A Day in the Life of Freelance Designers
Ever wonder what freelance designers do all day? Do they sleep in, design in their pajamas and drink tons of coffee? How do they juggle design, social networking, admin duties, lunch, families, the gym and so on? As designers and developers, most of us have often wondered how others spend their days and manage their freelance businesses so successfully.
When we asked some creative, talented folks who have become colleagues through Twitter, we received many different answers. The designers covered in this article range from students to full-timers who have transitioned to freelance work, and some are long-term veterans. Glance below and discover how each of these fine designers spends their day.
Lee Munroe, Web Designer
My typical day: up at 6:30 am, read through RSS feeds, reply to any emails, off to the gym, then to the office, client work (on at least two different projects to help spread it out), home around 6 pm, me time (side projects, Xbox, TV, etc.). Unfortunately, the 6:30 am thing doesn’t work every day, but it’s always my aim!
What helped me become successful was working hard, learning new things, trying stuff, having mentors and role models, blogging and enjoying what I do.
My favorite productivity tip is to write your day’s to-do list the day before. Also, check emails only twice per day: once in the morning and once in the afternoon. This is admittedly hard to do, but keeps you focused.
Lee’s background is in both design and development, which makes it easy for him to work alongside developers on large-scale projects. His work has been featured on a number of Web design gallery websites and in various media publications, including Wired Magazine.
Natalie Niemi, Graphic Designer
My typical work day is demanding yet enjoyable. In the morning, during the time another person might allot to getting dressed to go to work in an office, I make a hot breakfast (one of the perks of freelancing) and sit down at my desk with a piping cup of fresh-pressed coffee.
If there’s nothing urgent to tackle first thing in the morning, I spend the first part of my day regrouping and prioritizing tasks and waking up my brain by browsing Twitter for a few minutes, where I network with hundreds of other designers and creative professionals. I learn something new about my field literally every day by reading their tweets, blogs and linked articles pertaining to creative fields.
Daily tasks include organizing to-do lists, responding to client emails, researching for projects, filling out estimate forms and contracts, invoicing, keeping records of income and expenses, interacting with colleagues, perusing the Internet for pertinent information on design and illustration trends, proofreading and editing (another service I offer to clients) and, of course, actually doing the design and illustration work.
Many of these tasks, although imperative to the daily flow of my business, are not actually billable, so it is important to book enough work to keep a steady income flowing, as well as to manage my time to allow for these tasks throughout the work day.
My favorite productivity tip would be lists, lists, lists. The more I put down on paper (or on screen), the easier it is to stay focused and organized. This applies to record-keeping (tracking income, time and expenses) as well as to scheduling and to-do’s. I use different methods for this.
For time-tracking and keeping records of my income, I use Mac Freelance combined with Google Docs spreadsheets. For scheduling, I use iCal. To make to-do lists, I prefer good old fashioned pencil and paper. I keep a notebook beside my desk so that I can make a note whenever a new task comes in. It feels great to physically cross things off that list as I get them done.
Natalie N. Niemi runs an independent freelance design and illustration business called NNNdesign (@NNNdesign) (named for her alliterative initials and, of course, her love of design), which is going on its fourth year. She specializes in graphic design for print, original vector illustration and Web graphics and design. Natalie believes the main factor in her success as a freelancer is versatility: maintaining a multitude of skills as well as an interest and dexterity in a variety of styles and subject matters.
“Life as a designer,” she says, “is an ongoing journey. Not only is it an artist’s personal quest to continually hone and refine his or her skills, but the trends, techniques and knowledge critical to the field of graphic arts are ever-evolving at a rapid rate. This is one of the things that makes being a graphic artist today so exciting. It’s a field that one grows into, and also one that grows and develops with you.”
Brian Hoff, Brand And Website Designer
I partition my day as much as possible. Things do come up that throw me off schedule, but normally my day starts off with reading my RSS feeds from 8:00 to 9:00 am, browsing Twitter and checking website statistics. From 9:00 10:00 am, I usually respond to emails. Then I start my client work.
I usually work between two different projects each day. This allows me to approach both projects with fresh eyes and allows me to spend only a few hours at a time on each (as opposed to eight straight hours on one project). In the last hour of my day, I usually respond to more emails, get paperwork in order, invoice (if need be) and organize expenses and payments. All in all, maintaining a workflow is extremely important.
My blog is a major reason for my freelance success, although hard work is probably the most important aspect. Many friends look at what I do and say, “Oh, that’s awesome working for yourself!” Sure, it definitely is, but it requires a lot of work. While my friends work the typical 9:00 to 5:00 jobs five days a week, I work the 8:00 to 8:00 job five days a week, with an additional 10 hours on the weekend. I work even when I’m not supposed to be working.
