Being an independent designer

It was in 2004 when I first gave serious thought to self-employment. I was employed as a designer, and after work one day I picked up a hefty ankle injury playing football. Unable to walk for a couple of weeks meant time away from the office, but I easily got my work done from home. Back at the office I couldn’t shake the thought of life in my own studio, and within the year I’d given my notice.

Looking back, twelve years on, I really had very little idea what I was getting into. If you’re thinking of making that same move, here are a few of the pros and cons I’ve experienced throughout my time as an independent designer.

orange eating limesPhoto by Becca Fatora.

Pro: You set your own hours

No more nine to five, Monday to Friday. No more forcing yourself out of bed to generate someone else’s profits. If I have an appointment at the dentist, need to visit the bank, or if I just want to walk along the coast, I don’t need permission. A routine is still important, setting certain hours when clients can reach you, but in general, you’ll have a lot more flexibility with your time.

Con: Some people think you’re always on call

I’ve worked with clients in more than 30 countries, in almost every time zone. In my early days, taking full responsibility for every project detail was completely new, and I wasn’t careful enough about setting boundaries. Being woken by a client calling in the middle of the night is hardly ideal.

Pro: You decide your rates

If you charge your clients what your boss might’ve charged for your time, and you take your boss out of the equation, 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, it’s up to you to determine what your skills are worth. That was an incentive for me, but also led to one of my biggest headaches…

Con: 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.

Pro: Doing the job you love

That’s why you’re in it for the long haul. Ask yourself how many of your friends and family truly love the jobs they’re doing, how many of them work to pay the bills and support their families. It makes me incredibly thankful.

Con: Love gets tested

A client might disappear without making final payment. A mistake from someone you bring on board to help might mean taking the blame yourself. Some people think that because you love your job, you’ll happily work for free. It’s not all roses.

Pro: 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.

Con: 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.

Pro: 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.

Con: Forget paid holidays

No paid sick days or maternity/paternity leave, either.

Pro: You get to wear a lot of different hats

Design, branding, marketing, communications, project management, accounting, IT, web development — just a few of the hats you’ll wear. In my days of formal education I took a post-grad course in management. I don’t manage a team, but what I learned has definitely helped with the non-design side of business.

Con: 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 uncomfortable the fit.

Pro: 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.

Con: 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 — I’ve saved a ton of time that would’ve been spent traveling to and from meetings.

Pro: The 1-minute commute

Not having to climb into a freezing car each winter morning and crawl through rush-hour traffic is a good reminder of why I chose to go it alone. I save that time and fuel and spend it elsewhere.

Con: The inability to leave your work “at the office”

When you work where you live, it’s easy to work long hours. When your office is metres from your living room, there’s temptation to pop back into “work” when it’s more important to spend time with family. I’ve not helped myself by checking emails in bed, not being able to switch off. Self-discipline is essential.

Pro: Taking your laptop outdoors

The sun’s shining, blue skies to the horizon — not a day to be indoors. Get the laptop and head to the park, beach, countryside, beer garden. Or, leave the laptop at home. Take the rest of the day off.


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