Over the past few months, I've taken a step back from writing to spend time thinking about how I operate as a graphic designer. Not just what I do in my day-to-day working life, but how and why I do it in the first place.
If you’ve been reading this journal for any length of time, you’ll know that it is already a record of my personal feelings about graphic design as a profession. From naively and angrily wanting to quit completely, to more realistically seeking a career evolution, to being grateful for having a full-time job which I can use as stepping stone to self-employment and entrepreneurship.
Along the way, I’ve unintentionally become a kind of agony aunt for graphic designers feeling lost or confused by their careers. I never expected that my ramblings about design would be helpful to other people, but my web stats and email inbox tells me otherwise, and I’m still quite humbled by this fact.
But what of my professional development as a designer? Do I want to keep designing? And if so, how do I do it “better”? (Both in a sense of my output, and my earnings).
These are not easy questions to answer, and I’m still formulating my position. The following exploration is neither concise nor decisive, but will I hope bring myself and anyone reading it a little closer to clarity.
After three years of freelancing, and twelve years in the business, it seemed like the right time to do some head-scatching.
My early days as a designer
Looking back, it's hard to pinpoint the moment that I decided to become a graphic designer. I loved both art and computers as a kid, but it wasn't until my late teens that I became aware of graphic design as a profession.
At art school, my education in graphic design was intermingled with illustration and photography, and for the large part unconstrained by the usual parameters of taste, budget and timelines that come with client work.
To illustrate this freedom, here are a couple of projects I worked on as a student.
Firstly, a concept called “No Ad Day” whereby all of the world’s advertising is blanked out for a day, to highlight its omnipresence in our cities. The problem with the idea was how you would promote it… and my solution was to put images of the blanked out adverts back onto the billboards that they came from. I submitted the piece to the social activist magazine Adbusters and — much to my amazement — it became my first printed piece of work:
Although I did a lot of work incorporating audio and animation as a student, I haven't done anything that’s even close to being this experiment since I left art school. (Which sounds dangerously like regret, I know. Maybe I should start playing with things again...)
From student to professional
Needless to say, emerging from this period of experimentation into the realities of client work was something of a shock. I probably learned more about the practiaticites of the job in 4 weeks than I did in my 4 years as a student — but that’s not a criticism. The conceptual thinking process that I learnt at art school had to come before the practical knowledge, and not the other way around.
Luckily for me, the first studio I worked for evolved fast, and I went from designing websites for Scottish house-builders to American skyscrapers in the space of a few years.
Although the Chicago Spire was halted by the financial crash in 2008 and is now just a huge hole in the ground, it’s still a lovely project to have in my portfolio:
After five years at Marque in Glasgow, I moved to London to work at a smaller studio called Bureau for Visual Affairs, who specialised in creating website for cultural clients like Tate, Guggenheim and Damien Hirst. They had a very specific style and methodology, and the result websites are — I think — some of the best designed I’ve seen anywhere.
Here are two of the projects I worked on at Bureau, for Guggenheim/BMW:
And a concept design for Whistles:
Why I'm rebooting my design service
Ultimately, design is about making things better, and as a manifesto for daily life I think that’s pretty hard to beat.
As much as I’ve struggled with my profession during my thirties, I’m not ready (or financially able) to let go of it. So if I’m going to carry on being a designer, I want to be the best I can be.
Not just in terms of my design output, but in terms of my business practice.
I’ve already collected my tips on going freelance into a free course, but I thought it would be useful to crunch some numbers too…
My first three years of freelancing, in numbers
Ultimately, design is a business, not an art form.
So before getting into how I price and position my work, I wanted to look at the numbers.
Yes, it’s a garish topic, so I’ve made the colours deliberately garish to match. So, here are the total amounts I’ve invoiced for the last three years. If you want to compare this with your salary, you’ll need to take off 20-25% for taxes, and at least another £300/month for studio and other running costs:
Amount billed in my first 3 years as a freelancer
In my first year of freelancing, I wasn’t working flat out, and necessarily so, because I was wrestling with the dark slippery pig that is depression. I also took two months off to go travelling. So my earnings in 2012-13 were tiny. It was only in my second year of freelancing that I hit my stride, and in my third year that I came close to matching my old salary.
But I’m ok with all of this, because my goal with self-employment was not to earn more money, but to have more freedom.
