My name is Clark. I haven't always been a graphic designer, in fact I had no idea life would turn out this way.
If you would have met me several years ago I would have been wearing my tool belt and working hard to build up my small construction business. How does a guy like me find himself enthusiastically wielding a computer mouse instead of an air-nailer? One thing you should learn from my story in this:
When I was 16 I never dreamed in my wildest dreams that someday I would wield a mouse instead of a hammer.
In The Beginning
I started working for my father on his carpentry crew when I was 16. When I wasn’t doing school work I was learning the delicate art of persuading lumber to comply to my will by smashing it together it with a blunt object. That, and working out in the West Coast weather of British Columbia is a great recipe to make a man out of you in no time. Welcome to the School of Hard Knocks.
As I gained experience on the jobsite I began to understand and appreciate the concept of working smarter instead of harder. My carpentry skills began to develop and expand, and I was given more complicated jobs to do along with more responsibility. I love working with my hands and figuring stuff out, so I was in my element.
Over the years, as I worked for other carpenters, and crew members came and went, I learned a lot about managing people as well. I worked alongside all kinds of guys, and observed a variety of communication methods when it came to explaining how to do a certain task, especially when the one being explained to had not done that particular job before. For some, better communication simply meant more volume, which can make a long day a lot longer and the job accomplished not much faster. I decided I didn’t want to be one of those guys.
At this point in my career I always had 2 or three guys on my crew who were less experienced than me, and was always explaining how to construct certain parts of the building according to the blueprints. We also did a lot of renovations, where there often was no official blueprints and we had to figure a lot of stuff out ourselves. It can be challenging to explain what you envision in your head so that everyone involved can see it as well.
I began to cultivate the art of the explanation. This can actually be challenging, as you have to deliver your information in a way that is clear, while at the same time not over-explaining it and losing your man in a sea of instructions. It’s an art that school teachers excel at, and tradesmen are notorious for lacking. Perhaps you have a great boss (or are) and you might beg to differ. However, I don’t think you would disagree that a lot of frustration on the jobsite is a result of poor communication.
The biggest lesson I learned from taking the time to explain something well was how it would enable the other person to think on their own and move forward in their job. The better you explain, the more they can accomplish later without supervision. You give them sufficient information, but don’t micromanage and rob them of decision making power. This made work a lot easier and I got along with most of my coworkers.
On My Own
I have always wanted to own my own business. As I worked for other men I was always thinking ahead to the day I would start my own construction crew. One obstacle was my lack of official training in my trade. I somehow felt I would not be taken seriously by some contractors and homeowners.
I had never been to any trades school of any kind. My only education was on the jobsite and my instructors were my father, other employers, and the old-timers who worked beside me. I decided to take night schooling so I could challenge the Interprovincial (IP) Red Seal Examination, which is the same test given to 4-year apprentices. After several months of driving an hour each way to a trade school for a couple nights per week, and homework for the first time since grade 12, I finally challenged the examination and managed to pass. I’ve never worked so hard to acquire a single sheet of paper with my name on it.
Armed with my paper that certified me in the qualification of hitting things with a hammer, I quit my job and bought a trailer hitch and a trailer to go with it, bought a bunch of used tools off Craigslist, and set out to conquer my section of the world.
I found work through ads on Craigslist, friends of friends and family, and other contacts. My small jobs became bigger and I began to see my future as a successful blue-collar business owner.
That summer was a milestone in my life. I was my own boss, I owned my own business, and I felt like I had life by the horns.
The Hard Times
Around this time the United States had just gone through the Great Recession. Canada was not nearly as affected but the economic downturn did affect the Canadian construction industry, including my home town near Vancouver.
People stopped hiring carpenters to build houses and renovate, and I completely ran out of work. I parked my tool trailer and went back to working for my father, who still had jobs through his contacts. Once again I was an employee, which is pretty hard on a guy whose dreams were just within his grasp. This, and my failed business, combined with other problems in my personal life sent me into a downward spiral of depression.
The construction industry eventually picked itself up and there was work to be had, but by this time I had no motivation to go out and find it. It’s a little hard to describe my state of mind during this time but on Saturdays I would sleep in until noon, with no reason to get out of bed. I felt like a failure. I remember trying to fix my motorcycle in the garage, and just sitting there with the wrenches in my hands, not doing anything and staring at nothing.
The Turning Point
Sometimes going as low as you can go can be a blessing in disguise. Instead of plugging along at a job you hate or making do with whatever situation you have at hand, you realize you need to completely start over or completely give up. With the help of God and some leftover willpower, I choose the first.
I decided I needed to do something different for a job while I figured out my life. This has turned out to be one of the best decisions I have made.
I started to think about what I loved to do, and what I was good at. When I was a kid I was artistic. I constantly drew pictures for other kids in my class, and for anyone else who would ask. As I grew up I left my pencils and paper for more manly things, like sports and dirtbikes and the like. All these years later I began to wonder how I could use these artistic skills to make a living for myself. The starving artist lifestyle certainly didn’t appeal.
Being completely clued out about any other way to build a career except by hard work with my hands and sweat, I turned to the Internet for help. I remembered that Craigslist had a job posting category called Creative, so I started there. I scrolled through a number of posts until I saw a post for a position of ‘graphic designer.’ I’ll tell you right now that this blue-collar boy had to Google what that was. No word of a lie.
It didn’t take much research at all to figure out that this was the practical job that artists should have taken. Graphic design is art with a purpose. I could somehow feel that there was a lot of knowledge from my years on the jobsite that would carry over to a career in graphic design. Once again I began to think of owning my own business, one that was completely different from my previous attempt. There’s some wise words out there about adjusting your sails when the wind changes direction.
