It's easy to find yourself in a rut, doing the same kind of work repeatedly. This can be a good thing to refine your work and create a body of illustration work in a consistent style. But sometimes you want to shake it up and push in new directions. I found myself in that place a few weeks back and started exploring. I really enjoy trying to find the geometry in shapes and compositions and I wanted to explore ways to get my work to be more dynamic and to get more comfortable with the human figure. I looked to some of the heroes of my youth as subject matter because not only do I feel a personal connection, but they allow me to study that geometry and energy. I'll be posting new studies here as I go and see where this thing goes.
I worked with Pete Sucheski at Field & Stream for an article about fishing and Barbecue in the South. It was fun to strike a balance of informative and graphic and sprinkle in some illustration.
I had the pleasure of creating a few new Valentine's illustrations along with many other talented designers, illustrators and letterers. You can check them all out here and send them to that special someone.
Yesterday's Part 1 post was intended to a be a few brief thoughts, but as I began writing I realized there was more to say. This was to be catharsis for me, after starting the year with a bit of an aimless feeling, I thought it would be helpful for me to write down and crystallize some of my own thoughts, maybe as a way of reassuring myself. I'm not exactly sure, but it was helpful and the feedback that so many have given has been very rewarding. So thank you for that. Now let's dive into the rest of my thoughts here in Part 2.
PRICING / One of the biggest struggles I have is pricing jobs. Somehow I want every client, every job to work along some master system and all be consistent. One of my early struggles was in the absence of the client just giving me their budget (this is almost every time) trying to figure out what I think they are expecting. I have found this to be impossible and not helpful. To try and make that estimation becomes one of emotion. "I can't send that price even though it feels right, they won't expect that, it's too high and they'll go running." Use your intuition and instinct, but try and remove those kinds of fears and emotions. You can't guess what they're expecting, all you can do is your best to try and price the job fairly and accurately. I have used a sort of informal triangulation that works for me most of the time. Ask for the budget. As I mentioned, this doesn't often get offered to you. I then move on to 3 numbers for the job. What is my gut? Just right off the top of my head, what is the number that surfaces instinctively. I then refer to the Graphic Artists Guild handbook. This has great info for just about every type of design/illustration project. It can't account for your specific situation, but it's a good guide. Then I look at comparable jobs that I've done for clients of this size or in this same industry. Somewhere in the midst of those 3 numbers I end up landing on something that I can confidently present to the client. And if I'm really stuck or particularly worried, I've also reached out to peers that I know have done similar work. You'd be surprised how much even the most seasoned design vet has the same challenges as you and how generous they are to help you out. Even now I still get caught up in the beginning worrying about the numbers. It takes me a while to work through the fear of being too high, too low or losing the job and to just remove the emotion and arrive at the numbers. I'm getting better at it, but it's still a struggle. (And yes, every year I go through the thought process of whether I should pursue an agent or external pricing resource)
HALF UP FRONT / Get a portion of each job up front. I often ask for 50% as a deposit to initiate the project. Sometimes with larger organizations this can be a challenge to get the money to you quickly if the job needs to start right away. Then it becomes a judgement call, but if you do decide to move forward, make sure the payment wheels are in motion. This is a bit different for editorial work vs. longer term design or identity projects. Editorial is often very quick turn and this kind of payment up front is impossible. To get a large company to get you money up front when the job may be due in a few days is not realistic. Often times this up front payment can weed out those that would be a danger to not pay. If someone has selected you to work on their project, but has reservations about up front payment for unclear or invalid reasons, it's probably a situation to avoid.
KILL FEE / Building in a kill fee is a very reasonable and wise thing to do. As a small or one person shop, it's tricky to make sure you have capacity for what you're currently working on and for what's coming up. There is a monetary value to the time you've allotted to the project you're taking on (and the work you may have turned away to make yourself available). Projects end, often for unforeseen reasons. A kill fee is just a way of protecting yourself when this happens.
