In this episode of the Smashing Podcast we take a look a freelancing. What does it mean to be a freelance designer or developer? How do you structure your day? What are the ups and downs? Drew McLellan talks to experienced freelance brand designer Liz Elcoate to find out more.
- Making Peace With The Feast Or Famine Of Freelancing on Smashing Magazine.
- Liz is the host of The Elastic Brand podcast, and cohost of The Freelance Web with Sean Johnson.
- You can follow Liz on Twitter where she is @liz_e or via her website.
Drew: She’s a UK based designer who specializes in building digital brands. She’s worked on campaigns with the likes of Great Ormond Street Hospital, the NSPCC, and the Brits. She’s also the host of The Elastic Brand podcast, all about digital brand design, and co-host of The Freelance Web, a podcast for freelancers working on the web... We know she loves design and she loves podcasts, but did you know she once felled a tree using nothing but a mango? My smashing friends, please welcome Liz Elcoate.
Liz Elcoate: Hello, hi.
Drew: How are you?
Liz Elcoate: Do you know what, Drew? I’m smashing.
Drew: Of course you are.
Liz Elcoate: Nailed it.
Drew: I wanted to chat about freelancing with you today.
Liz Elcoate: Great.
Drew: You’re a freelance digital brand designer. Is that how you’d describe yourself?
Liz Elcoate: I think I was trying to start the term digital brand designer, but I realize now they’re just brand designers. I probably now just go by the term brand designer. Everyone was like, “What, a digital what?” I do brands that work both online and off now.
Drew: You don’t pigeonhole yourself exclusively to online stuff?
Liz Elcoate: No. I tend to work with a lot of agencies that are maybe tech agencies, digital agencies. Most of their branding would appear online. They’re not going to have huge offline print, billboards, and things like that. A good brand should work everywhere.
Drew: What does the day of a digital brand designer look like?
Liz Elcoate: Oh God, the truth or the …
Drew: If was to pack up my bags, move to a remote part of Scotland … I’m thinking maybe an island in Scotland. I’ll take my cat. I say I’m going to be a digital brand designer. I’d wait typically six to eight weeks for my broadband to get installed.
Liz Elcoate: Then it’d be rubbish, wouldn’t it?
Drew: Then it would be absolutely terrible. What would my day look like as a freelancer doing the sort of work that you do?
Liz Elcoate: Well, I guess I always start my day off with a dog walk, so you might start yours off with a cat walk possibly. A good dog walk out in the open air always gets me set up for the day. Then back to my desk, check emails, answer emails.
Liz Elcoate: I tend to do the creative work in the morning, because I just find that’s when I work best. I’ll do a couple of hours of really focused creative work. I’ll turn off my phone, turn off my email, and just really get my head down. I can achieve so much in that period of time, probably more than I would do later on in the day for a longer period of time.
Liz Elcoate: I do that, and then maybe check emails again, lunch, get away from my desk for a little while, and then the afternoon will be tidying up whatever has come in the morning, maybe writing for a magazine, maybe Smashing Magazine, or writing proposals, or planning workshops, stuff like that.
Liz Elcoate: The really creative stuff happens in the morning, and the writing and stuff happens in the afternoon, and also do a bit of admin in the afternoon as well. I’m one of those weird people who love admin. I’m so weird. I do tend to quite enjoy that.
Liz Elcoate: It’s just because it’s like math, there’s an answer, whereas I find the creative, it can be draining because it’s so open-ended.
Drew: I guess that’s one of the differences between doing freelance creative work and freelance technical work.
Liz Elcoate: Absolutely. Also, on the very rare occasions I actually code anything these days … and that’s never for clients. That’s only for personal work … is a joyous time, because there’s a right and a wrong way to do. I’m sure there’s lots of people out there who’d say, “Well, there’s many right ways to do these things.” With my knowledge, you do something and you have an answer. It’s so nice. It’s a real break from the creative.
Liz Elcoate: I did a workshop a couple of weeks ago in Ireland. It was a new workshop that I’ve not done before. It was five hours. It was a brand workshop, and I needed to really make sure that I answered all the questions that I needed answering, as well as making it engaging for the nine or 10 people who are involved in it, and relevant for them and fun as well.
