You might not know too much about the daily life of an independent graphic designer such as myself. And you might think I spend my days guzzling coffee at Starbucks and slopping oil paint all over a canvas in my art studio while rocking out to some obscure indie band. Those might be true in other cases, but I am a full-fledged business person: I get up at around 6:30 AM, drag myself into the shower to face another day of uncertainty. I’m more of a risk-taker than anything. I compete against the big dogs for business, have to keep up with all the latest design trends and technologies to keep relevant, and don’t receive any normal job benefits. My slow time is my vacation. While I am not whining—I chose this path—here is a list of The Top 5 Best and Worst Things about Being a Independent Graphic Designer (in no particular order) to clear up any misconceptions.
Top 5 Best Things
- Freedom. Let me proclaim it: Freedom! Be it artistic, decorating your office how you want, taking a break when you want, or dressing how you want, I love the freedom. If you are stuck in an office cubicle eight hours a day, it’s hard to run errands, take a long lunch, or just go lie down for a power nap. When I am caught up with work, I can basically do anything I want. I have satisfied my client and don’t have a boss breathing down my neck. There are limits of course, and professionalism comes first, but nothing is better than taking a long walk when you’re waiting for some feedback.
- Client Engagement. I love my clients and want to help them succeed by designing great visuals. I work with company owners, presidents and other stakeholders who communicate directly to me their main objectives. Designing in an ad agency, I rarely communicated with a client. It was normally a project manager who had secondary or unreliable information. If you don’t like client contact, becoming an independent designer might not be for you.
- Job Satisfaction. I love knowing that the work I did for someone helped them reach their goals. It’s very cool winning a new client, designing their logo, stationery, and website, then see them flourish in business. It’s like having a baby. My precious little baby boo-boo. Coochie-coo. OK, enough of that.
- Learning Business. If you went to design school, you were never taught about business licensing, insurance, taxes, and red tape. It’s part of wearing multiple hats. You have to be project manager, accountant, and gopher. Nobody is going to do this for you. You might become a little more suave as you act as account manager, sales director, and night watchman. You might even sprout some gray hairs. But learning business is one of the best things about being independent. It keeps you honest.
- Brain power. You will be using the right side of your brain, the left side of your brain, and all points in between. You will learn to be clever, you will learn things you never imagined, you will stretch yourself in ways even the top yogi couldn’t. It’s all about surviving. You will work hard, suffer setbacks, go broke, ruin your health, get frustrated, and lose sleep. Sound fun? But the greatest thing is you’ll never learn as much playing it the safe way.
Top 5 Worst Things
- Job Security. I ain’t gonna lie. You better have all your clients in place before you venture out alone. As they say, “Better not quit your day job.” Figure out all your expenses including savings, etc. If you aren’t going to make it as it stands, start building up your client base first until you are secure. You’ll have to keep your clients happy, because if you lose a big fish, you might regret your decision to go it alone.
- Benefits. This goes with job security, but is a little different. You better have health insurance! On one of my slow days in the middle of winter I ventured to Snoqualmie Falls here in Washington State to take a few photos of the frozen falls. As I was walking down the river embankment I fell and broke my left ankle. Had to crawl up the path and flag down a passing motorist to help me. Turns out I needed surgery, physical therapy, and when I got all the bills it was over $40,000.00! Thank God I had insurance. During that time I kept my left leg elevated on top of my computer desk while working on my client requests. I had bills to pay, and no choice but to work.
- Team Collaboration. I like how when I work in a group I can pass around ideas seamlessly. It is a little harder when I work by myself. Sometimes I ask my wife—who is very good at providing helpful feedback—but other times I risk the chance at being my own art director and send proofs to a client without any internal review. If the design sucks, you’ll know about it.
- Resources. I pay for all my computer equipment, software, classes, etc. If the computer goes on the fritz or you need a RAM upgrade, time to pull out the wallet and lay out the cash. Enough said.
- Isolation. If you have a large family, or a caring dog, this might not be a problem. But if you work alone, you might become somewhat of a social pariah. You will work in a quieter environment and crave some human interaction (except for the person who drums on their desk next to you at the office). Think of that movie, Castaway with Tom Hanks. I don’t have a humanized Wilson soccer ball to talk to, but sometimes I need to go to some loud place just so you can remember what human beings are like. Once I get my fill and am satisfied I am good to go.
Don’t let me discourage you from your dreams. If you are entrepreneurial, have the client base, drive, equipment, skills and talent, money, and benefits, go for it. Win a client, design a logo, see a business grow. Have a baby. Then another. And another.