“Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

– Harriet Tubman

I was recently given the opportunity to speak at the University of the Creative Arts in Canterbury, and was sent a questionnaire about my business as a precursor to the event.

As a design graduate, the opportunity to speak to others who feel as passionately about design as I do was a great honour, and it occurred to me that there must be lots of students out there who wonder what it’s really like to run a business. I decided therefore to turn that questionnaire into a blog to give anybody interested in a career in design just a little insight into what awaits them after graduation day!

1. What do you like about your job/and what you dislike?

So this should be an easy question but actually it’s surprisingly hard because there are so many things I adore about my job!

The freedom of self-employment, the responsibility of being in charge, the people I meet… there’s so much to love! However, when I was forced to narrow it down I realised that my greatest passion is in the sheer scope and diversity of the projects I tackle. That, and making sales.

When it comes to what I dislike however, the answer’s pretty easy: I’m a designer not a mathematician, so the bit I dislike is accounts and bookkeeping! I have an accountant and a bookkeeper though, so my advice for new business owners is always to outsource the bits they hate/can’t do/don’t have time for. You have to speculate to accumulate and my ‘numbers guys’ have given me the time and head-space to really concentrate on growing my business. 

2. How/Where do you look for work/clients? 

You can spend a fortune on advertising, pay per click, billboards and the rest, but the key to getting good, quality clients through the door is word of mouth. Don’t be afraid to start slow and make sure you do lots of networking. Getting your brand known is the best way to ensure longevity for your business.

3. What would be your tip for networking? 

Always be yourself: authenticity and truth take you a lot further than trying to fit some sort of ‘ideal’. If you’re new to the game then just own it – people will respect you more for admitting your shortcomings and working on them, than for trying to bluff your way into contracts.

4. How do you promote yourself? do you think being present on social media is important for a creative?

Absolutely. Self-promotion is very important.

Creativity is a gift and it’s up to you to share it with the world. No two creatives are the same, and no two see things from the same perspective, so trust in yourself and your uniqueness.

As a creative it’s important to build a personal brand so that you get known for your craft. Social media is a powerful platform that allows us to share our story with the world. It allows us to showcase our services, but also to share a little of our personality and our drives. It can feel extremely vulnerable to put yourself out there, but at the end of the day, people buy people and social media is all about getting to know people. Embrace it.

5. What are your tips for anyone who is starting out?

Trust in yourself and your capabilities. Be brave and remember, if you don’t ask, you don’t get!

Trust that you are enough and that your skills, knowledge and craft set you apart from other creatives. The creative industry can be very competitive so believe in yourself and never compare yourself to anyone else. We all see the world differently and it’s those differences that need to be embraced. Art is subjective after all – some people will love your style, some will hate it but that’s ok because you don’t want the whole world on your books!

Also be clear on what you want. Do you want to work at a design agency or work client-side? Do you want to become a freelancer or own a creative business? Having a vision and setting goals moves you forward in both life and career, and you’d be amazed at how many established businesses stall because, even after many years, they still don’t really know what they want.

6. How do you make sure you stay true to your style/tone?

It’s taken many years to embrace who I am. It was actually becoming a mum that really helped me to understand who I am and what was important to me.

My twenties were spent trying to make sense of things and trying to understand my place in the world and what I wanted. I realised 9-5 didn’t suit me and I was better off focusing on building a career that was aligned to the person I am than to try and fit into a premade box.

My style and tone is feminine, elegant, creative with a sense of fun, and my little girls have helped me embrace that. Again, not everyone likes that style: I’m unlikely to ever get hired by a funeral home or life insurance company for example! But there are lots of brilliant designers out there who could do a much better job than me for those companies, so I just concentrate on the clients who share my vision – life and business are much more fun that way.

7. How do you know what to charge for your work? How do you stay safe/make sure you do get paid for the work you do?

I cannot emphasise this enough: research and well written contracts.

Make sure that you have a well written contract in place before you start any project. Also take a percentage upfront so that if a client decides to become difficult, you have been paid in advance.

A good client will never question paying a deposit upfront as it shows commitment. Also, a lot of our work is front-loaded so this covers our time and keeps the cash flowing.

