What does it take to be a successful freelance designer?

In 2010 exhibition designer Rebecca Shipham was made redundant from her job at a studio in London and moved back home to Hull to set up as a freelancer. Five years and she has won a nationwide competition run by IPSE to find the best freelancer in any business.

We spoke to Shipham about the challenges she faced when she set up as a freelance designer and how she managed to make it a success.

Rebecca Shipham meets Prime Minister David Cameron after being named as the UK's best freelancer
Rebecca Shipham meets Prime Minister David Cameron after being named as the UK’s best freelancer

Design Week: Why did you decide to set up as a freelancer?

Rebecca Shipham: In all honesty, it was a case of “sink or swim”. I was made redundant in the recession, while working in London, and so, I took a gamble of setting up alone and moving back home to Hull. I’d been missing my home city for a while anyway, so being made redundant gave me a chance to go home. Rather than returning with my tail between my legs I came back with a couple of clients from London and the start of a little business that would keep me busy and happy for the next five years and counting.

DW: What was the most challenging aspect of setting up?

RS: When I first set up I had no idea of how to run a business. As a freelancer you’re not just the designer, you’re the accountant, the marketing department, the sales team, all in one, and it took a good 18 months before I had settled in to each of these roles. I also found it challenging knowing just how much to charge for my work. It’s not something they really teach you at university. The other challenge was related to confidence in my own work. When I first started sending my designs off to new clients I always imagined they’d think it was rubbish, but one by one they all started coming back for more work, so I must have been doing something right! I’m so much more confident now in what I offer in terms of a design service, and in my style of work. 

DW: What sort of support was available to you at the time?

RS: Very little really. I was lucky in that my boyfriend has run a business for 14 years, and he is always on hand to give advice. My old design director was also a great help in my first year as he’d worked with freelancers for a long time as part of his job. I think it’s important to seek advice when you set up alone from someone already in business.

DW: How did you initially win new clients?

RS: Initially it was a case of cold-calling – which I hated, but it’s a necessary evil! It actually worked out really well, it seems that companies are often looking for new freelancers to work with. Now that I’m more established I tend to get business from word-of-mouth. It’s quite a small industry really and a lot of people are connected within the trade.

DW: What are the advantages of being freelance in design?

RS: Probably the fact that it doesn’t feel like work. My friends think I’m mad when I tell them I can’t meet at the weekend because of a big deadline, but to me happiness is sitting here churning my way through a creative problem and getting to grips with a design. I do have a life, [honest!] but, as we all know, design can be all-consuming. Being able to crack open a bottle of red while working is a pretty good part of it too. And the pyjama days. Anyone self-employed who says they don’t have pyjama days is fibbing!

DW: And what are the disadvantages and challenges?

RS: Designers and solitude don’t mix! Having no one to bounce ideas off was a killer in the first 18 months. I felt like I was going mad! But the joys of Twitter, and slowly building my own contacts in the industry have settled that one, and I now feel like I have a network of four or five designers who I can call on when needed to talk through a creative problem or to just share a worry. It’s a bit like having a design studio but because it’s via the internet you don’t feel obliged to make everyone a cuppa. I think not knowing when to stop is another one, which really links to the “best thing about working alone”. Yes, it’s fun, and yes it doesn’t feel like work, but because I [and most designers] throw my all into a creative proposal, it can be hard to say when enough is enough.

DW: What advice would you give to someone thinking about setting up as a freelancer?

RS: Now that I have won this award I welcome the challenge of promoting freelancing and working for yourself. I particularly feel that we should encourage young people to see working for themselves as being a viable career path from an early age, and set them in good stead for a future in independent business. In the short term I intend to do this by reinvesting my knowledge and experience through offering creative workshops in schools and colleges, backed up with information on how freelancing or self employment can work in the real world. Freelancing in the UK is on the increase, and the stats show no signs of this growth slowing down. To anyone considering freelancing, my advice is to be clear about what services you are offering: don’t try to be all things for all people, do what you are a good at, be strict with clients and their expectations of what you can do within their deadlines, don’t sell yourself short, don’t let work run your life… and invest in some thermals.

Rebecca Shipham runs Ships and Pigs Creative Design. She has just been named the UK’s Best Freelancer by IPSE, the Associate of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed.

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  • Andrew Penaluna November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I am so glad that at my Uni we have been teaching these kinds of skills for many many years – student feedback tell us how valuable they are… but it is past students not current ones who really appreciate it.

    Great article, thanks, I shall be using it in my classes 😉

  • Dave Butler November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Love this article. As a fellow designer working for a media agency during the day but also freelancing in the evening I can relate to everything that Rebecca mentions in her interview, even the need for thermals!

  • Lucy Butter November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Losing my job in a not very high standard in-house graphic design team and having to go freelance was the best that ever happened to me! Before I knew it, I was working at amazing agencies in Manchester, for great blue-chip clients and building up a portfolio to be really proud of. I fell in love with being a graphic designer again and through working freelance, have been offered a permanent role for an agency I really enjoy working for!

  • caroline sawyer November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Very inspiring! I became a free-lance to be close to my kids, at home. But it was only last year, when my youngest turned 10, that I starting to really invest in increasing my network. As a consequence I’ve managed to become more and more busy, getting jobs through FB groups and word of mouth. One thing I recomend is to take courses – they get you out of the house, you meet interesting people, read interesting books and usualy learn more than you imagined. You can expand your contacts and make new friends. I took a post graduate course a couple of years ago, which was hard work but absolutely worth my time and effort. And another thing: it’s never too late to become a free-lance, if you keep yourself updated with the world.

  • Geoffrey Idun November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    A pretty familiar story, nothing groundbreaking but an interesting read. Seems like every freelancer I know has a similar story. Fair play to the lass though, she seems to have done well. Gutted I never heard about that competition until now though – not that meeting David Cameron is particularly high on my to do list! 😉


  • Ric Vieira November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    …great example, I should have gone solo too.

    It was all good for me until recruitment agencies wanted a bigger cut of my wages, paying on 45 days terms… and after 4-5 years freelancing in central London, they wouldn’t consider me for perm positions anymore!

    They would rather having me on their books, available all the time! – It just wrecked my career plans – I had to leave London or I wouldn’t get hired full time (not via recruit agencies anyway).

    I should have gone solo within the first 12 months…

  • David Chaplin November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    There is some great advice here, particularly about focusing on one skill and being great at it. Definitely don’t sell yourself short (many contractors do sadly, but learn quickly!).

    I’d also add that it is important to blow your own trumpet as no one else will.

    And learn all those special contracting skills to stay in business.

    Dave Chaplin

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