Time is your most precious resource, not money.
Going freelance has enabled me to spent time writing CycleLove and this blog. I've met some amazing people, been on some crazy bike rides, and learnt a hell of a lot about myself as a result. Could I have done all of that whilst holding down a full-time job? Probably not...
You are not your work
Some designers are fond of saying “You’re only as good as your last piece of work”, but this creates an uneasy tension for me.
I am not my work. I don’t want to do more work than I have to. I want to live a little too.
But to prevent work from taking over your life, you need to both optimise and organise.
Stay on top of your finances. Hire accountant. Set up a limited company. Use an online accounting service like FreeAgent to track your finances. Track your time. Log your expenses. Keep tabs on things. And try to optimise anything you do more than once a day.
Lastly, it's important to create a healthy working environment. (I'm actively looking for a desk space in the London Bridge area right now, as my home office is part of my living room, and I can never close the door on it, and that is a problem).
I’ve recently taken Philip Morgan’s excellent (and free) email course on positioning, and whilst I’ve not finished answering the questions it poses, I’m feeling much better equipped to start defining exactly what it is that I do.
Although his course is aimed at developers, its core premise — that better positioning will let you increase your rates and attract better clients — can be applied to any profession. Here’s an overview of his approach to positioning:
- Choose who you want to work with. Be specific about the kind of problem you can solve for clients.
- Define what you do. What results will you create for the clients you serve? What services will you offer them?
- Finding your differentiator. What do you do differently from your competition? (This could be a difference in your philosophical approach, or an “unfair advantage” over others).
What I love about Philip’s course is that it helps you really drill down into specifics.
For example, he suggests that FOUR levels of specificity are required to clearly position yourself. So in my case…
- Most general: “I’m a graphic designer”
- More general: “I’m a digital designer”
- Even more specific: “ I’m a digital designer who makes websites for creative people”
- Finally, uber-specific: “ I’m a digital designer who helps creative people show and sell their work. Unlike many designers, I also know about writing, content strategy and building an audience, because I've done it myself.”
I still have some objections to specialising though… namely what about the other kinds of clients I work with, like agencies and startups? And I’m not really sure about the answer to this yet. But because much of my freelancing work comes via referrals and job sites like the excellent OnSite, it happening in a separate ‘container’, and I think I’ll keep it that way. In the meantime, I’ve created a dedicated ‘Need a freelance digital designer’ page on this website, which I’ll be refining and expanding over the next few months.
When I started freelancing three years ago, my typical day rate was £200-£250. This has now risen to around double that. (If that sounds like a lot, remember that you don’t get holidays, sick days, pensions or any other employee benefits as a freelancer, and you'll likely have dry spells to contend with). There is no single market rate of course. Here in London rates are usually higher than the rest of the UK, and in general, developers aree earning more than designers because they're in shorter supply.
One thing I’ve learnt about pricing is that people will almost always question your rate. So be sure to have answers to hand. And stand firm in your valuation of your time and your self — clients will respect you for it.
The dangers of mates’ rates
Be careful about giving friends large discounts, as it creates an uneasy tension with their work and that of your full-pricing-pacing clients. When something has to give because of time constraints, it will always be your friend's project that slips down the agenda.
One way to ease the tensions of mates rates is to carefully manage expectations. If you must give someone a mates rate, make it clear that they are getting a discount, and that they won’t be your main priority. As the old saying goes, you can only pick two of three from good, fast and cheap. So in this case, your friend will be getting good, slow and cheap.
Before reducing your rate, try reducing the scope of the project
Instead of reducing your rate by 20%, ask your client to remove the 20% from the project which is least important.
It's ok to reduce your rate for longer contracts, but make it clear why so the reduced rate doesn't become the expected rate. And clearly mark the discount from your full rate on every invoice, to reinforce this. That way, when the time comes to remove the discount, it won't come as a shock.
There is no single ‘right’ way to price yourself
If you followed the recent #talkpay discussions about rates and pricing on Twitter, you'll have seen how widely the salaries of freelancers vary.
What struck me as much as the difference in what people are earning, is the cultural difference about discussing salaries and prices.
My research into freelancing best practice often lands up in North America with people like Brennan Dunn and Paul Jarvis who openly discuss their strategies. Meanwhile, here in the UK, there seems to be a great reluctance to talk about money. (See my reading notes at the end of this article for examples of and exceptions to this).
