Caroline Corrigan is an upstate New York-based graphic designer and illustrator. She loves working with small businesses, non-profits, makers and creative entrepreneurs to create visual tools that tell stories, build brands, and make stuff happen. She also helps out at Pepco Studio, coordinates The Half Moon Market, and owned/operated Fort Orange General Store from 2014-2016. One more thing, she's 9 months pregnant!
We love her style, her calm demeanor, and the ways in which she stays creatively inspired.
Caroline, we are so glad we snagged an interview with you before your babe enters the world. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us!
Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance graphic designer and illustrator.
I grew up just outside of New York City, but came upstate to Albany for college, where I studied fine art and graduated with a BFA in painting. I absolutely loved studying art/art history in school, but soon after graduating and looking into MFA programs, I knew that the fine art world wasn’t for me. I briefly considered going back to school for illustration, but I ended up taking a job here at a local arts center and did everything from hanging shows in their gallery, to administrative work, and making flyers and brochures–which, not surprisingly, was my favorite part of the job. I was proficient with Adobe Creative Suite, but what really helped my work improve was getting a Lynda subscription and making time to really learn the software by taking courses in my downtime at home. It was a big time commitment, but it changed everything for me. Eventually, I moved on from that job and began working part time for my friend Phil, who is an amazing book cover designer. That experience was invaluable; his training really helped me get a sense of my own voice and get comfortable working on real projects with tight timelines.
Eventually I started to get some work of my own, and began to feel a little more comfortable with the idea of freelancing. The Albany area is pretty small and the cost of living here is affordable, so it makes taking risks like freelancing or opening a business a bit less daunting than if you lived in a larger city. I did a ton of research before deciding to freelance full time. I poured over countless books (Creative, Inc. was a favorite), articles, podcasts, e-courses, and talked to other people who were making it work. I kept my expectations realistic in the beginning and was open the idea that it might not work out, while at the same time trying to stay positive, and being up for the challenge of working really, really hard.
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
Stick to a routine, minimize your distractions, and take care of yourself.
I find that I work best when I get up early, eat, get dressed, walk my dog, and get to work right away. It helps that my husband works a 9-5 schedule. If I start work when he does, I will definitely have a more productive day. I’m not much of a night owl, so I try to stick to regular daytime schedule during the week. Of course, there are always projects that extend into the evenings and weekends, and so am I glad I can do that from home.
I use Trello online with the Pomello desktop app to organize my tasks and time my progress. It’s helpful for billing hourly (and has built in breaks!) but I like categorizing and moving each task in either “to do,” “awaiting feedback,” “ready to invoice,” etc. Also, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that I need it, but I use this awesome website blocking extension for Safari called “Waste No Time” which is amazing. You can set the amount of time you can look at certain websites. Instagram is still a big, fun distraction, though!
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
It’s probably a tie between figuring out how to charge what my work is worth, and feeling confident in sharing what I’m working on with the wider world/social media. Of course, those two things are connected. It has gotten easier over time, but I still struggle with it somewhat. I also have a hard time carving out space for personal projects.
What is your favorite thing about freelance?
So many things! Working quietly in my sunny little space while listening to public radio and podcasts, the freedom to run an errand or have a slow morning if I need to, and just being able to make cool things for people. The flexibility is the best though. I definitely take it for granted sometimes, but it is really nice to be able to work at home, or at a cafe, and actually have control what I’m doing.
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?
Posting my favorite projects on my website and Instagram really helps. It’s taken me a long time to learn this, but you have to show people what you love to do. Eventually you’ll be sought out specifically to give a client’s project your unique voice and aesthetic. Honing that aesthetic is the difficult part––it takes a long time and is an ongoing process, but it’s a great feeling when others begin to recognize it (and want to pay for it!).
It also kind of goes without saying, but putting yourself out there is essential. I think many creatives, especially those of us who work alone find it awkward, but it never hurts to introduce yourself to people, go to events where you might meet like-minded creatives and business owners, share your favorite projects, and maintain a solid and active online presence. This was so hard for me in the beginning.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
Quickbooks Self Employed is my go-to for invoicing, doing quarterly taxes, tracking expenses and mileage. It’s super easy to use, has an iPhone app, and keeps all of that financial stuff in one place. I also have an accountant that I have help with my taxes and questions that I work with about 2-3 times per year. I think it’s totally worth it to hire a good accountant to help with questions that are difficult to answer and to ensure that you’re doing things correctly.
