Get a mentor, Be a mentor - Art Director Kirsten Murray

Art director and designer Kirsten set herself a goal. To be able to travel whilst working.

And that's where we find her, on the road - more than happy to NOT set a new goal, but instead enjoy living this one.

We chat about collaboration, remote working, making opportunities, digital nomad life (not that she'd call it that!), side projects, multi-skilled job titles and mentorship. Kirsten's both a mentor and a mentee and thinks no matter where we are in our freelance careers there are always people just a few steps ahead that we can learn from. And others who can learn from us.

Transcript of Being Freelance podcast with art director and designer Kirsten Murray

Kirsten Murray: So it all started about three years ago, and I was very lucky in that I was part of the Special Edition Development program, which is run by an organization called TRC Media, and it was created to address the underrepresentation of women at board level in the digital sector in Scotland. As part of the program, we were asked to think about our life goals and to write them down. You think you know what you're working towards until you have to put pen to paper. So I scribbled down, "Find a way to travel and create at the same time."

Kirsten Murray: For anyone who's never written their goals down, I highly recommend it. It's something that's been really effective for me, and not just writing the goal down, but writing what I will do tomorrow to work towards it, and then in a week's time, a month's time, and six months. So if your goal is to start working freelance, then what are you going to do tomorrow to make that happen? And suddenly it becomes a lot more real and tangible.

Kirsten Murray: So fast forward three years, and I'm working in a design studio in Edinburgh, and that's where I met fellow designer and my now work-wife, Kat Summers. We shared a lot of ideas on the kind of work that we wanted to be doing, who we wanted to be working with, and how we wanted to work. So as I was preparing to leave Scotland and travel the world, I just said, "Why don't you come with me for a few months and we'll have a go at this freelance thing together?" So we left our jobs, booked a one-way flight to Sri Lanka, and pretty much figured out the rest on our travels.

Steve Folland: Wow. So you weren't freelance?

Kirsten Murray: Yes. So for the past 10 years, I've worked in advertising agencies and design studios. I had picked up the occasional freelance job, but it was never ... I'd never worked for myself before.

Steve Folland: When you decided to go freelance, did you have a body of work? You know, like when you've been working in agencies for ages, often a problem is, well, actually that's not your work to show. It's the agency's work. Is that something you came up against?

Kirsten Murray: Yes and no. I did worry about that, but at the same time, I think especially if you're going freelance and not starting a company with employees or you're going into a partnership, I showed the work I'd been doing at agencies but was incredibly open about where I'd done them. On my website, I give credit where credit is due. So did I partner with an illustrator? Who was the photographer on the job? Because I think it's important for clients to know, if anything, how many people are involved in making a particular job happen and come to life.

Kirsten Murray: So some of the work is my own, and before actually leaving to go to Sri Lanka, one job came in from a theater, and that was the first bit of freelance work. So it was quite nice to do at least one thing before leaving the country and going to places where the Internet isn't quite as good. But predominantly, it was agency work, but now of course, I'm slowly managing to replace that with work from clients.

Steve Folland: So predominantly, when you went freelance, you're saying you were doing that freelance work for agencies?

Kirsten Murray: So it's been a mix actually. Initially when going freelance, Kat and I started by contacting a number of people we used to work with or who we knew were maybe starting their own business, and those people became our own clients. But what we found was that agencies were interested in hiring us as well, and so now it's a mix. So Kat is now back in Glasgow, and she does freelance work for agencies. I am doing freelance work for agencies as well remotely, and we also have our own client work. So it's quite nice to have that mix.

Steve Folland: And so how long have you been on the road?

Kirsten Murray: It's eight months now. But it does not feel like that at all, yeah.

Steve Folland: Feels less or feels more?

Kirsten Murray: Well, no, it feels less, which is surprising because if I think about how many things I've packed in. You know, sometimes a year goes by and you think, what did I do? What did I achieve? But the last eight months, as well as the work, it's been the experiences and the countries, the people I've met. I've really managed to pack in a lot without feeling exhausted. But the time has flown. It really has.

Steve Folland: Yeah. So how have you found working on the road? I know you don't call yourself a digital nomad, right?

