Freelance Designer, Lauren Allen Designs
In an upstairs room of a beautiful, historic house in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Kansas City Missouri, Lauren Allen spends much of her day working as a freelance graphic designer. Her cat Jim often perches nearby. A toy guitar hangs on a hook. These are some of the things that Lauren likes best about working for herself. There is space in her life for family, and pets, and a few afternoon chores when she needs a break. I asked her to reflect on her career and give some advice to aspiring new designers:
Was that your first design job?
It was graphic designer/production assistant for the Center for American Progress, a non-profit, a think-tank. I did print design, web design, and I also handled all of the printing. So I would be getting bids from the printers and I learned a lot about the printing industry. My job was essentially putting out a lot of information and hosting events. Some events were held in our office. One day I got to work and discovered Hillary Clinton was speaking that day and there were security guards everywhere. It was really fun.
Why did you choose graphic design as a career?Ever since I can remember, I was always drawing and creating. My grandma really inspired being creative all of the time. She had a broken dishwasher in her house and rather than repair it, it was our art supply cabinet. So we were always making stuff. When I was 11 my dad bought me my first Wacom tablet. He was just so into technology and he really pushed on me the idea of graphic design. He said if you do graphic design and digital art it will be easier to get a job than if your are like a painter. And so I said, okay, sounds good. So I followed that track all the way though. I was playing with the Wacom tablet… and before Photoshop was really common, whatever I could get my hands on. MS Paint was on my computer and I just loved it.
What interests you? What are your passions?
What I love so much about graphic design is that I have always been interested in everything; a little bit of photography, a little bit of painting, drawing and I even like to sew. Graphic design allows you to put all of that together into different compositions and use different skills for different projects. I have an illustration project I’m working on right now but I also have an annual report that I’m working on – opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of fun, creative and also really structured. I have always loved organizing. One of my chores would be to organize the pantry. I would love it – making little labels. Graphic Design is definitely about organization, so all of my interests just fell into that.
Which aspect of the design process is most difficult for you?Getting started – 100%. Even if I know I will enjoy the project, getting started is so intimidating. With a new project, I will put it off and do the mindless or more comfortable tasks such as making edits to something I’ve already done. But once I get into it – it’s great.
Do you try to have a reservoir of things that you use for multiple clients?
I am very much of the mindset that my work isn’t about my style, really. I want to submerge myself into whoever the client is. I try to create a style that makes sense for them, it’s not about me. So a lot of times there isn’t a ton of overlap between clients. Having said that there are some principles that I believe very strongly in – designing on a grid, having a structure and hierarchy – because it makes it easier to digest the content. It’s something I feel really strongly about. I’m never just going to wing it. I like things to be organized. When I illustrate it is so different because its just free flow. But on the computer it is different. I always have my grid on and there are a million lines everywhere. Sometimes I get so focused on aligning everything and then I step back and think, “that looks kind of weird.” Technically I’m aligned to the grid but you have to step back and look at it and separate yourself from it. So I start some laundry and then come back and look at it again.
We’ve talked about your first job. Is there anything that you learned that you could pass along?
Yeah, so, in school you get quite a bit of time to work on stuff and I think it is because they want you to explore and really try a lot of options. But then when you get into the real world and you have deadlines and budgets, it is such a different environment. So the first project I had was creating a program for this conference for college students. I thought, “great this is so cool, I’m going to do these custom illustrations for each panel.” And I spent all of this time on it before showing them anything. I showed it to them and said, “here you go,” and was ready for them to be blown away. Then they said, “Well we really just wanted this style” (a style that was really popular on iStock). My feelings were hurt but I learned I needed to be creating something that was appropriate for the audience and not necessarily all about me. I think it helped me to become a lot more efficient, to work smarter. There are so many time savers that are really worth it. It is important to gain the skills you learn in school, but, for example, I have a subscription to this thing called Noun Project – it is just vector icons. So if I’m creating infographics, it is just drag and drop and use however you want as long as you are paying the subscription. $10 a month totally pays for itself. If I were to make that icon by hand, it would take a half and hour or something. It is such a great resource and I can modify it or alter it if I need to.
