations with and we’ve got to know each other properly and properly understand their business, what they need. I think relationships in that sense, having those conversations, it means that you don’t have to be the cheapest option either.


Michael Janda: Oh, yeah.


Ian Paget: … people are happy to pay a little bit more than what they expected to for that relationship.


Michael Janda: Yeah. Yeah, that goes back to what I mentioned at the start. There’s two ways that people are shopping for this. They’re shopping for somebody that they trust and they will pay more money for that, or they’re shopping for the cheapest option. And then you’re competing with downloadable logos, or do it yourself logos. That’s not a business that I want to compete in. It can work, it works for the companies that do it because it’s all about volume. Their goal is to sell 10,000 logo downloads a year instead of somebody like you, that wants to do a dozen high priced brand identity projects per year, you know?


Ian Paget: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Michael Janda: It’s a totally different game. And you got to kind of decide which one you want to play. But as for me, and the way I built my agency was through relationships like we’ve been talking about.


Ian Paget: Yeah. I think to be honest, most people that would be listening to this podcast now will much rather do the proper projects where you’re working with the client, you’re charging a high amount, but you’re doing much less of them over the year, rather than just churning stuff out. Nobody wants to be a pancake flicker with logos, it’s just … that is not a good job.


Michael Janda: Yeah. No, it’s not a good job. That sucks your creative energy-


Ian Paget: Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Now, I know that we mentioned about pricing and another one of your books, you’ve got the Psychology of Graphic Design Pricing.


Michael Janda: Yes.


Ian Paget: And I know pricing with logo design in particular, is really hard. I know personally I’ve struggled with that and started with a low price when I first began, and now I’m getting into the kind of prices that I’ve always dreamt of charging. But in terms of working out what to charge, I know you’ve got some amazing advice on this that I’ve seen online. So, is there any advice that you can give to help people listening better price their work?


Michael Janda: Yes, I’m passionate about this because I had to figure out how to price stuff, you know? When I first started my agency, I started freelancing, I had no business knowledge at all. I couldn’t even find the information I needed in how to think about pricing and how to price things right. You could find people who would say, “Okay, well, figure out how much it costs you to make it, and then add 20% or 30%,” you know you could see some formulas like that, but it’s a lot deeper than that. And so, in Burn Your Portfolio, I wrote a chapter called the Fixed Bid Pricing Dartboard. It talks about the idea that when we’re pricing something, how often do you feel like you’re just throwing a dart at the board and if it lands on $1,000, you charge $1,000 and if it lands on $2,000, you’re going to charge $2,000. You’re just taking a wild guess, just throwing the dart and seeing where it lands, and then that’s your price.

There’s no method to how you get to that price. And a lot of designers are doing that. They’re just pulling a price right out of the sky of what they think they can charge, and then they hope, cross their fingers, and hope the client approves it. And it’s not the way to go. So, I reverse engineered how I think about pricing and turned it into some formulas for designers to use. And this is the method that I used for projects … we did some massive projects, even half a million dollar single project engagements, $300,000 projects, $100,000. A lot of $100,000 projects. So, it works for those mega projects. It also works for the smaller projects, a $1,200 logo. This same methodology works.

So, it’s based on three different variables. Variable number one is your production cost. Variable two is the market value. And variable three is the client’s budget. And you need to identify a price for each of those things. So, you take production cost, and let’s say that you charge $100 an hour for your time. This is the simple way for this podcast, but if you get the book, there’s 200 pages that outlines how this is all done.

So, let’s say you charge $100 an hour for your services, and you think that this logo is going to take you 12 hours to do. That gives you a production cost of $1,200. Now, you go for the market value variable. Market value is what do other people like you charge for this same type of work? That creates a market value. So, if you know that your friends or other competing agencies who do similar work to you are charging $2,000 for logos, then you know that that’s the market value of the logo. And then, you go and you ask the client, “Okay, well, I’m happy to do this logo for you. What kind of budget are you working with here? What do you hope to spend on your logo?” And then they say, “Okay, we have a budget of about $1,500.” And so, you get the budget out of them.

