Is self-employment a viable option for design graduates?

Freelance designer Rebecca Shipham looks at the barriers that prevent design graduates from setting up their own businesses and proposes a solution.

Image by TommL
Image by TommL

It’s a common story, but when I left university I was keen and excited, almost to the point of desperation, to get that all-important first design job. In my mind it was all about London, and the race was on.

Two years passed, and I finally I got that job. What a struggle it had been to get there, but at last – I’d done it.

Four years later I was back in my home city of Hull, after being made redundant during the recession. I decided to set up freelance, and I’ve not once looked back.

Now that I’m feeling settled as a freelancer, I’ve been wondering what it was that meant I couldn’t go freelance straight out of University. I could have filled those two years where I was job-hunting with real paid design work. Why didn’t I?

I’ve been speaking to current students who are preparing to leave university courses, asking them key questions about self-employment in their specific fields of study. I’ve been trying to gauge whether a graduate could comfortably set up on their own, or whether they need to do as I did, and enter the race to get “that foot in the door” through employment.

The truth is, that the students I’ve spoken with couldn’t see self-employment as being a viable option. Not one student had any idea of how to charge for their work. Very few of them could give me a clear idea of how to market themselves. The odd one shone through as confident enough in their ability to put themselves forward to pitch for work.

They’re not alone. When I set up freelance I didn’t have a clue how to run a business. I was lucky to have a network of freelancers to call on for support, but I continue to learn on the job every day.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a similar network for students to explore self-employment? They could develop the skills, the knowledge, and the confidence to pitch for creative work and be ready for the real world once they’ve handed back their cap and gown.

I’ve been exploring this concept through a new division of my existing design company, and through collaborating with my business mentor and a part time tutor we’ve set up Creative Briefs.

Creative Briefs is an academy where students can learn first-hand experience of working on real jobs, and how to work for themselves. Our students are set live briefs, which are sent to us from businesses and members of the community. It is up to the students to develop a conceptual solution to each brief, and pitch their ideas to the client, under our guidance. This is tangible experience, which can sit nicely alongside most creative specialisms.

I believe that self-employment is a really good option for graduates. Obviously it’s hard work, and they need to find their niche, but in theory, and with the right guidance, they could graduate one day, and be pitching for work the next.

Rebecca Shipham is founder of Ships and Pigs and co-founder of Creative Briefs. Creative Briefs is in the running for Pitch to Rich, the competition set by Virgin Business – for more information and to vote, visit

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  • Rebecca Kirby April 20, 2015 at 11:12 am

    Where I did my degree at the University of Reading, we had an entire module in our final year dedicated to ‘real jobs’ where we’d work individually or in small groups with real clients with the support of our tutors. This was part of the reason I chose this course. I keep reading articles about how University courses don’t prepare students properly for the real world, but Reading have been doing this for years. It would be great if other courses could finally follow suit.

  • Jennie Stamp April 20, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    This is a great article, Rebecca. I think graduates would learn a lot this way and Creative Briefs looks like it would be a fantastic support for them! 🙂


  • Carol Mackay April 20, 2015 at 10:43 pm

    Hi Rebecca – I also did something similar right through university here in Australia. In first year we did one, second year two and final year three ‘found’ assignments that you had to find yourself (often for not-for-profits’ and workshop back at uni with fellow students and lecturers. I found it really valuable and a reality check that not all clients would LOVE your work or think your are uber-talented like your Mum does. Who would have thunk it?
    For business advice, direct your students towards – it is Australian-based but I think they would find the information valuable.

  • Rebecca Shipham April 21, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    Thanks for the comments, good to hear that some Universities encourage what Creative Briefs are aiming to do. Thank you for the link Carol, great stuff to share.

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