Starting Up is Hard to Do

Newly-independent designers often worry about finding clients and work. It’s scary. The cost of health insurance and the ability to generate work are the two things that keep normally creative, defiant thinkers working for the man. If you’re dreaming of the independent life—your own hours, no commute, working in your underpants—the most common advice is not to jump ship until you’ve got a couple of solid gigs lined up. Make a master list of all your business contacts and get busy. While you’re planning your bust out of Alcatraz, stash away enough loot to keep you afloat for at least three months. More often than you think, those promised, guaranteed, definitely-green-light projects will be postponed at the last second, or fail to materialize at all.

The Bills Your Boss Used to Pay

Having to pay for your own health insurance and fund your retirement really sucks. I have an HMO through my local Chamber of Commerce. It’s restrictive but it covers our family. In 1996 a spider bit my ankle. Nothing bad happened. But between the grime of New York Sticky and scratching that delicious itch, the bite swelled up so much I couldn’t bend my ankle. What with doctor visits and meds, I spent about $900 in two weeks. I hate my health insurance premium (especially when I feel healthy, young, eat well, etc.) but you just can’t do without it in this country. If you can’t afford an HMO, a Health Savings Accounts in conjunction with Catastrophic might be your next best bet.

Too Much to Chew

In the past, I’ve had periods where I’ve taken on too much work. It was never worth it. Even when I was in my twenties and made of rubber, staying up half the night (or all night) drained my life’s energy. Every time I did it, it crushed a little piece of my soul. There’s nothing worse than that burned-out feeling, where you’re dragging your increasingly chubby ass to work only to climb a mountain—all the while worrying about your other clients looking for an update on their project. I’ve learned to pace myself and say “no” when necessary. I’ve learned not to work with jerks. I’ve learned not to work on projects I’ll hate.

Shark-Infested Waters

It took me five years to realize that whenever a potential client said, “If you do this one cheap, there’s a lot more work down the line,” it was, in each and every case, a load of number two. It wasn’t around when I was a tender wee lad but No!Spec is a great resource for independent designers.

Losing Your Way

One of the slipperiest slopes is trying to be all things to all clients. I started in print design, did that for a number of years, then the Web came along. For a long time, I tried to do both. Last year, however, I decided I was kidding myself if I thought I could be the greatest pixel pusher known to man and Milton Glaser’s print nemesis. It’s an easy mistake to make. When you’re running the shop, you need to pay the bills. So when a client says, “Can you turn that brochure you did into a Web site for us?” you say, “Sure!” and off you go. I’ve learned a lot doing things that way. The problem is that developing real expertise in a field means you can’t spend half your time fiddling around with something else. For me, being a full-time Web head means constantly reading, constantly learning, constantly keeping up with new Web technologies. It is a full-time job. At least now I can snort at designers who “specialize” in print, photography and Web design.

Losing Your Way, Again

Unless you take steps to maintain your perspective, tunnel vision will happen to you. Life can become a blur of work, work, work, work, work. For designers based at home, say, it’s a real struggle to maintain a solid work/life split; when my office was in the house, I never really managed it. With the computer calling out to you morning, noon and night, “I’ll just check my e-mail,” inevitably turns into an hour’s work, or more. This is a bad way to live. Your work-life is supposed to feed your home-life, and vice versa. Your home-life shouldn’t have a stapler and pile of invoices in it. I now have a separate building for the office. It’s on our property, but at the end of the day I can leave all my work paraphernalia where it belongs. I work strictly 9-5 and almost never on weekends. I know designers who seem to be able to keep their work and home lives separate, even when their office is part of their living room, but if you’re not that disciplined, and you don’t have a separate space for your studio, renting space may be something to think about.


Tied with work/life is every designer’s favorite guilty pleasure: procrastination. Some swear by it: they say the last minute pressure fuels their best creativity. Maybe so. If we’re honest, though, most of us probably swear at it, and ourselves. Procrastination cheats both designer and client. By 2005 I was so sick of my ways I read six or seven books on the topic. The best by far was Neil Fiore’s compact classic The Now Habit. I keep it with Getting Things Done in my office. Both have key-for-me passages highlighted. They’ve saved my bacon many a day.

Staying Organized

I don’t have a problem keeping track of multiple jobs. I’m well organized and have a system in place (taken from David Allen’s Getting Things Done) that does 90% of the work for me. But I sometimes find that switching from one project to the next can be quite tricky. When I’m on a roll, I’d rather spend 3-4 hours working on a project. It bugs me to have to stop and start. But keeping multiple clients happy means I’m often forced to work in 30, 60, and 90 minute project-chunks. Clients need to see a little progress every day or two. When you have 15 or more active projects running, it’s challenging.


You have to be your own bean counter. Keeping track of expenses, paying quarterly taxes, typing up invoices. Is that vomit in your mouth? I’ve got it down to about seven hours a week. Two hours for billing, the rest for planning, office work and publicity.


Not the least of the independent designer’s problems, working alone can be a serious stress on your well-being. No matter how wacky your workspace, you just get sick of being in the same environment every day. An on-line design community like HOW or Creative Ireland can take the edge off, but nattering with peers, especially when there’s an argument brewing, can become a major time-suck.

Once or twice a week, a change of scenery works wonders; WiFi is now so widespread you can easily work from multiple locations, cappuccino in hand. My local library and nearby cafés all offer free WiFi. Noice.

