Wisdom from a modern-day creative
I recently spoke to the ladies over at Freelance Wisdom to share my advice, experience and thoughts on what it means to be a professional creative in this modern day.
Cristie Stevens is a collaborative Art Director and Graphic Designer based in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in creating and elevating lifestyle brands through brand identity, website design, and packaging and has worked for clients across the globe including: Hyatt and Marriott Hotels, Shiseido, Delonghi, Westfield, and Virgin Mobile.
We are so glad to have met Cristie and are especially excited to share her wonderful insights with you here today. Grab a notebook because you are going to want to write some of this down!
Tell me about your path to becoming an art director and graphic designer.
I was born in Australia but grew up in small New Zealand town located two hours south of Auckland. For as long as I can remember I’ve loved all things creative. At high school I took every creative class I could and would regularly skip maths, economics and science to develop photos, paint and practice my photoshop skills.
After studying Media Arts at university in New Zealand I landed my first design job at a digital agency where I was quickly thrown not only into design, but hands-on coding and developing for large scale web projects.
After 18 months I jumped at the opportunity to relocate to Sydney, Australia where a larger and more vibrant creative community exists. Initially I worked for a few churn and burn agencies where I wasn’t being creatively challenged. I was put through my paces and the experience helped me develop a sense of my strengths as a designer and the ideal type of work I wanted to do.
I managed to land my dream job at a high-end boutique digital agency working on clients such as The U.N, Westfield and Virgin Mobile. There I was mentored by Creative Director Jack DeCaluwe (currently Associate Creative Director at Instrument in Portland) who played an enormous role in shaping my creative skills. The agency folded during my second year there, falling victim to an industry wide downturn, leaving me to go it alone as a freelancer for the first time.
I spent some time freelancing for agencies and while the money was great, the work itself wasn’t feeding my creative appetite. A recruiter approached me with a senior position at Sydney brand agency, Squad Ink. They had the clients and projects I was dreaming of, plus the role was primarily focused on branding which is where I wanted to shift my focus. I was torn between the flexibility and financial gain of freelancing and the incredible opportunity to work on my dream projects. In the end it was an offer I couldn’t turn down and my time there offered me the opportunity to build premium hospitality, retail, food and beverage brands from the ground up.
Even while working at agencies I’ve always tried to work with a few select clients on a freelance basis. I think it’s important to build your own client relationships and test yourself outside of the agency model, even if you’re not planning to freelance in the immediate future.
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
Automate, streamline, schedule and batch as many tasks as possible. I’ve just implemented Calendly so clients can choose from preselected time slots of availability, eliminating unnecessary email loops.
Keep your mundane tasks for when you have the lowest energy - usually the afternoon and try to prioritise your tasks. What are the most important things you need to do today? Narrowing down to a max of three things makes big projects less overwhelming. I’m still working on this but having a clear goal in mind of what you want to achieve on that day is a good way to prioritise.
Another thing I preach for being your most productive self is to take breaks. I’ve always made taking a lunch break a priority as part of my day and not just sitting inside while eating your lunch but getting outdoors, breathing the fresh air, getting sunlight and moving your body. I’m a huge fan of lunchtime exercise and try to make it to the gym or take a walk, even if only for 30 mins. I can’t tell you enough the world of difference this makes to my mental state - especially if i’m stuck on something. Giving yourself distance from a problem can really help to put things in perspective and spark new ideas.
What has been your greatest struggle as a designer so far?
My greatest struggle so far has been related to my health. Most people don’t view an office job as being hard on your body, when in actual fact it can be. I developed a chronic pain injury about three years ago due to the repetitive nature of my work and constant use of a mouse. While I’ve mostly recovered now, it’s still something I deal with every day. This has made working on personal projects after hours difficult because I know if I overdo it I could hurt myself again. It’s all about setting boundaries and being realistic with how much time I’m spending behind the computer.
I think an industry-wide challenge is the rise in design crowdsourcing platforms promising top creative work for $29.95 and the online entrepreneurial ‘guru’s’ preaching the virtues of these services to paying subscribers eager to hear how easily they can launch a successful brand for next to nothing in a matter of days.
It’s not that they’re a genuine threat. There’s a place for these services but the reality is nobody gets a well-thought-out brand for $30 yet the idea that exceptional design comes easy or virtually free persists. Filtering out the bargain hunters from those who understand the value of the deep creative thinking and strategy that goes into any worthwhile project is a constant battle.
Do you have any advice you can share with regards to attracting ideal clients?