Liz Elcoate: I loved writing it, but it wasn’t until that moment that I actually delivered it to them, and we got to the 2:00 PM mark and it was all over. I thought, “Actually, that worked out.” It was, again, that kind of like, “I’m not sure how this is going to go.”
Liz Elcoate: I think that’s the same with the design side of what I do. It’s, “Well, we’ll find out how successful this has been when we hear back from them.” It can be really draining. I think that’s why I really enjoy the admin side of things, and also writing as well seems to be more formulaic, and I have a little bit more confidence, I guess, doing that. I’m confident in what I do for a living, but you don’t know until that moment the client comes back to you.
Drew: You mentioned spending time writing proposals as one of the things you do in your afternoons. How much of your time is taken up in responding to proposals, and calling clients, and finding new work?
Liz Elcoate: Well, at the moment, a lot more than it used to be. I try to be a lot more proactive around those things now. I think it’s a challenge as a brand designer. It’s not quite as straight forward, I think, as with other parts of our industry, because branding is often a really big project for a company, and they don’t do it regularly.
Liz Elcoate: It’s not like, “We need updates to our site,” or “We want to change this part of our site,” or whatever. It’s sort of like, “We’ve had the same brand for four years, five years. We need an overhaul,” or “We’re a startup …” It’s a big decision for people.
Liz Elcoate: I’m not constantly bombarded with inquiries, but when people do inquire, it often means that they’re very serious about it and it’s a big financial commitment for them as well. It can be quite a traumatic experience for them, because they think they’re one thing, and they’re now discovering that they’re maybe something else.
Liz Elcoate: The proposals, to me, I probably write one or two every week or fortnight, but I really take time with them. They take me a couple of days, a couple of afternoons to write. I used to just bang out a quick proposal, just outlining what they need and what I can do for them, but I think a lot of people do that. It doesn’t set you apart.
Liz Elcoate: I was going to work with Christopher Murphy on a project, and he, in the end, didn’t end up coming in on the project, but we wrote a proposal together, and he just completely changed the way I wrote proposals. He changed them so professionally, really engaged the client and their needs. From that moment onwards, I was writing them like that.
Liz Elcoate: Anyone else who’s seen my proposals, if I bring in other people into projects, they’ll be like, “Wow, your proposal is a game changer.” I’m like, “Well, I can’t take any credit for that.” It really has made a difference. When I write them, I really make a concerted effort to make sure that they are very, very pertinent to that particular client.
Drew: Then do you send them off and hope for the best, or do you talk through on a call?
Liz Elcoate: If we’ve got to a proposal stage (because they’re a time-consuming commitment), I feel that I’ve got to a point where they’re very committed to me and maybe one or two other people. I know they’re not just fishing around a whole group of people, and we’ve probably had a video call by then as well.
Liz Elcoate: I’ll send the proposal over and I’ll say we can schedule a call to have a chat through. Sometimes they want to do that, and sometimes they’re like, “No, it’s fine. Don’t worry.” Then they just come back to me like a week later like, “Yes, great.”
Liz Elcoate: I tend to find that if I haven’t heard from them within a week, they’re not probably going to go with me. That’s always quite a red flag. If they come back three weeks later or a month later and say, “We want to work with you,” I think, “Okay, that’s taken a very long time. What’s this project going to pan out like if that’s how long it takes you to make that kind of decision?”
Liz Elcoate: Generally we have a chat through on a video call once that’s gone over.
Drew: I know from stuff I’ve done in the past, the turnaround time can really vary, can’t it, between you can have people who take a couple of hours to read through what you’ve sent and respond straight away, and sometimes you think a project is completely gone away, and then three months later-
Liz Elcoate: Yeah, I had one of those recently, actually. I had a really quite serious inquiry. Basically, they were like, “Yes, we want to go with you. Can you just put a proposal together?” I put the proposal together, sent it over, didn’t hear from them, chased them up, didn’t hear from them again, chased them up again.
Liz Elcoate: It was a good five weeks, and I thought, “Well I’ve not heard from them. This is definitely not going to happen. It’s a shame.” My email’s always very polite, but it said, “Just let me know if you don’t want to go with me, just so I know. Any feedback would be great.” Didn’t hear anything. They came back out of the blue not long ago and said, “Sorry, just being really busy.” You’re like, “Wow, oh my God.”
