UX, Web & Brand design by Stuart Gamblen

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My Story: Journey to a Freelance Web and Graphic Designer

Hard won life advice for ambitious designers and creative entrepreneurs

As I mentioned in my last post the goal of this blog is help others improve their businesses through branding and the web…

But, before I get into publishing more branding, web design and WordPress related articles I though it would be worthwhile to explain a little more about myself, my background and how I became a freelance Web and Graphic Designer. A sort of extended about page if you like.

How did I become a freelance Web and Graphic Designer?

What qualifies me to talk about these topics?

Why should you listen to me?

How can my background and training help you?

These are the questions I’ll cover and build upon as I publish more and more articles on branding, WordPress and web design, and as you continue to read this post…

Early Creativity

I’ve always had a love for creativity, right from a very young age. From drawing, playing with lego, cooking and making play dough to getting told off on my first days of school for drawing eyes in the word “look”, creative activities were always great fun to me.

Although I might not of fully understood it on a conscious level when I was very young, playing in order to bring something new and unique (and hopefully of value) into the world always brought me a great deal of satisfaction.

Art, Design and a Creative Education

My love for creativity continued though secondary school where I excelled in Art and Design Technology lessons and began to establish my creative interests around more visual arts such as drawing, painting and design.

It’s was at this stage that I started to get the sense that I’d like to do “something creative” for a living. But what that was exactly and how this creativity translated in to the world of work was unclear. I just knew I wanted to continue doing creative work.

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It wasn’t until a careers advice class that I picked up a promotional leaflet on Graphic Design. According to the leaflet Graphic Designers created promotional artwork and beautifully designed covers for big name magazines. “Great” I thought, “I can can see myself liking that”.

It wasn’t until later that I found out that there was much more to it than that, but it was enough to spark my interest.

After years of traditional art classes I still had a love for drawing though. So after much research and adventuring around the country I managed to enrol at Oxford and Cherwell Valley College in Banbury, North Oxfordshire, on one of the few combined Graphic Design and Illustration degree courses available at the time.

Out into the ‘Real World’

After plenty of work and fun living away from home, due to my interests and the direction I decide to take through my degree course at the time, I left University with a portfolio packed with children’s illustration.

However, over that time I’d also discovered that practically all illustration work was done on a freelance basis, something that a fresh, young and risk adverse graduate with limited experience such as myself at the time was not entirely comfortable with.

I wanted to get some experience in the workplace, so began applying for as many full time Illustration jobs as I could find. They were few and far between though and my efforts to apply for Graphic Design jobs came to little due to my lack of portfolio at the time.

So to pay my way in life and keep my parents happy I took on an admin job and began to use any spare time I could find to brush up my software and design skills. Graphic Design seemed like a much more commercially viable area and one where I could also gather some much needed real world experience. Determined to make full use of my degree I set about getting a design portfolio together.

With a full time job it was tough going though so I asked to go part time. Initially they refused, so I found another lower paying job and told them I was going to quit. My determination payed of as they then changed their mind and agreed to let me go part time.

Lessons learnt

  • Don’t give up. Persistence and determination pays off.
  • Don’t let corporate self interests curb or take president over what you want in life or what’s best for you.

First Break

Whilst working on my design portfolio part-time I started looking for work experience as a way of getting my foot in the door. With a bit of luck I managed to land some with advertising agency M&C Saatchi. Result!

They wanted me to head down to their London office for two days to start off with, with the promise of a longer stint if all went well.

It did.

So I used the rest of the holiday I had been squirrelling away for an opportunity such as this to head back down to London for a newly agreed two week work experience. Sweet!

At this point I was expecting nothing. Just the experience and being able to tell prospective employers I’d worked at a world renown advertising agency, however short it was, was enough for me and a step in the right direction. But after a week-long job trial in the second half of my experience they offered me a job in their studio, working in the pre-press department.

Woop! I was so happy! Super happy.

