Going it alone as a designer, ten lessons learnt

October 15, 2012 in Thoughts

It’s almost a year to the day since I left the salaried world behind me and started out working for myself as a designer/developer. This feels like a good time to reflect and think about what I’ve learnt during that time.

I’ve tried to distil things down to a list of ten key points in the hope that there’ll be some things in here that are of use to anyone else thinking of making the leap.

Embrace fear

Before taking the plunge, there was inevitably a little fear. I had the security of a creative, full-time job and all the securities that that brings. Leaving that behind can feel a bit scary and risky, especially if you have kids and a family relying on you not to fuck up like I do. But I think this fear is largely psychological. Society conditions us not to take risks as though they are something negative to be avoided. But in my experience, the occasions when my life has really improved can be directly connected to when I took a risk.

And anyway, if leaving your job is so risky, then how come so many other people seem to get along fine doing just that and then working for themselves? Surely it’s not really risky, maybe it just requires a bit of planning?

Well it turns out this is true. You just need to be a bit organised. Firstly you need to save up a buffer of money to last you a few months (more on that below), so that if it takes a while to get a job or an invoice paid, you can at least cover your rent/mortgage, etc.

You then need to gently start spreading the word with peers and friends that you respect that you are planning to go it alone. It is very likely that it’ll be through these people that you get your first job.

I’ve been amazed how powerful word of mouth is. I’ve had one or two cold enquiries, but in the main all the interesting work that I’ve done has been through word of mouth and because ‘I know her, and she knows him and they’re looking for a designer’. So, if fear is holding you back, don’t let it. Embrace it and use it to give you the energy to be organised to get your shit together to make the leap.

It’s a really envigorating feeling when you do.

More money, more responsibility

I’ve never really been motivated by money. My chief motivation is to try to do good, creative work that hopefully has a positive impact in some way.

But that said, when working for yourself, you cannot afford to be flaky or vague about the question of money — it is integral to running a business, which is what you are doing if you work for yourself.

There’s a great chapter on this by Mike Monteiro in his book, Design Is A Job which I highly recommend.

So what should you be charging for the skills you have? If you don’t have the faintest idea, the best place to start is to ask your peers that are already doing it. That’s what I did and it proved really useful as a starting point.

Creative Review recently put up an interesting post about the earning potential of different roles in the design industry. It’s worth a read.

Working for yourself you have more things to manage — corporation tax (if you are a limited company), accountancy fees, business insurance, software subscriptions and so on, but I have found you also earn more money. Since going it alone, I have doubled my full time salary :)

All I would say is that all this stuff feels more complicated beforehand than it ultimately really is. You just need to get yourself a good accountant and a good bit of bookkeeping software and the rest will follow.

Surround yourself with smart people

The projects I’ve been happiest on over the past year have been those where I’m working with clever, open people — people who just want to get on and do their best work and aren’t hung up on trying to be cool. GDS was a wonderful place for this kind of atmosphere.

Surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you means you learn and develop faster and your work will get better for it. I’ve found it’s always better to feel slightly out of your depth, it gives you the kick up the arse you need to get better at what you do.

You can’t blame your tools

Working as a designer, you basically are what you make; your output is what people see and judge.

So you deserve to have good tools. Tools that work and that you can rely on when you’re busy.

Recently I was working on a project using an old, flaky version of Illustrator and when the project ramped up and I had to create proper finished artwork, it kept crashing.

Over and over again.

This is not what you need in the middle of a hard job nearing a deadline. It’s definitely worth not compromising and spending proper money on this stuff and thanking yourself for it later.

I recently bit the bullet and subscribed to Creative Cloud and haven’t looked back.

It does make me feel a bit nauseous linking to Adobe, but this software is genuinely very good and they have got their shit together to make it affordable for small businesses.

Proper tools to do proper work.

Build a good safety net

The only thing there is to fear really in working for yourself is not having any money to pay yourself at the end of the month.

So when you start out, make sure you’ve saved a buffer of money first.

I made sure I had 3-4 months (around £12K) worth of my full-time salary before I made the leap and while I’ve been lucky enough not to have had to dip into that, it still helped for a short period when one or two invoices took a while to be paid.

