Thursday, 17 June 2010


Oops, it's been a month. Have an owl, or a gwdihw if you prefer. Gwdihw is one of the Welsh words for owl and it's pronounced goo-dee-hoooo, like the sound an tawny owl makes. Welsh is an ace language. My beginners' WLpan course is nearly over and I'll soon be enrolling on the next course up. Gwych!

Other brilliant words for animals: 
bochtew (fat cheek) = hamster.
Dwrci (water dog) = otter
Llygoden ffyrnig (fierce mouse) = rat
Moch daear (earth pig) = badger.

Monday, 17 May 2010

How I became a freelance graphic designer

So in Part One of this thrilling account of my professional life, we saw our hero (me) leave the safe harbour of an agency job in Cambridge and sail off into the sunset in the general direction of freelancing and Cheltenham. But we should probably scoot back a bit and find a bit more about the reasons why all this happened.

My then partner was also a graphic designer. He worked for a publishing company in Cambridge, and when that company relocated to London he was made redundant. While looking for another permanent job, he started to freelance to make ends meet.

And he hated it.

I'd lie awake at night, thinking of all the things he could do to get more work. I sifted through articles on the net, dreamt up strategies and business plans and methods of getting clients. I passed all my wondrous findings on to him which I think he found a) massively irritating and b) of no use whatsoever. The fact is, he wasn't the sort of person who's suited to freelancing. A lot of people prefer to be given their work at 9am, knock off at 5.30 and get a regular, guaranteed amount of money a month. He was one of those. He disliked having to charm people, having to do the admin and the accounts, but most of all I believe he disliked the unpredictability of it all. I, on the other hand, was getting big ideas and itchy feet.

After a few months of searching, he won a job based in Gloucester, art-editing a car magazine. We both wanted to move back west towards our respective homes (his was Cornwall), so I approached my boss and asked him if there was any chance he would employ me remotely. I thought this a good halfway house between safe but single in Cambridge and scary self-employment.

Boss thought about this for a week or so, and said no. But, he said, if you go freelance, I will give you enough work to keep you going every month, until you get other clients. I chewed a biro to smithereens working out exactly how much money I could live on, and lovely Boss agreed to cover a bit more than this amount, and lend me the mac I'd been working with in his office. I saved my pennies and bought a domain name, a scanner, a printer and all the other peripheries, read this, this and this, moved into a tiny one-bedroomed flat in one of Gloucestershire's more hateful suburbs and registered as self-employed with the Inland Revenue on July 12th, 2003.

The next thing, obviously, was to get more clients. As a print designer I knew that printers occasionally were asked to recommend designers, so I called around all the local print businesses with my portfolio. One MD gave me a contact whom I followed up and ended up working with until I'd got successful enough to be able to decide that I'd had enough of his politics and, more importantly, his not paying me on time. I bought the local papers and called up every advertiser, asking if they needed any work doing. I had postcards printed and mailed them out. But my most important jobs came by word of mouth.

I'd started designing a magazine for CIO Connect via my old boss's agency and another agency middleman. CIO Connect decided that they no longer wanted to work with the middleman and approached me directly. I discussed this with my old boss, and offered him a per-page management fee to offset some of what he'd lose with me working with CIO Connect directly. In the end he gave me his blessing to work on the magazine alone without him getting a cut, as it seemed less hassle for all involved. CIO Connect worked closely with another IT member organisation and, after a while, they decided to offer me their magazine, too.

About this time a salesperson from a large printing company called me up. He sold the printing of the magazines to CIO Connect and the other IT organisation, and wanted to meet me. He was thinking of going freelance, and could I offer him any advice? I told him what I could. We kept in touch: I would ask him for print quotes, he occasionally asked me for design advice.

By this stage the other half and I had moved to Bristol, and I remember the print consultant calling me and asking if I'd be interested working on some trade directories for a client of his which also happened to be the UK's largest bathroom retailer. At the time the printer was putting it together and the process was a bit of a mess. Getting me to to the layout work would save time and money. He knew that I had a firm grasp of the reprographic process and that the artwork files I sent to press always passed the preflight, meaning an easier, swifter printing process. We both met the MD and I won the work. And more work. And more work. It seemed that once this client realised how effective good design can be they wanted me to do everything for them. This lasted a couple of years, until the bathroom company realised that they could probably justify employing a designer full-time, so we parted company, and I lost half of my income overnight. I scratched my head for a bit, redesigned my website, had more promotional postcards printed and started all over again. It's unpredictable like that.