I think a lot of attracting good clients is knowing who you want to work with and the type of work you want to do. Getting really specific about your dream client helps to clarify things in your mind and allows you to filter out people who may not align with your core values.
By narrowing down on your target you’re able to put your full attention into seeking out those clients rather than spreading yourself thin looking for just anyone. Plus, setting your intention sends out those good vibes to the universe. Energy flows where thoughts go.
You want to make it easy for potential clients to find you so sharing your best work on any platform they’re likely to be looking is super important. I used to be really shy about showing my work other than on my portfolio site but over time i’ve learnt that it’s not a bad thing to promote yourself a little - because if you don’t do it, no one will. Be your own champion.
Also, like attracts like. When potential clients see you’ve created a successful brand for a business similar to theirs it alleviates some of the anxiety they face about deciding if you’re the right person for the job. My advice to anyone hoping to change the direction or focus of their work is to create something for the market you hope to reach, whether that be a self-initiated brief or taking on a client at a lower rate than you would normally charge, knowing it will help get you more of the same work in the future.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
I’ve been fortunate to work in small design studios for most of my career which has allowed me to get pretty hands-on in all aspects of business and design.
If you’re about to make the leap from full-time to freelance make sure you have some systems and processes in place right from the beginning. You’re going to need to invoice, send proposals, write contracts and track your time. Paying for a service such as HelloBonsai or AndCo is something I would recommend (Lewis from Freelance Effect has written a very thorough review on And Co which you can read here). They have all of the features you need to start out plus you get to see when a client has viewed your proposal or contract.
Manage your finances
Create bank accounts specifically for your business. Have an everyday account, a tax account and maybe even an expense or savings account. Making sure you put 20-30% of each job’s earnings into your tax account so when that time rolls around you don’t get caught out. If you use your business account to pay for all things work related it will make an accountant’s job much easier (and save you time) when it comes to doing your taxes.
Automate your accounting
There are a bunch of cloud accounting systems out there but the most commonly used are Freshbooks, Quickbooks and Xero. These will help you automate tedious tasks such as bank reconciliations and expenses.
Use contracts and get deposits
It’s super important to have a solid contract with every client (especially as a freelancer) to protect yourself if a bad situation arises. Sites like Docracy are great. You can use their AIGA master agreement if you need something a bit more formalised than HelloBonsai or AndCo’s contracts. Get a 30-50% deposit before starting any work with a client and negotiate kill fees should they unexpectedly cancel the project.
How do you whet your creative appetite?
Inspiration is all around us. Getting out from behind the screen to explore the world around me is always so much more satisfying than finding it on your computer. I’ve recently moved from Sydney to LA so everything is new for me. I have a deep love for mid-century modernist architecture and design, so California has been a huge source of inspiration. I also get way too excited walking into foreign supermarkets and seeing the different products on the shelves.
Do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
My advice to any freelancer would be to enjoy the downtime as scary as it may be. Use it wisely to regroup, recharge and refocus your energy on your next move. Being your own boss is amazing but it’s also super hard at times - you not only bear the weight and responsibility of running a business and all the decisions that go with that, but also the financial instability. If you’re able to create a source of passive income it can help take some of the pressure off. Knowing your rent is covered each month can have an enormous impact of your state-of-mind.
Are there any projects on which you're ruminating that you'd like to make time for someday?
I’ve slowly been writing a book for the past 8 months but finding the time to make space for it has been tough. I’ll get there one day.
Do you have any music, podcast, or book recommendations that you'd like to share?
I’m really into business and self-development podcasts. I’m sure it’s been said repeatedly but the Being Boss podcast is great. Kathleen and Emily are so generous with their content which is genuinely helpful for any creative. I also enjoy The Side Hustle Show by Nick Loper - it’s so interesting hearing how people are making passive income on the side of their full-time gig. Pat Flynn’s, Smart Passive Income and Tara Gentile’s Profit. Power. Pursuit are also good ones.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be an effective self-directed creative are:
Persistence - Keep on keepin’ on. Persist in making good work, whether it be for a client or for yourself. Persist in showing your value, learning new skills, and knowing your worth.
Resilience - It’s hard not to take things personally. Keeping a calm, level-head and always remaining professional will get you far and keep your reputation in good standing. Learn from your mistakes and use these lessons to make things better the next time around.
Initiative - Work won't always fall on your lap so use your downtime to create self-initiated projects that could benefit you in the long run. Also, getting out from behind your screen to meet with as many people as you can is a great way to make connections and can lead to new and unexpected opportunities.