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Thoughts on freelancing

“But how are you going to make a living?” I guess all of us who have chosen a career path in the creative industry have come across the infamous question. After four years of attending university and finishing a degree on media and design, my first year has past working as an independent designer. Collaborating and working on a range of illustration, branding, and gallery projects in three different countries, the past year has proved to be one of the most enriching and challenging years of my life. It wasn’t easy. And now feels like a good time to put things into balance and ask myself: what have I learned from a professional point of view?

Design as a referencing process

As the year began, one of the biggest challenges was the lack of project and client management skills. University is good for experimental creative processes and research methods, however once you are out, the workflow, time frames, and competitive level can become quite overwhelming. As projects came along, it was imperative to develop a work structure that could organize information collected from clients and data that was given to me to work with, that would then feed the process of design. Here I found that it is crucial to elaborate a visual chart that allows you to understand your clients’ needs. Creating mood boards and searching for images that can be associated with concepts can become a solid foundation for a successful project and a happy client. This should come from all sorts of references and not only design-based projects. Architecture, literature, science, and arts, can provide a huge range of inspiration, hints, icons, and symbols that will make your project coherent with its context and audience.

The Mija project was one of the pinpoints of past year. This tasty craft beer branding was designed based on a system of visual communication elements that came from the reflection of the context and the research of symbols and icons of Colombian context. The parrot, as a native bird, becomes the emblem that encompasses a brand with tropical colors and flavours. Showcasing the rich culture, this brand appeals to the pickiest of customers through unique imagery and slick label design.

Mija, the example I present here, withdraws elements from nature which are typical to the Colombian flora and fauna and re-illustrates graphic styles from geometric illustration to organic ornaments. This is important for the brand identity since beer brewing comes from few elements and is the craftsmanship that makes it special, the brewers experiment with native ingredients such as coffee or fruit. Learning about their own brewing process was important branding research that gave my deeper insights into their identity. t also pointed the direction I should look into, since adding non-native faune from an another continent for example, even though it may look cool or trendy, would be out of place. Once I had a better understanding of the production process, and the clients needs (for the brand to have a Colombian flair), I could combine both elements to create its logotype and symbol. This was a project full of fun and insights that allowed me to construct better systems in my design process.

Conceptualization: finding what makes your design process unique

It is pretty unusual to find a right solution and a visual identity on the first iteration. Conceptualizing, and identifying key elements that can build stronger communication channels, is important whilst working with entrepreneurs and clients. However, this involvement should show, the design as a process that is constructed through series of steps that create and reference a visual system to achieve effective communication and not as immediate construction. This should be clear upfront as a part of work ethics and an effective client designer relation.

Before the commencement of a project, it is crucial to establish agreements for delivery: collateral pieces, specificity on every detail of all your collateral, and concrete dates. This can be stated when you first quote a project and the deliverables can vary according to the requirements, number of sketches, variations, changes and feedback. For me it has worked to outline the work process as part of the quote; for example you can state that you will deliver three options of a logo, allowing them to accept or reject the proposals. Then based on what has been approved, make corrections if needed. However it is also important to limit these corrections to an amount that is feasible and concrete so work can flow and feedback becomes constructive instead of subjective opinions. Three iterations works for me. Clear communication, with effective deadlines, and conceptual research have helped me on a range of projects and continue to nourish my design education even after the completion of a job.

Here’s a branding sheet I designed that customers can fill in as a first step on the conceptualization process. The idea is to start bringing ideas onto paper. Once things are written down you can visualize your path and directions to follow.

Branding sheet for initial brainstorming

Handling busy times, surviving the quiet ones

Another pillar of this year’s outcome has been project workflow management. The amount of projects came on an irregular basis, as a crazy roller coaster, the biggest challenge was to keep myself busy during quiet season and keep productivity at its maximum during busy times. As it is probably obvious, the hardest times were the ones with little work intake.ow was I to keep a creative workflow when there were no clients for a period of weeks? Well, I decided to start organizing design tools and managing my own identity as a designer, to work on my professional name as another project from another client. Creating a library of resources, such as free commons fonts, Illustrator and Photoshop brushes, free stock imagery and access to e-learning resources like Lynda or Skillshare not only provided to me with knowledge to refine my design skills but helped me to create a productive routine that has proved be effective throughout the busiest times.

As part of this productivity challenge I started creating project that I would like to be part of; as a food lover, designing menus, labels for produce has given to my free time the opportunity to enjoy my work with me as my own art director, challenging myself, and pursuing my own sense of aesthetics. Creating an identity for myself and my upcoming creative projects I came up with “Magic Theatre Studio” as a name for the group of illustrations and designs that I do on my free time.

Logo collection of various projects

After this busy year, I can talk to customers with more confidence, provide worksheets with precise time schedules that allow a more professional workflow, and understand that there is clearly not a set solution to a every design problem. However building better systems and challenging the notions which I base my work on has proved to be an effective tool to build up my game. Design is a super dynamic industry, constantly evolving, and growing with layers of meanings and iterations. That’s why today I feel confident about asking more questions, revisiting my work structures, and developing more intricate communications systems between my starting point and my deliverable work.

Shot of the children’s book “Matt and Stina move to Berlin”

Today, after a year as a freelancer, I am happy to have worked on a diverse portfolio with projects ranging from brand identities to e-learning UI and children’s books. Making a living as a new freelance designer was hard my first year, but it honed my creative process, learned a lot from working with friends and new customers. I’m looking forward to year two.” What are your experiences as a freelancer? Do you have any advice? Has your creative process develop in a similar way? Let’s start a conversation: samjlloa@gmail.com.