Anyway, the best advice I can give someone thinking of doing the same is this:

  • Get good at your agency job. Confidence in dealing with clients is paramount. Get some solid work behind you so your portfolio impresses.
  • Get good at economising. Know exactly how much you have coming in and going out every month. Save every spare penny; learn to go without. You'll be glad of this in the first year or so of utter penury.
  • Make a business plan. Read. Research. Learn about tax and accounts. Ground your dreams in reality as much as possible.
  • Borrow as little money as you possibly can.
  • Attitude is all. Want to please your clients.
  • Know what people are looking for in a designer, and more importantly, what puts them off. A freelancer is potentially flaky as compared with an agency, so project an aura of relaxed reliability. They must believe you easy to work with or they won't go near you. Accurate quotes, hitting deadlines and amenability are probably all more important than creative skills for most clients. Above all, your job is to make your clients' lives easier. Never forget that.
  • Creativity actually scares a lot of clients. Be very careful about revealing your superpowers until you're sure your client is ready to experience them. It's a sad fact that most businesses want to look like their competitors, but a bit different. Yes, really. Swallow your pride or starve.
  • I'd recommend using an independent print consultant/purchaser. In my experience, printers don't give the best prices or highest quality service to lowly freelancers. Print consultants buy a lot of print and therefore wield a lot more power, and for the little fat they add on top of the quote you'll get a better service for your clients and piece of mind that things will be sorted swiftly when they inevitably go wrong.
  • Enjoy the thrill of not knowing what happens next. Having said that, employment can be a lot riskier - you can be made redundant with four weeks' notice. As a freelancer, if you lose a client you generally have a lot more time to adjust and work out your next move, plus you'll already have a website and marketing materials ready to start charming the socks off potential clients all over again.
  • When something goes wrong and it's your fault, immediately own up to it and offer to put it right. Things go badly - that's life. Taking control impresses people, and they learn they can rely on you in the bad times as well as the good.
  • Learn time management. I've learned I'm more efficient if I work on one project a day until finished, rather than, say, spending two hours a day on each of three projects. Also learn that you'll have time off in a pretty unpredictable way. Use this time for things like surfing, mooching around charity shops and drinking tea.

That's all for now - I'll add more if I think of any.

Friday, 14 May 2010

How I got my first design job

I've been contacted quite a lot recently by third-year students of graphic design. They know the industry is a difficult one to penetrate and want advice about the best way of securing a job. I can only describe the path that I followed, and perhaps give a few pointers as to what potential employers might be looking for.

This will be a bit of a story - summarised points at the end for those of you with attention deficit disorder.

It seems I spent about a third of my childhood drawing and painting. I was naturally good at it. I was also naturally good at science and maths, and had an early obsession with colour relationships and the way things fit together. I think most graphic designers have this holy trinity of curiousity, geekery and anal retentiveness. At the age of 10 my teacher would take me out of maths lessons and get me to help design posters for him on the awesome Commodore Amiga the school had just purchased (yep, I'm that old).

After my A levels, I completed a year's Art Foundation at the Glamorgan Centre for Art and Design Technology, where students explore all manner of creative avenues. It was here I first encountered Adobe Photoshop, and glimpsed its awesome potential. After the foundation year I didn't really have a clue what to do, and so sulked off to Australia for a few months. It was there that my uncle put the idea of writing for a living into my head, so I came home, enrolled on a Journalism degree at Falmouth College of Arts, and promptly set about discovering how media interact with their audiences.

This is a pretty important point. People are often surprised when I tell them that my degree is in journalism - it makes no difference, and I would argue that a good journalism course might actually be better preparation than some of the insipid design degrees I've heard about. It's vital to understand how a company, individual, political party, newspaper, whatever, presents itself to an audience; how a visual message is subconsciously communicated. Understanding these theories and practise in working with them is paramount. You can make the prettiest page layout in the world but if it appears irrelevant to your target audience then you, sir/madam, are a piss-poor designer. I'd have a basic read of Louis Althusser and his State Apparatus stuff if you like a bit of theory here. You may not like the way the Daily Mail looks, or Woman's Own, or Nuts magazine for that matter - but there are cast iron reasons why they look that way.

This, I feel, is one of the areas where many design courses seem to fall down. Portfolios I've seen have the students designing to their own audience. They're all surfy and urban and such like. I'd like to see a bit more work practising design for, say, mid-market hotels, cattle-feed merchants, old people's homes.

And here is where reality bites - because,  unless you are actually David Carson and luck out with full artistic control of a surf mag, in your first agency job you will be working for clients who are, let's put it this way, unglamorous. Helmet manufacturers. Chemical suppliers. Local councils.

