Occasionally cutting your teeth as a fresh designer means chipping a tooth. My climb to career status creative has been particularly unglamorous, so I've relegated myself to helping others avoid pitfalls, wallowing, and remorse by publishing Design Nuance, a series about navigating tough decisions with the finesse of a pro.
I received a wonderful set of questions from upstate NY designer, Jacqui McCullough, regarding the sought-after freelance lyfe, which prompted this long-overdue update on professional collaborations and decision making as a freelancer.
Where did you start off working when you first graduated? Were you always in the lettering field, or did it come later on in your design practice?
I started off my resumé at a coffee shop, Panera style restaurant, followed by a couple retailers- DSW, The Container Store- finally landing my first shitty design job at a family owned vinyl decal business. There were about three years between graduating and getting my first design gig, which was unsurprising considering the economic decimation of the housing crisis. This made me extremely self conscious and very unconcerned with what college I went to. My degree was in illustration; I loved telling stories, moving people emotionally, but I was a shitty painter and couldn't grasp character design.
I fell in love with design later in school, desiring the structure of typography, shapes, and clean lines. I knew the two disciplines could work in tandem with each other, but I was struggling to determine how. I became aware of lettering, which seemed a healthy balance of directional storytelling and problem solving visual systems, in this case the alphabet. During my battle with post-school jobs, I tried to letter when I wasn't working, but I wasn't satisfied with anything I produced and was struggling to show it. Vector lettering wasn't working for me at all, and my work felt redundant, lost in a sea of similar styles and techniques. When I opened myself to the possibility of stimulating other senses beyond visual feasting, I felt I had a bit more purpose and set myself to playing with measuring tape, paper, and eventually food. Found objects were cheaper than art supplies anyway.
When/what made you decide to work freelance?
Honestly, I didn't want to freelance, and I remember remarking what a pain in the ass it was to invoice people, chase leads, generally beg and be ignored by high powered suits. Freelancing is often touted as a higher consciousness of illustration and design, but it's just a method. I remember salivating over fancy agencies in town, their built in gyms and insurance plans. Honestly, I miss talking to people everyday, and while I have other freelance friends, having someone laugh at your for the instant panic caused by "a weird email" is instantly quelling of unnecessary stress. When my food typography took off, I was so excited and hopeful that I could make money from this bizarre line of work, but I still took temporary freelance design gigs to fill space and generate ca$h while I gained traction. I even took a part time, temporary position at Nationwide Insurance right after my first gig with Target so we wouldn't be living off peanut butter sandwiches while waiting for a check to arrive.
Eventually, I decided I loved the responsibility of making and owning my decisions, sharing my work with directors and accounts people. The paperwork and the phone calls began to validate the importance of my time and craft, and I realized my ass didn't need to be glued to my desk chair for nine hours a day. I could make and create whenever and had the freedom to do other tasks when I wasn't busy. I learned to love and respect the freedom my schedule allowed. Freelance life isn't for everyone and might require growing into the role, but it's one of the most rewarding ways to earn a living.
I see that a lot of your work seems to be done individually, but you still work on group projects like Mean Trills. Do you like working individually, or do you prefer to be working with a team of people?
I'm an unusual creative person in the sense that I prefer working with others. The team spirit is contagious, especially when everyone is enthusiastic and believes in the cause at hand; imagine working on a project with one person from every major in your art department but everyone is exceptionally talented and motivated. Sounds heavenly, right? You've got people doing what they do best, whether that's coming up with a great idea, producing the project, capturing the moment(s), and chatting up the client excitedly. All those skills have job descriptions and people passionate about their contributions.
It's very rare I work with another art director or letterer on a group project, as two people with the same skill sets are redundant, so many art directors I encounter specialize in motion, social, or web video to add additional insight. The best teammates in these cases are the ones that respect your expertise and inform you of theirs but aren't afraid to ask questions about your process.
Collaborating is like a rock band: without restraint it's loud, without talent it's noise.
Do you think there are more benefits working as a freelancer, than in a studio/collaborative environment?
A huge benefit to working alone is garnering a solo paycheck *cues Tom Haverford cas$h monies gif*. You answer to yourself, so you make the brunt of the creative decisions, process your own images, etc. For me, this means art direction, copy, styling, sourcing, lettering, photographing, and retouching, which is a ton of work for one person. I'll bring on an assistant when I can, but that can get expensive if you pay them well.
However, you find yourself quickly tapping out on what you can do as one person, so the studio route can be advantageous if you figure out how to break up workload and compensation to agree to everyone's needs. Ghostly Ferns is a great example of this with a built in network of different disciplines with similar sensibilities. Their studio is particularly unusual since all contributing members are independents but shamelessly plug combining forces. I'm exploring this possibility at present, but I'm strictly in planning stages.
Do you have any tips when it comes to working with an agent? Do you have any tips for someone who is a recent graduate and is planning on applying to creative agents?
The best kind of agent is the one you're happy to pay; the worst feeling in the world is looking at a paycheck after a difficult gig and wondering where all the money went. If you find the right people, they will do everything in their power to make you look good, and if they lack a skill, they will hire someone to fill their deficiency. They will take nights, weekends, and holidays, meaning they will expect you to do the same and respect your need for time away from work. Essentially, hiring the right rep will make you money and provide some peace of mind. I absolutely love my agents at Reach; Erik actually came down to help me with a gig at SXSW this past March and provided invaluable assistance as an herb fluffer.
I would heavily encourage anyone looking into representation to first do their own billing, negotiation, marketing, paperwork etc. so they know what they're paying to offload. Despite having an agent, I still invoice and handle negotiations on smaller gigs, so having someone on staff to help doesn't protect me from paperwork. My first projects with Target, Belcampo, and Macaroni Grill I handled myself, so I felt comfortable with big business policies. Finding a unique style or voice is huge, as a good rep wants original, hardworking talent; this said, if you're heavily leaning on Jessica Hische's portfolio and apply to Frank Sturgess, he's not going to take a competing style, much less a poor look-a-like. They're aligning their name with your brand, so it's crucial to prove you're as hardworking, professional, and resourceful as they are. Ensure they leave a clear paper trail of invoices, emails, etc. so you can keep track of their percentages and your taxes with ease; transparency speaks volumes about their organization and character.
Finally, ensure they represent your character with their speech and practices. I've had bad experiences with other people's agents being rude and unprofessional, which has left a poor taste in my mouth for both the agency and the artist.
Have more questions? I'm happy to field them in the comments or via firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line Design Nuance.