We caught up with Natalia Baker, a transatlantic freelancer designer who's worked on everything from websites through to packaging.
Hey Natalia! So how did you get into design to begin with? Has it always been something you knew you were going to end up doing?
Developing a career in design I don’t think has ever been an intentional plan. It wasn’t really an option at school; back then I was headed more down the grad scheme route. During my twenties I worked in marketing roles and as a wedding photographer, both of which gave me skills I still use every day. It was only until I had to make some promotional materials as part of an account management job that I noticed designing would make me lose track of time. I think it’s doing something creative while knowing it has real business value that grabs me.
How did studying at Shillington set you up for a career in a design?
There’s nothing quite like Shillington for aspiring graphic designers. It’s a short format course, incredibly intense, and heavily weighted towards real commercial projects. There’s plenty of design theory and software training, but for 450-odd teaching hours, you’re immersed in marketing campaign briefs, event promotion, wireframing, branding, web design, etc. Covering so many bases helped me learn to produce good work within a realistic context. We didn’t have a month to deliver final artwork, we had a day or two, and lots of critique to keep us evolving as designers. Exhausting but life-changing. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it.
Once you graduated, what made you want to go freelance?
Right after graduating I knew I didn’t want to go back to working for someone else. My clients are my bosses and managers - they tell me what they need doing and push me out of my comfort zone. We’re often on Slack so there’s a background hum of communication that stops me missing colleagues too much - my main fear when going freelance.
I also liked the concept of ‘designing’ my own working life - choosing my hours based on my rhythms and being a happier person for it. Remote, contract and flexible working is something I’m seeing a lot of friends doing now.
I know you spend a fair amount of time in NYC & LDN. How do you find splitting your time between the two cities?
Apart from face-to-face intro meetings which are important for winning work, day to day it doesn’t really make a difference where I am. My clients just need to know I’m at the end of a call or Slack message, and we use tools like Invision to live comment on designs together.
I might have to suck up the odd late Skype call to work with the US, but the time difference can work well, too; clients love having artwork waiting in their inbox when they start work. And I have a reason to expense a trip to NYC every quarter...
Do you notice much difference in the design culture between the two?
I haven’t so much of the agency experience to compare - though I gather it’s more advertising focused in NYC. In finding freelance work, it blows my mind how fast things move in New York. The culture is very heavily geared towards start-ups and side projects, with a massive dose of ‘yes’ mentality, so I’m often dealing with highly driven Type A personalities who want to get things off the ground yesterday.
Settling back into London, I’m looking forward to noticing what makes the city unique, whether in fitness or design. Certainly there’s a bigger celebrity designer movement over there - Draplin, Jessica Hische, Dana Tanamachi, etc - which leaves opportunities for London-based designers to follow suit. I don’t even think it’s about being the best in your field but providing a value in promoting your type of design or aesthetic to a bigger audience.
Are the clients you work with different between the cities?
It used to be more of a mix, but these days my clients are typically small to medium sized health or fitness brands. Many are startups working out of co-working hubs, keen to put a professional foot forward into the market. I’ll help with everything from branding to site design and headshots. I love it when we get to the point of creating t-shirts and merch - we can relax the rules a bit and see the brand in action.
So how do you get most of your clients? Do you do much self promo at all?
My approach to finding clients has been creating a niche for myself.
A friend told me he was working towards being the preferred web designer in his local area of Peckham. The way he markets himself is very geared towards that identity and I could see it was paying off. It made sense for me to focus on the health and fitness industry as a lot of my college portfolio was steered that way. It was important to make sure the language on my website and social imagery showed I enjoy working with (and buying from) active, healthy brands. I’ll attend wellness events where there are lots of new brands looking to grow and find it’s easier to strike up a conversation by saying I specialise in their market.
Clients see the value in me being a keen consumer of their products and my insight into what others are doing in the industry. It definitely helps give me an edge over a more broadly-focused designer. Clients often recommend me to others, and the industry is plenty big enough (and across two countries!) to avoid dealing with direct competitors.
What would you say the main challenges are for yourself as a freelancer? Are there any areas you want to improve in at the moment?
Freelancing is a constant learning curve. There are so many ways you can grow with it, skills-wise and business-wise, and it’s down to only you. Specialising towards a top-of-your-game day rate or covering more bases through sub-contracting/hiring are two typical paths, but these days freelancers are hosting podcasts, creating courses and selling products as additional revenue.
It’s easy to coast, I think, to avoid sticking your neck out and committing to a direction. I’m often at a crossroads with deciding which new skill or software to learn and which to outsource (CSS, anyone?) or turn down. I’ve been reading about lean business plans and focusing on the next 3 months at a time, so I’ll be working on that over the Christmas break. Speaking of breaks, taking them is the biggest freelancer challenge of all.
What are your ambitions as a designer? Stay freelance? Start a studio? Or maybe even to build a brand?
I want to start sticking my neck out, for sure. Currently that’s building a solid sub-contractor network to be able to respond to pretty much any creative need of my particular client base. There’s no reason why the health and fitness model couldn’t then be applied to other industries once I have enough support.
Beyond that, I’d love to explore fashion design through fitness apparel as I can never seem to find what I want to wear in the gym! The idea of passive income through product sales interests me but it has to be useful. Maybe some teaching, who knows.
What would you top tips be for people wanting to go freelance?
I ran a freelancer workshop at Shillington the other day, and a common anxiety that people shared is not feeling ready or good enough to freelance. Like you have to have a certain number of years under your belt to earn a reasonable living working for yourself.
The quality of the work the school produces in its design students is on par with, if not better than, many other freelance designers successfully making a living. Confidence in your ability is a good start.
Reality checks are necessary, though. What services can you currently provide and which need a stronger body of sample work first? Are you good at managing your own workload and deadlines? Can you handle irregular income? It sounds funny, but I think freelancers also really need to like people. There’s so much to-and-fro communication involved, a fair amount of selling yourself, explaining visual concepts, hearing feedback well, diplomacy and sometimes drawing a line.
Mark Manson has a brilliant article about knowing which shit sandwich you don’t mind eating. If it’s people skills, freelancing is definitely an option for you.
And finally, what are your thoughts on Availo. How do you think it will help the freelance industry?
I’m chuffed to bits with it, to be honest. I have a profile on other websites but the onboarding process with Availo has been far smoother and the curation is clear for anyone to see. Me and others have a lot of confidence in the team, knowing they’re from design backgrounds and genuinely want to solve the problem of good talent finding good projects for the benefit of both client and freelancer.