Making and Shipping

From making custom tools to product design

I am much happier making and shipping products than working on assignments for client projects. This realization comes as a surprise to me since I spent so much time honing skills to attract clients.

But there were always a least two issues with freelancing for me: the first ties to discretion. On one side, you have all these NDA preventing you from showing your best work, and thus you have little to show for, even after years of working for clients. The creative industry is an industry, and herein lies the problem with the creative economy. That leads us to the second issue I have with it: as a freelancer, my skills rarely get exploited as they should, in the proper sense of the word. One of the reasons for this is a failure on my part to communicate well about what I do. It is comparable to how agencies are the worst at communication when it comes to themselves. So maybe there is a reason along that line when it comes to present my portfolio of work. Or this is a simple curation mistake. There is always a lack of distance, a lack of objectivity when a designer presents their work. It is hard to pinpoint. The main reason, though, could be people’s inherent need for categorization. As a practice, design encompasses strategy, understanding, psychology, vision, decision-making, marketing, and aesthetics, to name a few. Similarly, illustration is not just one field, and there is no reason why I would want to limit my practice to a single style either. Concept art, editorial, cartoon, comics, historical illustration, animation, and visualizing are all equally challenging as they are different and attractive as a profession.

For me, the hardest part to explain to prospective clients is the difference between each assignment in my portfolio. In other words, diversity, something I inherently enjoy, leads to positioning and consistency troubles. In terms of branding, this is a generalist’s problem that can turn into a little bit of a nightmare: how can you showcase diametrically different skills in a way that doesn’t look like a weakness? And that might even be the wrong question to face the problem, mind you.

Now suppose that your skills lead to assignments in different fields, or that you need to partake in gigs that require a growing list of skills to be able to compete since you are not the best of the world in a unique, single skillset. In that scenario, you can take a partitioning approach: brand a for issue x, brand b for issue y, brand c for issue z, ok you get the idea. But that leads to another problem: waste. You will need to craft a portfolio for each of those sub-brands, think about a strategy, think about a presentation. Now, don’t get me wrong: honing your skills is never a waste of time. You will always learn useful things if you persevere. Yet it is a matter of priorities, even more so as a freelancer or a solo entrepreneur. You must decide where best to spend your finite energy resources. Add all the other issues that belong to freelance life, such as prospecting, invoicing, late payments, IP, and legal matters, all that cost a lot of time and energy. Whether you are a freelancer or a company makes no difference: you try to reduce efforts in some areas to be able to concentrate better on areas that matter more. Focus. Reduce waste. On the other hand, the opportunity cost may be even higher if you specialize, which takes years, only to find yourself unemployed once your unique skill is no longer under demand.

Shipping product(s) of your own spare you some of these problems, with the additional benefit of being compatible with doing client work. Another advantage is that developing a product that you use yourself puts you in the client’s shoes. It makes you consider problems from other angles. Any problem that you experience firsthand reinforces your ability to solve it on behalf of a client later. Companies, like Basecamp, iA, and Gumroad, found their special calling once they started developing products on their own. Basecamp started as a web design agency (37signals), developing tools to ease their workflow led them to writing software that became their core business. iA, while still working for clients, developed the minimalist yet highly polished iA Writer, initially to remedy their frustration at the lack of a simple text editor. Gumroad’s founder wanted a simple way to sell a product online. That did not exist, so he designed his own.

Creating unique tools for yourself, working on a product, or a range of products is beneficial, whether you keep working for clients later on or not. It is a good idea to start by designing something that you need and would use. Something simple, or even incomplete is good enough for a start. The first Jekyll project I released was super minimal, not even a complete theme, but it was useful to learn, and a first step. What is interesting is that each tool or product you build informs the next. You learn from trials and errors, and you never know, but there is a good chance that something useful to you will be to someone else.