Not far into my career as a designer, I realized that I had aspirations to work for myself as an independent designer. In the nebulous stages of thought it seemed like a dream full of non-stop fun and creativity, and what designer wouldn’t want that?
Of course, when you are dreaming anything is possible, and the not so fun aspects of reality never seem to cloud that fantasy. But once you get into it, reality can be a cold splash of water.
That being said, now that I’ve had some experience as an independent designer- both part time and full time, I can say without hesitation that there’s nothing I’d rather be doing for my career. And while it’s not all fun and games, the things I’ve learned and the bruises I e taken and the successes I’ve experienced have helped make me a better designer over the years.
The following are a few things I’ve learned, in case you are wanting to pursue this sort of career.
1. Design is not about me
When I first started in design, it was very important to me that I prove to everyone (and let’s be honest, mostly my insecure self) that I could be creative, cutting edge, or whatever descriptor or buzzword one might imagine. I struggled to find styles and techniques that showcased me and what I could bring to the table. In every project I was trying to do something outside of the proverbial box, to create some sort of mind blowing or at least modestly clever approach that would get people to assert that what I created was so very creative.
Most of the time I probably failed, even in the times that I thought I had a win. I spent so much time focusing on how I could demonstrate my creativity and genius that I rarely stopped to think about my client.
In the end, it was mostly about me.
It took awhile, but I finally reached the point where I understood that my job as a designer isn’t to create art, but rather to create visuals that bring about a certain result. In most cases, it was about supporting some sort of marketing push or helping someone describe a product or service. That may have an artistic component, but it’s not truly art, and thus my creativity needed to be leveraged in other ways and utilized towards specific goals.
After I came to that realization, I actually found myself freed creatively. My work was not about proving anything to anybody or anything like that, but rather became more focused. I was able to channel my creativity and effort towards a narrower goal, and instead of grasping for ideas that would be out of the box or whatever, I was allowed greater freedom because of specific constraints. I could now devote my energies towards a definite goal, with measurable results.
Ultimately, design isn’t about me, and I am only successful at it in as far as my designs meet whatever end they are intended for.
2. Design is a process, not just visuals
My first inclination as a designer is to focus primarily on the visuals. The goal with every piece is of course to create something that is visually appealing and engaging, and thus this aspect of design is crucial. But I used to largely ignore or spend as little time as I could on the other aspects of design, such as the ideation, connection with clients, etc.
That’s not to say that I didn’t spend time or effort on those other things, but I tended to compartmentalize them from what I thought was the “real” part of design: creating the visuals.
It took me some time to realize that design is usually a process that incorporates lots of things beyond creating the visuals. I have to be able to create and cultivate relationships with clients. I need to be able to conceive of and share ideas and directions and incorporate feedback and direction. I have to be willing to let go of the super cool idea I think would be amazing and work within the vision of the client or that project. And a host of the things.
To be sure, these are not always my favorite things to do, and the urgency and need or each aspect varies from project to project. But realizing that design has a larger scope in terms of process has helped me to focus my work and to stress less. I used to see any part of design other than creating visuals as a waste of time, but now I perceive as crucial to the entire process, and thus something that is not only a good use of my time, but really a necessary part.
3. Design is a business
I’ve always disliked the business part of design. It’s always seemed to me like a necessary evil, but something that I want to spend as little time on as I possibly can. I’m still not exactly in love with working on the business side, but I have begun to see just how important it is.
In short, when you work for yourself, everything you do affects your business, whether it’s the actual work of creating visuals or the relationships you develop with clients or the emails you write sending off quotes or invoices. This also pertains to how you track and manage funds that flow into and out of the business.
Given this inescapable fact, it is crucial to approach every project, every client, and every potential with at least a squint towards the business side of the equation. It will help you manage your workload and ultimately your sanity.