Kirsten Murray: No, but I suppose I am. But I haven't actually worked in any nomad spaces. I'm mostly working from Airbnb's or cafes. I wasn't sure how I was going to find it because I thought, am I going to be disciplined enough? Am I going to be motivated enough? Am I going to find the frustrations too much? And I've actually found it a lot easier than I thought, but I keep learning about things not to do and ways to improve it. So initially, one of the countries Kat and I traveled in was Taiwan, and we moved around every few days, which is much harder to get work done. We were working on trains, in hostels, whereas now I try to base myself in one place for a full month, or at least two weeks, so that I can get a bit more settled, get a bit more of a routine.

Kirsten Murray: But some of the challenges, and they're all small things, but electricity outages was one of the things that in Myanmar was a bit difficult, and a client that we're working for, we were doing a brand workshop with them, and I thought, "Well, it's going to have to be remote on my end," but it worked brilliantly. I only cut out once, and I think that was something that was a concern is, am I going to be able to upload files? Am I going to be able to find places that have air conditioning to work in? But so far, and I think maybe it's been a lot easier because when you're partnering with someone, even if you're not in the same location, if I'm traveling, Kat can pick up emails or speak to clients, and it does make it a lot easier.

Steve Folland: So does a lot of your work then come as a collaboration with Kat rather than as individuals?

Kirsten Murray: Yes, it does, and I think part of that is out of choice because even if people don't approach us as a duo, we often just say to them, "Look, I collaborate with this other designer," and I just think in terms of the quality of the creative work, more brains are better. So whilst I could do the work solo, I just find that it's not only better in terms of more perspective on the design and different ways of thinking coming together, but it's just more enjoyable, I think particularly because, especially when making decisions and running through ideas, it's much more fun to do that together than it is to do it solo.

Steve Folland: And are you like an official business together, or?

Kirsten Murray: No, we decided to be sole traders. It was the quickest, easiest way to do it because, really, you don't have to do anything other than fill out a self-assessment tax form. So we pay tax in the U.K., and we estimate an invoice individually, but I think that doing it this way allows us to build up the experience and make sure it's for us, and then hopefully in the future, if it's working really well, we can then transition into a business. And that's exciting, I think, that it was quite daunting leaving Scotland and leaving a full-time paid job, which is really all I've known to do this, but things like that, decisions to take it one step at a time, and when you're becoming freelance, you really ... And other people have said this in the podcast. There's not a great deal of money that you have to put down to start, and it really is more about your contacts and your experience.

Steve Folland: How do you balance the work and the travel?

Kirsten Murray: Yeah. So one of my biggest motivations for going freelance in the first place was to create a work-travel balance. And I know in this podcast you talk a lot about work-life balance, but I really felt like I had a fairly good work-life balance when I was working in agencies, at least in the later years of my career, but I was just traveling for three or four weeks in holidays, and I wanted to see more of the world but not give up my job.

Kirsten Murray: You actually, I think it was earlier this year, you interviewed copywriter Karen Marston, who's also from Edinburgh, and she made a really good point about how difficult it is to balance doing your work with seeing and doing stuff in a new country, and that resonates with me because for a while I felt really guilty when I wasn't exploring, and then when I was out exploring, I felt really guilty that I wasn't working. But I think it's just taught me to spend longer in one place. It's also a bigger incentive for taking on projects I look forward to working on because that way I'm actually ... Sometimes if I've had a full day of hiking or exploring somewhere, I do look forward to then having a day of work, and I think that it's balanced for a reason. I think if it was just travel, not that I would get bored of it, but I think it would just be a different experience. I think that working remotely has actually enhanced the experience of travel for me.

Steve Folland: And have you found there's like certain ways of working then with your clients or with Kat?

Kirsten Murray: Yes. So I mean, we video call all the time, and sometimes she'll just sit in a little window on my laptop and all I can hear is the tapping of her keyboard, and that's just nice because it's a bit like we're working in the same room, but we can maybe just ask each other a question or run something past each other. Also, I found that I don't have these set hours of working. So if a client emails and I'm out doing something, I'll just get back to them pretty much immediately, and I don't really mind that at all. I don't find it intrusive, and I don't feel like I need to switch off at a certain time. I do find that I work quite late because of the time difference.

