A student at the Kansas City Art Institute named Morgan Stockton emailed a while back with a few questions and I figured I’d post my answers here as well. I’ve received some similar questions in the past so this would be a good spot to post my thoughts on certain subjects and for me to shed on a light on what it’s like being a full time freelancer.
What kinds of prior experience is necessary for your position?
As a full time freelancer there is no “required” amount of experience to do what I do, but it’s my belief that you should be relatively good at something before you start charging money for it. It’s important to be skilled at your craft and really hone your abilities, but it’s equally important to have some information business-wise before going into this career, like how to write agreements and contracts, and ensuring you get paid for your time at a price that you value yourself at. Don’t ever sell yourself short just to accommodate someone’s budget.
When you were in college, what did you think your career was going to be?
I actually went to the Wentworth Institute of Technology in 2006 for one semester to pursue a career Architectural Engineering. I loved the drafting course, and the lectures were held by informative, interesting professors who had traveled the world and had great insight and perspective on architecture from around the globe. It was an excellent school and a great program, but I felt that it wasn’t what I wanted to do ultimately. Being an architect these days also means being an engineer – I hit my mathematical peak at Algebra II in high school and I just couldn’t cut it when it came to Calculus. I wanted to be the draftsman, not the guy who constructs algorithms that calculate how much weight certain materials can hold on a load bearing wall. I wanted to draw and get paid for it, so graphic design seemed to be the obvious path for me to take even though I knew next to nothing about the industry other than artsy people made money doing artsy things which sounded good enough for me.
Describe a typical work day/week.
For freelancers like me “typical” doesn’t exist, unless of course you have some sort of steady client you work with every week. Some weeks I have only one or two projects, sometimes I have ten or more, and the scope and workload is always different. You have to learn how juggle multiple jobs, manage your time effectively and prioritize. Making a list of what needs to get done TODAY helps. One thing that is always a given for me on any day though is answering emails, giving out quotes and turn-around time estimates for new projects, checking up on social media and engaging and interacting with my audience and peers, and practicing and improving upon my lettering and illustration abilities.
How did you find your job?
I stumbled into it honestly. After getting out of the architecture program I mentioned earlier I went home to NJ and started designing logos and web layouts for local bands I was friends with at the time which was around early 2007. I was big into metal, hardcore, and punk and all of those scenes have a real DIY approach where all of the bands and promoters just get their artist friend to design show fliers, album art, merchandise or whatever else they need done, and I was that friend. After about 2 years I began doing t-shirt design almost exclusively but somewhere along the line lettering really caught my interest, especially the more ornamental stuff from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I was fascinated with it and started drawing out letters on a daily basis and I’m still doing that now 5 years later after I got started with lettering.
What do you find most rewarding about the work?
There all sorts of rewarding moments that go with this job – seeing strides in your personal ability and being proud of yourself for enhancing your skill set is the big one for me though. At the end of the day, I’m doing this because I want to do it, it’s barely “work” to me most of the time, it’s just something I love doing. So when I see myself improving it makes me anxious to see what I’ll be able to do next and how I can apply to future projects. Getting a great phone call or email sent to you from the client where they are blown away by what you designed for them and knowing you exceeded expectations is another really rewarding experience. Also, seeing your work as a physical product on a shirt or a poster or packaging is extremely satisfying. Knowing that something you made, something unique and crafted by you individually is now out in the world for everyone to see and purchase – that’s an awesome feeling.
If you could give me some advice about entering this field, what would it be?
Work hard. Work REAL hard. By that I don’t mean to just practice on your illustration abilities and how well you can draw letters 8 hours a day. I mean be socially active, be VISIBLE, make sure people see your work everywhere they go and that your work is as good as it can possibly be before presenting it to your audience. Each time you post something, there is someone that is seeing your work for the first time – make sure it’s a great first impression. Learn new things as often as possible, design is an adapt or die industry and if you don’t have to chops to specialize and stick to your guns you need to at least expand your capabilities to follow trends and make ends meet. Not that I advocate just going with the flow and blending in, but there are projects that pay the bills and then there are projects that feed your creativity – not all of them can be the latter.
Also, you NEED to be business savvy to the design industry, not being so was my biggest mistake when I started out and as a result it led to me getting taken advantage of and having no legal ground to stand on when it came to collecting payments I was owed. Being that I’m completely self-taught I never had anyone show me the ropes and tell me that I absolutely need to have contractual agreements and signed invoices with my clients to make sure they pay up and that in general my time and expertise is valuable and I should charge accordingly. I learned it all the hard way through trial and error, don’t wait to learn the business end of design until after you’re a great designer, both aspects of your career should grow proportionately.
What obligations are placed on you at this job?
I do it all, I’m a one man show that handles everything from email correspondence to creative direction, consultation, conceptualizing, sketching, inking, preparing files for print, invoicing, mailing, tracking down new leads, posting to social media and much more. There are so many sides to running your own business that it would be impossible to talk about this topic with any real degree of brevity, so I’ll just say you have to do a bit of everything and you have to be quick about it. Delivering work on time, being punctual and hitting deadlines is a must, your reputation depends on it.
What have been some of your biggest challenges as a designer?
Balancing work with the rest of my life. When freelancing you’re never off the clock, sometimes I work until 3 or 4 AM to make sure something gets done. When you work for an agency or a corporation you can clock out, go home, and then just not worry about your responsibilities until tomorrow. With me, work is always on my mind, I can’t shut it off or tune it out because I always have something in the back of my head telling me that I could be working on something right now. However, that’s also one of my favorite things because I get to work on completely different projects every day – one day it could be a poster design, the next could be for a deck of cards, the next could be a wine label, the possibilities are endless as long as you have clients pitching you new ideas and briefs.
What medium do you most enjoy working in?
I love the pen more than anything else. Doing my work my hand more than 90 percent of the time is extremely satisfying because I know that what I’m delivering is something truly custom and unique that can’t be reproduced or faked by anyone else. I like that I have almost completely eliminated the computer from my process and that most of my work can be done anywhere and that I’m not reliant on software to express my ideas. I have tremendous respect for people who can create killer vector graphics and do beautiful digital paintings but I’m a completely different kind of designer and person who just takes pride in doing things manually.
How many of your projects are self directed vs. client based?
Almost everything I do is client based these days, I rarely have time to work on anything for myself but I don’t look at that as a bad thing. When I do end up getting around to doing some work for myself though I always seem to love the end result because I understand myself and my taste better than anyone. It’s nice to get all of that pent up creative energy out you don’t get to express in client projects and craft something that you want to just because you can.
Are there any books you’ve found to be inspirational or helpful?
My office is basically a lettering and design library, so yes, there are PLENTY of books that I could recommend. I have a massive collection of antiquarian lettering, sign-painting, monogram, penmanship, calligraphy, and typography books, but they are all really tough to find and typically carry a hefty price tag. However, Louise Fili and Steven Heller have been making tremendously beautiful and affordable books for the past 15 years or so that have boatloads of inspiring material. Some of my favorites from them are Shadow Type, Elegantissima, Scripts, and Vintage Type & Graphics.