Presence on social media is useful: designers share that blogging helps them find most of their big contracts, gain professional visibility, come up with fresh design ideas and form a vital personal community. But the world of social networks has some traps and pitfalls. To navigate you through this tricky but rewarding practice, we’ve turned to two outstanding graphic designers, Katrina Romulo and Elliot Ulm, who run ever-growing Instagram pages with 50K and 100K audiences respectively. In this piece, they open up about their tricks for success that you can implement in practice.
Katrina started out designing in college, and to continue her path, went to Berkeley University for sustainable environmental design. Her program wasn’t a graphic design one, but it was the closest thing to any sort of design at Berkeley. Katrina got her degree in 2021 but thinks of herself as a self-taught designer because most of the skills she’s learned came from the student community or her own studies. When the pandemic started, all of her lectures were held online, so Katrina found some spare time for her passion projects. She created her Instagram account before the lockdown, but during the isolation period in October 2020, Katrina started to design brands for fun and post them on her page as part of the ‘Brandtober’ challenge. That’s when she first got public attention. Slowly but steadily her audience began to grow, and she now has 50K followers on Instagram.
"Every opportunity that I don’t apply for myself comes through social media: client projects, interviews or collaboration requests. I believe Instagram plays a humongous role in the professional career of a designer, as the reach here is colossal compared to any other platform,"— Katrina Romulo.
Elliot created his page around three years ago. Back then, he decided to go the self-taught route in design and started his Instagram account mainly to pile personal works into a portfolio. He came up with different concepts and made real cases out of those ideas. His second post with a set of honest business cards blew up and triggered organic growth. At the beginning of 2020, Elliot hit 10K followers and got the swipe-up link. At present, his audience on Instagram has reached 100K.
"In most cases design is considered a client-based thing when you make something for someone. People underestimate how fun and how exciting graphic design is when you treat it as art and express yourself through it on social media. That helps you develop a new appreciation for your own work,"— Elliot Ulm.
Share your passion
Katrina: Part of success is diving into whatever idea comes to your mind, something you’re really passionate about. Instagram is very fickle, and you really don’t know what’s gonna flop or take off. So I believe the best practice is to be passionate and not put too much pressure on yourself. Don’t make something for the sole purpose of getting a lot of likes — just try to have fun with it. When you’re enjoying your work, other people will pick up on that. I have a whiteboard with ideas behind my desk and throw in any idea that pops into my head. So when I’m in the mood to sit down and design I just look at my little whiteboard and pick an idea to work on.
Elliot: Do what you love. That’s the trick that works best on social media. On my page I combine two passions of mine: graphic design and comedy. I add a bit of fun to my Instagram posts and stories, and joke around with my audience on Twitch streams. Comedy helped me on my way to success and gave me great inspiration for my posts. As long as you can find something you love and combine it with graphic design, you’ll be great at creating unique works that people will look for.
Lean into Reels
Katrina: Keep in mind that Instagram is no longer an image-sharing platform, but a video-centered one. That transition can be really scary, especially for a graphic designer, because you’re making a lot of still images. But you can always lean into reels and try the video tricks Instagram suggests. People really appreciate behind-the-scenes and process videos, and just want to get onto new things. Some of my followers share that they’ve learned so much just by watching my fast time-lapse processes. So just film yourself embracing the process and make how-to posts to get big reach. And don’t forget to pick a trendy sound, keep the video fast-paced, and stick to an engaging length of time.
Post on schedule
Elliot: Every social network is a business. And there’s an algorithm, which serves the business’s purposes. If you want the algorithm on your side, you have to keep people on Instagram as long as possible: make them spend more time looking at your work, reading your captions, and saving your content. The algorithm is constantly changing because it’s learning from things, so you have to teach it what your content is, when you post it, and when your audience wants to see it. Make sure that you’re creating some sort of schedule for posting and try to stick to it. But in any case, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. If you miss a day or two, nothing will happen. But keeping up with the schedule can be easier by using Facebook Creator Studio or another app to plan posts.
Pick popular references
Katrina: Know your target audience and act within it. My audience is pretty young, so I lean into standard pop culture references that I personally love and that my audience might also like. People also resonate with fun things that are a little bit out of the norm, so try to work on whatever funny little things pop into your head.
Mind the attention span
Katrina: Posting on social media can be tricky. One time I created a video on making a book cover. I put a lot of effort into it and even learned After Effects to animate text messages popping in, but it pretty much flopped. I think the beginning wasn’t catchy enough, so people weren’t interested and just scrolled right past it. Now I feel like the key to capturing an audience is to acknowledge that our attention spans are really short. There’s no room for creating intricate beginnings, you just have to get right into it.
Treat hashtags wisely
Elliot: While hashtags are considered one of Instagram’s promotion instruments, I believe they don’t really matter. But if you’re into using hashtags, be sure to make them different, otherwise Instagram will think you’re spamming. Try not to experiment much, just know that consistency will pay off. If you’re just starting out, a great option is to borrow hashtags from a popular account that gets a lot of engagement. But with that comes a weird rule of thumb: the bigger your account gets, the fewer hashtags you should use. I stopped using hashtags entirely and found that I was having better results without them.
Make something recreatable
Katrina: Making projects that other people want to recreate or take inspiration from is great for engagement. I recently made a small magazine filled with pictures and typography for my friends as a post-graduation gift. I posted a very quick video showcasing a bunch of pages and got a lot of requests to make a tutorial on it. The magazine resonated with people because it was something they could recreate for their friends and family.
It’s also great to make tangible versions of your designs. Some time ago I realized that I’m a graphic designer who has no art on my walls, so I came up with my ‘Calm’ poster. I had no idea that one was going to blow up the way it did. People really enjoyed watching the process video and the result of me rolling out a tangible copy. A lot of them ended up recreating their own versions of the poster, which was really inspiring.
Gain reach with TikTok
Elliot: If you want quick growth, start a page on TikTok, because it will promote your work more than Instagram. Going viral on Instagram is a matter of chance. A lucky post is the one that just stands out and gets shared a million times. But TikTok works differently and can make anyone go viral. Also, you can give Instagram videos a go with TikTok. Turn any of your content into a video, put it on TikTok, then convert it back to Instagram. The reach will be bigger.
Regard your audience as clients
Elliot: On social media you have to convince people that you’re worth following and your work is great. So make sure you’re presenting your work to the audience as you would to a client — as something big and awesome. If you post with that kind of confidence and have fun while creating, people will feel it and enjoy your content.
Show the real you
Elliot: It’s crucial to be human on a very robotic platform. People don’t want to simply follow the design. They want to follow you as the graphic designer — that’s the whole point of Instagram. So don’t fall into the trap of being just another brand or a portfolio page. Check your face on your profile picture and chuck photos of you in a carousel, alternating between graphic design and real-life content. Being present is such a big thing.
Katrina: Be authentic and speak about your beliefs and passions. Eventually, you’ll be able to reach an audience that’s passionate about the same stuff. At the end of the day, it’s easier to resonate with someone who talks about their feelings and shows their face than with someone who’s entirely professional. Also, it’s easier to find clients and form relationships with them when they have a better idea of who you are and what you believe in. I’ve attracted great clients that I really enjoyed working with this way. Recently I made a posterfor Refinery 29 in support of abortion rights. It’s always nice to be able to speak up about what you believe in, and sometimes it leads you to other people with like-minded values who want to work with you.