Even though I haven’t spent my contingency money, the mental freedom it gave me to have this safety net was invaluable. I don’t know about you, but I’d really struggle to do anything very creative if I was constantly worried about my bank balance.

Ultimately how much of a safety net you need depends on your situation. If like me, you have a mortgage and kids, you probably need to overcompensate and save more than you really need.

But if on the other hand you only have rent on a flat to pay and not many other great commitments, you could get away with starting with very little.

Think about the projects you take on.

We all need work to pay the bills, but good creative work should be doing much more than that.

Beyond whether it offers you a chance to be creative, before taking on a project it’s worth thinking about what it’s legacy will be if it’s successful. Will it be doing something new or remarkable? Is it an original idea? Is it likely to actually make peoples’ lives easier/better by existing?

If the answer to all these questions is ‘no’, I’d probably have my reservations and walk away.

After all, how the project fares will reflect on you and good projects beget good projects, while bad beget bad. Or in plain English — you’re only as good as the last project you worked on.

If a job does look interesting, do you know who owns the project? How many steps removed from them will you be? This is an important thing to think about as it will directly affect the outcome of the job.

When your contact is the owner and decision maker of the business you’re working with, you stand a much better chance of getting good results through design than when you work with someone from the company lower down the pecking order.

I’ve had good work crushed in the past due to working with a client where I didn’t get the chance to sell in my ideas to someone senior. Never again.

Not every job is a portfolio piece

I’ve done quite a few jobs that I wouldn’t put on my website. Not because I’m ashamed of them or think that they’re bad as such.

It’s more that I don’t think they reflect exactly what I want to be doing and that’s really what a portfolio should be — a demonstration of the work you can and should be doing.

The law of averages says that you are most likely to get more of the kind of work that you have done before. So craft and shape your portfolio to show the best sides of what you’ve done and hopefully you’ll get more of the same.

It’s also not a bad thing to occasionally do work that you know is not for your portfolio. Maybe a particular project will pay very well, but is not hugely exciting. That could be useful to help fund you through a time working on another project that isn’t paid so well, but is a brilliant opportunity.

Communicate and be nice

This is really simple. If you’re nice and you do a good job, people will recommend you and they will want you back. If you aren’t and you don’t, they won’t.

Anthony Burrill said this best a long time ago — ‘Work Hard and Be Nice To People.’

Home, Desk, Studio?

Where you work is important. It can seem trivial when you’re busy in the middle of a project, but I think your workplace has a profound effect on you.

Personally I need to have natural daylight, windows and space to think and move. Pretty obvious stuff really.

But it’s also not realistic to be in your dream studio space from the off. You don’t want big rental overheads when you are just starting out.

For me day one of Futurefabric began at home in my then three year old son’s bedroom, working at a desk at the foot of his bed. (He wasn’t there of course, he was at nursery!)

That was back when I was working on the Airside Nippon website with Henki and it was a perfect start. I had zero overheads, a kettle downstairs for endless cups of tea and coffee and a desk with a screen. I didn’t need much more.

As time went on though, the cracks started to show. The blurred line between home and work life caused it’s own problems.

I’ve since realised for me at least, it’s important to have a distinct place where I go to work. That’s not to say I never work at home, I do occasionally, but I think it’s good to have a separation from home mode and work mode. I’ve also seen the benefit of a commute because of this — the journey helps break up these two modes of being.

So since November I’ve been working from a studio in Shoreditch which is great and a good reason to get out of the house. The only issue now is the journey, I wish I could shorten the distance between my home and studio somehow!

Beyond freelance — building a business

Working as a freelance designer/developer is a fruitful and fulfilling way to work. The digital industry is really buoyant right now and with the surge of investment in tech and start up culture it’s a really good time to ply your wares.

But while it’s a good job, for me I’m not sure that in itself it is the best career. If you go on indefinitely working as a supplier for others, where is the value for yourself? What equity do you have for the future?

This is a question I’ve been pondering.

It’s early days, but I’d like to build a profitable business using the skills I have. I don’t know what this could be yet, but no doubt it will be somewhere at the point David Hieatt calls the “sweet spot” — where my interests, home life and work life meet.

If and when I work out what that is, I’ll let you know :)