Alexandra Francis on going freelance during a pandemic and why creative friends matter
Although Alexandra Francis studied fine art at university, she graduated, knowing it wasn't really for her. Fast-forward a year later, and the talented Manchester creative found her calling in design and illustration following a full-time course in graphic design at Shillington.
She landed a job at a local creative studio where she also found time to co-found Make Room with friends, a zine that champions creative women, and also help out at Ladies, Wine & Design in Manchester. All was going incredibly well.
But in recent months, as the world continues to fight off a pandemic, Alex decided to take the leap and go freelance. It's not a decision she took lightly, and yet it's paid off enormously with recent clients including BBC Sport and Amazon. We wanted to know how she's got on, particularly with starting a business during such an uncertain time.
You studied fine art originally. What made you decide to move into graphic design and illustration?
During my degree, I loved drawing massive hyper-realistic murals of hair and freeze-dried ice cream, but as graduation crept up on me, I realised I didn't want to be a fine artist. After some mild (severe) panic, I knew I wanted to use the skills I had outside of the white cube of the art gallery and in the real world. Graphic design seemed to be a career where I could draw with purpose and hopefully help my community in a useful way.
You studied at Shillington and then worked for a couple of Manchester studios. What was that experience like? What did you learn?
To be cheesy, Shillington changed my life. I think it does for a lot of people; Shillington is a course for anyone at any time, so the people who sign up are at a point in their lives where they want a big change—being surrounded by a group of talented and lovely people with as much passion as you was really wonderful. I learnt the practical skills of design but also how important friendships are in design. You need those people to bounce off, have a moan to and marvel over a new bit of design you've just found and wonder if you can ever be that good.
The same goes for my time in Manchester studios, I've met so many fantastic people, especially women in the industry. Whenever I meet a woman who is killing it, at whatever level, I'm inspired to push myself even more.
Being okay with change is vital; things will land and fall through all at the same time, but you need to trust in your own value and ability. The right things will stick.
You've just gone freelance during a pandemic – how's it going?
Before going freelance, one of my friends described the decision as feeling like you're jumping overboard. That is exactly how it felt, terrifying but exciting. It's been incredibly busy, and I feel extremely grateful to be doing well during a time where so many people are living in uncertainty.
I've been lucky enough to work on lots of different kinds of projects, from icons to beer labels to TV ads. I still say good morning to some other freelance friends every day and pretend they are my colleagues.
That was an amazing project for BBC Sport. Can you talk us through it?
Thank you! Seeing my big head on TV was definitely a surreal moment; my nan called me six times to tell me she had seen me. It was an amazing opportunity to doodle the names of groundbreaking athletes all for LGBT+ history month.
It was my first time ever being in front of a camera like that, but it was loads of fun and took about 5 hours to draw. The team were super great to work with, and it was fascinating to see the bright lights and massive camera setups that go behind TV ads!
What do you wish you'd known before starting your business?
Being okay with change is vital; things will land and fall through all at the same time, but you need to trust in your own value and ability. The right things will stick!
You're also behind Make Room zine. Tell us more
After graduating from Shillington, me and two other designers (Katie O'Rourke and Nina Hamer) wanted to make something with our new found skills. We wanted to create something positive and uplifting about the female-identifying designers we were inspired by.
The first issue involved a lot of mistakes and six hours of battling with a risograph machine that was set entirely in german. We managed to get it stocked in Rare Mags and some Magma shops around the country - seeing your zine in a shop was definitely a proud moment.
We've been working on the second issue for just over a year or so, putting in bits of time around our day jobs, but we plan to celebrate and shout about even more designers doing ace work.
We've all been reflective these last 12 months. What have you learnt the most about yourself? And what steps are you taking to move forward in 2021?
The last 12 months have taught me how important people are. When everything seems to be turned upside down and thrown into uncertainty, you really notice all the amazing friends in your life. Although zoom quizzes can leave forever and never come back, nothing beats the support of your mates.
2020 also taught me to take each day as it comes, and I will continue to do that in 2021; nothing is guaranteed, whether that is in life or work, but by surrounding yourself with ace people, you can't go wrong.