Photo: Emer O’Shea
Introduction >>View video>>
Most of what I do is book design – that would be a big part of my day-to-day. Besides that I do some magazine design work, which is what I’ve been doing for most of my career. Plus there’s been some PR/marketing work that most graphic designers do as well.
I am twenty-one years out of college I think. I left college and went straight into a design job around 2001/2002 – Celtic Tiger times. Two of us were picked up by this company – we literally walked out the gates of the college and were bundled off to start jobs the following Monday. It’s mad to think about now.
I think I worked for four or five years in a traditional design studio then I took a job with Hotpress which moved me into publishing. I worked in publishing then for about fourteen years after that which involved going from Hotpress to Food and Wine magazine to Household magazine. There were a good few magazines in Ireland at that time and you just did a sort of circle. When you got to the end, you started again. Everybody knew everybody who just kept moving around the place. Then the recession hit post 2008 to 2011/13 so you watched your salary come down, watched budgets get cut and advertising dried up. I think I moved jobs two or three times because the magazine was closing down. I seemed to have a knack for getting out six months before something closed down and got ahead of it. I was in that mode of just trying to dodge the bullets, watching the industry shrink. So many of those magazines aren’t around any more and even the ones that are still going, their budgets have been reduced. I did that up until six/seven years ago.
Pretty miserable >>View video>>
I decided to get out of magazine publishing and I got a corporate design job where I was going to be an in-house designer for a big financial place down in the docks in Dublin. They had a glass office, everybody was wearing suits, there was a pension, a package, I asked for money and they gave it to me – it was wild. I went into that and I knew very quickly that this was not going to be OK for me. This is not what I was cut out for.
You’re in the position where this should be at the “I’ve arrived” moment or “you’ve levelled up” but I think within four or five months I was pretty miserable. I kinda knew it. I remember going out on lunch break and spending the last 15 minutes dreading going back into that office and going into a meeting about something. It just was not for me and I think it was showing in my work. None of it was clicking, but they were really nice about it. Something that should have worked just wasn’t working.
I remember thinking I had a nixer (my first book for Tramp Press at the time) and a couple of other bits of jobs. I used to do a bit of sound engineering too. I knew I had enough things lined up that I could pay maybe two months rent and if I could find one more thing and get to three months rent, I was going to quit my job and go freelance.
I had just moved in with my girlfriend – we moved in in July, and in August I was like, “I need to quit my job”. She was brilliant, she was really behind me and said, “Well obviously that’s what you should do, you’re not happy, why would you put yourself through it?” It really is amazing to hear somebody say that because you don’t think that way when you’re in the midst of something like that. I remember ringing her and saying, “I can’t go into my job after lunch break”. I think I handed my notice in at that point and they were very understanding about it. They agreed to give me a month or two notice to get my head together. It just didn’t work out but nobody was going to be too upset.
Going freelance >>Watch video>>
As I was finishing up with the corporate job, I started ordering business cards for myself and going through LinkedIn. I landed a magazine production contract that involved me doing a magazine for a publisher in Dún Laoghaire six times a year which I still do now. That was the third piece I was waiting for. Somebody once told me that your business has to have three legs just like a stool needs three legs to stay up. If one leg goes, the whole thing falls over. So at that point I had my three clients and I just went for it and it stayed that way. Every three months there was another project and another and another.
Going freelance was exactly what I needed to do – being my own boss and having a bit of control over my destiny. If I’m working hard, I’m working hard for myself. If I have to stay late it’s because I’ve put myself in that position, not because my boss told me to. It’s great having a bit of ownership and being able to control the work-life balance. Sometimes on a Tuesday if it’s quiet I just turn off the computer and go for a walk or I’ll go home to my son. That was the big change for me.
I don’t think I would have ever realised how much I needed to go freelance or how much it would suit me. It always felt like I wasn’t organised enough or I wasn’t disciplined enough but I think it was exactly what I needed to do.
DIY music scene >>Watch video>>
The thing I think I didn’t realise was that I was working freelance anyway – I was doing nixers for people. I was very much involved in the music scene. Back then I worked as a sound engineer and I was recording bands. I organised people to turn up on time, I made sure I had the right gear and I was doing posters for bands.
There was a very DIY music scene happening, you had to ring the venue, book it, you had to work out how much that was gonna cost, you had to work out how much you were gonna pay the other bands. I didn’t realise I had a set of business skills only they weren’t called business skills, it was just me doing stuff.
