Daniel Lloyd on carving out a successful creative career away from the big city

Photography by Matthew Johnson

Daniel Lloyd is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator based in Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire, famous for its medieval buildings and being the birthplace of Charles Darwin.

Despite there being the age-old pressure on emerging creatives and recent graduates to move to large cities to succeed, Daniel thinks you can make your business (and career) work no matter where you're based.

He's spent the last five years building a reputation locally and becoming known for his colourful and creative style of design and illustration, which has made quite the impact on his own doorstep. For instance, last year he had 30 flags of his illustrations hung in the town's high street, and he also designed a vibrant and permanent 'Welcome to Shrewbury' sign for the local railway station.

We chatted to Daniel about this and more, uncovering the secrets to freelancing success when you're based in a small town.

Tell us more about your journey so far

After graduating with a degree in media communications and journalism back in 2014, I stumbled into becoming self-employed, at this time, primarily as a social media manager.

After a while, I found that many clients I worked with were also looking for design work. In the past, I had dabbled a bit in making posters and flyers when I was an intern for a charity organisation, so I began to say "Yes, I can do that".

Slowly but surely, this started happening more, my confidence as a designer grew, and I began to understand more about how the industry worked and people were happy with what I was making.

As time went on, I stopped doing social media management and transitioned into being a designer/illustrator, and that's where I'm at today. It's a more unconventional route than how a lot of people get to this position, but I don't regret it and wouldn't do anything differently as I learnt loads during this time.

During this time, I also began to cultivate my particular style, which heavily uses geometric shape and bold colours in an illustrative way. Developing this style has been beneficial to my career as well because I now get clients who want to work with me, primarily because of it.

Making the transition to become a designer full-time didn't happen overnight, and I put a lot of effort into getting here, but as soon as I started designing it was like a switch had been flipped inside my brain. I instantly knew that was exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I say "life" because I very much see it that way. Yes, design/illustration is my career, but it's also an integral part of me. When I'm not working on paid projects, I'll be working on personal ones, visiting exhibitions and reading books about typography or geometric shapes. I can't switch it off, and I don't want to!

A bespoke poster design

A bespoke poster design

Design for a book exploring mental health and mindfulness. The exercise to the right is written by professional Mindfulness teacher, Vicki Worsley.

Design for a book exploring mental health and mindfulness. The exercise to the right is written by professional Mindfulness teacher, Vicki Worsley.

You've decided to stay in Shrewsbury – did a big city never appeal?

Growing up in a small town in the UK is quite a unique experience I think, as a kid, you always think there's nothing to do or new things to see.

You reach a point around the time you do your A-Levels when all you want to do is leave. I was no different, the glitz and glamour of the big cities appealed to me massively – being a working-class kid growing up in a council house, London seemed like a fantastical world where all your dreams would come true. Which of course does happen for some people! But that didn't happen to me.

I left university, did a bit of travelling, because I'm actually quite an adventurous sort, and then was very fortunate enough to start building up work that I enjoyed doing in the Shrewsbury area, eventually picking up bits of work further afield that I could do remotely.

So up until now, it's made sense to stay. I think it's essential to get the message across to people in the creative industries, that are just starting their career, that there are opportunities out there, away from the big cities, but you may need to do a bit of digging to find them. If you've lived somewhere a long time and know a few people, it's quite easy to make those initial connections and get the ball rolling on projects.

The UK is full of incredible small towns, and so many of them could benefit from the wealth of emerging creative talent we have in this country. It's quite an exciting prospect for me that our smaller towns could also become excellent creative hubs as well as the major cities.

Flags incorporating facts about Shrewsbury, designed by Daniel

Flags incorporating facts about Shrewsbury, designed by Daniel

I agree. It's easier to be a success no matter where you're based these days

I think so. Because of platforms like Instagram, which allow you to share your portfolio with the world, people can reach out to you from all over the place that you would never have expected. As long as you're driven and willing to put in the hard work to achieve what you want, it's all possible.

I've been fortunate enough to discover a creative career that I didn't even know I wanted when I was a student. Still, now I can't imagine doing anything else, and this is mostly down to the amount of exposure my work has.

Although many of the projects I work on are Shrewsbury based, I also don't have to be here all the time to do the work. I recently went travelling and was able to continue doing everything I would normally do, but from thousands of miles away. I feel extremely lucky to have a job where all I really need is my laptop and I can work from wherever.

It's also a lot easier to reach people who are interested in my particular style of design, more frequently I have requests from people who have seen my work on social media and are interested in working with me on projects. I don't think this will ever stop being exciting for me!

Tell us more about how you make it work

Whether you're in a big city or a small town, I think building up your reputation and rapport with clients is essential to making it work. If you can produce exceptional work that clients love, obviously that's the first big tick. But you also need to make sure that you're punctual with deadlines, easy to work with and responsive to questions and queries.

If you work within these key principles, your reputation will spread (even faster in a small town!), and more people will want to work with you, that's been my experience so far.

A lot of the work I do locally is with long term clients and new projects tend to come from existing clients, having shared their experience of working with me. I've also found that it's crucial to be yourself.

We're lucky in the creative industries that we get the opportunity to be a bit more expressive and have fun with what we do. I use this to my advantage. The other way I make it work is by constantly reminding myself that things could change at any time, and I think as a freelancer this is something you always have to consider! I know to some people this might sound counter-productive, but actually it really helps drive me to keep carrying on.

