The solid, intersecting lines of a grid are foundational tools of graphic design. Designers use grids as a guide to create visual flow and rhythmic space. Grids keep their projects consistent, balanced, and harmonized.
And the best designers know when it’s time to break out of that framework.
That’s the concept behind Alex Banman’s Toronto-based business, Line and Grid, which represents the intersection of bold, classic design principles with making a strong impression in connecting to an audience.
“The purpose of my business is to multiply the value of my clients’ marketing efforts through brand design,” Banman says. “I usually work with smaller-sized businesses, directly with the owner.”
In launching his business just over two years ago, Banman broke out of his own personal grid by pivoting from a promising young career as a talented branding designer to making it as a business owner.
“I’ve always felt that I wanted to run my own business,” Banman says. “The pressure was building for years; I had waited a long time for the right moment. I felt that I wasn’t going to start unless I just started at some point.”
So he took the leap and created his own one-man branding agency, building up an impressive portfolio of clients in industries from real estate to duct cleaning, designing logos and branding websites, fliers, even trucks.
In the process, he’s embarked on a crash course in marketing — both for his own business and his clients — and has found DreamHost, his trusty web host, to be a surprising key partner in his success along the way.
Breaking the Grid
A native of British Columbia, Canada, Banman made his way to Toronto after studying design in college. As a large city center, Toronto was a great place to jumpstart a career in graphic design.
“I was always interested in starting my own business,” Banman says. “But I spent about seven years working in the industry before [making the leap].”
Trained in design for print, Banman taught himself some coding skills and worked several jobs in digital branding before being hired by a real estate agent. “I built his brand from the ground up; I did his print materials — promotional booklets, mailers, and business cards — and also published his websites and digital ads.”
Working for others gave him some practical experience in moving beyond the principles of graphic design to seeing for himself how these principles actually help business owners connect with clients and reach their goals, providing context for his skills in creating a visually-stunning graphic.
“It helped me see how my work fits into the bigger marketing machine,” Banman says.
Even through this success, Banman felt the pressure building to act on his dream to break out on his own. Partway through 2017, he started making plans — wrapped up projects with his employer, rented a coworking space, and in February 2018 finally took the leap.
“I was really excited to be doing what I wanted to do,” Banman says. “I was nervous in some ways, but I was also quite confident because I had done reasonably well as an employee. It was definitely a mix of emotions. I wasn’t sure what would happen. There were so many challenges — every single day during the first year and a half of my business. It felt like I was learning something new every day.”
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Selling the Skillset
By his own admission, Banman was idealistic, even cocky, when Line and Grid was newly minted. But as he got down to business, he soon enough got a taste of the real-world challenges of going solo in the marketing industry.
Fortunately, Banman was able to keep his real estate employer as a client but found that garnering new ones didn’t come easily. He had hoped to get some leads through networking in his coworking office space, but that wasn’t working out. Part of that, he says, was because his business’s services are so intangible — and the other part was how much he had to learn about selling himself.
“I realized how niche my skillset is,” Banman says. His work for others had been part of a bigger marketing strategy, allowing him to focus on just one part of that strategy: branding design. As a business owner himself, Banman realized that while he could create an effective logo and crisp website design, he had a lot to learn if he wanted to actually get eyes on that branding.
“If you aren’t getting your designs and your messaging in front of people, it doesn’t matter how good it is,” Banman says. “I had to broaden my understanding of marketing and the role my specific services play for a business. So that was a big lesson. And still, I’m still getting a handle on that and learning about the technical side of marketing every day.”
Banman discovered that an essential piece to selling himself — and keeping clients — was crystal clear communication.
“In the past, I’ve been a bit of a rock star designer — I was confident that I was bringing something super valuable to the table,” Banman says. “Since I’ve become the business owner, the way my clients feel on a day-to-day basis in communicating with me is hugely important.”
The clients Banman works so hard to land could drop him at any time — a fact he’s all too aware of in every interaction.
“I’m younger, I’m new at this, and what I sell is intangible,” he says. “People are very careful and wary. The quality of my communication with clients has been extremely important. I’m careful about being clear — so they understand exactly what’s happening each step of the way — and making the experience positive and enjoyable.”
The Power of Branding
While Banman helps his clients with some aspects of marketing, his primary work and passion is branding. Branding is anything that defines a business’s ethos, connects with its customers, and makes it stand out among the clutter of competition. This includes logo design, along with any visual messaging across print and digital mediums.
