Falling flat on my face.
Year 3 as a designer
by Darian Rosebrook
December 24, 2018
It has been three years since I started working as a designer in my spare time. While this has been an enjoyable venture for me, working in design as a side-gig has never been my intention. My goal was to have design be my main career from the get-go. This third year has been my most difficult.
For anyone who has made it past your first year or two as a designer, this post is for you.
Let me tell you all about how my plans for 2018 failed and what I learned while making the switch to becoming a full-time designer.
Also, I always want to be very candid with you. If you have questions or comments about anything I share, I am 100% up for starting a conversation with you. I can’t share everything from one year in a single post, or we’ll be here forever. ;)
This third year has been a real stretch for me because while I expected to do great things in business, I had kind of fell flat on my face.
Hey, do you not have time for the full thing? Well, I respect that and here’s the high level of what I’ll be talking about (I do want you to know that these posts are usually full of resources that helped me get past those points):
- Have a cushion in the bank before trying to rely on income from your business and make sure you keep it fueled so not to kill your business before it’s ready.
- Don’t try to do everything yourself. Find others who can compliment in areas where you need help.
- Spend less time trying to learn everything beforehand. Instead, learn through the art of making things and document your process.
- Find people ahead of you that you can plug into and learn from. As you continue to grow, curate who you follow to help you keep someone just a bit ahead of you in the spot.
- Rest. Your relationships require it.
I started focusing at the end of 2017 and wanted to put a plan to get both of my business models to turn a profit and support drawing an income from it to replace my day job.
With So Magnetic, I had a few great clients to launch myself toward this goal, Clinically Media and KeySpark. For me to make the switch to full time contracting work as a designer, my goal was to expand my reach and start taking on larger design engagements.
To be able to focus on these clients, my minimum level for client engagements would have to be more money than what I was making as a mortgage banker. Which was only less than $3,000 a month.
Because we had our second child this year, got married, and got a new apartment, any switch I did had to give me the certainty that we could support ourselves.
I needed to make sure that whatever I was focusing on would give the most significant return in my business.
I had felt client work slowing down and so my focus shifted to building out the Compass of Design Community. When the clients started reaching out again, I was so focused on getting that finished that I turned down a lot of lower-tier clients.
Client work will always be the fastest way to make money as a solo designer. However, I felt I could make more of a difference by building out my web app.
What I should have done was use those smaller projects as portfolio pieces and still treated them with the same quality that I would have with a larger project. I’ve probably turned down 15 projects this year, effectively killing my golden goose.
If instead, I had tried to take on these small engagements, the projects would then live as examples to what I can do rather than having a giant unpolished web app. I’m correcting this now and putting a few projects in my portfolio before the end of the year, but this could have all been taken care of earlier and better set me up for success.
Talking to Sean McCabe, he likened what I’m making to building out a titanic on my own. I have something that is going to be huge, but I still have made a total number of 0 boats for the year.
Don’t kill your main sources of revenue before it can either sustain itself or that you have a suitable replacement. Focus solely on the one thing instead having a few irons in different fires.
My business still requires a high-touch connection with clients, and it is not something I can simply leave and continue to have clients rolling in yet. I have nothing to share with Compass either if I don’t have more experience solving problems for clients.
I run a large community of designers that has grown to 90 people from all across the world. Yet, as I would participate and run that, I was still trying to do everything myself.
I have had so many of them reach out and offer to help me in some of the things I am struggling with, and my hard-headedness kept getting in the way.
I let some of them take on small areas of Compass while being able to manage and build out a bit of things from above, the whole project never got to go live in the iteration I intended. This was a huge learning point though in managing a creative team and after some time, I put a hold on any new work being done on this project. Without the income from either source, I had nothing to pay anyone for anything they volunteered for. It didn’t feel right to keep going, but it probably would have been finished had I stopped. It was a tough decision, but I decided to end production on the Community this year, to be picked up when I can actually dedicate time and stop focusing so much on trying to stay afloat financially.