All the hard work and persistence had payed off. It wasn’t quite my dream design job yet but I was in the right area and on the winding road to being a design superstar in the capital. At least that was the plan and what I hoped for at the time.

Lessons learnt

  • Anything worth achieving usually requires a lot of long term effort.
  • You have to be willing to put yourself out and make sacrifices to get what you want.
  • You make you own luck by positioning yourself ready to exploit opportunity.
  • Hard work and persistence pay off.

Fun and Work in The Capital

M&C Saatchi was great place to work. Huge fancy offices in the middle of Soho with a desk looking straight down Carnaby Street, company wide meetings in France, parties in trendy Soho clubs, popular music groups paid to perform in the giant company atrium, a luxury Italian coffee machine the size of my student kitchen. There was just one thing.

My job.

It had practically zero creativity.

I was bored. I kept telling myself how lucky I was to be working at such a great place but I was sick of it. After years of pushing for more creative roles in-house combined with continual promises that never seemed to come to fruition I felt my talent, skills and potential were going to waste. No amount of great free coffee or company perks was going to make up for this.

After four years I’d had enough. The trouble was that despite working for such a prestigious agency, what I thought was going to give me a helping hand towards my dream design job actually turned out to pigeon hole me.

Throughout all of this I’d been polishing my design portfolio and taking on freelance work wherever I could. However, I’d go for design jobs and despite protective employers loving my portfolio they would then tell me I didn’t have enough working experience.

So I’d then go for interviews for less creative roles such as Artworker, where I’d be laying out ads for print, but they’d then tell me I was too creative. So I’d then go without my portfolio but they’d think or tell me that I didn’t have the creativity.

Maybe these were excuses on their behalf but it seemed to me like I just couldn’t win!

Skills and lessons learnt

  • Reprographic / Pre-press printing skills
  • Artworking skills (I pushed to help out at M&C Saatchi whenever I could)
  • Photo retouching skills (again a pushed to help and sat down with the full time in-house retoucher whenever I could)
  • How to work as part of a studio and team
  • How a busy advertising agency operates
  • Prestigious companies, fancy offices and corporate perks don’t make up for unfulfilling work

Second Break

Despite the uphill battle I was persistent though and eventually managed to land an Artworking job. I was ecstatic and after tiding up the paperwork and handing in my notice to M&C Saatchi I decided to book a two week backpacking trip around Europe with a friend.

Life was good. I had a great holiday planned and was looking forward to coming back to a new job and challenge in a different part of London.

Then, halfway into my trip whilst wondering around and soaking up the beauty in Plitvice Park, Croatia, I got a phone call from the new company I was moving to telling me they were withdrawing my job offer and contract.

The 2008 recession was in full swing and their main client, an Icelandic bank, had withdrawn most of their and what would’ve been my work. I was gutted.

I called M&C Saatchi to see if there was any chance of me keeping my position with them but it was to late. They had already offered the position to someone else. It was a bit of a holiday killer to say the least.

M&C Saatchi were great though and on my return offered me a months freelance work while I got myself sorted out. Then my my studio manager at the time was a complete star and helped me sort out further freelance work at another big ad agency called BBH just down the road.

Despite the wonderful support I was gutted though. I was right back at square one only now facing it combined with unemployment. Getting a more creative position now seemed like a complete luxury. What was I thinking?

A Moment of Doubt

Throughout my job hunting period period at M&C Saatchi I’d also been toying with the idea of going back to higher education and retraining. If I couldn’t find the creative job I was looking for then perhaps some retraining or a change of direction was what I needed.

While I was employed at M&C Saatchi’s this felt like a huge risk, not only to find, undertake and finance the training but also to quit a perfectly good job that I felt many people would be perfectly happy with and that I should be grateful for.

However, the idea was now starting to look a little less risky. I’d lost my job. My heart wasn’t in the area I was currently involved in. Why look for another similar position I’m only going to end up unhappy in?

