Nous sommes forts ensemble - Designer Jonathan Da Costa
Are we stronger together?
Paris based freelance designer and art director Jonathan Da Costa thinks so. By collaborating with other freelancers he's managed to take on bigger projects - to grow his business whilst taking time out for his family.
We chat about the benefits of splitting work space from home, of working in agencies before going freelance and of remembering that every interaction has your name on it - you never know where that could lead, so don't be an idiot (well, he puts it better than that, but you'll have to listen).
More from Jonathan Da Costa
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 @sfollandor lay a trail of cake and he'll eventually catch you up.
In 2015 is decided to create thefreelance 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 Vlogthat documents his weekly wanderings and wonderings as a freelancer.
Transcript of Being Freelance podcast interview - Jonathan Da Costa and Steve Folland
Steve Folland: Salut!
Jonathan Da Costa: Bonjour.
Steve Folland: Thanks so much for doing this. Now, as ever, we always get started hearing how you got started Being Freelance. So yeah, tell us your story, how you ended up what you're doing.
Jonathan Da Costa: I started as a I remember, I was being really interested in working on my own. My path was pretty standard.
Jonathan Da Costa: I started in the digital industry almost 12 years ago, which feels like an eternity when I'm saying it. And maybe after three, four years, I quit my job at a pretty big agency here in Paris and started working on my own. At the time, boundaries between development and design were quite blurry compared to today, so what I was doing mostly was balancing my time between design and development. I was a not bad flash developer, at the time Flash was pretty huge stuff, so yeah. I started from there. Then I went back to agencies, maybe two years after that, but only to quit again, my job, because this was a pretty good reminder about how I didn't fit very well in the agency world, and this is where I am now.
Jonathan Da Costa: I've been working as a freelance designer and art director for maybe four years straight now. Here in Paris, mostly have had the chance to work with different clients around the world, in London, and the United States and in Asia. Most of my work is design rated, also art direction, photography, content production, video, and stuff. I don't do development, myself, anymore. Mostly because it's really much more specialized compared to when I started.
Jonathan Da Costa: I have pretty 50-50% balance between collaborating with agencies that I've been working for a few years or working on my own projects with clients. Could be websites, apps, mostly digital related but also branding, like I said, photography and everything that could be integrated around digital interface.
Steve Folland: That's cool. So, you were at an agency, you went freelance, and then you went back into agency. And then you left again. What was it in particular that you felt that you were getting from freelance that you didn't get from being at an agency?
Jonathan Da Costa: I think, of course, autonomy and the process is very different. I really struggled with let's say, funeral process of an agency. Meaning when I started, like I said, I was an in between a creative developer, designer so it started to be more and more technical for me because I had development skills, so people tend to think that I was a developer and I couldn't do design anymore. so that was the first reason I went out of the agency. To be able to design again. Because at the agency, people almost forgot I could design.
Jonathan Da Costa: After that, when I went back to agencies, I was going to design position. So, slowly evolving from general roles to more senior ones and also creative direction and leading teams. But depending on your position, your range of task is pretty limited. What I like today, on my daily work, is being able to switch from a photo shoot in the morning to doing interface work, more UX stuff.
Jonathan Da Costa: I really like having hands on and all the positions I got in agencies were pretty closed in terms of, if you're an art director, you'll be doing mostly bitch work, design stuff for clients at the very beginning of the projects but many, many times you don't see your project anymore once it's won, because it's designed by another team or someone else in the studio. Or even worse, sometimes, I was designing an entire website for weeks or months, and once the design tasks were finished, the work was transmitted to the development team and I received a notification by email saying, "Hey, your website you've been designing like three months ago is now live." Without any kind of feedback and stuff.
Jonathan Da Costa: So, the fact that this very separated process and not being able to be involved in different tasks along the project really frustrated me. So, I always thought freelancing could allow me to find other ways to be working along all these different elements. And also, being able to be more in touch with the final client, which is something when you work in a traditional advertising agency, at least here in Paris, you don't tend to do much. Of course, you have a few clients meetings but there is so much different people involved that you're only piece of the puzzle. And some way, yeah, I'm for all the variety of stuff you can do, compared to an agency, is really, really different.
Jonathan Da Costa: So, the main reason is that. Being able to work on really different stuff.
Steve Folland: Did working in an agency though, especially you went back in, you came back out ... Did it help you work on bigger clients which then helped you as freelancer? If you were to imagine perhaps yourself always having been a freelancer, do you think you kind of stepped up?
