Know the ropes - Graphic Designer Chad Michael
Chad's a firm believer that his time working in agencies, has made him a better freelancer.
He got to know the ropes - the techniques, the business, the rates, the people... and most importantly his niche of premium packaging design.
We chat about the importance of Instagram, awards, collaboration, work-life balance and client relationships.
But it's interesting, he isn't one of those freelance guests who puts much 'personal' into their brand - he may know the ropes, but do we know him?
More from Chad Michael
Who the hell is Steve Folland?
Steve's a freelancer helping businesses use and make video & audio content in much better ways. Find out more at stevefolland.com, track him down on Twitter/Instagram @sfolland or lay a trail of cake and he'll eventually catch you up.
In 2015 he decided to create the freelance podcast (well, there weren't any others doing this then) where freelancers could learn from each other via their stories.
Check out Steve's Being Freelance Vlog that documents his weekly wanderings and wonderings as a freelancer.
Being Freelance podcast interview with Chad Michael - Transcript
Steve Folland: Graphic Designer, Chad Michael in Texas. Hey, Chad.
Chad Michael: Hey, how you doing?
Steve Folland: I'm good, I'm good. I'm really looking forward to this. Let's get started hearing how you got started Being Freelance.
Chad Michael: Yeah, so rather than going way back to when I was a kid or anything like that, I was fresh out of college, I took some jobs in New York area, worked at several agencies there. Long story short, I just kind of got sick of working for other people. I think that's how most freelancers end up being freelance, is they're tired of working for other people. That's essentially it.
Chad Michael: I had a couple clients before I jumped ship, just to have a safety net, started my own little studio in a little 500 square foot apartment out in New York, and that's kind of where it began. Then things just have been spiraling upwards or downwards, I guess, for the past four or five years.
Steve Folland: That's awesome. So when you were at the agency, were you gaining a reputation? When you eventually went freelance, did people know who you were? Had you made contacts then?
Chad Michael: I think it was about maybe two or three months before I decided, "Hey, I'm in it, I'm committed, I'm going to leave," that I started to put my name out there. It wasn't before then that anyone knew who I was or had never seen any of my work, really. I mean, I think I had a dribble page, but I really didn't put a lot of stuff on it, and the stuff I was working on in agencies, if I did put anything up they're like, "Hey, take that down, you can't just show shit."
Chad Michael: So about three months prior to me jumping ship, I started really getting on Behance, and kind of creating hypothetical works in my off time, which is where Promineo Whiskey, it's one of the first projects I had done when I launched a studio, is actually still on my site. That's where that was born. That's what's kind of got my name out there, was doing stuff like that. People started to take notice, which was nice.
Steve Folland: So you were creating your own portfolio stuff in your own time. So a whiskey firm then saw it and went, "Yeah, we'd like that sort of packaging," right? How did they come across it? How did that ...
Chad Michael: Okay, so to go back a little bit, I had worked at an agency that was specifically geared towards creating liquor and alcohol packages on, so when I did decide to leave, I didn't have any clients from them really, because I didn't steal any clients, but I had knowledge about the industry, so I kind of knew where to put the final design and in whose hands, and passing out business cards to certain people, and meeting with certain people in New York that were in the industry. I think that's kind of how ... word of mouth more than anything.
Chad Michael: Also, a lot of these alcohol, these liquor companies, the distillery startups, they look at these packages on websites, and that's where a lot of my work was being featured was packages on base websites.
Steve Folland: As you decided to go freelance, you'd had enough of working for other people, I guess the temptation could be, "I could design anything," but it sounds like you thought, "No, actually, this is what I've been doing. I'm going to niche on this straight away."
Chad Michael: Yeah, I think I saw an opportunity. I don't drink that heavily, but there's something about liquor design specifically that lets you create super unique brand stories, and the way you execute them, and just the final product, you just get a certain level of premiumness, and a certain level of luxury that you don't get with other industries, other products. I mean, maybe with makeup design, or cologne, or perfume, you might get some of that, but you don't get to take it to the level that liquor does, where it's just you can blow it out as much as you want.
Chad Michael: I think that's really why I fell in love with it. I mean, stuff like that resonates with me, like the liquor industry. I started doing stuff for cigar brands, cannabis. Anything that you can be addicted to, I'm interested in designing it, I think.
Steve Folland: Your Instagram grid - it's just wonderful. Is that all your work, or do you like to also put up stuff that you like?
Chad Michael: It's all my work.
Steve Folland: Brilliant. So it's like a living portfolio.
