interior design

Lorna McCarthy

Lorna McCarthy is the owner and lead designer behind McCarthy & Co, a boutique design practice, focused on creating interiors that are authentic and emotive. Based in London, Lorna's speciality is applying an intuitive approach to each project. Studying History of Art has given Lorna a different approach to interior design, allowing an innate and in depth understanding of style, space, composition and colour which she applies to the creative direction of every project.

Although the past eight months haven't been the smoothest transition to being the fabulous, independent business woman that she expected, there's no doubt that her freelance experience so far has made her a better designer.

Lorna McCarthy | Freelance Wisdom

Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance interior designer.

I became a freelance interior designer, not by mistake but certainly not planned. Although I had always aspired to go out on my own, it ended up happening a lot sooner and with a lot less preparation than I ever would have anticipated.
In school I studied history of art, after which I did a very short internship at a prestigious design studio. While I didn't actually learn anything while with them, it did allow me to include the name on my CV, following which I was lucky enough to be taken in by a small company. I am so thankful for this experience and my mentors there, as it enabled me to gain an understanding of design from the inside out - including, most importantly, the nitty gritty of how to manage clients, how to invoice effectively, what you need on an install (baby wipes and floristry scissors!); the every day stuff. Here I honed my skills in all aspects of interior design over the course of four years, going from the administrative side to eventually leading and managing my own projects.
I have never had formal training [in interior design] and learned entirely in the job. In the beginning I saw this as a draw back, but now I can appreciate that this without a doubt cemented my approach and application of interior design, and has given me such a thorough and pragmatic education, without which I wouldn't have had the capabilities or confidence to freelance. It's enabled me to develop an organic approach and way of doing things. On top of this I credit studying history of art as having developed my understanding of style, space, composition and colour, something which I apply to every project and is at the very heart of me as a designer.
After a while though I became quite jaded about the industry and as a result had actually walked away from interior design. But, I only ended up having a three month hiatus! My first freelance project was for an existing client who asked me to work for her independently, and I haven't looked back since!
As I had experience of running my own projects and have always been very independent [as a designer] going freelance felt like a natural progression, and for me I know that I'm at my best working independently. The freedom of being able to work in your own way, choose who you're working with and ultimately having control over the design process is very important to me, and I wouldn't want to design any other way.
Lorna McCarthy | Freelance Wisdom

In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?

Well, as I have only been established since the start of this year, I would say I'm still very much in the 'beginning' stages! But for me it has absolutely been establishing genuine relationships with clients, who then wanted to work with me independently. This, and word of mouth. In the beginning I thought it was all about your website, how you approach advertising yourself and 'who you know', but really, for me, it's come down to positive experience and word of mouth. Design is so personal so it's important that you and the client are a good fit; I wouldn't take on a project if I felt I wasn't suited to the client or the job. Forming authentic, personal relationships with both clients and suppliers is something that I want to continue as I grow; both of which are a huge source of inspiration for me.  

Do you have any tips for being your most productive?

If you start to procrastinate, ask yourself why! For me procrastination is such a dangerous habit, as it can have the potential completely de-rail a project as they tend to run to very tight deadlines. When I find myself procrastinating, at the root of it is usually feeling overwhelmed, or a lack of confidence to make a call or decision. If I'm honest about why I'm feeling the urge to procrastinate then I find I can overcome the hurdle that's driving my procrastination and get my productivity back on track.
Lorna McCarthy | Freelance Wisdom

What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?

My greatest struggle as a freelancer so far has to have been going through an unexpected identity crisis when I first started out, and after a good few months of 'what the f- am I doing?!', learning that it's okay to do things differently. Age was definitely a sticking point [I'm 25, which is young for this industry!]. In the beginning, although I didn't realise it, I had an idea in mind of how as an interior designer with my own company I should be approaching new clients and new projects. But in reality this was how I felt I should be approaching things, not taking into account my own personality, strengths and weaknesses. I was overlooking the very reason I wanted to become freelance - to do things differently and to offer an alternative to the run of the mill experience of interior design. Because my ethos rests largely on creating authentic relationships with both clients and suppliers, it follows suit that I am not the strongest networker. So following the path of what someone else is doing, even if it might be working well for them, is not going to be authentic to me or effective. I had to get comfortable with who I am and how I want to establish myself as a designer - for instance, outlining certain values like paying suppliers a fair price and not compromising on this. It's only been since accepting that it's okay to do things a little differently and in my own way that I've been able to find my feet as a freelancer, produce my best work and be able to stand firm behind myself as a designer. 
Another thing was the financial aspect. After a few months [of establishing my company] I started working in a local cafe alongside my interior design work, which although isn't always easy [managing both] it gives me the financial stability I need while I'm still finding my feet and establishing a client base. I think pride can rear it's ugly head when you're a freelancer; wanting to say yes, I'm doing amazingly well, to put out a facade of being fantastically busy. But the reality for a lot of people is that it can be a struggle in the beginning. This is something that I felt was important to touch on, because looking back I had an unrealistic idea when I first started out about how smoothly one project would flow into the next. I've learnt that it doesn't make you any less valid as a designer, or freelancer of any kind, to have a 'side job'; but rather, in my case, was simply a way to make it work.
Lorna McCarthy | Freelance Wisdom
Lorna McCarthy | Freelance Wisdom