Liz Elcoate: I think as a freelancer, when you’re on your own, stuff comes in, you react to it, so you expect other people to work like that. I find when I work with maybe a company of one or a small agency, they do react really quickly. They don’t need to take time to think of stuff, but when I work with big agencies, they often take a good week.
Liz Elcoate: You have the person in charge of the project, but then they need to then go off to their stakeholders and have a chat with them about everything. They’re already busy, so they need to schedule a meeting, and it tends to be a bit longer. There’s no hard and fast rules, unfortunately.
Drew: Other than the more stakeholders there are involved, the longer everything is going to take.
Liz Elcoate: If there’s more than maybe two or three stakeholders involved, I’m always slightly dubious about the whole situation. I had one not long ago, and there was a board of 10 people involved in deciding about the direction the brand was going to go. It was just a long, painful, drawn-out process.
Liz Elcoate: They were a very mixed age group as well, and very different backgrounds, and it was as expected when that kind of thing happens.
Drew: I once did a project for a law firm partnership, where everyone in the law firm, there were about a dozen people who were all equal partners, obviously very bright, switched on people with their own opinions about how everything should go.
Drew: We managed to get the site developed, and it failed at the final hurdle of signing it off because they couldn’t get all 12 people to sign off, and it just never launched. Completely-finished website, and it just never launched.
Liz Elcoate: That is so sad. I always do try and say to clients that you need to have someone take the lead on it, and someone who can say to even the stakeholders, “Look, we’ve got to have a decision on this,” because it is impossible.
Liz Elcoate: I think when I used to work for the agency that I used to work for, we worked with a lot of schools. We’d sometimes have a board of governors involved, as well as the head-teacher, as well as three or four teachers who wanted to be involved as well.
Liz Elcoate: They were hugely different age ranges and experience. Those projects were the same as yours. It’s almost impossible to sign off in the end.
Drew: You’ve got a good number of years experience doing this, like me.
Liz Elcoate: I’m old. I’m old.
Drew: It’s a euphemistic way of, “Yes, we have a lot of experience in our respective fields.”
Liz Elcoate: Definitely.
Drew: Have you always been freelance, or did something come before that?
Liz Elcoate: Gosh, if we go back to the dawn of time, which is when I began my career, I worked for an Australian bank way back then, just in processing pensions and stuff like that, because I was having a crisis like, “I don’t know I want to do with my life.”
Liz Elcoate: Then I moved to working for a Danish company in marketing, which I really enjoyed. I enjoyed the creative side of that as well. I did art and fine art after school, and I hadn’t really done anything with that. I felt that within that role, I was starting to do a little bit more with that.
Liz Elcoate: Then this thing called web design started popping up. My sister said to me, “You really need to get in on this at the start.” I was like, “We’ll give it a go, maybe.” She’s like, “No, I really think it’s going to be big.”
Liz Elcoate: I did a little night course, and of course, the night course was terrible because they tried to teach everything in tables. By that point, we were getting to the HTML and CSS. I then went on the Adobe tutorial forum, or site, or whatever it was back then, and basically learned coding from there, and blindly just got some clients.
Liz Elcoate: It terrifies me now. I think I literally knew nothing. Did some quite hefty websites for people. I think this is quite common… I think a lot of people started off just going, “Yeah, I’ll do your website. Don’t know what I’m doing, but okay.” That’s kind of how I started it.
Liz Elcoate: Then the more I learned, the more I thought, “I don’t know anything at all.” I thought, “I need to get an actual job, an agency.” The first job I went for, a guy called Sean Johnson, who everybody might know now as my cohost of The Freelance Web, he was interviewing me for it. He loves to say, “I hired Liz into her first design job.” Miraculously, I got the job. That was just an amazing experience.
Liz Elcoate: After that, I worked with just a brilliant team of guys, who I’m still really good friends with all of them now, loved every minute. When I say guys, I mean men. There were no women in the kind of design … We worked with the development team, so we had to design, and then we would code up our CSS, HTML, code up the site, and then we’d pass that over to the developers who would build into their CMS.
Liz Elcoate: I worked with some amazing clients then as well. Stayed there for a few years, worked up to senior design executive, I think that was my title, which I never to this day really understood what that meant. It just was pay grades.
