Making Connections - Graphic Designer Amber Asay
Working for agencies and studios as a graphic designer since 2012, Amber Asay hated that she couldn’t interact directly with her clients. She also couldn’t show off her work in a personal portfolio, since her creations were the intellectual property of her employers. Even if she could have, she didn’t take much pride in the type of corporate branding work she had been doing.
Now she’s connected to her clients and her peers, slogging away at it, but riding a high as she charts her own path.
She still doesn’t quite have a grasp of the work-life balance. Her work often is her life, but she has a plan...
Great thoughts on working a full-time job while growing her freelancing practice, connecting, putting your work out there and more.
More from Amber
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 @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 - Graphic Designer Amber Asay
Steve Folland: Hey, Amber.
Amber Asay: Hi.
Steve Folland: Hello. Whereabouts are you based, actually?
Amber Asay: I'm in Los Angeles in California
Steve Folland: Very nice. So, how about, as ever, we get started hearing how you got started being freelance?
Amber Asay: Yeah. I graduated school or college in 2012, so fairly recently, but I went from agency to agency after that.
Amber Asay: I just wasn't really getting the feel for the agency life or the studio life, I think my biggest problems with it was I was always a couple of people away from the client. So, I wanted to be a problem solver and wanted to be able to speak directly to the client and it felt like I was always two people away and couldn't really interact directly with them or find solutions for them in that sense.
Amber Asay: Another thing that I had found along the way, too, was that the work I was doing there, I could never really claim as my own. It was always the agency's work. It was a work for hire situation and so, there were situations when I couldn't actually put any of that work up on my portfolio or share it with the world that I worked on that project and that got frustrating for me. So, all of that, over the last five or six years, led me to freelance and to be able to be my own boss. I actually tried freelance out for a little bit three years ago and completely failed at it, I was trying it out for three months.
Amber Asay: It was actually because I got fired, so I had no choice, but to go to freelance because I couldn't find a job after that and so, that experience scared me so much to do freelance again. I had just so many fears going into it, thinking that I'll fail, that I won't be able to find work. Now, here I am, new to the full-time freelance world as of six months ago and pretty fresh, but I worked my way into this this time and worked at my clientele, built up more of a portfolio for myself, and have succeeded so far, as of six months, for the last six months. So, it seems to be working.
Steve Folland: How did you build up your portfolio ahead of going freelance this time? Were you doing it on the side whilst working?
Amber Asay: Yeah, so I had a good eight months. It was at the beginning of 2017, it was my goal. I was like, "Okay, I'm gonna do this. I'm gonna work freelance as much as I can on the side of my full-time job." So, I would get home at about 6:30, 7:00 and sit right back at my computer and work another five or six hours that night on freelance. I got to a point where I was doubling my income, I made sure that what I was making at my full-time job was the same amount as what I was making on the side with my freelance. So, once I got to that point, and, sometimes, I was making more with my freelance jobs and so, that helped me to see that I could make it happen, make it work if I were to just survive on my freelance income alone.
Steve Folland: Wow, that is some ... yeah, something to go to. How did it feel during that period?
Amber Asay: It felt great, it was overwhelming and I was tired a lot, but I knew there was an end in sight.
Steve Folland: Yeah.
Amber Asay: I knew that I was working towards this goal and I wanted it so badly that I pushed through it all. I felt on fire. Once I realized I could make it work, after seeing that I had failed three years ago, I think that helped me see my potential as a freelancer and see that I can make it work.
Steve Folland: Awesome, good for you. So, let's go back to that period three years ago. When you tried it, what didn't work out for you that time?
Amber Asay: I think, well, it was one of those things where someone just pushed me off a cliff and expected me to be able to fly or make it on my own. So, I think it was that situation where I got fired. Suddenly, I was scrambling to find work and to find freelance jobs. I didn't have any clients, I didn't have much of a name for myself, I guess you could say, through social media either, which I think is a huge part of freelance life is being able to have a reputation for yourself or build up your own name. So, in that sense, too, I don't think anyone really knew I was freelancing. I hadn't really announced it, I had maybe two clients when it failed and was working in two, maybe three projects. I didn't do a really good job of promoting myself, marketing myself, doing any cold calls, or anything like that. I was really stupid and very green and I just expected work to come to me and it didn't and I just ran out of work. Yeah, completely failed.
