FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Alleyway Designs

APRIL 2020

Meet Ally—the creative behind Alleyway Designs. She’s had her foot in the game for a little while now, freelancing as a graphic designer for over 5 years. Originally from Western Australia, Ally now resides and works on the South Coast of NSW. Being from the South Coast myself, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to speak to someone who is hustling everyday to create a successful business, while living the coastal slow life we all crave.

Ally is particularly honest about the amount of work that goes into creating and maintaining a small business. She opens up about her freelancing journey, and how it wasn’t all bells and whistles in the beginning—originally designing 2 year old birthday invitations and having to work a full time job. Like some of us, she didn’t enjoy her university experience, but she worked her ass off regardless and found freedom in freelancing and running her own studio.

I love Ally’s work and her attitude towards working with clients. She says she treats her clients like gold, as THEY are the reason she get’s to do what she does, and that is easier to keep a client than find a new one. If you are thinking of freelancing, or have a side hobby that you are thinking of turning into a small business then I would HIGHLY recommend this interview to you. As Ally says, there is never a right time to pursue your side hustle as a full time gig, it will feel uncomfortable and terrifying, but, all the best things do.

You have been freelancing for about 5 years now, but you originally started while you were still at uni doing some small jobs here and there. How did you first stumble into freelancing? Im curious to know if you had any worries or doubts?
Freelancing as a designer seems like the obvious thing to do, but I was the only one in my cohort that had actually put together a portfolio and was doing work on the side (let it be known, that said work consisted of 2nd birthday party invites and stickers for my dad’s worcestershire sauce). As I had a part time job as a dental nurse while I was studying, freelancing was just pocket money on the side, so income wise I wasn’t relying on it. It was fun, I got to be creative, I loved it. Be it naivety or stupidness, or both, I didn’t have many worries.

With this in mind, what was your overall university experience like?
Honestly, I hated university. I would never go back, well not at least for an art degree. Other universities might be different, but mine was very focused on art history and hardly any practical design knowledge to take into the field. We graduated, and they threw us off the building expecting us to fly, we didn’t, because they hadn’t actually taught us how to fly. Terrible analogy, but you get what I mean. Don’t go to university, do a design degree and expect to come out a graphic designer (I’ve heard good things about specialised design colleges).

During your studies, did you have to complete an internship for school credit? 
No, but I did an internship anyway. Everyone needs experience, and to get experience, you sometimes have to work for free. It’s just what you have to do, so stop winging, we’ve all done it. I interned at a branding agency in Sydney for 4 months, 3 days a week (I worked at my actual paid design job the other days, I pretty much crammed my full-time job into 2 x 12 hour days).
What were your roles at the branding agency? Do you think this agency helped you to define the type of creative you wanted to be?
I remember putting together a lot of style guides, designing ‘thank you’ cards, making social media posts, and once they trusted I knew what the bloody hell I was doing, I was allowed to dip my toes into some logo and branding jobs. The reason I commuted 4 hours everyday to this internship wasn’t the design work, it was the studio, the processes, the systems, how they work, how to secure a client, who deals with the clients, all that nitty gritty stuff.

I already knew how to design, what I didn’t know, was how to run a design studio, that’s what I was there to learn. I was never going to work for someone else’s business, I was going to run the business.

Following university, what was your first year out really like? What did you get up to in your first year out?
I got lucky, well ‘lucky’ is the wrong word, I worked hard and I got my shit together. I got a full-time job before I had even graduated as a junior designer, within 6 months I was a senior designer and ran the show. I still freelanced during my lunch breaks and when I should have been sleeping, slowly building up my business with the goal to eventually leave my full-time job and go full-time Alleyway Designs.

The one thing that surprised me about working as a designer in the real world, is how little you actually ‘design’… Seems crazy right? But as I made my way into a senior role, I was managing the projects rather than ‘designing’ the projects. Alleyway was exactly the same, I was running a design business but doing no design, it was all emails and admin.