What do you do to stay creatively inspired?
Of course, the endless stream of imagery that is the Internet provides constant inspiration, but print media is the best, I think. I love the illustrations in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times, The New Yorker, old art books and record covers, etc. Looking through layout design in the newspaper is like trying to figure out how a beautiful, complicated puzzle works.
There’s also this area in downtown Albany not far from where I live that has an amazing public collection of abstract art from the 1960s, including work by Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Calder, Helen Frankenthaler and Franz Kline to name a few. Anyone can just wander around the grounds of the Empire State Plaza or go into the government buildings and check out these great massive paintings and sculptures for free, any time. I really like to read, too. This past year I read a bunch of Joan Didion books in row, and have spent a lot of time looking into the work of Sister Corita Kent. I love getting a little obsessed with an artist, writer or musician, learning everything I can about them.
I also work with my friend Adelia to coordinate a twice-yearly maker’s market here in Albany called The Half Moon Market. Every fall and spring, we take over this historic 1920s Lake House in the center of the city, and put on a really great handmade market for the weekend. My job is to primarily work on the branding and overall look and feel of the event, which we change up every time around to keep things fresh. It has been such a fun side project to work. I love how it supports creative community, contributes to the quality of life in the city, and gives us an opportunity to hang out and connect with other creatives for a weekend filled with beer, food trucks, and music. It’s a nice break from all the solo work time I am generally occupied with.
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
Still working on this one, ha! It’s really hard to balance both especially when things get busy. There’s this inherent need to please your clients when you’re a freelancer, but there’s also that latent fear that work could dry up at some point. I have a hard time saying no, and generally enjoy the work I do. Also being at home, the lines between work and downtime are not always clear. But, at some point you need to step away for the day. It’s so important to carve out time to hang out with your partner or friends, take a walk, or just cook dinner. Those things make you feel human. If I feel like I didn’t get enough done in a day and I’m burnt out, I usually resolve to just get up early and get right back to it in the morning. On the other hand, if I’m on a roll, I like to just power through the evening. Often that’s when the best stuff gets done. The key is to make sure to make up for it the next day by taking a little downtime in exchange.
I think many people in our audience have entertained the idea of opening up retail shops. You owned/operated Fort Orange General for two years. Can you tell us more about that experience and what you learned?
Fort Orange as a really fun two year experiment/career detour. My friend Katy and I had a couple of business ideas that we had schemed about on and off for years, and when we saw this affordable and nice looking store front go up for rent, we just jumped on it. We were both at good places in our lives for it. I had just left my job at the arts center and wasn’t freelancing full time yet, and she was working part time as overnight nurse. We knew we would regret it if we didn’t try.
There were so many things we learned about running a business, like working with a partner, dividing responsibility/time/income, finance, taxes, dealing with the public, etc. The shop was also a total blank slate to experiment with merchandising, and learning how to develop + implement a brand aesthetic, beyond graphic design. It was so fun to have that physical space to utilize. The biggest take away for me were the relationships I was able to make with the maker community, both locally and around the country. We worked with so many great artists, many whom we would have never connected with without the shop. It also helped me finally realize what I wanted to do with my career, which I think for most people, involves a lot trial and error.
In the end, my friend who I ran the store with was diagnosed with an advanced stage cancer (she is doing great now, thankfully!) and we had made the decision together to close the business. It didn’t feel right running it without her while she was going through that. I also realized that after two years in, retail wasn’t a good long term path for me, and I knew I would be happier focusing on design. We ended up getting contacted by a former college classmate who was interested in taking over the business, so we sold it earlier this spring, and he has just recently reopened the shop! It’s interesting (and even a tiny bit difficult at times, honestly) to see something you built be run by another person with a different vision, but I am really excited for him and glad that the little shop we built will remain in town.
You are expecting, congrats! What are you most looking forward to about being a freelance designer and mom?
Thank you! I am super excited to be a mom and all that comes with it. I’m eager to see how motherhood influences my creative work. I anticipate–and hope–that it leads to more drawing, actually. Of course though, I am also am a little nervous about how it will affect my workload and ability to juggle everything. I know I will have to be a little more discerning about what I choose to take on. I am planning to take a little time off to spend time with our baby and learn the ropes of motherhood, so I am really grateful for the freedom and flexibility that freelancing allows. Side note: this blog has been so helpful demonstrating how motherhood and freelancing can totally be compatible lifestyles. Thank you for existing!