IN WRITING / Your contract and/or statement of work doesn't have to be anything amazing, but you need to make sure you have one. For me it's really about having a well-written and clear document that both you and the client can review and agree to. It's these unwritten, unspoken details that often make things go badly when the unexpected happens. It should include timeline, scope (in detail), payment schedule, kill fees and usage/ownership details.
CHASING INVOICES / Yes this happens. Yes it's not fun. Longest payment has taken 9 months so far. I've never been outright stiffed on any jobs but I've had to spend more time than I'd like tracking down payments.
SPEAKING / I get asked a lot by my fellow creatives about speaking and is it good for business. Speaking is an honor and a privilege. I truly see it that way. That someone would invest money to bring you out to their group is humbling. It often forces me to look at my own work in new ways. To back up and think about what I have learned and what I would hope to impart to others. Because of this, early on, I said "yes" to everything. I saw it as a way to give my time, help people with my experience (and sure, I love to talk about myself). But what I realized was that often these speaking engagements were costing me too much. I just needed to be choosier about what I took on and when. I'd find myself in a small town on the other side of the country on a Thursday night speaking to a group. Missing time with my family and trying to work late in my hotel or on a plane to keep up with my paying work. I realized that I needed to be more careful and thoughtful about what I said yes to. Conferences are a great opportunity as well. Your trip is paid for, often you get an honorarium beyond travel expenses, and you get to attend a conference and be inspired. If you get the opportunity to speak, definitely grab hold of it, but do it in a way that it doesn't end up costing you too much professionally and personally. If you don't think the speaking thing is for you and you don't enjoy it, that's fine too. I wouldn't say it's been a huge source of getting new work for me.
PERSONAL BRAND / I'm not really sure how to talk about this and not even sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing. It is definitely "a thing" though. As an independent, with your name on the door, you are constantly creating a perception of who you are and your work through all the channels that you put out there. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook are all broadcasting messages about you. I'm not suggesting that you handle these in any particular way. That's a personal decision and something you need to decide for yourself, but I do think it's important to be aware of the signals you are transmitting to the world. I try and use every channel at my disposal to broadcast my work and often some of the process behind it. Being in a smaller market and doing a lot of work with remote clients, breaking down process and thinking is a good way for me to show potential clients how I think, what my approach is and to give them an idea whether or not I would be someone they would want to work with. As an independent designer, I think clients are mostly buying into your work, but to a certain degree they are buying into YOU.
COMPARISON / Picture this with me. You wake up on a Monday, feeling pretty good about the week. Ready to take on your project work and do something great, or maybe your work has hit a lull but you find yourself determined to work your way out of it. Try something new or dive into that side project. One quick visit to Instagram or Twitter...before you know it you're down the rabbit hole looking at that one designer's work. You know the one. Everything seems to be going their way and they seem to have all the gigs you wish you had. The shots of beautiful work, visiting amazing clients or speaking at some great gig. You sit there, on this Monday, in front of your computer. Looking at the layout you don't really want to do or staring down that phone call with the difficult client that you don't really want to make. Believe me, I've been there...as recently as, oh say...this morning! I think we as humans struggle with this, but it seems even more acute in the creative fields. I suspect it's because we are so closely connected to what we do. Who we are and what we make are sometimes indistinguishable from one another. I don't have an answer for you on this one. Some have just stopped looking, which I think can be helpful. I think being grateful for what I get to do and realizing we all have a tendency to do this comparing can also help. I've gotten to speak to some of the best designers around, many whom I've done this comparison thing with, and they all do it too. Everyone's looking up at someone. The sooner I can realize that and get back to doing my own thing, the better off I'll be. In the grand scheme, don't lose sight of what matters most in your life. In 20 years will your friends, spouse or children remember the time you spent with them or that you got over 200 likes in your latest instagram post or that you got that killer job with COOLBRANDCO™ ?
