Expert Advice

Building a creativity-focused printable design business

September 5, 2017

I’m Michelle.
A modern maker with a classic approach to design. Ever in search
of beautiful typography and
baked goods.
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Graphic designers have their choice of projects: branding, websites, signage, social graphics, and so on. However, not every job brings the creative fulfillment we dream of. Most of us have been forced to give up our artistic desires in the name of paying the bills at one time or another. But with a little creativity and a lot of tenacity, you can have your cake, and eat it too. Graphic designer, Carmia Cronjé was able to defy odds, and quiet those naysayers when she decided to give up client work, and focus solely on printable designs. Her choice not only fulfilled her creatively, but led to growth in her business. Here’s how she made it happen!

The story of how this South African graphic designer’s decision to choose creativity over clients led to growth in her printable design business. // A interview with creative entrepreneur, Carmia Cronjé from MichelleHickey.Design


What is your background in art + design? Are you formally educated or self-taught?
I have always been creative. I remember designing my own magazine when I was a kid, not knowing at the time that it was called “graphic design”. I studied a one-year course in Graphic and Web Design and have a BA degree in Communication Science but I would say most of what I know is thanks to online tutorials and classes.

What made you want to want to start your own business?
Let me just say that I never thought that I was going to start my own business. Apart from my brother and I, no one in my family is a business owner, so it wasn’t something that was ever encouraged. On the contrary, it was discouraged!

I was 20 years old when I decided I wanted to start my own business designing brand identities for small businesses. What made me want to go that route was the lack of jobs in my hometown, and the fact that jobs in the nearest city didn’t pay nearly enough for an inexperienced graphic designer like me. A small salary for a junior graphic designer would not even have been enough to afford rent or food. So I decided to stay with my parents in my small home town and study for a degree in Communication Science through a distance learning university. During my studies I learned everything I could about starting a business.

Did you have any hesitations or setbacks after your business launched? How did you find solutions and overcome them?
My home town is extremely small, so my client work dried up after a while. Around this time I started my own website and showcased my work on it in the hope to find clients from other parts of the country.

As naive as I was, I thought the work would come rolling in immediately. Not so. I didn’t know how to market myself to find new clients. I didn’t know anything about starting a business.

On top of that, certain members of my family didn’t believe that I could start a business and I must admit that it got me down. I think I’m a little stubborn though because after a while I decided to ignore their advice and keep working on getting my business off the ground.

I eventually joined Elance (now called Upwork) to find more clients. During this time I read countless of articles online about starting a freelance business and how to market yourself. It took me a few years, but eventually I started getting more and more clients. It was only when I started believing in myself a little more when my business really started making money.

Can you identify a moment on your journey that felt like a turning point in your business? How did it come to be?
When I quit client work after three years to focus on my printables business, it finally enabled me to spend more time designing things for my shop and my income increased as a result. Client work was exhausting and very stressful for me. Waiting for client feedback and chasing invoices was burning me out. Designing printables was my creative outlet. I could design what I want and make money from it!

The story of how this South African graphic designer’s decision to choose creativity over clients led to growth in her printable design business. // A interview with creative entrepreneur, Carmia Cronjé from MichelleHickey.Design

The evolution of your business

In recent years, you’ve mastered illustration and hand lettering. How has this had an effect on your designs? Did it change your audience, or increase in sales?
I don’t think I have quite mastered it yet, but thank you for your confidence in me! Now that I think about it, the designs where I incorporated my own drawings (like this one) have been more successful than my others. I think people enjoy designs that have been created by hand.

I love that you’ve experimented by selling your designs on a variety of sites and platforms. Is there one that you have found the most success on?
It took me many years to get to this point, but I’m finally able to say that my own website brings in the most money. I do sell my designs on other platforms like Zazzle, Etsy, Creative Market and Envato Elements, but I don’t really work that hard to send people to them. My focus has always been to create my own brand and it’s wonderful to be able to see the fruits of my labour!

In an oversaturated market of printable designs, how do you ensure that yours stand out? Are there any particular marketing tactics that you regularly use?
I’m a huge fan of simple and clean designs. We see a lot of printable designs that are too busy – using too many fonts, colours, and illustrations. I’m a minimalist at heart and I love lots of white space and using premium fonts to help make my designs stand out from the crowd. I also love including my own hand lettering and hand painted textures in my designs.

The story of how this South African graphic designer’s decision to choose creativity over clients led to growth in her printable design business. // A interview with creative entrepreneur, Carmia Cronjé from MichelleHickey.Design

Behind the scenes

South Africa has to be one of THE coolest places to live! What does the art, design and technology scene look like in your corner of the world?
South Africans are a creative bunch! I live near Cape Town, a city that was voted the World Design Capital in 2014. It’s hard to not be inspired by the many artists and designers of this country and their innovative ideas and enthusiasm.

Can you name a book, podcast, conference, or individual who has had a lasting positive impact on you and your business?
Sean McCabe is a huge inspiration to me and his podcast, Sean Wes, is my favourite. He says it like it is, but in a down-to-earth way.

The story of how this South African graphic designer’s decision to choose creativity over clients led to growth in her printable design business. // A interview with creative entrepreneur, Carmia Cronjé from MichelleHickey.Design

Hopes + dreams

What areas are you still working on becoming better at, as a business owner and a creative individual?
Balancing my personal life and my work life. It’s hard to disconnect from the internet and social media when your business is based on it! I constantly find myself thinking about my business when I go to bed at night or when I’m watching a TV show. I’m trying to take more breaks but I often feel guilty when I do it and that’s another thing I need to work on.

Putting too much pressure on myself as a creative individual is something that I’m still struggling with. Sometimes I catch myself thinking that “this has to be perfect”, or “this must be better than the last one you did”.

What do you envision for the future of your business? Do you have any personal dreams that you still have your sights set on?
I’d love to be able to sell my printable life planner as a physical planner one day. It’s just a dream at this stage and I don’t have any plans on making it happen soon.
I’d also love to be a homeowner in the future and have a studio space all to myself.

Anything exciting on the horizon? Tell us about what you’ve been up to lately and what we can look forward to:
I’m working on some mobile phone case designs with colourful patterns and fun messages and hope to have it available soon!

How can we stay connected?

Facebook // Instagram // Twitter // Pinterest // Email


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  1. Linda-Ann Lloyd says:

    Wow I really enjoyed reading about a creative entrepreneur from South Africa which is where I live. My dream is to have my very own blog and shop and it has always seemed to me that there is nobody doing what I do in South Africa. I am so inspired now and working every day to get closer to my dream.

    • Michelle says:

      Whohoo! I’m so happy that Carmia could provide you with inspiration. Please let me know if there’s anything I can help you with as you create your blog and shop.

  2. Debie Talbot says:

    Thank you, Michelle and Carmia. Sound wisdom.

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