Chad Michael: Yeah, exactly. I would say Instagram is how I get I think most of my work. It's amazing. That platform has done wonders for me. I don't know really what I'd do without Instagram. It's crazy. All the work on there is snippets of stuff I'm doing, I have done, projects that have come out.
Steve Folland: Do you use Instagram to show behind the scenes, or workings, or is it all finished product?
Chad Michael: No, I think that's a rarity for me. That's where I kind of diverge paths when it comes to what regular designers do, other designers, is they show a lot of progress, I think. I think people want to see that, I just don't have an urge to share any of that, for some reason.
Chad Michael: I have over the past 10 years of doing this kind of developed certain methods and certain ways of working that it took me 10 years to figure out, so I don't want to willingly spill the beans, you know what I mean? It took me a while to figure out how to take a project from beginning to end and pack as much as I pack into it in maybe a month or two months.
Steve Folland: Yeah, so you're not on for example stories, showing who Chad Michael is. You just let the work speak for itself.
Chad Michael: Exactly. I don't even share a lot of my personal information either, like on Instagram. I don't know why either. I feel like people are just not interested in general, so they don't want to see photos of what I eat, or my dog. They just want to see what I love doing, and that's the package design or the branding.
Steve Folland: If people go to your website, they'll see Chad Michael Studio. Is that how you began?
Chad Michael: Okay, so yes, the answer is yes. I've always gone by my name. It's not my full name, it's actually my first and middle name, which I don't think a lot of people know. I go by that, because they're the least generic out of the three, and they're still fairly generic names.
Chad Michael: I went for Chad Michael because when I started, I was like, "Uh, I want to make a name for myself. I want people to know who I am for my work." That's why it is the name, and I didn't name it some peculiar name. Although if I were to go back in time, I would probably either change my name to something much more ... I don't know, weird or esoteric, mysterious, whatever it may be, or go by a weird agency name that makes me seem much bigger than one person.
Steve Folland: Interesting. Part of you thinks actually you wish you did portray yourself as not yourself and a bigger thing?
Chad Michael: Yeah, I think so. Part of it too is because from a branding aspect as well, if the name was a lot cooler, and it was one word, it would be more fun to work with. It's one of those things where if it were like ... I don't know what it would be, like Blackbox Design, or Treehouse Design, whatever it may be, there would have been more opportunity for me to do ... I guess unusual logo types, and things of that nature.
Chad Michael: It was more of a chance I think for people to remember more easily the name. Chad Michael's always been so generic in my mind. I've always actually not even liked my first name. It's just a bunch of things, man.
Steve Folland: It sounds like the wish of having called yourself something different actually comes from a creative point of view, as in, "I could have more fun with a different name," rather than maybe something you've come up against where you wish people thought they were dealing with a bigger company. How does it work?
Chad Michael: Yeah, it's like a 60/40 maybe. I think you get more serious clients, like large, large companies, but I think people take you a bit more seriously if they think that you're an agency of 10 or 20 people, in terms of the type of work you get, like big, large brands, and what they think you could handle.
Steve Folland: Yeah, and I think possibly that's because of the niche that you have, because actually, you're always likely to be dealing with I guess big companies with big marketing departments, or ...
Chad Michael: Yeah, I mean, for the most part, actually, I deal with smaller companies, because I prefer the projects I do take on, because I am a small studio, I can only take on like 20 to 25 projects a year. All those projects for the most part have to have a really fresh groundwork to where there isn't a lot done on them. Oftentimes they're from scratch, but when you work with large companies, the most often you have to work with a bunch of assets that are already established by other designers, and so it's a bit less creatively free in some respects when you work with bigger companies.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Does anybody you ever speak to think they're dealing with multiple people agency?
Chad Michael: Yeah. I think so. I think it works on a certain level. There have been a few emails where it's been like, "We look forward to speaking to you all," and things like that, which is fine. I mean, I'm fine with it either way. It's a combination of a lot of different things, the whole naming yourself the studio.
Steve Folland: Yeah. What I like is that it suggests that Chad Michael is this genius designer, but he's a studio, so he obviously has to ... his work is so advanced that he has to have all these other people working under him, a bit like Stella McCartney might. Speaking of which, do you work with anybody else? Do you hire anybody else at all to do anything?
Chad Michael: I would say for the most part no, but there are a handful of projects that I have, or I definitely will. There are certain illustration styles I come across that are outside of my skillset, so if you look at my site and you check out Wormwood Gin, that floral illustration was re-illustrated by Irene [Lashey 00:09:47], and she lives in Italy. So I work with people all over, it just depends on the project, but for the most part, I try to keep it all in the studio.
