November 3, 2017

Desk space

A quick look at some of the kit I use and recommend.

I’ve worked from home since 2005. The home’s changed six or seven times — one reason why a minimal approach is helpful — but there’s some standard gear that sticks around, and I definitely find it easier to focus when the desk isn’t cluttered.

BenQ PD3200u

For years I used a 27" iMac as my main screen, but the glare off the glass wasn’t great, and I’d always be increasing/decreasing the screen brightness depending on how sunny it was. The matt display of BenQ’s 32" 4K monitor gets rid of that problem. It’s a lot easier on the eyes (not quite looks-wise, but absolutely with eye strain), and gives more screen space to work with, too. The only let-down is the internal speakers. I don’t use them because sound quality’s bad in comparison to both my old iMac and the new MacBook Pro. I still prefer working on it, though.

Buy from Amazon.

Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth speaker

Rather than listen through the MacBook speakers that sit to one side of the BenQ, I set a Bluetooth speaker on the monitor base. The sound’s amazing for the size (although the SoundLink Mini is being replaced by the SoundLink Revolve which is much taller).

Buy from Amazon (if available).

Hitachi external hard drive

I’ve never had a hard drive fail, or needed computer repairs, but I’ll regularly backup files as these things obviously happen. There’ll be better backup gear available, and this Hitachi SimpleDRIVE isn’t actually on sale anymore, so I might pick up a Time Capsule for wireless auto-backups. I see Apple sell refurbished ones at nearly half price.

MacBook Pro

My old iMac got slower and a bit noisier, and I wasn’t sure whether to buy the newest version, or switch to a MacBook and external monitor. A couple of things swayed me — a dislike of the iMac’s glass screen, and the option to take my work elsewhere on the laptop. The MacBook is impressively fast and very quiet. I keep my iMac as a backup.

Buy from Amazon.

USB-C to DisplayPort cable

This connects the MacBook to the BenQ without the need for an adapter. I mainly use three of the four available USB ports — for power, for my desk mic, for the monitor connection.

Buy from Amazon.

USB-C to USB-A adapters

As soon as I get a mini-USB to micro-USB cable I’ll do away with the adapters. I use them for my external hard drive, mic, and transferring photos from my Nikon.

Buy from Amazon.

Griffin Elevator stand

It puts the laptop at nicer height whenever its open (if I want more screen space). It probably keeps the laptop a bit cooler, too. I know others who prefer a vertical docking station to save desk space, but I like the option of using the screen.

Buy from Amazon.

Blue Yeti microphone

A lot of my client calls are through Skype (sometimes Hangouts or FaceTime), and while the mic on the MacBook is decent, it’s not as good as this. There’s still a bit of echo to my voice because of the flat surfaces around the room, but I’ve ordered an isolation shield that gets good reviews and hopefully helps.

Buy from Amazon.

Bose TP-1A headphones

Using headphones on Skype calls means people don’t hear themselves through my speaker. I tend to use these around-the-ear ones for comfort and sound quality, but if I’m on a video call I usually plug in some in-ear headphones as it looks a bit better. My pair are nearly 10 years old, and the ear pads cracked and flaked, but these replacement pads made them like new.

Buy from Amazon (recent equivalent).

Magic Trackpad 2

I’ll use my left hand to pinch and swipe the Trackpad a few times through the day, to open apps or when skipping through web pages. I tried it for about a week as a mouse substitute, thinking it might help with work, but a week was enough as I found it a bit restrictive. Maybe I’m just that used to the mouse.

Buy from Amazon.

Magic Keyboard

I used a wired keyboard with my old iMac because the previous wireless version needed three AA batteries and too much charging. The battery life on this one is much better — always on, mine lasts at least a couple of months — and can be charged during use with a Lightning cable. The keys are noisier than the old keyboard which is a shame, but it’s still good, with a reliable Bluetooth connection, and I’d always go with the numeric keypad.

Buy from Amazon.

Magic Mouse 1

Mine’s from 2010 and needs two AA batteries. The Magic Mouse 2 charges with a Lightning cable, but inconveniently has it’s charging port on the underside rather than the front, making it unusable when plugged in. Hardly ideal. I have a few rechargeable AA batteries so I’m happy with what I’ve got.