Steve Folland: So then, when you were back on full-time employment, did you then start to work on some of those things. Obviously, ultimately, you went and got work on the side, but were you building up your brand, as it were, on the side then?
Amber Asay: Yeah, I think the good thing about the new job that I got was that it was at a studio that shared the same interests with me as far as aesthetics and the kind of a designer I wanted to be. So, I was able to build up my portfolio there, too, and do the work that I had been doing on the side or had been wanting to do. At the agencies that I was at, I was doing a lot of corporate stuff, stuff that's not in my portfolio, that people have never seen before because it was stuff that I was never proud of and never happy with, that it wasn't the design I want it to be. So, in a sense, the new job that I got, it helped me get to where I am now. Also, as soon as I got that job, I wasn't really focusing on freelance at that time because, since I had failed at it, I felt like it wasn't the route for me at that time. So, I focused a lot on that new job and put a good year or two into it as far as putting my portfolio together, really focusing on doing what I wanted to do, being really passionate about the work.
Amber Asay: Then, it was while I was there that I got the idea of going back to freelance and trying that out.
Steve Folland: Yeah, it's really good to hear. So then, when you were marketing yourself for your first clients, as you were doing them on the side, how did you get those clients?
Amber Asay: Well, one big help is designer friends. I have several friends that send referrals my way, who get more inquiries than I do and still help me out today. So, I think, once I got those mentors or those other friends who knew I was looking for work, then I think those relationships really helped me. They knew that I was a good reference to send work to and that that would make them still look good, and that I was reliable, and that I was basically at their level of design, too. So, I think that helped a ton and then, I think having my portfolio up, too, and also, posting my work on social media, whether it's Dribble or whether it's Instagram. I think putting it out there and letting the world see it had really helped me get more projects as well because they saw my work. They knew what kind of a designer I was. Sometimes, when people are looking for that, for a specific kind of look or style, they'll go to that designer specifically for that style.
Amber Asay: So, there's that and then, I think there's this snowball effect that happened where some of the clients that I was working with either gave me more work or they sent my name to their friends and got me more work.
Amber Asay: So, it snowballed into now where I have a good flow of inquiries and of existing work and I would say that has all been from a good year and a half in the making.
Steve Folland: When you were doing all of that extra work on the side of a full-time job for five to six hours at night, how did you manage your workload? Did you ever say no projects or were you just taking everything on possible? How did you deal with that? Because, it could be tempting, I guess, just to take everything.
Amber Asay: Yeah, I was taking everything and it's because I wasn't getting that many inquires. So, the ones that I was getting, I was saying yes to everything, anything and everything and I had to do quick emails during the day at my full-time job just to make sure that they knew that I was alive and that it was on my radar or I was working on things. Then, when I would go at night, I didn't really have a way of managing my time or my schedule. I was just doing what was coming my way, so it was, sometimes, fast work or I'd be working at two in the morning to get stuff done. Yeah, it was crazy.
Steve Folland: Everybody talks about work/life balance. Clearly, at that point, you've chosen to put the balance in favor of the work. Yeah, how have you moved forward from that since going full-time freelance?
Amber Asay: I don't think I have to be honest. My work/life balance is completely nonexistent. I have no balance in my life right now and I'm probably the worst example of a good, stable, freelance life. I think it's because I'm new and I'm acknowledging that, that it won't always be this way. I'm gonna get to a better place and I'm hopeful about that and I have goals to get there, too, but, right now, work is my life. Some days, I'm putting in a 12-hour day just working at home. I work from home, too, and so, I wanna find new ways of doing things, maybe try out coffee shops, or coworking spaces, or things like that just to break away from my house. Yeah. Right now, my entire life is devoted to work and I think it's just because I'm trying to get to a point where I can be working months in advance, where I'm booking clients in two months from now or three months from now and not having to worry about where my next paycheck is gonna come from.
Amber Asay: So, I'm in that place right now where I'm working and getting paid within this month, but I wanna be able to think ahead and look ahead.
Amber Asay: Then, I think that's when I'll have a little more balance.
Steve Folland: How have you coped with the business side of things?