I’d like to see more freelancers talking about what they charge, and how they go about it. Not in a boastful way, but in a helpful way, and in hope of levelling the playing field for everyone.
I've been working at home recently, and as an introvert, have found it quite challenging, as I've felt cut off from people, and am not always the best at iniating social contact. All of which has remindmed me of the importance of deliberalely nurting your professional networks...
Focus on a single social network at a time.
Most designers, design studios, plus most of my clients, are on Twitter on a daily basis, so that is now the sole focus of my online networking efforts.
I’m sure there's a place for LinkedIn — especially if you create content for its blog section — but I can't think of a single connection or opportunity that's come my way via LinkedIn in five years. So I deleted my LinkedIn profile completely (and it feels good).
There is no right answer to this. Figure out where most of your peers and clients hang out — whether online or offline — and see if you can add value to the conversation.
The power of referrals.
All of my work in the past month has come via friends.
So my advice would (quite simply) be to let people know that you are looking for work — send out tweets, emails and status updates. You might not get an immediate response, but if other people in your network know that you’re available, they’re more likely to mention your name when opportunities arise.
It’s not just about finding new clients though… you should also work your existing connections. Collect testimonials from previous clients, ideally as soon as you've finished a project and your kick-ass approach is fresh in their minds.
A good testimonial: (because it's detailed, and written as prose)
”James was great at taking feedback, delivered everything he promised on time and the standard of design was as high as I'd expected from his portfolio. Plus I learnt a lot myself from working with him. The end result was a really happy client and, personally, the most stress-free part of the rebrand."
A not-so-good testimonial: (because it’s both short and non-specific).
”Very efficient. Quiet. Great result."
- What were your reasons for choosing to work with me?
- What was your general experience in working with me? How did I approach your specific challenge? (with an example of a testimonial so that people know what kind of answer I’m looking for)
- What specific results did you get from the work I did for you?
- Would you recommend me to other people?
- Do you know anyone who might be interested in working with me? (If you don’t ask, you won’t get.)
In fact, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received recently came directly from a client survey:
“You should push yourself more. We used you for one job. Remind us to use you for others”.
So… don’t be shy when it comes to communicating with your clients. The hardest work (establishing trust) is already done, which means it might only take a small nudge to initiate a sizeable new project.
The internet is your CV.
Be discoverable via Google — register a domain name based on your own name, and put your work on show. If you can write about what you do, do that too. And at the very least, add case studies which explain your working process to a potential client.
Focus on being sociable, not social networking
Yes the internet is amazing. You can speak to people on the other side of the world. But don't overlook the people in your back yard. Go meet them for coffee now and again.
One word of warning: be wary of "Can I pick your brains about X?" propositions. Unless your immediate reaction is "Hell yeah!", make sure your conversation will be mutually beneficial. For me, someone asking “Can I pick your brains about X?” is a red flag, as conversations over coffee should be mutually beneficial to both parties, and not a one-sided affair.
Connect people in your network
I try to connect two people in my network to each other every week (but will always email each person first to get their permission before emailing them jointly).
Don’t wait for people you know to introduce you to people — make your own introductions too. Do you know someone working in a similar field to another friend? Or someone who’s an expert in a field that another friend is just getting started in? Hook them up already!
So what next in my professional reboot?
I’ve covered positioning and pricing in this article, but there’s still a lot to talk about, like finding clients, and keeping them happy once working with them.
When it comes to the former, I’ve realised that I’ve overlooked this website as a way of promoting my work. (Mostly because my design portfolio lived on a different website until last month). Now for a phrase which I don’t much like, but which can’t be overlooked either. Aghhhhmmmm..... content marketing.
Now, creating content is something I've become adept at over three years of blogging on two different blogs, but I haven't deliberately written articles to attract client work before. So this seems like an obvious next step when it comes to generating leads. More to follow on this front in due course.
Pssst. Are you London-based freelancer?
There are already a nice handle of designers, developers and writers on the list, and we’ll be meeting for the first time later this month. If you’d like to join us, follow the link and put your name on the list. And if you’re not in London, maybe you could start your own meetup?