Networking >>Watch video>>
I really didn’t think I was someone who networked but when I went freelance I realised that I had a load of people behind me who knew I was good at what I was doing. This all came out of that fourteen years of working.
I had never left a job in a bad way, I had always gotten on with people I worked with, by and large, so the first year most of my clients were people I had worked with previously. I went back to Hotpress and did a couple of weeks with them, I went back to all these places I had worked with which was a very unusual experience. It was like time travelling. It was really good, people who I had worked with 4 or 5 years ago still valued what I was doing and brought me in.
You’ve got more skills and you’ve got more in the tank than you think you have. If you love design or you love doing anything you’ve probably already been building a work ethic and network around you, especially in creative circles.
Definitely at different points there were people around me who were better graphic designers than me – really good graphic designers but maybe they could be prickly to work with. I think a big thing for me was that I was good but I also was going to turn up on time. If you had a backlog of stuff you need to clear, I’d sit down and fly through it. You could kind of leave me to it. I wasn’t going to wreck anybody’s head and cause any problems. I think that was a major thing, nobody dreaded seeing me walk in the door. That gets you a long way.
Out of Dublin >>View video>>
Things are good at the moment. It’s been a really interesting year. I’m five years working for myself now and we relocated from Dublin, Stoneybatter (where all graphic designers live) to Kerry. I’m in an office here in a town called Fenit which is about fifteen minutes outside Tralee. We just moved in August and that’s been really interesting.
This is the first time I’ve had an office. I can afford to rent an office in Kerry. It’s been a big change, having that work life balance. I’m here in my office about two and a half months – eventually it’ll be much nicer.
We had talked about moving to Kerry pre-COVID. I was always slightly afraid that some of my clients might be like, “No, why are you not in Dublin?” Most would be fine but there might have been one or two that would feel like, “That sounds like you’ve lost it there” but towards the end of COVID we were saying to people, “We’re going to relocate to Kerry” and people were in their spare bedroom with their kids screaming and they just didn’t care, they were like, “That’s fine”. I don’t know if people noticed I’ve actually gone.
Coming down here moved us out of that Dublin rental market. I’d been renting since I was eighteen. It’s been amazing. When I see on the news the rental situation in Dublin my heart breaks for anyone in that situation.
We bought a house down here, where you can see the mountains and sea out our living room window. It was a lot cheaper than buying in Dublin. It feels like we just took the cost of living pressure out of our lives and I’m using the freedom of being a freelancer/running my own business. I think there’s going to be more of it.
There’s lots of potential here. It could be a huge thing for people who want to work creatively and maybe want to be selective about what they want to do – they may not necessarily want to be chasing x amount of money at the end of the month that they could have if they got out of Dublin to find somewhere that’s a bit cheaper to live and get that work/life balance. That’s what it’s all about, that’s why you’d do it.
I don’t think I realised how much the cost of living was taking out of us. My son was
6 months when we moved down here. If we were in Dublin we would have had creche fees on top of rent. We would have done it but I don’t really know how. We would have just been flat out. I didn’t realise how much real estate that was taking up in the back of my head.
At the moment
Book design at the moment is where it’s at. I’ve recently finished a cover for a Scottish publishing company called 404 Ink. The book is called Nudes which is by Elle Nash. That was a really fun project to work on because they wanted it to be a bit shocking and a bit out there. I think it came out really well. It’s getting Likes on social media and seems to be doing what it should be doing so that’s good.
Another book I worked on recently went to press for Tramp Press who are an Irish publishing company. I started with them and they’re the main reason I became a freelancer. That book is called The Horse of Selene by Juanita Casey. She’s a Traveller woman who wrote back in the seventies/eighties and they’re re-issuing this book.
Those projects were nice – you’re doing creative work and it feels like you’re producing good stuff that makes a difference. That’s not every day though – some days you’re doing your accounts.
I have one guitar here, there’s probably five at home, there are banjos, there are bazoukis, there are drum kits, synthesisers in crates in the attic. How I made friends in Dublin was through music. I think that’s how I’ll probably do it down here as well once we’re all a bit more settled.
Playing guitar is a big part of maintaining my well being too even if it’s just 10 minutes when Rian goes to bed, just to have that bit of time. I’m trying to learn to play a bit of jazz. It’s horrific and I’m not good at it but I just enjoy when your fingers don’t move in the way they should, you just stick your head down and get into it. It’s meditation for me. Music has that place in my life. You don’t think about all the other stuff that’s going on when you’re trying to figure out what a flat 9 13 chord is.
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