Liz Elcoate: Then because of my daughter, who was that time starting secondary school, and she was at a different part, away from where I worked, I was like, “I’m really struggling to do all the mum things, and do a full-time job and stuff.” I was raising her on my own and didn’t really have any kind of support network.
Liz Elcoate: I then was like, “I’m just going to go freelance, sounds easy.” Luckily, I went to my boss and said, “Look John,” who I’d really, really got on well with, “I can’t really do this full time anymore.”
Liz Elcoate: It was a very high-pressure job, because I was managing products from start to finish, and traveling all over the country, and then also doing designs. We had huge, crazy targets to hit every week, like a lot of these agencies, I think, at the time. The pressure was getting crazy. I’m trying to be a mum as well. I said, “Look, I’ve got to go freelance.” He said, “Will you freelance for us?” It was a brilliant start to my freelance career. I’m very lucky.
Liz Elcoate: We did that for a while, ended up parting ways, but by that point, I’d built a client base. Most of my clients then were, it was what we called web design then, which was UX now and UI. I’d done branding within that role at the agency, so it was something I was really confident with.
Liz Elcoate: That was part of the projects. They were full-service projects. They were branding, website, everything, print, design, the whole lot. I felt that I had a lot of strings to my bow, and then I went freelance. That was probably eight years ago, I think. I can’t believe I’ve been putting myself through this for eight years, but that time’s flown. That’s more from UX design to focusing more in on branding, I think.
Drew: Was it a good decision? Have you had a good eight years? Have you ever regretted it?
Liz Elcoate: That’s a really tough … I’ve regretted it a hundred times, at least. I can’t deny that and say … It’s been necessary because of just how my life is structured and stuff, how I’ve had to be there for my daughter. It’s been necessary, but it’s been tough. There’s times when I’ve been so tempted to go back to a full-time role, just to take that financial worry away. It’s tough being worried about money all the time.
Drew: That brings us on to a recent article you wrote for Smashing Magazine called Making Peace with the Feast or Famine of Freelancing. In that you’re talking about the stresses that the irregular nature of work can put on an individual freelancer, particularly when that work isn’t coming, and new inquiries aren’t coming in.
Drew: Was this something that you were aware of right from the start, or was it something that you discovered as time went on?
Liz Elcoate: What’s bizarre is that I think you’re always told to specialize, specialize, specialize. I did specialize. I went into specializing, into branding. As I said before, there’s not a huge amount of work constantly.
Liz Elcoate: If you’re a logo designer, and you’re doing 200 pounds a pop logos, there’s a lot of work out there for you, but I really wanted to do full branding. I guess I made the decision about a year ago. Before, I was doing design, which I guess was UX design, graphic design, print design. There’s always a lot more work coming in. The projects were probably not … Now when the products come in, they’re really good value projects. I think then it was a lot more regular small work.
Liz Elcoate: Everyone seems to dismiss that saying, “No, no, you need the big projects with all the money.” Actually, those small projects as well, do keep you ticking over. I think that I’ve found that I had really dropped the ball at the beginning of this year. I’d had a couple of really big projects, and then I’d had a last-minute project come in in February, and dropped everything to do it.
Liz Elcoate: It was a three-week turnaround, and it was doing some print design for company that I’ve worked with for years and years. They’re absolutely amazing, but they always have insane deadlines. They’re like, “We need to do all of this in three weeks’ time.”
Liz Elcoate: They pay amazingly, so it was one of those like, “Well I’m just going to drop everything.” For those three weeks, I was also house-sitting for my parents because they were in Australia. They have a massive farm, so I was looking after the farm and doing … so my whole days were just mad.
Liz Elcoate: At the end of that time, I also got ill. I went to Copenhagen, and I got quite ill with a bit of quite a serious health scare. For a month, I literally was laid on the sofa. Then at the end of that month, I was like, “I’m getting better,” and I had the results come back, and everything was okay.
Liz Elcoate: I was like, “Oh God, I need to get some work in right this second. Someone give me some work now.” It hasn’t been a problem I’ve had the whole time. I’ve definitely had times when it’s been quiet, and I’ve had a week or two and I’m like, “Ugh,” but this was a long period of time of real dawning on me that things were not great.
