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Conversations with Allison Burns

Today we’d like to introduce you to Allison Burns.

Hi Allison, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
Growing up, you’d often find me hand lettering quotes for my bedroom wall, making collages with cutouts from magazines, and being a page editor and designer for my high school newspaper. Although I didn’t consider myself artistic at the time, I was. I loved being creative.

I was also a good writer, or so I was told, so I started college at the U of MN Twin Cities as a journalism major. I quickly realized that journalism wasn’t for me and something just dawned on me that graphic design would be a great fit for my strengths. The idea of studying design ignited something in my creative childhood self. It just clicked. So, I applied and got accepted into the College of Design at the U of MN and went after a dual degree, knowing it would take forever and a day to get through my undergrad. But it just felt right.

After getting through my senior year of design school and graduating in 2012 with a BA in graphic design and a BFA in journalism (WHEW!), I found myself a bit burnt out and questioning whether I was cut out for the graphic design world. I enjoyed it, but the traditional agency path that was presented to us (kind of in tunnel vision) in school never really spoke to me. I was feeling a lack of confidence because of that and because I hadn’t quite found my design aesthetic like so many of my classmates had.

I decided to combine my design and writing skills, and seek out positions in the marketing communications realm. Right out of school, I held a short-term contract position and enjoyed it but learned pretty quickly that the corporate environment wasn’t for me. From there, I went the completely opposite direction and worked at a non-profit arts organization for a couple of years. It was in this administrative and communications role where I gained my confidence as a designer and where I truly learned the important role design plays in successfully marketing a business or organization. While wearing so many hats (as you often do working at a non-profit), I got to really take ownership of projects and I learned so much about project management and experienced seeing a project through from ideation to holding it in your hand or seeing it published online.

During this time (sometime in 2012), I was also introduced to some local mom-and-pop type businesses in the same community this non-profit is in and started doing some freelance design projects for them on the side. It started with a local co-op grocery store needing a simple newspaper ad design (I think I charged them $50!) and a larger local organization that needed on-going design and communications support. These projects led to referral after referral, and I started gaining fairly consistent income through my freelancing.

I started realizing how much I loved building relationships with clients and being able to use my talents to help them feel more confident marketing their businesses. I also loved the idea of having control over my schedule, as well as the time freedom and flexibility it would provide me (both in that season of life and in the future when I had a family). I come from a family of entrepreneurs and although I’d never previously even considered starting a business, I did know who to turn to when I started entertaining this idea! After talking with my mom (who is a long-time business owner) at length, I decided to take steps toward this goal.

I left my non-profit job and transitioned into working for my mom, who happened to need some extra help on her team. As I grew my client base, I was able to adjust my hours working at her bookkeeping firm over the course of a couple of years. I went from working for her four days a week to three days, to two days, and then officially went out on my own and started running my business full time in 2015. I haven’t looked back!

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Oh, definitely not! It’s been 10 years since I started my business and I still experience struggles… I don’t think that’ll ever go away completely. As your business grows and evolves (and as YOU grow and evolve), you’ll have growing pains and new roadblocks will come up that you’ll need to overcome.

Setting good boundaries with myself and my clients was something that I used to really struggle with. I’m a (recovering) people pleaser and perfectionist by nature (quite the combo) and it’s led to a bit of burnout, a lot of anxiety, and overall frustration. When I became a mom, it really forced me to put firmer boundaries in place to make sure my day-to-day life looked the way I wanted it to (working 20-25 hours a week and spending the rest with my daughter) and not feeling like I had to be “on” all the time in my business.

Big picture, what’s been most helpful is starting to show up differently in my business… specifically putting more structure in place, streamlining my schedule, and simplifying my offerings, so I can give my clients the best possible experience while also being present for my family in the way I want to. It’s never ever perfect and it often still feels like a juggle. But by doing less and working less hours, I’ve actually experienced MORE business growth and happiness. I’m really proud of that.

Of course, there have been many other struggles along the way. A lot of them are mindset related. Imposter syndrome. Comparison. Getting stuck in the “shoulds” around how I market my business. These still come up from time to time! But what I continue to come back to is 1) Embracing slow growth and “playing the long game” in most things that I do, and 2.) Always betting on myself and seeking an abundance mindset. And as time goes on and as I’ve gained more experience and learned more about myself, it’s gotten easier to get from Point A (struggle) to Point B (solution). Or at least I’ve learned how to move through that process quicker!

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I’m a branding and graphic designer. I love collaborating with passionate mission-led small businesses to craft thoughtfully designed visual identities that speak to their values, connects with their audience, and truly feels like them.

I have a very holistic approach to branding. As part of my Signature Branding Experience, all collaborations start with brand foundational work, to ensure I have an in-depth understanding of my client’s business and can create from a place of alignment and strategy. My goal is for my clients to walk away with not just a logo, but a defined visual aesthetic and complete brand library and style guide (think logo variations, submarks, patterns and textures, font system, etc.) that gives them both the versatility and cohesiveness they need to have a consistent and professional presence across all marketing platforms.

After professionally designing for a decade, I feel that I’ve truly found my purpose not only in creating clean, beautiful brand designs that effortlessly fit my clients, but also in supporting them as they implement their brand across their marketing and all customer touch points. I always say, “It’s one thing to have a beautiful brand. It’s another to know how to use it well.” I love to help my clients with on-going graphic design needs (from print design to digital marketing pieces), as well as educate them on how to easily and effectively use the library of branding elements we created together on their own.

In addition to working one-on-one with clients, I’m the creator of Design Spirit, a self-paced graphic design course that teaches the design fundamentals and how to confidently create more polished and strategic marketing visuals that attract your audience.

I also recently launched my new Designer Mentorship Program for designers who are in the early years of their freelance or small business journey and looking for mentorship to help them navigate all that comes with working with clients and running a smooth and profitable business. It has been an absolute joy to support my mentees in this way and I’m very excited about what the future holds for the program!

How do you think about happiness?
Being able to wake up every day and do what I love. Knowing that I’ve structured my business in a way that allows me serve my clients, students, and mentees well while also having the flexibility to be at home with and present for my young daughter. I get to be both a business owner AND a present mom, and I get to do it in a way that aligns with the lifestyle I crave and helps support my family financially. I truly feel like I’m living my dream!

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Image Credits

Kristi Clinton (Images by Kris)

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