So you always knew you wanted to work full time in Alleyway, at what moment did you comfortable leaving your full time position to pursue Alleyway?
As everyone says, there is never a right time to pursue your side hustle as a full time gig, it will feel uncomfortable and terrifying (all the best things do). One of the reasons I decided to leave my marketing job and move into full time Alleyway was mainly because I was ready for a change, I was bored and stagnant. I had no money saved, no plan, only a handful of clients, but you make it work, somehow you just do. You hustle, you soldier on, and at the end of the day you think, ‘I should done this years ago, why did I wait so long?’
Like you said before, when you run your own business you have to ensure the business functions. Processes and systems like admin, payment schedules, GST etc need to be kept on top of. How do you do it all!?  
Honestly, I don’t, my brain always hurts. I feel like no one really tells you how damn hard it is to actually run a business, it’s a secret until you’re in the thick of it, and think “holy shit I am so in over my head”. We all did design degrees, not business degrees.

Last year, I did the Owners Collective mentoring program with Pru Chapman, which was brilliant. I recommend this program if you’re about a year deep into your business, and if you’re feeling like your constantly treading water. Pru is a mastermind when it comes to all the nooks and crannies of business (especially creative businesses). I  also hired a wonderful bookkeeper last year and she has been a game-changer, bookkeepers are worth their weight in gold as I was wasting way too much time googling every single thing when it came to accounting/Xero/GST. Sometimes running a business by yourself can feel lonely, and I’ve found that it has been so beneficial to have someone in my court, on my team, and will listen to me talk jibberish about anything business-related (there is only so much your partner can take).

In terms of running the business, meeting deadlines, managing a minimum of 15 clients at a time, project timelines and actually being creative (also finding time to eat breakfast), it’s a constant battle and I am still figuring out how to juggle it all. There comes a time where you just need to shut up and hire another human. It’s ok to ask for help.

For me, I really worry about not having a continual client list to keep a constant work flow, which has ultimately lead me to pursue studios or in-house roles. For people like me, or someone starting out as a freelancer, what advice would you give them on how to find and keep potential clients?
Treat every single client like gold. Every one client will most likely bring in two more. One thing I have learnt, it’s easier to keep a client than it is to find a new one. So again, treat them like gold, THEY are the reason you get to do what you do. There will always be lulls in your business and workflow, I try to use this time to work on my business (not in it), things like writing blog posts , updating our portfolio, or any personal projects I have ticking in the back of my mind. Use the lull, befriend the lull, the lull is good.
How are you coping at the moment personally and as a small business? You’ve posted about the importance of community during these times, who are some of your favourite creatives to follow or creative resources to read/use?
Week One into the covid crisis, I was absolutely terrified. I had lost half of my clients and I honestly didn’t know how my business was going to survive. Cue panic attack.
Week Two was quiet, due to said loss of clients. So I used this time to work ‘on’ my business rather than working ‘in’ it, I updated my website, wrote blog posts, designed a few personal projects and did a few shoots.
Week Three, everyone had slowed down and finally stopped panicking. Businesses realised they had to change their marketing strategies and move into the online world, so enquiries started coming in again (phew).
Week Four, (which is now), things are different, my businesses pace is slower but I am learning to appreciate the slow. I am taking the time to learn some new skills and do all the things that I had been putting off.

Things keeping me sane and inspired:
  • Paradiso and The Corner Palm host The Breakfast Club: Which is a short and sharp morning talk series (via zoom) designed to ignite, inspire and engage. Two speakers. One topic. So much inspiration.
  • Love love love Offline, The Podcast. Honest conversations with real humans.
  • The wonderful and clever Rachel Saunders DIY clay tutorials on her IGTV. I am relaxed just thinking about them.
  • Well Read, these two brilliant women hand-select the best books and then deliver them straight to your door, I look forward to that parcel every month. Besides their subscription service, their blog and instagram is always a go-to destination when looking for inspiration or another good book (I am a huge book worm).
  • Lastly but not least, I’ve been devouring An Organised Life’s blog series “Working from home with …”. There is something about combining beautiful stationery with aesthetic homes that really hits the spot.

And finally, how do you define success or being successful?
I don’t think success is definable. There is no such thing as ‘the finish line’ in my opinion, especially when it comes to my business. There will always be something to strive for, another goal, a new dream client, another project. Defining success would mean also defining failure, and i’m not about that, take everything as a lesson and learn from it.

Ally is not only a talented designer, but she is also extremely willing to help out fellow creatives. After sending her an email about this blog, she quite literally replied back in 2 minutes more than happy to particpate. You can find her instagram here and also find her website here.

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