Jonathan Da Costa: Yeah, definitely. 100% sure. Because you wouldn't get that kind of clients on your own without any contact. Even today, in my daily work, today with my freelance career, the work I did in the agencies helps me on a daily basis. All the contacts I got, all the people I've been working with are potential contacts for my work today. So, I'm still working with many of the agencies. I've been working on a contract base. And yeah, this kind of projects are difficult to access when you're starting on ... You need to have some references to be able to pretend to higher kind of projects. So, yeah, it's a pretty natural process. But without having this agency experience, I probably wouldn't have the same type of clients I have today.
Steve Folland: Is that where most of your clients have come from? When you set out being freelance, was it through the contacts you'd already made?
Jonathan Da Costa: Yeah. The most part of my work today come from word of mouth which means basically people I've been working on, could be project managers, designers, whatever ... People I've been in touch some way, along my career, that can recommend me to their agency or their team or any contacts they have. Or clients that recommend my work to friends or their professional contacts. Which means, yeah, mostly from agencies but also from clients interacting with other prospects coming from other industries. I'll say 50/50 between agency contacts and dark client that comes from previous references or previous projects I did.
Steve Folland: How about now? Do you work from home?
Jonathan Da Costa: No. One of the things I did between the first time I went to freelance to the second time is having a studio rented nearby, so that really separates my work from my home which helps me having a sane, independence work around.
Jonathan Da Costa: When I started I used to work from home and I would say, I wasn't really keen on that because I'm not really productive from home which is kind of ironic because people tend to think that's one of the freelance fantasies, you can work from home, you can just work from anywhere.
Jonathan Da Costa: I work from my studio. It's been the same for four years in a very organized way. Like I would do in any agency.
Steve Folland: Is it just you or is it a coworking post base?
Jonathan Da Costa: I share my studio with a developer, Mason, who works with me on different projects. We share the entire space with another agency who does mostly production and development stuff.
Steve Folland: Oh, nice. So there's a social side to it as well?
Jonathan Da Costa: Yeah, definitely.
Steve Folland: And that developer that you mentioned, does he always work with you? Or are you both independent, it just happens that you can collaborate?
Jonathan Da Costa: It really happens ... We don't have a specific process. Depending on the work we got, we can work together or our own projects. It really depends on the project, the schedule, et cetera. You really specialize in a specific kind of work which is 3D which means depending on the scope of your project we work, or we don't work together.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Obviously, you're based in Paris, so I'm imagining when I speak to people based in London, for example, or New York, they often tend to have quite a community around them. Is that the same for you in Paris?
Jonathan Da Costa: I'm not the most social person in terms of professional relationships. There is a huge community here. We have a lot of very good agencies and the freelance scene is also really talented. There are a few events, drinks, staff meet ups, that happen. I don't participate that much because I have a more time consuming personal life as I had a kid four years ago. I try to spend the most personal time with my family too besides work. But yeah, the community is pretty established, also a different networks, Slack channels and stuff. We know each other, and we tend to work together. And yeah, there's a pretty good energy around the freelance and digital scene in Paris. It's been there since almost the beginning.
Jonathan Da Costa: I went to Paris to mostly be able to work because I'm from Eastern France where the digital is not that well established. Paris is really one of the big cities, the bigger of course, France in terms of digital work. I think it's been also a very leading community since the beginning of the digital design development industry.
Steve Folland: Cool. How do you go about taking time off? You mentioned you've got a family. Do you work weekends? Do you take holidays? How's that going?
Jonathan Da Costa: I've been pretty strict with myself and putting specific boundaries, like trying to not work on the weekends or extra hours. I must turn off my phone at night because of some clients, obviously. So, time zones can sometimes lead to exchanges on extra hours. I tend to be the most strict as possible, because one of the struggles for me as a freelancer is to really maintain this balance and not to be at work 24/7. So, so far, so good. I've maintained this balance pretty well, but it comes with really strict rules like not working on the weekends and try to not to work too much, too late and obviously, not at night.
Steve Folland: How do you go about that? Have you looked at the way you work productively? Or do you limit the amount of projects you take on?