"Comparison is the thief of joy." Theodore Roosevelt
STAY TRUE / When I fall into this process of comparing myself, feeling like crap, rinse, repeat...I often feel this energy to reinvent myself. I think it's natural when we feel unsure to look around at what our design heroes are doing and say to ourselves, "I should be that." The most satisfying projects I have are ones that begin with the client wanting my unique voice and my approach (they're not all this way). The only way to achieve that is to figure out what that is and to develop it.
CREATIVE COMMUNITY / The demands of working on your own can create a "head down" mentality. You can begin to view your time as your money (I mean, it is). But there is no paid vacation. When you don't work, you aren't making money, so this can keep you from doing the things you need to do in the long term. One of the areas that suffered the most for me was creative community. Taking the time to break out of the isolation of working on your own and to learn and be around others sharing the same kind of work, experiences and challenges. One of my best experiences was Creative Works in Memphis this past year. There were so many speakers there doing the same kind of work I was doing and there was a real tone of honesty amongst the speakers. We all face the same stuff whether we're working for the most sought after clients in the world or the small business down the street. It's reassuring to know that others are going through what you are. My goal this year is to put myself in more situations where I can have some more of those experiences to learn from others. It's easy to see it as something that costs you to do it, but it really does cost you more to not do it.
Thanks for taking the time to read all of this. It was helpful for me to write, so I hope you've gotten something out of reading it.
Hard to believe, but after being an employee my entire creative career, I've been out on my own for just about 3 years. I've done some things right, done a lot of things wrong and ultimately, have learned a ton. For those of you out there on your own, or considering it, I thought I'd gather some of my thoughts and share what I've learned. For those of you out there that have been doing this longer than me, I'd love for you add your 2 cents in the comments. I'm sure I have even more I can learn from you.
THE LEAP / I thought it was worth taking the time to go into some detail about how I ended up out on my own. Within that story are some things that will be helpful and encompass many of the questions and fears that is inherent in this process.
I was never the type that thought I wanted to own my own business. I was intimidated by the thought of dealing with the sales and business side and was convinced I didn't have a head for it. Numbers are not my forte and I often find myself procrastinating the little things I don't want to do. I considered this "knowing my limitations" so I was convinced the safety* of having someone else deal with all of that outweighed any benefit to being out on my own. In a way, the stars had to align for me to make the leap.
I had been working at a small brand agency as senior designer and then Creative Director for over 10 years. Things were steady and stable, but I found that my side projects were taking off & my roster of freelance was growing. For over a year and a half I juggled this extra work with a full-time job and the demands of a family. The hours I was keeping were not sustainable for the long term. The energy and enjoyment I was getting out of the freelance and my own side works was enough to keep me energized, but I knew it couldn't last forever and I was beginning to hit the wall. It was around this time that I began working with JJ's Red Hots. The project was substantial enough that I began to ponder making the jump out on my own. In the middle of this decision process, I was invited by my freelance client, Facebook, to come out and spend 90 days with them, to work on some special projects and see it if was a fit for full-time employment. This was exciting but daunting. To pick up and be away for 3 months would be difficult, but I felt like the stars had aligned in a way that they may never again. It was an amazing and challenging time. I was working with the best of the best in a great environment, but it was tough being away from home. I was full time at Facebook during the day and working on JJ's work at nights and on the weekends, to get things ready for them to launch. Every two weeks or so I'd catch the redeye home on a Friday night and then be back to California by Monday.
Ultimately my decision to not take a full time position was a family one. I just couldn't uproot and be so far from extended family. But the year and half of freelance and the opportunity to take on a project the size of JJ's and working full time at Facebook gave me the cushion I needed to make the leap. When I pondered going out on my own, I ended up full of fear and anxiety every time. I kept trying to find a way to remove all the risk from the inherent riskiness of what I was thinking of doing. One day I was meeting with a friend who had his own business for several years and shared with him my bind. He gave me the simplest and best advice I'd been given and was just what I needed to hear as a risk-averse, right-brained, indecisive person. "Have 3-6 months of money saved up, have a pretty full plate of upcoming/ongoing projects and just go for it." Hearing it that simply and in those concrete terms really helped me. There was no magic. There was no secret way that no one could tell me about. It was a combination of being smart about how to do it and being brave enough to just do it.
