Startup Diaries: Carving Out A Creative Career
Daphne Diamant, London based designer/illustrator and owner of Purpose and Worth etc, talks to The NextWomen about her pursuit of a creative career, and offers tips on freelancing, drawing on her own experiences of both being a freelancer and hiring freelancers.
I was a very arty, musical kid - always drawing, and collecting bits of magazines, paper, anything that caught my eye - like a magpie - as well as singing and playing piano, drums or guitar. So while there was no Eureka moment that set me on a design-led path to eventually starting up my business Purpose & Worth etc, it seems as though the foundations were always there.
However, before the design came music. Like many teenagers, music became an acutely visceral experience for me - transporting me with an eye-watering intensity out of my very ordinary life, exposing me to a whole new world of deep feeling and camaraderie. Unlike most teenage girls, though, I found my musical tribe in the burgeoning art-punk scene of late-seventies Toronto and New York. Before I knew it, at the age of 16, I was the singer in a punk band, playing the underground club scene.
First bands are a formative, coming-of-age ritual, and not surprisingly, we split after a riotous and exhilarating 18 months. I had been truly taken over by the music, tattooed and all. But disillusioned by some of the things I’d seen, and needing to take a step back from its more harmful influences, I entered art college - the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto - and focused my creative energies on my second love: art and design. I was determined to return to music, but this time able to design my own album covers too. Over the next twenty years, I led a parallel life of music and design.
When the band took centre stage, I put design on the back-burner, and when we returned from touring or recording, I got back to the business of design. It was a rigorous schedule: touring across Canada and gigging steadily in college towns in Canada and the States, as well as writing and recording - then coming home and switching hats to ‘designer’.
But I’ve always felt lucky and grateful to be able to do the two things I love.
After running an independent band and label for the better part of two decades, my enthusiasm for starting the process all over again - writing, recording, promoting touring - had really waned. I was tired, and needed a new injection of inspiration and purpose. We (myself and my husband Derek, also the drummer in the band and a furniture maker/designer, owner of Purpose & Worth etc) decided that if we were going to make a change, it should be dramatic and life changing - enough to kick-start some real desire and fire in the belly. We sold what we could, packed up and moved to London, where we put on our other ‘hats’ to explore design opportunities in the UK.
Relocating to London was a big reality check. As a designer, I’d worked for myself since leaving art college (except for a brief stint in the civil service, from which I had bolted as quickly as possible), and my client base in Toronto was such that I hadn’t needed a portfolio of my design work to generate business.
I didn’t have any design connections in London, so for the first time in my life I had to put together a portfolio and flog my wares to find work.
I registered with a few reputable but skeptical recruitment agents, and waited by my landline, because I didn’t have a mobile.
It was a demoralising time, often confidence-destroying and lonely. I had no idea that the distances were so vast, and discovered the tube was often unreliable. After a harrowing three months with no interviews, I was offered a week of freelance at a small internal design agency, and finally got into the rhythm of working in London. I freelanced solidly for two years before accepting the position of Creative Director at Bisqit Design, overseeing design comms for a broad range of global clients and managing and mentoring a small team of designers.
I learned how much I enjoyed mentoring young designers, which led me to an Associate Lecturer position at Camberwell College of Arts, teaching advanced typography and layout, and I discovered that I could navigate the demands of a corporate environment and sell-in big, often brave ideas to clients. But I grew to resist the confines of such a structured business model, and resent the lack of time I had to pursue other interests, so after four years I left to return to freelancing and take back control of my time. It was during the next five years of freelancing that I started seriously planning the start-up my own business, Purpose & Worth etc.
I had a huge learning curve when I started. I knew nothing about the business of stationery, production or the industry, but I muddled in and found a fantastically helpful and generous group of people in this small industry, who patiently answered questions, offered advice and pointed me in the right direction. When I launched my first range of Purpose & Worth etc cards at the Progressive Greetings trade show, I was terrified that no-one would come to my stand or place an order, that I’d got it totally wrong and wasted a year planning and investing in my new venture. But, thrillingly, that was not the case. I landed my first large retailer, Paperchase, as well as a handful of other design-led shops and galleries.