Amber Asay: The business side, I would say, that's been very hard for me to figure out and the way that I figure that out is basically talking to other designers, making friends with local designers, especially freelancers. I'm part of a Facebook Group where it's all-female freelancers and everyone just shoots answers out there and asks questions. It's really helpful because some people are just made for the business side and are very organized and have their system down. They've got their contracts together, they've got every scenario worked out and it's fun to be able to see other people's questions come in and see where they ask things that I've never thought about before or things you have to put in your contract that I never thought about before, like kill fees or I think pause fees. There's all these scenarios out there that you learn as you go.
Amber Asay: Yeah. I would say, on the business side, I think I'm still learning and I'm still learning how to manage that. I think one thing that I've learned because I'm a freelancer, it's so easy to just hide behind my computer all the time, but I've learned that it's better to get on the phone with potential clients and talk through your process and talk through your background as a designer and your goals for each and every project. When you talk through those things, you are suddenly a real person to that person and you're not just someone behind a computer or just a name and an email. I think, in that case, they become more likely to invest in your process and invest in you and the project. Yeah, I think breaking down the digital world and really trying to have as much realtime interaction as possible is the business side that I see of just being a good business person and fostering those relationships.
Steve Folland: Yeah, that's great and you mentioned the Facebook community and those relationships. Have any of those been taken offline?
Amber Asay: Yeah. I think that community, I think having a design community locally is so important and I was doing that while I was making that transition of I'm working full-time and I'm doing freelance on the side and I want your advice or your input. So, I was going to local events and to some of these little meetups. Sometimes, I would try to instigate them or to say, "Hey, let's all meet up", or, even when it's just a one-on-one, I love doing that, too, where I reach out to designers that I've heard of or I know that's in the LA area. I'll say, "Hey, do you wanna go grab coffee sometime?" I think doing that helps to be able to talk more about your processes together and to share insights and advice. Those have been really crucial in helping me figure out the freelance world and being able to figure out what I could do better, what other people are doing.
Amber Asay: Yeah. It's one of those things where you can't just sit there and try to figure it out all on your own, especially when you're a designer. I feel like my strengths are definitely in the visual aspect of it all and in design, but I never have been very good at the business side. So, I lean on other people and what they're doing best and try to pull that into what I do.
Steve Folland: That's so cool, isn't it? It's like you're supercharging your freelance career by condensing years and years of learning into this period.
Amber Asay: Yeah, exactly. I think, nowadays, it feels like it's a good time to be a freelancer because there's a lot of freelancers out there. A lot of us have figured it out and so many people are willing to share those resources, that it's really valuable. I don't think I would've made a very good freelancer five years ago and that's not very long ago, but it's true. It was a completely different landscape five years ago.
Steve Folland: You mentioned wanting to get closer to the client really from when you were in the agency and the fact, you've already just referenced it, about getting on to the phone to them and being a person. Have you learned anything else from dealing with clients?
Amber Asay: Yeah. Actually, at my last job, I learned about a lot of what not to do with clients because I think my boss at my last job wasn't very good at fostering those relationships and would lose clients. They would leave and wouldn't recommend that studio anymore. It was definitely a learning period for me to see what not to do. I think, sometimes, with clients, they're smarter than we think they are. They're gonna figure out if you're lying to them or if you're BSing them on this or that, they'll figure those things out. You have to treat them like real people or like how you would wanna be treated and then, also, being flexible, I think that's really important and showing that to your client as well, that you're flexible, that you're willing to do this for them or that for them, or, if they need to cut up their payments in a different way, showing that you're flexible on that, or flexible on time if they needed something faster or slower.
Amber Asay: So, I think being a real person and being their friend, it helps build a trust there and the moment that they trust you is when they're going to trust you as a designer, too. They'll trust the moves that you wanna make, your suggestion, and all of that and I think it all just pays in the long run.
Steve Folland: Yeah. As ever, with all of our guests, if you go to beingfreelance.com, you can click through and see what Amber is up to, be it on Instagram, or Dribble, or on her website itself, which is great. One of the things, which I'm set, on your website is the first great bit of copy where, "Amber is an award-winning graphic designer." Then, later on, there's accolades and there's list after list and I'm guessing some of those might be from when you were studying or whatever, but how important has entering competition and things like that been for you?