And now, you have those three variables. You have $1,200 production cost, you have $2,000 market value, and you have $1,500 client budget. And you weigh those three variables in your decision of what to charge. If it’s going to be $1,200 … so, in the book, I have 12 different scenarios that we face. So, let’s say you are competing against three other agencies for this work. Three other designers. And they all know that the budget is $1,500. And you look at it and say, “My $1,200 production cost is $300 lower than their $1,500 budget. But some of these other people are going to be charging $1,500, so maybe I’m going to come in at $1,400 for my price to try and undercut their budget a little bit, still keep a profit margin for myself, and have a better chance of landing the work.”

So, that’s like one scenario that you would look at. Another one could be say you have five logo projects you’re already doing. Somebody reaches out to you and they say, “Oh, we want you to do this logo,” and you think to yourself, “Man, I’m not going to do this logo, I’m already swamped. I’m working 60 hours a week. But if the price is right, I’ll work 80 hours in a week to get it done.” And so, the price is right, you know their client budget is $1,500. The production cost is $1,200, but the market value is $2,000. Well, I would charge right at the market value. I would say, “I’ll work extra hours if it’s super profitable for me and I’m going to charge at the top of market value,” even though it’s above the client’s budget, you think to yourself, “They’re going to pay a premium to get me to work extra hours.”

So, I’m not going to go into all of the scenarios, but those three variables become your guiding principles for deciding where to price your work. In the book, I go into the psychology of these 12 different scenarios and where you should price things based on these 12 different scenarios that we frequently face as designers.


Ian Paget: I think that alone is fantastic advice, because I know I’ve been in that place so many times when I’ve been too busy, and it’s always worth charging more. You know, like you said, if the price is right, you’ll make time for it. So, I think that on its own is fantastic advice.


Michael Janda: Pay me a million dollars, I’ll fly to London and plunge your toilets, man. I mean, that’s the thing, is like, there’s a certain price that we’ll do things. And so, you got to look at it, and the value of your time is different depending on … I mean, if you don’t have any work and you really need a client, you’ll charge your production cost to get the client, you know? It’s just that you have all these different scenarios and they play a big factor into the way we price things.


Ian Paget: Very, very true. I know, like I said, people always struggle with pricing and I think that alone is amazing advice. I think if anyone does want to know more it’s worth checking out your book, the Psychology of Graphic Design Pricing. So, in the show notes for this episode, I’ll include links to that book and also Burn Your Portfolio as well. Because like I said, I’ve not read through them from front to back, but what I have read, they’re absolutely fantastic books-


Michael Janda: Oh, thank you.


Ian Paget: … and I think anyone listening to this will know. You’re so good at articulating responses, even just on the fly like for this podcast, so, you know, those books are going to be jam packed full of great advice.


Michael Janda: I put a lot of energy and effort into those books. You know, there’s some free content on both of those books as well, on my Instagram. I post six times a week on Instagram, at least. And a lot of the things that I post are sucked out of those books. So, if you want to kind of dig into those more. Also, my YouTube channel, I have some of the methodologies of those books outlined in my YouTube channel videos as well. So, before you buy, you can shop out some of the ideas a little deeper too.


Ian Paget: Yeah, and I would say whilst we’re talking about that, your Instagram feed is probably one of the best I’ve ever seen.


Michael Janda: Thank you.


Ian Paget: I know the sliding carousel things on Instagram, there’s a lot of people doing that now and it is somewhat overkill, but what you’re doing, it’s full of great content. You know, you can scroll back through so much stuff. You can spend a lot of time just going through your Instagram and the way it’s done, it’s very easy to digest that content.


Michael Janda: Thank you.


Ian Paget: They all look great. I know you’re getting like, what is it, 10,000 more followers a month?


Michael Janda: About every three weeks, yeah.


Ian Paget: That’s incredible.


Michael Janda: Yeah, I’m super grateful for that. Burn Your Portfolio came out in 2013 and I never really marketed it at all. I was still running my agency. I sold in 2015. Worked at the agency until the beginning of 2018. And so, never really had time to go and try and build thought leadership and write more books and create more content. And so, it’s so gratifying to me. I started my Instagram push back in April and it’s so gratifying to me to have found an audience and to have built a lot of great connections and a lot of great supporters in that design community that are grateful for my content and share it and give me support and comments. I’m just so grateful for it, it’s just a fun, fun thing for me.


