Going at it alone: independent female designers share their tips – part one

As part of our IWD 2021 coverage, four women discuss their tips for working alone, from reinvesting in yourself, to being prepared for dry spells and staying motivated.

Charlotte Coulais, founder of En Ville design studio

Design Week: Tell us about working independently?

Charlotte: I set up my design practice En Ville about 6 years ago, when I got my first big contract rebranding an artisan bakery with more than 100 stores worldwide.

Working independently means you can do what you want. I am in charge of my time, which is great when I juggle many projects at once while trying to find the right time balance with my family life. I love the direct relationship I have with the clients which allow more collaboration and communication. However, it also means you I have to do everything. I would rather spend more time on the creative side, but I obviously have to think about admin and new business too.

One of my favourite projects few years back was creating the identity for The Honey Club, a social enterprise about bee caring communities in urban spaces such as London. More recently, I designed the identity for a new bakery in Paris called Babka Zana where the owners elevated braided buns to a new level!

DW: What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? And what advice would you give to someone else?

C: My mum always used to tell me, “Learn from your own experiences,” which was a bit cryptic at the time, but I guess it helped me to follow my own path.

In terms of confidence I believe in “less is more” and cultivating your own difference. When you are at the start of your career you might not have too many projects and that’s okay. Emphasise the strongest ones, build on your strengths and define the type of clients and agencies you would like to work with.

In term of practical business advice, I would say don’t wait for the work to come, initiate the work for yourself instead. Be proactive and suggest ideas to clients to get them excited about how you can help them to grow their business in new creative ways.


Katja Alissa Mueller, independent design lead and art director

Design Week: Tell us about working independently?

Katja: I’ve worked independently on and off since the very start of my career, and about three years ago I went purely freelance. I came back from travelling abroad and was unsure about where to take my career next. Freelancing seemed to be the best option to choose for a few months, which then turned into years and counting.

I love being able to work with purpose-led brands that align with my values. But you have to be able to live with a good amount of uncertainty, as there are times without any new bookings on the horizon.

I’m proud of work that has a sustainable and value-driven mission. Work that helps shape design and culture and has a lasting positive effect on the people using the design. Be it currently as design lead for AllBright, a network driven by the mission to help women around the world achieve their career goals. Or previously as design director, now a committee member for SheSays London; as a designer for the Fjord Trends report in 2020 combining heaps of design, strategy and storytelling; or working on specific projects for charity Bloody Good Period.

DW: What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? And what advice would you give to someone else?

K: I was lucky enough to be able to work with fantastic mentors throughout the years who gave great advice on so many different levels. Personally, it always boils down to two words being able to help at any moment: Inhale. Exhale.

If you feel it is the right thing for you, go for it. If you are currently in a full-time role and think about going freelance try testing the waters first: speak to recruiters, see what roles are out there and then maybe try some freelance work on the side to see if it is your cup of tea. In terms of practical advice: get your finances in order first. The pandemic is the best example of unexpected happenings. Be prepared for dry spells and have a rainy day fund the keep peace of mind.


Malika Favre, freelance illustrator

Design Week: Tell us about working independently?

Malika: I left the nest and set up on my own 10 years ago now after working 6 years in a design studio. I guess I felt I had learnt what I needed and that it was time to give illustration a try. I was 28.

The freedom for sure is the biggest benefit. The freedom of movement for a start, to work from wherever you want as well manage your time but also to decide which projects to take on and which ones to turn down. I wouldn’t give that up for the world. The biggest challenge is also linked to that same idea of freedom. With it comes uncertainty, the need to adapt and constantly change and evolve. It is a lot of work and one that doesn’t allow for complacency.

I have worked on hundreds of projects since the start of my career, from fashion to brand campaigns to editorial work. My clients are constantly changing so it’s hard to pin down one project that I love the most, but I would say my New Yorker cover series are on the very top of the list.

DW: What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? And what advice would you give to someone else?

M: To earn money, you have to be able to spend it. I don’t mean buying a pair of shoes but reinvesting it in yourself, in the shape of an exhibition, a trip, a tool. This was and still is the best advice I was given, by my grandpa when I was 8.

I think that the business side of being a freelancer, as boring as it sounds, is crucial in being successful. Understanding taxes and keeping an eye on time, knowing how to present your work and nurturing your people skills. All these things can really speed you along.


Jessica Ryan-Ndegwa, founder of Design for Disability

Design Week: Tell us about working independently?

Jessica: I have been an independent designer for 4 years. After graduating university with an Arts degree, I chose to become a freelancer and explore my career opportunities. After completing a number of fantastic projects that I am incredibly grateful for, I started Design for Disability. I felt a push to start a business early on in my career and managed to use it to my advantage in applying for jobs, as I had a focus on a subject area I was passionate about.

For me, the biggest benefit of working independently has been creating opportunities for myself. It has allowed me to structure my own routine, which has helped me to focus. I love the fact that I’m able to tailor my career path to where I want to see it grow. However, the disadvantage and challenge is being able to keep up stamina, keep myself motivated, and balance structure in parts. Having said this, I’m continually learning to find new ways of keeping my creative ideas flowing.

I collaborated and was a part of the co-curation on multiple projects delivered by the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and Courtauld Institute of Art. I especially enjoyed these as they challenged my curational skills, which was an area that I had never really tapped into before.

DW: What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? And what advice would you give to someone else?

J: When I was coming to the end of my foundation year at Kingston uni, one of my then tutors said to me something along the lines of, “You should focus on an area of work that you have first-hand experience in”. It must have stuck, as sooner or later I found myself in my final year, basing my final project on disability. This project was essentially the foundation of my decision to base my entire career around disability inclusion. If I hadn’t followed their advice, I may have found myself on a very different career path!

If you have a great idea that you think can come to fruition – go for it! Don’t hold back, just run with it. Your best ideas will usually go far. As soon as I left university I tried to find as many companies, organisations and charities who I could work with on projects that focused on inclusion and the arts. The trick is to just start – once you do, the possibilities are endless!

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