4. Design is as much about saying No as saying Yes
In my initial forays into being an independent designer, I was terrible at saying no. To be sure, I was just starting out, and so whenever anyone was willing to pay me to design something, I was almost always willing to say yes, even if it wasn’t in my best interest. At the time I was also single and had more free time on my hands, and so it was easier to say yes to just about everything, even if it meant foregoing other things I wanted to do.
However, now that I have been at this for over a decade, I’ve begun to realize that saying no is just as important as saying yes. And this truth is even harder to accept because while saying no to really bad deals or projects I don’t want is sometimes easier, I’ve found that increasingly I’m finding myself having to say no to things I really want to do, but aren’t necessarily in my best interest.
As an example, I have some regular clients with whom I work and have certain amounts of hours set aside. This means that any additional work either needs to fit inside the remaining time in any given week or month, or will entail that I am giving up time to do other things. The difficulty for me is that I really love what I do, and sometimes project requests come in that sound really interesting or get me excited, but after crunching the numbers on time and potential profit just don’t work out. Either that or the payoff has to make it worth my while to give up the extra time in my life to work on it.
The rub of it all is that sometimes passing up a great opportunity by saying “No” is ultimately a better move for your career than saying “Yes.” You have to eventually come to the point where you have specific goals that are leading you towards a certain outcome; if opportunities come along that seem amazing but don’t lead you closer to that goal, then you have to say no. Otherwise, you’ll simply flounder along, hoping to reach your goal but continually being handcuffed by great opportunities.
5. Design requires time, but so do you
The most difficult lesson I have learned in my career is that the hardest thing for me to do is to stop designing. It’s not easy, because I like doing what I do, and I’m always finding inspiration all over the place, which causes me to always be looking at and experiencing things with a design squint. I also tend to try and constantly tweak things to get them just right. Granted, attention to details can take a design from good to great, but it can also sap the life out of you if you aren’t careful. There is always something more you can do; the trick is to know when to say “enough.”
The paradox is that you always need to growing and learning, but you also always need to be renewing yourself. Even if you don’t necessarily feel it, if you don’t dispatch from the design mindset on a regular basis you will find yourself drawing from an ever diminishing well. You don’t even have to be at full burnout to feel the effects.
The time that you can spend away from the computer and away from thinking about design is not wasted; it is a way to renew and rejuvenate yourself. Sometimes when I get stuck on a project I feel stress starting to build. I want a break, but the oncoming deadline makes me feel like I have to keep pushing through. In most cases I find that disengaging completely for a little while helps me come back with a fresh perspective. From the standpoint of efficiency it seems on the surface to be a waste of time, but in reality it makes me more efficient because I then have the internal resources to come back and get the work done.
6. Design is never a destination
I’ve always dreamed about finding my “style,” some sort of technique or means of creating that I can sort of just put on autopilot and run all of my ideas through that. I often look at really great designers and notice that they have similar tendencies in much of what they create, and I long for that. But in fact I am really only seeing the surface of things; if I dig a little deeper I notice that even though there are often similar styles or techniques employed, the really great designers always seem to be branching out into something new, whether in honing their style or exploring ways to bring their skills to bear in different ways.
Design is always changing, and styles and tends ebb and flow faster than anyone can keep up. I don’t necessarily strive to be on the cusp of every trend, but I do attempt to always make sure I am learning and trying out new things. Most often it doesn’t have any immediate effect, but as time passes and I consistently work at new things, the things I learn tend to seep into what I do in a rather organic way. Eventually I find that my style and execution is either becoming more refined, or I start to subtly branch out into new areas that incorporate what I already know.
I don’t think any of will ever arrive at design contentment, and I think that’s probably a good thing. I know that I always want to feel just a little inadequate so that I am constantly being pushed to learn more or try out something new or be open to new ways of thinking about things. Sometimes this comes from an internal drive to improve myself, and sometimes it comes from others bringing their perspective to bear on what I do. In either case it’s always good to be nudged towards learning and growing.