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Despite managing to find more freelance work through an agency I decided that was it, I was going to go for it, I was going to retrain in either a related area or try to make the transition to a totally new area of work.

At this point I only had thoughts and basic research on what I might like to do, but I just knew I needed a fresh start and a new, more challenging area of work. It was only going to get harder to do as I got older and I didn’t want to look back and regret anything. It was now or never.

So I decided to pack up my life in London and move back to my home town of Gloucester where I could recoup, assess and collect my thoughts in a fresh and pressure free environment.

Job Transition

After a lot of thought and self reflection I decided there were four broad areas I seemed to be good at or interested in that I’d like my new career to focus on or combine if possible:

  • Art, design and creativity
  • Practical, hands on activities
  • Problem solving
  • Helping and caring for others

After a lot more research I came up with a number of occupations that I thought could fit the bill, including Art Therapy, Personal Training, Artist, Illustrator and a whole other host of possibilities. But after much thought there were three that stood out for me:

  • Landscape Architecture
  • Occupational Therapy
  • Primary Teaching

So I arranged work experience for all three to get a taste of what working in these areas would be like.

Landscape Architecture sounded great and was the most closely related to my background. It seemed to have a great career path and excellent prospects, plus I could complete a conversion course and be retrained within two years. But after a great experience working for Atkins on the 29th floor of the Euston Tower in London, and then a smaller practice in Cheltenham, I decided that if I was going to go after a creative career then I wanted something with a lot more creativity.

After talking with people, it appeared that a large part of the job would be project management and sourcing materials etc. Not spending my days drawing, designing and getting my hands dirty building things like I’d envisioned and was hoping for.

Next I tried Occupational Therapy at the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital but after a short stint I could tell that the hospital environment just wasn’t for me.

Finally, I tried teaching or what was effectively working as a teaching assistant. IniFirsttial I started off with just a few days, but I really liked it. It was completely different to what I’d been doing before, and I found I really enjoyed helping and being around the children.

After a lot more experience at some different schools and a lot more thought I decided that it was teaching and working closely with children that I enjoyed the most and wished to pursue.

Despite being completely different to what I had done before, I could be retrained with one year and I found that it was also possible to do so with an Art specialism!

It sounded great, a respectable and reliable career with a good roadmap for progression. Plus I get to help people and combine it with something I enjoy at the same time. My experience in life now was leading me to believe that perhaps it was time to put those artistic visions and goals to bed and take the more stable and sensible path like most people in life compel you to.

So after about a year of hard work split between more unpaid experience and then paid agency work I finally got accepted onto the PGCE Primary with Art specialism course in Exeter, one of the top Universities for teacher training.

I loved being back at Uni. Spending your days learning and socialising with like mlike-mindedinded people is great fun. At least for me.

The only problem was that when it came to starting the actual teaching placements I didn’t find it anywhere nearly as fun.

Between the continual lesson planning, report writing, assessment, performing, bureaucracy and endless box ticking I was so busy and stressed out that any enjoyment I had got from being around the children was pretty much destroyed.

Despite early indicators that I wasn’t enjoying things I ploughed on though. I wanted to give it a proper shot, especially after the enormous amount of time and work I’d invested just to even be accepted onto the course in the first place. Besides I’d never quit anything in my life, I always saw things through.

Up until that point that was.

Two weeks before the end of the course I quit.

Before this point, to me, it would have seemed like the sort of thing crazy people did, but I’d had enough.

It was actually an incredibly difficult decision to make, one that was made especially hard to swallow after 2.5 years hard work getting there. But there was no way I could even see myself passionately or convincingly applying for jobs let alone being happy as a teacher long term.

Confirmation of What I Really Wanted

What I’d found throughout teacher training and as it became increasingly evident that I wasn’t enjoying teaching was that I was thinking more and more about creative activities and ambitions.

It became pretty clear that whatever I did my desire to draw, design and be creative in a professional sense wasn’t going to go away, no matter how hard I tried to fit my skills and personality into other areas.