So anyway, I've skipped a bit and rambled and ranted, as is my wont. Towards the end of my degree (in which I'd done more Photoshop, got good at it, learned Quark and surprised the tutor with my layout ideas) I bought the Media Guardian every week and slavishly applied for every single job I could find that was vaguely related to journalism and wasn't in London. I got one reply, from a small agency in Cambridge, and won the job of 'communications assistant'. I did a bit of PR-writing stuff, a bit more Photoshop, a bit more Quark. My boss took me to printers so I could learn how the reprographic process works (this is something else design students NEED TO KNOW and about which they are usually clueless) and how to design in the most cost-effective manner. Our clients gave us more and more design work, and I gradually got better at it. I learned how to deal with clients (years of shitty jobs in the customer service industry helped, too - if you want to learn to pacify an irate, possibly dangerous boor then for heaven's sake, be a barmaid for a while); how to pitch, how to justify design decisions. My boss gave me business cards with 'graphic designer' typed on them (oh that sweet sweet moment!). We took on a talented junior whom I supervised (sort of). And then, after three years, my then partner got a job in Gloucester, so we moved to Cheltenham and I went freelance.

That's it. It's as random and convoluted as that. Here's the advice I'd pass on from my journey:

  • Sorry to piss on your bonfire, but pretty much forget your degree. It's a beginning not an ending. They don't teach you much of any real use: that's what life is for. A bit of humility about it goes a long way. Confidence is, as they say, a preference, but a willingness to learn is most impressive.
  • Brush up on your spelling, punctuation and grammar. "Oh, but I'm a Creative. That stuff doesn't matter!" Yes, it does. People will at best think you slap-dash and at worst think you stupid. Read this. (I am aware that every little error I've made in this post will now be flagged up).
  • Learn how the reprographic process works, and why for the most part, you can't have three Pantone colours, gold foiling and dye-cut holes in every project you do. (Clue - it's bastard expensive).
  • Learn how digital printing works, and how to design for its limitations.
  • Try to get work experience in a large agency if you can afford the time (don't ask me - I work out of my spare room). Be as helpful as possible.
  • Pay attention to all forms of media, even the lowliest. You will work on some lowly stuff at first - get used to the idea. For the most part, this really isn't a cool job. For the most part, you will be altering phone numbers on business cards.
  • Learn that your job is to keep the client happy. They are paying you. Do not take anything personally. If they don't like what you've done, get back to the drawing board and quit your whinging. Having an artistic temperament will do you no favours whatsoever.
  • Work on personal projects. Buy yourself a domain name, get yourself a Wordpress site and get yourself known on Twitter and such. Be careful what you publish - it's there forever (note to self: quit the political ranting).
  • Offer to do pro-bono work for local causes to build up your portfolio. However, just because they're getting you for free it doesn't mean you get to impose a design on them. It's always a negotiation - no matter what your fee.
  • Put your heart into your work, even the smallest jobs. Every little bit of work has a lesson for you. Learn it.
  • Be nice to people. Get them to like you. And don't take yourself too seriously.

I'll add more as I think of them, but this'll do for now.

Friday, 7 May 2010

A brilliant alternative to first-past-the-post and proportional representation?

A brief foray into politics here, folks.

Firstly, I want to stress that I did not invent this idea - I read it in the Guardian a few years' back.

Secondly, I want to stress that I was up until 8am and have had about three hours' sleep.

The system of electoral reform I am about to fling out there to the masses was devised by a group of mathematicians and its beauty is in its simplicity. I cannot find the original article and will amend this blog to post it should anyone be able to find it.

It goes like this: You walk into your polling station and you take your ballot paper and you mark a cross next the the name of every candidate whom you find acceptable. You may mark as many or as few boxes as you wish.

All the votes for every candidate are then added up. Each cross in each box on each ballot paper carries the same weight in the count - there is no preference.

The winner of the election is the candidate who has been voted as acceptable by the most people in that constituency.

Example: I put a cross next to Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green - these are the parties whose policies I find tolerable. You put a cross next to Lib Dem, Conservative. Someone else votes Lib Dem, Labour and Socialist Worker Party.

In the above instance, the Liberal Democrats are the party acceptable to all three voters, and so they win the seat.

Beautiful, no?

Any feedback by cleverer/less exhausted people welcome. And I should say that I don't call the above system proportional representation because I was told last night (by someone who knows more about maths and statistics than me) that it isn't strictly PR. Willing to be corrected on that, too!

Happy hung parliament, folks.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Well, hello there stranger!

I know, I know, it's been an AEON and I'm a terrible, terrible person. There are a few reasons I've been lax - mostly I've been thinking about the redesign of my website from this to a handsome, slicker Wordpress thingumyjig. I've been playing around with Wordpress and CSS for a client's website and am astounded by the beauty, power and simplicity of both. I'll be able to incorporate this blog as part of my main website, and updating my portfolio will be so much quicker.

