Jody Worthington is an accomplished designer and art director with 15 years of experience in print and digital design. Since 2013 Jody has been running her own one-woman studio working with national brands, PR and marketing firms, non-profits and universities, retailers, small businesses, publishers, and restaurants. The variety in her experiences over her long career has led to a depth and breadth of freelance wisdom that we are so excited to share.
Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance designer and art director.
My path to graphic design was a winding one! As a kid, I had a knack for turning any school assignment into a vaguely relevant art project or comic strip. We moved around a lot (a handful of US states, Holland, Australia, and England), so I was the new kid about every three years. I became weirdly fascinated with all the different cliques at each school, and would draw them in my notebooks. One day my 10th grade World History teacher caught me drawing “The Stoners” and passed my book around so everyone could see. Super embarrassing, but I think he was secretly impressed, and that led to me becoming an illustrator for our school newspaper. From there, I learned Quark (oh, the good old days!) and switched gears to editorial design. I loved it!
But in college, I decided to major in “Digital Motion Graphics.” This was back when people were really jazzed on the concept of multimedia, but no one—not even the professors—knew how to integrate it with graphic design. So, I learned a lot about Flash animation and Final Cut Pro, but had no clue what “typography” meant.
After graduation I moved to New Orleans. I had lived there for a couple years in middle school, and had always felt a deep connection to its eclectic jumble of cultures, brass bands in the street, the scent of magnolias, shrimp poboys, and the “how’s ya mom” hospitality. It was not exactly a hub for multimedia job opportunities, though. I didn’t feel qualified for anything that was available, but somehow landed a print design gig at Gambit Weekly and scrambled to learn on the job.
When hurricane Katrina hit, everything collapsed. I evacuated to Houston at the eleventh hour, and what was meant to be a quick stay turned into weeks, then months. While in Houston, I met my husband Tyler and was hired at boutique design agency, and before I knew it three years had passed. Over the next few years I jumped from editorial design, to stationery, to advertising, to branding. When I moved to San Francisco in 2008, I found myself in a corporate-y in-house design job and began taking on freelance clients as a way to stay sane. In 2009 I started working for Minted (which, at the time, was a brand-new scrappy little startup) and was able to move through a number of interesting roles, including product development and design, marketing, and merchandising.
By 2012, I had a steady roster of freelance clients and went part-time at Minted. For an entire year, I struggled with the decision to go solo. It was a slow band-aid rip. I made all sorts of excuses not to. I thought I would get lonely. I thought I didn’t have enough discipline. I wouldn’t have admitted it, but I was really afraid of disappointing myself. But—total cliché—I finally recognized that life really is short and didn’t want to regret playing it safe. My dad had recently passed away after a 9-month battle with cancer, and the world suddenly felt different.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
My first few clients were connections made through friends and former co-workers. I was not picky and took every job that came my way, which of course led to some regrettable situations (ahem, “learning experiences”). But for the most part, things progressed steadily. One-off clients would end up coming back for more long-term partnerships, and things grew naturally from there.
For those beginning their freelance journey, I highly recommend finding one nonprofit to work with. Make sure they value good design and that you believe in their mission. Pro bono work (not to be confused with spec work!) can be so rewarding—you’re a part of something impactful, you make professional connections, and you usually have a good amount of creative freedom. I did a lot of work for 826 Valencia in San Francisco, designing books and event branding. Working with them was such a cool experience, and although it was unpaid, aligning with such a high-profile organization helped my work gain visibility, which led to new clients who found me online. Currently, I’d say 80 percent of my new business comes from referrals, and 20 percent from people finding my work online (I owe you one, Pinterest!).
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
This one is hard. I’m always tweaking my approach. I used to force myself into a 9-5 routine, but after a couple years I realized that didn’t work for me. Nowadays, every day is different—sometimes I don’t even get started until noon. I think it’s important to work around your natural highs and lows. For instance, I definitely work best in the afternoon and evening, so I try not to schedule meetings or calls in the morning. You just can’t force productivity—at least, not if you want great results. That said, the pressure of deadlines is my number one motivator, so I’m super-duper productive the night before a due date!
