It’s been a while since our last interview and I’m excited to welcome freelance web designer Pete Clark to the site.
Who are you and what do you do?
Who are you? That should be an easy starter question right? But at the risk of getting too deep too quickly this is something I’ve given a great deal of thought to recently. About a year ago I realised I was maintaining different versions of ‘who I was’ for different groups of people. There was the web designer me, the me my friends saw down the pub, the me that made electronic music, the me that went on dates… Those are all part of who I am and those are all things I do, but I was keeping them separate and it meant that none of them was a true representation of who I truly am. I had this idea that to be successful in any area of life I had to curate myself but I’ve come to realise that it’s the exact opposite. Nobody’s interested in ‘perfect’. People like vulnerable, weird and honest.
What led you to start freelancing?
I dropped out of college at 17 because I didn’t like being told what to do very much. I talked my way into a job designing adverts at the Derby Evening Telegraph partly by accepting a very small salary and partly by pretending I knew how to use an Apple Mac. I’d been down to PC World the day before the interview and had a play with the Macs which I crashed multiple times. ‘Good enough’ I thought.
I didn’t really enjoy being told what to do as en employee either but they at least supplied my with enough cash to start buying synthesisers and samplers to make music with. I left after a year as I could no longer stand it. I bounced through another three jobs in three years, each time moving to a place where I could learn more and I started teaching myself web development on the side for fun. At age 21 I was working in a print shop in Derby that I hated so much I’d go into the local record store every day. I bought so many CDs the staff got to know me by name and would have the latest releases waiting for me—I even got given staff discount! One day I was chatting to the manager and he said he was thinking about getting a website for the shop and asked me if I could build it. That was my first freelance web design project and pretty soon after that I quit my job and started freelancing full time.
What three things do you wish you’d known before starting out?
- Never start work without getting a deposit payment. I generally ask for 50%.
- Never work on a project without a description of the project in writing and an agreement of payment terms.
- Never accept work from people you don’t like.
What three challenges have you had since going freelance?
- In the past I would get excited about the creative possibilities of a project and end up putting far more work into something than was required. I would build features into a website that hadn’t been asked for and ultimately weren’t used. This led to me working much longer hours than I needed to and contributed to feeling disillusioned and burned out. That’s not to say that I cut corners now, but if I have an idea of something to add to a project after the cost and spec are agreed I’ll discuss it with the client. If it’s something they want and are willing to pay extra for then great, if not I don’t do it. There’s no point building things people won’t ever use.
- As a web designer you have to learn to accept that your work is ephemeral as even great websites often get replaced every three to five years. Sometimes this is because the client has a new marketing person and they want to bring in a designer or agency they’ve worked with before. Sometimes it’s just to make their mark. Seeing something you’ve poured a lot of yourself into get discarded can be really disheartening, but that’s the job. You have to try and focus on doing good work and helping as many people as you can while knowing it won’t last forever.
- I’ve always been pretty happy in my own company so I’ve mostly worked from home over the years. This has at times meant I’ve not looked after myself well enough in terms of getting exercise and staying healthy. That can have a knock-on effect on your mental state so it’s important to get out for a walk and make time for cooking proper meals. I tried going to the gym but it wasn’t for me, and I struggle to run or walk purely for the sake of exercise. I’ve found if I combine walking with calling a friend then I can have an enjoyable hour getting the steps in and keeping in touch with people too.
What’s the best thing about freelancing?
Having control over my time, without a doubt! If I’m not feeling it on a certain day I’ll sack work off and do something else as I can always put a few hours in over the weekend if I need to. It’s important to me not to work evenings and weekends all the time though. I used to do that far too much.
How would you like to develop your freelance career in the future?
For a few years I focused on front-end development and mostly built sites designed by other people. I do enjoy this work but I realised I missed doing the visual design and UX on projects so I’ve started building that side of things back up. I’d really just like to keep moving in that direction so I have a good mix of design and development. I want to work with clients who are up for doing something interesting with their websites and who aren’t just getting it done to tick a box on a list. I’m pretty much there already to be honest so it’s more a case of maintaining rather than developing.
I also like the idea of getting into mentoring. At a conference last year I met a young designer who was just starting out on his own and he asked if he could email me occasionally to ask my opinion on stuff. That felt great and I was really happy to help. If you’re reading this and you’re in that position too feel free to get in touch with me on Twitter or email me through my website and ask me anything you like.
Anything else you’d like to tell anyone thinking of or currently freelancing?
One of the things I keep hearing is that freelancing is less secure than having a job; I totally disagree with this. It’s true that you might not know where your money is going to come from 3 or 4 months from now, but do you really know that as an employee? As a freelancer you will certainly have some times that are busier than others but you’re unlikely to lose all your clients in one go. I pay myself the minimum amount I need to cover my outgoings (that includes things like clothes, music, TV and beer) and leave the rest in the business account. Over time I’ve built up a buffer so I know I’m set for a good few months even if no work comes in. That feels far more secure to me than being en employee who could go into the office one Monday and find out that I’m being made redundant.
Oh yeah, here’s another thing: Be a nice person and help people out when you can. Being a decent person goes a really long way!