Designer, illustrator, adventurer – these are the words that Claire Hartley uses to describe who she is and what she does. The London-based creative, originally from the West Midlands, has just returned from an epic trip around Southeast Asia, enjoying a little remote working here and there.
After going freelance by "accident" five years ago, Claire now creates identities for a raft of independent lifestyle brands, from ceramics and cider to fashion and fragrance. You may have spotted her on Instagram where she beautifully curates all of her latest adventures and projects.
We caught up with Claire to find out more about how she managed to enjoy three months of travel while freelancing, and what she has in store next.
You recently travelled around Southeast Asia for three months. Tell us more!
Ahh, it was incredible! I’d never visited that part of the world before but I turned 30 last summer and my little business turned five, so it felt like a really good time. My partner and I both went self-employed to have more freedom but in reality, we had much less free time than we’d ever had, so we decided to reset the work/life balance.
After months of planning, we left the UK in November for 99 days and travelled Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. It was such a memorable experience as we absorbed so many beautiful cultures — immersed in patterns, colours, and food. I couldn’t recommend it more!
Did you work while you were away? How did you successfully keep things ticking over?
A complete hiatus would’ve been the dream, but I couldn’t totally abandon my clients! I decided to not take on any new work for the duration of the trip but was on-hand for existing clients, all of which were amazingly supportive of our travels. Planning nine months in advance meant there was plenty of time to prepare. I probably should mention that a fortnight before our departure we moved out of our flat in London so we were totally free from financial commitments, which definitely took a lot of pressure off.
If I’m honest, I ended up working a lot less than I thought I would which wasn’t entirely great for cash flow but I don’t regret it in the slightest. Covering five countries meant we were travelling every few days so there was always exciting things to do and fascinating places to explore… it was quite difficult to focus on work!
Instead, I used the time to focus on myself and the ultimate goal work-wise was to keep things ticking over, so I didn’t come back to a mess of an inbox and giant to-do list. Apart from rather unreliable internet, it mostly went to plan!
What tools and apps did you find helpful on your travels?
I’m not really very good with apps so this is probably a really boring answer but my top five were Maps ("where am I?"), Mail ("hello clients!"), Instagram ("look where I’ve been") and the Calculator ("how much is that?").
Were you not worried about losing clients?
It was a slight concern but it was something I’d always wanted to do so I was determined to make it work. Having reached the five-year milestone it felt like I deserved it too — work had been non-stop and I was so close to burning out at times. I genuinely think that if I didn’t take the break I would’ve risked losing clients (along with my mind) anyway.
Do you have any other plans to travel in future?
Absolutely! My destination wishlist keeps on growing. I came back from SE Asia with so much creative inspiration. I love designing but I’m happiest when exploring. I think the best ideas come when you’re not stuck behind a screen!
I’d love to see South America next, especially all the vibrantly painted neighbourhoods and natural wonders. My work is heavily influenced by colour so I definitely think it would be a good research trip. I can expense that, right?
In an ideal world, I’d close the studio for a month each year to travel and reflect on my work but I’m not sure how realistic that actually is! I’m guilty of letting work absorb me at times but stepping back from the daily grind gave me a chance to reevaluate and gain perspective.
Creating space when you’re lacking motivation or suffering with creative block is so important. I think our trip made me really appreciate the great outdoors and there are so many national parks, forests and coastline in England I’m definitely going to explore more of that too.
Why did you decide to start your own business?
To be honest, my route into self-employment was a bit of a happy accident. I don’t think I ever had the confidence to take the plunge alone, but a mix-up in job offers and me getting far too ahead of myself meant I was briefly unemployed. I mean self-employed. So I freelanced as an interim solution and realised I kind of liked it.
To begin with, I was absolutely terrified, but I did love the freedom it gave me being my own boss. I didn’t have a business plan or a client hit-list, things just evolved naturally as I became more experienced and discovered what I love doing most. I had four years agency experience which taught me a lot, but not everything. The reality of unpaid invoices, clients going AWOL and working evenings/weekends definitely wasn’t the dream but I learned a lot from my own mistakes.
Initially, I freelanced in-house at agencies until I built up my own client base to do it alone. I’ve been going five years now and find it such a rewarding process working directly with my clients and building those relationships. Truthfully, it’s only been the last couple of years I’ve really gained clarity with my work and have begun defining my own brand — understanding what it is I love to do and why. That stuff doesn’t happen overnight, it takes a lot of long hours, sleepless nights and hard graft.
What have you found to be most enjoyable about freelancing?