My blog seems like a full-time job as well. Keeping it updated helps and inspires others, and it is a major traffic source for business because of SEO and high rankings. I also try my best to get out and network by attending events, meet-ups and other gatherings, which is important when growing a freelance business.
My favorite productivity tip is to stay organized day to day. This is the key to my success, especially when running a blog and all the aspects of an independent design business.
Brian (@behoff) is a brand and Web designer based in Philadelphia. He collaborates mostly on corporate identity and branding but has experience building all kinds of strategic design, both in print and on the Web. He started full-time freelancing about a year ago, although for three years he spent his days working at Apple (from 9:00 to 5:00) and his nights freelancing (7:00 pm to 1:00 am) while building up his business to where it is today. Read Brian’s successful blog, The Design Cubicle.
Rafael Armstrong, Graphic Designer
These days, I’ve been doing a lot of on-site work with a couple of clients, which gives my day more consistency. What a “typical” day looks like depends entirely on the amount of work that’s required on-site in a given week. By and large, it breaks down like this.
My work day starts at around 9:00 am, when I arrive at the client’s office (give or take a few minutes, depending on traffic and whether I forgot to put coffee in a travel mug on the way out of the house). I usually work straight through and “clock out” at around 2:30 pm. At that point, I switch to Mr. Mom mode. I pick up my daughter at school, go home, supervise homework, prep dinner, etc.
After dinner (around 7:00 pm, when we pick up my wife at the train or bus station), we spend some family time together. After everyone else is in bed, I go back into the office for a while, go through my RSS feeds if I haven’t already, work on my #daily365 entry and whatever off-site projects I may have, if any. At around midnight, I tend to shut things down and call it a night. Get up around 5:30 or 6:00 am. Rinse, repeat.
My favorite productivity tip? Five words: “(Named) Layers Are Your Friends.” I know it probably sounds simplistic, but working in layers (and naming them—that’s an important component) is one of the two things that has improved my workflow and general productivity over the years. It affords me control. I can, for example, isolate the background elements in a print ad from the art/photography and type so that I can lock out whatever I’m not working on and not be afraid that I might accidentally grab something by mistake (I speak from experience here). It also provides flexibility, because I can work on different concepts for a single piece and see how each works without having to toggle between files. This is especially helpful because I work on one monitor.
Rafael Armstrong (@rcarmstrong) is a designer based in North Jersey. He has experience developing creative solutions for all types of print and Web projects. For the better part of the last decade, he has been involved in print campaigns, signage program creation, logo development and branding, packaging design and production, large format ads for cinema, photo retouching and photo shoot art direction. As well, he has expanded into digital design with HTML and CSS.
He also has extensive experience in production management and media negotiation. Rafael defines being successful as enjoying the variety and challenges of doing what he loves, while getting paid and having time to spend with family.
Brian McDaniel, Web And Graphic Designer
My typical day starts at 5:00 am, with the cat scratching at the bedroom door, demanding her food. Freshly ground and pressed coffee follows, accompanying my morning reading of RSS feeds and email. I tweet what I read or think others might find interesting, while simultaneously diving into whatever my main project is for the day. I use Adobe CS4, so once I have all the programs open, I get going. Usually it’s a custom CMS theme of some kind, or designing and coding an email blast of some sort. Sometimes, I will use the quiet morning to write a proposal if an email request has come in overnight.
Throughout the day I keep tabs on RSS feed updates and Twitter as much as possible without getting distracted. Around 1:00, I’ll give in to the rumbling stomach and make my way to the kitchen, where I’ll make something to eat while watching Sports Center or whatever quick snippet of TV is available. Within the next hour or so, my two daughters come home from school, so I spend a few minutes with them talking about the day. Then it’s back to open projects. At about 4:30 pm, my son makes it home from school, and we catch up, too. The day takes a pause or, if I’m lucky, ends at around 6:00 for dinner with the whole family. If it’s unusually busy, I will work after dinner, but the work day almost always ends no later than 8:00 pm.
Brian McDaniel, or bkmacdaddy designs (@bkmacdaddy), designs as a one-man Web and graphic design studio, specializing in custom websites, WordPress themes, Joomla and Magento templates, along with anything else you might imagine for your online presence.
Founded in 1998 by Brian McDaniel as a side business for extra income, bkmacdaddy designs has grown to serve clients worldwide, using the latest technologies to provide quality solutions paired with a unique focus on affordability and extreme customer service.
