Talking Shop is an interview series where we talk to freelancers about freelancing. In this interview, we talk to Maggie Putnam, a graphic designer specializing in book design, editorial, identity, and custom lettering in Boston.
How did you get your start freelancing?
Maggie: I feel like I’m still in my start. For a while, I worked in studios and agencies as a designer, but started to feel like every place I worked could be a little better — whether it was the work itself or how they did it. I began noticing some other industry-wide issues, too.
As a designer, you don’t always have the pull on a project when the deadline is too tight or the budget is too small or even when the solution promised isn’t what the client needs. So, I decided to get my Masters in London and, while I was doing that, I started freelancing.
What types of projects do you work on?
I do a mix of projects — lots of branding, book design, type design, and lettering. I work with individual type designers, studios, and small businesses. Sometimes it’s consulting on type alone as part of a much larger team, and sometimes I’m the sole designer on a new brand or book.
How did you get your first clients?
When I moved back to Boston, I wanted to create the place where I would want to work. Not seeing anything that existed, I continued freelancing and building my practice. I started taking small clients, like really small. So small that I’m amazed I was charging them what I was.
Pricing yourself just starting out can be such an enigma. What’s your approach now?
It’s a constant learning process. I’m in my third year now, and I’m definitely still learning. I’ve also found that there’s this industry-wide confusion around pricing and clients are all over the board on what they think is appropriate for cost of work.
“It’s up to freelancers like me to charge accurately and be transparent, as well as be able to explain our rationale to the client in order to raise the bar for our industry as a whole.”
For every project, I’m doing research, coming up with a number, walking my client through the process and the value of what I do.
How do you approach that work?
I read. In my first year, I read a book on business practices and I learned how to set up accounting for a small business. I do all my own accounting now and having to go through that every quarter teaches me a lot about what I need to charge to make this work. It’s doing all the math. Doing that work has given me confidence in how I price myself and the number I present to clients. This is what it costs for me to run my business.
What are some of the other challenges of pricing?
When you’re just coming out of a salaried job and starting to charge as a freelancer, the numbers all of a sudden jump. You learn that to make the equivalent of a senior designer at a studio, you need to be bringing in way more before taxes, so start charging way higher. That’s a big check to get in the mail.
“In the beginning, there was this sense of guilt of having someone give me a check for a couple grand in the mail. Now, a couple grand is the minimum.”
I was just so uncomfortable holding $5,000. I had to get over the hurdle of knowing what I’m worth and feeling confident in that. That’s one of the biggest hurdles you come across: Feeling confident in what your time is really worth.
What have been some of the biggest learnings in the last year?
This year has been all about confidence. Confidence in saying no, the value of my work, pricing, and explaining that to clients. The other thing I concentrated on this year was balance: cultivating my own energy, learning when to go take a long lunch or skip a morning working to garden. I don’t get much done when I’m dreamily staring out the window, anyways. I’m finding how I work efficiently and productively, rather than trying to force myself to stick to the typical 9-5. I’m finding everything else I do — what I eat, how often I go to yoga or out for a run, the quality of my friendships — cultivates productive creativity, too.
What are you focusing on next year?
I’m concentrating on getting my website relaunched and updated with all my recent work, and using that as an opportunity to be a lot clearer about what I actually do. This is long overdue, so it’s a huge focus. Another one in the next year is expanding my working structure to partner more with other independent creatives such as photographers, strategists, bookbinders, letter carvers to tackle larger projects.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I never envisioned myself starting a studio; if I were to rewind 5 years I would have never imagined I’d be doing this now, and so it’s a bit unknown. I’m starting to see things come together where it could lead that way, but it’s not a goal right now. My main goal is to do good work and have good relationships with a good head on my shoulders. Do it right and keep it interesting.
You can visit Maggie Putnam’s website at www.maggieputnam.com.