Ian Paget: I’m sure you’ll get more followers as a result of doing this because like I said, it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s really nice to consume that content. I know I see other people doing these sliding carousels, but they’re just not as good as what you’re doing.


Michael Janda: Oh, thank you.


Ian Paget: And I think that that’s a result of … you’re repurposing content, whilst I see a lot of people on Instagram creating content especially for Instagram, and I don’t know what you think on that, but I just think it’s a waste of … well, not a waste of time. It’s a lot of effort for what it’s worth. But because you’re repurposing content and you have a book and consulting and all this other stuff underneath it, it must be a fantastic funnel for you.


Michael Janda: Yeah, it’s a good funnel. My first few posts were repurposed content. But I really, really push to make custom content. The stuff that I’ve never said it anywhere else and I didn’t read it anywhere else. It’s all proprietary content. The funnel for me comes from people asking me questions and then I’m like, “Oh, that’s a great question. Let me make some content for you on that.” So, a lot of my posts are like posts for one person. But I create it because I know that if one person has this problem, then there are probably hundreds more who have this same problem. And thousands who will have this problem at some point in their future. So, that’s where the great funnel has been.

One of the things I think that my account has grown from is because my content is proprietary, it’s not something that I read in somebody else’s book. I’m not quoting or outlining somebody else’s ideas. These are my systems and processes that I implemented in my business. There’s no book reports on my Instagram. And that’s where I think you get a lot of some of this cliché content. You know, people post, “The logo is not your brand,” kind of stuff. It’s like, come on, we’ve heard this one billion times. You’re never going to see me quote that on mine. I try and do something unique on there that people can’t get anywhere else.


Ian Paget: One question that is coming to mind, and it is something that I’ve spoken about with a number of people. Creating those posts, I don’t know how long they take for you, but I can imagine people spend a lot of time on that.


Michael Janda: Yeah.


Ian Paget: I know with social media, posts have quite a short shelf life. So, you know, to create that content, create the sliding carousels, say it takes like two hours-


Michael Janda: Yes.


Ian Paget: That’s an awful lot of time for something that could be there online for 24 hours-


Michael Janda: A day, uh-huh (affirmative).


Ian Paget: In terms of your business model, I can understand how that could work. But do you advise other people take the same approach?


Michael Janda: Well, it just depends on where you are in your business and what the return on investment is. For me, right now, I am fortunate to be able to work for the fun of it and for the passion of it, and not because I’m chasing a dollar. I did that for a long time and was fortunately successful in that, and now I can wake up in the morning and choose what i want to do. So, my return on investment is exposure, growth, it is people purchasing my other books and my UX course. It’s building an audience that in the future as I release more courses, that I’ll have an audience that will buy those more courses that I create. That’s my push. And so, for me, it has the value. I get the return on it.

I also do it because it’s so fun for me. I have a real altruistic perspective on it and I genuinely want to help other people. I reply to every direct message, so I’m actually … I’m not doing it to build an audience. I’m doing it to genuinely help people and to deliver content that’s valuable to people so that they can go through things the easy way and not the hard way like I did. And so, I get the feel good from it for sure as well. And I’ll say, it won’t be the last time you see that content and that won’t be the only format that it is in. A lot of my posts are primed for future book material. So, when I spend a few hours on a post, it’s essentially writing a chapter of a next book and I’m just delivering the book as I go instead of releasing it all in one fell swoop. So, I’m excited about that.


Ian Paget: Yeah, it’s interesting that you say that because I know over the years, when I’ve wrote blog posts, I’ve recently been able to compile them into a series of PDFs and that could become a product one day. So, I think for anyone out there that do want to create these carousels, it’s a huge time investment. And you kind of validated what I was thinking because it was thinking it’s a huge time investment. You’re spending a lot of time on something that is … what, there for like an hour or a day?


Michael Janda: Yeah.


