What I would tell my younger self.
To give this article some context let me set the scene.
My name is Sam Merrigan and I am a Freelance Graphic Designer.
I grew up in beautiful suburbia in Southern Sydney and pretty much had a picture perfect upbringing. I went to the local primary school and high school of the catholic persuasion and went to church every week.
Once I reached the age of 18 I discovered I liked going out clubbing and enjoying boozy nights with my friends (no different to 99% of teenagers). I went to study a Bachelor of Business Administration at the University of Wollongong and discovered after a hefty uni loan that it didn’t really float my boat. Maybe I was too idealistic/stubborn to just jump into the corporate world and answer phones at a banking call centre (first job offer).
After a while of doing some travelling overseas and working a pretty mind numbing retail job I came to a point in my life that I said to myself I needed to do something I could be proud of and have a passion for. The two options were something relating to fitness or graphic design. After having a really awkward encounter with a personal trainer who was trying to pressure me to sign up and pay a hefty deposit for this course on the same day it put me off that industry and led me towards graphic design.
So I enrolled in an online course at ‘The Graphic Design School’ as it was the only financial viable option I had at the time. I was hooked from the start and my first assignment was on Shepherd Fairey. Once I completed my course I did a little bit of freelance work for some friends but nothing really took off. After a while I met my partner and we moved to The Mornington Peninsula and I was working hospitality jobs and doing the odd bit of graphic design work here and there but still nothing solid.
A few years later we moved to Melbourne and I had found an amazing job in specialty coffee where I learnt how to make a mean cup of joe (not industry jargon) while also picking up commissions for illustrations and doing some brand identity on the side. I left that job this year as I had built up a few steady clients whose work I was proud of and realised I needed to dive into the deep end to have a ‘sink or swim’ moment.
So that is the context. I am currently freelancing for myself and have a great roster of clients who I have a great relationship with. It hasn’t been easy and I have had some years of average jobs where I was doubting if I would even get to do design work for anyone apart from friends who wanted to pay $50 for work.
I think starting off as a freelancer or just trying to crack the industry can be so daunting to outsiders who don’t have mentors or an ‘in’. I felt that way moving from Sydney. I feel the competition is so intense but I also believe it has made my work better.
I guess this is the advice I have for designers who may feel the same or who are struggling to find their voice or even clients.
- Back yourself. Do work that you enjoy doing and do it regularly. I found that sometimes when my inspiration dried up I just needed to really to go back to what inspires me (whether it is hip hop music, sneakers, skateboarding, etc) and then create something while putting my own message to it.
- Invest in yourself. Whether that is time, money or both. I have sacrificed a lot of both to get to where I am in terms of skill and progression. The thing is I realise I haven’t even touched the surface of many other areas that I want to learn about. So this means buying books, enrolling in courses, going to AGDA events, watching tutorials, etc. I have given up so many hours outside of a 40 hour a week job just to try and get better at what I do when it was literally my time off from work to relax. But I feel that perseverance and passion will always outweigh the negatives if you want to get something done.
- Engage the community. This is something I have only just started doing a bit more ruthlessly as working for myself has really made me try and be proactive. I’m normally quite introverted so trying to contact people I don’t know has always been a weakness of mine. Lately I have been trying to contact people I would like as a mentor, contacting studios out of the blue to see if there is any internships, freelance roles and also going to General Assembly and AGDA events. For so long I always thought why does no one hire me but it is actually because no ones about you if you are not saying anything. So try and engage!
- Create Value. This kind of comes back to the last point in terms of engagement. Creating value is what it is all about and it is what I am trying to achieve with writing some articles on my experience. I believe that if you can create value to what you do then you will always be in a good position to be hired and you will be visible to the community that you are engaging. If you can offer advice/lessons to people then you are becoming someone of value and are showing that you are an asset to have.
- Don’t undercharge for your work. This seems like a no-brainer and maybe every now and then you need to do work for a bit less money because maybe there is another payoff out of it. But in general you need to value your work and what you do. There has been many times where I thought $300 was great for something that I was doing on the side but then I was spending 2 months working on the project. You need to know what you are worth, what your services are worth and do not undersell yourself. If you do, people start questioning why you are so cheap and wondering if maybe you are not going to do a complete job.
- Learn about the administrative side and keep organised. Since I have gone full time freelance I found that I have done a 180 in terms of keeping organised and learning about the back end of things. I think that its super important to educate yourself on as much as you possibly can and just always have a drive to learn more and better yourself. In the last 2 weeks I have created contracts, new brand strategy questionnaires, job costing templates, organised all my invoices, emails and more. This is probably just all scratching the surface once again but I feel the more you know and can keep track of the better off you will be in the long run.
- Be super solid with your social media. This means making sure your brand identity is solid along all channels and also know what you are trying to communicate over each channel. This is something I have really tried to nail lately and making sure that the content is authentic, hopefully interesting and also possibly add value. It also means I try and tailor different stories to different channels. So for example my Instagram is different to my twitter or Facebook.
Current Resources that I am finding really valuable at the moment:
Youtube Channel — ‘The Futur’ — Amazing insights and video content by Chris Do and Jose Caballer about design principles and also about running a design business.
The Business of Creativity — A Journal by Jim Antonopolous. Great career advice and insights from a seasoned veteran.
This is my first article and I am in no way a guru or have all the answers as I am still trying to find my own way and progress in my career. I am not offering anything ground breaking but I simply want to share some things that took me a while to get my head around when getting more serious about the work I was doing.
Hope some of you find this useful or insightful.