Reinvent Yourself - Illustrator and Designer Dan Bramall

When Dan was made redundant two weeks before his second child was born, he knew failure wasn't an option. He had to make a success of being freelance.

Hear how he's made that happen -  the coworking studio, networking and adapting to a changing world - always learning new skills, reinventing.. and never with his shirt tucked in.

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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, track him down on Twitter @sfolland or lay a trail of cake and he'll eventually catch you up.

Check out Steve's Being Freelance Vlog that documents his weekly wanderings and wonderings as a freelancer.

Transcription of Being Freelance podcast interview
Dan Bramall and Steve Folland

Steve Folland: [00:00:00] Hey how are you doing? I'm Steve Folland and thanks for listening - this time let's find out what it's like being freelance for illustrator and designer Dan Bramall.

Dan Bramll: [00:00:09] I was made redundant the week before my second daughter was due to be born which was super scary. I was just thrown into it. It just had to happen. There wasn't a failure as an option.

Dan Bramll: [00:00:21] Now I've really broadened out. So just trying to adapt really - I think that's a really important thing for any freelancer to try to realise nothing's going to last forever. And you have to reinvent yourself all the time.

Steve Folland: [00:00:34] Yes, hello it's nice to be back. A new year if you're listening to this when it goes out - old year possibly if you're listening to this some way into the future. But yes this is technically the first guest of 2018, illustrator and designer Dan Bramhall.

Dan Bramll: [00:01:43] Hello there Steve. Nice to meet you.

Steve Folland: [00:01:46] Likewise. So how about we get started hearing about how you got started being freelance

Dan Bramll: [00:01:52] Well. Basically I've always always wanted to have a job where I didn't have to wear a shirt or tie and if I did have to where a shirt I didn't want to tuck it in.

Dan Bramll: [00:02:02] And I thought that that was a little limiting. So I thought that maybe working for myself would be the way forward. And it's been quite a journey for the last 20 years. Actually I graduated 20 years ago this summer 1998.

Steve Folland: [00:02:16] So was it straight out of university or whatever you were studying into being freelance was it?

Dan Bramll: [00:02:21] I had someone offer me a job for my first from my degree show. Which was very kind. And that was that was sort of taking on a sort of - they call it 'zero hours' contract now - as I was paid weekly. I worked for Littlewoods catalogue. Up in Liverpool which is very different to what I'm doing now but was a really great starting point. I can now see that it was a worthwhile thing to do.

Steve Folland: [00:02:47] How long did you do it for?

Dan Bramll: [00:02:49] Not for very long but it was probably a year and a half, something like that. And then I decided to sort of try and keep up with technology. It started to change around that time. So we're talking around the end of the 90s, 2000s sort of area. And so I trained in multimedia with the intention of learning animation and those sort of skills and trying to use my own artwork a bit more which I always wanted to do.

Steve Folland: [00:03:17] Did you take time out to study or were you studying alongside?

Dan Bramll: [00:03:20] Yeah. So I took time out to study. Some people would call it a dole-ies course but it was only a fairly short course, about eight or nine months I think.

Dan Bramll: [00:03:30] But from that I managed to get a proper job as an interactive designer and sort of went from there really.

Steve Folland: [00:03:37] Interesting because you know, I introduced you as 'illustration and design' - I didn't say an 'interactive designer' or anything like that did I? Given that we were only on the cusp of a new millennium. What on earth was the route next?

Dan Bramll: [00:03:51] Yeah well my first degree was 'Graphic Communication' I think it was called. So yes I've got a lot of experience as a graphic designer and doing very different things - interactive stuff and print and all sorts of stuff. And also you know the illustration then came later when I did an MA, probably 2004, around that sort of time.

Steve Folland: [00:04:12] So when did you actually find yourself being freelance?

Dan Bramll: [00:04:16] Well I've had a couple of spells of doing it. So after I finished my MA I was employed by a children's publisher. And that was a straightforward design job and did that for a couple of years and then decided to go for it and became freelance - it wasn't ideal really, I wasn't really set up - this is just like pre social media time.

Dan Bramll: [00:04:41] So I was abit isolated actually working at a desk at the bottom of my bed and it just just wasn't ideal but I liked it and so I did okay. I did enjoy it but it wasn't... It wasn't brilliant, so I didn't sustain it and then I went back into full time employment and then have subsequently come back into it again in the last five years I think.

Steve Folland: [00:05:02] So it really was the fact that you were working by yourself and you kind of missed the company was it that you went back?

Dan Bramll: [00:05:08] Yeah very much so.

