How to make it work as a full-time freelance designer

Around a year ago, Bethany Bickley decided to take a leap and become a full-time freelance designer.

Bethany, who studied informational graphics and publication design at Ohio University, has worked in the past at The Virginian-Pilot and Pacific Business News. But when her and her husband made the move to Savannah, Georgia, in August 2018, Bethany made the decision to become a full-time freelance designer.

Now, a little over a year later, Bethany’s works have appeared in Time magazine, The New York Times and the Washington Post, to name just a few. We sat down to chat with Bethany about what it’s like to make the switch to full-time, freelance designing.

You’ve been a full-time freelance designer for about a year now. How did you decide to make that switch?

A lot of it came down to the fact that we were moving again. My husband is in the Coast Guard, and we have to transfer every four years. I had already been doing some freelance on the side while I was working for Pacific Business News in Hawaii for some different publications. I had kind of gone back-and-forth while I was in Hawaii. I really loved to do freelance on the side. But it was a little scary, and I didn’t want to leave the comfort of my full-time position. But then the move really gave me the opportunity to do full-time freelance work because I had to leave my job, and I had to figure something out. I decided to go all-in for a year and see how it was, and I could always go back to a full-time job if it didn’t work out.

Book sculpture to illustrate toxic girlfriends from books, “How Could She, ” by Lauren Mechling and “Bunny,” by Mona Awad, for the Time Off section June 18, 2019. By Bethany Bickley for TIME Magazine

What are some of your favorite freelance projects you’ve gotten to work?

I would say a lot of them have to do with the illustration side of what I do. I really loved a piece I did for Time Magazine on female friendships. I did a book sculpture for them, and that was really fun. It was probably one of my most detailed sculptures. I’ve also had a lot of opportunities to do design work combined with illustrations. So, for example, I’ve done some watercolor paintings for Dallas Business Journal, and I’ve done some watercolor portraits for The Washington Business Journal, as well.

Design and watercolor portraits to illustrate an exclusive court case between Dallas developer, Mike Ward, and owners of The Cliffs Resort April 19, 2019. By Bethany Bickley for the Dallas Business Journal.

That was another thing I wanted to ask about — you create these amazing book sculpture and watercolor paintings. Tell me a bit more about how you’re able to integrate those two things into your news design work.

The watercolors are a little bit easier to pull into my daily design work. For example, the Dallas publication, the business journal I did there, we needed maps, and there was also a panel of people for the courtroom. The photos weren’t great. The maps, well, you know, they were maps. I thought of courtroom sketches and how I could use what I know to kind of elevate this project that they had been working for a year on. So I said, what if I did watercolor portraits of all of the people in the courtroom? And they were on board. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to do it, but I asked, and I kind of slid it in there.

Watercolor portraits to illustrate 15 LGBTQ leaders and business allies for the Washington Business Journal’s “Business of Pride” special section June 14, 2019. Design by Jamey Fry. Illustration by Bethany Bickley for Washington Business Journal.

Now that you’ve hit your one-year mark on full-time freelance, what would you say are some of the top pros?

Having control of your own schedule is definitely one of the best things. You know, I wouldn’t say vacation time is unlimited, but it’s really easy for me to move my own schedule around, to take on extra work one week so I can have the next week off. That freedom has been really nice. Also, if I get a creative block, I can just go read a chapter of a book or go on a walk or go to the gym, and then I come back and get back to work. I think the freedom of it is the main thing. It’s just really nice.

Would you say there are any cons?

Well, in that kind of same idea, sticking to my own schedule can be difficult. I have to really work on having more discipline. Sometimes, I do have a creative block, but I don’t have time to take that break. So I have to kind of put my head down and get everything done and deliver. I don’t know if it’s really a con, but I’m also still learning the whole business and taxes side of things, which isn’t super fun.

That was another thing I wanted to ask about. The business side of freelance does seem frightening. How do you make that first step into figuring all of that out?

It is scary, and it’s still a part I’m really diving into. I really think, though, it’s just one of those things where you just have jump in. A couple of my friends are freelancers, and I pick their brains a lot about what routes they’ve gone and how they manage budgets. I just ask a lot of questions and have been okay with not getting it perfect this first year especially.

Yen Book Sculpture to illustrate the current Japanese economic structure on May 22, 2019. By Bethany Bickley for the New York Times

What advice would you give a designer who’s thinking about making the switch to full-time freelance?

I would say have some sort of plan in place to where either you’ve saved up a little bit or you have a partner that supports you –– because it is a really big step. I think it can be really scary. For the first few months, I questioned whether I should even do it or not, if I was good, what I should focus on. But I think just putting yourself out there is really important and just doing it, reaching out to people and saying, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing.’ But coming up with a plan, committing to it and not being afraid, just going for it, is so important. I shouldn’t say you can always find full-time work, but you can definitely go back and apply for jobs if you find that it’s not exactly what you want.

SND has edited statements for clarity.

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