Drew: It seems to be one of those things, not just the financial pressure that a freelancer can feel if they haven’t got new inquiries coming in. There seems to be a lot of stress, and anxiety, and things, so that even if things are okay financially, even if you’ve got a bit of a buffer, it seems like there’s a disproportionate amount of stress that it puts on an individual, just with the worry. What did you learn about that in your research for the article?
Liz Elcoate: That was probably my biggest revelation during that time. I think that’s what I really wanted to write the article about, was that I had a buffer luckily, because I had done these three big projects. A bit like everybody, you have loads of work come in and you’re crazy. You invoice it all and you’re like, “Oh, I’m rich.” Then you forget that it has to last you for however long it is until the next project comes in.
Liz Elcoate: I had a buffer, but it was that slow dawning realization that nobody I was contacting wanted to work with me. Immediately, I think, as quite a sensitive person, a creative person, I assumed that was because my work wasn’t up to scratch, and I was really losing my touch, and maybe I was in the wrong industry.
Liz Elcoate: That was really painful, to start to realize that. I thought, “Well, this is all I do. This is all I can do. I’m terrible at what I do for a living.” Unfortunately, I’m not secretly a qualified doctor or lawyer. I can’t just fall back on those things. It takes a long time to become a lawyer, even if I wanted to be one.
Liz Elcoate: It was all that kind of thing. It was a day when I thought, “I think I need to write about this mental health side of this.” Money worry is definitely debilitating, but thinking, “Well, I’m never going to get any more work because everybody’s realized that I’m actually really bad at what I do,” was worse.
Liz Elcoate: I tweeted out about this, and it was just an overwhelming group of tweets that came in just saying, “Oh yeah, I feel exactly the same way,” from really the best designers we have in the industry saying it as well. From the outside, you assume that they’re doing really well, and they never have these problems, but they have times when it’s quiet, and it really affects their mental health as well.
Liz Elcoate: I was like, “I think other people need to realize that other people feel … everyone needs to know that other people feel like this as well, and that it’s perfectly normal to feel like that.”
Drew: In talking to people, did you discover any strategies that people had for coping with that situation?
Liz Elcoate: Yeah. It was great to talk to people about this. I find when I become that worried, I almost become catatonic with worry, whereas I can’t do anything else, because my whole mind is weighed down with this with worry. It would be a case of sitting at my desk all day, sending out emails.
Liz Elcoate: You’re reeking of desperation when you send out these kind of emails. People can tell it a mile off, and you’re not getting anything back. I’d do that for eight solid hours, and then I’d go and watch Netflix or whatever. I’d be like, “Oh my God.”
Liz Elcoate: So many people came up with so many great ideas, like side projects, creative projects, running, walking outside. Walking’s a big part of my life anyway. Up your gyming. If you like fitness, start going to the gym more, because that is only going to be beneficial. It gets you out of it. It gets you out of your head when you’re doing stuff like that.
Liz Elcoate: There’s a wonderful chap … let me just find his name … he got in contact. He lives in New York, Jesse Gardner. He created this wonderful project called Troy Stories, because he lived in Troy, in New York. He basically got desperate in the depths of worry about work and stuff.
Liz Elcoate: He’d started going out onto his surrounding area, and just talking to people, and photographing them, and just finding out their story. It’s just a beautiful project, it really is. His work’s gorgeous. I think it just saved his sanity, going out there, and connecting people, and hearing other people’s story.
Liz Elcoate: Then it’s not all about you then, is it? It’s about other people and their lives as well. There are some really, really good recommendations there, a lot of do some art, cook some food, do something creative.
Liz Elcoate: We’re creative people, generally, who are in this industry. I think when you’re telling yourself that, “Well, I’m rubbish at creativity. I can’t even get paid for it anymore,” to do something else creative is really helpful.
Drew: Underlying messaging in lots of those is just be productive. Find something that you can be doing that will keep you engaged and to keep the juices flowing.
Liz Elcoate: Yeah, and stop you worrying about this huge thing in your life as well. I think I was just spending eight hours a day just applying for jobs, applying for jobs that had nothing to do with what I did for a living, just applying for anything.
Liz Elcoate: It was crazy. I think I went a little bit crazy at the time. Then contacting people, “Have you got any work? Have you got any work?”, just all day. I think if I probably had done that an hour a day, or two hours a day … because you do still have to do that. You still have to look for work … and then spent the other time, I could have done my portfolio.