For anyone looking to start a career in design, I would offer this advice. Design is a process and a craft. You need to understand and master both to really liberate yourself to the enjoyment and application of designing.
And it is problem-solving, with the objective being communication. Look everywhere for evidence of successful design, and when you come across someone who really knows their stuff, absorb and extract every bit of insight and information you can from them; it will be priceless. Passion is an obvious and over-used ‘necessary ingredient’, I think. Curiosity is a far more important character trait, and then of course, a lot of damn hard work and graft. It’s a cliché, but the journey really is where it’s at.
As someone who has both hired freelancers and been a freelancer, here are a few tips on freelancing that I hope will be helpful to those looking to start:
It may sound obvious, but often freelancers are taken on in very busy periods, and though you may be contracted to work on a specific project, my experience is that you can find yourself covering a variety of tasks and projects as deadlines approach and to relieve pressure on other designers at different crunch times in a project. And, you'll often find yourself trying to quickly get up to speed in a new environment, where everyone is busy, with very little time to show you where things are or how things work.
I have a 'freelance' toolkit which I take to all my placements: a complete 'old school' selection of design tools, which includes: an A4 layout pad, pencils, eraser, pens/marker, ruler, glue stick, tape, highlighter, scissors, paperclips, clear document folders, Loupe magnifier, stapler, calculator. And equally important is my digital toolkit.
I have a small portable USB hard drive, which, as a freelance designer, is my best friend, saving me (and the client) sometimes hours of prep and research.
On it I have files that I have collected and edited over time, which I've found invaluable: design reference for styles, layouts, concepts and typography; photography and photographers; illustration and illustrators; Photoshop files for visualising everything from brochures to exhibitions, packaging and websites; templates for many types of print and web design, from literature grids and folders, to website flat plans and guidelines. I also take an extra mouse (sometimes my keyboard!), as you may, unfortunately, find yourself at the unloved workstation with the old, dirty Mac and broken chair.
Introduce yourself and try to remember names
You are a new face, and probably one of many that have been through in a freelance capacity.When you arrive, be friendly and introduce yourself to the person at reception, the designers sitting beside you, the people you meet in the kitchen and on the way to a meeting if you haven't met before. It can be overwhelming to remember the names of people (and what they do) in the rush of briefings and meetings, so I write down who's in the meeting and what their role is.
If you don't know, or can't remember someone's name, don't be embarrassed to ask - it's far better than trying to figure out the many ways you can ask someone a question without saying their name.
Stay calm, be helpful and polite, and don't take it personally
When you enter an office dynamic, especially at busy times, you may feel 'invisible' and out-of-sync with what's going on. Remember, you have been hired as an expert pair of hands, so settle in as quickly as you can and get to work. If you are on a longer contract, you'll find there will be time to get to know people and relax into the environment, but in the beginning, avoid getting too engaged and relaxed too soon - chatting, making tea, etc.
Short freelance stints often lead to longer (or sometimes permanent) positions, so the impression you make at the start is important.
Be helpful, and say 'yes' to requests from other designers as often as you can, without compromising your deadlines and expected output. You'll meet all sorts of people, of course—some will be friendly, some will not—try not to take it personally, take a deep breath, and be professional and polite.
Go with the flow, but not on the company's time
You may notice others in the studio talking on their phones, shopping or banking online, checking emails or Facebook. As designers sit in front of computers all day for work, it can seem harmless to dip in and out of personal online tasks - don't - unless it's clearly a lunch break, or before or after work. Many companies have policies for personal time at work, but I've found it's best to clearly separate the two when you are freelancing. You may be unlucky, and find the Creative Director has only walked by once in a day, but you were unfortunately checking personal emails. When freelancing, I keep my phone on silent and leave the building for breaks/lunch to catch up on personal calls and tasks.
Daphne Diamant is a London based designer/illustrator and owner of Purpose & Worth etc, an independent small publisher of design-led, fine quality stationery and paper goods. Originally from Canada and a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design, she re-located to London with her furniture maker husband in 1999, to pursue an MA in Design from Central Saint Martins and work and play in the creative industry and community in the UK. For more information, to view the full collection of Purpose & Worth etc products or find stockists visit www.purposeandworthetc.com
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