Kirsten Murray: And with clients, what I've found is that communication is the most important part of the relationship. So people hire you. Yes, they hire you for good design work, but they also hire you because they enjoy working with you and you make their job easier. So I find that we share work often with clients, so early and often, and that's really helped with the creative process where we're doing a big rebrand right now, and rather than having this grand reveal, here's your new identity, we really try and involve the client in every part of our thinking. And that way, when we actually do finally reach a solution, it's something that they're very much a part of rather than feeling like it's something they're buying off the shelf.

Steve Folland: So you've got lots of client work, but I think you make time for side projects as well, don't you?

Kirsten Murray: Yes. So last year, Kat and I started The Tits, and it's a collaboration for side projects, and working on these passion projects together was really a way of getting back to doing design work for the love of it. Not for the money, not because we have to because it's our job, but because we love to create. That wasn't always the case. So for the last eight years, I've been a mentor of design students at Edinburgh College, and they have this wonderful mentoring program for the students led by Helena Good, who I consider to be a mentor to me. And I'd always be encouraging the students to make things with their hands and experiment more, do side projects, but this whole time I was a complete fraud because I wasn't doing these things for myself.

Kirsten Murray: So making time for side projects has made me not only a better designer, but a more legitimate mentor, which was quite important. And for our first side project, we started a magazine called Aye, which features the work of creative talent in Scotland. Our launch issue was all about failure, which was apt given how many things we cocked up making it. But it was really successful and people liked it, so we're working on the second issue now, but it's only when you start working on something like a magazine do you realize just how much work goes into it.

Kirsten Murray: Each issue we are tackling a different subject that is very relevant to the design industry, so the second issue is tackling the question, in an industry full of problem solvers, why haven't we solved the problem of sexism? We're finding that because we feel passionately about the subject, it's been even harder for us to create something about it. But the wonderful thing about this project is it keeps me feeling very much a part of the design community back in Scotland because we've been interviewing people. People are very interested in being part of the magazine, and mostly because they know that they're going to have fun creating something for it. So that kind of has taken us aback a bit, that people have been so willing to contribute to it, and that's been quite a motivating factor in keeping us doing it.

Kirsten Murray: But also, just being in different countries and surrounded by all this different design has really made me more inspired to do side projects and just have ideas for them, and that's been quite exciting. So there's a lot of different breeze block designs in Southeast Asia, which I'm going to turn into stamp designs, and things like that. Just small things that stem from seeing something. It might be packaging in a Japanese supermarket that just sparks these ideas you wouldn't have had otherwise.

Steve Folland: Yeah. That's cool. So as well as creatively helping you though, it's also building your network and people who are aware of what you're doing.

Kirsten Murray: Definitely. Yup. And I think that sometimes you start side projects because you've got an idea and you want to get it out there, but certainly, I think side projects that allow you to collaborate with other people are really interesting because I think that the opportunities for that then to turn in possibly to paid work, and certainly being able to widen your contacts, is really, really useful.

Steve Folland: You mention mentoring. Did you study at that college, or how did that come about?

Kirsten Murray: I did study at that college. So I had graduated, it was a few years on. They didn't have the mentoring program when I was studying there. It was kind of, Helena was on the cusp of starting this really, and it involves people from industry being paired with students to help guide them and support them whilst they're still studying. And the idea is to bridge the gap between education and employment. So at the moment, you have these students graduating with design qualifications, but the actual industry is completely alien to them and so daunting.

Kirsten Murray: So what Helena has created is a mentoring program that means that when students graduate, they feel prepared for actually going to work. So something I've been suggesting for this coming year is to involve more freelancers as well, because that's increasingly becoming more of a necessity for some students, is having to go freelance if they can't get a job somewhere, and it just helps them to see what opportunities are out there and the different ways that people do things. I think it also benefits the mentors massively.

Steve Folland: I was going to say how does it benefit you, because it's intriguing. Like I've been asked to do a similar thing with colleges in London, and haven't done it yet, and I'm sitting here thinking, I wonder what I might get out of this process as well.