If a client is not prepared to agree to your (reasonable) terms then walk away. Save yourself a lot of grief in the long-run!

8. Do you think you need to work for free at the beginning?

I think in the beginning it’s important to build a strong portfolio of work which can be achieved from ‘free’ projects, but I urge you to do this with caution.

Determine what you want to get out of it first.

If it is going to provide you with your desired outcome then do it for ‘free’ but make sure you still have your terms and conditions in place.

Do not do any work without having your T&C’s.

Clients often push boundaries when it comes to the scope of a project. This is called scope creep and can happen without you realising it.

From very early in my career, I would create a Scope of Works document which outlined what was included within a project. This included deliverables, edits, timeframe, responsibilities and, of course, any agreed payment terms.  This held me in good stead and often protected me from being taken advantage of.

I still experience scope creep today, but always know your worth and know that any time spent is valuable.

I would also advise that if you do work for ‘free’ then make sure you get the client’s permission to showcase the work either in your portfolio or online. Also ask them for a testimonial to accompany the work and if you can, also create a blog about it so that you can start building up your online presence. This way any ‘free’ work that you do will have a value to you. It may not be cash, but actually it’s far more valuable, because it’s given you real work experience working as a designer for a client.

9. Do you have any tips on being professional?

  • Always present yourself in the best possibly way
  • Be polite and respectful at all times
  • Always deliver on your promise
  • Always be ethical
  • Don’t over commit or take on projects that are outside your skillset
  • Be honest about where you are on your journey
  • Develop a growth mindset. No one knows everything so be prepared to learn from others who have walked before you

10. What are some of the favourite past projects?

I love working on branding projects with ambitious clients who want to build a brand. These clients are really inspiring. They come at the project open-minded, which leads to great outcomes. It can be transformational for some clients. I have had four clients win Awards because they have embraced there vision through design.

I worked on a project at a design agency for a seafood restaurant. We were all given the job of branding the restaurant and the best design was going to be presented to the client. At the time I was a student at UCA, and working there part-time for free. I was working with all these other amazing designers but it was my work that got picked! It was an amazing moment for me that showed me I was on the right path.

11. We all know the current climate is a little difficult; do you see any positives?

There are always positives to be taken from difficult situations and right now is no different.

We have been given the gift of time and we need to use it in the best possible way. We can often lead such busy lives with very little time to sit down and reflect, consider and plan for moving forward.

There is no doubt that life as we know it is going to change and that we will soon be experiencing a ‘new normal’ however where there is change there is opportunity and that needs to be embraced.

Opportunity to see things differently.

Opportunity to create new things.

Opportunity to make your mark.

None of these things can happen mind you, if you don’t know what you want; so use this time to get clear on your vision for your studies/career/business.

Leaving University and starting out in the world is scary. We are told there are no jobs, but that’s not necessarily the case, and if you don’t come across the job you want then create it!

We live in a world of possibility and I like to think that I am proof of the power of pursuing your goals.

I started a business with no business experience. I had passion, drive and a need to create. Three years later I am doing what I love. I spent 12 years prior to being at uni in jobs that made me unhappy. For so long I felt I was ‘not good enough’ and yet I had these wonderful creative skills.

As soon as I realised that I could use my gift to build something meaningful, everything changed. That can be true for you as well, so embrace what is happening now, find the positive, look for the opportunity and be fair and kind to others.

What UCA said…

Design for the Future Event

“Karen, creator or Pink- Lemon Branding and Design joined the University for the Creative Arts’ Career and Employability Adviser, Nikki Martin for a special lockdown Q&A session with UCA Students where she shared her story of being a designer and branding specialist and her journey since leaving university.

Karen gave great advice and tips on freelancing, effective networking, using social media, developing commercial awareness, and maintaining a professional image.

Students were able to ask their questions about starting out in the creative industries and the feedback was fantastic.

We look forward to working with Karen again soon!”

“Don’t limit yourself. Many people limit themselves to what they think they can do. You can go as far as your mind lets you.

What you believe, remember, you can achieve.”

– Mary Kay Ash

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