Going at it alone: independent female designers share their tips – part two

As part of our IWD 2021 coverage, four more women discuss their tip for working solo, from avoiding the “side-hustle” mindset to catering your portfolio and communicating properly with clients.

Sneha Shanker, independent illustrator and brand designer

Design Week: Tell us about working independently?

Sneha: I had been designing and illustrating independently alongside my full-time job since 2016. I took the plunge to become a fully independent illustrator in October 2019, after planning and saving up for my expenses a few months in advance. I gave myself a year to see if it worked for me. In case it did not work out, I had my backup finances figured out for 6 months.

I have always wanted to work independently but it is scary knowing that some months could be very financially rewarding, while others could have no jobs coming in. I would say that this ebb and flow is the biggest challenge of the business. The best part of working independently is that fact that you can design your day according to your own convenience – you can get out for a cup of coffee or a stroll anytime (when it is safe to go out), work from anywhere in the world and work at 4am or 10pm. Make it work for you.

DW: What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? And what advice would you give to someone else?

S: I haven’t been given any piece of advice particularly but if I had to go back and give my younger self a piece of advice, I would tell her to learn to listen to her inner voice and trust her gut. Cliché, I know, but I have realised that the more I listen to my inner voice, the better work I make and the better my decisions turn out to be in the long run.

The more you do, the better you get, so start doing whatever you wish for today. Your confidence will improve as you make more. Tiny efforts do add up, so celebrate the small wins!

Also, I hate the word hustle – personally I have never called my work a ‘side hustle’. Treat it like a proper business. What you say matters and affects what you believe in. Give your work 100% but not at the expense of your sanity. Take some time out for yourself and enjoy the things that you would normally. With the pandemic, it has become even more important to take care of ourselves as design work can be very lonely. Belonging to a community and making friends within can be very supportive as well.

Helen Rabbitte, founder of Hello Rabbit Design

Design Week: Tell us about working independently?

Helen: I’ve been freelance for nearly 3 years now. Beforehand I’d worked in-house for brands and agencies, and during this time I built up strong relationships with clients and worked for them in the evenings or weekends on small projects. I slowly started to get more and more freelance work, and once I started to get more than I could handle with a full-time job, I felt secure enough to take the leap.

The biggest benefit is definitely the flexibility it allows. I love that I can work from wherever I like and choose my own work hours. I’m much more creative at night, so if I’m really engrossed in a project, I’ll tend to work through the night – without the worry of having to be at the office for 9am.

The biggest challenge is definitely getting the right work/life balance. When I first started out, I found it really hard to say no to projects – so often worked myself to the ground. I’ve slowly learnt to make time to rest and feel much more energised and inspired because of it.

I’m especially proud of the work I’ve done for Soulection. I’d been listening to their show for years and always looked to the brand as one of the biggest taste-makers within the creative field. So when their founder Joe contacted me to say he was a fan, it was a really special moment for me.

DW: What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? And what advice would you give to someone else?

H: The best advice I’ve been given is, “If you want to design book covers, don’t stick a load of UX designs in your portfolio”. In short, cater your portfolio to reflect the work you want to be doing.

Create the work you’d like to see, rather than what you think others do. As soon as your ideas reflect your own taste and personality, your work will become much more convincing. If you allow yourself time to create and fail, you’ll soon find your flow and start to produce work you’re really proud of.

Rachel Park, freelance designer

Design Week: Tell us about working independently?

Rachel: I finished university last summer, and have been working freelance since then. Due to the whole COVID situation, studios weren’t hiring so it was kind of my only option! Choosing your own hours is great, and I am quite fond of the flexibility of working independently. But the biggest challenge I find is having to do everything yourself, like admin and finances.

I worked on a project for Creative Dundee last year, creating the identity for a series of talks around the gaming industry along with other creative sectors. It was my first project since finishing university, so it was all very exciting.

DW: What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? And what advice would you give to someone else?

R: “Keep it simple” – it can be quite easy to overthink your ideas when trying to create something new and exciting, or to think that your idea isn’t good enough, but when it comes to design, the best ideas are usually the simplest ones.

I would also remind people to create personal work too! Come up with your own briefs or concepts for practice and to experiment with other mediums, styles and techniques. Learn from those around you. Always look for new sources of inspiration and do your research!

Sarah Boris, founder of Sarah Boris Studio

Design Week: Tell us about working independently?

Sarah: Between 2012 and 2015 I had a part time role at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and during that time I was running my own practice 3 days a week – that’s when I really got a flavour for what it was like to be an independent designer and I loved it. In 2015, I resigned from a full-time associate art director role at Phaidon in order to focus solely on my practice. There were a few triggers really and a desire to find time to pursue particular personal projects and exhibition opportunities.

The biggest benefit is the sense of freedom and the flexibility. The freedom manifests itself in how I lead my practice from the working hours, to the commissions I take on, the people I work with and how we work together. Another huge benefit has definitely been the freedom of expression I have experienced. The biggest challenge can sometimes be a sense of isolation when facing difficult situations, but I’ve learned to open up and surround myself with people who are extremely supportive and give me advice when I face a challenge.

I work on everything from visual identities, websites, exhibition graphics to lots of editorial design. Highlight projects so far include the 2018 LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) visual identity and I am also particularly proud of the work produced for The Photographers’

Other projects I particularly love are self-initiated studio projects such as my book ‘Le Théâtre Graphique’ which I’m soon releasing a new edition of, ‘Global Warming Anyone?’ which is a small flip book of 156 pages containing tweets by Trump on Climate Change, my ‘Fragile UK’ flag artwork which was exhibited as part of ‘Hope to Nope’ at the Design Museum. I’d love the flag to be acquired by a museum collection.

DW: What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? And what advice would you give to someone else?

S: Be yourself. And don’t compare yourself to others, design your own journey. There are so many ways to make it, the more singular and original the better. Small is beautiful.

On a more practical business side, be clear at the outset with clients on your working process, payment schedules etc. Communication is key and contributes to building long lasting working relationships.

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