Steve Folland: In that instance, was that you who went and found her, like you had an idea of how you wanted it to look?
Chad Michael: Yeah, so how the process kind of works when it comes to something like that, is I'll create a design, a concept. I'll mock together pieces of the illustration, because you have to get the structure of the label, and how everything lays out, and the style selection.
Chad Michael: For that project in particular, I pulled a bunch of references from botanical prints, and I comprise them together, and I sought out Irene. I said, "Hey, I got this mock up, I need you to redraw it." She takes the mock up, which gives her a solid foundation to work from, and then she redraws it and puts her own creative spin on it, and puts her talents into it. It just brings the project to a whole nother level.
Steve Folland: Yeah. What's that experience like, that collaboration? Because presumably you're normally working on your own.
Chad Michael: Yeah, I mean, I don't think I've ever had a problem where I've ran into any hiccups to where I'm like, "Oh, I don't like working with this person. She or he can't finish the project." It usually goes pretty smoothly. Just a couple rounds of revisions here.
Chad Michael: The thing about I think that helps a lot is the mock ups that I provide on my end, the piecing together, whether it be a woodcut style illustration, whatever the type of illustration is, piecing that together in Photoshop in a way that feels so solid that when I pass that off, they don't really have a lot of questions. I don't have to develop this big 20 page brief that, "Oh, this should look like this bug," and a hundred million references. It's like it's there, you just have to redraw it and make it look much better. So sounds good.
Steve Folland: Yeah, yeah. So normally you work by yourself. Is that from home? How's that? Where do you work?
Chad Michael: Yeah, I do, I do. What we do, is we bought a house. We renovated the back two rooms into office space, so I work from home. It was a lonely experience at first, but now I've grown accustomed to it.
Steve Folland: Yeah, especially coming out of presumably quite a busy agency.
Chad Michael: Yeah, yeah. When you have to turn out stuff and there's not really any breaks. When you work for yourself, it's all about self-determination or whatever it may be, but just limiting those breaks, and making sure you're actually getting the work done that you're supposed to be doing. Freelance is not for everybody. I mean, I know people who have tried it and been like, "Ah no, I need someone there to tell me when stuff is due." You've got to be self-motivated in that respect, I guess.
Steve Folland: And from a social point of view as well?
Chad Michael: For the first six months, I think, there's a weird period where that you're acclimating to this isolated environment. It took me about six months to get over it, and then I was like, "Ah, I'm fine. I can go through the whole day. I don't need to talk to anybody, I don't need to have any conversation. I'm fine." And so that's how I am now, but it was a weird period for a little while.
Steve Folland: Do you keep to ... I don't know, some kind of structure to your day, given that your work is right next to where you live?
Chad Michael: My day is very routine. I think routine is a ... I mean, it can get dry after a while, and you need to break it up, but a routine is 100% necessary in workflow, in getting your stuff done. I'm usually in the office. I wake up at 7:00 in the morning. I'm usually after going for a morning run, or eating breakfast, or whatever it may be, I'm usually in the office around 8:30 or 9:00. From 9:00 to 10:30 I answer emails. There's always a bunch of odds and ends.
Chad Michael: I have a lot of different clients over the past couple years, and so they'll reach out every once in a while and say, "Hey, I need this file, this kind of tweaked," or, "Oh, we need a quick banner for this thing," and so I have to knock out a bunch of tiny things. Then I can get into fun design, new projects, new branding around noon. So I usually work from like noon to 6:00, which is like six hours.
Steve Folland: Cool. How did you find that you knew you could do it creatively after being in the agency? How about the business side of it?
Chad Michael: Oh man, I'm still learning that part. The business side of it, when it comes to talking to people, selling a job, I felt like I've always been pretty good at that. I can convey, and describe, and I think I can get people motivated and behind ideas fairly easily. I think it comes with my personality a bit, I guess, but when it comes to the financial side, like oh, taxes, and government stuff, and accounting, that's the stuff I'm still grasping. I like to draw pretty pictures, I don't like to do any math.
Steve Folland: When you sit there and think about it, are you glad that you had that time working in the agency, or do you wish that you'd been freelance sooner?
Chad Michael: Oh no, I wouldn't trade the agency experience for anything. I would say it's necessary for anyone who wants to do their own thing. You got to go in there, and wiggle around, and know the ropes in real world situations before jumping out and trying to do your own thing.
