Theresa Jackson gets JobShadowed about her career as a Freelance Graphic Artist. You can find Theresa on her website at www.orchardviewcolor.com and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
I am a freelance graphic artist.
How would you describe what you do?
I create visual marketing for businesses large and small. I design logos and vehicle wraps and everything in-between.
I also write a bi-monthly column for Signs of the Times magazine and I will be teaching Photoshop for Photographers starting in the summer of 2012.
What does your work entail?
I am a print specialist, so the majority of my design revolves around projects that end up printed in one form or another. Although, with changing technology I spend more and more time creating web graphics and managing website content. My designs are created with the Adobe Creative Suite of applications, Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign.
What’s a typical work week like?
I have a home office so there is no need to set an alarm or even shower and dress in the morning. This is one of the things I love most about working for myself.
Every week day I am at my desk by 8:00 am. Most days I stay in my office until 5:00 pm. If I am not at home, I stay connected with my iPhone or iPad.
Typically I am back in front of my computer or iPad in the evening, but I try to use that time for personal creative work or social networking. If I am swamped with projects I will work late into the night. I also generally work 2-3 hours every weekend.
Much of my work day is spent communicating with current clients or following up on new client leads. Communication is critical to success, but it is also one of the biggest challenges. It is difficult to capture and bill for time spent answering emails and talking on the phone. I spend 8-9 hours a day at my desk, but rarely ever end up with that many billable hours. This is important to understand when creating a business plan for a new creative freelance business.
A couple times a month I will have a client meeting. Usually the meetings are held at a client’s office or a restaurant. Occasionally a client will come to my home office which is a good motivator to keep my office somewhat organized.
I spend a lot of time on Facebook too. The thing I miss the most about employment is the camaraderie with coworkers. Facebook has become my cubicle. There is always someone online for a quick conversation or help when I need it.
How did you get started?
I became a graphic artist somewhat by accident or maybe by fate.
I graduated from UCLA in 1984 with a fine arts degree, the same year the first Apple computer debuted. At the time I had no interest in commercial graphics or design. Desktop publishing or computer graphics weren’t even imaginable yet.
Shortly before graduation I went to the career center and found one job listed under “Art Major”, an apprentice level job for a local offset printer. There began my graphics career. I operated a stat camera, set type, created paste up layouts, stripped film and registered separations for press plates. I even ran a small press.
Within a couple of years, I was making a decent income in the prepress industry working under the title journeyman stripper. In 1989 I went to work for a commercial color house that had a Scitex digital drum scanner and a retouching workstation. This was the beginning of my digital graphics career. All of my skills have been learned on the job.
By 1995 the prepress industry began transitioning from Scitex to Macintosh workstations. I made the same transition and taught myself how to use Photoshop, Illustrator and Quark XPress.
What do you like about what you do?
I love the freedom, the variety, the challenges, meeting people from other kinds of businesses and that I am 100% responsible for my own success.
What do you dislike?
Not knowing where the next project will come from, or how much money I will earn in a month can be stressful, but what I really dislike is the whole business of accounting. I don’t enjoy sending invoices or having to follow up if I am not paid on time. I often say that I would enjoy my job much more if I didn’t have to put a price on it.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
I invoice on the first of the month for the work completed in the previous month. I use Billings 4 by Marketcircle, http://www.marketcircle.com/billings/, for invoicing. It tracks my time, generates custom designed PDF invoices and emails directly from the application. It does everything I need and I highly recommend it for any creative freelance professional.
Most clients mail me checks, but I also accept PayPal and direct deposit.
Projects are billed three different ways. First, some clients pay me a monthly retainer. With a retainer, I am guaranteed a base amount per month, and in return I work at a lower hourly rate. Second, I bid a project for a specific dollar amount and invoice for the bid amount regardless of the number of hours worked. Finally, I track the hours worked and bill accordingly. The majority of my clients pay me per hour.
How much money do you make?
My hourly rate is $75. I can gross anywhere from $1,500 to $7,500 in a month. When I left full time employment I was grossing $60,000 per year.
Salaries have declined in the past ten years. Today, it is difficult to find a comparable salary without going into management, and even those jobs are hard to find. Management positions often mean more time managing and less time designing. This was the major factor for why I decided to work for myself.
The Creative Group (TCG) Salary Guide for 2012, published at www.creativepro.com, lists starting salaries for Graphic Design at $36,500 – $50,750. A quick glance at craiglist.com will give you an idea of salaries in your community, but beware of internship offerings that pay little to nothing. It is almost never a good idea to give your time and talents to a profit making business, even for the hope of building a portfolio.
Something else to consider,salaries have declined because hardware, software and training are affordable and accessible to almost everyone. The Scitex equipment that I learned to retouch on cost more than most people’s homes. Keep that in mind when you are struggling to justify the cost of the Adobe Suite. The more affordable the software becomes the more our skills are devalued by employers.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
A good designer needs a strong set of technical skills, that include a proficiency in the Adobe Suite of applications. Technology is rapidly changing so education and skill development is on going.
I believe that the best overall education can be found at a liberal arts college. I’m sure there are plenty of successful designers who might disagree, but I have some good reasons to support this claim.
The most successful designers are not necessarily the most talented artists. It takes much more than creative talent to succeed in business. The most important is your people skills.
A liberal arts college exposes you to people from all walks of life. Your classmates will go on to be scientists, managers, salesmen and business owners. All of them are potential future clients for your design business.
At a technical school you will be surrounded with classmates most like you, students with the same goals who will compete for the same jobs after graduating. The tech school might teach you more about current design technology, and provide you with a good network of creative people, but you can accomplish the same thing by networking online and in your own community.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Keeping up with the continually changing technology is challenging. There is so much that I still want to learn, like video editing and ePub design.
Some clients can be challenging, especially those who have a difficult time communicating what it is they want.
The biggest challenge is to value my own work and to make sure that I am compensated fairly for it. Every creative person I know struggles with this.
What is most rewarding?
I actually love the challenge of keeping up with technology. It is rewarding to learn something new, and I pride myself in knowing that my skills are more current than many other designers.
Of course I also love happy clients and referrals.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Chose a career in design because of your passion to create. Don’t expect to become famous or rich.
Make sure that you love being a student and thrive on learning new things.
Develop broad skills but also choose something to specialize in.
Always carry yourself in a professional way. You never know who your next client may be. Every business of every type and size needs a good graphic designer.
How much time off do you get/take?
I plan ahead for time off so that I can let my clients know when I will be unavailable. I take at least one week per year and many other long weekends. I work very hard when projects require it and try to enjoy some down time when work is slow.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
In general I don’t think most people see freelance graphic arts as a legitimate job. Some think I just make pretty pictures, and that my job is all fun and games. Others think that in reality I am unemployed, but just say I am a freelance artist because it sounds better.
Those who understand how seriously I take my job think that I design websites, and they see design and programming as the same thing. I am constantly explaining to people that I do not program websites but that I work with others who do.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
To teach, consult, speak and write about my work experience. I’d like more of my income to come from what I know instead of what I do.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?