Rena Tom Rena Tom

Business Bricolage: Putting It All Together

If you subscribe to UPPERCASE (and you should) you have already seen this in Issue 18, but if not, here is the text from my business column.


This issue’s focus on collage and assemblage makes me think about how careers are built these days, especially if you are an independent creative professional. Assembling or piecing together work is what most freelancers have to do, but there is still a misconception some people have that this is a bad thing, or something you by circumstance and not by choice. Personally, I tend to think it’s a good thing, though admittedly not the right approach for everyone.

Piecework has two very different definitions, depending on the context. In the modern crafting world, it’s respected; it alludes to fine handwork and artisan-made goods. In the world of traditional work, however, it retains its older meaning of repetitive, simple tasks you are paid by the piece to execute – work that is akin to envelope-stuffing or assembly line drudgery.

Freelance today no longer means underemployed or that you are biding your time until get a full-time job with a company. Quite the opposite: most independent workers in modern society are not looking to be hired by a company, and many are engaged in projects that require high-value and specialized skills.

Even so, most people starting out as a freelancer won’t always have a full calendar of work. You should always be looking for your next job as you finish up your current one. Surviving as an indie, especially in a creative field, means creating the right mix of money-making and career-furthering activity. The benefits go way beyond showing off your capabilities to a future employer; staggering work helps spread your income among various sources and deadlines, protecting you from a sudden downturn in the marketplace.

What kinds of activity are out there?

Your work: Number one is always your work, your specialty. If you’re not doing the kind of work you want to do, consider sketching it out for yourself as a side project.

If you’re feeling stuck, take a look at what you do in a different light, and enlist friends with fresh eyes to help out. Think about what makes it special. Think about different applications for your work, or about different designers or companies you could partner with to push your work in a different direction.

Also consider if your work lends itself to consulting. Instead of doing all the work on a project yourself, maybe you can come in at key points to guide and review.

And, if you are not in the habit of writing about your work, start now. Write for your blog, for somebody else’s. Write intelligent comments in response to other people’s writing. It’s good practice and it’s also good exposure for you.

Speaking and teaching: There are numerous opportunities these days to share your knowledge, both in person and online. Besides being an immediate, fruitful exchange of money or services (barter is alive and well in the sharing economy), you will meet many people who can potentially hire or refer work to you down the line. Speaking and teaching also spreads your name on social media, which helps raise your profile when a future client inevitably looks you up in a search engine.

Community involvement: At some point in your career, you may be interested in mentoring others, or giving back. I’ve found that when you can articulate what you do and care about, people will notice, and you will discover a great chance to contribute back to the community. Volunteering with an organization to share your time and knowledge, or even joining the board of a non-profit is very rewarding work for all parties involved.

Some of these activities have immediate consequences and others build slowly, but they all constitute part of your overall practice. To broaden your activities, evaluate your current situation. How much of your time do you spend doing work, doing marketing, doing your own projects? Do you have room to fit in a Skillshare class or writing an article? Can you offer office hours to designers in training, or trade lessons to learn new skills?

Conversely, decide if there are activities you have outgrown and need to drop. It’s good to assess what you are involved in every six months, to make sure you are still happy with your projects and to fine-tune your offerings. Designers who can successfully piece together the right kinds of work will need to be fairly disciplined but will have incredible creative output that makes both peers and clients take notice.

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