Dan Bramll: [00:05:09] I've always been really sociable and I really like being a colleague and having colleagues - really, really do like office life. And I think it can be a really positive thing working in a team etc. But I've still got this really sort of selfish way about my work where I want to produce my own artwork and almost sort of be a bit of a loose cannon that way so it's always been a strange sort of contradiction I think. So yeah basically I have been made redundant in the past, I'm sure many many people have. But that as always worked out really well for me because even though it might seem scary at the time financially, it always leads to better things.

Steve Folland: [00:05:50] So was the most recent time - you were made redundant?

Dan Bramll: [00:05:52] It was actually. I was really desperate to go for it. I've basically felt I've had this sort of illustration... almost sort of the hat I wear, I say I almost wear two hats. So I've worked as a designer really ever since I left uni but I've been doing my own artwork and so it's very gradually started... Been building up commissions and doing stuff on the illustration front but could never sustain a full time living from it for a long time. And yeah, basically I was made redundant a week before my second daughter was due to be born which was super scary.

Steve Folland: [00:06:30] Jeez. So what did you do then? Had you had you been doing anything on the side? Had you been building up a web presence? So this was five years ago.

Steve Folland: [00:06:41] Yeah about five years ago - yeah I did. I had been working. I'd got quite a good portfolio of commissioned work but I sort of had, you know, I have always had a sort of full time job - I used to work in London. I've had about three 'proper jobs' I'd call them in London. I was always trying to find the energy and the time to do my own stuff which I really loved. I was lucky enough to get some good, really good commissions which really gave me a glimmer of hope that there was a proper career out there. [00:07:14] But yeah basically I was just thrown into it and it happened. It just had to happen. It wasn't, there wasn't... There wasn't a failure as an option. [8.6]

Steve Folland: [00:07:23] No it wasn't. But equally, you have two kids and probably house and things like this. You could have gone and gotten a job somehow.

Dan Bramll: [00:07:32] Yes indeed I could have done - I'm sure my wife would have really liked that. But yeah again, the pig headedness in me again came back into it. You know I genuinely felt that it was so close. You know the success of being able to sustain...

Steve Folland: [00:07:50] So how did you go about it? How did you build it?

Dan Bramll: [00:07:53] It's really strange you know - when I've listened to some of your other podcasts and you've had some great interviews and it's quite funny when you think about yourself in that way. You don't even.. you nnow when you write a CV... I don't know when you last wrote a CV was but I haven't for a few years and it's really strange when you assess your own career. It is very, very odd. So yeah, I mean I think it's just gradual.

Dan Bramll: [00:08:18] I think that the whole element of building up a personal network was so important to me. Never underestimate that. So you know I was lucky to be in the field so I worked in children's publishing for a long time and had lots of great friends and colleagues and other people I could approach and so I have managed to sustain that way and then you know it's trial and error. I've never had a master plan. I'm always beating myself up over being able to do things better and should be doing this and should be doing that. But... I somehow managed to do it.

Steve Folland: [00:08:56] So did you put the feelers out to your network as you say, like saying 'Hey I'm freelance now if you need that sort of thing?'

Dan Bramll: [00:09:02] Yeah I think... I think, I'm trying to remember five years ago, I think it was.. It really was that I managed to get out of the house - I was really worried because of the new baby and needing money and all that kind of stuff is all quite scary. So yeah, I put the feelers out locally. I think it must be on Twitter that I got to know a lovely lady who's an artist and got chatting with her and basically just asked her if I could just come and have a chat and we had a chat.

Dan Bramll: [00:09:30] We hit it off and she offered me some space in her studio which was absolutely brilliant - it was a really great start for me. So I was able to get out of the house and socialise a bit more and still be near enough to focus on family stuff but also yeah really sort of start feeling like I was properly professional and running my own business as it were.

Steve Folland: [00:09:51] Cool and are you still in that studio now?

Dan Bramll: [00:09:54] No I'm not in the same studio but am with some friends who all sort of have their own businesses and we have sort of a coworking type of set up yeah. So it's about four miles from my house and it feels like I'm actually coming to work which is quite good. You just got that sort.. you switch off from other things and focus on work which is really good and yeah, really interesting group of people. Everyone doing very, very different things. It's great.

Steve Folland: [00:10:24] Like a group of friends... What? You took it upon yourselves to all hire one space? How did that work?

Dan Bramll: [00:10:32] Yeah, that's pretty much it. Got working with a couple of mates and they said they had another couple of friends and it just happened at the right time really. So ended up with about, I think about 12 of us when we started out and yeah we got we've just got a space in a very boring business centre.

Dan Bramll: [00:10:50] But it's.. We've made it really fun.