I read somewhere that you need 12 social interactions with different people every day—or you’ll go mad. Mad! Thankfully, they don’t have to be deep: a quick chat with the post office clerk counts. Doesn’t matter. Seeing familiar faces and dealing with your larger community just keeps you feeling topped up.

Once a day, I walk the dog and check in with the neighbors. They keep chickens, make hunting bows from scratch, distill things they shouldn’t. There’s always something going on. One guy is an expert balaphone player. Another is missing half his nose and lets his poodle shit inside the house; not, I imagine, the best of combinations. That guy annoys his closest neighbor, a crusty old geezer who fought the Commies in the Korean War, hates his brother’s dog and likes to shop at Target. That’s what’s goin’ down in my ‘hood.

In 2010, still struggling with this issue , I joined a coworking space. Many large cities have several coworking spaces, and even some smaller cities. It’s been a huge help seeing familiar faces several times a week.


I Hate Television

June 6, 2006

I hate Television: its frantic pace
and gaudy palette of low emotions;
its dumb addiction to the doctored face,
celebrities and their bonehead notions.

And yet, for lunch, on Wednesday afternoon,
with my bowl of chow and my Fruitfield spoon,
I sat my Web-entangled self before
the television, for an hour or more.

The network brass will never get inside
my little mind—they try so frequently!—
but I’ll gladly watch a film if time
permits and I haven’t seen it recently.

   Alas, three films are always on the box.
   I loved them once but now I think they’re pox.

Juliet, iridescent with romance:
she glows, she swoons, she sobs courageous tears!
Her lover’s strange, fluorescent neck and pants—
who chopped his locks to bits with garden shears?
   Our souls are stirred, we need them to elope,
   but Fate secures a noose around our hope.

Superb at noon, her green projectile puke,
and how she twists her rotten head around.
I always hope they’ll miss some gore by fluke,
those pesky censors on their scrupled mound.
   But their cutting cuts the crucified crotch,
   the Satanic barbs, so the whole is botched.

It’s no conundrum after all these years
of pouring over dull Endora’s clues.
We see our boy is under Stress. For here’s
the ancient dame he always has to screw,
the giant mom, the bro who acts the clown—
   I think we get what’s getting Gilbert down.

Such unremitting repetition only serves
to cool our blood and numb our nerves.
Executives, what makes your hearts grow fond?
Your ends and means don’t seem to correspond.

United 93

June 6, 2006

There’s a lot more to United 93 than the inevitable. It’s still too close to the event, of course, but the race is on in Hollywood to make the “definitive” movies about 9-11. Is it better to have strong talent make strong movies sooner rather than later? Who wants to see another me-too flick, no matter how good? The truth is probably grubbier: movies now means big bucks in pocket X instead of pocket Y.

I tried to Google for when the first films about WWII were made but couldn’t find a definitive list quickly. That’s probably because, of course, films about WWII were made during WWII. For example…

Aventure Malgache (1944)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock. This film (along with Bon Voyage) was made by Hitchcock during WWII at the request of the British government. When viewed by government officials they decided that the films were inflammatory and withheld them from distribution. Aventure Malgache, is set in Vichy-controlled Madagascar where the Resistance leader battles to keep his island free.

The first half of United 93 focuses on the very mundane event of passengers getting on the plane. Is there anything more bone-chilling than the mundane? The section where United 93 is still on the ground while the first two planes have hit the WTC is very hard to take.

The film has almost no soundtrack. The director never resorts to emotional manipulation. There are no moments. The most unnerving line for me was a throw-away comment from one of the passengers. He’s chatting on his cell phone before he gets on the plane, squeezing in one last business call, and he says something like, “Cc that e-mail to me, would you?”

During one scene, we see a few passengers recite lines from the Lord’s Prayer while the terrorist in control of the plane prays to Allah in Arabic. I don’t know how to classify that juxtaposition except to say I found it piercing, virtuosic.

United 93 is particularly compelling where it doesn’t demonize the hijackers. They’re obviously deluded, evil people—and the movie shows that—but it doesn’t lower itself to cliché. In fact, the movie even goes so far as to put you in the terrorists’ skin, a gutsy decision on the part of the director, Paul Greengrass (who also wrote the film). We’re not given cartoon villains, but men praying, men quietly preparing for their day, men experiencing fear as they galvanize their will.

Most moving of all, the film gives the quick-thinking, resourceful, brave passengers their due. It’s something to be shown ordinary, decent people working together quickly and fighting for their lives.

I was in NYC a few weeks ago and drove past the site. I haven’t been downtown since before 9-11 and I haven’t watched any of the documentaries about the day. From what I could see from my car, it’s all neat and tidy, barricaded off, but that big gap there, in the middle of all those buildings, is shocking and awful.

Some day, somebody will make a comedy about 9-11, just as there are comedies set in concentration camps. There used to be a sitcom on the BBC called ‘Allo ‘Allo about the French resistence; millions of viewers every week. It ran for years but I couldn’t take a full episode. I’m not po-faced. There are some funny films about WWII, but there’s always that dubious, queasy element. Five years on, 9-11 is still so big and close it’s just too soon for anything beyond the bare, unembellished facts.

United 93 succeeds very well there; it’s an effective document and potent cinema. Considering the subject matter, it’s extraordinarily even-handed and unsensational in tone. (Marian Bantjes’ analysis of the United 93 Web site over at Speak Up confirms that restraint was the core ethic surrounding the production.) It has a mix of actors, non-actors and real world players that builds an air of grave authenticity right from the start. I left feeling that it was as respectful as a movie could be.