The Freelancers: Yumin Hwang on adapting to new studios, new fields and new ways to work freelance
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 fifth entry in the series, we spoke to Yumin Hwang. Based in New York, the senior designer reveals the perks of remote working; why it’s good to work with start-ups; and how freelance work facilitated her transition from advertising to branding.
PT Hi Yumin! How are you?
YH I’m doing well, Poppy! I was so excited to see The Freelancers series get launched. It’s been so helpful to read about freelancers’ insights since our roles can be more solitary than full-time roles.
PT We’re very glad to hear that, thank you! First off, why did you first start working as a freelancer?
YH I first started freelancing on the side as a way to explore and expand my work in branding. Prior to that, my role was more of an art director on the advertising side. Freelancing was a great way to gradually start building out my design portfolio, and learn what kind of client work I enjoyed. In 2020, I made the transition to fully go freelance.
I think the mixture of being able to work with different team structures is a big plus for me. I intentionally kept my experience varied in working with in-house teams, start-ups and studios. I like getting to meet different creatives in the industry and being exposed to each team’s unique approach to design.
I kind of went into the world of freelance without knowing what to expect.
PT How did you find these freelance jobs with start-ups?
YH I went on AngelList (now Wellfound) to look for early-stage companies that were seeking designers to create a brand identity. Most of my early works are not that great, and a few didn’t have the budget to go through strategy. But gradually, as my work was expanding, I was able to take on and lead more complex projects, and pick and choose the kind of client work I wanted to work on.
PT Is the freelance life what you had expected it to be?
YH I kind of went into the world of freelance without knowing what to expect. My first freelance jobs were with small, early-stage companies. I quickly realised there was a lot of leadership skill required in these positions. I was often the only designer, and I had to wear different hats.
For instance, it was my responsibility to manage the process and timeline of projects. I also led the creative direction of the work and regularly interfaced with clients. English is not my first language, so I always had a lot of anxiety about presenting my ideas. Working directly with my clients allowed me to confront this issue head-on and work on overcoming it.
Having so much responsibility was overwhelming in the beginning. I also had to keep up with admin work, while maintaining client relationships. However, with each new project, I was improving my process. It was hugely rewarding to see the growth in my organizational and communication skills, so much so that the desire to grow these skills fueled my interest in continuing to freelance.
PT When working at a new or unfamiliar studio, how long does it usually take to get up to speed with their set-up and way of doing things?
YH It really depends on the scope of the project and timeline. As a freelancer, I often feel like I need to be ready to hit the ground running, especially if I’m coming in the middle. You have a short amount of time to prove yourself, and you need to deliver each time. I find it helpful to approach a new team and project with a sense of flexibility and curiosity.
In the beginning, I’ll have a lot of questions about the work, so I always try to do an intro call with everyone the first week. When you’re closer to the people on your team, the onboarding process feels much more smooth. Those relationships are an invaluable resource for understanding how you can be most impactful on the project.
PT Do you work primarily remotely or in-house? Which do you prefer?
YH I work mostly remotely. The pandemic hit soon after I graduated, so I actually don’t have that much in-house work experience. At the moment, I prefer the hybrid option most. I like being around people at the office but also prefer the option to work at home.
I recommend reaching out to creatives at studios you’re interested in.
PT What are the biggest advantages of working remotely for you?
YH Traveling! being able to work anywhere I want. Also, New York subways can be intense during rush hours, so I love that I can avoid the commute.
PT How do you approach finding studios and clients to work with?
YH I like to go to Wellfound (formerly Angelist) to look for start-ups to work with. It’s fun to read about niche businesses in up-and-coming sectors. I use Linkedin too, which brought me opportunities like Instrument and Character. I had a great experience working with Creative People. I recommend reaching out to the creatives at studios you’re interested in. Whether or not that turns into an opportunity, it’s always interesting to learn more about other studios’ work and culture.
PT What is your current workspace setup?
YH I’m travelling at the moment in Southern California, so this is my setup at an Airbnb. I actually have a portable monitor and an ergonomic mouse that I always carry with me, but it’s in my car and I’m officially snowed in. I came here to escape the cold in NYC and do some hiking. Turns out this week’s the most snow this area has had in years 😂 But can’t complain about this gorgeous view.
PT Why did you choose to live and work in New York? What is it like as a creative freelancer?
YH There are abundant opportunities here as a designer. There are so many studios, agencies and start-ups here. Although most of my work was remote with agencies like Character and Instrument, it was nice to have the option to go into the office.
I’ve also been reaching out more to individual designers whose work I admire. Living in NYC makes it so easy to meet up with people you connect with online. I think that’s one of the best things about living in NYC as a creative person, and something I try to take advantage of.
PT With remote working allowing creatives to work worldwide, is there anywhere that would be a dream location for you?
YH Probably Berlin. I’ve never been but it sounds lovely. There are a few studios I would love to work with there.
PT Is there anything about freelance life that you wish someone had taught you?
YH That if you freelance with early-stage companies, there will be a lot of chaos and instability. But this challenge can be the most fun part too. It’s like figuring out a giant puzzle. When I first started freelancing with a podcast company called Criminal Content, it was just me and the founders. The benefit of joining such an intimate team is that each member’s input significantly matters and can help shape the company’s direction early on. I also learned a lot about all the nitty gritty work it takes to build a brand.
PT What are some tips you would give?
YH I would say don’t be afraid to explore new territories in your career path. Try working with start-ups, agencies, or directly with clients. There are always things you’ll only be able to learn in each team setting, can’t at others, and vice versa.
And although my work is focused on design today, I’m so glad I started out in advertising. That foundation allows me to think about how brands will continue to evolve and communicate with their audience after the brand launch.
PT After a long day or busy week, how do you like to relax?
YH During the week, I like to cook. I’ve been into those subscription delivery meal kits that take less than 20 minutes. I also love watching my favourite shows, which are The Glory and The Last Of Us right now. Both shows are so intense, so I have to brace myself.
PT What are you looking forward to most at the moment?
YH I’m taking some time right now to think about what kind of work I want to do next. Not sure what’s in store for me yet, but I’m most excited about my next opportunity. And of course, the season finale of The Last Of Us.
Thanks so much for having me Poppy! It’s such a pleasure to be part of this series. For anyone that’s reading, please feel free to reach out to discuss anything, and everything I’ve talked about 🤘