As designers we learn a wide range of skills and tools to effectively carry out our roles. Many of us pursue a career in branding, but the landscape is becoming increasingly competitive, so how can you stand out from the competition?
On this weeks podcast Ian interviews Laura Evans, who has transitioned from working as a generalist brand identity designer, to carving out a niche for herself to become a visual storyteller. This combines her design and illustration skills with her ability to communicate complex stories more effectively. Laura is now able to do something she loves, that makes an impact, whilst allowing her to stand out in a crowded market place.
Laura Evans is the founder of Nifty Fox Creative, who uses the power of pictures to help her clients more effectively communicate and engage with their audience, motivate internal teams and drive change in a visual world.
- Nifty Fox Creative.
- Birmingham Design Festival.
- Laura Evans on Behance, Dribbble, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Laura Evans Interview Transcription
Ian Paget: Here today you focus on visual storytelling. To give some background for people listening, could you share with us what that is?
Laura Evans: Yeah, sure. So I’ll tell you what it isn’t first.
You often hear some logo and brand designers say they’re visual storytellers. I think what they mean by that is that they convey the meaning of business within a logo mark, or brand marketing message, which is true. But I think pure visual storytelling is communicating important ideas, simply, through the power of pictures.
So in terms of what that actually means for a product or output, it could be things like live illustrating at meetings, events and conferences to bring together complex ideas in illustrations or animation that focus on explaining things.
Or it could be rich picture infographics. You may see traditional infographics that are vectorised and look very sexy, but they don’t really tell you a story. Whereas a rich picture, or a visual storytelling infographic gives you a character that moves through the picture, through different processes, or mechanisms that demonstrate how something really complicated works. This enables you to get on board with the character, so you access the information as a story.
I hope that didn’t sound too pretentious, but that is what I do.
Ian Paget: No, I think it’s amazing. One of the reasons I wanted to speak to you is because the last time we spoke, which was two or three years ago, you as working as a brand identity designer. I see a lot of graphic designers out there doing that. If you go into the design communities there are thousands of other graphic designers out there doing the same thing, but what you’ve been able to do is find out what you enjoy working on, but it’s also something that’s quite unique. I don’t know how many other people are visual storytellers, but it’s fascinating that you’ve done that.
You’ve transitioned from being a generalist brand identity designer, to working in a specialist area where you’re combining illustration and storytelling. I can tell that’s what you enjoy. I know it’s not logo design, but why I feel it’s quite relevant for other designers listening is that you’ve specialised.
How did you get to the point where you realised that you didn’t want to do generic branding work, but that you wanted to specialise in this specific area?
Laura Evans: I’d like to give you a really sexy answer here, but the honest answer is a combination of luck, and my network.
Prior to being a brand designer and starting Nifty Fox, I was a social researcher for 10 years. I spent a lot of time working in higher education, working with universities and public think tanks, and I used to do visual storytelling as part of my old jobs, because it made sense to me.
So had a big career change as I’ve always been creative and wanting to do brand design. So I started there, but old colleagues kept getting in touch, asking “you know, that visual story telling thing that we always used to ask from you, can we pay you to do that for us now, because we can see the value in it”.
So, I just found that more and more of my time was being taken up by the visual storytelling side of things. I was making more money doing it, I was getting bigger clients, and I was better at it too. It was a gradual transition. I started off doing 100% branding and graphic design, then it started to be 60/40, with 40% being visual stories. Then over time it just became a lot more.
You get to a crunch point where you think, right, I need to completely pivot my business in order to respond to this demand. And I did that two years ago, and it’s gone from strength to strength because I’m no longer a jack of all trades.
I have a specialist niche because I used to be a researcher. I work with a lot of universities, think tanks, the government and big public sector people because that was my area of expertise. I think how I pivoted was responding to the demands of old networks and clients. Also, you don’t really know what you’re good at or know what you enjoy until you’ve done it for about 18 months to two years.
I still appreciate good brand design. I love a decent logo, and Aaron Draplin is my hero. No offence to our lovely audience, but the whole process left me a bit cold. I had a real laser focus look at my values as a person, and I thought designing logo marks and brands in order to make capitalism more money didn’t sit right with me as a value.
A lot of the work I do now is for causes I genuinely believe in. I do a lot on public health. I do a lot on LGBTQ plus issues, and a lot with the NHS on fighting cancer. So I realised that my ethics were about making a difference in the world in a positive way, and ensuring that people who need information are getting it effectively.
A lot of the work I do now is focused on engaging communities that have been completely disadvantaged and unable to get that information. So I think, the short answer is luck and network, and then just going, “Right, I need to do something now for my business that will see that growth over the five years”. But it’s clearly worked because it’s just gone from strength to strength.