What is your favorite thing about freelance?

For me as a creative, it's without a doubt the freedom and control to do things your own way, and not to have to compromise on this. Something that is hugely important to me is supporting small businesses and craftspeople, and working for a company where someone else ultimately makes the decisions I wasn't able to do this. It's been so rewarding to choose each and every supplier I work with, to pay a fair price and to know that I am supporting someone's livelihood, not just imports from China. 
From a creative perspective, I need to be accountable and responsible for all design choices which again, in interior design isn't possible if you're working under someone else. Because I'm a total control freak (only in design might I add, nothing else!) I love that I'm able to have complete control over every decision. For me, it makes the whole design process from start to finish so much more enjoyable and rewarding, and ultimately better. I love to completely immerse myself in a project and find I'm able to do this working for myself in a way that I was never able to before. Being able to make the choice about who you're working for and what you're working on more than outweighs any of the negative aspects to freelancing I've experienced so far!

If you could design for anyone, who would it be?

To be honest I am incredibly lucky with the clients I have, but as I'm soon to be relocating to Falmouth [in Cornwall, UK] in spirit of that a dream project for me at the moment would be a Cornish boutique hotel or cafe! 

Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?

The work/life balance is something I try my best to create boundaries around. While design is a huge part of me, my entire identity isn't 'interior designer' and so I try to make sure I leave time for nurturing relationships and other interests outside of design. As I'm a bit of a magpie the sourcing side of me never switches off, but when it comes to everything else I do try to set boundaries and adhere to them. Although the odd late night is at times necessary, I try on the whole to keep my evenings after dinner work free as best I can. This keeps me sane and happy, both things I value!
Lorna McCarthy | Freelance Wisdom

What do you do to stay creatively inspired?

Always be on the look out for inspiration, whether it be a natural landscape, new supplier or rooting through a secondhand shop. I'm constantly open to being inspired, and I find living in that way enables me to draw on inspiration organically when it comes to putting together a design concept.

Freelance work can be isolating. Do you have any tips or tricks for combating these lonely feelings?

Isolation is something that I definitely struggled with, particularly in the beginning. As I had just moved to London when I first started my company, McCarthy & Co, I found it hard not being a part of a community. I think isolation can be a problem for freelancers, particularly if you're going through a challenging time. For me, it did gradually get better as I found my groove and became more confident and focused. As I am frequently liaising with suppliers and clients that usually helps to dispel any feelings of loneliness, but if isolation does start to creep in then I'll make the time to arrange to meet a friend mid week for a coffee and a catch up.

The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:

Passion, belief and determination. Not knowing when you're going to get in the next project isn't easy, so it's imperative that you have determination and believe in yourself and your abilities. To me as a designer, belief is something which is absolutely crucial. If I don't believe in myself, my ideas and my work, then how can I expect a client to? I’m Christian, so belief is integral to me, and this applies to my work as well. And passion speaks for itself!

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Sara Combs

Sara Combs is a designer based in San Francisco and Joshua Tree. She founded the jewelry company Gold & Citrus, designed for ShopStyle and PopSugar, and currently designs user interfaces for start-ups at Hexagon, a design studio she founded with her husband Rich. Some of her additional projects include #100daysofsfpatterns as part of the 100 Day Project, as well as renovating The Joshua Tree House, which is available to rent on Airbnb.

Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance designer & illustrator.