Chad Michael: I mean, I learned a lot in agency not only in terms of expanding my skillset, but working with other people, for example, other illustrators, talking to clients, selling proposals, all that kind of stuff. I got confident in my ways by being in those agency roles, so I wouldn't trade it. I timed out at a good time. I wouldn't have wanted to extend it any more, but I wouldn't have lessened it.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Just going back to the whole pretty routine, finishing at 6:00 p.m., does that mean then that the evening is clear, are the weekends clear?
Chad Michael: Yeah. I mean, well no and yes. When I first started, for the first couple years, I worked nonstop. I'd wake up, I'd be in the office at 8:30 or 9:00, I'd clock out like 10:00 a.m. ... sorry, 10:00 p.m., 11:00 p.m. Sometimes I'd work through until 2:00 in the morning. Now I've learned to balance life and work, and so I clock out at a reasonable time. That gives me time to hang out with the Mrs., and house stuff, and whatever it may be. It was a balance I had to figure out for a while.
Steve Folland: Yeah, how did you go about figuring that out, and was part of that the workload?
Chad Michael: Yeah, I think it's just figuring out ... you take a while to figure out what you're capable of, and what you are capable of managing successfully. I feel like I've gotten to the point where I work ... after all the little tiny design requests from clients, about six or seven hours of focused design work during the day is all I need to be consistent, and kind of keep up with everything. There's that occasional long night, but you got to learn to balance it. Go live, and explore, and smell a flower or whatever.
Steve Folland: Yeah, so do you get to take breaks?
Chad Michael: Yeah. I mean, I travel a lot more than I used to. We kind of make it a point to travel and go visit the world as much as we can, and kind of see outside of Texas, outside of the U.S. We definitely make it a point. I think it's healthy. I mean, it's not only that, it's good for design. Going to different places throughout the world really expands your tool set when it comes to conceptual thinking, and approaching certain ideas.
Chad Michael: I deal with clients and products that are set all over the world, whether it be in Italy, or the Philippines, or Malta, Żabbar, or Canada. Knowing those areas and trying to make it there and experience that, just helps whatever you're working on.
Steve Folland: That's a good point note. Another thing that jumps out at me from your website as well is where you have a category called Recognition. Is that something that you have gone after, or is more a result of ... is it your clients who submit these things to win awards?
Chad Michael: It's a combination of the two things. It's definitely a mixture of the two. I think one is I do submit things on my own. When something wins, it usually gets printed in something, and people see it. That's free advertising. I mean, people see that kind of stuff, especially when it's a spirit driven competition. So liquor industries, they have design competitions only for liquor, so if you win some of those competitions, people are looking, "Hey, what studio, what design agency won that? I'm going to contact them for my thing."
Chad Michael: Then the other part is clients do submit the design after the fact, so that's always a good thing. All in all, it's like when potential people visit the site and they see the recognition on there, I think it makes them want to reach out more, and they get more excited about it. I just personally, there's something about winning those things, it's just so ... I can't describe it. It's such a good feeling. It's so amazing to think that people actually enjoy the stuff that I'm doing. It makes me want to create more stuff.
Steve Folland: Yeah, yeah, yeah, so it's not just the free advertising, as it were, but actually it drives you creatively.
Chad Michael: Yeah. I think it does. I would say the thing that drives me the most is when something comes off press, and I hold it in my hands. That always gets me so excited. I'm like, "Ah, I got to get back to the computer and create more shit. Let's keep on making tangible projects."
Steve Folland: Ah, that's great. It's so obvious how much you love it. How about the whole pricing of this sort of thing? Did you have a feel from that from the agency, or was that sort of side shielded from you?
Chad Michael: Yeah, I did actually. Well, I snuck a peak. I don't think it was things I was ... I wasn't not supposed to see them, but they weren't for my eyes. It's a good to know what your competitor's numbers are, that way you're pricing yourself appropriately. You're not under valuing your services. My prices really range, and it depends on ... sometimes it depends on the enthusiasm I have for a potential project.
Chad Michael: If I'm super excited about something and they have a low amount of money, I'll most likely take it on. I get a lot of emails saying, "Hey, what's ballpark pricing? What's your pricing structure?" I still don't have a set one, I don't think. It really depends.
Steve Folland: If somebody says that to you, like what do you say?
Chad Michael: Well, I always like to jump on a phone and talk with people in person, because there's a lot of things that aren't said in an email that you can only say over the phone. I know that sounds weird, it's just tiny little details to me. To answer your question, I give a general ballpark. I say, "Single project package designs range from like 9k to 15k U.S. I give that like a starting point, because I don't want people reaching out to you and wanting to do $250 logos, or whatever. You won't be able to live.