Buy from Amazon (Magic Mouse 2).

Fellowes wrist supports and mouse mat

All about the comfort, and these gel wrist supports do the trick. The Magic Mouse doesn’t work on glass, so the mouse mat was necessary without the comfort factor. I’ve read reviews about the gel leaking after a few weeks, but no problems here after a couple of years.

Buy from Amazon (wrist support, keyboard wrist rest, mouse mat).

Steelcase Gesture task chair

Definitely not the cheapest, but it’s worth spending more on something that gets so much use. Easily the most comfortable work chair I’ve had — good back support, nice fabric, and with adjustable arms, height, recline, and seat depth. The frame of the first Gesture I was sent was scuffed, with dirt on the fabric, making me wonder if it was second hand, but I got it replaced within a couple of weeks.

Buy from Amazon.

Pilot V5 pens, 0.5mm tip

The 12-pack I picked up a couple of years ago is still going strong. They’re pretty much the only pens I use, for sketching or writing. Constant line width. No blobs.

Buy from Amazon.


Last but not least, there’s always a sketchbook on the desk. I’ve not stuck to the same type like Michael Bierut, but I like that idea. My current one’s a Tim Tu creation, his SketchyNotebook. It got backing of more than $60k on Kickstarter, but doesn’t yet seem on general sale. A large Moleskine is the same size so I’ll probably go with it next.

Buy from Amazon (Moleskine).

I hope that’s been of some help.

April 27, 2017

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 to work remotely. When I was back in the office, I couldn’t shake the thought of starting a business from home, and within the year I’d given my notice.

My formal education really hadn’t prepared me for design self-employment. And judging by the students I regularly talk to, that’s 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 hardly 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 meeting. 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 love their jobs? How many of them work solely to pay bills or support their 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.

October 11, 2016

27inch iMac vs 32inch BenQ BL3201PT

Taiwanese electronics firm BenQ kindly sent me this a couple of weeks ago — a 32inch ultra high definition monitor (their BL3201PT).

Read more

October 5, 2016

Advice for design students

There are almost 1,000 pages tucked away on this site — various blog posts published over the years. Here are a few aimed at helping graphic design students.

On working with clients

On getting hired

On learning

On design self-employment

There’s also a resources page on the Work for Money, Design for Love website. It’s mostly for designers thinking of self-employment.

January 6, 2015

Outgoings in design self-employment

It’s good practice to keep track of your monthly outgoings to help determine the minimum amount you need to charge to make a profit. Here’s where most of my business funds are spent.

There are the standard utilities — mortgage, electricity, heating, phone and broadband. If working from home, you can reclaim a percentage of these bills when filing your tax return. If your studio is away from your home then the full spend is tax deductible.

Then there are the workspace basics — desk, chair, computer, software, printer/scanner, ink, paper, a lamp, a bookcase (and books), shelves, sketchpads, pens, pencils, a good external mic, headphones, external hard drive. Be sure to keep your receipts for tax deduction.

Kelli Anderson standup deskKelli Anderson's stand-up IKEA desk hack.

A few things more specific to the profession — Adobe CC, font licensing, LiveSurface and other mockup resources, MailChimp, web hosting, and domain registration (I use Namecheap). A good camera, tripod, lighting rig, and backdrop will help you shoot print work for your portfolio.

Other expenses might include travel for meetings, postage for letters and packages, classes from sites like Skillshare and CreativeLive, an accountant (unless you file your own returns), but that mostly covers it.

Related, from the archives: Reflections on design self-employment.

July 30, 2013

A short lesson in perspective

The following thoughts have been republished from the personal website of Linds Redding, the former Saatchi & Saatchi and BBDO art director who died from cancer in 2012, aged 52. His words are an intriguing personal reflection on his creative career, written after realising his time was coming to an end. I hope he would forgive me for republishing without permission. It'd be a shame for his words to disappear if his site goes down.

Read more

July 10, 2013

Picasso and pricing your work

Designers often ask me whether they should charge by the hour or by the project. This tale is the best answer I can find in favour of the latter.

