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).

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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.

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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 Peachpit.com (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 MTV.la, 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.

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.

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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.

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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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March 27, 2011

Business goals and my “painted picture”

This is my “painted picture” — the shape of my business in 2014 (three years from now). The idea is that by putting it into words, my picture has a stronger chance of coming true.

painted canvas

What I do

I do what I do because I have a passion for design. In particular, brand identity design. I love creating visual identities that help people in business surpass everything they set out to achieve.

New projects are secured through a number of means: I convert website visitors into clients by demonstrating the value I bring to companies of all sizes. My online presence attracts 1,000,000 visitors and 2,500,000 page views per month, and many people arrive having searched for my name with the specific intention to hire me.

In 2011 I appeared as the fourth result on Google.com for the term "graphic designer" and its plural "graphic designers." Today, only Wikipedia ranks higher.

Demand for my business is so high that I choose to work with only those companies in line with my values. Many of the projects I undertake are for non-profit organisations like Amnesty International, Marie Curie, and Oxfam.

Company directors and CEOs keep mentioning my name and recommending my work.


Design: The work I produce is inspired by studios and agencies like Johnson Banks, The Partners, Moving Brands, and SomeOne. The results I achieve are appropriate, distinctive, emotive, memorable, dynamic, and durable.

Writing: My books have been translated into 10 languages with more than 100,000 copies in print. They're used extensively throughout design colleges and have inspired thousands of designers to dramatically improve their working process and/or to become self-employed.

Coaching/mentoring: Designers hire me on a project-by-project basis to help them achieve fantastic results for their own clients.


I sub-contract specific design items to people who are better and making something brilliant. These items include web development, brand strategy, illustration, photography, leaving me to focus on what I most enjoy: designing brand identities.

I build my business through personal relationships with those who excel in their related professions. I have no employees, instead sharing client payments with sub-contractors when needed. Those I team-up with are very well paid because the work they produce significanly increases client profits.

The nature of my business means that I can work from any location with an Internet connection.


I've collaborating with clients from 25 different countries and the diversity keeps growing. Distance has no adverse effect on the design process, and can actually be a positive factor because no time is wasted travelling to and from meetings.

My email newsletter has 50,000 subscribers, mirroring the follower count on my Twitter profile. 100,000 fans have "liked" my Logo Design Love Facebook page.

My website has received hits from every permanently populated country on the planet.

Google Analytics visitor map overlayGoogle Analytics visitor map overlay for davidairey.com


When people want to talk, I'm the one who answers the phone. There's no filter.

I read every email I receive and respond to as many as I possibly can. I say what others are thinking, and don't tip-toe around the subject.

My website is highly-regarded in the design profession and is seen as a forum that provokes lively debate around topics affecting the lives of graphic designers everywhere.


I'm paid an annual five figure sum from sponsors of my online presence. The brands I highlight all offer a product or service of benefit to my site visitors, and sponsorship is kept to an absolute minimum so as not to detract from the quality of my site content.

Publishers and PR agencies send me copies of every new design book. Once read, I pass them onto my readers as a very small thank you for their support. Electronic manufacturers send me their latest products in the hope of reaching my audience through unbiased reviews. These products are also passed freely to my readers.

Customer service

Word-of-mouth recommendations are frequent, due in no small part to the care and attention I give to customer service. I'm never working on more than two projects at once, and as such, my attention is fully focused on those who pay for my time.


The media call upon me for expert opinion on everything related to brand identity. I'm regularly offered paid gigs writing articles and giving opinion in both the on- and offline press. I share these pieces on my website to generate discussion and to learn from my readers, at the same time building credibility for my personal brand and those of the clients I've worked with.


I continue to increase profits year on year. A number of clients presented me with equity and stock options in their companies to allow me to benefit from the upturn in business I've helped create.

My expertise has developed to the extent where I work fewer hours than at any other stage in my career, yet with significantly higher earnings.

A sizeable percentage of money is earned through relatively passive income streams such as Amazon Affiliate sales and online advertising.


Much like Stefan Sagmeister's sabbaticals, I afford my family the benefit of regular extended time away from work. The new cultural experiences are used to further improve the results in my client projects.

I continually lower the time spent sat at a desk. I run five miles twice a week and use my home gym on three of the weekdays when not running. It's important to me that any family I'm fortunate enough to raise is brought-up in an active, health-conscious environment.

Every week contains time devoted to catching up with friends and family. When travelling for work, it's mainly to locations where I can either visit family and friends, or take them along for the experience.


I learn how to improve the design work I produce from people who run leading design studios and brand consultancies. They kindly take time out of their schedule to answer questions I have and to provide valuable feedback on my work. We communicate on the phone and by email.

There's really very little my mentors need in the way of help from me, but I insist upon regularly publishing insights into their working practices on my website in order to further spread their names, knowledge, and work around the world.


I feel incredibly fortunate to lead the life that I do. It's a simple matter of chance that I was born into a loving family in Northern Ireland with a roof over my head and food on the table instead of being orphaned at the age of five in the Kenyan township of Kibera. My business grows stronger alongside a deep appreciation for every chance that comes my way. I choose how and where to spend my time, and because of which, I'm relaxed, stress-free, but most of all, extremely grateful.

painted canvas

You'll find examples of the Painted Picture coming true in Cameron Herold's book Double Double, published by Greenleaf Book Group. My thanks to Cameron for what's so far a solid read on improving your business (I stopped reading in order to Paint).

Double Double: How to Double Your Revenue and Profit in 3 Years or Less is available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

If you've created a painted picture of your own business three years down the line, I'd love to see it.

February 10, 2011

You don’t need a designer

"I need a logo. I know exactly what I want. I just need a designer to make it happen."

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November 25, 2010

Quality vs quantity

I'd make a lot more money if I accepted every project on the table. But there'd be consequences.

pantone leavesPantone leaves by Chris Glass

Each project would get less of my attention.
The quality of my work would suffer.
Clients would be less satisfied.
I wouldn’t get as many future offers.

So it’d be a short-term gain for a long-term loss.

Because I often say "no" to potential clients, I place more value on my time and build a stronger foundation for my business. And the clients I do work with get a higher quality of service.

Don’t feel that you need to say "yes" to everyone who comes your way.

It pays to say "no."

Self-employment advice for designers.

David Airey
Brand identity design

Independent since 2005
Website hosted by Fused

13 Gransha Park, Bangor
Northern Ireland
BT20 4XT