Steve Folland: [00:10:53] You're selling it.

Dan Bramll: [00:10:53] No, we've made it fantastic, we've made it non-business. We actually call it 'Shit Google' which is quite funny because we used to have a table tennis.. no it was an air hockey table that didn't work. And we've got a bar that just has tea and coffee rather than booze. We just thought it was quite funny. So it got shortened to ShGoogle. And yeah that's where we work.

Steve Folland: [00:11:21] That was really nice. So the isolation that you felt being freelance first time out is gone.

Dan Bramll: [00:11:26] Absolutely, yeah definitely, yeah.

Steve Folland: [00:11:29] And so your clients therefore I guess could be anywhere if you've built this network of publishing people?

Dan Bramll: [00:11:36] Yes. Yes indeed. I do have a lot of clients in London so I"ve worked for lots of the major publishers in London but I've also got some other clients who are sort of more international. So obviously now there's lots of lots of ways that authors and publishers can bring out books. And so I've been.. I've been approached directly by authors who are self publishing and that's really really interesting - those who are sort of willing to invest properly in marketing and actually producing book covers properly that's great. And you know I've got.. there's two authors who I've worked with in the last few years who have really gone on to great success. [00:12:14] But I've moved away quite a lot from just doing publishing which is what I was doing but now really broadened out. So it's just trying to adapt really I think that's a really important thing for any freelancer to try to realise nothing's going to last the last forever and you have to reinvent yourself all the time. [18.9]

Steve Folland: [00:12:34] Well it sounds like you've been doing that right from the beginning in the amount of times you've gone back and studied and stuff and seen changes coming so you've deliberately diversified your income.

Dan Bramll: [00:12:43] Yeah I hope so.

Dan Bramll: [00:12:44] I mean it could sound like I'm a bit of a nutcase but I'm... [00:12:48] It's basically yeah I think the idea is to try and get enough skills that I can I can make a living and make this work through out any changes. [10.3] So obviously working in publishing I am very concerned about what was happening in the industry and what the political situation was. You know [00:13:07] you need to make sure you're not stranded somewhere so making sure that you do enough that you can sustain a living really. [7.3]

Steve Folland: [00:13:14] And how about local clients because you've obviously built this you know local community at ShGoogle. So do you work with local businesses?

Dan Bramll: [00:13:27] Yes, yes I have. I mean that's going back partly to what I said about having to adapt and I think I was working for just big London publishers. And only had a couple of clients or whatever a few clients but I've had to be much much more open minded to working with lots of different people. You know I've worked for one person companies like my own to huge companies.

Steve Folland: [00:13:53] How do you manage all your clients, especially when it's that's quite a range of organisational structures?

Dan Bramll: [00:14:04] Well manage.. I don't know. (laughs) [00:14:08] I just try to be as personable as possible [3.1] I think, you know, I don't I don't use the 'we' in my business when I speak to a client because I know some small companies do that and it is only one person but I just felt it's just you know I want to try and put across a real personal approach and a personal... erm.

Steve Folland: [00:14:32] Sort of personal relationship.

Dan Bramll: [00:14:33] That's the one, that's the one.

Steve Folland: [00:14:35] That's the thing actually because you trade as The Scribbler.

Dan Bramll: [00:14:41] Yeah that's correct yeah yeah.

Steve Folland: [00:14:43] The Scribbler illustration and design. Did you know when you went freelance five years ago, is that when The Scribbler came into existence or did you trade just as Dan Bramall for a bit... Like how did you decide to trade as a company?

Dan Bramll: [00:14:56] Right, yes so I've had the email address of The Scribbler - obviously 'Scribbler' is a card company, a high street card company so they've been going for a while, but I do think that I had the domain name possibly before they existed because... that was just me really and so just referring to myself I wanted something that was sort of catchy and descriptive but fun at the same time and memorable. But yeah, in terms of the actual sort of business side of things I was just a sole trader. Yes I just traded as myself, I think I might have had another name but I can't remember how it was registered but, yeah, basically I've set up as a limited company, so proper company about two years ago, two and a bit years ago.

Steve Folland: [00:15:43] So when did you start putting on everything 'The Scribbler' - given that you're still putting across that personal feeling.

Dan Bramll: [00:15:51] I can't actually remember but I think I had the Twitter handle, whatever it is you call it, before that.

Steve Folland: [00:15:59] But certainly it sounds like it grew really organically but you already had the url. And then of course you got the Twitter too and it was just like yeah what am I gonna call my company?