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
Finding time and energy to learn new skills and maintain old ones. I’d be embarrassed to tell you how many Skillshare classes I’ve signed up for that I haven’t even started! One example: my illustration skills are so rusty these days. Whenever I try to get back into a sketching routine, I wind up frustrated because my hand won’t do what I want it to do, and I either give up or rush through it.
What is your favorite thing about freelance?
Connecting with interesting clients, flexible hours, and getting to work with my husband Tyler! I also love the variety of work that comes with each new project. Brand identity is my focus, but with that comes the opportunity to design packaging, retail interiors, residential welcome centers, maps, magazines, to name a few. I’m not sure if my nomadic background is to blame, but I have a strong compulsion to constantly switch things up, working with different aesthetics, materials, and formats.
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?
For new clients, I definitely found that refining my website helped attract more exciting jobs with clients looking for a partnership rather than a commodity. Understandably, many potential clients can’t imagine what you’re capable of until they see it. So, rather than trying to convey “Hey! I can do a lot of things. Trust me, I’m good!” I’ve curated my portfolio to say “Hey! This is what I like to do, so holler if you like it too!”
For clients with ideal budgets—this is something I really had to work up to. I used to feel awkward talking to colleagues and other freelancers about pricing, but I strongly believe that the more we open up and share our pricing methods, the more we all can grow. Knowing your worth involves knowing what your peers and competitors are worth! I’m so thankful for resources like the Pricing & Ethical Guidelines Handbook and online communities such as the Creative Lady Collective. We’re all in it together!
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
Freshbooks is fantastic for everyday things like tracking time, invoicing, estimates, and expenses. I’ve been using them for years and only just discovered their iPhone app. It’s so convenient for keeping up with expenses. You just snap a photo of each receipt and enter the details on your phone. I can’t tell you how happy I was to get rid of my overflowing nightmare of a receipt box.
For file management, it’s Dropbox all day every day. And Creative Cloud has been blowing my mind with its new magical capabilities. I have all my devices synced—it’s thrilling to beam something from your iPad straight to Illustrator.
For estimating time, here’s a piece of advice that changed my life. Rather than thinking of small, bill-by-the-hour jobs in terms of hours/minutes, think of them in terms of half-days and full-days. In reality, it’s very rare that a project would only take 2 hours. If you spec out that work as a half-day instead, you will be allowed to slow down, be more careful, and to incorporate adequate project management.
What do you do to stay creatively inspired?
I get out and walk. If I have time, I’ll make up an errand (“Oh look, we need dog food!”) and head over to one of the many high streets here in Oakland. I just like to soak in the retail signage and storefront displays, browse in a bookstore, or just get coffee.
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
Be flexible but know when to switch off. For me, the balance is more like a constantly moving see-saw. My work is so intertwined with everyday life that I don’t really try to separate it. Tyler is the same way, and we don’t have kids, so it’s pretty natural. That’s not to say we are workaholics (I think that’s a dangerous aspiration)—I just mean that we don’t force ourselves into a set schedule. We skip from work to non-work pretty seamlessly. We don’t typically take long, faraway vacations, but every few weeks there will be a 2-3 day trip somewhere. Whether it’s Texas to see family, or a quick local getaway with our pup Rucci, leaving town is sometimes the only way I can truly switch off.
Can you tell us a bit about The Blume Saloon?
Yes! It’s a weekly podcast I started back in March with a good friend, Alison Michael. It’s a sort-of book club, with lots of tangents and comedy thrown in. Every week, we discuss a few chapters of a cherished Judy Blume novel. We’re really into dramatic readings, doing research on life and culture in the 1970s, and making up songs. We like to share our own adolescent anecdotes, to the point of TMI. We record every week, and I do the editing/producing.
It has been such a nice escape, a way to be creative that has absolutely nothing to do with design. Neither of us had any podcasting experience, but figured we had nothing to lose, so we went for it! Failure’s a lot easier to handle when you have no idea what you’re doing. The whole “fearless novice” thing was an important reminder for me not to let my expertise in graphic design be paralyzing. We now have a decent following that seems to be growing, and have received letters from some lovely listeners all over the globe. It’s so much fun. You can listen here.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Intuition, adaptability, curiosity.