Advice worth heeding

Much has changed in the world of design since the 1960s, but Dorothy Goslett’s guide for new freelances is still invaluable.

Dorothy Goslett wrote The Professional Practice of Design in 1960. It’s a marvellous book, full of sage and timeless advice, although in places it shows its age and it’s hard to keep a straight face while reading it. I have an updated 1971 edition, designed by Dieter Heil of Design Research Unit, where Goslett was a partner. The book’s typography is immaculate, the cover is exquisite – a solitary line of Times on a yellow background – and the paper is thick and fibrous, with no signs of ageing. It’s a treasured possession.

Goslett presents complex information in a precise manner and the sort of practical advice she gives has never been more important. As more and more design students pour out of university, there are simply not enough jobs to go round. For many young designers the only alternative to stacking shelves in Tesco is starting up on their own. But where do they go for practical advice and help?

Anyone contemplating setting up as a freelance designer, or opening a small studio, should root out a second-hand copy of Goslett’s book. She boldly states the premise on which her book is written: ‘Many designers, though admitting its necessity, think that design administration is boring, a tiresome chore always to be put aside for doing second if something more exciting crops up to be done first. But good design plus good administration equals good fees well-earned.’ In a commonsensical and sometimes inspirational way, she deals with such mundane matters as business letters, estimating fees, invoicing, registering a name, securing a lease and the countless other unglamorous things you have to do to get started in professional practice.

Inevitably, some of her advice has been overtaken by changing social and business mores. In Goslett’s world, designers, clients, tax officials and printers are always male and women are almost entirely invisible. Until, that is, page 160, when this appears in a section entitled Entertaining: ‘The woman designer has one problem facing her as a hostess which overrides all others. No male guest is going to like it if she pays the bill.

‘There are two ways out of this dilemma: either to join a suitable club where it has to be accepted that only members can pay… or to join one of the ubiquitous credit card organisations for a few pounds annually and then pick the kind of small restaurant where your particular card will be accepted. Then your bill for a meal only needs a signature on it,’ she says. Goslett recommends the second option, as ‘most women’s clubs tend to have a rather cloistered atmosphere and even the dining room for mixed guests may be overwhelmingly and tweedily feminine’. In a section called Your Overheads, she recommends taking advice on the consumption and costs of items such as light bulbs, toilet paper and laundry from a ‘housewife friend’. In the matter of office heating (‘you will probably need room heating from about the end of September to May, 30 weeks in all’), an almost Dickensian note is struck: ‘If your office is heated by coal’, she notes, ‘get an estimate from the Coal Utilization Council – their advice is free.’ Goslett is also hot on the matter of business letters. ‘The thing about switching to Christian names in business relationships is very subtle,’ she warns. ‘It must be mutually acceptable and appropriate. Sir Thomas Jones, an important businessman in his 60s, might well start calling you John in an easy, friendly fashion soon after you start working for him. But for you to start calling him Tom to his face or in a letter might be tactless and resented.’

Yet it is only in the realm of etiquette (and coal fires) that Goslett’s book shows its age. In most other respects it is uncannily relevant. Her technical advice on contracting, financial controls and project management is essential reading for anyone who wants to avoid a life of financial worry. Every page contains a nugget or two of real wisdom. Take her advice on finding clients: ‘This will be the main battle of your whole freelance career: not only to find clients to start you going but constantly to be finding clients to keep you going. It is a battle which has to be waged more or less ceaselessly until you retire and one which will never allow you to rest on your laurels.’

Goslett’s book has been republished in an updated version by Chuck Goodwin, with a foreword by John Sorrell. I bet this version doesn’t contain the phone number of the Coal Utilization Council or warnings about the tweediness of ladies private dining clubs.

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