Amber Asay: I think it's been important, I have a love/hate relationship with them to be honest because, sometimes, it feels like the competitions are built for agencies. I have entered competitions where it was just agency after agency that won and we're talking big, 100 plus-employee agencies. Well, it's like, "Well, of course, they won it. Everybody knows them." Sometimes, they aren't built for small businesses and individuals and so, that's the part that I don't like about competitions is it feels biased or political in that sense, but I think there's another side to it where people are wanting to just show good work out there and whether it's a big agency that's been around for decades or whether it's a single person. So, those are the ones that I really value or pull to and so, even if they're not competitions and they're just blogs that post about designers or even Instagrams now.
Amber Asay: For the last couple years, there's been a lot of Instagram accounts that just repost designers' work. I think, sometimes, that can be valuable, too, because then, you're out there. You're known and people recognize your work and then, maybe you're more likely to win a competition or get a little more exposure. So, I think, in any way that you can, whether it's a competition or just publicity, I guess you could say, anyway that you can, I think both of them are beneficial for a designer to just get some of that exposure.
Steve Folland: Yeah, that's a good point, actually, putting yourself out there. Another thing as well that jumped out from your website was when it links through to Variety Show, I think it was.
Amber Asay: Oh, yeah.
Steve Folland: So, tell me about that because when I clicked through, it would say, "We are a husband and wife team located in Southern California." Yeah, what's Variety Show?
Amber Asay: That was one of my side projects that I worked on when I failed as a freelancer. I actually had started this online shop back in 2014 with my husband. He's an illustrator and we both met in art classes and he and I thought about selling art prints online. I think maybe it was more my ambition or my idea than his, but he was willing to go with it and participate and everything and then, especially when I lost my job. I went full force into Variety Show and I sold at a couple of local craft shows here in LA, like the Renegade Craft Fair or things like that. It was a fun little exploratory period, I guess you could say, to try that out. I think, at that time in my life, I was so sick of agency work and not being able to express myself as a designer and the things that I wanted to do that I wanted to have an outlet to be able to design what I wanted to do.
Amber Asay: I think that was my first step into where I am now, where I was really trying to let other people see what my style is and something that wasn't corporate and something that was a little more minimalistic or a little more playful.
Amber Asay: It was a good run, but it's dead now and I've thought about bringing it back at times. But, right now, since I have so much freelance going on, it just doesn't seem like it's feasible for me to start it up again. Who knows? Maybe it will, but everything on that site is 50% off just because its products that's just taking up space in my office right now. So, it's one of those things where it's just like, "I should just get rid of some of these prints and move on with my life."
Steve Folland: But, they're great. Oh, okay. Everybody, go take a look. 50% off and not only will you get something nice in your house, but Amber gets a bit of a floor back. They're really nice. What's an interesting thing in what you just said, though, is the fact that, yeah, okay, it was a shop and a potential place of revenue, but it was also a place for you to show the kind of work you wanted to be known for, a different side of you.
Amber Asay: Yeah. I think it was a good stepping point in my career basically, too, and I think it was also valuable to see how hard it is to run a shop. Sometimes, I share some of those insights with potential clients or people that I've talked to about how much work it takes and being able to know some of the insights of what wholesale looks like and how you should price your products compared to how much it cost you to make them. I think it was a good little learning period for me to dive into that world for a moment.
Steve Folland: Do you have other side projects beyond that?
Amber Asay: I'm working on one now. It's with a couple of other girls. We're working on starting up a magazine, which is really funny, too, because I think it's another one of those things, like a shop, where it may or may not even be profitable. It would be more of a hobby than anything, but we wanna start a magazine together and it's gonna be a magazine called Big Sister. It's a women's magazine that'll be quarterly and it'll be a women supporting women magazine, so whether it's hypothetically your big sister sharing advice with you or it really is a letter to your younger sister. It'll involve those topics.
Steve Folland: That's so cool, a massive project.
Amber Asay: Yeah, yeah. It's very slow right now and it's very much a side project because all three of us have other jobs and do other things. We check in here or there every week and just get a little bit done at a time, so we'll see how it goes.
Steve Folland: Yeah, and you've spoken quite a bit about social media. Instagram seems pretty big for you.
