The Freelancers: Dom Edwards on launching The Arena alongside his own freelance design practice
Welcome to our interview series: The Freelancers! Diving into the challenging world of self-employment, we discuss the highs, lows and day-to-day requirements of freelancing at different design studios and brands as a career choice. For the third entry in the series, we had a chat with Dom Edwards, a London-based graphic designer and Co-founder of mentoring platform The Arena. From cooking and climbing to cultivating connections, we delved into life inside and outside his creative career.
PT Hey Dom! How are you?
DE Hey Poppy! I’m doing very well thank you. Writing this as I wrap up one of my bigger contracts this year, before heading to Brussels for a little Christmas escape!
PT Sounds lovely! Can you tell us about your first experiences freelancing? Was freelancing what you’d expected or were there any surprises?
DE I definitely had doubts about going freelance, but I wouldn’t say it was as big as the ‘big leap of faith’ in which freelance is often described. Since studying design back in 2015 I took on small projects for family and friends, nothing very pleasing on the eye but I think all these jobs added up, giving me just enough confidence to make the move.
After leaving my perm role and officially going freelance in 2021, the learning curve spiked. I had a few projects already on the go, one of them a rebrand for a cycle safety and tech start-up called Onsee, which gave me hope for finding future work that I felt passionate about.
It took a while to craft a portfolio I was happy with (unsurprisingly), but it did surprise me how helpful The Arena was when it came to connecting with other creatives, especially at places I wanted to freelance at. I couldn’t have ever expected freelance to go the way it has, it’s been one the best decisions and I kind of love that I still don’t know what to expect.
Your efforts are wasted if spread too thin.
PT As one of the Co-founders of The Arena, what was it like balancing its launch and growth alongside your own practice?
DE I know I just said going freelance was one of the best decisions I've made, but starting The Arena has to be THE best when it comes to my creative career. The first year went by in a flash. We were in the thick of it, meeting incredible people, growing faster than we ever anticipated and seeing our efforts actually make a positive impact on people.
I prioritised The Arena for about a year, and going freelance was actually my way of finding a better balance between my passion for helping others and being the designer I wanted to be. Today it’s gone the other way slightly, where finding the time for The Arena has been challenging. My freelance work as a designer has taken off a bit lately, with opportunities at incredible studios, so now I’m giving it everything I have.
Basically, anyone that spins a few plates or has a side project will know it’s really hard to find that balance. It’s often out of whack, and I think that’s okay. Your efforts are wasted if spread too thin, so I do my best to focus on the now and ride the wave that being freelance offers.
PT How do you approach finding studios and clients to work with?
DE Finding freelance work is a lot like the bus analogy, nothing when you’re looking for it and then three turn up all at once. I’ve been really lucky this year, securing some great bookings at studios I’ve always dreamed of and struggled to imagine working at so early on in my journey. But I know a lot of that luck has to do with all the amazing people I’ve met throughout the process of running The Arena.
To break it down, finding work has been a mixture of planting seeds by reaching out to the right people, making connections with great recruiters (such as Represent and Livelihood) and making sure your LinkedIn profile is working hard for you. A lot of my opportunities come through LinkedIn, including my most recent one at Wolff Olins. It’s also important to treat each opportunity as a lasting relationship, even if you’re not quite feeling it. Being asked back or extending your contract is something every freelancer should aim for.
PT If you weren’t working in design, what do you think you’d be drawn to?
DE I was going to say cooking, but with the chefs I’ve met and stories I’ve heard, I’d crumble (excuse the pun) and fall out of love with it. So I’d have to say woodwork. My papi (French grandad) was an incredible wood craftsman and as a kid, I absolutely loved making things with him. I think a lot of my creativity stems from those experiences. I’ve been meaning to try it properly, so if you or anyone reading has course recommendations let me know!
PT What is your current workspace setup?
DE Here it is! The glorious kitchen table set-up. One day I’ll have the workspace of my dreams with all the trimmings, but this works for now and keeps costs down. I’ve found feeling comfortable with your space invaluable in the early freelance days.
Finding a great recruiter is a godsend for securing agency contracts.
PT What advice or insight do you wish you’d known before you started working as a freelancer?
DE So many things 😂 but here are a few that stand out; finding a great recruiter is a godsend for securing agency contracts. Feeling overwhelmed with pressure to do a great job is only heightened as a freelancer, but it means you care and this attitude will get you far. I’d also loved to have known the main difference between setting up as a sole trader and a limited company, what IR35 is and how umbrella companies actually work!
All that being said, if I knew these things I wouldn’t have made as many mistakes and if there’s one thing to know, it’s that they are all part of the game, especially as a freelancer.
PT Favourite thing about living and working in London?
DE Incredible food on your doorstep is probably what I miss the most whenever I leave London for too long. Shortly followed by great book shops, the creative scene and just the overall energy of being in a busy and bustling city.
PT Anything you’d change?
DE People aren’t wrong when they say living in London as a creative can feel like being a small fish in a very, very big pond. The exposure to creativity is fantastic when you find it, but to be honest the community spirit of the Birmingham Design Festival is something I’ve never experienced here in London. That’s something I’d love to see more.
PT A lot of freelancers talk about the inevitable work-life balance, what helps you destress or clear your head after a busy day of work?
DE If I need to instantly take my mind away from work then that quick dopamine hit of an easy-watching TV show can work wonders (big fan of New Girl). But after too long I feel guilty and tell myself I’m wasting time. A more consistent fix I have is exercise. Sport as a kid was everything for me, so I’m getting back into it and trying new ones like boxing and climbing (going with a friend makes trying new sports 10x easier by the way). There’s a real beauty in climbing that I think really suits creative minds, which is the problem-solving element. There’s also no space in your brain to think about work, because you're clinging on to the wall for dear life!
PT How have you found the admin and finance management side of things?
DE I’ve never been good with money, whether that’s asking for what I’m worth or trying to forecast the next few months of income. But it turns out that you need to get good at that as a freelancer. If you don’t prioritise this, it makes all the wonderful freelance perks pointless, because you have to play catch up on those well-earned days off. Secondly, my partner Lauren is the queen of spreadsheets. Some people find their happy place at Turf Moor Road, Lauren’s is setting up a Google Sheet with all the bells and whistles. In general, there’s no way I’d be where I am without her, but more specifically, my finances are on point because of her geekery.
PT And finally, what are you looking forward to in 2023?
DE This question actually got me thinking about what 2023 might look like and to be totally honest, I haven’t a clue 😂 I know I’d like to keep experiencing life at different agencies, perhaps also increasing the number of projects where I work directly with clients. You learn so much morphing between project manager, strategist, designer and art director. I’d also love to work more collaboratively with other freelancers, to create a bit of a dream team.
Thanks for having me! It’s an absolute pleasure and to anyone that’s still reading who wants freelance advice, I’d be more than happy to help, but just to caveat, I’m making it up as I go along.