First Hand — Freelance designer Callum Stephenson on letting criticism make you, not break you

Posted 23 July 2019 Written by Callum Stephenson
Interview by Marianne Hanoun

A year ago, designer Callum Stephenson was trying to break into freelance work, and contacted a recruiter looking to get feedback on his portfolio. The result was a nasty shock. Callum was told “to give up any hope of being a freelancer and to not even think about doing (his) own practice”. Three months later he’d designed magazine NATIVE’s third issue with Noble People, found his own studio space, and was working and managing his own projects. Here, he shares his advice on the benefits and detriments of criticism, why it can aid your practice and how to stop it negatively affecting your mood.

Starting out as a freelancer
When I left my first full-time job after graduating I had no clients lined up. I relied on the connections I had made during last summer and I had the self-belief that I’d make sure it would work. Weird World Cup, a side hustle I built with Gordon Reid helped me network with some great people and made me realise my full-time position was not teaching me enough.

Following Weird World Cup, I freelanced at It’s Nice That for 10 weeks, and since then I’ve designed NATIVE magazine’s most recent issue with my friends at Noble People, won a pitch to gain my first major client, and have some big side projects coming up. I’ve also worked a lot in-house, which has helped develop my creative thinking and time management.

I consider myself a risk-taker, so I find the unpredictable nature of freelance work exciting as opposed to scary. I know that if I have no work lined up, I’ll stay up until the early hours of the morning to make sure I find my next gig. My decision to start freelancing was driven by hunger to learn more and change my daily working routine.

“I find the unpredictable nature of freelance work exciting as opposed to scary.”

The interview
I liked the look of a recruitment agency, and after looking at their mid-weight briefs, I felt that I could do some of them, so I set up an interview. I expected a friendly chat and an introduction to the briefs with the end goal of opening up a new stream of work.

I would say the best word to describe the meeting was critical. After I presented my work, the recruiter sat back and said something along the lines of, “First of all, that presentation was an absolute mess”. It made me feel embarrassed to the point that I actually apologised for the presentation. I had shown my work in that way to other agencies and had got freelance jobs a few days after so I was shocked. She said that my work had potential but I wasn’t talking about it well enough.

NATIVE’s 003 The Rebel Issue, 2019

NATIVE’s 003 The Rebel Issue, 2019

NATIVE’s 003 The Rebel Issue, 2019

NATIVE’s 003 The Rebel Issue, 2019

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The recruiter recommended me to search for a full time job again, to which I did bite back, saying something along the lines of “Since I’ve been freelancing I’m learning and earning more?” She responded by saying “I know it’s hard because the money is better but you should look because it will improve your portfolio.” I found myself in a weird situation of defending the fact that yes, I’m trying to earn more than a standard salary for a junior designer, because I’ve learnt more during freelancing in a couple of weeks than I did in a full time job in a year.

On reflection
I think it’s a situation you cannot really plan for, but if I were to offer advice, I think it’s important to find a balance between defending your work and career choices, and not letting your temper spill over if you disagree with someone. Despite feeling pretty annoyed and angry I sat calm and focused on what the recruiter was saying. You’d never have guessed that I was feeling annoyed.

Seek out and save the criticism that could help you improve and move forward. Even if it is critical, sometimes people you don’t necessarily agree with do give you feedback that can improve your work and yourself as a person, and this recruiter did have advice that I took on board.

“Even if you disagree with someone you can always get positives out of it.”

I think it’s really important to get something from every experience, even if you disagree with someone you can always get positives out of it. What is important to remember is: it isn’t personal, it’s often a difference of opinion and the most important part of this meeting was shaking hands with the recruiter at the door and thanking her for her time; leaving on a good note. Strangely, I really hope I end up working with the recruiter in some way in the future because the experience has reminded me I need to prove myself more in this industry.

I ended up applying to double the roles I was previously going for and made sure I was being even more active in finding new leads. I contacted more potential clients, organised more meetings and developed my own pitches to try and win my own clients.

Posting about the experience on LinkedIn
Usually I never post my thoughts or opinions on social media, I tend to post new projects or recycle interesting content. But I wanted to try and inspire other people who might be feeling disheartened by someone’s feedback, and encourage them to believe in themselves and remain focused on their dream.

The post went on to receive over 20k views; and I was blown away by the positive response and love from other LinkedIn members. It was also touching to receive messages from designers who want to change their career and felt in some way motivated by the post.

“The experience taught me to always trust my gut and to not let someone else steer my ship”

Learnings
The experience taught me to always trust my gut and to not let someone else steer my ship. It also taught me to remember that I shouldn’t take everything from a consultant personally when it may have just been their style of giving advice. Instead, I learnt to use the experience as a reminder that it is essential to always look to improve as a creative.

I’ve also become a firm believer that having more or less experience should not deter you from trying to work on particular briefs. If you are a junior and you feel you can tackle a higher level brief or take on your own project, go for it, you have nothing to lose. Remember that advice is useful but subjective – and you should always follow the path you want to take.

callumstephenson.com
instagram.com/callumstephensonstudio

Posted 23 July 2019 Written by Callum Stephenson
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: First Hand
Disciplines: Graphic Design

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