Craig Black on why freelancing is the secret to happiness, balance and doing what you love

A graphic designer, lettering artist and typographer, Craig Black has undoubtedly caught the attention of the creative industries in recent years with his bold and innovative typographic illustrations, not to mention his unique visual identities and packaging designs.

Craig followed the usual route to London after graduation, working for a number of leading agencies before deciding to go it alone and return home to Glasgow. With quite the career so far, we chatted to Craig about how he got started, lessons learned and what he has planned next.

You started off working for agencies in London. Tell us more

I graduated from Cardonald College in Glasgow (now named Glasgow Clyde College) in 2013. At that time, I was of the mindset that I had to move to London if I wanted to improve. Seeing all the amazing design work coming out of London, it really inspired me and motivated me to be a part of it all.

My first job was with Red Bee Media who are a broadcast design agency. At the time they were the in-house team to the BBC and the work was predominantly motion design which took everyone by surprise when I took a job with them as I come from a print-based background and had never opened After Effects in my life.

I saw this as an opportunity to get my foot in the door and show them what I was capable of. I learned so much in my time there and managed to work on some amazing branding projects. There was a great support base and given that I was learning After Effects from scratch, they were all extremely patient with me.

After two years there, I decided I wanted a change and so I created a number of self-promo glass frame lettering designs and sent them off to five of my favourite agencies in London in the hope that they’d be interested in my work and invite me in for a chat.

At the top of my list was Gregory Bonner Hale – fortunately for me, they loved what I produced and invited me in for a chat. After a few meetings, although they were not advertising or looking for designers at the time, they created a position for me. This is why I always encourage students or any designer to take initiative and knock on doors.

What prompted you to start your own business?

Since the day I graduated, I knew I wanted to become an independent designer specialising in typography and lettering. So when I was working full-time jobs, I started to practice typography and lettering every evening and weekend, churning out personal project after personal project.

After about two years, I started to get some freelance projects (my first being a window mural which I had no idea how to do but I loved it). From that point onwards, I started to get more and more projects and after six months at Gregory Bonner Hale, I was effectively working two full-time jobs, which was crazy.

The pivotal moment in this transition for me was when I worked on a branding and mural design project for a Mexican restaurant in Glasgow. I flew to Glasgow every weekend for six weekends straight to finish this project as I didn’t have any holidays to use meaning when it was finally complete, I was both physically and mentally broken. I was completely burnt out. However, rather than treating this as a negative moment, I turned this into a positive and it made me reevaluate what I wanted to do with my life and from that moment, I decided I wanted to start my own business – the best decision I ever made!

Another reason I decided to go out as an independent designer was because I started to think about the future. The ultimate dream for me is to have a family and I want to have a flexible lifestyle that allows me to take my children to school, take holidays when I want and not be dictated by someone else’s business model. I know to make this come to fruition I need to start working smart and hard now to allow me that freedom in years to come.

What's worked for you in getting your name out there?

The biggest thing that worked for me was networking and making real connections with people. It was and still is, the best way to get work in the door.

I would attend every design event and make a huge effort to say “hello” to people and strike up a meaningful connection. Whenever a client was interested in collaborating with me, I would try my best to meet them face-to-face so they get to know more about me and see how we can work together. I always believe that people buy into people first and then jobs and recommendations will grow from there.

Another great way to get your name out there is to connect and submit work to design blogs across the world. Creative Boom has helped me out massively in showcasing my work and I will always be extremely grateful for it.

Shucks. Thanks! So you left London to go back to Scotland. What do you love most about home?

I moved back to my hometown called Gourock (which is about a 45-minute drive from Glasgow) in 2016. It’s a beautiful little coastal town and I absolutely love it.

I really enjoyed my time in London and I met so many amazing people but the city started to grind on me, the relentlessness was just becoming too much. I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore.

My fiancee, family and friends were all back home and I just really missed them. I knew deep down that if I was going to produce the best work possible then I needed to make sure that my personal life was as happy and positive as possible. I knew that the only way to achieve this was by moving home. I really enjoy the way of life, the people, the culture and the thriving creative community throughout Scotland.

With that in mind, does where you live and base your business matter?

For me, happiness is the key to life and the key to a successful career. I believe that if you’re happy in your personal and family life and work within a positive environment then you will thrive no matter what. The majority of my work comes from international clients and I always explain where I stay and work and it’s never been an issue.

