Timia Lewis is a Birmingham-based freelance graphic designer specializing in brand identity, packaging, print, and interactive design. We discovered her work through our Creative Lady Directory and seized the opportunity to learn more about her design journey. We love the insight she shares regarding attracting ideal clients through her slowly, but intentionally built, portfolio.
Tell us about your path to becoming a freelance graphic designer.
When I was a kid, my mom gave me the American Girl Room Crafts book. I think that’s what first sparked my creativity. The book led to me creating my own room crafts and falling in love with making and designing. The summer after my first year of college, I started my own DIY blog. After starting the blog, I realized that I needed a logo, so I made my own. I really enjoyed designing the logo and decided to redesign the entire blog. I had learned a few basic html and css skills from high school, but decided to read a lot of web design tutorials to refresh and hone my knowledge. Because of this personal project, I discovered that I really liked branding and web design, and I decided to pursue it part-time.
I started part-time freelancing my second year in college. At the time, I was also working as a desk assistant for the school’s residence life. As long as we did all of our desk duties, we were pretty much free to fill the time however we wanted. The system worked out nicely because I wasn’t really making any money freelancing. I had no portfolio and no experience so I charged next to nothing. While part-time designing wasn’t really sustainable, I fell in love with graphic design and decided to switch both my major and my university to pursue it.
During the summer after my third year in college, I freelanced full-time. I loved freelancing, but after that summer I thought it was too lonely to do permanently (I didn’t know many people in the area and I didn’t know coworking spaces existed). I decided to pursue working in a design firm and the summer before I graduated, I interned with a firm almost full-time. One of the things that was so great about this firm was their genuine desire to teach their interns. We were given our own projects, included in meetings, and taken on business trips. I learned so many lessons during my time there - the most important lesson being that I wasn’t meant to work in a firm.
While I was working at the firm, there was so much I missed about freelancing. I missed being able to talk to my clients; I missed being able to say no to projects that weren’t the right fit for me; and I missed being able to work every single part of a project. I decided that after I graduated from college, I would pursue freelancing full-time. I knew that working in a firm was not the right path for me, and I took the leap of faith on freelancing. The Lord was faithful, worked it out perfectly, and here I am today.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
One way I received my first good clients was through a freelancing network; but the other way (and the more important way) I received some of my first good clients was by treating the clients I had well and by giving them the best work I had to offer. It’s so easy to slack on a project that you’re not excited about or isn’t in your niche; but it’s really important to do your best work for every single thing you do.
One of my favorite clients was an entrepreneur who also helped manage people’s businesses. Not only did she come to me for work on her newest endeavor, but she also referred me to her own clients when they needed work done. I wouldn’t have had repeat projects or any referrals from her if I hadn’t done the best work I could have for her or for those she referred to me.
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
For me, it’s not working at home. Of course working from home is sometimes unavoidable, but I try to stay away from it during my scheduled hours. When I’m at home, there are so many distractions for me. Leaving the house helps put me in the mindset of getting things done. Another way I stay productive is by having a notebook just dedicated to lists. I have lists on my project management system as well, but the physical act of writing things down and crossing them off has always helped keep me super organized and on task.
What is one thing you can't live without while working on a project?
I would be lost without my sketchbook. It’s where I start writing about my project, where I go to put my designs, and where I return when I’m stumped on a problem. If a logo or layout doesn’t work out the way I envisioned it, there are always more to look at in my sketchbook. If one of those other designs doesn’t work, I can always go back to my sketchbook and try again. I used to be pretty bad about going straight to the screen to design something, but that almost always resulted in frustration. Using a sketchbook is much quicker and much more effective.
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
Probably work life balance. Because I get to do what I love, I find myself working a lot more than I should. I really don’t mind it all that much, but I think I should be stricter on myself than I am and give myself time to pursue other things I enjoy. I also allow myself to get distracted by other things pretty easily. For work I have to use Pinterest and Instagram and it’s easy to get sucked into never ending scrolling.
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?
By having the best possible portfolio I can. I used to have a lot of projects in my portfolio, but I’ve narrowed it down a great deal and have become much pickier about what I put in it. If I have any doubts about whether or not something should be in my portfolio it probably means that it shouldn’t be. I look at each project in my portfolio and I think “Will my ideal client hire me if all they saw was this single project?” If the answer is no, I don’t put it in there.
I’m also super picky about what project pictures I post for my portfolio. I spend a lot of time taking and editing each of the photos, and I only share and post what I think is the best. It takes longer to update my portfolio with projects, but I’m okay with that if it means my portfolio is the best it can be.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
Getting an email scheduler was a game changer for me. I truly love what I do and I constantly find myself working beyond office hours. Having an email scheduler makes it so I don’t have to worry about sending emails at weird hours of the night or forgetting to send emails in the morning. I personally use Boomerang; and it lets you schedule an alert if you haven’t heard back from a client within a certain amount of time. This is really helpful when it comes to unresponsive clients as well as client follow ups. 10/10. Would definitely recommend.
Are there any projects on which you're ruminating that you'd like to make time for someday?
Oh, absolutely. When I started design school, I abandoned my diy blog. I think it would be really fun to give it a rebrand and start it back up again. I didn’t know much about design while I was doing it, but I think that now, I could turn it into something really cool and unique.
And of course I have a very real and very long list of other projects that I would like to pursue.
How do you stay creatively inspired?
I stay inspired creatively by looking at the work of others. My go-to platform for doing that is Pinterest. When I look, I don’t only look at graphic design, but I also look at environmental design, illustrations, fine art, and photography. I also really like reading! Because I do overall branding, words are really important. Anne in Anne of Green Gables is so over dramatic and eloquent. I love it. Anne is able to give things beautiful names like “Idlewild” and I aspire to be just like that. She’s the perfect source of inspiration for words. Another way I stay inspired is by observing and documenting the world around me. If I really like the typography on an old sign, I take a picture. If the sky has a really rad color scheme, I take a picture. I eventually organize or delete these pictures, but it’s helpful in keeping me aware of my surroundings and their beauty.
Any music, podcast, or book recommendations that you'd like to share?
This was actually a super tough question for me because I like a pretty big range of music (a lot of which are musicals), for now I’m just going to mention three.
1. Lily and Madeleine: lilandmad.com
Lily and Madeleine are sisters and their music is super good for working. Their music is mostly calm and floaty. I recommend them for watching the rain fall with a cup of tea.
2. Simper: simper.bandcamp.com
Simper is a pretty cool new artist. He has an album dedicated to some of the dreams he’s had. It’s an interesting concept and his other music is good and honest, too.
3. Empire Springs: empirespringsmusic.com
Empire Springs is my favorite local band. I’ve been to a bunch of their shows and they’ve recently started doing some space themed stuff. It’s pretty cool.
Anything else that you'd like to share?
I think it’s really important to celebrate the great work others do. It can be really easy to look at a project that someone else has done and react with jealousy and criticism, but comparison truly is the thief of joy. Just because someone else is doing something great doesn’t mean you aren’t too, and the success of someone else’s work can push you to create better work yourself.
I have to remind myself of this often.