A Day In The Life

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Freelance Graphic Designer: Margot Harrington

While she has always loved art, Margot Harrington thought she was destined for a career in education. But, a mix of art classes, internships, self-education and graphic design jobs led her to a career as a freelance graphic designer.

In 2008, she went out on her own and launched Pitch Design Union. She spoke with JMA about the challenges and joys of making a living in graphic design.

JMA: How did you decide to pursue a career in graphic design?

MH: I meandered for a little while in school. I started out thinking about going into education. My whole family works in education and I thought it would be too easy — which is hilarious now because I know teaching is so hard. Looking back, it’s really that I thought I knew what I would be getting into and I wanted something different. I took a couple of art classes and loved them, but I was freaked out about making money. I was paying for school myself and wasn’t confident in my ability to make money as an artist. I had my parents in my head a little too much telling me I need to make money and be a contributing member of society. Graphic design seemed like the best way to merge art with those values.

JMA: How did you make the transition from art to graphic design and learn the skills you needed to be valuable in the job market?

MH: As a student, I was very focused. I was one of the few people in my class who made a portfolio. I gutted a vintage suitcase and filled it with my work; I got a Flash for Dummies book so I could make a two-page website for myself. What I learned in school was conceptual. And back then there weren’t online classes or YouTube classes — or YouTube at all. I spent a lot of time supplementing my education. I got an unpaid internship with a small design studio and that was huge for me in terms of learning what the world is like, and starting to understand how the process works. It was humble pie for me. I was so green.

After the internship, I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay in Madison, where I went to school, when my friend offered me — well, not even a couch because she didn’t have one — but a place to crash in Chicago. I packed up and moved with $500 and spent two months on her floor.

JMA: What made you nervous about taking the leap and pursuing a career in graphic design?

MH: I needed money immediately so I had to say yes to everything. I didn’t have the luxury of waiting for the right opportunity, but what I did have working for me was a good portfolio. When you’re a junior-level anything, no one expects you to have amazing and perfect work to show. At that level, it’s more about how you articulate yourself. Moving to a new city with few contacts was scary. I was feeling constant anxiety about jobs and I was scared that I would have to move back to Minnesota and share a one-bedroom with my mom. But, when you don’t have a safety net, you don’t need one.

JMA: How did you get your start in Chicago?

MH: I got a job with Jayson Home, designing marketing materials and working on the website. I was living on $9 an hour for the first six months. I borrowed some money from my dad so I could get a place to live and a bed. Cockroaches were my pets. I worked at Jayson for a year and a half and ended up making $25,000 a year. The experience I got there enabled me to get a better job. I moved on to do packaging and branding for an agency. I was pretty happy with that job. I had some creative freedom and decent pay.

JMA: How did you make the leap to freelance graphic design?

MH: In 2008, the economy tanked and they laid off half of us, so I started freelancing. I really went out on my own because circumstances dictated it. There were so many people laid off that year that I knew I wasn’t going to get a full-time job. I was temping and then I started finding my own clients.

JMA: How do you find graphic design work?

MH: I have a few national clients, but most people are local and because I have been doing this for five years, people recommend me. I probably get three to five project requests a week now. But if you’re not careful and you are just relying on referrals, it won’t lead to enough growth. Now I am also targeting clients I want to work with. I reach out on Twitter, for example.

JMA: When you think back to your concerns starting out, how are those things different today?

MH: My main concern is growth in terms of business development. Where am I going? Do I want to hire people and become a studio? It’s hard to turn a profit when you’re just one person, and it’s hard to grow when you’re in debt from your business and student loans. I am focused on how to grow and monetize my experience and knowledge.

I am also focused on teaching and workshops, which is hilarious because it’s what I didn’t want to do. I never had access to resources to learn about contracts, licensing and all of those things that can have a huge effect on your bottom line. When I started out as a freelancer, I taught myself Googling and building documents from boilerplates. Eventually I found a lawyer to look over everything for me. I put all of that research into a Skillshare class (Contract Writing for Freelancers), which is another way to supplement my income. I would love to do live workshops. (Margot has created an additional Skillshare class, Freelancing for Creatives: Kickstart Your Independence.)

JMA: How do you keep up with changes in technology and stay sane running a business?

MH: I have more than 10 years of design experience, but only four of development experience. I am not the best developer in the world and would love to learn more, but I have found that not a lot of people do both really well. I have also considered learning motion graphics so I can work in film doing opening credits.

The other important thing I do is video chat with other small business owners once or twice a month to socialize, commiserate and get accountability on my goals. We call it Founder Therapy. It’s kind of a lulu name, but it’s exactly what it is.

JMA: What’s the toughest part about being a freelance designer?

MH: Time management. I spent two years way over-committing to the point where I got shingles. I worked as much as possible, and as fast as possible, which worked in that I had a good year financially, but I totally crashed and burned out. I ended up having to take a month off. I didn’t have time to go to yoga, see friends or do anything else. But I had to go too far to figure out I can’t do that. Today, I have a cap on what I can do and I have to stay within that. I set appointments to go to yoga to create necessary stopping points in my work.

JMA: What is a typical day like?

MH: I start working around 10 or 10:30 a.m.; I’m not a morning person. I usually work until 5 or 6 and have dinner, a social break or workout break, and then I work an hour or two in the evening. I’m trying to work less in the evenings and on weekends. I had a co-working space for a while, which was awesome. I saw a huge leap in my productivity. I do have an office at home with a door that I can shut to minimize distractions, but at some point I will find another shared space. It’s trial and error and making little modifications here and there. On Fridays, I try to take what friends and I call #EuropeanFridays. I will have a long lunch or treat myself in some small way to ease into the weekend. I also do life stuff on Fridays, like go to the dentist. You can’t grow and optimize if you’re repeating the same patterns over and over again.

JMA: It sounds like you manage to not let running the business intrude too much on your creativity. How do you do that?

MH: I hired a bookkeeper last year and that has helped a lot with the administrative side. I haven’t had a really deadbeat client that I have had to waste time with — maybe one or two but you learn the red flags and can spot people who don’t value design. I started getting a deposit up front, which helps because most projects can last three to six months and if something gets put on hold, that’s a long time to wait for payment. There’s a level of trust involved on both sides.

JMA: What does the best workday ever look like?

MH: My favorite kind of day starts after I get nine hours of sleep and wake up naturally, then make breakfast and coffee and great dressed — getting dressed is always a good day. In general, on a great day, someone likes something that l made. Feeling like I made solid progress on a project is good, too.

JMA: What’s the salary potential for a graphic designer?

MH: It varies. I tell people who are just starting out not to charge less than $30/hour. If a client can’t pay that, it’s a bad client. People will rationalize that they need experience or it’s a nonprofit, and you can compromise if you’re not doing it for the money, but you’re devaluing the rest of the field. When I started, I charged $65/hour, which is mid-range.

JMA: What’s the bottom line about a career as a freelance graphic designer?

MH: The whole concept of getting to design my own life is such a privilege, but you have to teach yourself and work hard and continue to learn. People don’t become designers — or work for themselves — because they hate learning. I think it’s lovely that design is always changing. It forces us to stay on our toes.

Take a look at Margot Harrington’s work and her company, Pitch Design Union.

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