Being a freelance designer

 31 March 2011

Designer Jonathan Alder studied and worked in London for over twenty years before relocating to Exeter to form the design and illustration agency Alder and Alder with his wife.

Charlie Alder studied to be an illustrator. © Alder and Alder
Charlie Alder studied to be an illustrator. © Alder and Alder

Deciding to go freelance

"In 2005 I did two things I had never thought I would: I chose to work outside London and I chose to start my own business. And they were two of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

"I grew up in London’s suburbs. As a design graduate in the late 1980s London was the place to work – all the best design companies were there. For 16 years I worked for a number of different companies, enjoying a really diverse range of projects.

"I never did work for the ‘big’ names I had aspired to as a student, but I learned two really valuable lessons:

  • The quality of the thinking is what makes good design
  • Design is commercial – you have to make money to survive

"During this time I met my wife, Charlie, who was also a designer. We chose to move to Exeter, where she had grown up. For a Londoner, the opportunity to live 20 minutes from the beach or the moors was irresistible."

Preparing to go freelance

"It is immensely satisfying to spend your time doing something that gives you emotional, personal and professional satisfaction."

"The move was a great opportunity to look at every aspect of our lives and decide what was most important to us.

"Charlie had always wanted to be an illustrator, so while we had been planning our move she had taken two weekend illustration courses at Central St Martins, to help understand the difference between drawing pictures and being an illustrator.

"When we moved to Exeter, Charlie started looking for illustration work. I carried on working in London, commuting up on a Monday and back to Exeter at the end of the week.

"The combination of the weekly commute and a change of focus by my employers was physically and emotionally tiring. After 18 months, I left. Meanwhile, Charlie and I had developed our master plan and Alder and Alder was ready to launch."

Starting your own creative business

"Starting a new business is very hard work. All the advice books warn you it is, but until you do it you don’t really realise how hard.

"Starting a new business in an area where you have no contacts, no clients and no suppliers is even harder.

"Fortunately, there is a lot of help available, often free. Business Link is a great resource. Their guide to writing a business plan was really useful. But some help you will have to pay for, and it’s really important to understand that you need to invest in your new business.

"The most valuable resource is the knowledge and experience of others, and the best place to find this is through networking, which costs money. You will meet all sorts of people; some will become clients, some will become suppliers, some will become partners. They’re all really useful. Never dismiss anyone you meet, you never know what they might be able to do for you in the future.

"Of course, without all the 21st Century technology we take for granted (the internet, email, broadband, mobile phones) we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. We choose to work from an office in our home, which hasn’t reduced our opportunities.

"In our first two years we had clients in Italy and Los Angeles, but most of them are within a 30 mile radius of our office. It keeps our overheads down, and gives us flexibility, which is really important now that we have a family."

Stand out from your competition

"Starting a new business is very hard work. Until you do it you don’t realise how hard."

"When we were writing our business plan, we looked long and hard at our business to understand what would make us different and why people would choose us.

"We wanted to be a bit more approachable and less formal than our competitors, so we looked at how we could apply that to every aspect of our business; from our office to our business cards and our website.

"We chose to make Alder and Alder as ‘green’ as possible and encourage our clients to choose sustainable solutions too. To support this approach we have launched an initiative called Today and Tomorrow, to give businesses advice and guidance on sustainable communication.

"The great advantage of running your own businesses is that you get to choose what direction you take your company, and your career.

"It is immensely satisfying to be able to spend your time doing something that gives you emotional, personal and professional satisfaction. And if it also differentiates you from your competitors, all the better!"


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