It’s great having something you enjoy so much and are passionate about but when it feels as though you have no opportunity or way of carrying it out it can also be incredibly frustrating. Almost a bit of burden and potential source of unhappyness.

Anyway, it was clear from past experiences that most companies had a hard time taking on what they saw as risk. Despite my confidence in my abilities (although admittedly stereotypical dislike of selling), a solid portfolio and lots of passion I got that. Without “working experience” I was seen as an uncertain bet.

So if a business was unwilling to take on the “risk” of employing me what could I do?

Take on the risk myself and start my own.

So thats exactly what I did.

Freelance Creativity, Learning and Freedom

Striking out on my own as a freelancer was a little ironic really, considering how at one point I’d avoided it due to being so risk adverse at the time. But it had become pretty clear that this was what I needed to do if I really wanted a more creative job.

Again, I didn’t want to regret anything.

So after a short course on some business basics, a bit of paperwork and some time spent rebranding and redesigning my website I was officially in business!

Since I was making a stone cold start with no client base it was a little slow to begin with but I worked hard to build this up over time. Now after after over two years I have a consistent stream of clients that include new as well as regular returning customers.

I love being able to get up every day and have a new creative challenge to work on. Yes, I sometimes miss having others to work with and bounce ideas off but its extremely satisfying having complete creative control and being able to rise or fall on my own merit.

I’m able to continually learn and push myself, far more than I ever did or would be as an employee.

With freelancing and working for myself I’m able to continually try out new things, learn and push my skills. If I decide its worth finding the time to learn and carryout a new skill proficiently, then I can bill for it, its as simple as that.

From social media, search engine optimisation, WordPress, copywriting and blogging to sales, business, tax assessment and marketing skills, I’ve learnt a ton! I may not be a guru or wish to bill for all of these areas but they’ve all been extremely beneficial skills to learn and will be among the many I intend to develop and build upon as I continue.

Working everyday as a full time Web and Graphic Designer has also meant my design and web skills have improved immensely since doing it part time over the previous 10 or so years.

But I’ve also found that it’s not just the creativity and continual development that I love like I originally thought.

It’s the freedom that comes with working for yourself.

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My career goal has always been to able to spend my time doing work I enjoy, namely creative work, but in becoming a freelancer I’ve come to realise that I actually enjoy the freedom of being me own boss and running my own business as much as I do the creative work.

I wonder if without realising it that was part of what I was looking for all along. Either way it’s been a pleasant surprise, a little more I’ve learnt about myself and again something I want to continue to build and strengthen a I go on.

Lessons Learnt

  • It’s OK to quit. In fact it’s best to do it early if you feel things aren’t working or right for you.
  • Failure can be good. It can be a liberating and perfectionism destroying learning experience that pushes you in the right direction. Don’t run from it. If your not failing regularly then your not trying enough new things.
  • Starting a business and working for yourself is hard work but very satisfying.
  • Personal freedom is my motivating force.
  • When you work for yourself your work is never done. Take breaks, focus on why your doing this and enjoy life.
  • Work out what you want, go for it and don’t give up.

Self Employment Feels Right

After a lot of hard work I feel I’m finally in the right area for me and doing work I enjoy. It’s been a long road getting here and is definitely not over, but it’s been worth it and made it all the more satisfying.

Their are risks in working for yourself but my experiences so far have taught me that it’s no more risky than working for someone else. If anything it’s safer as your eggs aren’t all in one basket.

If it came to it I’d never turn my nose up at a job as an employee, who knows how I’ll feel in the future, but for now I’m very happy working for myself as a freelance Web and Graphic Designer.

It’s All About You Next Time

This has turned out to be a pretty epic and self indulgent post but I hope it’s helped you to get to know and understand me and my background a little better.

I promise to make sure that future posts are focused on you and providing useful information on building or improving your business with WordPress, web design and branding.

If anything in this post has resonated with you I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. What’s your passion? What have you struggled with? What are you working hard towards? What are your goals?