Brian believes his success as a freelancer is primarily attributable to his personal approach: he believes wholeheartedly in treating people the way he would want to be treated in each and every encounter. “Unfortunately,” he says, “this seems to be a rarity in business, which means my clients find my methods refreshing and genuine. My goal by the end of every project is to exceed the client’s expectations and leave them completely satisfied.”
Grace Smith, Web Designer
A typical day means having breakfast and reading through my RSS feeds (in Google Reader), and checking the morning news at 8:00 am. I also use this time to go through my emails so that I’m ready to start work at 9:00. I work through my prioritized tasks until around 10:30, when I have a morning break. At least one cup of tea is involved in this. I also use this time to return phone calls or contact clients. I work through to 1:00 pm, when I stop for lunch and leave the office to meet with friends or family. This helps re-fuel my creative energy for the afternoon.
My work throughout the day is usually a combination of design and development work (in Photoshop, Coda, Mamp, etc.), mixed with communications, for example in Skype and Basecamp. I finish earlier than most because I like to take 20 or 30 minutes to plan my next day (using TaskPaper), prepare invoices and tie up any loose ends from the day’s work. This is a general overview of my daily routine, but of course every day is different. This is especially true because I do a variety of consulting work, so I may be out of the office or in client meetings that have been scheduled throughout the day. I try to keep both evenings and weekends free of any work-related activities and use that time for personal projects instead. I find it’s important to set boundaries and keep a good balance between work and the rest of life.
A favorite productivity tip is to use templates, with both my business documents and emails. I have templates for the following: contracts, proposals, estimates, website planner, branding questionnaire and additional services. I can easily edit and personalize all of these. I also make use of Canned Responses (in Google Apps), which saves me from having to type the same information over and over again in response to emails that I regularly receive. These are set up for inquiries that I get through my contact form and in reply to inquiries for each of my services. Templates increase your billable time by cutting down on the administrative work that you have to do for each client and project.
Grace Smith (@GraceSmith) is a 26-year-old Web designer and the owner of a small design studio called Postscript5, based in Northern Ireland. She works with individuals and companies that are based mainly in the UK and US on a diverse range of projects, from branding and blog design to application UIs. She has been freelancing for the last four years with Postscript5, her current brand and studio.
As for her success, she says: “In my opinion it takes four main ingredients: passion, dedication, knowledge and professionalism. However, the single biggest factor in being successful as a freelancer is reputation. Remarkable work and attention to detail will continue to generate future business. Loving what I do and being able to use that to pay the bills is, to me, success in its purest form.”
Nicole Sims, Graphic Designer
My schedule is primarily filled with these four things and looks something like this—though not necessarily in this order after the planning stage:
I’m a list girl and am rarely without my sketchbook. My day always starts by making a plan in my trusty sketchbook, and this includes setting daily goals and making lists to prioritize tasks. Good planning is what makes it possible to juggle a fluid work schedule into my hectic life.
At least 40% of my time is spent in this stage, which includes reading, research, sourcing inspiration (this can be done anywhere in or out of the office, either on or off the computer or iPhone), doodling in sketchbook… I could go on forever here, and it often happens in the dark p.m. hours!
About 20% of my time is spent in this stage. A solid concept helps keep my production time tight. Production includes pencil and sketchbook or mouse in hand, mainly with Adobe Creative Suite. Most often I do my production during the day, unless it’s a crunch and I’m working around the clock.
This is roughly another 20% of my time and can include Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogging, networking events (at any time, day or night), giving talks, trade shows and conferences.
I fill in the final 20% with these kinds of things (it’s a little different everyday): client meetings, invoicing, more networking events, GDC events (Canada’s AIGA), tutorials. I will always continue to learn and add to my skill set, of course. I run or use gym class to clear my head. And of course, I couldn’t do any of it without coffee!
My productivity tip is to be super-effective! I make sure to build my creative working time with a wall or cushion; that is, I completely tune out the outside world. This means turning off Skype, leaving social media tools alone until I’m on a break, not answering the phone, not replying to emails and giving a fiercely furrowed brow to anyone who knocks on my door while I’m working. I work from a home office, so this is all possible for me, but it might not be for everyone. I believe that productivity and creativity skyrocket when you’re left alone in a “vacuum.” It’s like a musician in a recording studio: when they’re recording, nothing distracts them from their mission.
