The Freelancers: Josh Lassen on learning from mistakes and working alongside the right people
In our interview series, The Freelancers, we dive into the challenging world of self-employment; discussing the highs, lows and day-to-day requirements of freelancing at different design studios and brands as a career choice. For the fourth entry in the series, we spoke to Josh Lassen. For some designers, the freelance life is a meticulously curated and gradual process. For many others – Lassen included – it arrives spontaneously without much warning! Having worked at many wonderful studios, from Wolff Olins to Nomad, the London-based creative tells us about full-time freelancing and shares some of his top tips for having fun, figuring out finances and finding the best-fit studios.
PT Hey Josh, how’s everything going?
JL Going great thanks, busy working and glad it’s finally February.
PT Can you tell us a bit about your creative background?
JL Sure… how early do you want me to start?!
I guess I was about 13, or even younger, when I knew for sure that I wanted to be a graphic designer. A probable defining moment was acquiring a bootleg copy of Photoshop CS2 when I was a teenager. I used to redesign train liveries and airport logos for fun.
When I left school, I was still focused on graphic design so I didn’t bother with a foundation year. I moved from my hometown, Edinburgh, to Newcastle and jumped straight into Northumbria Uni and graduated alarmingly close to ten years ago now.
PT Following your studies in Newcastle, what led you to find work in London?
JL I had been on a few studio visits with uni as well as visiting for fun. I was massively attracted to the mayhem of the city; the best studios, food, music, art in the world and the infinite list of stuff going on.
I work at my best when I’m in a living, breathing environment with a bunch of sound folks.
PT Why did you first begin working freelance?
JL I’ve been freelance twice in my career. Both times I fell into it by accident. The first time was when I was quite junior. I had been interning for quite a while, but my final internship turned into me being kept on as a junior freelancer. I was lucky enough to keep it going at various studios for a couple of years before going full-time, and then I spent about five years doing that.
The second time was similarly accidental. COVID had hit the industry hard, and I alongside many others found myself being made redundant. While the outlook was gloomy in many parts of the industry, I knew that some pockets were absolutely booming. So I just went for it with blind optimism and registered my LTD with Companies House the next day. 48 hours after that – though it felt like eight years – I had found some work. I was tremendously lucky.
PT Having experienced working as both a full-time employee and in-house freelancer, which do you think suits your working style? Why?
JL This is such a good question, and I get asked this a lot. Truth be told, I’ve learnt that there’s not a colossal difference between the two, though both have their own values and oddities.
Design is design and people are people. I think if you can handle both of these, then you can plug and play wherever you like. That said, I’m not a fan of solitary confinement and I work at my best when I’m in a living, breathing environment with a bunch of sound folks.
What I often miss about full-time is that relationship with your colleagues where you’re able to speak frankly, work effectively, and laugh uncontrollably with each other every day. And go down to the pub on a Friday. Or Thursday. Or Monday.
PT Out of all the projects you’ve worked on throughout your career, which one do you think taught you the most?
JL Speaking with true honesty again, the projects where I’ve made mistakes have been the most educational. Like when a project went live without a proper Getty Images license. Or when there was a communication cockup with a printer at the last minute. There are more, but I’ll spare you. The moral of the story here is that errors happen, and mistakes are designed to be learned from.
I tend to be quite systematic, so logic and thinking always come first
PT When a big deadline is coming up, what do you prioritise in your work?
JL I guess I’d prioritise getting a list of priorities down! Time management and staying calm are crucial in the face of a big mountain to climb, and the two are interdependent. I tend to be quite systematic, so logic and thinking always come first. Then I ask myself, how do we really flaunt the work? How do we sweeten the deal?
PT What is your current workspace setup?
JL It’s a bloody mess. But the truth can’t be avoided. Sorry.
PT What essentials could you not work without?
JL Silly humour; making people laugh, making myself laugh. And about a litre of coffee.
PT How do you manage the admin side of freelance? Are there any tools you’d recommend?
JL I’d recommend two things; an accountant, and someone who’s most certainly not an accountant. The latter can give you advice. My dad has been a self-employed joiner since forever, and he’s seen it all before so he’s my soundboard for the ‘what-the-hell-do-I-do-now’ situations.
To make the paperwork idiot-proof, I’d strongly recommend Xero – other products are available – for bookkeeping and invoicing.
PT As a freelancer, what do you do to figure out whether a new or unfamiliar studio is a good fit for you?
JL I’ve always tried to work with someone I know, or a mate of a mate. Any sort of introduction helps massively and lessens that initial awkward barrier. An extension of this is getting the inside scoop on a studio from other freelance alumni. What have their experiences been like?
Reassuringly, there aren’t too many red flags to consider, although I do try to get intel on how good they are at paying on time. Other concerns are harder to spot until you’re inside the studio itself. I was once ushered to a crap desk with a wooden chair in a remote corner and told that “all of our freelancers sit over here on the naughty desk.” Yikes…
PT Since you first graduated, have you noticed any major shifts in the way studios run? Has the world of freelance changed?
JL I think the biggest shift has been how often clients come into the studio. It used to be several times per week when I first graduated, if not more. I think COVID has probably played a big part in that.
PT If you had the opportunity, what would be your dream project?
JL Do you know what, it was my dream as a teenager with Photoshop CS2 to design a train identity, and I’m still waiting for that call…
PT If you could work anywhere in the world, where would you go?
JL I wouldn’t mind working in another city in the future. But it’s got to be somewhere with a different vibe from London. Perhaps San Francisco? I visited for the first time last year and since then I’ve been California dreaming.