Jonathan Da Costa: It's always very difficult because when you're freelancing, you don't control the incoming work. Many times, you could have two very interesting projects at the same time. I try to be really careful about the way I work and my process. I try to document myself. Because this is something I didn't learn in design school, where you're into design but not really to manage your business, your time, so trying to improve myself almost on a daily basis. Reading articles about the way I could improve my work flow. For now, I try to make it as simple as possible and just be very transparent with the client. With the experience, I have now a better idea of the timeline, the time it will take to complete that project. I try not to pretend to be able to deliver when I have already a lot of work without saying no because that project could be interesting too.
Jonathan Da Costa: For two years now, I also work closely with another freelancer which helps me just having a continuous flow of work. We share the works together. We work really hand by hand collaboratively on these projects, and this was one of the biggest changes between now and when I started. That collaboration really helped me to gather more work and being able to deliver better work. Because when the schedule starts to tighten up, it's always difficult to maintain a certain level of quality, of details, et cetera.
Steve Folland: Interesting. So, that other person, do they do the same roles as you? It's not the developer you mentioned earlier but rather another designer?
Jonathan Da Costa: No, it's another designer I've been working with earlier in agencies. It happened at a time, two years ago, when I had two very interesting and important projects and I had to choose between one and another because there was no chance I could complete the two. So, one day, I just asked him if he would be interested to work with me on these jobs and he was available at the time, so we started from there.
Jonathan Da Costa: Depending on the work load I have, I reach to him to see the best way we can complete it. We took some time to just learn to work together but now the flow is pretty consistent and we manage to I think work with four hands really efficiently. It's pretty interesting stuff. I think it's pretty uncommon because freelancers, mostly in design, tend to work on their own. But since that, I really manage to better deal with those timelines and staff, and I have a really better overall work flow.
Steve Folland: Yeah, that's cool. It's not like you simply give one project to him, for example, but rather, you put your heads together. You brainstorm it, but then building assets or whatever is involved the job, designing it, you separate out tasks. Would that be it?
Jonathan Da Costa: Yeah. Could be like in beginning of a project, we could split the work saying, "Okay. Let's do two different design explorations and let's see what the client will think about these, or that or different explorations really on an autonomous way." And then once the project is more settled, we just share the task, meaning I can sell the landing page and just iterate from there. Or we separate the different elements. Or we also have different sensitivities, meaning we don't like the same stuff. So, he'll be very interested in let's say, working on the general mood board, iconography and stuff where I can work more on the UX elements. So, yeah, we just share our process depending on the task we have to complete in a very transparent way.
Jonathan Da Costa: It's also pretty helpful. Because working as a individual, sometimes you can struggle with being 100% comfortable with your own feedback. It's difficult to just have an opinion on your own work, when you've been working for many days, many weeks and on the same subject. So, having someone to just iterate, share, bounce ideas, et cetera, also helps me be more efficient in finding new ideas, being able to just recreate stuff, et cetera.
Steve Folland: Yeah. You said about transparency. Does the client realize that they're ... So, they come to Jonathan and then you say, "Well, yes, but on this project I'm going to be working alongside you know, who." Do they know that it's not just you?
Jonathan Da Costa: Yeah. I'm 100% transparent with the clients, saying we are a small team, I can hire other developers, designers, really depending on the work. I definitely think this is the best way for me to deliver the best possible work. I've been also collaborating with typographers for branding needs, I'll say I need a specific type phase. Or working with professional photographers for a specific fashion shoot. Meaning, I'm not afraid of delegating very specific or more general task to other creatives under my jurisdiction, I'm saying that on joking note. But it's really about finding the best assets for me and deliver them to the client.
Jonathan Da Costa: I don't have a specific ego saying, "I will be doing everything." I'm in charge of the project. And I'll be the person leading the project from the starting point to the end. But I'm happy to share vision and directions with other creatives in order to enhance and elevate the final project.
Steve Folland: Brilliant. The main client contact, and I guess the financial side of it, that goes to you?
Jonathan Da Costa: Yeah. The client contact, the overall strategic direction. Like I said, I really like to work on very wide different elements. Could be also copywriting, photography, I'm doing photography myself, depending on the project, or iconography, types of ... It's really about depending on the scheduled, project objective, finding the best possible combination of creative assets I can deliver to the client. So, I really iterate on these elements and try to find if necessary, other creative assets that could join me and help me create an even better project.
Steve Folland: Has there been anything that has been tricky in that process?
