The Freelancers: Mark Blackler on settling into Sydney and finding personal satisfaction in his work
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 eighth entry in the series, we spoke to Mark Blackler, a UK-born but Sydney-based independent multidisciplinary design resource. In our chat, he describes the initial stages of relocating to Australia, finding freelance work, and more.
PT Hey Mark! How are you?
MB Good, thank you, Poppy. It’s been a great start to the year, and some exciting things are in the mix. How about you?
PT I’m good thank you! To kick things off, why did you move to Australia? What was the transition like?
MB I relocated to Australia more than five years ago for a romantic venture that didn’t last long, but I chose to stay, which has been one of my best decisions yet. The move was reasonably trouble-free, Sydney is more relaxed than London, and the Australian culture feels familiar to England.
Plus, in my opinion, Sydney is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, so that made the transition even easier. Honestly, the hardest part is the visa situation, which can be stressful now and again.
I strongly believe that you’re forever learning.
PT Why did you pursue freelancing as opposed to a permanent studio role?
MB I actually fell into freelancing naturally. It was never something I pursued or had considered with much thought. When I first arrived in Sydney, it seemed like the right idea to freelance whilst I settled in, so I joined a recruitment agency and bounced around a few places until something felt right.
I found a small independent studio managed by a duo and had the chance to work as a freelancer for them for some time. They were kind enough to sponsor me for two years, which was a fantastic opportunity, and it was a great space to develop as a designer.
After the sponsorship, I went back to freelancing, contacting studios and agencies directly. Despite initially wanting a permanent position, I enjoyed the flexibility and the opportunity to work in different environments. I also enjoy learning about other studios’ approaches to design, and I have been freelancing ever since.
PT What factors were the most important for you to consider?
MB For me, I prioritise my personal contentment and satisfaction with the work I create. Design is a collaborative process, and I strongly believe that you’re forever learning throughout your career, so it’s important to seek out opportunities to work alongside other designers and individuals where you gain new perspectives and enhance your skills as a designer alongside doing the work you enjoy.
PT Going freelance and relocating countries are both pretty ‘big’ decisions – was there any advice that helped you?
MB Haha yeah, they are both pretty big decisions – moving to the other side of the world was intimidating, and the lack of job security with freelancing was daunting. But honestly, I followed my gut feeling that these were the right choices for me. Trusting my intuition has always worked for me and has always felt true to who I am.
PT What do you wish you’d known about freelancing when you first started?
MB That’s a good question. Freelancing just happened for me, and I've approached it in different ways, which has given me a good lens on navigating this type of work. I guess, looking back on my experience, I wish I had realised the importance of turning down certain jobs and remembering that I always have the option to leave a company or studio if it’s not a good fit or negatively impacts my well-being.
PT What does your weekly schedule tend to look like?
MB At the moment, I currently freelance three days a week, sometimes four, then during those evenings, I’ll work on my freelance projects dedicating another evening or two if I’m swamped. It can be quite taxing as they’re long days, but I usually have enough time to recharge and rest after those days. I also try to get two, sometimes three, bouldering sessions in during the week. Leaving Saturday and Sunday free for my partner and me.
The best thing about living in Australia is that it brings this sense of freedom.
PT What is your favourite thing about living in Sydney? And Australia in general?
MB Apart from the beautiful weather and beaches, my favourite thing about living in Sydney is waking up to the cheerful laughter of the kookaburras and observing the playful cockatoos frolicking around the city. It always brightens my day.
Besides the wildlife, the best thing about living in Australia is that it brings this sense of freedom, which allows you to submerge yourself in nature. I’ll never forget when my partner and I camped on this beach. We woke, unzipping our swag to this incredible sunrise and ocean view. We stepped out onto the sand and were greeted by the sound of forty or fifty yellow-tailed black cockatoos. We stood there in awe, taking it all in. As we went down to the water for a morning swim, we noticed all these pippies getting washed up, so we started collecting them for breakfast. It was an unforgettable experience and definitely something we couldn't have done in England.
PT What is your typical work setup?
MB This is my usual spot where I spend most of my days. I attempted to put some bird feeders outside, but the pesky possums kept stealing them.
PT When it comes to the admin and finance side of things, is there anything that helps you stay organised?
MB Harvest has been a godsend! Tracking my hours and understanding how long phases of my process or line items (generally) take has been so beneficial when quoting jobs and watching my financials; I can accurately estimate the required hours and communicate this to clients while ensuring that I am running smoothly on projects and not going over budget. If you’re new to freelancing, I'd say one of the most important things is to know how much your time costs. No one wants to work for free.
Another fundamental aspect that’s helped me stay organised is file structure. I’m pretty particular with this stuff and think a lot about cumulative time and efficiency. It also makes things easier to manage when I have to speak to the accountant. It’s a small thing, but getting this down has saved me a significant amount of time. Touching on that, I’ve also templated everything I need, from proposals to rollout to singular line items and invoices. Although things change, having a starting point has helped reduce my admin.
One of the most important things is to know how much your time costs.
PT How would you describe your design style? Or general design philosophy?
MB My approach to design prioritises purpose and intentionality over a specific style or aesthetics. I value structure and process in my work and believe everything should have a clear reason or meaning behind it. So my design philosophy emphasises the importance of having a narrative or intent in the work rather than simply focusing on the visual appearance.
PT Which projects are you most proud of?
MB It’s difficult to say which projects I am most proud of as I’m proud of all the jobs I’ve worked on and all the people I’ve worked with. I do have a soft spot for packaging projects and collaborating with photographers though.