Being an independent designer

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 one day after work 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.

My formal education hadn’t particularly prepared me for design self-employment. And judging by the students I regularly talk to, that’s fairly common among designers of a similar level. So if you’re thinking of making the 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. So while you might spend a lot of time working from desks, it’s far from dull.

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 initially seem.

Doing the job you love

How many of your friends and family truly love their jobs? How many of them are working purely to pay bills or support families? I know how fortunate that makes me.

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 nine to five, Monday to Friday. No generating someone else’s profits. If I need to go somewhere one afternoon, or if I just fancy a walk along the coast, I don’t need permission. Routine’s still important, setting the times when clients can reach you, for example, but in general, you 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, 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. That’s a small thing, clarifying those expectations. Still important, though.

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 — you save a ton of time that would’ve been spent traveling to and from meetings.

The 1-minute commute

Would anyone actually miss rush hour? You can spend that time and fuel elsewhere.

The inability to leave your work “at the office”

When your job’s where you live, it’s easy to work longer hours, easy to say “just one more email” or “one more design change.” But step back. Look around. The people we so easily take for granted won’t be here forever.

Change your scenery

The sun’s shining, not a cloud in the sky, you’ve spent the past week working indoors. Grab the laptop and head to the park, beach, countryside…

In fact, leave it at home. Take the afternoon off. You can catch up later.

7 responses

  1. Great post David.
    Could you please make a post in the future about how you set up your single-person agency internationally? How you you communicate with international clients, how you accept payments and things like ‘terms of service’? When you cross the country border, so to speak, all these things either change or become a bit more complicated. It’d be very valuable.

    • Hi Paul, there’s no real difference in how I talk to people overseas, other than rarely meeting in person, and perhaps giving figures in their currencies. My terms are fairly straightforward, too, but they’re often tailored slightly according to the project. Do you do much work outside the Netherlands?

  2. Hi David,

    Thank you so much for this post. I handed in my notice a while ago with the intension of getting my life back and to do work I love – more than being a designer in dull advertising. Reading your article, I did not expect such an almost completely positive list of effects on your life. To be honest, I am scared to fail at making it work like you describe. I wonder if you could name some slopes or warning signs that would have led you to fail if you had not coped with them in the right way? What were the ‘helpful fears’ that kept you cautious, which were hindering?

    Thanks again from a long time follower and first time commenter.

    • You’re very welcome, Florian. Good of you to comment. Every now and again there are quiet spells where the level of enquiries drops off, and I worry about where the next project’s coming from. But business always picks up again. There’s a lot of work out there for designers. Sometimes you just need to have a little more confidence in your skills, keep marketing yourself, and trust that you can do it. If I can, you can.

  3. Really useful to see what you’ve been through in your many years in business David.

    As a fan of your site and work I can see how you enjoy what you do and the consistency of quality work. But it’s also good to know there’s some struggles in that journey.

    Keep up the awesome work.

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