Becoming a freelance creative: 24 things I've learnt in 24 months
24 months ago* I made the decision to quit my stable design job of nine years and venture into the wonderful world of self-emplyment. I had very few clients and I wasn't sure if I could make it work, but thankfully I am still here and I have learnt lots of things along the way (24, to be precise). Without further ado I will share with you my insight into working as a freelance creative.
*that's two years to you normal people who haven't learnt to record time in ridiculously needless amounts of months thanks to having babies. Besides, 24 things I've learnt in 2 years doesn't quite have the same ring to it.
1. People will always ask for things for free
I still get the same amount of people asking me to do free work as when I left uni. It doesn't seem to matter how much experience you have or how much you improve, it doesn't matter how many brand names you have under your belt or how many times you share Mr Bingo's do I work for free print on twitter, you will always get asked to work for exposure or good will. Sometimes It even doesn't matter how big the company is that approaches you - some big companies think their 'exposure' is worth more than paying your bills.
2. Posca pens write on everything
EVEN KRYPTONITE! (though below is just your average canvas trainer!)
3. I feel more myself
As soon as I decided to go freelance it was like this explosion of passion and ideas. It was like I finally had permission to create what I wanted, to contact who I wanted and to write honestly and openly without representing anybody else. Of course I know there Is a danger that comes with this too - having good role models and mentors are important - but for me going freelance has been like a sigh of relief. My work has been well received and I’m earning a living – proof that I wasn't completely bonkers to go it alone.
4. I miss teamwork
I love having the freedom that comes with working for myself but I sometimes miss working with a shared vision or having a bit of healthy competition/banter with others. I've found that although I much prefer working on my own, I sometimes crave a bit of collaboration.
5. No one has a clue what they're doing
Ok, so the most successful people I know are very knowledgable in their area of expertise, they are confident and skilful – but they also have doubts, change their minds and have areas where they still feel they are absolutely winging it. I guess this has been more of a revelation to me since going freelance because I've connected with more people this past 24 months than I think I ever have in my whole life. It's been a sigh of relief to meet people I put on a pedestal tell me they also face self-doubt and want to put their sketchbook through the shredder. Phew.
6. Ive found some really great food hacks
When you have crazy deadlines you have to be resourceful. The other day I ate a caramel chocolate digestive and a banana at the same time and it was a bit like eating banoffee pie. You're welcome.
7. How a client contacts you in the first instance may indicate what they're like to work with
Did they copy and paste your name into a blanket email? Did they ask you for a quote on Twitter? Did they call you at 7pm on a Friday night? Yeh, more of that.
8. Working as a designer AND an illustrator can be confusing
Illustration is all about having a unique and recognisable style - that's the reason people contact you because they know roughly what the outcome will be and they love the originality of it. The most successful illustrators have a unique body of work that is instantly recognisable. Design, on the other hand, is about versatility - changing style in order to fulfill a brief more effectively and doing so in different ways. I work across both which provides challenges - do I want to be versatile problem solver or do I want to have a niche that gives me a better chance of my work standing out? (I still haven't figured this out!). I also love photography, collage and other methods of working and I sometimes feel I have to be selective when putting work out there.
9. I need to be a better businesswoman than I am creative
I know, I know, it’s so obvious. Aside from creative work there are plenty of other important things such as marketing, admin and other not-so-exciting stuff. Accepting that I need to be a ‘business woman’ (ugh) has not come easily but once the penny dropped it made me re-assess how I work. I have to think practically about where my work fits in and why someone might commission me which may mean making sacrifices to a part of my work I really like (which is tough when the artist in me is saying 'just create, darling, set yourself free!’). I can use personal projects to go a little crazy but I have to treat my career as something that is not a hobby.
10. People still don't understand digital
Some people think I click a button and a beautiful drawing comes out of my arse.
11. I sometimes wish I had a pseudonym
There are pros and cons to using your own name but whatever you decide upon sticks once your work gets 'out there' and it's a bit difficult to change. Essentially I am my own company and I have nothing to hide behind - it kind of feels too personal sometimes when people are rude directly to me or about my work. For some potential clients the attraction of working with an independent designer is that I may be cheaper than a company offering the same service or that I can be easily swayed to work for less money. People have also made all sorts of assumptions about me based on my name and my profile picture which hasn’t always added up which has made me wonder if having a pseudonym gives you more respect. On the plus side when you see your own name on published work that is very rewarding.
