Active vs. Passive Approach to Design Business Development

Active vs. Passive Approach to Design Business Development

Having a design business in today’s aesthetic-sensitive market is surely a fruitful vocation. Whatever companies and organizations strive to convey to their audience, becomes two times easier when it is synergized by a good design. Therefore catering to the needs of businesses, nowadays more and more designers are turning towards having their own business of providing design services. However, apart from all the advantages a design business brings, the most hectic thing that one has to face is the development aspect of the business.

Active vs. Passive Approach to Design Business Development
Image credit: pintavelloso

Business development is a very important aspect of having a design business. It helps you make the most of your talent and skills and use it to your financial advantage. Creating websites and designing communication material is far easier than running after potential clients. Apart from all other problems associated with business development, one issue that many designers face is that either they should actively look for new and potential clients, or be passive and let new clients find their way to them.

Active vs. passive approach in design business development has been an important topic of discussion for a long time. In order to gauge the usefulness of both, let us discuss both in detail.

Active Approach to Design Business Development

The active approach to business development in the designing business is the most commonly practiced approach, by both older and newer professionals. The active approach includes business pitches, cold calling, direct mailing, sending business emails and taking part in community gatherings and etc. The active approach also encompasses some unconventional mediums of business development as well, like blogging and having an online portfolio website.

The active approach in business development is fruitful in many ways. It keeps you busy all year long i.e. even if you don’t get much work; active design pitching helps you develop a feeling of fulfillment after a long working day. It helps you realize that even if you are not getting any projects, at least you are working hard on getting some. Also, the more you indulge in the active design business development, the greater are your chances to land a good number of clients annually.

Pros of the Active Approach

However, no matter how fruitful your active design pitching turns out, there are a few things you need to keep in mind during the process that will help you make the most of it.

Good Influx of Clients

The biggest advantage of taking an active approach in design business development is that it helps you get a good influx of clients.

Good Influx of Clients

If you pitch 10 companies or businesses in a month, there are chances that you may land at least one or two each month, and so by the end of the year, you will have a good number of big and small clients to boast about.

Freedom of Choice

Another important benefit of the active approach is that you have the freedom to accept or reject any client that does not fit into your criteria.

Freedom of Choice

As mentioned earlier, the active approach allows you to have a good number of clients for your business, and this good number comes with the choice to take up a certain project or drop it. Some design owners say that freedom of choice is the best thing they find by opting for an active approach

Cons of the Active Approach

Return on Investment

The most commonly seen disadvantage of the active approach in design business development is that the expenditure often surpasses the return on investment. The most basic reason behind this disadvantage is the carelessness of the business owner. In order to gauge the effectiveness of taking an active approach towards design business development, we cannot rely on assumptions and suppositions.

Return on Investment

Take it as a science experiment and measure the findings on the basis of mathematical calculations. Jot down the list of expenses you undertook while actively seeking clients for your business. These expenses may include the cost of preparing marketing material for your business’ promotion, the traveling you did in the perusal of clients and the time you took in preparing pitches for potential clients. Compare all these expenditures with the number of clients have you gained and the amount of profit you have drawn from these new clients.

Quality of Clientèle

It is also important to see what kind of activities your client involves you in, and also the productivity of these activities. If you are new to the design business, it is advisable to first decide how many clients you should be landing in order to justify your involvement in an active business development.

Quality of Clientele

By the end of the calculations, if you come to the conclusion that the amount of work you bring in is not higher than the time and money you are spending on actively seeking new clients, then you either need to re-map your marketing strategies or opt for the passive approach altogether.

Passive Approach to Design Business Development

The passive approach in design business development is an absolute contrast from the active approach in many ways. The passive approach revolves around the point that being a design business owner you just sit back and wait for the clients to come to you and seek your services. The passive approach is less practiced among design business professionals, and is mostly taken up by design business veterans. It seems almost inevitable for a new-comer to the design business to actively move around in search of clients and indulge in client pitching more often.

However, there are some ways in which even the newbies can go for the passive approach, and the most common of these is indulging in personal projects. These personal projects range from college assignments, a design project based on a personal favor to a family member or pro bono work for a local charity organization. This will enable you to keep yourself busy and your work will also stay in front of people all the time. These personal projects don’t earn you anything directly, however, the referrals from the people whom you have given a favor to, certainly land you good business.

The passive approach seems lucrative in terms of lesser effort and lesser expense of time and money, with almost equal benefits as that of the active approach. However, there are certain pros and cons associated with it as well.

Pros of the Passive Approach

Less Time, Money and Resources

The most interesting thing about the passive approach is that you do not need to indulge in the hectic activity of client pitching or cold-calling etc, which can be very discouraging at times.

Lesser Time, Money and Resources

It saves you much time, effort and resources which are then ultimately used for the clients who approach you and seek your services.

Client’s Own Interest

Another important factor is that when a client comes to you, it means that he is serious about the project and does not seek mere time-wasting presentations or demos from your side.

