Creative designer Cat Lo knew she wanted to work in graphic design since she was just seven years old. With access to a just a basic computer, she started playing around with design programs and discovered an early passion and talent. She received even more motivation after she designed several websites and entered them into a youth website competition as a teenager. She won first place three years in a row, gaining the confidence early on to pursue design as a career. Now an established and successful product designer who has worked for brands like Jack Daniels, General Mills, HBO, and T-Mobile over the past 10 years, Lo talked to Artrepreneur about how she got her start, how she stays excited about new projects, and how she gets and maintains work as a creative designer.
KF: How did you get your start as a creative designer?
Cat Lo: I always knew I wanted to work in web, it was one of my interests growing up. I didn’t have a problem figuring out what I wanted to do. I’ve primarily worked on web design for the past 10-12 years.
The easiest way to learn, and how I learned, is by starting with graphic design, illustrator and Photoshop, creating flyers, newsletters, etc. The higher end of that would be branding, logo design, creating a look and feel for a set of products. I started with creating a lot of flyers.
KF: Tell us about your area of expertise within graphic design.
Cat Lo: Basically, there are three big areas of design and creative design careers: print, web and motion graphics.
When you’re a creative designer in the print industry, you do computerized designs to create print work, like magazines, columns, anything that’s printed. Print is a simplified word for a lot of things: Logos, brand identity for a company, packaging design, and industrial design.
I primarily work in web: website and product design, often producing an app or product for a company. I work with companies to create user interface prototypes that will make their product a success by providing the user a seamless experience.
The third big design bucket is motion graphics, and video photography, which require a different set of skills.
KF: How did you make the transition from graphic design to web design?
Cat Lo: I started with print design and moved on to creating mostly for web. When I started in college I wanted to do web design, but web design in the 90s was in its very early stages. I personally liked creating for the web, back when it was Geocities and Angelfire. To become a web designer, I obviously needed to learn how to code.
Web design was just a natural evolution for me. In college, I majored in computer science, and a lot of that was coding. I’ve created a lot of websites on my own, worked with a lot of people, and done a lot of projects to understand how to build something on the web. I always worked on things I’ve never done before to push the envelope. In the past three or four years, I’ve concentrated on mobile design, like creating apps on iOS, and I work on interfaces and experiences for different projects.
Setting and Negotiating Freelance Rates
KF: What about transitioning to freelance work?
Cat Lo: I’ve only been a freelance creative designer for 2 years, and I was in-house before that. I was an art director at Felix and a wine startup called Lot 18. Felix spun out of Yext which brings businesses to social media and creates their listings across the internet.
The thing is, I had gotten bored after working for 10 years with someone else’s product. I wanted to be more in control of what I was working on and be more challenged. Being an independent creative designer, you can always choose your projects and who you want to work for. That freedom of varying projects is very attractive. After working on the same project at a company for long stretches of time, I wanted a variety of work.
KF: Do you ever work with agents?
Cat Lo: I have a specific issue with agents. A lot of times the pay rate for the agent is much too high for what the creative designer would be paid. In New York, if you’re contracted out to Ogilvy, they’re paying you $50-75 an hour, and that’s because the agent is taking a percentage of that hourly rate. That rate is not enough for a senior creative designer. If your desire to work on the project is more than you want to get paid, then going with an agent is fine. Now that I’m independent, that’s not going to happen.
KF: How do you determine your freelance rates and stick to them when a client tries to negotiate with you?
Cat Lo: I set my freelance rates based on the size of the company and the project. I determine whether it’s a one-person job, what their budget looks like, and whether I want to do the project – Will it further my career? Am I interested in it? Or is this a job where I know how to do it with my eyes closed? All of these factors affect my rate.
I think that you must set the standard right away. When a client approaches you and they’ve already reviewed your portfolio, they need to have a sense of whether you’re experienced. Whatever they’re asking you, you should ask what benefits you can give that client. Most of the time that means giving out free advice. They come to me with their ideas and I demonstrate that I can switch my brain into theirs and give feedback they probably haven’t considered. The rate often has to do with how much value you’ll bring to them, and I usually give them that after I’ve given a lot of feedback. If they come out with a rate that’s way lower than mine, I would probably just say no.
I also look at AIGA freelance rates, which is a freelance pricing calculator and website made every year by a huge design community, and many people put in their rates and salary, so there’s survey data to reference when creating your own.
Managing Client Expectations as a Creative Designer
KF: How do you manage your time as a freelance designer?
Cat Lo: So, this topic is different for me because for the first six months when I started out, I had a rigorous schedule in terms of what time of day was reserved to talking to clients or reviewing proposals. Then other time I’d spend actually doing the work. Since I’m only one person I managed everything.
The amount of time it took to sell and talk to clients was greater than the time it took to do the work, so now I’m contracted with a company and I’ve been working with them for a year and a half. They have me on retainer a month at a time. So basically, I work with them full time as a creative designer, and then on my own time, I work with my own clients. For my own clients, they’re often people I already know, so I don’t do a lot of marketing in terms of promoting my work. I just make sure my portfolio is up to date, along with my own website.
KF: What do you think are the most valuable skills a freelance creative designer must have to succeed?
Cat Lo: The number one skill is to know how to sell yourself. It doesn’t matter what your skill set is – you won’t be able to sell your ideas and recommendations to someone without being able to properly communicate them. Understanding that is hard, and it depends on your intuition around what kind of client you’re dealing with. Knowing what they want and are asking for, listening intently, being a few steps ahead of them is important.
The second most important skill is time management, you must know when to work and when not to work. When you need to do something you have to sit there and work. When you’re working for yourself, there’s no one keeping you on track but you. Deadlines, managing things when you say you’re turning them in, accurate estimations of when you’ll finish are crucial. Reliability is very important.
KF: How do you find the balance in sticking to your creative vision and expertise while also respecting the client’s wishes?
Cat Lo: I honestly think it’s one of the greatest challenges for a creative designer – knowing when to fight the fight. Whenever you present a design, you have to be able to sell it. You can’t just make it because you liked it, you should have a valid reason. Design isn’t fine art, it must solve a problem. It’s a solution-based subjective design. Rather than just being beautiful, you have to solve a problem. And you need to be able to explain why it is, and that’s also how you educate the client.
Working with them to trust you on your design sense as well, they gain more trust in you. Sometimes clients need to see that ideas fail in order to start trusting you. It takes a long time to gain that trust. In terms of creativity versus business goals, you have to think of your client first. Business goals always come first, and design comes second.
To learn more about creative designer Cat Lo, check out her Orangenius profile.