Representing the creative future

Freelance print designer: How does it work?

The pros, the dangers, and the tips of freelancing

Freelance: you know what it means, but never really quite know how it works. Over a year ago, writer Erica Lies penned in the New Yorker, “welcome aboard our newest roller coaster, the Freelancer. Buckle up and prepare for the ride of your life!” It’s no secret that freelancers, otherwise regarded as contingent or independent workers, embark on a labour that offers spontaneity and autonomy, but with that a ride of uncertainty. Dubbed as the ‘gig economy,’ a labour market distinguished by short-term contracts and multiple jobs as opposed to a singular permanent one.

Enter ‘Freelance’ to your search bar and it’ll weigh up the gains and the losses; there’s an argument for its precariousness or its future-positioning, but so rarely does it examine the reality, or what freelance roles are actually available. We know it’s a rollercoaster, but what does the track look like? So often are creative freelance roles discussed within the parameters of journalism or photography, but what does the freelance marketplace look like for those outside the maelstrom of its usual conversation, such as pattern and textile designers?

Joanna Wawrzynzcak's MA Collection

“I quickly realised that during a project, I needed to get up by a certain time and have a time when I started working.” – Joanna Wawrzynzcak

“It’s all very hush hush which makes it hard to find information about what you should or shouldn’t do as a new textile freelancer,” notes Central Saint Martins MA Fashion graduate Joanna Wawrzynzcak, who began freelancing under the recommendation of a university tutor, which led to jobs with Lululemon and Tommy Hilfiger, the latter resulting in a full-time job. The ambiguity meant that for Wawrzynzcak, starting out became a process of experimenting. With no rulebook, graduating from university and picking up sporadic work became a process of trial and error. “I quickly realised that during a project, I needed to get up by a certain time and have a time when I started working. If I didn’t feel very motivated I just worked on other bits of that project that I needed to get done and eventually I would feel like working again.”

“It started quite organically, talking with friends and making prints for people.” – Alix Higgins

With each job comes more wisdom, learning a rhythm in an otherwise irregular lifestyle. “At the beginning, you get sent a brief, and I then spend one day to organise myself, meeting with the company to talk through everything, and ask any questions and estimate what you need to do, which will inform the fee that you need to give to the company for the job,” shares Wawrzynczak. With milestone meetings in between, the irregular schedule promising bounds of allotted time doesn’t solely have to be a self-determining interim, as each freelancer tackles the solitude differently. On the contrary, Alix Higgins, who has recently begun freelancing, designing for Marine Serre, Amy Crookes and Maroske Peech navigates the sporadic nature by relying on a permanent role alongside Higgins’ freelancing work. “I needed something to fill the time outside of my part-time job and I always thrive when managing multiple projects. It started quite organically, talking with friends and making prints for people.” Regulating a work-life balance is seminal to the freelance grind which Higgins helps manifest through the 9-5 regime of part-time work. “I’m forced to be quite structured between freelance projects, my job, and my own label. I balance my day job with freelancing in the evenings and on weekends, which at times becomes quite busy. With time zones I am often calling Paris after going out on a Friday in Sydney so work becomes…. creative.”

Relying on alternative income strategies encourages versatility with clients and the open-ended nature was appealing for Fiona Blakeman who got her footing during employment at Celine. “Matthew Williams contacted me and asked if I would be interested in assisting him on fabric and print with his then newly founded brand Alyx. This was a fantastic opportunity to transition into a more senior role but also meant I would be on a freelance contract. As Alyx became more established I was able to take on more freelance clients such as Wales Bonner and Charlotte Knowles and have been continuing to expand my client base ever since.” For each pattern and design freelancer, the artistry in maintaining the balancing act comes through accepting that no day is ever quite the same. “The role I have created for myself is quite varied. This week I’ve been in the print room screen printing directly onto garments for an upcoming menswear show, drawing prints from scratch and art working for a digital print development, and also assisting the print team at JW Anderson as they needed an additional print person for a particular development this season,” shares Blakeman. There is no such quota for an ‘average’ day, particularly in the early stages of freelancing with a broader roster of clients that bring the promise of work.

“When I was freelancing I was saying yes to all the jobs; any new freelancer will tell you that. Freelancing is great but it’s also unsteady and you can’t afford to be picky.” – Joanna Wawrzynczak

Prints by Alix Higgins

“When I was freelancing I was saying yes to all the jobs; any new freelancer will tell you that. Freelancing is great but it’s also unsteady and you can’t afford to be picky,” reflects Wawrzynczak on her experience. Before the guarantee of a steady stream that comes with an established reputation and portfolio, there is great uncertainty of where the next job is coming from. But tenacity and confidence in approaching clients is pervasive in any freelance variation. “I feel more confident nowadays to actively reach out to brands who I want to work with. Or if you’re reading this, call me,” jokes Higgins. “I search for people who I connect with personally. It’s hard to disconnect my emotional reality from work at times, but I think the strongest design is an emotional one. I believe that’s what resonates within people with my work, beyond just the ideas of the future or the digital.”

“Each time I work on a project I invest in materials, sometimes assistants, studio hire, etc so it’s difficult when a client doesn’t pay punctually. Everyone has their individual situations and I’m always understanding but you have to stay firm.” – Fiona Blakeman

For all the freedoms it affords, the caveat that comes with freelance, be it design or otherwise, is the loose financial structure. Notoriously, it requires the freelancer to chase for payments, a somewhat grey area that is widely acknowledged but painfully overlooked. “I find chasing invoices really stressful,” offers Blakeman. “Each time I work on a project I invest in materials, sometimes assistants, studio hire, etc so it’s difficult when a client doesn’t pay punctually. Everyone has their individual situations and I’m always understanding but you have to stay firm.” The ambivalence that comes with organising your income is an apprehensive process. Without the safety net of HR or the reassurance of payroll, you’re at the liberty of your client. “If you go to a shop you don’t just take a product and then disappear with it. It’s called stealing and you don’t do that. You want to get a product, pay for it, it’s simple,” shares Wawrzynczak.

Charlotte Knowles, prints by FIona Blakeman

“I was sending low-res files until the very end when I knew I would get paid, i.e I got a confirmation that my invoice was forwarded to be paid out. Only then I would release the high-resolution files to the company.” – Joanna Wawrzynczak

“From my experience, I was always saying before starting the project how much it was going to cost and why (number of days having to spend on the project) and made sure that everyone agreed to it. I was sending low-res files until the very end when I knew I would get paid, i.e I got a confirmation that my invoice was forwarded to be paid out. Only then I would release the high-resolution files to the company. It’s a bit extreme but before you establish a relationship and know you can trust that company you have to be protective of your pay.”  But it’s not just the trailing invoices that pose a difficulty for young freelancers. The discomfort associated with discussing money proves problematic as she goes on to suggest who pits telling people how much money you want to make as one of the greatest challenges through a lack of educational support. “I didn’t know what was acceptable/regular pay (I still am not super sure), nobody has ever told us that in university which is a big shame. You are completely left on your own to figure it all out and many times it’s very stressful and doesn’t need to be.”

Charlotte Knowles shot by Harley Weir for 1 Granary's VOID, prints by Fiona Blakeman

Enter ‘Freelance’ to your search bar and it’ll weigh up the gains and the losses; there’s an argument for its precariousness or its future-positioning, but so rarely does it examine the reality, or what freelance roles are actually available. We know it’s a rollercoaster, but what does the track look like? So often are creative freelance roles discussed within the parameters of journalism or photography, but what does the freelance marketplace look like for those outside the maelstrom of its usual conversation, such as pattern and textile designers?

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