Picasso Brigitte BardotPicasso and Brigitte Bardot, Getty Images

Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.

"It's you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist."

So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

"It's perfect!" she gushed. "You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?"

"Five thousand dollars," the artist replied.

"But, what?" the woman sputtered. "How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!"

To which Picasso responded, "Madame, it took me my entire life."

Quoted from How to charge, one of the archived posts on 1099 — "the magazine for independent professionals." The post was written by Ellen Rohr, author of How Much Should I Charge?

More resources for pricing design.

May 28, 2013

Thoughts on design crowdsourcing

My answers from a brief interview about design crowdsourcing for the Design Bureau Magazine.

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February 16, 2013

Reflections on design self-employment

If you're thinking of quitting your salaried job to start your own design business, here are a few designers who've reflected on their time in self-employment.

Lamp workspacePhoto via Slim 69

I penned a few self-employment pros and cons over on (a 2-page post excerpted from my book) as well as advice after five years of self-employment (written back in 2010).

September 28, 2012

When pro bono design pays off

Working pro bono is an excellent way for inexperienced designers to build their portfolios, and for experienced designers to do great work for causes they love.

Javier Mateos of Mexico-based design studio Xplaye helped both himself and others with a successful pro bono effort. Two years ago, Xplaye started a series of tribute exhibitions that involved taking a famous music band and translating some of their songs into illustrations.

Last year, the studio created a tribute to Grammy Award winning Café Tacuba, one of the most popular bands in Mexico. The project wasn’t intended to make a profit, but rather to raise funds for children with spina bifida.

Through social media, Café Tacuba heard about what Xplaye were doing. They were so happy that they decided to autograph every illustration for an auction to increase the donations for the association helping the kids.

Café TacubaCafé Tacuba signing Xplaye’s illustrations.

Café Tacuba

Café Tacuba

Café Tacuba

Café Tacuba

The project was covered on CNN Mexico, in Rolling Stone Mexico, on, and in the most important TV and print media in the country.

Roughly $10,000 was raised, and five companies approached the spina bifida association to offer materials and supplies.

“This project grew our design bureau in a wonderful way. As a result we are now invited to many conferences, we’re asked to give interviews, and we gained respect from our colleagues in Mexico. It was an amazing and successful experience!”
— Javier Mateos, Xplaye

Just one example of how to grow your business while helping those in need.

In Work for Money, Design for Love you can read other case studies where pro bono design has led directly to paying clients.

Pro bono resources:
Five myths about pro bono design, on Co.Design
AIGA job board, contains a pro bono section
How to improve your portfolio with pro bono design, in the archives

And here’s a video of Café Tacuba unplugged with Gustavo Santaolalla. I love their sound.

August 20, 2012

On finding design work in a new country

Romanian graphic designer Iancu Barbărasă shares the story of his 2010 move from Bucharest to London, and how he found design work in his new home.

Read more

July 23, 2012

Studio Culture at the Design Museum

If you make what you want to make, that's what people will pay you to make.

Read more

May 30, 2012

You don’t have to be as good as everyone else

Renowned writer and creator Neil Gaiman explains how freelancers attract new business.

Read more

January 10, 2012

The design company is not the only place to be a designer

Mike Dempsey:

“Younger designers [are] getting into a very overcrowded business, and increasingly so. Do you have any thoughts?”

Michael Wolff:

"I do actually. The main thought I have is don't think a design company is where a designer should necessarily be, because if you're interested in creativity and you are creative and you can see and you have got curiosity and you do appreciate things and you have got imagination, take it anywhere. Go and work in any company. Go and bring it to anyone who'll listen to you.

"The design company is not the only place to be a designer. In fact, in some ways it's actually a rather constraining place to be a designer."

Transcribed from the closing remarks of this 40-minute recording.

Related (from the archives): An excellent 12-minute video of Michael Wolff on creativity.

May 25, 2011

Too many ideas

Any one of these mistakes would be enough to hinder a project's completion, let alone all three combined.

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David Airey
Brand identity design

Independent since 2005
Website hosted by Fused

13 Gransha Park, Bangor
Northern Ireland
BT20 4XT