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Being an independent designer

April 27, 2017


It was in 2004 when I first gave serious thought to self-employment. I was part of a team in a small cancer charity, and after work one day I picked up a hefty ankle injury playing football. Unable to walk for a couple of weeks meant some time away from the office, but it was still easy enough to get my work done from home. Back on my feet, back in the office, I couldn’t shake the thought of setting up on my own, and within the year I’d given my notice.

In hindsight, I really had very little idea of what I was getting into. And judging by my experience of formal education and the students I talk to, I think that’s fairly common among designers of a similar level. So if you’re thinking of making that same move, here are a few of the pros and cons from my time as an independent designer.

Mossant hat posterBy Leonetto Cappiello, for Mossant, 1938.

You get to wear a lot of different hats

Designer, salesperson, marketer, promoter, project manager, accountant, IT support, developer, cleaner — just a few of the hats you’ll wear. In my days of formal education I took a post-grad course in management. I don’t manage a team, but what I learned definitely helped with the non-design side of business.

Sometimes you just want to wear your favourite hat

At some point you’ll want to be a designer when you need to be a negotiator, or you’ll want to be using your sketchpad when you need to travel for a site visit. Don’t ignore the other hats, no matter how strange the fit might seem.

Doing the job you love

That’s why you’re in it for the long haul. How many of your friends and family truly love their jobs? How many of them are only working to pay bills or support families? It makes me incredibly thankful.

Love gets tested

A client might disappear without making final payment. A mistake from someone you bring on board to help will mean taking the blame yourself. Some potential clients think that because you love your job, you’ll happily work for free. It’s not all roses.

You decide your rates

If you charge what your previous employer might’ve charged others for your time, and you take your boss out of the equation, straight away you earn more money. There aren’t any predetermined income brackets that someone puts you in, no annual pay reviews where you try to convince your superiors that you’re worth more — in self-employment, you determine your worth. That was part of the incentive for me, but also led to one of the biggest challenges…

No-one tells you what to charge

People can give you some indication of what figure to show on your project quotes, but no-one knows your education and work history like you do. No-one knows the level of effort and attention to detail you put into every project. No-one knows that you sometimes see anchor points when you close your eyes. This is your call, and you’ll always question what you decide, whether you win the project or not.

You set your hours

No more nine to five, Monday to Friday. No forcing yourself out of bed to generate someone else’s profits. If I have an appointment at the dentist, need to visit the bank, or if I just fancy a walk along the coast, I don’t need permission. Routine is still important, setting certain hours when clients can reach you, but in general, you’ll have a lot more flexibility with your time.

Some people think you’re always on call

I’ve worked with clients in almost every time zone, in more than 30 countries, and in the early days, taking full responsibility for every project detail was completely new, so I wasn’t careful enough about setting boundaries. Being woken by a client calling in the middle of the night is hardly ideal.

You set the rules

And you have a huge advantage over bigger businesses. No need for meeting after meeting before a marketing campaign or before changing the focus of what you do. Go ahead. You’re in charge. At the beginning I solely wanted to work with local clients — meeting face-to-face so I could build a stronger relationship. So I got my stationery printed at a local shop, dusted off my portfolio, dressed the part and hit the streets. Was I successful? Not really, but I was trying. I was putting myself in front of potential clients, only needing a few days of preparation.

No one explains what to do

In hindsight, I was at my most naïve when first starting out. My business name was the cringeworthy New Dawn Graphics, with a website made to appear like I was a team of designers rather than just me. I became increasingly uncomfortable with the generic name until finally branding myself under my personal name. I was much happier, but branding definitely wasn’t the end of the mistakes I’d make.

If you want a holiday, take a holiday

Friends going on a last-minute trip? Festival tickets suddenly become available? More stressed than normal lately? There’s no longer the need to juggle your time off around your colleagues’ prebooked holidays. Your only concern is with your clients. Treat them well. Then treat yourself. There’s no boss to give you a Christmas bonus or tell you to have the rest of the day off. That’s on you. Don’t let it slip.

Forget paid holidays

No paid sick days or maternity/paternity leave, either.

Your clients come from all walks of life, all around the world

Clients can just as easily be halfway around the world as they can the other side of town. What I still find strange is that my clients are mostly overseas, and it’s rare when I have the pleasure of meeting in person. But the best part of working with different people is how the nature of their businesses changes with almost every project. With one I’ll need to learn about surfing, with another about tequila, another about fashion, medical advances, digital music… The things you’re paid to study are limited only by the clients you choose to work with.

You probably can’t meet every client in person

You can’t beat meeting face-to-face for building a relationship, so I’m unlikely to create the strongest of bonds through phone and video calls. That doesn’t mean I can’t surpass expectations. It’s just that I won’t always be in the room to see any delight. There’s a positive in there, though — I’ve saved a ton of time that would’ve been spent traveling to and from meetings.

The 1-minute commute

Not having to climb into a freezing car each winter morning and crawl through rush-hour traffic is a good reminder of why I chose to go it alone. I save that time and fuel and spend it elsewhere.

The inability to leave your work “at the office”

When your job’s where you live, it’s easy to work long hours, and it can be tough to switch off. There’s always a temptation to reply to a few more emails or to make some design changes after the standard working hours are over and when your family need your company.

Taking your laptop outdoors

The sun’s shining, blue skies to the horizon — not a day to be indoors. Get the laptop and head to the park, beach, countryside, beer garden. In fact, leave it at home. Take the rest of the day off.

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