Liz Elcoate: There’s a million jobs I could have done at the time, that I just couldn’t get my head around. Now after having those conversations, really starting to put some of those into practice, they begin to really help.
Drew: In the article, you’ve put together a toolkit, a feast or famine toolkit, which is kind of like a nine-step program of things you can do that touch some of these. I think it’s a really great read, lots of good ideas in there, things like getting out into nature as you say, running, and walking, and those sorts of things. That’s certainly something I find really helps, even when I’m busy with lots of work.
Liz Elcoate: Absolutely. I think as well, these are all things we should be doing when we’re really busy. I think when you’re very, very busy, it’s very easy to just completely focus on that work and think, “I can’t do anything else. I just have to focus on this work.”
Liz Elcoate: That might drop off suddenly and you’re like, “I’m completely at a loss.” I think if you have these things in your life all the time, then it’s much less terrifying when suddenly, you’re like, “Well, I must start a hobby now, because things have gone quiet, or I must suddenly start running.”
Liz Elcoate: There’s a lot to be said for releasing endorphins through exercise. It can make you feel a hundred thousand times better. My daughter’s at uni now, and she’s under a lot of pressure doing her degree and stuff. I keep saying to her, “Just go to the gym.” She’s like, “I can’t. I’ve got so much reading to do.”
Liz Elcoate: “I went to the gym last night. Mum, I feel really great after going to the gym.” I’m like, “I’m not going to say I told you so.” She said, “I just feel so much happier.” I’m like, “Yeah, I think we’ve all proven that endorphins are good for you.” I really do think there’s some benefit in that.
Drew: I think as well there’s a lot of benefit. You talk about doing side projects, and taking up creative hobbies, and things. Of course, there’s value in not only fueling your creative mind, but also that some of those might turn into work in themselves.
Liz Elcoate: I totally agree, but I think there’s also, don’t start a side project with that in mind, because then it just becomes another chore. I think I’m definitely guilty of that. The minute that I come up with something I quite like to do, I think, “Well, how can I make money out of this?”
Liz Elcoate: I made marmalade the other weekend. I’ve never made marmalade in my life before. I thought, “Maybe this could be a sideline. This marmalade is really good.” I think, “No, you made it because you’re …” It’s one of those particular processes that you go through. Don’t start thinking this could be a business. I’m very bad at that.
Liz Elcoate: I think it’s great to have side projects, but I think the ones that do end up being successful and maybe becoming part of your career aren’t necessarily started with that goal in sight. I think the ones that are started with that goal in sight often don’t work, because they just become a real chore.
Liz Elcoate: Jessica Hische with her Drop Caps, I think she did that for pleasure and fun, and that’s become something she’s so well known for. I think if you set out going, “Well, I’m going to create these amazing things and hopefully it’ll turn into …” I think that sometimes then adds that further pressure.
Liz Elcoate: When I said pursue creative, they can be … I’m a real sad geek, and I really like doing even a puzzle or something, something that really is just mind numbingly, there’s no end, there’s no … well, there is, because you’ve completed the puzzle, but there’s no obvious creative like, “I can show everyone how great my puzzle is.” it’s like making marmalade. It’s just my numbing process, basically.
Drew: I guess there’s a happy medium with those as well for a creative person maybe doing some personal work, just something that where the inspiration takes them and something that they feel like doing. Sharing it on Dribbble might attract some attention that brings in some regular work.
Liz Elcoate: Yeah, absolutely. That really worked for me at the beginning of my career. Wow, this is really taxing the old memory. When I first went freelance I thought, “Okay, I’m going to create an amazing CV.” This is not such a thing these days. I think people are a bit snobby around CVs, but there used to be some really creative, amazing CVs.
Liz Elcoate: I was like, “Oh, I’m going to do that. I’ve got a bit of quiet time. I’m going to do that.” I just went to town and shared it on … I can’t remember, maybe it was Dribbble. That was probably around then. I actually did get quite a bit of work from that, just because it was really creative and I’d gone crazy.
Liz Elcoate: Now I feel like I’m more nervous about sharing those things. I think the more I’ve learned and the more embedded into the industry I’ve got, I’m now less keen to share those things. I think it’s because maybe the tone has changed a little bit on Twitter and things like that. People can really be very critical.
