London Design Festival: Setting Up a Design Business Seminar

On Sunday Holly and I attended a seminar/panel event thingy at the V&A as yet another part of the very extensive and generally amazing London Design Festival! I would honestly say that this one event taught me more about going freelance in illustration/design than the whole of last year at uni... and this was a whole £9000 cheaper!!! I wrote pages and pages of notes so I thought I'd transfer some of what I learnt into a blog post in order to both share it with people who couldn't go and for myself to look back on in a more organised form than my rushed notes! 

The panel was made up of Paul Bailey from 1977 Design, Lizzie Mary Cullen- a freelance illustrator and Gary Holt from 'SomeOne'. The talk was led by Angus Montgomery from Design Week who opened topics up by asking questions to the panel who took turns to answer and sometimes went off on long interesting tangents! I'm going to organise this post by writing heading of the topic/question and then just bullet pointing or writing little sentences of the responses. I would class these people as artistic entrepreneurs - two setting up design studios/companies and the other going totally freelance. To put the questions into context the title of the event was 'Running a Design Business'.


  • Past experiences of working for people were soul-destroying and they had to escape (reminds me of one of my favourite quotes: If you don't build your dreams, someone will hire you to help build theirs.)
  • In reality it is VERYYYY hard work, but they love it enough that that doesn't matter.
  • Youthful naivety - just do it. Do it until it goes wrong.
  • Don't do it straight after uni, learn how not to do it in other people's studios first! Take the good bits, but never replicate them.
  • A gut feeling.

  • Learn how to do the businessy/mathsy things first.
  • Meet helpful people, make connections! Do free work in exchange for their help or something.
  • Find out where these people with their own business bought their stuff (chairs, stationery, etc)
  • There's lots of places online that give official information on setting up a business, but none of them give advice on a people level.
  • Don't employ clones. Don't employ loads of people with replicated skills, you need a balance between you to ale one perfect balanced skill set!
  • But make sure everyone has the same motivation and ethos.
  • Hiring interns gives you a high-turnover of fresh skills and fresh inspiration, plus interns are rarely biased from past experience.

  • Work, work, work. All the time. Don't be lazy
  • Make work that people just can't possibly say 'no' to.
  • Show that you reaaaally want to work for that specific company, show them how you fit in to their company as opposed to any other.
  • Identify 5-10 studios that you really really want to work for and pretty much harass them until they hire you!!!
  • Your personality is just as important as your work. You've got to be someone they want to be around, someone that they want to have in the studio with them!
  • Be very individual and very personal.

  • When you have months and months without work, make sure you're making work for yourself. Setting yourself briefs for your portfolio etc.
  • Don't be afraid to turn down jobs if you know from the off that you won't be able to do them properly.
  • There will always be ups and downs, just go with it.
  • Don't work if you know you can't do it justice or you're feeling creatively zapped - get out and do something completely different.

  • Non-billable work is still work - doing the accounts and stuff is still something that needs doing in order to keep the business working.
  • Get out and meet people, network with other freelancers - they're not the just competition, you're all in the same boat and it's a very difficult path that other people won't necessarily understand!
  • Collaborate with the 'competition'! 
  • Remind yourself everyday of how lucky you are to be doing what you love. Think about your morals and motivation.

  • One that actually pays you and on time!
  • One that trusts you and your design instincts.
  • Doesn't treat you as a supplier.
  • They understand good design.
  • But they still challenge you and hence your work becomes more advanced!
  • Someone who is just a really nice person.

  • Value yourself, quote what you're worth. Or a bit more - as more often than not they will try and bargain with you.
  • Have a look around and see what other people charge.
  • Don't go below minimum wage per hour.
  • Try and ask for a percentage up front, to ensure you have at least some of the money if they don't pay you the rest on time.
  • Email/write lettters/be cheeky persistently if they don't pay you on time! Apply pressure, but don't pull out the 'you need that money to live' card!
  • Clients will come back, so don't be so cheeky that you piss them off!

  • Muck around a bit, set up five minute games in the studio if there's more than one of you. They don't take up much time, but they keep the motivation flowing.
  • Other designers are friends :) They will understand your stresses and successes - they are the people to go for drinks with!
  • Parties with the whole studio! You'll likely spend more time with these people than your partner, so you need to keep them close and happy!
  • Go on adventures - holidays, exhibitions, tours, films, just keep your imagination open and never lose your sense of wonder :) Refill your creative pool.
  • Get out of the 'office'.
  • Get away from the modern world - spend less time online, less time on your mobile phone, less time watching tv! 
  • Stay in touch with your inner child and keep your inner joy happy!

The general consensus from all three of the panel seemed to be that you shouldn't get an agent, nor should you start as soon as you leave uni - get experience in other design studios and learn how not to do it. This will not only be the best possible form of motivation, but it will also be the most informative way to learn - a lot more realistic than the 'information' available on the internet. Gather clients from friends, design events, referrals and mail potentials hand drawn/personalised 'hellos'!

Just go for it, because what's the worst that could happen!?

Naomi x

1 comment

  1. Thanks for typing your notes up on this Naomi - I didn't make it but it sounds like it was a really interesting talk! :) x