10 Questions People Always Seem To Have About Freelancing
Since writing a post recently about how we as creatives (designers, songwriters, photographers, and the like) shouldn't be so stingy about sharing knowledge and tips with others, or asking for advice should we find ourselves on the other side of the fence, I have (unsurprisingly) been receiving a lot of emails asking for guidance.
Mainly, these questions are coming from young graphic designers who, funny enough, are far more qualified to speak knowledgeably about design than myself. I'm first and foremost a singer/songwriter. It's only by complete accident that I even became a "professional graphic designer" at all. However, being thrust into the world of business ownership, both in music and design, has taught me a lot, and what kind of woman would I be if I didn't practice what I preach? So, I figured that I would share a few of the answers to the questions that I've been asked most often lately about my accidental foray into the world of freelance graphic design. Here goes.
1. Why/When did you decide to go into freelance graphic design?
I didn't decide to, really. I was a music and music business major at Belmont, and I needed to get a internship. There was one company at the internship fair that was searching for a Marketing intern and a Graphic Design intern. I knew nothing about graphic design, but had always been interested, and all of the other internships sounded truly, utterly boring. So, when I interviewed for the Marketing position, which I was actually qualified for, I handed my interviewer a stack of my sketch books and told her that I was interested in learning design, if their designer was interested in teaching. For whatever reason, she agreed, and I stayed there for two semesters learning under their lead designer. I essentially got my start in design because the idea of updating artist's tour calendars and Twitter pages sounded like a nightmare.
What I learned there got me my first job at a music management company (doing what, you ask? Updating artist's tour calendars and Twitter pages.) Eventually, when the company learned that I had some design experience, they began asking me to do some work for them and that's how I (reluctantly -- I didn't think I was at all qualified to be doing professional design work) began building a portfolio. By the time the music industry began faltering and I was laid off from that job, I had a strong enough foothold in the design world and with my music career to semi-comfortably move into freelance, although I was terrified. But I didn't really have another choice, so I nannied a few days a week for a couple of years while I built my businesses, and eventually was able to go all-in. I've been 100% freelance since 2011. And that's my story.
2. Were there ever any doubts about your career choice?
Absolutely, about both of my careers. Both of them are in the arts, and are terribly risky. It's not like I was a songwriter with a law degree to fall back on or something. So I just knew that I had to make it work. Waiting tables or answering phones was never right for me. It would have just kept me comfortable and sucked my time away from what I really wanted to be doing. So, it just wasn't an option to have a fall back plan. I had no choice, really, but to succeed.
3. What is the run-down of a typical day for you?
There is no one typical kind of day for me. Sometimes I'm in the recording studio or songwriting, other days I'm focusing on design. Since I'm my own boss, I make my own schedule, which is both great and really, really bad. On a good day, I get up around 8:30, have a slow morning (coffee, breakfast, reading, getting ready) and make it into the office (I rent a desk at a co-working space near my home) around 10 or 11, sometimes not until lunchtime. I value my downtime in the morning and do my best work in the afternoon/evening, so I don't punish myself for this; it's just what works for me. I usually work until 6 or 7, then I head home, make dinner, watch Hulu, or go out. Some days, I decide not to bother going into the office at all and work from home. It's good to have that choice every once in a while, but I still struggle with forcing myself to go to the office. I work more efficiently there and get a lot more done, but sometimes it's just too tempting to stay in my pajamas all day.
4. How do you get inspiration/stay inspired?
I consume a lot of art. I listen to music constantly. I read a bunch of books. I follow blogs and a lot of really inspirational creatives on Instagram, which I know sounds counter-productive, but I've actually found it's an incredibly ingenious way of creating community and getting in touch with people that inspire you. I've met more people through Instagram than I can even count. I've made a lot of friends by simply commenting on someone's photo and saying, "You are freaking awesome. I think we should be friends. Coffee and chat about ______?" And nine times out of ten, they say yes. I just this weekend went on a creative retreat to the woods with a community of girls I met through Instagram!
