Lotta Nieminen is a New York City-based graphic designer and art director originally hailing from Helsinki, Finland. She studied graphic design and illustration at the University of Art and Design Helsinki and the Rhode Island School of Design, and went on to work at the fashion magazine Trendi, Pentagram Design and Ro&Co before launching her own New York-based studio. She was nominated for Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2014 in the Art & Style category, received the Art Directors Club Young Guns Award, and has given talks around the US and Europe while working for clients such as Hermès, Google, New York Times, Volkswagon, IBM, United Airlines, New York Magazine, Vanity Fair, and more.
What made you decide to pursue a freelance career?
It was something I had been thinking about for a while – actually, since graduation, but at that point, I wanted to work for other people so I could learn more. Working for others has been one of the best learning curves for me: you see how people run their studios, what you'd do the same or differently. You learn about how you'd want to run your own business and about the importance of collaboration. I think it also helped me understand what type of designer I aspired to develop into.
Ever since my first full-time designer job, I was freelancing on top of that day job. Mostly illustrations, but also graphic design projects. I got to the point where I was getting enough freelance inquiries to start turning some of them down due to lack of time, and after a while, it seemed like a good time to go out on my own. I felt assured that I wouldn't be short of work at least for the first couple of months, and I began to feel equipped enough to give it a shot. Honestly, I thought that if it didn't work out, I could always try to find a new full-time job. It’s been over two years now, and now really feel like I’m running a company rather than just giving a shot at freelancing.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
What really helped me when deciding to go full-time freelance was that I had been doing it on the side of full-time jobs for quite a long time. Because of the financial safety of having a day job as a designer, I was able to freelance on only work that I thought to be truly inspiring. This helped me develop my style without a rush and build a portfolio with work I was really proud of. The kind of work you have in your portfolio is the kind of work you’ll get commissioned to do, and I wanted my portfolio to give a very strong feel of what type of projects and clients I was after. It definitely worked.
"The kind of work you have in your portfolio is the kind of work you’ll get commissioned to do, and I wanted my portfolio to give a very strong feel of what type of projects and clients I was after."
If you work from home, do you have any tips for being your most productive?
Start by taking a shower and getting dressed. I learned this the hard way the first time around when working from home the first time around when I started freelancing: you’ll hate yourself if you work all day in your pajamas and order delivery food for every meal of the day. So the real secret to an efficient work day? Taking a shower and getting dressed. Who would have known?
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
Most of my time goes into the day-to-day responsibilities of running a business; I enjoy it and want to do it, but it does take away from the time I have to create. Ideally, I'd like to work on only one project at a time so I can focus on what I'm doing. In busy times, I don't have room for trial and error, which to me is the core of what being creative is. If I'm too short on time to try and fail, then I don't get the same satisfaction from the outcome. I've come to realize that true creative satisfaction comes from failing: you try something that you thought was going to be awesome and it doesn't work and the client hates it and you hate it too. And then you go back and start solving the problem at hand again – rethink it, and try something else. Maybe that doesn't work either. But then at some point, it all just clicks, and the outcome is so much better than whatever you worked on first. To me, that’s creativity –which unfortunately quite often now gets lost into the admin that goes into running a business.
What is your favorite thing about being a freelancer?
I really enjoy talking clients into things. I like the social aspect of it (as this type of work can get pretty solitary at times), and I like explaining to people what graphic design is and why certain things look a certain way. I know that as designers we’re working in customer service and we should definitely deliver what’s commissioned from us, but we’re also professionals and consultants. I guess I like to think that you should never give up too easily and should be prepared to back up the things you feel strongly about. Sometimes clients need a little push: they see things they haven’t seen anywhere else and they’re not going to just digest it. Learning how to argument your ideas is absolutely crucial if you want to get your visions through, and I like the challenge of it.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
Keep your files in order. I feel like a crazy person with my almost-too-meticulously organized folders and systematically named files, but it’ll go a long way when you need to find or share files later on.
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
I have tendencies to get extremely involved in projects, so I’ve had to work a lot on this. Striking a balance between the two isn't easy, especially because I like to be invested in things, and when I'm working on something, I'm immersed in it. I also think the line between work and life is a very blurry one, which makes it harder to set them apart.
When I wasn’t working from home, I made sure not to bring any work files home, which made maintaing the balance a lot easier. Now it’s easier for me to slip into working on evenings and weekends, as my office is at home. I try to avoid that by schedule enough things outside the studio – meeting friends on weeknights and going to the movies or exhibitions on the weekends. I think stepping away from the desk is the best way to get new ideas and perspective to the work you do, which is why I make sure to hold on to it.
Thank you so much Lotta for your incredible wisdom! I have learned so much and will definitely be implementing that 'shower and get dressed before you work' tip!!