Dan Bramll: [00:16:12] Yeah I thinkn it was. I did have a funny argument with my accountant over that because I remember her suggesting certain things because it was really down to what was available elsewhere. And I started, you know, I think we just discussed quite a few different things. She thought I was just an autistic idiot. Yeah, but you know you can never, you can never make a quick decision as an artistic person. You've always got to beat yourself up and then worry whether you've made the right choice and then say 'change it please change it, no actually it's fine'.

Steve Folland: [00:16:44] What gave her that impression as she's filling in the form. "So, The Scribber at ShGoogle.."

Dan Bramll: [00:16:49] Oh no she she doesn't know that term, she didn't know anything about that.

Steve Folland: [00:16:56] And given that you had this... Like basically your job had been design but you loved doing your illustration. How did you start to bring your illustration to the forefront because if somebody after listening to this goes and looks at your website now -and there will be a link at - Your illustration really is at the forefront of it. So how did you start to sort of push that, I guess persuading people this is what you offer. This is kind of your style and what you do.

Dan Bramll: [00:17:28] I think that was a really slow process, really really slow. I've always created my own sort of self initiated work and created really creative work, really personal work. Even when I wasn't paid for it and that was quite a lot of the time. Some of the work that I've done as an employee as it were I've been really proud of and some less proud of. But I think I've just built up gradually. [00:17:57] So I've always worked as hard as I can to try and produce a body of work which I could then suddenly look at and go wow I'm a proper illustrator. And I used to be embarrassed to actually call myself an illustrator because I felt I was a bit of a fraud. Which is crazy really because you know it's all down to self belief. [18.7] I'm sure this is a recurring theme.

Dan Bramll: [00:18:18] But yeah basically it just happened almost one day when I was just trying to set up a website thinking 'actually you know I've got absolutely loads of stuff here. It's quite good. And some of it is worth showing off.'

Steve Folland: [00:18:31] I like that, you almost didn't believe it yourself.

Dan Bramll: [00:18:35] Absolutely.

Steve Folland: [00:18:37] You mentioned having kids. That was two. Is it still just two?

Dan Bramll: [00:18:41] Oh yes. Certainly only two. And there will not be any more if I have anything to do with it

Steve Folland: [00:18:47] How does work fit with family life?

Dan Bramll: [00:18:50] It's a challenge at times but it's a massive plus as well because there's lots of you know.. I live in the south of England now. There's lots of dads who work in London who barely see their kids - go out at 7:00 in the morning and come back at 7:00 or 8:00 at night. And you know I'm not like that. And I think certainly the early days it's really important to see them if you can. And they will take up every minute they can. But I just give them what I can really. My wife is also self-employed so she works around their school time and then I usually at the moment I sort of start work a bit later so I drop them off to school most days, I see them in the morning and it's a lot more pleasant than it used to be.

[00:19:31] And I occasionally get stressed but usually it's good fun and then.

Steve Folland: [00:19:37] What? Getting them out of the house you mean?

Dan Bramll: [00:19:40] Oh yeah oh the amount of times.. you should just have a little button that says 'put ya shoes on' or 'get your coat on'. It does teach you a lot about patience. Definitely. But it's, I think it's fantastic.

Dan Bramll: [00:19:56] I mean, my job allows me to go to assemblies and to school plays and stuff like that, that other parents can't do so it doesn't mean it's will last forever or will always be like that but I think it's certainly early days, it's really brilliant to be able to do that.

Steve Folland: [00:20:12] You mentioned commuting to your studio and things, dropping the kids off and then you go. What sort.. How long would you be there? Like, do you keep a routine?

Dan Bramll: [00:20:26] Yeah I think routine is good actually. On the whole I work around about sort of maybe about half nine I get to work and then I work till about 6ish, sometimes bit later so 6, 6:30 I'll try and get home about that time so I always get to see them before they go to bed if I can. And then it's just a question of sort of, if you haven't finish something off to do it in the evening or what ever you have to do. But that's just.. Everyone does that. I mean who makes these choices.

Steve Folland: [00:20:54] Yeah. So that's a full on day. How do you go in and know what you're going to work on?

Dan Bramll: [00:21:02] Well I write a lot of lists. I think they're as useful as they are harmful (laughs). They can drive you into a panic can't they?

[00:21:13] But yeah generally I try to set myself a task for the day either in the morning or the night before or Yeah sometimes when I leave I'll say this is what I've got to do tomorrow. But I guess it's an eternal issue isn't it whatever sector you work in - time management. It's always a challenge.

[00:21:33] But yeah I think having worked in proper jobs it were as opposed to colouring in for living I think it's a skill I've learnt over time.

Steve Folland: [00:21:43] And how about the sort of the finances side of it?