I spent more time trying to learn what to do this year than actually implementing what I had learned. This lack of action can make a person feel very stale when actual work does come back.
I will say that there is a time to learn what you need to do, but it’s more important to do it.
Investing in myself will probably always be a considerable expense for my business. This year alone I have spent nearly 75% of my (minimal amount of) earned revenue on courses, books, and personal mentorship.
Mentorship seems like it could be a daunting thing and very difficult to find, but know that people can be your mentor without you having to ask them.
Books can be the best way for someone to learn directly from a “mentor” even if you never reach out and ask them. I’ve consumed a few books, courses, and recorded talks by a handful of people, who I need to learn from, but are fairly out of reach for me to learn from directly. You can do this too by compiling lists of how and where to learn from content that are currently available and consuming that.
You may have a lot of energy now; I did at 23 when I started learning design. I treated this venture as if it were a full-time job on top of another full-time job. That was supposed to be temporary while I made my switch, but what was a simple change in schedule became a three-year habit.
I started going to be early, waking up early, and from when I had woken up until I had to leave for my job was the time I had available to do my design work.
I should have spent some more time resting, as this kind of schedule is completely unsustainable. I had rest days, but going as hard as I was, there has been very little to no recovery.
You have to have patience. It’s not going to get you anywhere if you start losing your health in the process.
Without rest from pushing at what you’re doing, you tend to start hurting the relationships around you.
Don’t get me wrong; you need to work hard to accomplish what you set out to do, but don’t work so hard that it starts affecting your health, and that you start to forget to live and enjoy the world around you.
It had been a rough year for both, and without proper time nor understanding on how to run either, the projects have remained just that, projects. I have a lot of things ramping up for the new year though, with one client in the books that will pay for the new year, and hopefully some more work after that.
I spent a lot of time this year entertaining larger inquiries with answers to linkedin messages regarding two large contracts that would benefit my business.
One of them is with a major airliner, which would put business revenue into the 6 figures for consulting work I already do. The other, though not as long, would give a significant boost to the amount of money earned for the start of the year. I've not successfully charged in the tens of thousands yet for consulting, but the work I'm doing, especially with the clients that I've worked with this year, will earn a lot off of the work I did for them.
As with every year, I want to specificially thank a handful of people who have made this year special. This does always end up being exclusive by nature, but know that if we had a conversation this year, I truly appreciate you, and everything you've helped me come to understand int he world of design.
I cherish good conversation, and I cherish those who've helped make a directly measurable impact in my business this year.
Shout out to these people for things, and I'm sorry if I forget to mention you:
That's a wrap for 2018, I hope you have a great rest of the year, and I hope you stick around for everything we have in store in 2019!
December 04, 2016
by Darian Rosebrook
This is a post for the beginner, the fresh meat, and the starry eyed out there who are getting their hands dirty with design as a self taught designer. *Fist Bump to You!* (I’m packaging up the resources that helped me get where I am towards the end)
February 06, 2017
by Darian Rosebrook
Strong communication stems from brevity. Brevity is a concise and exact use of words in writing or speech. With the art of language, having the exact choice of words to say more with less is a sincere form of mastery. Though you may never scrub your verbal dictionary perfectly clean of filler words, you can make a serious change in improving how you communicate your ideas to other people.
July 15, 2017
by Darian Rosebrook
I thought about quitting design, my last effort I had to do something great for my family before I give up to work my “regular job” like my family raised me to do. You know, the kind of day job that supposedly gives you $20 an hour and a pension for working 35 years straight, along with side bonuses and profit sharing, 2 weeks paid time off with insurance and family leave?
August 01, 2017
by Darian Rosebrook
How can our role in design create a common language that is used throughout any department? What you see above is another micro part of the design process. It is both jam packed with other design principles and part of a bigger picture. We’ve been talking about systems for a few weeks and today we are wrapping the series up with my favorite system. The design system.