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Happy Anniversary To Me!

21 years ago (almost to the minute at time of writing) I took the decision to become self-employed and quit the design firm I was a part of. It was time, I was sick of commuting, sick of doing work for the sake of working. So I headed home and set up Denial Design. 21 years ago.

Being self-employed is hard work, very stressful at times and despite what many, many people say, it is not an easy life where you can do as please. At least not at first!

The first few years were very, very hard. I was massively in debt, bordering on the poverty line more times than I care to remember. Some weeks I was surviving on a bag of rice with soy sauce and some smart price biscuits. If I could scrape the change together! On the plus side work was usually enough to keep me occupied all day (sometimes 16 hours a day or more) and just cover the bills but there were many months (usually around Christmas and school holidays) where work would unsurprisingly dry up. And with no savings in the bank getting through these months were very rough, financially and mentally.

More recently I have a great stable of regular clients and a much better financial footing! There’s still the odd quiet week or month but it’s no longer a disaster.

So what have I learned in the last 21 years of being my own boss?

Meetings are a waste of time.

I stopped doing meetings, chats and even phone calls about 15 years ago and never regretted it. Every single meeting I had in the first 6 years of running my own business and the 4 or 5 years before that working for design agencies made me realise that nothing was being said in these meetings that couldn’t be said in a very short email. Every. Single. Meeting. Same with phone calls. On the plus side you and the client both have a written record of what has been asked for with emails that both of you can refer back to. I also stopped collaborating with clients over instant messenger as it’s way too annoying working on something and the client’s chatting away asking for a dozen changes on different pages whilst your still working on the first change they asked for! So, IM, Zoom, Phone, Meetings, all gone.

Also bear in mind that this meeting time is time you could be spending doing something productive to bring in money to your company. No more spending an hour travelling to see a prospective client, an hour meeting and an hour back only to find out the client changed their mind a week later and decided not to proceed with the project and you’ve wasted 3+ hours (plus travel expenses) that you could have spent working on something that’s actually billable!

Keep the lights on.

Prioritise your bills. If neccessary put off anything that won’t keep the business going. That means keep the electricity and broadband on and a roof over your head. Everything else can wait a few weeks (or months if need be!). Extreme, but it got me through many tough months. I spent a long time catching up with bills when work picked up though! Cut back on everything you don’t absolutely need. If your clothes still fit and aren’t full of holes you don’t need new ones!

Take a break now and again.

Going for a quick walk can unblock most problems. If you’re struggling to work out a piece of code or other problem, leave it alone for half an hour or so. Do the washing up or go for a walk or do the shopping. Your unconcious brain will figure it out most of the time whilst you’re doing something else.

Make time for family / friends.

Spend some quality time with those you love. It might just keep your marriage intact. If you’re starting a new business the chances are you’ll be stressed about a whole heap of things, money, bills, not enough work, too much work! Don’t take the stress out on your family, use them to unwind a bit.

Word of mouth is the best form of advertising. By far.

I’ve tried print advertising, newspapers, flyers, Google Ads, business forums, meet-ups, social media, salesmen, the works. Hardly any of it works, if at all, and usually costs a fortune. Hey, even this site is basically a vanity exercise!

The best way to get work is to do a good job and let your clients spread the word. Businesses deal with other businesses who are all looking for someone reliable to work with. Same with non-business people. How many times have you been asked if you could recommend a plumber, electrician, plasterer, garage, etc? Word of mouth rules.

Keep your customers happy and they’ll keep coming back. For years.

Most of my clients keep working with me for many, many years. I’d estimate at least 7 years on average. Then circumstances usually change for the client either professionally or personally and they’ll move on. Sometimes they’ll tell you they’re moving to a different firm, sometimes you find out the hard way! Sometimes they come back though!

If a client needs a small change making on job, like 5 minutes or less, just do it. It’ll take you longer to invoice them than do the job and the client will be happy. Just make sure they don’t take the piss!

Respond quickly and courteously to emails. Tone of voice is very important in written communication as you have no visual signals to pick up on. So be polite, clear and concise. It’s very easy to upset someone with the wrong phrasing. For example “Can you please fix this issue?” can come across as angry (“Can you please fix this issue?”) whereas “Can you fix this issue, please?” is less difficult to misconstrue.

Don’t do work for free.

I know this contradicts the point above about doing small jobs for nothing but in this case I’m talking about big jobs, full projects. Don’t do anything because “it will look good in your portfolio.” You’re better off taking a “lesser” job that actually pays. Your “portfolio” won’t keep the lights on.

Contracts are usually a waste of time.

Get a clear idea (or even better a full written brief) for a job and deliver on the brief and you’ll get paid. Be clear upfront about your costs. I charge 50% up front that’s non-refundable to cover the time I spend on a job. If the job gets cancelled after a week or two that’s up to the client and they’re out of pocket and you’re not. Balance payable within a week of the site going live (longer for regular customers). No contract needed. Ever.

So there we are, 21 years of self-employed “wisdom”. It’s still long hours, a lot of effort and people still ask when I’m going to get a “proper” job, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. It was the best decision I ever made.