Liz Elcoate: I think back then … she sounds very old … back then it was more of a supportive like, “This is amazing,” kind of thing, rather than, “Well, I think you should do this. I personally wouldn’t have done that.”
Liz Elcoate: I think that has definitely worked for me in the past, going back to your point, just letting loose, and also maybe even do things without thinking. “Well, nobody’s ever going to see this, so let’s just go crazy.” It doesn’t matter. It can be all the worst things you’ve ever been taught not to do, but just go crazy, because they can reap amazing rewards.
Drew: We mentioned briefly about being too busy and when all the work then comes in. The stress is pretty much the same when the work’s piling up?
Liz Elcoate: Yeah. I got really poorly at the beginning of the year because of that. It had been a very quiet Christmas and being very worried, and then it exploded with work. As I said, I had agreed to do this stupid house sitting, which is always incredibly stressful.
Liz Elcoate: I actually made myself, I got quite poorly. It’s exactly the same. It’s just so familiar to a lot of freelancers, I think, this, “I’m too busy for anything else,” kind of thing when it gets to that. Then, “I must do it. I can’t possibly turn it down, or say that I can’t do it for a couple of weeks, because they might go somewhere else.”
Liz Elcoate: There’s this pressure to take it all on if it comes in. Then you could be managing four or five, £5,000 projects at once. That is extremely stressful in itself, because that isn’t something you’d really find in a workplace necessarily. You’d have a support team around you.
Liz Elcoate: I think as a freelancer, there’s also all the admin side of stuff, and all that kind of thing, and life that you have to do outside of work. That can be increasingly stressful, I think. Really, you should be managing your time better. I’m the last person to comment on this.
Liz Elcoate: I’m saying this to myself, “You should be managing your time better.” If clients are coming to you and saying, “We’ve got this deadline,” you’re in charge. You can say to them, “Actually no, if you really want me to do this, I can’t do this for a couple of weeks.”
Liz Elcoate: I think you do have to manage your time well. As a freelancer, you have to be very good at those kinds of things, a lot of things. You can’t just be a great designer. You have to be really good at managing your time and being motivated.
Liz Elcoate: You have to be a good boss to yourself, I think, and not an abusive boss, which I think a lot of us are quite abusive. We are like, “Stay at your desk all day. Have lunch at your desk.” There is no boss in the real world would ever be allowed to treat you like that at all.
Liz Elcoate: I think we have to be really good bosses to ourselves and have time outside of work. It’s so easy for it to be just work and then die in front of the TV in the evening, or X-Box, or whatever, or whatever the kids are playing on these days.
Drew: Liz, freelancing sounds awful.
Liz Elcoate: I know. It does, doesn’t it? Wow, how do I do it?
Drew: Is there anything good about it?
Liz Elcoate: There is so much good about it, like amazing people that I’ve met, amazing community that I’m part of online, having time to go and have really long walks with the dogs, or go and take a day off, or go to London, go and do that. The traveling that I get to do more and more as I get bigger projects is so exciting as well.
Liz Elcoate: Being able to write and get paid to write is a dream of mine. It’s amazing. I wouldn’t necessarily have that opportunity if I worked somewhere else. There’s so many good things about it. Seeing a project from start to finish through and it being successful is so satisfying.
Liz Elcoate: The workshop I mentioned earlier, writing that from scratch and then delivering it, and it being successful was such a high, it really was. Knowing I could engage nine people, 10 people for five hours and keep them interested in what we were doing was really, really exciting for me.
Liz Elcoate: There’s so many good things about it. You’re in charge of your own time. You’re in charge of what you do. It’s worth remembering that, because I think it’s really easy to just … you go freelancing because you want more control or autonomy, and then you just work exactly like you did in a job, exactly the same.
Liz Elcoate: You might as well have stayed in job and had a regular income if you’re going to do that. You need to be flexible and work which way works best for you.
Drew: I guess it’s that that flexibility that enables you to work around whatever family circumstances that-
Liz Elcoate: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been lucky in that over the years, I’ve had great bosses and stuff, and they’ve always been really understanding about that I was a lone parent. I’ve been a lone parent since she was tiny.
