Can you specialise in Australia?

Having the time and the budget to build your expertise in just one service would be great. Building a foundation of knowledge and experience is really fulfilling. It not only gives you an onlyness, it sets you apart from your competitors and gives you a reason to charge the big bucks.

That’s why advice from the US and the UK often promotes specialisation … deep knowledge is good for creativity and good for the client.

Question is, can it work in Australia?


Let’s start the discussion with a quote from Blair Enns:

The goal of specialisation is to reduce or eliminate competition. There are three main benefits: a sales advantage (your win rate goes up), the ability to support a price premium (you charge more) and increased power in the client relationship (the client listens to you and lets you lead).

All good solid points.

We would add…

Understanding a client’s business makes it easier to introduce design across all activities of the organisation, not just marketing and comms .

A thorough understanding of your client’s business means you can suggest design solutions in areas like:

  • inward and outward goods: design can streamline systems and processes. It can support and promote safety regulations and add value to training.
  • human resources: design can improve communication between management and staff. Design can simplify complex systems and/or processes to onboard, train and exit staff.
  • operations: design can visualise and track workflow and warehouse ops.
  • customer service: design thinking tools can help analyse big data to improve the customer experience.
  • research and development: design can be the conduit between research, discovery and product/service development.
  • technology. Design and design thinking is imperative in the development of apps/intranet/website.

The ability to infiltrate your services and expertise into every level of an organisation makes you a valuable supplier, and that makes it less likely for a client to even consider a competitor design firm. It doesn’t matter what criteria a client uses, your expertise should make you the perfect candidate.

The elephant in the room

Population. Australia’s population can make specialisation a precarious path. The good news it is possible to specialise without putting all your eggs in one basket.

Instead of thinking of specialising in a service, think of specialising in client sectors. It’s very possible, and economically viable, to build expertise across a few client sectors. We call them pillars and suggest building expertise across three or four pillars.

My case study of specialisation

Over the years, I focussed my interest and my skills on using design to help the vulnerable in our society better access goods and services.

One of my pillars of expertise was justice, which included working with these clients:

  • the Victorian Police
  • Alternative Dispute Resolution groups like Ombudsman schemes and the Victorian Civil and Administration Tribunal
  • the Victorian court system: I worked with the Magistrates, Country and Supreme Courts

Another pillar included services aimed at people facing financial hardship. Clients included:

  • Community Information and Support Victoria
  • the Financial, Credit Card and Insurance Ombudsman schemes

One pillar was built around those working in the environment space:

  • the Environmental Protection Agency
  • SKM (now Jacobs) – a global engineering/logistics firm working towards carbon neutral

And the final pillar was health including clients such as:

  • the Department of Health and Human Services (or whatever name they deemed relevant at that time)
  • Ambulance Victoria

It meant my studio still enjoyed variety across sectors, but within the sectors I could deep dive into the clients and their business. The added benefit was, in the areas I chose, many   clients had not before worked with a designer so they were happy for me to be proactive and lead initiatives.


Yes, specialisation is possible in Australia, even in our smaller, less populated states, because a depth of knowledge is transferable across state borders.

Use ‘pillars’ as a lens to view prospective clients and start a conversation. I’ve found transferring knowledge from one pillar to another is a perfect way to introduce myself and my expertise to a prospective client. It avoided the conversation about working for competitors, and demonstrated my ability to think outside their industry.

What do you think? Got any problems/questions? As always, happy to discuss further, just email.

Carol Mackay

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These articles also talk about clients and specialisation:

  1. First rule: don’t put your energy into ‘bad’ clients
  2. What clients want from designers
  3. Getting design into the c-suite

About Carol Mackay

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement paid gigs with research, mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of my previous career is at
My current work can be viewed at and

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