Amber Asay: Yeah, that and Dribble. I really like Dribble because there's a huge online community there of designers, and illustrators, and creatives. So, I loved being able to talk to them. I don't know. When you become involved in those communities, whether it's Instagram or Dribble, you can't just post your work and then, walk away. I think it's very valuable to go on and to talk to people and then, they'll notice that you've talked to them. They'll talk back to you and comment on your work as well and you can bounce ideas off of each other or ask for advice on there. I think starting those conversations helps, again, break down those digital barriers and makes you a real person who's still figuring things out. Yeah, I think being part of those communities is extremely important.
Steve Folland: Have any of your clients either come through there or commented, for example, on your Instagram stories or something? Do clients come through Dribble as well?
Amber Asay: Yeah, they do. They have a hire me button that you can click to send someone an inquiry. So, I think, a couple years ago, I used to get those a lot more than I do now and it's not because I don't post as much. In fact, my following has grown over the last couple years, so I don't know why it's died, in a sense, as far as inquiries go through Dribble, but I actually just got one today.
Amber Asay: So, I'm like, "Oh, good. It's still living or it's still thriving." So, sometimes, clients know about Dribble and they'll go there and search "Los Angeles designer". I'll show up in that search or they can search for "packaging designer", or "beauty product designer", or something. Then, sometimes, I think I'll show up in those searches as well, so people can go on there and it is a really good search system that they have there. You can look through work and see what kind of work you like or what kind of a designer you're looking for and then, reach out to them.
Amber Asay: Yeah, I've actually gotten several inquiries and have gotten some clients through Dribble. Instagram, not as much, but I think Instagram, right now, serves as a good website backup. So, sometimes, people won't look at my website and will find me on Dribble first and get a sense of my work. If someone had already heard about me and they go and look at my Instagram, I think it just solidifies or helps them to reach out to me or make the next step because they've seen my work on Instagram. So, I think it's a good backup right now. I don't know, I'm not getting as many inquiries through Instagram, but it's good to have.
Steve Folland: Because, I was following you on Instagram and what I liked about you or noticed about your stories occasionally was the fact that, I don't know, you might talk about your love of paper, for example, I came across and, not to mention, of course, your piano playing cat.
Amber Asay: Oh, yeah.
Steve Folland: But, it's that human side. But, you're looking at the work. Okay. I'm not a client, but I'm going through the same things that clients might where I'm looking at your work on your website or on Dribble, but then, on Instagram, I get something more from that. Yet, so much of it was still about the passion of design, or a design show that you were at, or something like that.
Amber Asay: Yeah, I like that. Yeah, it's true. It helps you get a peek into my personality, and my life, and everything more than a website where it's just a quick little about, and a picture, and that's it.
Steve Folland: Now, if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
Amber Asay: That is a good question. I guess, I don't know if you can tell your younger self this, but I wish I got into it sooner because I love it so much. I think I'm just living on a high right now of being a freelancer and of basically having this freedom and having this control over my projects and all of that. So, I think I would've told myself, "Get into it now and don't delay if you really wanna do it and basically start reaching out to people and all of that." When I failed initially, I wish I told myself to be smarter about it and to work on side projects. I was working on Variety Show, but I think putting more fake branding projects out there or fake packaging projects out there is a really good way to step away from agency world and become the designer that you wanna be. Yeah, I guess I would say that.
Steve Folland: This was such a weird coincidence, so I've seen your work and we'd arranged this chat. Then, a little while later, a previous guest was, and she's a blogger and a copywriter ... on one of her stories, she was chatting about her new product that she just got from Letterfolk. I was like, "I have not heard of that." Yeah, so I went through to their website and I was checking, "Oh, this is very nice." Yeah. Then, suddenly, I thought, "Oh, I'm sure I've seen this before, though." Then, of course, you designed their logo.
Amber Asay: Yeah, yeah. Actually, funny backstory now that we've talked about it, Letterfolk was one of the only clients that I had during my failure point as a freelancer. They were one of two or three clients when I was struggling to make freelance work and then, it turned into more work after that when I was getting more into freelance. They were a repeat client for me.
Steve Folland: How cool is that? Oh, well, that's got to give you the confidence, doesn't it? Amber, thank you so much and good luck with it all. All the best being freelance.
Amber Asay: Thank you so much, Steve. It's been great chatting with you.