7. Design success should increase your humility
Every so often I have what I consider a “win” in what I create. Given that I am hyper-self-critical, this usually means that I can stand to look at something I’ve created more than a week after finishing it. Oh yeah, and it worked really well for the client…
In all seriousness, success can have the effect of making you feel like you’ve somehow arrived, like you’ve finally cracked the design code and can do no wrong. Fortunately, reality usually has a handy way of disabusing us of those delusions, often in the very next project.
It is wonderful to exalt in one’s successes, to acknowledge the work one has done and the “nailed it!” nature of that success. However, if we are honest with ourselves we would acknowledge that any success is not merely entirely of our own doing, but more often than not is owed to a variety of other sources. We find inspiration everywhere we go, which seeps into our imaginations and eventually comes out in the work. We have colleagues who offer helpful critiques, clients who cast an engaging vision, people who have mentored and trained us.
I always have to realize that I am not solely responsible for any success. I also have to acknowledge that I succeed as often as I fail, and I am always only one project away from failing. I note this not to have some sort of despair, but rather to buttress myself against false pride. I can blow it just as easily as I can nail it, and the difference between the two often has a lot to do with my attitude towards my own abilities. If I think I know everything and can do no wrong, I am less likely to graciously accept feedback and critique. If I am truly wanting to serve my clients and their needs, I am desirous of their input and less likely to impose my own vision upon their project.
Humility is a virtue because it allows us to be more open to world around us, to be more accepting of other ideas and visions, and also to be more willing to draw myself out of my work rather than stamping my mark on what I do. Success should breed humility because in the end it is a privilege to serve my clients- and it truly should be an act of service. When I have a big win, it should be primarily because they had a big win.
In my own career I have created designs that I thought were super brilliant that ended up falling flat with the client. They usually reluctantly signed off on it, but it didn’t necessarily speak into their market. In my earlier years I still tended to see those as wins just because I thought they were cool. But as I’ve matured as a designer, I’ve had to realize that ultimately what I thought was so cool was actually so not, and what I deemed a success was really a huge failure. And in the light of hindsight I have had to grudgingly admit that I was not right nor as brilliant as I thought. Had I approached the project with humility, things might have been very different.
8. Design is not always fun
I always imagined that a full-time career as a designer would be stuffed with fun as I would always be designing, trying out new things. etc. And while that is true on some levels, I’ve also had to break out of my naïveté and realize that this is not always true.
The problem when you work for yourself is that your boss is you, and that boss can sometimes be a real jerk.
But even beyond that, creativity is rarely something that can be turned on and off. Sometimes inspiration comes immediately and I can crank through a design with ease. Other times it’s like crawling through a desert towards a watery mirage. The trouble is that you never know when either is going to happen, and most of the time you simply cannot will yourself to be creative.
Discipline thus becomes a real asset when you are an independent designer, especially if you are doing it solo. You are the one responsible for everything, and no one is going to push you to do what you need to do. I’ve found, however, that if I can discipline myself to approach design as not just something that is fun (which it is) but also as something that I do because I want to eat, it can be easier to push through the dry spells.
Disciple has helped me to develop patterns and rhythms of working that can compensate for a lack of creativity. When I don’t have ideas and am struggling to ideate, instead of banging my head against a wall I often completely disengage from the process and do something else. Removing my thoughts from what’s frustrating me and focusing on something else not only helps alleviate stress, but also usually allows me to see beyond what’s frustrating me, and inspiration often works itself into the space in between, allowing me to get back to my work, but this time on much better footing.
Diligently learning and growing is also helpful because it gives me more tools to work with when ideas are scarce. What ends up happening is that I have a repertoire of techniques and directions that I can bring to bear even when an idea is not forthcoming. This becomes a sort of fallback or safety net that can get me through a project either from start to finish or until an idea starts to emerge.
Being an independent designer isn’t easy, but for me at least there’s nothing I’d rather do. I hope these things I’ve learned are helpful to you, and keep on designing!