The Freelancers: Jennifer Whitworth on becoming a full-time freelancer and finding what feels right
We’re delighted to launch the first entry in a new interview series: The Freelancers! Diving into the challenging world of self-employment, we will be discussing the highs, lows and day-to-day requirements of freelancing at different design studios and brands as a career choice. We begin by talking to Jennifer Whitworth, a London-based designer who has worked alongside Two Times Elliott, Anyways Creative, Studio Nari and Pentagram.
PT Hi Jennifer, welcome to our new The Freelancers series! How are you doing?
JW Hey TBI :-) I’m very well thanks – happy to be here! How are you?
PT We’re very well, thank you! First of all, why did you decide to leave your full-time role and start freelancing? What factors were the most important for you to consider?
JW There were definitely multiple factors that played into it. I think to some extent I’ve always battled with trying to balance on-the-side freelance work while having a full-time role. Having side projects felt like a way to slowly carve an understanding of my own interests and style and I got a lot of satisfaction out of them. But realistically, it’s hard to maintain that momentum while also working five days a week without exhausting yourself in the process.
In 2021 I was fortunate enough to be approached by The Line of Best Fit to rebrand their platform, and it was too much of a fun job to turn down. I decided to take it on and balance it with my full-time job, but as I opened up more mental space for a larger, self-guided project it was like I’d unlocked a box and so many more ideas about my personal direction in the industry started to seep in.
There’s obviously bound to be a lot of fear before you take the leap, but there was also an element of feeling like I was ready to prove to myself what I could do independently. And this first year has turned out to be a whole lot of that, both personally and professionally.
When I work for myself I enjoy that each week can look very different.
PT What does your weekly schedule tend to look like? How consistent is it?
JW Right now it’s quite regular and steady due to a longer-term contract I’m on. Mondays and Fridays I work remotely from my studio space, and Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays I’m in the employer’s office space. This is fine for now as the nature of the work means it’s beneficial to be with the team, but when I work for myself I enjoy that each week can look very different and have a lot of variety.
PT How is your work/life balance? How have you adapted to managing your own time and schedule?
JW I honestly find the balance a lot better. Obviously, the pandemic has led a lot of people to question the constant, linear nature of a traditional in-office 9-6 job role. With this, I began to think more critically about some of the unhealthy habits the design industry exists within, and became more in tune with the need for seasons in our lives. I think for me, freelance fits better within this. Freelance design work obviously operates under the same infrastructure as full-time design work, but it allows me personally to be more in tune with my own rhythms. I don’t mind having bursts of working really hard for longer hours if I can predict my own need for rest afterwards and plan for it.
PT How do you find the increased admin that comes with freelance work, and managing the financial side of things?
JW Does anyone ever really seek more admin in their life? Haha, I wouldn’t say I enjoy it as such, but I’ve found ways to make it manageable. I was really thankful that people who have a lot more business experience than me were really generous with their time when I was starting out and gave me some great advice about what I might need to do. Things like choosing the right way to set up your business, insurance, contracts, invoicing etc. It was also through other freelancers that I managed to find a great, affordable accountant. I feel fortunate to be able to justify that money, as he’s helped me a lot and takes a real weight off my shoulders.
PT What is your typical work setup?
JW As mentioned, I’m super lucky to have a studio space in Hackney with some of the most interesting, fun and warm people. We have a mix of 3D artists, animators, web developers and designers that all make coming to work a lot nicer. I work off a laptop for my day-to-day work; purely because it’s the best for when I need to be on the move. I also have a very old iMac at home that’s useful for when I need a larger screen size, but with it taking a good half an hour to power up, it’s more frequently used to watch Drag Race.
PT Having worked in a few different studios, what kind of environment suits you?
JW Having a studio space has been a real lifesaver for me. It’s been great to keep a sense of routine and have a social environment to work in while being freelance. I think there are certain types of creative work that I do much better when I feel totally comfortable exploring freely, and the studio space gives me that. I often need to make about 100 terrible, ugly things before I make an ok thing, and I appreciate an environment and working process that allows space for this.
That’s not to say I’m opposed to working in a design studio or office as there are times it's really beneficial: It’s much more dynamic, creative and motivating to have an in-person meeting than spending hours on Zoom, for example. Ultimately I just appreciate being given the trust to make the judgement yourself of what environment is best for you that day.
However, for more explorative, independent projects like The Saltern poster series I do I always come home, put on some candles, some music, and get messy with mark-making, drawing, spray painting, and all that hands-on stuff. I like the environmental distinction of trying to make this kind of work not feel like work.
The design industry has a huuuuge disparity in day rate expectations between studios.
PT Who or what would you say has helped you to navigate the freelance life the most?
JW By this point, it’s quite obvious, but my freelance friends and studio mates! But also, and kind of unexpectedly, even the online freelance community have been so generous with their time and advice.
I honestly asked people so many questions when I started out. I found everything pretty confusing initially, and was keen to gather research about all the different possible ways of doing things. It was so insightful, and still every day my friends and I are having these conversations about what we could or should be doing differently. I have to give a huge shout-out to Connor Campbell, Harry Butt and Harry Bennett who all really helped me out in the early days. I hope I can be that person for others!
PT Do you think freelance work attracts a particular personality type?
JW I’m not sure! There’s not really one way to ‘do’ freelancing, everybody has their own processes and intricacies. For instance, I think a common misconception is that to be freelance you have to have things ‘together.’ In reality, there are loads of freelancers that find the organisation side difficult and that are still figuring things out and adjusting as they go, myself included at times. But I think that’s actually a really reassuring thing to realise – there are so many different characters and you’ll always find similar people who struggle with the same things as you. Likewise, you’ll always find people with different perspectives that can show you alternative and sometimes better ways of doing things.
PT What do you wish you’d known about freelancing when you first started?
JW Probably quite a lot. I wish I’d gotten a portfolio together before I left my previous position. I really underestimated how long it would take to pull everything together, especially when you are a serial un-documenter like me. So even just one or two weeks spent doing this instead of working when you haven’t planned for it can be really stressful, especially at the beginning.
I’m also trying to change my mindset from thinking about time out of work as being money that I’ve lost. Instead, it's much better to see it as an opportunity for resetting and for your own pursuits. My studio mates are really good at this, and it's something I really admire.
Finally, the design industry has a huuuuge disparity in day rate expectations between studios, so don’t let others make you feel not worthy of what you deserve. You’re the best judge of what is a fair day rate for your services!
PT Do you see yourself ever going back to a full-time position, or setting up your own studio?
JW Yeah, totally. I love so much about being freelance, but I don’t think my career needs and desires are ever going to be fixed forever. I think as life meanders I need to expect that so will my goalposts. And I think that’s a good thing, to be open to what feels right at the time. If the right position comes up that challenges me to grow in new and exciting ways I’d definitely consider it, but I value my autonomy really highly and it would take a lot for me to give that up.
I think it’s likely that, ultimately, setting up my own small and evolving practice in some capacity will give me most of the working conditions that I know I like. Whether it ends up being something forever is a different matter, and I like the idea of it potentially being able to take different forms throughout my life. I don’t ever really visualise myself wanting to grow into a big organisation, and I think it’s this flexible vision that I find the exciting thing about being a freelancer. It sort of gives you room to daydream about your path and career. The question of whether I actually achieve all of my wildcard ideas isn’t necessarily the most important thing to me, because maybe there’s value, inspiration and motivation simply in the feeling of possibility that freelancing gives you.