5. How do you market yourself to people and expand your connections/reach?
I don't do what you would traditionally call "marketing." I've never paid for an ad. I did intern once at a startup technology company in the Silicon Valley doing what's called Search Engine Optimization (S.E.O.) That basically means promoting yourself and your website by employing clever tactics to push yourself up in Google search results. The more your link is posted on the internet, talked about, viewed, etc., the higher that link moves up on the page when you search for it, or something similar to it, on a search engine. The skills I learned there translated into making me pretty damn handy at social media and online P.R., hence that first job at the music management company. So, I used those social media and S.E.O. skills to promote my own websites and expand my reach.
Being a musician, I also happen to know a lot of other musicians in town, so I became known in the music community here as one of the only designers in town who completely gets what it's like to be on the other side of the fence. I know how Tunecore works, I know how copyright law works, and I know how to physically represent the sound of a band in their artwork. It was a significant leg up for my design work, and I think that's one of the reasons why my business grew so fast in the beginning.
6. How much time do you spend in front of the computer?
I spend a lot of time in front of the computer, even for music. But luckily, a lot of the design work that I do is hand-lettering, illustration, etc., so it gives me a chance to step away and do something with my hands. When I'm in front of the computer, I get really "in the zone" and have been known to sit here and tinker away all day, sometimes skipping lunch. Not a great idea, so I try and take "brain breaks" when I can -- get outside, read a chapter in whatever book I'm working on, or work on a personal project. I have to be careful that my brain breaks don't turn into distractions, though, since I'm prone to procrastination. It helps to schedule them in my calendar when I really need to get sh*t done.
7. Did you learn most of your business knowledge on the job?
Yes, but my parents were also small business owners from the time that I was a young kid. They kicked me out of my childhood bedroom and made me share bunk beds with my little brother so that they could have their first home office. Now, they're expecting to do several million dollars in sales this year. Through osmosis, really, I learned how to take a business from nothing to something. I think the most valuable lesson I learned from my parents was how to sound and look like you know exactly what you're talking about when you don't feel like you do at all. My mom had a "work voice" and a "home voice." Her at-home persona was super-funny, laid back, and boisterous. Her at-work persona was a type-A, hell in heels Girlboss who knew how to slay a boardroom and charm the pants off her clients. I learned how to present myself (and subsequently my business) as professional, well-branded, and trustworthy before I was, in actuality, any of those things. Fake it 'til you make it, I guess, because eventually I got so good at faking it that one day I actually was all of those things.
8. Do you ever get clients that are difficult to work with?
Unfortunately, I have, but they're few and far between. I've had a client or two with tastes very different than my own. Whatever I delivered to them, they asked for changes that were completely out of balance with my design esthetic. I pushed a bit (gently), but they weren't having it. I considered firing them as a client, which I should probably have done, truthfully. At the end of the day, I didn't have the balls. So, I delivered what they wanted, didn't put the finished product on my portfolio, and never accepted another offer of work from them again. I know it sounds a little harsh, but if you don't like what you're working on, eventually you're going to hate your job as a designer rather than just hating that every-once-in-a-while shitty project. Eventually, you'll learn how to suss out the projects and clients that you'll work best with and say "no" to those that just aren't a good fit.
9. What have you learned from your mistakes or past experiences as a graphic designer?
I learned how to say "no" to projects that don't interest me. Of course, I had to say "yes" a lot in the beginning to make ends meet, but accepting projects that don't interest you or that your style doesn't mesh with isn't good for you or the client. I also learned never to undervalue my work. It's not only harmful to you as a designer but the design business as a whole. Never tell someone that you'll design their logo for $100. Then, you're still broke after a month of work and there's one more schlep out there who thinks that he should be able to get his entire business branded and logo'ed for $100. That's not good for anyone.
10. What would be your advice to someone just entering the career side of the graphic design world?
Buckle down, girl! Arm yourself with the right tools. Read a shit ton of self-help books and blogs. Learn everything you can. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I'm still learning things about running a business on a daily basis, and finding new ways to refuel my creative energy. Learn to accept this truth sooner than later; you'll never be totally ready to take the leap. And once you do, you'll probably never get to the point where your business and personal life are just peachy-keen and you're slaying dragons left and right. But that's a good thing! It keeps you growing. The desire to improve is what will keep you loving your work. If you have that, the rest will fall into place.