Computer ArtsFeature

Staying in the loop

Going freelance can be daunting. Will you find enough work? Will you get lonely? Will you end up back in an office? Garrick Webster talks to freelancing creatives about how they make it work

Quitting your office job and becoming self-employed can be one of the most liberating experiences you'll ever have. No more tiresome commute. Goodbye nine-to-five (or ten-til-ten in the design industry). Back-stabbing co-workers and overbearing management will become things of the past.

Even before you've packed up your desk, however, other worrying home truths might come to light. You'll need to find some steady clients to pay the bills. When you hit a creative block, or you need a reality check, who will you bounce your ideas off? Things might get lonely if the telephone doesn't ring. And you might actually start to miss chirpy Jerry, the mouthy guy who was always game for a laugh. But fear not. All you need is a little discipline, the right mental approach, and a touch of innovation.

Staying in the loop with contacts and the industry at large is among the biggest worries for prospective freelancers. The first thing to do is to make sure that the industry knows you're there, and how extensively you pursue this is up to you. These days, most freelancers turn to the internet first. Networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace offer facilities that will help you stay in touch with like-minded creatives, and there are plenty of design forums and blogs to keep an eye on.

Rob Walmsley and Graham Sykes founded Teacake Design a year ago when they left university. They work together from the corner of Rob's bedroom at his house in Manchester, and an IKEA desk with two computers on it is, essentially, Teacake Design. However, they run a blog on their site, which generates international work. "We have managed to discuss our work with people as far away as China and Australia," says Walmsley. "People we work with are rarely in the same place so it is easier to stay in contact via the internet. Right now we're working with an artist in Italy, and have also been to work in Holland after communicating by email and writing on our blog."

Ian Swift, aka Swifty, has been working from home for nearly a decade, and currently runs his design business from his shed. For him, having a good website was critical. "Email and YouSendIt are my main channels of communication," he says. "I don't really go in for long chats with people. I like email - you can be quick, blunt and to the point, which is ideal for me. I have MySpace and Facebook pages too, but I'm going to take them down. I just don't have the time to do all that stuff! If you have your own site it's enough."

Efforts to stay in the loop with the industry, clients and other designers can extend much further than using the internet. Anna Wray founded Lo-fiCreative with some like-minded creatives in Cambridge. She works from her home, and found it useful to join a local business network. Bigger design agencies in the city are also part of the group, and she's found it to be a great source of clients. "It's called Cambridge Network and it costs £100 to join each year. The good thing about it is that it has hundreds of Cambridge-based companies as members, and provides regular networking evenings and business events, plus a service where I can post any news on the website," she says.

You might even consider advertising your services in a magazine or on a website that covers a field in which you work. Brooklyn-based illustrator Tara McPherson has had success with this approach. On top of client work, she sells posters and prints of her work, and used to make other merchandise such as snow globes, button sets and more. She has advertised her items in magazines and for her posters she took out a banner advert on www.gigposters.com. The sales came in, but art directors also picked up on her promos and got in touch with work.

There will come a time when you have to meet clients face to face, and that can be nerve-racking if you work from home. The Quick Guide to Working from Home by Hugh Williams (£6.99, Lawpack Publishing) is full of general business advice on the subject, and provides some useful insights into the process of having clients visit you at home. If they're likely to have to step over your boots, avoid your dog and sit in the corner of your bedroom studio, this is probably not a good idea. But if you can pull it off, inviting your client to a meeting in a tidy front room and offering them a drink can help them relax and get to know you better. A stronger working relationship might result.

Alternatively, you can opt for lunch, a coffee shop or even a pub. But for some clients, a more inventive approach might be called for, perhaps one that takes advantage of more interesting local attractions. "A typographer we met once told us that he had day passes for a number of local attractions, and that he would take his clients to the zoo or a museum. The office doesn't just have to be contained in the home all of the time," says Graham Sykes of Teacake Design.

Attracting clients and working with them on a regular basis is one of the ongoing challenges for the self-employed, but it can be a lonely life. Isolation is something experienced by many people who work from home. "I would go crazy when I worked at home and I lived by myself," says McPherson. "I was a long walk away from the subway, so I would have my groceries delivered because it was too far to walk carrying them without hurting my back. It could be three days and the only person I'd see would be the UPS guy. It's really tough, and you can often feel like 'Wah! I need to get out!'"

To combat this problem, some people like the sharpness of Twitter. Others keep in touch with friends throughout the day using instant messenging. Many designers recommend you go one step further. Invite visitors and show them your work. Go to galleries and museums. If your brain is fried, take in a matinee movie - you're your own boss now, after all.

The glory of having a home studio is that, like all the people we've spoken to here, you can fill the area with things you like and it won't bother anybody else. The walls are yours for your posters. The bookshelf can house all your art and design books, as well as anything else you choose as decoration. If you want to spray-paint the ceiling, it's your shout.

For many, daily inspiration begins with a web trawl. Illustrator Tom Bagshaw allocates time for this: "I tend to put aside a set amount of time each morning to trawl through some of my favourites, looking at blogs, photography, art, design, fashion and toys. Anything that inspires me visually gets bookmarked or saved for later reference. But if I don't set a specific amount of time, it's very easy to waste a lot of time surfing!"

Discipline is a critical thing in home-working. We're often warned of the dangers of daytime television, that trips to the fridge will increase, or that family or housemates will infringe on your time. For many, however, it's a case of all work and no play. McPherson worked from home for years before moving to her own studio in Brooklyn. She recently realised that she hadn't taken a holiday in years.

"I've just returned from Tokyo," she says. "It's the first real holiday I've had in a long time. The beauty of it all was so inspiring. There are so many aspects of culture and artwork; I'm just absorbing it all and taking it all in. It's great because I have two art shows that I need to start painting for that will take place around October and January, so it will feed that."

One of the problems McPherson encountered when working in a studio apartment was the proximity to her work. If you work where you sleep, you'll wake up looking at your workspace. For some, this leads to guilt - a feeling that you should be working. Separating your work from your personal space is an important discipline for freelancers. Alex Bellinger runs the website www.smallbizpod.co.uk, which gives advice to home-workers in all fields. "The biggest issue is not having a finite end point to the day and letting work infiltrate your free time," he says. "Rather than achieving a work-life balance, you can end up focused entirely on work. While this may be important as you build your business and reputation, it's not sustainable. Make weekends sacrosanct. Do not routinely work beyond 7pm."

Rob Walmsley at Teacake Design works from his bedroom. He separates work from domestic life by going for a walk each morning. He leaves via the front door, goes around the block, and enters the house via the back door. For him, people working at home shouldn't miss the whole point of the exercise: "Just because you work at home you don't have to spend all day in front of the computer," he says. "We make it a flexible routine. At the end of the day, that's the whole point."

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