Clients' budgets may have been crunched, but if you apply a bit of commercial acumen there are plenty of options to supplement your bread-and-butter design work, while also building a name for yourself in new markets.
"Whenever I do a personal piece, I always consider how I can use it later on in a paid project," reveals Joshua Smith, the man behind Florida-based studio Hydro74. "I often find ways to reuse various assets and include them in new pieces. It saves time on an illustration, while helping to create a Hydro74 feel."
Although 90 per cent of Smith's output is vector-based, he believes that there's always room to push boundaries within your comfort zone to squeeze the maximum value out of your talent. "Doing the same thing day in, day out gets boring," he says, "and it also limits your saleability to potential clients."
If most of your work is produced within an agency, then you may have little say in the style or variety of the projects you work on - not to mention producing work that's not to your personal taste to meet a brief. "It happens all the time," shrugs Smith. "That's what makes you a graphic designer, rather than a fine artist."
All of which makes freelancing on the side invaluable - not only to bring in supplementary funds, but also to branch into fresh markets, evolve your style and build a name as an individual designer.
"Some people love the nine-to-five, then go home and enjoy their spare time. I wish I could," confesses Jeffrey Bowman, who until recently juggled a day job at Nottingham's Studio Output with other projects by night, under the moniker MrBowlegs. "I used to work from 6pm when I got home, to bring in more money and to keep my personal work alive. I knew one day I'd be freelancing full-time." He's met that goal now, but the transition was tough at times. "You might only have an hour or two a night to produce the work," he says. "Without discipline, things can get out of control and you end up working into the night. Then you have to get up for work in a few hours to repeat the whole process."
Gavin Strange, senior online designer at Bristol animation powerhouse Aardman, went in the opposite direction, moving in-house full-time having spent four years building up his freelance brand, JamFactory, from scratch.
"My only concern was that everything I'd worked hard for would disappear," Strange admits. "How wrong I was. If anything, creating pretty things for them has strengthened my name within the industry. The only downside is time, which is most freelancers' arch nemesis. Working 'til the wee hours and being exhausted for your employer isn't right - they're the ones paying you to be creative. If you can't do that because you've burnt yourself out, it won't reflect well on you."
Smith stresses that doing personal work during agency time can be an easy shortcut to getting fired. "Before I went independent, my boss assumed he owned all of my time. If I got a good gig from an established company, he assumed that I'd bring it into work and let them handle the account. Never do that. They'll push that project to the back of the list and over-inflate costs to the client - and you lose out on a nice connection, as well as the pay."
Expand your resum
Having a body of personal work to draw on also gives you more options for adapting the assets across other media, such as T-shirts, prints, shoes or even digital files for download.
"I made up a tee from an illustration I did for Art for Autism, and there's a zine called Doodling for Doodling Sake that combines lots of illustrations I've done since Christmas," reflects Bowman. "It's nice to use your work for products that you create yourself. I keep a few assets to hand to reuse, mainly textures. This saves on time, but also helps build a certain aesthetic in my work."
With up to 90 per cent of his income being made through stock imagery, Canadian illustrator and photographer Bill Frymire can't afford to be quite so selective. "When I started out with just a few images, I had much wilder fluctuations in my income," he recalls. "It's steadier now, but still not without its ups and downs."
With stock imagery, volume counts. Volgograd-based student Anna Ozerina claims she can live off the royalties from the 1,100 simple vector graphics she's uploaded to Shutterstock and iStockphoto. She creates up to 15 more each week, including simple patterns, swirls and shapes, often with carefully chosen motifs and colour palettes to tap into seasonal demand.
Frymire agrees that generic images have greater sales potential, but they have to work harder to stand out from similar competition. Since he joined Masterfile in 1992, the proliferation of 'microstock' sites - vast repositories of cheap, royalty-free images from an army of contributors, including amateurs - has changed the market. "They've certainly taken a bite out of my sales, as well as driving the overall price of stock imagery down," he admits.
While most of Frymire's work is self-initiated and based on what's sold well in the past, specific requests from agencies occasionally filter through to the illustrator. "Sometimes I do assignment work and get the okay from the client to use the images for stock," he reveals. "Typically I'll give them a slight discount for that, but often I actually end up making more from the image in stock than I did for the initial assignment." And that's a savvy negotiation to make.