Liz Elcoate: As she got older, weirdly, that became more of a challenge because she needed me to be there more often, particularly those teenage years when I think it’s painful and hard being a teenager, and you need your mum there and your dad there. To have that flexibility, to be able to spend that time with my daughter now is back on that. It’s just so lovely.
Liz Elcoate: The other thing we mustn’t underestimate is, we can go on holiday outside of school holiday times. That’s absolutely great. You can be really flexible with when you go on holiday, what you do with that kind of thing. I found with work, I was always pressured to go during the summer when it was a bit quieter, but it was always hideously expensive because everybody else was on holiday now.
Liz Elcoate: You can take Friday off and you can go to somewhere for the weekend. There’s so much good about it. I would not be doing it if I deep down didn’t prefer it to being employed. I think as well, it’s a long time since I was employed. It’s easy sometimes to look back with rose-tinted spectacles, but there’s a reason I went freelance.
Liz Elcoate: It was highly pressurized, and I really at times couldn’t see a way through the stress and pressure of it. There’s pressure with freelancing, but you can manage it yourself. You’ve not got somebody above telling you what to do.
Drew: Here at Smashing, we’re all about learning. With Smashing Magazine, and the books, and conferences, I think it’s an industry where we’ve got to be learning new stuff all the time. One of the things I like to ask the guests on the podcast is, what have you been learning in your work lately?
Liz Elcoate: Well, I’m really lucky. It’s very pertinent to what we’ve been discussing today, is that I’m learning to run a business. I’m learning to be a businesswoman, and not just a designer now, and doing that through reading and also through working with coaches.
Liz Elcoate: I’ve worked with a couple of coaches. I’ve worked with Paul Boag. I’m also working with Christopher Murphy as well, who’s helping me. It’s great saying I’m a brand designer and I like doing branding, but how do you turn that into a business which regularly pays the bills and regularly has work come in? I’m working through that in the moment, and it’s very exciting. I really love learning that side.
Liz Elcoate: It makes you feel so much more empowered and controlled, to be able to learn proper marketing, and proper networking, and how to target the people I want to work with, and identifying who I want to work with and stuff. It’s very empowering. I’ve been learning that.
Liz Elcoate: I’m also learning, really getting back into UX design and stuff because I love that. I love what I do. I love branding, but I really of enjoy the UX side of stuff as well. I’m brushing up on that and learning a bit more about that again. It’s something that I still had always done, but I’m like, “No, I need to really actively learn more about this now.”
Liz Elcoate: It’s exciting. Lots of learning going on here at the moment.
Drew: You’ve got a couple of podcasts.
Liz Elcoate: Yes, I have, thank you. I have The Elastic Brand, which is a podcast. It began about digital brand design, but I think through the course of doing it, I’ve realized talking to people that it’s brand design, as I said before. That’s really exciting for me.
Liz Elcoate: I get to talk to brilliant designers, not necessarily brand designers, but all kinds of different designers and marketing people, just discussing what all the aspects of a brand, like the storytelling, the brand values, and how your customers feel, and also things like accessibility, and inclusivity, and stuff, which aren’t things that have necessarily really come up in branding particularly.
Liz Elcoate: Then I have another podcast called The Freelance Web that’s been going on for a fair old time now, and we had a big hiatus for a while, but we’re doing again. We never get a chance to actually record, so when we do see each other, we record about eight back to back.
Liz Elcoate: That’s basically just talking about freelancing, which is ironic, looking at the article I wrote from the Smashing Mag about how rubbish I’d been at freelancing. We talk about what to do and what not to do. It’s basically just a conversation about what we’ve done.
Liz Elcoate: That’s with Sean, who is the guy responsible for hiring me into my first digital role, as he likes to tell people.
Drew: We have a lot to thank him for.
Liz Elcoate: So much. Do I? Do I really have a lot to … no, I do. I do, definitely. I’ve got those two.
Liz Elcoate: Thank you.
Drew: If you, dear listener, would like to find out more about Liz or hire her to work on your digital brand, you can find her website at elizabethelcoate.com, and she’s @liz_e on Twitter. Her excellent Elastic Brand podcast and The Freelance Web are both available to find wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Drew: Liz, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Do you have any parting words?
Liz Elcoate: Don’t let me put you off freelancing. It really is wonderful and rewarding, and everything that people say it is, as long as you’re proactive and you take time to look after yourself.