I’m an Australian graphic designer. I started working solo in 2010, after five years of full-time work in design studios. Freelancing has given me a terrific work-life balance that allows for extended travel and includes time to work on illustrations for my blog A Small Scrawl, but if there’s design work to be done, it’s my first priority.
When did you decide you wanted to be a graphic designer?
I first considered it at age 15. At that time I was told it was too competitive and to aim for a different career (told the same when I suggested forensic science). I didn’t start studying design until my mid-20s, having completing two unrelated Degrees, and after my boyfriend started studying design. Watching him, I realised it really was what I wanted to do.
Would you recommend studying at art school?
Yes, there’s so much to learn, though technically it is a career you can pursue without formal training. Some courses major in design and others in artwork production (finished art). It’s not critical which area your course focuses on (the gaps get filled very fast once you’re working), but if you plan on freelancing early in your career, the artwork production skills are very important. In Australia, your CV might have a slight edge if you study for a Bachelor Degree (particularly if you’ve just graduated and don’t have any work experience), but I only have an Advanced Diploma and it hasn’t hurt my career over the long term. I don’t think my clients know (or care) what or where I studied.
How long was it before graphic design became your primary form of income?
After graduation, it took nine months to find a full-time position and design has been my main income since then. Before my first job, I did paid casual work in design studios (an extra hand on deck, not design) and pro bono design for non-profit organisations. The pro bono experience was rewarding: I had to act like an experienced designer (attending meetings, taking briefs, working to deadlines and making artwork for print), but clients knew I was a graduate so it was a gentle introduction to the world of design business. I could also update my folio with this pro bono work, which helped when I emailed the same 40 companies every month to ask for a job! Years later, my first freelance client was through a contact from those pro bono days, so it definitely paid off. I decided to start freelancing to gain more control over my work hours and the freedom to tailor my services to non-profit organisations. I was lucky to secure a teaching position at a university just as my business started, but after two years of juggling both, I was too busy with design and stopped teaching. All of my clients have come through word of mouth so my business has had a natural, organic growth. I’ve never needed to ‘cold call’, advertise or put my design folio online.
Could you describe your typical day?
Get up; Turn computer on; Eat breakfast; Read emails; Reply to emails where needed and add new work to my job list; Work on jobs (mostly computer); Email completed jobs to clients as each is finished; Stop work when all small jobs are done and when I know ongoing projects are under control. A small job might be an advertisement, flyer, jpeg for a website or retouching. An ongoing project might be a magazine, report, website design or logo/brand. I work anywhere from zero to 12 hours a day, depending on projects and deadlines. When I started my business, I would sit at my desk for eight hours a day, Monday to Friday, but that’s not fun when there’s no work to do. Now I have five ‘office hours’ each weekday: set times when clients know I’ll be at my computer. If I can’t fill five hours with paid design work, I do illustration instead. I might be lucky and finish by lunchtime or I might be unlucky and still be at my computer after dark! I’m happy to work on weekends if needed and this flexibility works both ways: if I want a day off during the week, I let my clients know in advance. Some days are frantic and others are peaceful. I never know what tomorrow will bring, so I keep on top of projects rather than letting work accumulate, even if deadlines are not pressing.
What do you wish you’d know when you first started out?
Creative ability is only one part of being a good designer. I obsessed about not being the most cutting-edge, experimental designer, until I understood the value of my skills in corporate communication, developing and maintaining brands, and storytelling through design. I’ve found my niche and don’t compare myself to other designers anymore.
What’s the best thing about being an graphic designer?
It’s a location-independent job that allows for self-employment. You can have freedom, choice and control over your working life.
What’s the worst thing about being a graphic designer?
The days can be long and pressured when there are tight deadlines. Design requires lots of attention to detail, so you need to stay focused even if you’ve been working for 12 hours! I found the long days harder when I worked from an office. Now that I work from home, I just plug away until it’s done and then flop into bed.
If you weren’t a graphic designer, what would you be?
A journalist. I’ve tried it and liked it. Crafting with words is more skilful than crafting with images (my opinion), but as a career, I think graphic design might allow for more creative expression.
Any other tips you could share?
Trust that you will grow as a designer throughout your studies and in employment. I still see considerable growth 10 years on from university. Try not to be too impatient.