Jonathan Da Costa: Yeah. Like I said, sometimes feedback could be difficult. But I was pretty lucky because I always been working with really interesting and open people. So, the creative process on itself wasn't, almost never an issue. Sometimes it's really tricky to deal with the client and the other assets or me, because we have had some issues. For example, in a previous project where the client wasn't really knowing what he wanted. And having you work several times on different propositions, because the client doesn't exactly know what he wants, not very clear on the brief, et cetera, it's already very difficult when it's on your own. But when you involve other assets, people, mostly all of these assets have close friends of mine.
Jonathan Da Costa: I get into a very difficult position because I have to deal with the client, which is my client, and my partners, and I really need to find a good balance between the client needs and what we want to do, our quality standards, what we want to achieve, and sometimes very difficult feedback. So, yeah, that's the most tricky part, definitely.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Giving feedback to those that you're working with. Especially if you're friends.
Jonathan Da Costa: Yeah, definitely.
Steve Folland: Yeah. Well, that sounds like such a great way of working. Has that way of working made it possible for you to grow your business, I guess, in a much sort of bigger way, be it financially, but also the sort of projects that you're working on?
Jonathan Da Costa: Yeah, definitely. Meaning my work at an agency was mostly doing beautiful layouts possible. But without the help of a developer, your layout would never became a website. So, it's pretty natural to me to collaborate with people that can help me giving life to the projects I'm working on. So, yes, it helped me just reach other kind of projects, because I'm not stuck to only doing the design, but I can be partner helping a client to develop a website, an app or whatever, or digital campaign or whatever. So, it helped me reach different kind of projects that I couldn't be reaching on my own unless I want to develop myself, which is I'm not skilled enough now to do that.
Steve Folland: Yeah. You said about being able to not work, for example, at the weekend. Do you actually manage to switch over your brain as well?
Jonathan Da Costa: Yeah, that's the most struggling part, definitely. That's something I'm still working on a daily basis. The counterpart reaching bigger projects, bigger clients, and working with different people is that you're also in charge of much more things. It could be just project management, it could be finance, it could be everything else. I mean, everything that goes around the project is also on my side now, which means I have a lot of more stuff to things, not just my design part of my strategy, whatever. It's not just my tasks only, it's all project tasks.
Jonathan Da Costa: I really try to find ways to switch off. I started meditating and doing yoga for a few weeks, few months now with pretty good results. My best way to switch off was to have a decent physical activity. So, one of the or the other countables of being a freelancer is that I really wanted to have more time for health and outdoor activities and stuff, which I couldn't have working at an agency. So, I try to switch off running mostly or spend time with my family and having stuff to do really outside the screens that outside the project in order to be able to switch off. Because this is the most anxious part of being a freelancer is that kind of voice that speaks to you about the invoices, the accounting that you have to do or that your giant to-do list that's not completed and et cetera. So, yeah, everything that any kind of Freelancer has always struggled.
Steve Folland: Yeah. How have you coped with the financial side, especially as you start to bring on other freelance team members?
Jonathan Da Costa: I try to be as professional as possible. The first thing was to hire a professional accountant, so that was on my first day of being a freelancer. My first expense. Meaning, I didn't want to spend any minutes some accounting. So, I hired someone that was in charge of this, and that helps me save a lot of money and just deal with that specific belt. On the client side, I try to be really, really professional as possible, meaning having really clear contracts, estimates, invoice. It's really difficult because like I said, I've been learning being a designer but not an accountant or business manager. So, this is a really difficult situation sometimes when you have to ask for money or ask for a client to sign that estimate for a second or so time, because he's since been ignoring your emails or your notification.
Jonathan Da Costa: But my experience I can say now that when everything is set, meaning you have your contracts on, your estimate signed, your only concern now is to do the better possible job. As now, I try to collaborate with different professionals, really try to be very neat on the way I manage all the budgets and stuff.
Steve Folland: Excellent. If you could tell you young yourself one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
Jonathan Da Costa: Don't be a dick. Sorry for my French. I was pretty impulsive, at a younger age, like many teenagers or young adults. And as a designer also, you tend to think that you know everything and that's your opinion is the design, which is exactly true. But I should have sometimes be a bit more careful. But I don't figure it that much. But yeah, like I said, most of my work I'm now from what most of people I've been in touch with at some point in my career, and I might have been a bit brutal sometimes. So yeah, I would like to say to myself that everything that I will be doing could have my signature on it. So, yeah, that's pretty standard advice, but could be pretty helpful.