It seems not a week goes by without seeing a tweet along the lines of: “Finally bit the bullet and handed in my notice. It’s official – as of next month, I’ll be freelance!”. With a 14% rise in people opting for self employment over the last decade (source), the freelance route has become an increasingly attractive. But what’s it really like to give up the safety and security of working for an employer?
I met with graphic & web designer Gemma Storey to hear how she chased her “fabuleuse” through dead-end courses, a stint working in beauty followed by eventually finding her stride at a prestigious agency which led to her going freelance and setting up her very own graphic design company, Infinity Creative.
Hi Gemma! How did you get started with design?
I started out studying Graphic Design at an Arts university, but found the ways of teaching quite archaic. There was a lot of hand drawing, and the classrooms didn’t have a single computer! To be honest, I found the whole experience really demotivating, so I dropped out in my second year.
That must have been a tough decision to make!
It was – because I’m definitely not a quitter. Normally I can’t wait to get cracking on design work, but I just didn’t have the same appetite for what I was doing at uni. That was how I knew leaving was the right thing to do. Looking back, I stuck it out longer than I should have to please other people.
After that, you decided to pursue your second love; beauty. How did that go?
For the first 6 months it was great and I really enjoyed learning a new trade, but after time I started to resent the work. I was on an apprentice training scheme which allowed me to study whilst working in a salon. I was on £2.50 an hour so it was really hard to make ends meet. To make matters worse, I wasn’t treated very well by my bosses. I literally caught sight of myself in the mirror one day whilst working there and realised I couldn’t put up with being treated like that. At this point I felt like shell of my former self and knew it was time to make changes again.
Oh wow – that’s twice you had a make a tough decision! Many people don’t have the courage to leave situations that aren’t serving them, but you made some quite definitive choices to get yourself out. How did you have the courage to know that was the right thing to do?
I realised all this time I had been pleasing everyone else but myself – when I had that lightbulb moment, that’s how I knew I needed to make drastic changes for the better. I guess this is what our twenties are for?
Both times, I drove to quiet places where I could tune out the noise and listen to my inner voice. With university, I drove to Portsmouth. I sat on the beach, contemplating my next move. With the apprenticeship, I drove to a field. Both times, it did cross my mind that everyone had these expectations of me, but I knew I couldn’t let those cloud my judgement.
You have to train your inner voice to become your personal cheerleader that says “if you want it, go out there and get it.”
How do you tap into that ‘inner cheerleader’?
Go back to what you love – for me that was these quiet places. Taking yourself away from the situation takes you out of that bubble and brings it back to you. For some people that might involve getting out a journal or Pinterest.
Always remember that you’re the starring role in your life – so your passion and happiness has to come first.
After quitting the course and dabbling with beauty, what brought graphic design back into your life?
I saw a friend on Facebook was asking for website help for a business they were starting. One logo design and set up of social media pages later and I knew I was onto something. I just had this huge buzz from the excitement my friend got from seeing the logo. Even her clients were commenting on it! The feeling of helping a woman build her business was so fulfilling. I knew I had to pursue it further, so I decided to go back to studying design – but this time with a different approach.
Having already had a bad experience with higher education – how did you know this course would be right for you?
I had seen a sign advertising the design programme at the local technical college which was transitioning into local university, so I went and had a frank conversation with the lead tutor. He explained that the course there had been specifically created to prepare its students for industry, complete with work placements and a full intro to design software. I listened to my intuition and I was sold!
What made the technical college graphic design course different to the university one?
It ended up being the best course I’ve ever done; we learnt so much and I was excited about the projects. The course leader understood the importance of getting their students into the workplace rather than just making their portfolios look pretty. The classes were also smaller, which meant I built up a better relationship with my tutor and got feedback when needed. The classrooms were decked out with a full Apple Mac suite and kitted out with full Adobe Cloud software. For me, this was everything I needed and more.
As part of this course, you had to complete a 2 week industry placement. Design placements can be notoriously competitive to secure, how did you get yours?
I was super keen and started scoping out potential companies a good 3 months in advance. That put me in really good stead, as I was able to secure a much sought-after placement with a prestigious local design agency. I literally called and asked them outright – it just goes to show that you really never know unless you ask!
What started out as a 2 week placement progressed to you working for them one day week whilst at .uni That soon turned into a full time position when you graduated – which is incredible! Why do think they were so keen to keep you?
I was so, so grateful they offered to keep me on. It can take a good 2 years to get a design job after graduating, so it was a great start to my career. I think it comes down to a combination of luck and confidence to put myself out there. I was also very proactive in wanting to stand out against all the other workplace designers they had tried, so I was keen to ask to work on bigger client work, which improved their trust in me to take on bigger projects. I think overall, for the first time in a while I finally had that moment where I knew I was exactly in the right place in life doing what I love. I think the design agency saw the passion within me and I shared the same values as them, so we were a right fit for each other. Additionally, they seriously needed a woman’s touch as I was the only female, so I would organise the studio, make tea for everyone and acted like a bit of a mother hen which seemed to soften their bachelor pad exterior haha!