Kirsten Murray: Sometimes I think I get more out of mentoring than the students do. So I think that what mentoring has done for me is, as well as being able to ... It sort of trains you to give constructive feedback and how to motivate people, and there's an element of just creating confidence in someone else so that they feel that they can do what it is they're doing, but I just, I think it's just exciting to go into the college and speak to students and hear their ideas. They don't have years of client feedback, they don't have the reality of budgets, but because of that, I just love their creative thinking. It's very refreshing, and I think that it helps me certainly to do certain things. So if I'm telling students to use their hands to create things and to think outside the Pinterest board, then I sort of have that in my mind as well. I've told them to do it, so really, I ought to do it myself.

Kirsten Murray: And it's also been great meeting the other mentors as well, because we are there because we have this shared desire to pass something on, to pass the creativity on, and it's just a lovely community whereby you can really follow once the students have graduated. They stay in touch. I'm a big advocate of mentoring. I actually think that we see it as being something that's useful when you're at the very start of your career, but sometimes I think that people could really do with a mentor later on in their career when they're maybe thinking about changing the path slightly, or maybe they're wanting to shift from working in a company to going freelance. That's the time to get a mentor. It doesn't need to be somebody who's got many more years experience than you do, just someone who's perhaps a year ahead of you. They've started the process and they can pass something onto you, and I think that's really important.

Steve Folland: And you get that yourself, do you? I think you said ... Was it Helena?

Kirsten Murray: Yeah, so she's ... I mean, we stay in touch, and because I'm now doing remote mentoring, I speak to her often. Yeah, I certainly feel ... And even a number of years ago I reached out to a creative director of an agency and just said, "Look, I feel a bit stuck in my career right now. What would you think about meeting up once a month and just chatting about what projects we've got on or what I'm finding difficult right now?" And you know, that's been really, really useful, but I think sometimes a lot of people just are afraid to ask, and the worst thing that can happen is someone might say, "Sorry, no, not for me," or, "I don't have time," or it might be that you find someone who could really help you out, and vice versa.

Steve Folland: Oh, that's so cool. Good for you.

Kirsten Murray: So I definitely think that you should mentor if you get the opportunity to.

Steve Folland: Yeah. How have you found the business side of being freelance?

Kirsten Murray: The business side. So things like pricing work and asking for money were really hard at the beginning, but once I started taking quite a matter of fact approach, it became a lot easier. I think in the design community, we don't talk about money enough. We don't talk about salaries or how to cost jobs, and we often end up underselling ourselves and underselling design as an industry. And when first starting out, I asked all the freelancers I knew what they were doing. So what do you charge? What are your payment terms? Do you use a contract? What's in it? There's a lot of sharing that goes on in the freelance community, as you know, because you do this podcast, and it's a really good example of people wanting to share their experiences, and they also want to learn from other people's. Because really, we ... There's not enough time in our lives to make all the mistakes you can possibly make.

Kirsten Murray: So I think that something that's been really helpful is people being willing to share how they do it, or what they did and they wish they hadn't, and that's helped with the business side of things. Going into this, I knew my strengths, I knew my weaknesses. Finance is not something that interests me, and so you kind of shun it a little bit, but I knew things like promoting myself, communicating with clients, pitching work to clients would be a strength. And where I have found I've got weaknesses, I simply try to pick up as much as I can from other people. I'm a fan of Mr. Bingo's pricing structure, which is along the lines of boring things like drawing an aspirational couple enjoying a picnic are very expensive, and fun things like a drawing of a penis riding a motorbike are cheap.

Kirsten Murray: I think this is a great way to price jobs because ask any creative and they probably do the fun stuff for free because money's not a huge motivator for us. We try not to tell clients that, but some jobs that really aren't as exciting creatively, they're the ones to charge more on. So we try to take a little bit of that. I also listen to a lot of Chris Do's podcasts, and he gives some great advice on the financial side of design. He's very business-minded, and I think he really is helping a lot of freelancers to cost projects based on their value rather than time. That's really, really helpful. I just think there's so much information out there, it's just finding the right places to go for it.

Steve Folland: Yeah. That's a good point. We'll link to what Chris is doing at There'll be links through to what Kirsten is doing as well, of course. I love your site and your portfolio. It's just really nicely put together and so colorful and cheerful. So even though there isn't like huge amounts about you on there, your personality seems to come out. But one thing, like you mentioned, you say what people do on a project, this person did this. But on some of it, you do a lot, and I remember just before we started recording this conversation I was saying, you know, what would be your job title? And you seem to have the same problem I do where I can't really pin it down, and I don't know whether if for you, but for me, this almost feels like it's becoming an issue because I don't quite know how to introduce myself to people.

