3 Fundamental Traits for Success in your Creative Career

The following is an edited version of the commencement speech I gave to the Edmonton Digital Arts College 2019 grad class. I swear it was way more hilarious and inspiring in person.

When Jeremy approached me and said, “Jeff, I’d love if you could give a talk at the EDAC grad ceremony”, I assumed he wanted me to impart some wisdom or something. Then he said, “Yeah. Everyone else is really busy.”

When asked to speak, I had two immediate thoughts. The first: he really could have left that last part out. Second: of course, it’d be an honour to. I really am excited to be here, and excited for each of you. Because 10 years ago, I was right where you are, and I remember what that was like. I graduated from a small private college, same as you.

Right after I graduated, I started an agency called Paper Leaf because I was too dumb to know any better. Today, Paper Leaf is probably considered a success. But back then? My partner & I started working out of a house. Super small time. I mean, I had a Skype meeting one time with a client where my two cats started fighting on the bed in the background. Real professional.

That first year in business, we did a total of $40k in revenue – revenue, not profit. When you split that between two partners, we were far below the poverty line. I couldn’t afford fancy dress hoodies like this one.

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The Simple Change that Helped Our Agency Increase Client Satisfaction and Designer Happiness

I love design.

I love being able to work with smart people to diagnose and solve problems with a dose of creativity. I love the interplay between all the core principles of design. I love constantly needing to learn new things, and put them in to practice. But let’s be honest: design isn’t perfect. Like any industry, along with design come common frustrations – often, frustrations big enough to drive many of us out of our industry.

Think of all the issues that exasperate us as designers – the things we get together and vent about over a pint. How many of us have had clients start playing art director? Delivered something that wasn’t good enough, a product we didn’t want our name on? Built something that has sat there unused? Or had a relationship go sour because of how a project turned out?

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A Month in a Design Agency by the Numbers [Infographic]

I’m a data guy. It took me a while though.

For a long time, Andy & I just operated on feel when it came to Paper Leaf, our design agency. Because it was only the two of us for the first couple of years, we could get away with that – there wasn’t much overhead, and you don’t need that many projects to keep busy when there are only two people.

As we’ve grown, though – we’re at 7 people at the time of this post – I’ve learned to track more & more data about our company. It’s not just that numbers are interesting. Having data means we can spot trends, have measurable goals for the business, and more on a month-to-month basis. There’s a lot you can learn from numbers.

So I’m going to share those numbers with you.

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Why You’re Losing Proposals

Losing proposals, and the potentially lucrative contracts that come with winning them, just plain sucks. You know you can do that job – knock it out of the park, even. But for some reason, the prospective client went in a different direction, leaving you, your proposal, and the hours that went into it in the good ol’ reject pile.


We’ve been there. I write a ton of proposals at Paper Leaf; some we win, some we lose. Over the years, though, we’ve refined our proposals and learned a lot about why we win the ones we do – and conversely, why we lose. And guess what? The reasons we lose proposals are likely the same reasons you lose yours.

Here’s what those reasons are, and how to fix them.

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Inside the Black Box of Web Design Pricing

Web design costs come in a huge range of shapes & sizes. Thanks to that range, clients can struggle with understanding why websites cost what they do, and freelancers/shops can struggle with how to price their services.

That’s what we’re going to uncover: the thought processes, variables, logic, and math that goes into pricing web design. I’ll focus on one specific end of the spectrum: custom web design and development. While DIY web platforms like Squarespace definitely have their place, their pricing models are pretty straightforward and easy to understand. The custom side of web design & development? Not so much.

So buckle up, and let’s get our learn on.

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The Blunt Realities of Running Your Own Design Business

My wife Andy and I started Paper Leaf in 2009. We were not bad at design (I think we’re pretty damn good now), and really green at business. In some ways, our naivety was a bit of a blessing; had we known what we know now, we probably would have talked ourselves out of starting the business. And that would have been a mistake – we love what we get to do.

Regardless, there are a number of blunt realities we faced (and still do face) – and things we’ve learned – in running Paper Leaf that we either never anticipated, or never really bought in to if we read it elsewhere. Here are some of the big ones.

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eReader Typography: Why it’s Broken & How to Fix It

A while ago I was hanging out at my parents house, and got my hands on my dad’s Kindle Fire. Now, my dad is 60-something years old, and has always had a thing for tech – but he’s also getting on in years, has bifocals and all that fun stuff that comes along with age. So, the option for him to change the typography options in his Kindle ereader application is right up his alley. Pretty sweet feature, right?

Then I looked at the e-book he was reading.

Maybe… maybe not such a sweet feature.

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