The new black

Specialising in a niche industry may not seem very glamorous, but it could be lucrative. Jim Davies urges designers to stand out from the crowd

Specialising in a niche industry may not seem very glamorous, but it could be lucrative. Jim Davies urges designers to stand out from the crowd

A few years back, I came across a whey-faced individual who only wore black. Nothing unusual in that, you might think – but this was during a heat wave in Sardinia, where it felt as though you were sitting in a sauna, wrapped in an electric blanket. Still, he wasn’t about to compromise for the conditions – and it didn’t stop there.

His young children were also dressed head to toe in black, and, while his wife occasionally sported the odd rebellious flash of colour, she too was far down the slippery black slope.

One evening, I jokingly remarked that I could guess what colour his car was. His answer took me aback. Yes, it was black – inside and out, with black leather upholstery and black trim – but he’d also had every badge and piece of chrome carefully removed, and the bumpers and hub caps sprayed black too. You had to admire his thoroughness.

So what did this single-minded character do for a living? He ran his own highly successful, provincial ad agency. But he didn’t take on any old clients, he specialised – strictly pharmaceutical companies only.

When he set up his business, he carefully tapped into a lucrative, niche market that was surprisingly under-serviced. Word spread and he quickly made a name for himself, while gaining expertise and experience. By keeping matters narrow and focused – like his personal dress code – he set himself apart from the two-a-penny generalists, prepared to tackle anything from breweries to garden sheds.

Certain graphic design companies could take a leaf out of his book – dress-wise they’re halfway there already, but that’s not what I mean. They may be bursting with fresh ideas, craft skills and the gift of the gab, but the problem is that many of them are just too similar.

They all went to the right colleges, paid their dues at the big name groups and then went off to do their own creative thing under a funky new name. Now they’re chasing the same business, on the same rosters, inhabiting the same social circles.

Occasionally, a designer will jump ship for a change, but quickly finds the onboard experience to be virtually identical. They are all interconnected by a cosy web of personal associations – this one went out with that one, who played football with that one, who shared a flat with the other one. So what hope is there for clients trying to choose between these kissing cousins?

As a design consultancy, concentrating your efforts on a particular business sector is a canny way of distinguishing yourself. I’m not talking about the music or fashion industries, to which designers are usually drawn – they may look glamorous from the outside, but they are as demanding as they are fickle. Think laterally. Do your research. Choose an area that’s seemingly unfashionable, yet cash-rich, where you can really shine – where you could even create a radical new graphic aesthetic.

It’s worth remembering that the client may be longing to stand out from the crowd and that, in a seemingly fusty industry, they’d thank you for making them look dynamic and progressive. Once you’ve made your mark in a particular sector, you can branch out to others. You’ll find that clients can make the intellectual leap – if your work’s strong enough, versatility is a given.

But don’t worry, you won’t have to wear black forever.

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