This week we excitedly bring you the wisdom of Abbey McGrew, the designer behind Wayfarer Design Studio whose work we are so glad to have discovered through #fwportfolio.
Abbey got her freelance start rather unexpectedly and right out of college. Just over 1 month before her college graduation her boyfriend at the time received an offer to play professional basketball overseas. Next thing she knew, he was proposing and asking her to come travel the world with him, to which she said yes! And with that, in June of 2016, her traveling design studio was born.
Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance designer.
Well honestly, freelancing was the absolute last thing that I wanted to do. When I was a senior in college, I was totally set on being a junior designer at a small studio, working my way up and maybe starting my own studio in like 10 years. But life took a really funny turn when my then-boyfriend proposed and asked me to go travel the world with him. (Obviously I said yes!)
So knowing that we would pretty much be traveling full-time and moving to a new country every few months, freelancing went from my last resort to my only option. If I’m being totally honest, I cried the night that I officially decided to start freelancing. I was completely terrified. I’d had a great internship for 2 years and knew that I had a good amount of experience compared to other designers my age, but I still felt way too young to even think about freelancing. But I picked myself up, told myself that being young wasn’t an excuse, that my work had value, and that whether I liked it or not, I was meant to do this.
So we got married, moved to Australia the day after my college graduation, and I started my own studio, Wayfarer, about a month later. It was by far the craziest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m so grateful that it all unfolded the way it did. I wouldn’t have ever had the courage to freelance if the universe hadn’t basically pushed me into it.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
Personal projects, 100%! My first few months of freelancing were so slow, I had zero connections. So I spent that time creating personal projects inspired by clients that I dreamed of working with one day. I even based a few on real potential clients that chose a different designer over me. There was this cute coffee shop client that I almost landed my first month of freelancing, but they went with another designer because I hadn’t worked with a coffee shop before. I was really discouraged about it at first (how was I supposed to ever get experience if nobody would give me a chance because I don’t have experience??), but then I decided to just make up my own coffee shop and design something beautiful for that instead. It was pretty empowering to say, ‘Well, I didn’t get this client and that sucks, but I can still create something out of it that’s passion-driven and bound to attract that type of client again. And next time, they won’t be able to say no as easily.”
Once I added those personal projects to my portfolio, they immediately started getting the most attention and I’m positive that I wouldn’t have gotten my first great clients if I hadn’t had that mindset to just create, create, create no matter what. There’s a lot of freedom in realizing that you don’t need to wait around for dream clients to give you great projects – you can create them yourself!
You and your partner are always on the go, traveling to new places for his work. Do you have any tips for being your most productive in this on-the-go setting?
Always establish a workspace for yourself no matter where you are, even if it’s just for a few weeks. I never really know what my workspace is going to be like each time we move, which is both fun and frustrating. Some places I have a desk and it’s easy to be productive, others I have no choice but to work from the couch and struggle to not get distracted. So in order to stay inspired and have some sense of consistency, I have these little accessories to make each space my own. Right now I have a wall hanging and 2 letterpress prints that I pack in my suitcase and take with me. Then I usually buy a couple of temporary things each time we move like house plants or candles. It’s a simple thing to do, but it makes a big difference to have a space that feels routine and familiar. We can be living in the worst, tiny apartment, but as long as I have those little things to sit around my laptop, I can feel like I have a place to get things done.
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
Probably sticking up for myself. I’ve always been an introvert and somewhat of a people pleaser. It takes a lot out of me to ask for what I deserve or be strict with clients. At first I thought that I would make a horrible freelancer because I’m that way, but I’m starting to appreciate being forced out of my comfort zone.
What is one thing you wish you knew when you were just starting out?
That pricing yourself crazy low is a horrible idea. I was convinced that the only way I was going to get work was to be cheaper than everyone else, so I charged next to nothing for my first 4 months of freelancing and it was awful. Sure I got clients out of it, but they weren’t really attracted to my work or the value that I offered, they just liked the cheap price. It wasn’t until another designer randomly told me that I needed to charge more that I finally figured it out.
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients while traveling?