Chad Michael: You want clients that have some kind of budget, for the most part. To go against that, when people get on the phone with me and they say, "Oh ..." I have a conversation with them, and we connect on a certain level, and their project sounds amazing, and they say they only have like four grand or something to work with, sometimes I'll take it on. It's a gauge of not only what the project entails, but also the person, also the client. It's a lot about the client connection, I think.
Steve Folland: Yeah, that is good. That does mean a lot to you. How do you go about keeping those relationships alive after a project?
Chad Michael: I mean, for the most part they just keep emailing me asking for shit.
Steve Folland: That's handy.
Chad Michael: Yeah, we just keep a nice banter. They refer me sometimes to other people, or they have new products that come out. I think I've only had one experience to where it was a complete client fallout, and I never heard from that person again, and that's bound to happen to one out of every whatever, but it happens.
Steve Folland: Now, if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
Chad Michael: I would say definitely ... I think a lot of designers agree with me on this part, and probably I've said this, but to do the agency life, and to work and probably do it for four or five years before going freelance. I know a lot of people that tried the freelance thing, as I mentioned earlier, and immediately out of college, and I don't think any of them made it to continue on doing the freelance thing. I think they gave up on it.
Chad Michael: I think a lot of it is that the education that's learned during a real world experience. That's what I would say not to myself, I guess, but to other people who are considering doing freelance. To myself, I would say, "Hire an accountant and a tax consultant at the very beginning, and don't try to do them yourself," because it's only like a couple hundred bucks a year to hire one, someone over in the States to do your taxes, and it saves you a lot of time and headache.
Steve Folland: Yeah, wise words. Excellent. Listen, Chad, thank you so much. Do you know, it's so funny. You know how we touched upon it at the beginning about how you don't really share much of your personality within the stuff that you put out there in the world?
Chad Michael: Yeah.
Steve Folland: Do you know, like on Instagram, or even on your website, and yet you say how your personality gels with clients, and stuff like that. It's in a world where so many people put themselves out there all the time, and personal branding and all of that, you're like this little enigma that I've found of-
Chad Michael: I'm a mystery. I'm mysterious.
Steve Folland: Yeah. I will never know what your dog looks like, or even if you have one. Yeah, no, anyway. Listen, go to beingfreelance.com. There will be links for you so you can see Chad's website that we were talking about, and find him on Instagram as well. Actually, there's something I meant to ask though. You've obviously got this significant following, you said a lot of work comes from there. Have you consciously gone about building that? At some point you signed up, and you had zero followers.
Chad Michael: I did. I mean, I don't even post. I think last year I posted like 40 times. I think it's just a matter of the content of the posting. I am conscious of I think I know what people are receptive to, and what will get a lot of love, and then in turn you'll get a lot of followers, and then you get a lot of word-of-mouth, and then that brings in the clients. I like to shoot the final product in the best lighting as possible, like in the most beautiful way I can.
Chad Michael: I think that not only does a lot of justice to how the actual physical piece looks in real life, but people respond to the beautiful photography, and I think it really resonates with them. I think the other thing I do is I post a lot of logos, or I do a big crop of a really detailed area, so people respond to lots of logos, and a lot of detail.
Steve Folland: Do you take all the photo images yourself?
Chad Michael: Yeah, I would say 90% of it, if you were to accumulate all the postings I've done, 90% of it is stuff that I've taken, or stuff I've taken with a photographer that I work with who we photograph the bottles together here at a studio in downtown. Then the other percentage is I'll repost from brands that I've done that are out in the marketplace, or maybe they're doing something cool, or they photograph something in a really unusual way. I would say that's like 10%.
Steve Folland: That's interesting though. We all know that it's possible to take a packaged design and use templates in Photoshop to make it look like it's on a T-shirt or on anything, but you're not doing that. Yeah, that's quite telling.
Chad Michael: I can always tell when something's a CGI image or a mock up, and when you shoot something, especially when it's a package design for liquor, you're looking at the paper stocks, and the varnishing, and the foiling, and the embossing. It's all those little things on a micro-level that you can only get with a camera, like with an actual camera. Some things just can't be faked. It's just even CGI looks fake to me, like movie stuff, you know?
Steve Folland: That's cool, yeah. Check out Chad's Instagram and you'll see what we're talking about. Listen, I've taken up enough of your time.
Steve Folland: Thank you so much, been a real pleasure. All the best Being Freelance.
Chad Michael: All right. Thanks, Steve, I appreciate it.