Now I’m branching out into teaching, and I teach now modules at universities about research, communication, visual storytelling, and also then working with businesses to visualise their strategy. So thinking about how to use design thinking and visual thinking to create strategies that are more effective, then how can we communicate them through illustration and through visuals to actually engage people to motivate them to do something.
So it’s still ever growing, and you realise the different uses of it when you can show examples, so I can go “here’s an infographic that I produced for a research think tank, and as a result they was able to secure £50,000 worth of funding in three minutes because people understood what they needed. That’s why I get up every morning to make sure that we’re researching things that are important and saving people’s lives that wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise.
Ian Paget: It’s fascinating how you ended up getting into visual storytelling because of an old job that you worked in. And the way that you niched down has not been a sudden thing. You didn’t just wake up one day and decide you’re going to be the expert on visual storytelling. It’s been a gradual progression. So you starting off working on general brand identity work, then you gradually transitioned. It sounds like just going in that direction, you’ve been able to specialise even further. It’s amazing what you’re doing with teaching too. Congratulations, I wasn’t aware of that.
Laura Evans: It’s full on. I think what I want to tell young designers especially, is there’s a lot of pressure on you to niche, and people think they need to choose a particular market and do it now. But niche comes over time.
It took me years to realise that visual storytelling is what I wanted to do. Often where you end up in your business, despite your best will in the world, will be completely different to what you anticipated or even set out. As we get older you realise that goals are odd things because they leave you shut down to opportunities that might have come up otherwise, had you not be looking for them.
Don’t niche too quickly, and be open to opportunities that you might not initially think are good for you, or the right ones. Take a chance on some anyway because you might learn something. Nifty Fox has been going for four years now and I think all of the best things that have happened have been either complete luck, or I’ve been really open to opportunities and said yes, and grown as a result.
Ian Paget: I can totally relate with that. I know when we speak about niching down, I know what I’m doing with Logo Geek is a niche, but it was always just a side hobby. In my career I’ve been more of a generalist graphic designer. I’ve done a little bit of everything from video, animation to print based work, exhibition design, website work. You name it, I can do it all. But I think as you progress in your career, you get steered in different directions based on what you’re passionate about, and where you focus your time. I see nothing wrong with starting as a generalist, or even continuing long-term as a generalist. If you can make an income from it, and you do very well with it, that’s fantastic.
But I do think there’s an advantage to focusing on a particular area in the way that you have. You’ve done it well, and you stand out. What you’re doing is different to anyone else that I know. You’re a bit like a hand lettering artist, you’re bit like a graphic designer, and you’re a story teller. I think it’s great that you’re combining all these different skill sets that you have. You’ve identified a problem, which is a communication problem, and found an effective solution that businesses obviously need.
Laura Evans: Yeah, definitely. When I’m onboarding a new client, I’m quite transparent that I’m not the world’s greatest graphic designer. I’m not the world’s greatest hand lettering artist. I’m not the greatest illustrator. But what I can do is solve your problem and do that actively. I think that’s the thing.
It’s interesting you say you’ve done a bit of everything, and it’s the same for me. I’m really glad I started out as a more of a generalist designer because it’s given me a base of skills which means that when I do present work, or I build my own website, then it means that I’ve got those skills to draw upon to make my client’s life even easier. So for example, I did some work recently with a client and we did a rich picture infographic, and they said a real throw away comment, I wish we could put this on a website and make it interactive. I said, oh, well I can do that.
So, because I did all this branding work, I can actually make that happen. It’s weird how skills that you think you’ll never use again, end up being a big part of your work. I learned animation on the side, After Effects for a laugh, and then a massive part of my work now is animation, even though I learned it as a bit of fun for me on the side.
It’s been a roller coaster, but all of those little things that you don’t think are important that you’re learning, just keep them in the back of your mind because you never know when a client might need that extra thing. And that’s how I ended up teaching, because I used to teach at universities, and I drop that in conversation in a completely unrelated meeting, and that got back to certain people and they decided that they wanted to employ me as a lecturer. So it’s weird how all of our creative skills mesh together.
Ian Paget: Yeah. I think it doesn’t really matter what job you do, there’s things that you’ll pick up. One of my very first jobs when I was about 18, I worked in a warehouse for three or four months, and I was doing a lot of logging in and logging out of stock, using these internal web based systems to do the picking and packing. There’s me thinking, I’m never going to refer to that again, but later in my career, I was working as the creative director within a web design agency, we was actually building a module within the back-end for warehouse picking and packing. And because of my experience, I know exactly how this needed to work.
It’s amazing how through your life, your experiences as a graphic designer, or even a non graphic designer, you’re probably going to implement that in some way. I think that’s the beauty of when you do work for yourself, you can pull up on all of that experience, and add it to your services. It’s cool to know that you’re able to leverage on all of your skill sets in order to help solve your client’s problems.
Currently being transcribed, more coming very soon…
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