Freelancing is becoming more and more the norm amongst emerging creatives, and that's fantastic. Still, there is always a level of uncertainty about the future (as with everything). So to make it work, for me, I know that I have to be ready to move on at any time and I'm okay with that. I know I'll always work in design, but maybe it won't always be in this way.

Poster designs to help recruit participants for a music project being run by Shrewsbury based arts organisation, The Hive.

Poster designs to help recruit participants for a music project being run by Shrewsbury based arts organisation, The Hive.

What other challenges have you overcome?

I think being a self-taught designer comes with a lot of challenges of its own along the way. There's a lot of self-doubts that can surface about the work you're creating and whether it's good enough, plus there's the challenge of learning to work with clients and understanding how to provide work in the formats they require.

As soon as you've done something once, you know how to do that the next time and everything quickly begins to make sense. We are so lucky to live in an age where you can learn so much stuff without having to even leave your house as well, with tutorials on YouTube and Skillshare it's easy to develop new technical skills that you may need to complete a project and I like to make sure that I keep developing new skills as the creative industries are always changing. On the flip side, I think there are a lot of benefits to being self-taught too.

You've come to everything from a very different starting place than other people and learnt things in your own way. This is valuable and has helped me to form my own unique style. I think that had I arrived at my current position in a more traditional route, my style and portfolio of work would look very different – that's not a bad thing! But I do think it's exciting. In 2019 I did go on to complete a masters degree in design.

My reason for doing this was not because I felt that I had to, but because I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of doing it. For me, it was about helping to destroy some of that self-doubt I had about being a designer and I found it a significantly valuable experience, but I want to point out that it was by no means essential to my career. My advice to people who are teaching themselves how to design is to not be afraid to ask for help.

In the beginning, I was a bit more reluctant to do this because I felt that I should know everything, but obviously, that's impossible! When I started to ask people questions, I didn't know the answers to there was a real shift for me. Now I'm able to be the one who sometimes provides the answers – which is quite a nice complete circle.

Prints for the Shrewsbury Museum Coffeeshop

Prints for the Shrewsbury Museum Coffeeshop

Is Shrewsbury a creative hub?

It's becoming more and more creative all the time! As a town, we're incredibly spoiled with fantastic creative people including; Charlie Adlard, who is known internationally as the illustrator of The Walking Dead comic books and Matt Sewell, whose iconic bird illustrations you come across in shops all the over the country. But there's also a vast pool of up and coming artists and illustrators, all with unique styles.

It's so lovely to work alongside these creatives as well, who have their own careers in the industry - there's very much a community feel here amongst the creatives, we're all quite aware of each other and the work we produce.

I think when you work in the creative industries, it's so important to surround yourself with people doing similar things, especially if you're freelance and don't work in a typical office environment which many of us don't nowadays.

I was brought up in a way that encouraged me to support others and celebrate their achievements as well as my own. This is definitely something that happens in Shrewsbury's creative community, and I'm proud to be part of that. I think the town is going to get more creative and there's a real sense that people living here want that. It's not my plan to stay in Shrewsbury forever, but I will always feel part of this community wherever I end up in the world, and I think that says quite a lot.

You've made Shrewsbury more creative yourself, haven't you?

Over the past couple of years, I've worked on some fantastic large-scale projects in Shrewsbury that have allowed my work to be seen and enjoyed by 1000s of people. Some notable projects include; a collection of 30 flags that hung in Shrewsbury's main high-street throughout summer in 2019, featuring my illustrations of animals Darwin would have discovered on his travels to the Galapagos Islands (for some context, Darwin was born in Shrewsbury).

I also designed artwork to go in the Museum's café featuring illustrations of iconic Shrewsbury landmarks, which are a permanent installation. I redesigned the train station's 'Welcome to Shrewsbury' signage. Which is strange to look at whenever I leave or return to Shrewsbury, knowing that's a piece of my design so many people are exposed to daily.

As well as these larger-scale projects I've worked on logo designs for local charity projects, brochures for festivals in the town, helped re-brand an arts organisation and much more when I start to think about it all!

Something that is consistent across all of these projects is that they have allowed me to use my own style of design, which is very bold, colourful and straightforward. I know that this style of work is new to Shrewsbury and not something this town is perhaps traditionally used to seeing. As a designer, it's a fantastic feeling to know that your work has had an impact and allowed people to experience something new.

Wherever my career takes me next, I will always feel very proud to look back at the work I produced in my hometown. It means something more to me than just producing the best work I can, the connection I have to this place is essential, and I hope other emerging creatives are inspired to begin their career in their hometown too.

What advice would you give to those thinking about going freelance themselves?

I have two key bits of advice really. Firstly, don't compare your journey as a freelance creative to others. There are thousands of us out there and we're all at different stages of our careers, I still consider myself to be at the absolute beginning of mine. I've reached this position in a very different way and at a different pace to other people, but that's totally fine, our individual experiences are what shape our career. Be confident in doing your thing and doing it your way – people will recognise this in your work and it'll make a big difference.

Secondly, don't be afraid to ask for help! When I started freelancing I didn't even know what it meant and it was a steep learning curve. From managing my own finances, tax returns, deadlines, doing my own admin as well as doing my actual job: there was much to learn and sometimes a quick question to someone in the industry can save a massive headache. We can't be experts in everything, but we can ask for help when we need it. Look after yourself, be yourself and keep going – you've got this!