I needed to be creating something that was appropriate for the audience and not necessarily all about me.
What is a favorite project that you have recently done?
Right now I am working on this illustration project for the Sierra Club. I am working on an all ages coloring book celebrating the centennial of the national parks. So that has been super fun. I am wrapping up a series of brochures for KU School of the Arts which has also been a lot of fun.
KU SCHOOL OF THE ARTS LOGO SYSTEM
The University of Kansas divided up a pre-existing program and it separated Graphic Design/Architecture into one and the School of the Arts into another. The School of the Arts is visual arts like painting and sculpturing, theatre, film and media studies and dance.
So when that split happened, they needed their own identity with a distinct style and cohesiveness.
So even though dance, film, theatre, and visual arts are such a broad mix of things, they now have a really cohesive package of materials such as logos and brochures. Each one has a little different flavor while having a cohesive look. So I created a logo system. There is a main logo and then they add text for the variations using the bold KU red and blue colors. Each one has the same format but is a little bit different.
What advice you would give to someone starting out?
Your reputation is so, so, so important. The best work you will ever get is going to be referrals. If you do great work for somebody they are going to talk about you, going to remember you. So, always stay professional. Inevitably if you are going to do freelance, you are going to have some bad experiences. It is just part of the deal. But I think it is so important to remain professional throughout all of it and if at all possible, finish the project. Then when you have been paid, you can say, “I really appreciate the opportunity to work with you but I just don’t think I am the right fit for your business.” You never know who is listening, who is watching. Not to say it’s “Big Brother” watching… but it is just so important to have that good reputation. I feel like it has carried me through to where I am at this point. Then the other thing I want to say is that I feel like designers in general just do not charge enough for their services. Especially when you are starting out it is hard because you really just want to get some work and I can charge more later. But, if you don’t charge enough, not only are you not able to make ends meet, but also it cheapens your reputation. People expect a certain level of quality when they are paying per hour and when they pay less, it is almost like they don’t respect you as much. They are going to ask for more edits, they are going to question your expertise. So my advice would be, “charge with confidence.”
What do you like about working in freelance?
I love the variety of work that I get to do. When I did do in-house work I felt like I was filling out the same template all of the time. It just didn’t feel creative after a while. It felt stale. So I love being able to work with a variety of clients and getting to do so many different things. It has always felt like a good fit for me. A lot of people really like the social aspect of working in an office. But as I have gotten older, I feel really comfortable working by myself. I think I could benefit from some collaboration every now and then. To me, the collaboration is with my clients. We bring different qualities to the table to create one end project. So even though I am not collaborating with other designers, I am collaborating with a marketing person, or a writer, or so many different people. I think that it is a trap that some graphic designers fall into, treating their clients like they don’t know anything about design. Design is an experience that everyone has even if they don’t know how to articulate it. Or maybe they are not sure exactly what they like, but everyone experiences design. You are designing for an audience and that audience isn’t a room full of graphic designers. They are real people in the real world so it has to be appropriate for the audience. I have worked with clients who are so sheepish about giving me their opinion, I tell them, “your opinion is 100% as valid as mine.” Even though you are not the design professional, I respect your opinion. I only want to work with people whose opinion I respect. If I don’t then the relationship is not going to work out.
Your reputation is so, so, so important. The best work you will ever get is going to be referrals. If you do great work for somebody they are going to talk about you, going to remember you. So, always stay professional.
What is your average day like?
