Interview with Freelance Tribe
I recently shared some thoughts about my creative career path, marine biology, leather jackets, sunsets, and charging what you’re worth with the team over at Freelance Tribe.
Cristie Stevens is an art director and graphic designer from Los Angeles, California by way of New Zealand. Not only does she run her own design studio where she creates exquisite work but she is also responsible for Studio A/C. A curated design blog showcasing the best in packaging, print and brand design. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Cristie!
What do you do?
I'm an Art Director and Graphic Designer based in Los Angeles. I specialize in brand identity, packaging, and digital design for premium lifestyle products, brands, and businesses. I also run a curated design blog called Studio A/C where I share the work of those who inspire me, as well as interviews with creatives about their design process, strategies and creative thinking.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
Dolphins were a pretty big deal in the ’90s, so like every other girl my age I wanted to be a Marine Biologist. When I grew out of that phase, I wanted to be an artist.
Tell us about your career journey.
After graduating from university in New Zealand, I landed my first design job at a software and web design agency. It will never cease to amaze me I got the job at all – I LOATHED web design at uni and didn’t even remember applying for the job when I got the call for the interview. Going in with zero knowledge, I learned how to design and build websites from the ground up.
New Zealand is a small country, making opportunities in the design world hard to come by. In order to grow, I relocated to Sydney, Australia knowing there were far more creative jobs on offer and higher pay.
I spent a few years working at corporate agencies, helping me to recognize my strengths as a designer and realize the type of work I wanted to do. Being a creative, you naturally tend to have a rebellious spirit, so for me, the corporate world was hell. Heels, stiff dresses and a full face of makeup just wasn’t my vibe, and I knew continuing in roles like that would be career suicide.
During 2013-2015 I had three unfortunate incidents. I was made redundant twice and developed a debilitating computer-related injury which left me unable to work for the better part of six months, knocking my confidence and leaving me questioning whether a career in design would be a viable option moving forward.
After being made redundant from one job, I managed to land my dream role at a premium boutique digital studio. During my second year, the studio folded – a common occurrence in Sydney at the time. Realizing the job market wasn’t stable, and knowing I was physically unable to work the number of hours a full-time job required, I decided to go it alone as a freelancer for the first time.
Only a few months into freelancing, a recruiter approached me with a position as Senior Designer at a small brand and packaging studio who worked on the type of projects I had been dreaming of. I was torn between the flexibility and financial gain of freelancing and the incredible opportunity to shift my focus away from digital to branding and packaging. In the end, it was an offer I couldn’t turn down.
My two years there offered me the opportunity to build premium hospitality, retail, food, and beverage brands from the ground up, and allowed me to learn how a small business is run; how to present work, write proposals, deal with clients, quote jobs, etc. In the end, this gave me the confidence to pursue my own path once more.
When you first started, how did you find clients?
While I was still working full-time, I had a few lower-level clients find me through Instagram. Once I started on my own, my first good clients came through referrals from my previous studio.
In the build-up to freelancing, I became very intentional about sharing my work across multiple platforms. From then on most people found me through the power of the internet; Behance, Pinterest, Dribble, Instagram and my own website. While I was still working, I listened to a lot of podcasts, and read article after article about freelancing, marketing, and social media, so I knew that to get my work in front of people I had to put it everywhere clients might be looking.
Do you have a motto that you work by?
I don’t necessarily have a motto, but there are a few common themes that run through my practice.
Most of my clients are paying me with their own savings, so I always try to over-deliver – not only to impress them but to reassure them in their investment with me.
Although I know perfection doesn’t exist, I’m always striving to get there. I hold myself to pretty high standards, so with each new project I’m always asking myself “how can I make this better?”.
How do you stay productive?
I’m most productive when I’m busy and have lots to get through. When I need to knuckle down and keep distraction-free, I close my emails, leave my phone in another room and put some music on. I also find I’m much more productive when I’m alone (which is preferable for my chorus outbursts, air drumming, and general grooving).
What are you working on right now?
I have a few things in motion right now. A CBD supplement, an eCommerce site selling products to help with stress & anxiety, I’m about to start the branding and packaging for a non-alcoholic spirit, and finally Studio A/C, which is an ongoing ever-evolving project with multiple facets that I’m planning to expand in the new year. I’m also trying to allow space to work ON my business.
What is your dream project?
This is a surprisingly tough question. Firstly, it would need to have a big budget so I could bring together a team of the most talented people in illustration, photography, copywriting, motion, etc. The client would be brave, open-minded and trusting. The project itself would have a “feel good” factor and leave the planet/people/society/animals better off. It would also probably involve chocolate. Lots of chocolate.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Picking just one piece of advice is hard. I’ve learned so much from my own experiences and mistakes, and those of others.
With creative services on the rise – particularly graphic design – the market is flooded with competition, and with most people competing on price, it’s become a race to the bottom. With cheap prices comes cheap clients. Cheap clients are more trouble than they're worth and usually have little to no respect for you or your work, so don’t be afraid to charge what you're worth!
I'm a firm believer in sticking to your guns when it comes to pricing; if a client can't afford you then look at a reduced scope of services but don't give discounts purely because someone doesn't have realistic expectations of your value. If a client wants to work with you, they'll find a way to honor your rates or they'll come back to you when they have more money. My one exception to this rule is if the project can be a stepping stone to the next level in your career.
What is the best piece of advice you've been given?
Be patient, kind and generous with yourself and others.
Tell us about a time in your career when you struggled.
I think most freelancers struggle with finding clients who are willing to pay what they know they’re worth. I’m no different! It’s a constant battle, and I think the only way to overcome it is to be strategic about the types of projects you take on and consistently do great work!
What are you listening to, reading or watching that is inspiring to you lately?
I try to watch the sunset every day. We have the best sunsets in California, and I’m lucky to live near the ocean surrounded by palm trees with a view that is so iconically Californian it hurts. I love how the sunsets change from day to day. Some days are rather unremarkable; a dull pale blue, the next a soft gradient of pastels ranging from pink to purple and blue, and other days the palm trees are silhouetted against the most vivid reds, oranges and pinks you’ve ever seen – like the sky is on fire. The unpredictability reminds me that we can’t control the world around us, all we can do is control how we respond to it, and I find that comforting.
What is your favourite piece of clothing?
My black leather jacket because of the aforementioned “rebellious spirit” and #rockandroll, closely followed by any of my linen pieces because i’m all about that wrinkly chic life.
How can we find out more about your work?
You can also follow Studio A/C on instagram for daily design inspiration @studioac, and visit studioac.co to read interviews with some of the industry’s leading creatives about their design process, strategies and creative thinking.