Ian Paget: But for you, it’s helping with book sales, it’s helping with consulting work. It’s increasing your visibility online, making you come across as a thought leader. And also, it’s not one off content. It’s content that is going to become something else as well. So, I understand the value of it and I think anyone that’s listening that doesn’t have any of that, I just think it’s an unnecessary waste of resources, and there’s better ways to get clients or whatever. You know, if you want clients, build relationships, like you said. Rather than spending two hours creating a carousel.


Michael Janda: Yeah. Yeah, there’s truth to that for sure. I did this … you know, I think that that’s a good perspective on anything. So, I started writing burn your portfolio in 2007 and it came after a lecture that I gave in AIGA conference. I had a great response. That lecture was about stuff they don’t teach you in design school, but should. And when I got on the plane after that lecture, I thought, “Man, I got to turn this into a book.” So, I started writing these principles from my lecture into a book, and then over the next … how may years was that? Six years until it was published, my mindset was, I’m going to write this, and value number one is that this principle becomes a guiding principle or a system that is implemented in my business. So, I had value for my own agency.

Value number two, I thought, I can post these on a blog some day and build thought leadership and traffic for my agency by posting all this content on a blog. Or value number three was, maybe I’ll get lucky enough to have it be published and I’ll send it to publishers. So, I wrote this entire book, it’s 400 pages, and I wrote the whole thing not even knowing if I had a publishing deal because I had value option number one and two as my fall back. It was valuable just to my agency, or it would be valuable to a blog. But I did get it published and I was grateful for that.

But during the six years when I was writing it, it changed the perspective that I had on everything that happened in my agency. I would have a client problem and I would take a step back and think, “What could I have done to alleviate this problem so that it never happens again. I’m going to make a system that makes it never happen again.” I would have a production problem, a project blow up, and I would look back and say, “Why did this project blow up and what can I do to make sure it never blows up again,” and then I would write a system that would alleviate that problem for the future. And that’s the perspective I had while I was creating Burn Your Portfolio.

It was fixing my own business, but I was writing it in a way that it could fix other people’s businesses too. And I think that there’s super great value in looking at life that way. When we’re looking at, “Oh crap, this client hated the logos I just designed.” Well, what did you not do in the process that made them not like the logos? What did you miss? What step did you miss so that you can make sure that the next client likes the logos that you designed? If you start looking at things that way, if you look at the problems or the blowups or the mad client experience as opportunities to learn, and then you intentionally structure a system to solve that in the future, poof, there comes a piece of content for you that you can stick on a blog, that you can write, you can make a carousel post in Instagram, or you can compile into a pdf like you’re doing, or you can send it to publishers and try and get it published at some point.

So, if you look at like this way, I think just life in general, let’s just step out of design in general, and talk about life. Just the bigger picture. You can have such a better life if you go through it that way and by the time you’re 60 years old and you’re the old wise grandpa that your grandkids are sitting on your knee, and you’re sitting there thinking, and they think about you, “He’s got all the answers. How does he know so much?” It’s because grandpa spent his life learning from all the experiences that he had. Well, you’re going to learn a whole lot if you document those experiences and create ways to keep them from happening, to replicate the good, and to make sure that you don’t repeat the bad.


Ian Paget: Mm-hmm (affirmative), I think there’s a mic drop moment there.


Michael Janda: Mic drop.


Ian Paget: Yeah, I think that’s fantastic advice, and I think that’s a really good way to wrap up the interview as well. So Michael, it’s been an incredible interview. Thank you so much for your time.


Michael Janda: I loved it. Thank you.


Ian Paget: … and I know the people listening are going to absolutely love this. And you know, you’ve just sold all of your books there, you’ll hopefully get sales from it


Michael Janda: Well, like I said, that’s not the intention. You know, go get my free stuff first. I’m not trying to sell books.


Ian Paget: No, it’s good. I want your book now, it’s got all … you know, if you’re going out there sharing all of your real life mistakes and the lessons that you learned from it, there’s value in that stuff. So, you know, people need to go there and buy your books. I’m going to be doing hat afterwards.


Michael Janda: All right, thank you-


Ian Paget: So, thanks Michael, it’s been really great to chat.


Michael Janda: Ian, it was great. Thank you. Appreciate it. Super fun for me too. So, thanks for having me on.



Thank you to the sponsor, FreshBooks


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Skills they don't teach in design school - An interview with Michael Janda

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