I love being able to choose who I work with. My clients are all like-minded folk who share my values, which is something that’s really important to me. I can be working on a brand identity or packaging project for a good couple of months so a healthy relationship is essential. Having their trust allows me to really push myself creatively, which is when I produce my best work.
As a designer, I don’t actually do much personal work which is something I feel quite embarrassed about admitting. I think I’m slowly coming to terms with it but the truth is I get the biggest buzz when a client challenges me so I really value those relationships.
And the more challenging aspects? How do you overcome them?
Work/life balance is definitely the biggest challenge. My partner also works for himself so we easily slip into working lates which is part of the reason we decided to take a step back for three months and travel SE Asia.
When running a business there’s a lot of pressure to be working all the time. There’s no guaranteed salary at the end of the month and nobody to give you holiday pay or sick leave. I do feel a lot of guilt when I’m not at my desk which is ridiculous as I should feel freer but I know it’s a feeling shared by many. I’m fortunate that most of my friends are self-employed so it’s something we chat about a lot.
You've got nearly a decade of experience in design. What's changed since you started out?
Gosh, the Internet I guess? There’s so much visual inspiration on hand with amazing design blogs and beautiful social media feeds. I remember doing my end-of-year university project back in 2008 and photocopying books in the library to create a mood board then running out of credit for colour prints! Argh.
Nowadays I’m a sucker for Pinterest where I create all my project mood boards from various sources online. I work a lot in packaging too so I love being nosy down the aisles in Waitrose, Planet Organic and Whole Foods — there are so many amazing independent brands on the shelves these days.
You're based in London. Is that where you're originally from?
I’ve been in London for four years and I love the buzz and mix of cultures — but I’m a Brummie at heart. I think Birmingham’s always had a bad reputation but it’s a lovely city to live in and there’s a great design community.
My friends are putting on Birmingham Design Festival as a celebration of the local and international design industry held over four days in June. It has an excellent line-up of speakers and workshops so definitely check it out!
How do you find new work?
In the early days, all my work came through the power of recommendation but I’m finding more and more enquiries are coming via my website now. I once read in a magazine that you should only show the work you want to be doing so I’ve been slowly curating my site to be the best representation of me, my loves and my values. As a one girl band, I am my brand.
Working with independent businesses often means I’m working with the founder, so their brand is something that’s really close to their heart and a reflection of them too. Therefore I do think that by showing my personality through my work, blog and social media it helps build a better picture of who I am. We talk a lot about choosing our clients, but they have to choose us too!
We love your Instagram feed. Does that help with winning new clients?
Thank you! I often wonder if I post too many personal snaps or bunny photos but I just share what I love. Mostly it’s behind the scenes, new projects and travels — all of which feed into my work one way or another.
It’s a tricky one to know whether I’ve won any new work directly from Instagram, but it definitely plays a part in building my own brand. As a designer it’s an ongoing challenge to keep our websites up-to-date with fresh work (I admire those who do), so Instagram is super handy to drip feed work-in-progress sketches and sneak previews of what I’ve been up to.
Any recent projects you can tell us more about?
Absolutely, one of my clients, Nipper & Co, has just launched its new brand — a range of organic herbal infusions and teas. Marina, the founder, started the company on the back of her personal experience of being a mum and understanding how every little bit of support can make a difference. Bringing traditions of herbal teas from her home country Croatia and mixing with science (she studied as an agronomist) there’s a whole range of blends from pregnancy to nursing, energy to sleep, babies to adults.
It’s been such a lovely project to work on and we had lots of fun developing the brand identity. The packaging is playful with each tea having a unique hand-drawn pattern and colour combo. Collaborating with photographer Tara Liondaris, we captured a collection of images to help tell the brand story. Lifestyle photography is super important when launching a product as it helps evoke a mood and set the scene so I work with Tara on a lot of my projects.
What advice would you give to those thinking about going freelance?
Just be true to yourself, stick to your values and trust your gut.
It took me about seven years to find the confidence to create the sort of work I really wanted to do! I spent a lot of time doing work I thought I should be doing and not trusting my instinct to explore the things I really wanted to do.
Sticking to your values means you’ll work with good people — and good people are good clients who will challenge and support you.
What's next for you?
Things have been a bit in limbo since our return in February but we’re in the (stressful) process of buying a property and I’ll be looking for a new studio space in East London come summertime (anybody looking for a desk buddy, let me know!).
Work-wise, I’m hoping to learn lot more about sustainable packaging options with a focus on ethical brands and clients who do good. 2018 is about making time for myself too!