Dan Bramll: [00:21:47] Ah the finances.. Financial challenges and stuff like that. Well I've always realised this is a career that's not going to make me rich. So once I've got that sort of into my head and that was absolutely fine - I'm just trying to make it sustainable that's the next thing. You know, the next thing is to make sure you can get a mortgage and pay the bills and occasionally go on holiday, look after your kids and all that sort of stuff and it's a lot more challenging than it was when I first started. It's much tougher and this is definitely the hardest part of the career and there's still self-doubt comes in working month to month. I'm trying to build up money in my business as a bit of a buffer because obviously people say in any book you read 'you must have three months money to sustain yourself'... Of course that's all well and good. In an ideal world. But the bills don't stop. So yeah. I find it really hard. It's tough.

[00:22:41] I mean some jobs you have even when you're working full time you can have struggles you know getting paid or people releasing money or you know finishing a job and then invoicing and there's always things that come up. It's definitely the hardest part. But I think it's starting to move in the right direction for me. But it's taken a very long time. Very long time.

Steve Folland: [00:23:03] And you touched upon having different streams of income. Because you've got your shop as well. And I think I've seen pictures of you out and about like physically selling it not just online. Is that important to you as well?

Dan Bramll: [00:23:17] Yeah definitely and that really has helped in a lot of ways. So basically I think I started doing it... I mean I see a lot of illustrators and artists you see have etsy shops and get out and about and there's loads of these art markets and craft markets up and down the country. But it is something that started with me I think probably during a lean time I think I didn't have any commissions or any work on at the time that I thought you know.. if people aren't going to come to me, I've got to take the work out there and they've got to see it. And even if I don't sell anything they might see something and I might get something back from it at some point. Probably about four years ago when it started. It started very small and I started doing Christmas markets, again it's like something I originally would have been out of my comfort zone to put myself out there: 'This is me, this is what I do' and all the rejection that comes with that. But you know I found it so rewarding and it's genuinely the best thing in the world when someone selects your work for their own house - you know I was thinking about this earlier about what the best side of my job is and it's right up there really - you know along with it sounds really a bit glib to say, you know of someone giving you a big chunky commission from a big company to me is just as good as when an individual comes in and chooses a picture you've done for their house or for a present for their family member. That's so so special - really just feels great and I still get buzz from that.

Steve Folland: [00:24:49] Yeah there's some great stuff - go take a look. of course we'll put a link to Dan's website and you can track him down on social

Steve Folland: [00:30:55] If you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance what would that be?

Dan Bramll: [00:30:58] Right. OK. Younger Self. I was told when I was just finishing uni actually that to sustain a career as an illustrator, designer, creative anything that you have to have the skin of a rhino. And I would I would still say that was a very very wise thing to say. You have to take the knocks, you have to be very confident in your own abilities and just persevere, persevere, persevere. Get on with it. "Don't put things off until tomorrow" as well, that's a good one.

Steve Folland: [00:31:29] Yeah, have there been times in this last five years of being freelance where you have thought 'I can't do this and going to get a proper job'.

Dan Bramll: [00:31:41] Oh yeah. Many times and not that long ago either. But [00:31:44] I absolutely love my job. I think that's what makes it so frustrating is when when it's going well it's so brilliant. It really is the best job there is and yeah it's just taking those frustrations and putting them in a box and telling them to go away. [15.7]

Steve Folland: [00:32:00] Do you have... like, there you are telling you yourself and your own frustrations to go away. Do you have, not a mentor, but now you work with your mates but is that a scenario where you know you talk to each other about business type stuff or is it just whose go it is on the broken air hockey?

Dan Bramll: [00:32:22] No no we definitely do and that's what.. it does work because I know a lot of people now that I can ask for advice for various things. I think especially people who don't work in the same field as well - that be really useful because you still have the same frustrations, if you're running your own business you still have the same problems: what do if someone's not paying on time, how to ask for this that or the other or.. so many different things that occur it doesn't matter what area you work in - that's really great.

Dan Bramll: [00:32:53] And the other thing is we have some really good networking groups here. So the sort of formal ones just generally don't work for me. Because I turn up without my shirt tucked in and people take one look at me and think 'he's not going to be any good for me selling financial products to' - or something like that but we've got some great ones. Some friends set up a fantastic group called The Creative Meat and that's absolutely brilliant. Loads and loads and loads of people from all different areas actually meeting up in real life which is slightly unusual in this day and age.

Steve Folland: [00:33:29] That's great. All good. Listen, thank you so much Dan and all the best being freelance!

Dan Bramll: [00:33:52] Thank you so much for having me on - really appreciate it.