Kirsten Murray: Yeah, sometimes I ... So I've been thinking about this a lot because I started my career as an art director, and then my job became designer, and whilst being an art director or a designer, I've also done copywriting. The kind of work that I do ranges from designing a brand, but also writing a company's tone of voice, or it might be story boarding an animation, and I think it probably does help other people to keep it simple and say I'm a designer, but actually, I think that I'd probably have to embrace the fact that I'm all of those things and just show people what it is I do rather than perhaps pinning myself down with one job title. But yeah, I think some people go niche. Other people I think are just a jack of many trades. Not all of them, but many.

Steve Folland: Yeah. Actually, there was a guest on the podcast, Tim Clay, a long time ago now, but I'll link to his episode. And he was like, "Nobody calls Clint Eastwood a jack of all trades. He's just Clint Eastwood." You know?

Kirsten Murray: Right, yeah.

Steve Folland: He writes, he directs, he acts, he sings. He's Clint Eastwood.

Kirsten Murray: That's it. Yeah. That's a really good point, because I think you just become known for being able to ... I mean, if I had to be known for something, it would probably be being able to help people solve their communication problems, and that might be through writing, it might be through design, it might be through they need a big idea, or it might be all of those things together.

Steve Folland: If you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?

Kirsten Murray: I think it would be ... Maybe two. I'm going to cheat and say two things. Instead of waiting for someone else to present you with opportunities, make them for yourself. Whether that's getting in touch with a company you'd love to have as a client, or collaborating with someone you admire. Just go out and create the opportunities. And the other thing is to stop striving for perfection and start aiming for progress, and I think you'll feel a lot happier with the work that you produce.

Steve Folland: There is thousands of people listening now going, "I wonder if I could reach out to Kirsten and make her my mentor. She's sounds great."

Kirsten Murray: That would be wonderful.

Steve Folland: That last bit sounded like you should be some sort of monk sitting on a hill. That was beautiful.

Kirsten Murray: I've probably spent a lot of time in monasteries so far, so I think that might be having a bit of a spiritual influence on me.

Steve Folland: Yeah. No, that's really nice. Now, just before I let you go, though, there was one thing you said really early on which was about setting goals and how you wanted to find a way to travel and design. So are you still setting goals? Like what's next for you?

Kirsten Murray: Yes, I am still setting goals, but I actually feel like that was the last one on the list that I had written. That was the one I was still to tick off, and now it's done. Interestingly, I'm kind of at a point where now I'd like to sit down and work out what the next set of goals are. I'm pretty content at the moment taking life as it is and just seeing where it takes me. So I would like to be working on more projects that have social good at the center of them, and certainly a lot of the people that I collaborate with share that view. The beauty of going freelance is that you really can choose your clients, and so almost half of the clients that Kat and I work with are charities or nonprofits, and that's really given me kind of the incentive to perhaps focus on that for side projects as well.

Steve Folland: And do you have like an end ... Well, no, you bought an open ticket, but is there an end to your travels?

Kirsten Murray: There's not. Yeah, there's not. So originally I felt like I needed to in that way that's like, wait, well, how long am I doing this for? So I originally thought I will do this for a year, and also I didn't want myself to feel any pressure that if I did this and it wasn't for me, that's okay. I'll just stop doing it and get another job. But I'm really loving it so much that I can see myself doing it for a lot longer than a year. And it might change slightly. I might want to be based in one country for longer than a month, but I think that it's remarkably easy once you're doing it to live this kind of lifestyle.

Kirsten Murray: And of course I miss my family and I miss friends, but I'm able to chat, and sometimes I think that I chat to my family more now than I did when I was living in Edinburgh because we've got so much to talk about as well. They come out and visit me as well, so I've met them in Malaysia, and my folks are coming to meet me in Australia. So I think indefinitely at the moment.

Steve Folland: Kirsten, really nice to speak to you, and all the best with your travels, and all the best being freelance.

Kirsten Murray: Thank you so much. Thank you, and keep up the good work. Loving the podcasts.