I don’t have an average day, especially with a 1-year-old. I have a friend who watches my son three days a week. I tend to do my best work in the morning so I get in a few good hours. Then in the afternoon I go back and forth between doing something else and work. Generally after my son goes to bed I get in 2 to 3 more hours of work. I think everyone is different when it comes to when they are most productive. So just pay attention to how you work and then try to make the most of it. I even have a book about daily rituals, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. He documented all of these famous artists and creatives, some of them are bizarre. Like one person would go to bed at noon and sleep until 3:00 a.m. and then get up and work 10 hours or something – just crazy. They are all just short little stories so you can read one story and put it back, a quick read.
How do you find work/life balance especially working from home?
I find the times that work for me, plus setting goals and making lists like a crazy person. If I didn’t have deadlines I don’t think I would ever get anything done. I have to stay so organized to keep everything together. I treat my Gmail inbox as my main to-do list so if it is in my inbox and not filed, that means it needs my attention. I have a folder for each client and if I have tended to that email, then I can put it in a folder. And then if they write me back, it pops up in my inbox. That is the system I found works the best.
What are the essential elements for a successful home office?
Having a space for you to work is important. Setting up at the kitchen table is just an extremely temporary spot. I love having my office. It was one of the first rooms we gave some TLC to when we moved here so that I had this space to be creative. Like when I’m in here I work. Another thing I love is my time tracking software that I use. It is called Harvest. (getharvest.com) It allows me to have an overview of how much money I have made per month, how many hours I’ve done per week. It creates my invoices. I can create estimates with it. Also, it will tell me if an invoice is overdue. It will tell me how many hours I have done with any given client – like all of that. So now, when it is the end of the month I can see what is outstanding and I click send, send, send in 5 minutes. I haven’t even customized it because it works. I can see what’s open and paid, what is overdue. There is a lot out there but I found this one to be cheapest and best for my needs. How would you handle a client who requests a lot of edits? That is why I do hourly. There is a big push right now for billing per project. But it just doesn’t work for me. I have a lot of ongoing work with clients and if I’m being paid hourly, their multiple edits are fine. “You want another thing, great! Let’s do it.” Let’s partner together and take care of all of your needs. I am happy to do that but that is also why I bill hourly.
The push to billing per project? What is the reason?
Some designers feel like having an hourly rate doesn’t account for their experience as a designer. So they think billing hourly for their time doesn’t take into account the hours they spend throughout the day thinking about it. I get that, but for me, I adjust my hourly rate based on my experience. A logo, for example, might have taken me 12 hours when I was younger but now takes 4 so I bump up my rate because I’m more experienced and efficient. I think people equate it to working in the service industry. But to me, graphic design is a service industry. You are serving a client. To me, it feels like a little bit of an ego thing and I have always really tried not to associate my ego with my work. My work is not me, so if you have edits or you don’t love it, we are working on a problem together is how I see it. I don’t consider myself someone who knows everything and knows the perfect way to do things. It is something we have to work through – when I’m working with a client, I am an expert in what I do and they are an expert in their field and they know their audience and goals. So it’s a collaboration to take those two things and try to create the best thing that you can combined.
So how do you stay connected with other designers?
There are so many great networking opportunities here in town. This morning I went to a Creative Mornings event. I definitely could be better about staying connected but two sources I know that are awesome are Dribble and Behance, where you can post work or work in progress and get feedback from other designers. I don’t tend to do that but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t.
Any tips for setting up estimates or bids?
Always give yourself a little more time than you think you need. Then on the invoice, write, “invoice will reflect actual hours worked.” If I get close to whatever I have estimated, I notify the client we are getting close and a lot of times that will either cause the client to make fewer edits, be more efficient, and start making some solid decisions rather than waffling. Or they say it’s fine to extend it.
Any final suggestions?
As soon as you can afford to, have a professional do your taxes. That stuff as a freelancer is crazy!
What started as an interview with Lauren turned out to be a mentoring session for me as someone relatively new in the field of freelance graphic design. After I left her beautiful house and neighborhood, I quickly began implementing her recommendations in my own life and work.