Social media has definitely been my biggest tool for attracting clients. Instagram is my go-to and I try to post there every day, but occasionally I’ll share my work on Pinterest too. Other than that, many of my clients have found me through referrals or online groups and directories (like Creative Lady Directory, of course!) The internet has surprised me again and again with its ability to connect people and help creatives get their work out there. It’s truly a ripple effect. There have been times when I just commented on someone’s Instagram post and months later realized that they referred a client to me because of that comment. Even the smallest interactions can lead to something!
Have you found that your travel and living in different places has impacted your design style? If so, how?
Oh, for sure! I noticed my style adapting after our second move. In Australia, I was all about florals and messy hand lettering because we were near the rainforest. Then we moved to Denmark and my style became more minimal and modern because I was surrounded by Scandinavian furniture. And once we got to France, I became obsessed with classic serifs because everything here is so traditional and detailed. It’s funny how these different styles just start sneaking into my work, but I love how they’re all starting to mix. Right now I’m working on a collection of design templates where each design is inspired by a different country and culture that we’ve lived in. I needed to do something to get all the travel inspiration out of my system :)
How do you whet your creative appetite?
Traveling is obviously a big source of inspiration for me. I love getting to be a stranger in a foreign country and just taking it all in. The architecture, the typography on street signs, the interior design – my eye is drawn to so many details and styles that I’m not used to.
Also, I just love personal projects. Any time I have an idea for a project that I would love to do, I just dive in and explore it. It may never turn into anything or it may take me a year to actually finish it, but I love having little passion projects to turn to whenever I’m feeling drained by client work.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details, especially while traveling?
I would say that hiring an accountant is a must! Running a traveling business can be confusing when it comes to taxes, so don’t even try to do it yourself. For invoicing and contracts, I’ve used Hello Bonsai from the beginning and love it. They have great contract templates specifically for designers that you can build from and their invoicing setup makes everything so easy. Then, for traveling purposes, I use Calendly to schedule all of my calls so that there’s no confusion with the different timezones.
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
Never feel guilty about putting the work down. When I first started freelancing, I would feel guilty if I wasn’t working every single weekend. That’s crazy! I honestly didn’t even have that much work to do, I was just convinced that I needed to be working 24/7 to be a legitimate business owner. Life is too short to have that mindset. Now, I claim weekends as my own time to do whatever I want and try to keep evenings as free as I can. And if I ever start to feel that guilt creeping in for doing that, I’ll repeat to myself, ‘The rest is as important as the work,” over and over again until I believe it.
Feeding your creativity can (and should) be viewed as a work task. Going to a pottery class, watching a documentary, taking a hike… anything that inspires you and lights a creative spark is great for your business. When you set aside time for these things, you’re making an investment in yourself and your work. Last summer I dubbed every Wednesday as “inspiration day” where I could just create freely, do whatever brought me joy and seriously it was the most balanced that I’ve ever felt. You don’t have to do an entire day like I did though. You could try blocking out just a few hours on Monday morning to ease into the work week or clock out early on Friday afternoon, whatever feels right. Just try it for a month and see what happens!
Whatever rules you have in place to stay balanced, be open about them with your clients. Sometimes our traveling happens unexpectedly. There have been times when we only had a week’s notice before we moved to our next place. So I have to be really open with my clients and explain that if we have to move all of a sudden, I may need to take time off to deal with that and it will probably affect our project schedule. That sucks, but I know that it’s what’s best for both of us and will ensure that the quality of my work won’t suffer from trying to cram it in while we move. My clients have always been understanding when I explain all of that to them and it’s taken a lot of pressure off of me to just be honest about why I need that time off. So if you’re taking time off, be upfront and own it.
Any music, podcast, or book recommendations that you'd like to share?
Podcasts are my go-to while working! The Lively Show is one of my favorites. Jess did a recent episode about overcoming income resistance and it was AMAZING! Definitely listen to that if you’re experiencing stress about money (so basically anyone who’s freelancing). I also love My Favorite Murder for when I need a good laugh and Holler: Voices of West Virginia Women because it’s women from my home state having really important, meaningful conversations.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Passion, self-worth, and flexibility.