Client’s Own Interest

It also vouches that they want to get the project done, they have made a conscious effort to seek out a professional to help them, and they are motivated to work together to achieve a successful design. Moreover, when the client approaches you himself, there are chances that he has already agreed with your rates and terms of services and that means no bargaining for you.

Cons of the Passive Approach

Client ‘Dry-spell’

There are certain inevitable problems associated with the passive approach the most common of which is the client ‘dry-spell’. This will happen many times a year when there won’t be any clients looking for your services.

Dry Spell
Image credit: boogsrosales

There are only a few fortunate clients who are active all year long; however this will not be the case with all the clients. In order to avoid this, keep yourself busy with other money-making activities like a parallel online business or perhaps a design blog, so that your financial cycle keeps running.

No Freedom of Choice

Also, unlike the active approach, you don’t have much to choose from if you opt for the passive approach. Therefore, you are financially and somehow morally bound to provide your services to whoever approaches you, no matter how low-paying or problematic it is.

No Freedom of Choice
Image credit: Juan M Casillas

To prevent such a situation, it is advisable to lay down a legal contract stating your terms and conditions and get new clients sign it before entering into a business relationship with you.

The Wrap Up

Business development is an inevitable aspect of any design business. It helps you earn a living and strengthen your roots in the market. The aforementioned comparison between the active and passive approach to business development is not meant to prove one to be superior to the other. Both approaches have their respective advantages and disadvantages, however, no matter which approach you opt for, the ultimate goal is the financial benefit you get from it. All you need to do is to experience both approaches one-at-a-time, take ‘calculated’ results (not just relying on assumptions), and adjust your business development strategies accordingly.

Arfa M Waqas is a writer and self-taught graphic designer. She has a dream of making it big with her CreatiWittyBlog which is all about design, creative ideas and witty posts.


  1. / Reply

    Quite informative article….this platform is always inspirational way to go

    1. / Reply

      as informative as your shitty plug and useless comment as mine.

  2. / Reply

    Actively searching for clients does not have to involve pitching a design solution to them. You can rely on actively presenting yourself as a a person passionate about their work, with a clear goal and distinct approach when working with clients. Meetups, conferences, podcasts and interviews will eventually work better than pitches, so when a client wants to work with you, you can go directly to the specifics of the project.

    1. / Reply

      @Catalina, how do you use a podcast in approaching clients?

      I think you could also have a combination of the two mentioned styles of enganging with businesses; for example depended on the season and number of clients.

      1. / Reply

        Hey Michiel,

        I agree with having a combination of both styles. Thank you for asking how one can attract and indirectly approach potential clients through a podcast. The most relevant example I can give is Boagworld, a podcast with over 300 episodes made by UX designers Paul Boag and Marcus Lillington. It was and still is a popular podcast in the world of designers, respected by marketers as an ingenious technique (Paul Boag said openly it helped tremendously, business wise, at Headscape), but also, a way to attract clients since every episode addressed a design problem and provided solutions or examples from their own work at Headscape. I wouldn’t be able to know whether a client did contact the guys to sign a contract, but I tend to believe it helped, maybe even more than the traditional active method of approaching clients. I would also like to mention Gary Vaynerchuck’s amazing impact as a speaker and genuine evangelist for his own wine business. I am pretty sure he streamed brief 5 mins. episodes on his blog, talking to people about his life and beliefs and running promotions. I haven’t watched the videos lately, though. I would recommend his book “Crush it!”, there are some interesting observations about growing your business as a passionate entrepreneur and speaker, as well as related to how one can use new media tools – like blogging and podcasting – to crush your competition.

  3. / Reply

    A very interesting and informative article. I personally think the active approach is more appealing as you feel as though you have achieved more if you have gone out and got the work yourself. Also marketing doesn’t have to be expensive with the options of social marketing, flyers and business cards. Thanks for sharing.

    • Parvez,
    • March 21, 2011
    / Reply

    I slightly disagree with the point – ‘the ultimate goal is the financial benefit you get from it…’ The ultimate goal could also go beyond the monetary benefit such as adding value to the customer’s business with your design offerings, influencing the end user with your persuasive communication, to create an intangible impact with the branding and identity, to establish a competitive base in the marketplace, to build solid reputation/credibility in the industry or to boast about working with the top-tier clients in the industry.

  4. / Reply

    Another potential problem with the passive approach is you tend to get referrals from businesses in the same industry. For example if you do one sports team web site really well you may get referral’s for more sports team web sites. Which is wonderful unless you’re not interested in doing sports team web sites. Then its a drag.

    [NOTE: I’d be happy to do a sports team web site. It was just an example.]

    • Boo,
    • March 30, 2011
    / Reply

    I use passive approach and still can choose my clientel. I’m not the best or the cheapest, but there is always someone to do work for and some whom i have to say No.

    For me active selling is like trying to fix a nonexistend problem that nobody wants to be solved. And even if somebody wants to do that you will always be underdog and the client will dictate the terms and conditions.

    When client comes to you you are more in the position to define how his problems will be solved. :)

  5. / Reply

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