Inching closer to an end goal
I’ve very aware that I’ve rambled on slightly in this article. So let’s cut to the chase:
I want to use the skills I’ve learnt running CycleLove and this blog — e.g. my knowledge of writing, content strategy and building an audience — in my day-to-day design practice.
I want to use design thinking to make people’s business better, not just their websites.
These skills will have the most measurable impact for clients who are selling their work or a product online rather than just showing it, so the closest I’ve come to a mission statement is this:
"I help creative people to show and sell their work."
But, as with most things, it’s not quite that simple, because I don’t want to work solo all of the time. (And working alone at home drives me nuts when I do it five days in a row).
So alongside my own design practice I still envisage a second strand of work, where I plug myself into gaps at studies and agencies to work on larger-scale digital design projects. (Like the Orange Switzerland rebranding project I’m worked on last year).
Whilst this isn’t a completely crispy manifesto, I think it’s a better proposition than “I’m a graphic designer”, or “I make websites”.
Further down the line, I’d like to advise people on all of the above, but not be the person responsible for actually executing the ideas. And yes, ‘consultancy’ is probably the best word for that, so I’m collecting my notes in a constantly-updated Medium article called “Consulting for beginners”.
Ok, enough about me…
What has worked for you as a freelancer? And how has your approach to finding work and pricing yourself evolved during your career?
PS. If you've found this article helpful, please help me out by sharing it on your social network of choice, or emailing it to a friend. (There are sharing buttons at the end). Thank you.
Further reading on pricing, positioning and promotion for freelancers
Phew. If you’ve gotten this far down the page, you’ve probably realised that I’ve been doing a lot of reading about freelance and business strategy. Here are a few highlights:
Tales from the freelance crypt
Lessons learned in a year on my own by Jonnie Hallman
“I feel stronger and more independent than I’ve ever felt in my entire life—even if my internal voice is much louder and longer-winded than ever before. Every project is a challenge and provides a real sense of ownership. Each day ends with great excitement for the next. Is it for everyone? No, but if you have the itch, go for it.”
Why you shouldn’t charge by the hour by Paul Jarvis
“Linking cost with time turns you into a commodity. It also means punishing yourself for working quickly and efficiently. Time-based pricing is a race to the bottom, because someone will always be willing to charge a little less per hour and undercut your rates. Instead, focus on attaching cost to value. How much is the end result worth to the client? That way, they’re paying for your expert problem solving skills and your ability to deliver something truly valuable.”
Justifying Higher Rates With Value-Based Pricing by Brennan Dunn
“I know quite a few people who have successfully made the jump from providing just code, design, or copy to focusing on making businesses better off, and many of them brought in over six-figures in additional revenue last year.”
Note: value-based pricing is something I’m intrigued by, but am still figuring out how to apply to my business. It makes sense for larger, corporate companies who have definable business objectives, but what about, for example, individuals working in the cultural sectors who have limited budgets? To be continued…
How should you define what you do to clients? by Robert Williams
“Virtually every freelance designer or developer define themselves by vague or confusing terms. UI designer. Back-end developer. UX designer. Wordpress developer. A wordpress developer means you work at Wordpress to me. A UX designer is a confusing and/or debatable term even for people inside our industry. Those terms put you inside of a box and disconnect you from what you're actually selling; the benefits of your work. So why do we use these terms with clients? Why not focus on the outcome we deliver not what everyone else uses to describe their service?”
Pricing and rates
Motivations and Money by Jack Smith
“If we can get over the mantra that focus on money and earnings is a bad thing, it'll go a long way to making that side of the industry far more transparent, which can only be a good thing for making tech a fairer place. A hashtag on Twitter may not be the finessed solution, but I'm really hoping it's a step towards transparent salaries, open freelance rates, and general debate around money in podcasts, blogs, and actual human discussion.”
A Freelancer’s Guide to Growing Your Business by Paul Jarvis
“Start by getting into the head of the people you want to get hired by.”
Picturing Thoughts by Iancu Barbărasă
“Most of the work I got in the past two years has been through a ‘campaign’ I did starting January 2013. Two booklets, one showing my client work, one a personal project, plus handwritten letters to creative directors and design directors who I thought would be great to work with”.
Work life balance:
The 80% principle by Justin Jackson
“I would deliberately pace myself so I that I spent only 80% of my mental energy throughout the day.”
Posted to Freelancing in 2015.