A little side project…

I’ve been busy recently designing a series of mugs with quotes on for sale on my Etsy store. The mugs feature quotes from some of my favourite books, TV shows and movies and they are an interesting exercise in product design and typography. Some of the designs are quite basic at the moment but I’m learning what’s possible, what looks good and what people like.

The Big Painting Challenge – Why So Challenging?

I’ll come clean up front and state I haven’t seen the whole series of BBC’s The Big Painting Challenge 2017, a competition for amateur artists using a similar format to The Big Pottery Throwdown, The Great British Sewing Bee and of course the collosal hit The Great British Bake Off.

The show describes itself like this:

Passionate amateur artists undertake an intensive, six-week, artistic boot camp in a bid to perfect their skills and be crowned the overall champion.

I’ve only seen a few bits and pieces of The Big Painting Challenge until last night when I saw the fifth episode, Movement. This episode’s challenge was for the artists to convey proportion and movement in their work whilst observing ballerinas in action.

The show had me almost incandescent with rage at several points. I have a BA Hons in Illustration and have studied Fine Art and Art History over the years and spent many, many hours drawing life models in many situations, including drawing during a theatre performance of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard from the stalls and painting horse racing during a race meeting as part of my illustration degree course. Our artists seemed completely lost as the ballerina performed her routine whilst the artists looked on agape and gasping “How are we going to paint this?” Surely lesson one in this “artistic boot camp” would have involved some sort of rapid sketching exercises to loosen the artists up? But I guess that’s not good telly. In fact I was so curious as to the contents of lesson one that I watched episode 1 on iPlayer and found that lesson one was a still life and Pascal described his teaching style as “alternative thinking.”

Needless to say I was spitting “Fuck you”‘s at Pascal, one of the mentors, as he denegrated the eventual heat winner’s charcoal drawing of the ballerina shown in the clip above as “my worry here is that it’s going to be an illustration. Don’t be afraid of your response as an artist to what’s here.” What the fucking fuck does that even mean? Why use illustration as some kind of dirty word? Why assume that because something is well observed, well drawn and executed that it’s not showing some kind of emotional response from the artist? Does he think that because illustrations are usually done as work for hire that this somehow makes the art less valuable? Most of the work by the greatest artists in history were commissions from wealthy patrons or institutions (usually the Catholic Church) and the techniques used in these pieces inform and influence the techniques and styles used to this day. Edgar Degas, who is mentioned in this episode, was famed for his paintings of ballet dancers but Degas’ later works were all painted to generate an income for himself as he had spent all his money and sold his art collection to pay off his brother’s business debts. Does this somehow lessen the emotion Degas imbued in his work? Of course not. Does the work of William Blake generate less emotion because he was an illustrator? Was he not creating the work for himself as well as an audience? Is that not precisely what the contestants in this show are doing? I’m sure that painting dancing ballerinas would not be on any of their lists of future projects unless the Beeb were making them do it.

Edgar Degas - Two dancers on a stage c.1874

Edgar Degas – Two dancers on a stage c.1874

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel 1910 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02686

From the BBC’s description above one would assume these amateur artists had at least been taught some basic techniques over the previous 4 weeks about observation and sketching. Pascal again attracted my wrath as he tried to get his 2 students to paint 100 moving figures on a busy London street using 1 stroke of a brush per figure. How about teaching them some basics? How about a quick lesson in proportions considering that’s what your students will be critiqued on? No, they just stood in the strret drawing lines with a brush.

During the final challenge of this episode the artists had to create a piece of artwork based on a live performance of Swan Lake that was performed several times for them. The ballerinas entered the room, performed and left and I was dismayed to see that not one of the artists was taking the time to sketch the ballerinas in action whilst they were in the room. The artists were not making preparatory sketches and the artists’ “mentors” were intent on getting the artists to paint their “observations” immediately and spend no time studying the figures in motion, preparing sketches, planning composition or working on proportions. Of course, as the artists worked these “mentors” subsequently ripped the artwork to pieces, complaining about lack of motion, poor composition and poor proportions. Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance as the saying goes!

The artists final pieces were then judged by the usual motley crew of reality show judges and their feedback was generally fair and reflected more on the quality of their teachers than on the artists themselves.

One Schema to rule them all…

The official Google, Yahoo! and Bing blogs have all published news of a new joint schema that these search engines have developed to enable content publishers and webmasters to mark up their content in a way that is readable to all these search engines without adding 3, 4 or 5 different types of markup or just choosing the one that Google wants. This joint markup, called Schema.org, uses microdata to allow webmasters to markup specific types of content such as reviews, movie information, tv series, people profiles and more that can be easily extracted from the page and displayed in the search engine results page. Google have already been experimenting with this type of thing with “rich snippets” for places, recipes, reviews, events and products. The problem was Bing and Yahoo weren’t using this data and it was hard to get Google to correctly display the data so it was often seen as an extravagance and an unneccessary use of a programmer or web designer’s time to implement it. With the introduction of Schema.org this all changes and sites with any of the content that the schema can handle should implement it as soon as possible. Early adopters will benefit from the increased exposure in the search engine results as their content is indexed quicker and correctly and the search engines promote their new shiny features. Contact Denial Design today to find out how we can help your site get the benefits of this new search engine friendly code!