12. Talk about money early
It saves wasting time on time wasters.
13. There's a north/south divide
I love living in the north and I also love London but I can sometimes tell how a job will pan out based on the client’s postcode. On the whole the Art Directors from London-based agencies, for example, usually send me a contract detailing usage rights, deadlines and so on, northern agencies would far sooner shake hands over a pint (There are pros and cons to both, believe me). I can quote a really similar job for similar companies for the same price and one will be put off that my quote seems low and the other that it seems too expensive. I do however have some great working relationships in both the north and south (though I do demand Yorkshire tea in meetings and have to be within a two mile radius of a Pukka Pie 😉).
14. People aren't 'nice' sometimes
I know, I'm SO naive to think people can be nice to one another, but business is business and people do not always see you as a person but a commodity to be bargained with. In all honestly I think it's pretty impressive that there are people so ballsy in the world, it challenges me to rise above it and kick some ass, but the truth is you can often find me wincing behind my Mac (or stuffing my face with chocolate caramel digestives and bananas). I'm usually pretty good at seeing past excessive praise or grand promises but it still doesn't soften the blow of not being paid or having your work exploited.
15. I am not as good as I thought I was
When you start promoting your own work you are overwhelmed by just how amazing the standard of work is out there. You really are a little fish in a big pond.
16. I am better than I thought I was
On the flip side, my work has been really well received, I’ve have some great clients who speak highly of me, I've achieved things I thought I couldn't, my work has gone viral on a number of occasions and I have lots more ideas in the pipeline. I look back over the last two years' of work and feel incredibly proud.
17. I never switch off
I'm writing this at 00:38 on a Saturday night. FML.
18. Communication is more important than drawing skills
Clients want to know they are heard - they appreciate their emails being acknowledged and being kept in the loop of job progress. The number one reason people say they come back to me is based on the fact I try to make sure the job runs as smoothly as possible. The second reason is that my illustrations are amazeballs (obvs 😉).
19. My dad still has no idea how I make a living
He sees my work and says 'and you got paid for that then?!'
20. I have no regular income
Some months I earn thousands and others enough to buy a jar of coffee. I have to keep reserves. Being careful with money is incredibly important - that’s not to say I never make financial risks but on the whole I have learnt to be measured. I also make it a precedent not to have 'cash flow' problems when ordering from suppliers. If I can't afford it I can't afford it (no one likes a shoddy payer, least of all me).
21. Trust is really important
Having a client you trust is like gold dust. Being trusted by a client is like Posca embellished Kryptonite. That doesn't mean you always see eye to eye, but you respect one other enough to listen and make sure that the best outcome is achieved.
22. Studio time is non-negotiable
This has been really tough to implement. If I don't have set working hours then it's incredibly hard to focus and not get distracted. It's perfectly acceptable to say 'I'm sorry, I can't be at such-and-such event, I'm working.' yet people struggle to accept this when I am in charge of my working hours.
23. Illustrators are the most helpful people I know
Seriously, I don't know one illustrator who isn't helpful.
24. Success is 25% talent, 25% graft 25% confidence and 25% luck
Talent is not the be all and end all, in fact it's only valuable if it's used in conjunction with hard work, self belief and a bit of luck. I am continually pushing doors which can be absolutely exhausting and often demoralising but sometimes you just happen to contact someone at just the right time they need you. When you do contact them they want to know they are in safe hands - that you can confidently deliver. I know of some amazingly talented people who never put themselves forward for anything, or they have been overcome by rejection which is a real shame. I figure that the world needs to see this stuff - your work (YOURS, YES YOU), so keep plugging away because the more you plug away the more chances you’ll give yourself of being lucky (aka. being in the right place at the right time). A little note on this, though, there are people who are incredibly talented and just don’t have the same opportunities in life. We have a choice to give others a leg up where we can, even if that’s just putting them in touch with someone else or giving a word of encouragement.
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