Fortunately, I have great transport links across Scotland and if necessary, I can get a quick flight down to London. The way the world is going with technology and how we can collaborate, I really don’t think a specific location matters. As long as you can get an Internet connection, you’re good to go!

What would you say are your strengths?

I would say my main strength is my versatility. To be able to adapt to any kind of lettering and typographic brief has been pivotal in my career. Whether it’s doing old Victorian lettering for a whisky packaging project or script lettering for a mural design, the constant change keeps me on my toes and forces me to improve on my skill-set which will inevitably benefit my career.

And what are you hoping to improve on?

I aim to constantly improve on my typographic and lettering but, to be more specific, I would like to improve my handling of spray paints, especially when it comes to large-scale lettering mural designs. I’ve connected with a wicked street artist based in Glasgow and I'm planning on doing a workshop with him in the summer.

I think it’s just as important to keep improving on the business side of things. I’ve been heavily digesting books and resources on how to run a successful business as well as connecting with people outside of the creative industries. Gaining knowledge and perspective from business entrepreneurs is proving to be hugely beneficial.

Talk us through a recent favourite project.

I recently collaborated with Whitespace design agency to create a lettering mural design to celebrate the legacy of Scotland's famous creative, Robert Burns.

The mural took four days to create and was then displayed at SWG3 in Glasgow. The project was commissioned by the Scottish Government to help promote Burns and his continuous influence on creativity in Scotland.

The mural was originally planned to be indoors. However, a week before the deadline it changed to being outdoors which created a few complications as I had to paint the design on to six large panels which were then assembled together to create the mural.

One of the main challenges was to get the type to line up correctly across all the panels as we had to project the design onto them. We also planned to spray paint the poem in the background using a stencil, however, the stencil didn’t work well, which forced me to hand paint the poem.

There was no way I could have completed the design on my own and fortunately, due to the amazing creative community in Scotland, 10 designers came out to help me finish painting the mural design on the last day. I am extremely grateful to everyone who helped bring this mural to life.

The project was well received and showcased across a lot of national publications as well as appearing on two TV channels.

Would you say you have a certain style?

I think one of my greatest assets is that I don’t have a specific style. I have a versatile skill-set within typography and lettering which benefits me as well as my personality as I constantly like to challenge myself rather than doing the same thing over and over again.

I pour my heart and soul into my work and aim for the highest of standards and by doing so, I feel that that leaves my imprint in the a weird way!

You do a lot of talks as well. Are those something you enjoy?

I thoroughly enjoy doing talks now and I feel it’s important to share my story because if it can inspire one person to go and chase their own dreams then I’m playing my part in making the world a better place.

I remember doing my first ever talk at GAB in Glasgow in 2016 in a room of about 60 people and I was absolutely terrified. I embraced that fear and did it anyway and the response was absolutely incredible. From that moment, doors started to open for me in the speaking circuit which has led me to speak at design conferences in Australia and Paris as well as speaking at one of the biggest design conferences in the world at OFFF in Barcelona this April.

It’s a dream for me to speak at OFFF and to be able to share the stage with some of the most legendary creatives in the world is truly incredible. This all started by throwing myself in at the deep end and embracing the fear at GAB all those years ago so I encourage anyone to share their story as you never know where it could lead you.

Is there anything that frustrates you about the creative industries? What would you like to see change?

Stress being used as a form of social currency – it’s not a badge of honour, it’s a mental health problem. You still see stress and long working hours being used down the pub as a synonym for success.

Agencies have a big part to play in this, and the biggest offenders talk the talk about culture or flexible working when all they’ve done is install a pool table and demand even more from their employees.

We need to start showing that putting in outrageous hours doesn’t equate to being more passionate, productive or creative.

What advice can you give to others thinking of starting their own creative business?

The most logical and safest way to start your own business is to have some savings in the bank to tick you over, as there will definitely be some dry spells. Try and do some freelance on the side of a full-time job to grow a client base and see if it's for you. Then you can steadily become a full-time independent.

However, if you’re like me and don’t play it safe and start a business with no savings, then give everything you’ve got to get up and running. Reach out to everyone you know, creative or not, and see if there’s anything you can do to help. Go to networking events, use LinkedIn and actually make an effort to say "hello", it honestly pays dividends.

In the early stages, it will most certainly challenge you. But you need to remain resilient and focused on what you want to become. My belief – and the reason why I started as an independent designer – got me through so many tricky situations and I will always rely on that going forward.

This is such an overused term but honestly "if I can do it, then you can do it too!"


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