Nicole Sims is the owner of Coley Sims (@ColeySims), a visual foundry. She is an art director and graphic designer who specializes in corporate identity, illustration and print. Nicole offers clean, well-thought-out designs that communicate messages effectively. The freelance advantage allows her to be dexterous and agile in providing swift custom solutions. Having experience in both agency and freelance environments, she has developed a toolbox of contacts and resources to assemble nimble teams of experts for any project.
Nicole started out working the better part of a year for a small design firm as she finished school. She’s been a freelancer ever since—about seven years now—although she still occasionally fills in the gaps with agency contracts.
“I measure success,” she says, “by the happiness of my clients. Over time, I’ve become better at choosing clients and helping them choose me; I sense when there’s a good fit. My portfolio is full of clients who fit and are very happy; they keep coming back, and they refer me to others! I also think success has come with a clear vision of my evolution as a designer and of what’s happening around me. I stay on top and am keenly aware of things as they shift. I’m excited about all the new platforms opening up on which I can apply my skills.”
Blake McCreary, Web Developer, Project Coordinator, Student
During the summer, when I’m not in school, I work full time. I wake up casually around 9:00 or 10:00 am. I eat a hearty breakfast at my own leisure and check my BlackBerry to see if any urgent emails need responses. I often consider my business to be “ad hoc” because I assemble groups for different purposes. Whenever I get the chance, I like to leave the office to collaborate with peers from college and trusted partners whom I’ve met over the years. We all have specialties, and when we get together we can accomplish larger projects.
Sharing ideas and approaches helps me stay fresh. Sometimes, I will leave the office and meet with clients over lunch to spice up the day. Meeting in person helps a business relationship solidify, especially because these days—with email and bidding websites—it’s too easy to be distant from clients. I also prefer a phone call to email when convenient. I never spend too much time working on one project. Stepping away allows me to regroup. When I return, I see the big picture and notice things I may have missed. Sometimes hitting the gym, taking an Xbox break or drinking a Yoo-Hoo does the trick.
Cool office tip: I keep a dry-erase board in my office, as well as several cork boards to pin up current work. The dry-erase board helps me visualize my thought process, and the cork boards hold previous work (I occasionally take a glance to critique, to remind myself of my core values, or to remember ideas that could be applied to other projects). My favorite productivity tip is to master multi-tasking and to know when to step away. Leave a frustrating problem and do other work for a while. You might be inspired, and you’ll come back with a fresh outlook.
Joanna Ciolek, Web Designer
During the day, I take care of three rambunctious boys, ages 2, 3 and 5. At night, I morph into the designer. Come around 9:00 pm, you’ll find me at my desk, sketching, drafting, coding. Somewhat less happily, I also promote and market my business, handle invoicing and billing and answer the ton of email that collects in my inbox apparently at the speed of light. Like any other freelancer, I wear many hats. I’m not yet ready to outsource the more mundane tasks because there is so much I’m still learning by handling the business all by myself.
Here is my favorite productivity tip: because checking email can easily become the biggest disruption of the day, I designate 30 minutes in the morning to scanning my inbox for anything important. I also immediately delete what isn’t. Then I make the task list for the day, in order of importance. I write it down on paper rather than on the computer because this keeps me focused and away from my laptop (once I log in, I can get lost for hours).
To avoid interruption and to complete tasks on time, I do everything in blocks of time, and I don’t deviate. I set up a block for each task or project, anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours (depending on the task), and do nothing else but what’s at hand. I close all other windows and block the sound on my computer (so that I’m not aware of new messages coming in). This works best for me and allows me to prioritize and execute efficiently.
Joanna is the owner of two design studios, Joanna Ciolek Web Design Studio and BOCO Creative (@BoCOCreative). Joanna says, “I started only about a year ago as Joanna Ciolek Web Design Studio. My goal from the start has been to offer affordable Web design solutions to small-business owners. What I’ve learned is that my clients were often lost when it came to building an online presence for their companies. To educate them and help them grow, I started offering consulting services in fields such as Internet marketing and social media. Just last month, I decided to start BOCO Creative, a design agency that specializes in building online strategies to help businesses maximize their online potential. BOCO’s ideal client is someone who needs the whole online package, from a targeted, ROI-oriented design to brand positioning and promotion. On the other hand, my initial studio concentrates on more creative designs, an area in which I’d like to grow.”
So, it seems not everyone stays in their pajamas all day drinking coffee. These are real, serious and talented designers who make a living doing what they love. Even though there is no “right” way to go about your day (as they have shown), it is definitely good practice to stay focused and organized. Everyone has their own schedule, their own way of being productive and creative. The success of these designers might motivate us to take some of their tips.
How do you stay productive throughout your day?