SLOW TIMES / After being on my own for the first few busy months, I hit my first slow period. It didn't take long for panic to set in. I was used to the rhythm of agency life. Although within an agency, you have slow times, you are shielded from just how that effects the bottom line of the company and ultimately your security as an employee. Ignorance truly is bliss in this case. When it's just you, you feel the slow times and you see in full detail, the slowing of income. Early on, it was easy to panic, but ultimately you are adjusting to a new rhythm. The slow times and way too busy times are all part of the deal. You can do your best to control and regulate workflow, but it's not possible when you are project to project. I was in Charleston for a design event and meeting with my good friend, Adam, who has been running his own successful film/video studio for several years. He confirmed that these up and downs are normal with even the best of planning. (I hope you're seeing a theme of reaching out and asking for help from those that have been there before)
After a few days of worry, I dove in on some personal projects that I had ideas for. My Junk Drawer series came from this first slow period. I used it to explore an idea, try out a new style and make something. It's not a guarantee, but often times these side ventures lead to new projects and opportunities and at minimum, help to develop your craft and creative thinking. The slow times will come. Stay calm and use the time wisely.
THE CHURN / Early on, I saw every project inquiry that hit my inbox as a sure thing. So when it turned out that most of these didn't come through, it felt like I had failed somehow. Over time I've realized that so many things can happen and consequently, many things have to go right in order to land a project, many of these factors outside of my control. The person on the other end is dealing with their own set of problems to try and get their job done. You are often just one piece of a much larger picture. They may just be trying to get some numbers together to get the project approved, or they may be approaching multiple people for the same work. They may have the project cancelled or it may take a different direction and that may be outside their control. I have lovingly called this process "the churn." I've found that I get maybe 20 - 25% of these opportunities that are presented. Knowing that, I still get disappointed when the job I'm dying to have doesn't work out, but I'm not crushed every time. I don't call a project "mine" until the SOW is signed and/or the deposit check is in hand.
TAXES / I can keep this pretty short. Make sure you are putting money aside for taxes. If you are a sole proprietor, Don't see that 100 dollars you earned as a dollar, you just earned 60 dollars. Be diligent about paying your taxes quarterly or you will pay a penalty and make sure you are setting it aside along the way. If you know you'll be going solo for a while, meet with smart people like CPA's and attorneys that can help set you up as a business and can save you come tax time. I am very uncomfortable with this side of running my own business, so investing the money and leaning on outside resources is very important for me.
2 MONTHS OUT / Someone said this to me in this last year and at first it freaked me out, but like most things, embracing the truth and reality end up being reassuring. It's obvious to me now, but a friend who had run their own business described project work as a designer as "never knowing what you would be doing 2 months out." Yikes. But it really is the truth. Sometimes there can be longer term projects or a retainer situation, but often times you just don't know what you'll be working on past the near future. If you're thinking of doing your own thing, this is something to be realistic about and embrace.
SPACE / I tried working from home early on. It took about 6 months for me to realize it was not for me. I have kids at home, which made it tougher, but I also realized I just needed the routine of leaving the house. Just the process of getting ready, leaving the house, getting my coffee, was an integral part of signaling my work day had begun. We're all different, but I realized this routine was important for me and having outside space forced me to do that. When I worked from home, I'd often just roll over to the computer, dive in to my emails and work, and before I realized it, it was the middle of the afternoon and I hadn't eaten or taken a break. Now that I have my own space, I use coffee shop work sessions and working from home 1 day a week or so to break up the routine. Again, everyone is different and you have to figure out what works for you, but I found that having this separation was important for me. I briefly tried a co-working space and have also rented an office within two local creative agencies. It's been nice to have my own space but to be in an office where creative work is happening.
Thanks for reading! Look out for Part 2 that will include thoughts on speaking, personal brand, pricing, and the dangers of comparison. Coming soon...
*The reality is I could have been fired at any time