“Branding is so powerful because it multiplies the success of a businesses’ marketing efforts,” Banman says. “It helps people remember the business. It generates buzz in the marketplace. It solidifies the business as a market leader, when the message is communicated clearly. Clienteles trust branded businesses more than unbranded businesses.”
Banman has seen again and again how effective branding can be at turning around a business. One client, in particular, stands out — a small duct cleaning company in Vancouver.
“The project actually failed at first,” Banman says. “I did quality work and what we agreed upon. I made some website changes at a set price, and I did some design work. But I also promised more clients and web traffic. And a month later, we weren’t seeing the results.”
So he headed back to the drawing board.
“We did some research in the marketplace, and I made suggestions based on that and came up with some new strategies,” Banam says. “The short term, we had positive traction. And he was happy; he was selling more.”
The long-term results were even more telling. At the end of the year, the client discovered he made 150% of what he had made the year before and attributed the success to Banman’s work.
“He was able to pay off all his debts,” Banman says. “He’d been in debt for years, ever since he started the business himself. He was able to completely get out of debt and was super busy. That was definitely the project I’m most proud of since I started my business.”
Banman’s work is all about the design. There’s nothing like pulling up an empty doc on Adobe Illustrator and getting lost in the flow of making art, watching a design take shape. It feels great, he says, to create something and send it out into the world.
“My inspiration comes from my client’s goals and their company ethos,” he says. “It’s inspiring to see how passionate the business owners are about delivering a certain quality of service or product and how much they care, and what they do to deliver a quality product or service. And then also their goals and what they want to achieve and what they want to reach with their business for themselves and for their families and for their communities.”
Joining the DreamHost Fan Club
Imagine you’re at a restaurant, and you’ve just asked the waiter for a glass of water. Four hours later, he shows up, exasperated, and says, “That will just be a few more minutes.”
Banman felt like that waiter when he confidently told his client it would be no problem to migrate a domain — not through DreamHost — for him. Hours later, passed around from support person to support person, Banman came up short on his promise.
“It was just making me feel like I look super incompetent,” Banman remembers. “I thought it would take me a few minutes to migrate the domain, and it ended up taking hours. I don’t price by the hour; I give a quote upfront so there’s no unexpected costs. Fortunately, this client understood and asked me to bill him extra. If he hadn’t, I would have lost out on revenue there.”
The experience shocked him — a longtime DreamHost customer, he was accustomed to a simpler way of doing customer service.
“So with DreamHost, it’s just completely painless, every single time,” he says. “The service is reliable. The user interface is intuitive. And it’s affordable. It just works really well for a business owner like me.”
Banman doesn’t remember exactly why he chose DreamHost in the first place, though he does say that the name and design — the branding — spoke to him. It didn’t take long for his web host to grow on him.
“I’m just absolutely a huge fan of DreamHost — maybe a little more than the average person for a hosting company,” he says. “Getting things done is easy. The packages are affordable and economical for small businesses like me and the ones that I serve. But the main thing that I think is just so important is the customer service is absolutely incredible. Hands down, I can’t think of any better customer service.”
Banman always works with his clients using their system of choice, but when clients are looking for suggestions or building a website from the ground up, he recommends DreamHost. He’s proud of how his own website can act as a portfolio for him, showcasing his design skills and his own brand ethos.
“As a graphic designer, you have to have a great website,” he says. “I like the bold, modern look of my site. It’s about communicating boldly with a clean-cut, cold, sharp aesthetic. The work is front and center. I want clients to be able to see exactly the level of quality of what we’ve done in the past and therefore, what we can do for them.”
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Branding and Rebranding
Like many small business owners, Banman is focused on growth, especially since Line and Grid is in its infancy. As part of that growth, he’s planning to rebrand a bit himself, improving his business to better meet his clients’ needs and attract new ones in the future.
“My next biggest goal is to just market my agency a little more aggressively,” he says. “I’ve come to the point where clients have a positive experience with me; I’m streamlining the process more; I’m improving my skills all the time. And it’s time for me to get a better handle on the technical sides of marketing in order to reach more clients.”
While some new business owners might look forward to hiring employees and delegating some of their work, Banman’s vision is slightly different. “Rather than maintaining a price point and servicing more clients over time with a larger team, I intend to improve the service more and more and serve higher-paying clients as time goes on.”
For now, there are more design grid guidelines to follow (and still more to break) as Banman builds his business, outlining his own future.