What was your proudest moment whilst working at the agency?
One of the projects I did whilst on that placement is actually in a big company’s local office and in various other offices across the globe! That was a really validating moment for me; having dropped out of my first uni course I still had doubts about my design skills. But to see my work actually being used, that was the confirmation I needed to carry on.
At what point did you know it was time to try something new?
As much as I loved the experience I got from working in a design studio, I found there was something still not quite right in my life. I think as a creative, I found it really hard and pressured at times to be creative during a 9-5 day. I’m most certainly a night owl, and my creativity comes to me at odd times, and found I needed days to just recoup to gather myself again as the job was very intense. Some days I would be working 14hrs + in a stuffy studio and over time my health began to suffer. In the end,I left because of health reasons. I really loved the team and made that clear to them, but I knew I had to move on for me.
LIFE AS A FREELANCER
How did you start out as a freelancer?
I was still fairly new to the industry, so I knew I had to be serious. The first thing on my list was to speak to an accountant. I found a local company run by a mother and daughter (I’m really passionate about supporting female, family-run businesses where possible!). It was through them that I discovered Athena – a local networking group for female business owners.
Athena was a real catalyst for kicking off your freelance career. How did it help you?
For starters, it was a welcome change to be surrounded by inspiring female energy; many of whom had been through what I have and are now very successful. Joining Athena was one of the best decisions I made as a freelancer. The women I’ve met are so supportive and nurturing; whether I’ve had questions about handling difficult clients or marketing my business on LinkedIn.
Do you have any advice on networking?
I would say anyone who starts a business – you must network. It’s not a quick fix though – you have to build people’s trust over time. Once they get to know you, it just grows from there. You have to work at it consistently though. It’s what I call the ‘Like, Know Trust factor’ where if somebody likes and trusts you, they are more likely to work with you and recommend your services.
What’s your favourite part of your creative process?
I love chatting to clients face to face to get to know their personality, which I then incorporate into their branding. Recently I was working with a wealth management consultant who was looking to define her own personal brand. As we got into it, I learnt that she’s very mathematical. She explained that in maths, there’s a continual shape that doesn’t stop. The name she was using was ‘Penrose’ – the name of the artist behind one of these shapes. I had this idea to take the ‘rose’ from ‘Penrose’ and create a continual ‘rose’ shape for her logo, that way it came across as professional whilst still capturing her personal interests.
What advice would you give to anyone that’s thinking of making the leap to freelance?
If you’re not happy where you are right now, you have to move on, because another door will open – you just have to find what fuels your fire and trust in it! You’ve got to tune out the naysayers and do it for you, and it’s ok to make mistakes along the way, it’s a good thing as long as you learn and grow from them. Network, do what you love, listen to your gut and just go for it!
You’ve overcome quite a lot to get to where you are. What would you say to someone who isn’t where they want to be right now?
A bad situation is actually something that gets you on the path to good things. I don’t have any regrets, even with things that didn’t work out there are people I met along the way that are now friends and there are so many lessons I had to learn. So just have faith and trust in the process. All things come to you at the right time, along with your hard work and determination you literally can achieve anything.
I know you’re very into manifestation and law of attraction. How did you get into it and what have you learnt?
The book The Secret first got me into it. I love taking long baths and using that time to get clear on what I want to manifest. I’ve also learnt to trust my intuition. I’m a big believer in signs and fate, and it’s always proved me right. If you get a gut feeling, you have to follow through with it – it’s never wrong.
I know you’re a fellow fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race! As a creative, do find yourself inspired by the show?
All the time. It’s hard not to be inspired by the queens’ ‘bold and better’ ethos. I love the scenes where they show the queens doing their makeup – there’s such an artistry behind it. Also, thinking about it – most, if not all the the Drag Queens have faced hate and scrutiny in what they do, but did it stop them? No, so I find that so inspirational.
And lastly …how do you find the fabuleuse in every day?
I would say it’s taken me a while to find the fabuleuse in my life. It was really when I decided to commit to being a full time Freelance Graphic & Web Designer that everything started falling into place. I love being my own boss and making goals. Being able to curate a life I had only dreamed about feels amazing.
What is your ‘fabuleuse du jour’?
My ‘fabuleuse’ is getting to use my superwoman power – design – every day to help my clients visions become a reality.
What ‘fabuleuse’ would you like my readers to find this week?
I would highly recommend reading ‘The Secret’ by Rhonda Byrne – that book changed my life. It’s all about the law of attraction and how you can manifest all your dreams to reality. I love it, as it also talks about gratitude, which is also so important – especially in business. ⬛