I knew I needed formal training. Carpenters don’t naturally take to computers unless it’s not working and they’re hitting it with a hammer. I did my research and found a local university who had just opened a brand new course on graphic and digital design. I enrolled myself, and when the first semester started that fall, I quit my job and drove that pickup truck to the first university parking lot of it’s life.
Design school was a paradigm shift for sure, and I loved every minute of it. I remember sitting in class on one of those first days with a cup of coffee and listening to the rain drumming on the roof while the instructor explained how to use a computer program I didn’t know existed until that moment. I was completely lost yet completely at home.
I poured my heart and soul into the design course until a couple years later when I graduated, one of the top students in the class. My laptop was my tool box and I had traded my hammer for a mouse. I knew I needed some experience working in the creative industry before I started anything on my own. I wrote a resume for the first time in my life. On the jobsite your resume is “do you have your own truck and will you be here on time every day mon to fri?”
The first graphic design job I landed aligned pretty good with my previous construction career: designing vinyl graphics for concrete pump trucks. There are actually some really awesome looking pump trucks out there, with tribal flames, surreal-abstract backgrounds, and other visually striking graphics, some of which I designed myself.
We would print the graphics and I would apply my own creations to the trucks myself. It was good to be working with my hands again after those years of school. There are an awful lot of surfaces on a concrete pump truck that you can place graphics, and I crawled all over those things, decorating the sleeping beasts with splendor.
I eventually moved on to another design job in a different field, graphic design for clients in a 3D architectural rendering studio. Almost all the brand identities I created there were for construction companies and other businesses in the construction industry, and naturally I found it easy to design for these kinds of clients. I knew the style of logo and graphics that would look appropriate for a business in the trades industry, and our clients were rarely disappointed. It was while working at this job that the vision for my own design studio began to take shape.
Prior to this, I had thought of my years spent on the jobsite as something I would leave out when applying for a design job or starting a design business, as it surely would only be a detriment to my credibility as a capable designer in the digital age, despite the years of schooling with a 4.04 GPA and my experience in the design industry.
However, I could now see how the thing I saw as my weakness was actually my greatest strength. Once again I quit my job to pursue a new dream. Except it wasn’t entirely new, it was the old dream combined with the new one.
I chose the name because I was looking for something that was reminiscent of my construction days, sounded blue-collar, and was short and punchy.
I spent several months building up my client base. As I already suspected, tradesmen and blue-collar business owners feel like they are stepping far out of their realm of knowledge when it comes time to hire a graphic designer. They don’t know how to describe what they want when they need a logo and brand identity. I found that my ability to meet their expectations with the style they didn’t know they were looking for led to long term relationships and graphic design work. Bucksaw Creative was a successful business venture at last.
However, there was one conundrum that I found difficult to resolve.
As my business grew, I found better clients who paid more and valued the time it takes to create good design, and my prices went up accordingly. This led to what all freelance designers want; more money for the same work, and weeding out all the cheaper clients.
The problem here was this: the cheap clients I was weeding out were often the guys who were much like myself when I was trying to start my own construction business. They desperately needed the good branding in order to attract business, but they also didn’t have the money to pay for it. I felt like I was a traitor to my own tribe by doing most of my work for established trades businesses who would then easily push out their smaller competition. At the same time, I couldn’t afford to spend long hours of hard work for little pay in order to support the guys who were starting out. I felt like I was the worst blue-collar Robin Hood there was.
The DIY Guide To Branding
As I was pondering how I could resolve this conflict of principle vs making a living, I thought back to what I did for my own branding when I first started out with my own construction business. I remember going into Staples and buying a DIY business card kit. You designed your own cards using Microsoft Paint, printed them on sheets of thick paper that was already scored into card-shaped rectangles, and snapped them into pieces. This was my brand identity in its entirety. I couldn’t afford to pay anyone to create a logo for me, and didn’t even know how to begin looking for an affordable designer anyway.
I had a vague notion that there were probably ways of creating all this myself; I was artistic after all, but I didn’t know where to begin. This was over a decade ago, and there were a couple budding DIY website builders out there but I had no clue which ones were worth putting my time into. My only computer was a used laptop that I barely knew how to use.
As I put myself back into those shoes (work boots) I realized that if only someone would have pointed me in the right direction by showing me what to do, I undoubtedly would have created a whole suite of branding myself.
There are a lot of DIY tools on the Internet for this exact kind of thing: logos, business cards, signs, decals, and even websites. Over the last few years there has been a lot of improvement in the ease of use of these tools, and especially the quality of the outcome. I decided to do my research and find the best tools for each of the items needed by a new trades business.
Six long months later I am happy to tell you I have put together a DIY guide that contains all the knowledge and resources I wish I would have had back when I bought that business card kit. It’s probably not perfect. It might be missing some bits of information. But I can update it at anytime because I chose to deliver it as an online guide. I am very open to any and all feedback, as I want this thing to be the best it can be.
I don’t want anyone to fail at their goal of owning their own trades business for lack of good branding they can’t afford. I don’t want anyone not getting out of bed on Saturday because they tried something but couldn’t swing it. I don’t want to be the anti-Robin Hood to my own people.
The purpose of this guide is to enable you to create great branding all on your own so you can start your own business and look professional from day one.
My past experiences have given me a burning desire to create a branding resource center for aspiring blue-collar businesses, and fill the gap between ambitions and reality. I know Bucksaw Creative will evolve as time goes on but this will always be the goal.