After graduating from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), I moved to San Francisco without even having set foot in California before (I had a hunch I’d like it. I was right!). I didn’t have a job lined up, and after applying my heart out to a ton of Industrial Design jobs (what I thought my career would be), I found that the recession was more interested in layoffs than it was new hires. With San Francisco being naturally tech focused, I was inspired to learn more about UI/UX design. My boyfriend at the time, and now husband was already working as a UI/UX designer and would pass freelance work on to me that he didn’t have time for. It was an incredible way to learn, and I quickly found that it wasn’t so different from Industrial Design. I was creating experiences, which is what I've loved all along.
After taking a full-time job and a few year break from freelancing, I started to feel a pull back toward that life. There were so many personal projects I had my heart set on, but found that a full-time job was leaving me completely fried. I was using all of my brain power for someone else’s company, and realized that ultimately I wanted to put all of that effort into something that was mine. My husband and I took the leap at the same time, leaving our full-time jobs to start our design studio, Hexagon.

In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?

Our previous full-time experience and connections with co-workers helped us so much in the beginning. We let everyone know what we were setting out to do, and asked that if they heard of anyone looking for design work to please send them our way. We made it a point in the very beginning not to spend our time chasing down clients, but rather putting our best work out there so that the right clients could find us when the time was right for them. We’re lucky enough to live in a time where clients can find us through our blogs, and social media etc.
Though, I would say about 98% of our clients are referrals from past work. Once you get started and do great work for a couple of clients, things start to gain momentum. Sharing projects that are curated to the style of your dream projects helps to further attract the type of clients you would love to work with.

Do you have any tips for being your most productive?

I find that a change of scenery keeps me feeling alive and refreshed. On any typical day I’m usually back and forth between my home studio and coffee shops around the city. Giving myself timeframes really helps me stay on track. Spending three hours at a coffee shop makes it especially apparent if I head back home without having accomplished anything.

What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?

Taxes… it took me a while to get this right. And honestly the only reason it’s right now is because my accountant takes care of everything. We have our studio set up as an LLC, and the LLC pays us as employees. Apparently this was too complicated for us to figure out on our own because even after sending out what we thought were all of our taxes on time, we started receiving letters that told us that wasn’t the case. We’ve realized we should use our time for what we’re best at (aka design), and delegate things like this to those who really know what they’re doing. 

What is your favorite thing about freelance?


The freedom of freelance life is truly addictive. Being able to work when I feel most productive, and take a walk when I’m not has me feeling more creative than ever. I also love that it’s not limiting. Sometimes I feel exhausted by spending days on end looking at my computer screen, so I’ll take a break to paint. Freelance life is whatever we want it to be.

How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?

Side projects! When I start feeling uninspired with my day to day work, I try to push myself to start a new side project. Last year I took part in #the100dayproject (a community project on Instagram guided by the idea of creating something, anything, each day to find your muse). The result was that I painted every single day, fell in love with creating patterns, and then started getting commissioned for pattern and illustration work. The connections I was able to make due to creating something out of true passion was incredible. I even found my pattern work start to lead to new UI/UX clients as well.  
Another goal of mine is to create more streams of passive income, so that I have more time and focus to attract my ideal clients. One thing my husband and I created together to do this was The Joshua Tree House - a creative retreat in the desert that we currently rent through Airbnb. Not only was it so much fun for us to create this space, we’ve now found it to take a significant amount of pressure off of our other work. We’re getting closer to the point of saying yes only to the projects that make our eyes light up.

"Another goal of mine is to create more streams of passive income... We're getting closer to the point of saying yes only to the projects that make our eyes light up."


Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?

For the first six months or so of freelancing, I found that I actually had no idea how much I was making. I was so used to the idea of a salary, and one day it occurred to me that I had no idea what my ‘new salary’ was. It was kind of a crazy realization. As luck would have it, a good friend was building a product called Cushion to solve that exact problem. You can add your clients, projects, and invoices, see when you’re overbooked, plan vacations, and get a visual of where you are financially compared to your goals and even stretch goals. I love seeing where we are, and it’s especially exciting when we can meet and even pass our goals.

Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?

A little bit of planning goes a long way. Vacations are still ok to take as freelancers, and we should make sure they happen. As our own bosses we just need to plan them in advance. We include a timeline with every contract for our clients, and we schedule the timelines to align with any days off or trips that we have planned. 
As far as day to day separation of work and life… I could definitely be doing a better job of this. But, I can recommend that you do the opposite of what I’ve been doing haha. So, that means no working on the couch, and if possible keeping work related projects to a desk or area that’s just meant for work. I too often find myself dragging my work out from when I wake up until just before I go to bed when I think it could be condensed in a more productive way. For a brief time, I had a studio which helped out so much!! I’d love to get back to having a separate studio space as soon as possible.

The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:

Motivation, Optimism, Passion.
Photograph by Anna-Alexia Basile taken for Lisa Says Gah

Photograph by Anna-Alexia Basile taken for Lisa Says Gah