Meet the designers getting big on TikTok

It’s commonly thought of as a birthplace for internet challenges and dance routines – but as these designers show, “Design TikTok” is a growing community.

“People think it’s just a place for posing and dancing, but it’s so much more than that,” says Jon Sorrentino. Sorrentino is a designer and creative consultant based in New York. Alongside his client work, he also creates content for his 22,000 followers on TikTok.

Known on the app as @thedesignguy, Sorrentino’s videos capture “behind the scenes” life as a designer. Posting videos about pricing, how many projects to put in a portfolio and finding clients, he says most of his content is based on sharing the “soft skills” that make a good designer. For the other portion of his videos, he shares opinions and ideas with his following – like his favourite typefaces, platforms and software.

Videos from Jon Sorrentino

“We’re in a golden age right now”

Sorrentino is one of a growing number of designers flocking to the popular video-based social media app. Many of those on “Design TikTok”, like him, use the platform to talk about life as a creative. Others use it as a kind of social media portfolio, documenting work in progress and other creative pieces.

It’s a lucrative place to be as a designer right now, Sorrentino says. With 689 million global users and an algorithm that shows videos based on a user’s likes, content posted on the app can regularly reach millions of viewers around the world. “We’re in a golden age right now,” Sorrentino says.

Boredom and increased downtime prompted by the pandemic pushed the designer to start posting. “Instagram wasn’t really working for me in terms of seeing growth, and I’m not a big Snapchat guy,” he says. With hopes of one day starting a YouTube channel, Sorrentino says he though TikTok would be a step in the right direction.

Sorrentino’s introduction to the app is an experience that has been replicated around the world. Julie Wieland, a freelance graphic and web designer based in Berlin, downloaded the app in January 2020 and similarly found that the upheaval and isolation of the pandemic encouraged her to post. She now has a 24,000-strong following.

Videos from Julie Wieland

“I believe in providing the tools instead of just showing them off”

Like Sorrentino, Wieland’s TikTok content is both a look behind the scenes of her craft and advice for other creatives. Recent videos from her account, @juliewdesign, include where to find free icons online, websites for finding jobs and even how menstrual cycles affect creativity and productivity.

She says there are two main reasons behind her choice of content. “I believe in providing the tools instead of just showing them off,” she says, before adding that with most of her clients working in tech companies or government, it’s hard to navigate confidentiality agreements while sharing project progress videos.

Both designers say the added benefit of sharing their life in this way is helping others in the community. “I learned so many new tips and tricks on TikTok,” says Wieland. This prompted her to share her own. “If it only helps one person to fulfil their dreams as a designer, it’s worth the hours I put into it.”

Sorrentino has a similar view: “People don’t always talk about the ‘less pretty’ parts of being a designer like pricing and budgeting and I think you have to pull that curtain back a little bit if you’re in a position to.”

Videos from Robert Nowland’s alphabet series

“People enjoy seeing the process”

Other designers on the platform use the app in a different way. Brand identity designer Robert Nowland often uses his eponymous TikTok account to share the processes behind his work, both client and personal, to an audience of 130,000 followers.

Nowland says his success comes down to some of his videos going viral on the app – a series of videos in which he designed a logo for every letter of the alphabet was particularly successful at drawing in new fans. Another series in which he would create logos for two randomly generated letters was also popular.

While some designers on TikTok use the app to community build with other designers, Nowland says his content is more focused on revealing the effort that goes into design for people who don’t necessarily have an idea. “People enjoy seeing the process,” he says. “I also think as creatives we’re insecure and love to hide behind a perfect finished product.”

Showing the journey, he explains, makes design feel more accessible and that’s not just for the average TikTok user. “A major obstacle when working with clients is if they don’t know anything about design – this way, they can see everything they need,” Nowland says. He adds that “some of his best clients” have been those who have found him through the app.

More from Wieland

“Being a full-time freelancer and content creator isn’t easy”

As well as getting new work from the platform, some designers on TikTok will also benefit from the app’s Creator Fund – a pot of money with which TikTok supports its most popular creators depending on their reach, engagement and videos. This isn’t available in all countries.

But while TikTok is way for these designers to reach completely new audiences across the world, and potentially have their work seen by millions, being on the app has its challenges. Creating content can feel like another job sometimes, Wieland says. “Being a full-time freelancer and content creator isn’t easy,” she says. “I try and take at least one or two hours a day to create a video for TikTok.”

Because her clients have to take priority, some weeks see fewer video uploads than others, Wieland says. Other challenges she mentions include not (yet) having a huge set up for filming, and having to rely on daylight to ensure a good quality video.

And then there’s actually thinking up the ideas for videos, Sorrentino says. “Just like with creativity more widely, sometimes you go through highs and lows when it comes to finding content to actually make,” he says. “It’s kind of a struggle, especially when you actually want to be putting the time in, but I’ve found it’s best sometimes for me to just slow down and let things come more naturally.”

Finding inspiration in the everyday is how Nowland and Wieland explain they’re able to upload as often as they do. “Whenever I’m looking for something online or find something interesting, I write it down and try and come up with a video for it later,” says Wieland. Meanwhile Nowland says simply documenting his work and process, rather than creating something specifically for TikTok all the time, is helpful.

More from Nowland

“I love sharing my experiences”

With TikTok’s popularity having soared to new heights amid the pandemic, do designers think this “golden age” will continue long after our proposed “return to normal”? It depends who you ask. Sorrentino cautiously says he’s making the most of the platform’s hype while it lasts. “I’d kick myself if I didn’t become a part of this community while it was still evolving and growing,” he says.

Wieland on the other hand predicts no swift end to the growth of the platform. “I really do believe that TikTok will be at least, if not more, popular for businesses and creators than other big social media platforms,” she says. According to her, this is because of how fast accounts can grow compared with other social media, and the fact content overall isn’t as manufactured as elsewhere.

Additionally, she says she prefers the design community on the app too. “I’m a very reserved and introverted person, but I really appreciate the community and belonging on TikTok,” she says. “I get a lot of messages from younger people that want to have my opinion, help on their projects for school or just want to know in general how I got to where I am today and I love sharing my experiences.”

More from Sorrentino
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  • Neil Littman April 27, 2021 at 6:01 pm

    I thought I would wait to see if anybody started a discussion on this story and can see why nobody did… Cannot take this seriously.

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