The trouble with redesigning my website is that because I'm a graphic designer I can do as I please - there's too much choice. I guess it's like doctors being the worst patients or some such - I have to sit with a pencil and paper and pretend I'm my own client and try to think up words that sum up who I am and the service I provide. Tis a bloody nightmare! The ideas I get for my work with my clients are clear and true, but the possibilities for my own branding are so limitless, the ideas so many and so varied, that they clash and fight and it's a real struggle to get a clean, structured feel. I think I'm getting there, though - watch this space...

Another excuse for my tardiness is that I've been pondering upon the purpose of this blog. At first, as I'd so cleverly used time-consuming Flash to create the portfolio section of my website and then didn't have the time or inclination to update it, I took a blog on as a quick way to upload my newest work to teh internets so that the masses could continue to gasp in joyous awe at my opuses (opi?). But the blog is now wanting to be more than this. I find that, as in everyday life, I want to occasionally inform people of my opinion on a relevant subject. I get sent thought-provoking emails and think about publishing them; I get asked for advice by newly-qualified designers about how to get into the industry. Sometimes I might just want to publish a photo of a nice bit of architecture I see, or some clever design. This blog wants to be more of a diary - what goes on, what inspires and provokes thought.

So expect the following in the near future (I hope by the end of May, when my birthday is, should you wish to send me vintage Champagne and/or a new pair of hot pink Converse All-Stars (size 5, ta muchly):
  • snazzy new website that will bring unconditional love and world peace to each and every one of us,
  • advice blogs - how I got into the industry, went freelance, recommendations,
  • more random photos of stuff I like,
  • more vaguely-relevant musings,
  • more short but frequent postings.
Lastly I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to the design students who've been emailing me over the last few weeks for advice about getting started in the industry. I've just been too busy to reply. I will prioritise a blog on this subject, and send you links when done. Thank you for your patience x

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Spring is sprung!

Just dropping by to show you a little illustration I've done for the cover of the Pulse publication I do for the IISP. It's all about green shoots and hope and such - and incorporates the arrow of the IISP logo into the design. Brush work in Indian ink, scanned in and then manipulated in Photoshop, much like the Welsh Music Foundation poster here.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The Ten Commandments of working with Graphic Designers

1 Thou shalt present thy graphic designer with a well-thought-out brief, considering target audience, likes and dislikes, brand guidelines if relevant, photography & illustration commissioning budget, amount of text and schedule. Thou shalt have this sorted before requesting a quote. Thou shalt present the same brief to all the designers from whom thou art requesting a quote, so that thou art comparing apples with apples and not oranges.

2 Thou shalt consider all the time, thought, hard work, expensive hardware and software, training, skills and creativity involved in the commission before whinging about said quote, sayingst things such as 'my nephew said he couldst design it in MS Paint for twenty quid'.

3 Thou shalt not supply photographs or graphics in Word, Powerpoint or any other Microsoft package. Thy designer has the right to the soul of thy first-born child if this Commandment be broken.

4 Thou shall supply high-quality, high-resolution images if thou requirest that thy publication not look like the dinner of a dog. Heed thy designer's advice on this, for verily, s/he is learn'd. Be prepar'd to pay for such venerable things from istock and such like for they are not that expensive really when thou thinkest about it.

5 Thou shalt NEVER request that thy designer use the typeface known as Comic Sans, for it is the work of Satan.

6 Thou shalt not ask for work to be done for free, on the off-chance that thy bizarre business idea takes off and thou becomest a millionaire.

7 Thou shalt appreciate that now and again thy designer might declare a day off, of which thou willst be told well in advance, and thou shalt not bitch about this. Thou shalt especially not bitch about this when thou decidest to bugger around with thine own schedule and thus suddenly discover that thy designer is busy surfing/snowboarding/knitting kittens whenst thou finally decidest that thou wouldst like to go to press.

8 Thou shalt know that thy designer does not, and will not, use Microsoft Publisher. Requests to do so will be met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and the star Wormwood shall fall from the sky and poison one-third of the land and one-third of the oceans and the seven-headed serpent of Babylon will arise and everyone shall be made to listen to the Lighthouse Family for thou hast Sinned Mightily.

9 Thou shalt check all proofs very carefully for spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes, as thy designer is employed to make thy marketing materials and so forth look pretty, and not to check whether thou is able to tell the difference between their, there and they're, or indeed if thou hast the presence of mind to correctly use a possessive apostrophe.

10 Thou shalt pay thine invoices on time and thy loins will be sure to bear much fruit*

*not guaranteed