Saxon Campbell on freelancing in New York, adapting with growth and staying busy
Saxon Campbell is founder and designer of his own creative studio in Brooklyn, New York, where he has lived for the past five years, building up something of a reputation amongst the fashion, retail and creative industries.
Originally from Oklahoma, he moved to the Big Apple just two days after receiving his Bachelor’s degree from Northeastern State University, majoring in Visual Communication with Photography and minoring in Graphic Design.
He has since built his way up, in a very short amount of time, to start his own business and work for brands such as P&Co, Frockhub, The Monster Cycle, Valani, among others – and he has acquired a massive following on Behance too. And when he isn't working on his own inspiring projects, Saxon is a part-time lecturer at Shillington School on Madison Avenue where he teaches graphic design to students from all walks of life.
We caught up with Saxon to chat about what it's like to freelance in New York City, cope with business growth and understand the importance of maintaining a high profile in the creative community:
Tell us about your journey. How did you get here?
I’ve always been into art and design as long as I can remember. I was constantly inspired by magazines, packaging, posters, etc. Where I’m from in the Midwest, Oklahoma, design or anything artistic isn’t really a prominent trade. I knew if I wanted to be happy with what I wanted to do for a living, I’d have to move to a bigger city for the jobs, appreciation, and respect I desired.
I studied design and photography all through university, along with having a job designing for the university. About four weeks prior to graduation, I started sending out self-branded packages, containing cover letters, business cards, and a resume to companies and agencies I was interested in working with. I sent packages mostly to California, New York, and to a couple places in Texas. I remember stamping about 30 envelopes in total. I received seven responses, four phone calls, and had two Skype interviews. Skype interview number two was the one. ENK International, based in New York City, hired me on the call the Monday before graduation that Saturday.
That week I found an apartment and booked a flight to start my job the following Monday, just two days after graduation. Moving to New York was definitely a huge change for an Oklahoma boy, but it didn’t take me long to fit it. Once I was settled, I was ready to stay for a long while.
Over my five years in the city, I’ve had jobs in fashion, fitness, non-profit, real estate branding, and more. I’ve been freelancing since I got here, but went full-time freelance about a year and a half ago.
Was there a moment in your life when you knew you wanted to get into design?
It was very early in life. I would say my sophomore year in high school. My mom owned a hair salon and she would always get the fashion magazines. I remember going into her salon after school and looking through the magazines, waiting for her to finish work.
I especially recall the fashion ads catching my eye. And being from Oklahoma, when I was looking at the ads, it felt like I was looking at something from a different world and it didn't seem real, but somehow I wanted to be a part of it. And now in NYC, I'm right in the middle of it all.
You started off freelance but now you're running a small studio in Brooklyn. Tell us more about the growth of your business.
I transitioned from full to part-time at the job I was at. I then started to get too much freelance work to even have a part-time job, so I quit.
I started taking on freelance clients and worked in coffee shops. I found that about four hours of my day was spent answering emails, and that’s when I hired my project manager, Cara. We worked out of my apartment for two months and then transitioned to a small studio space in Brooklyn.
And we just recently got a bigger space, still in Brooklyn, to host more employees in future.
What has been the biggest challenge of growing from a sole freelancer to a studio with staff?
How did you overcome those problems?
Taking on too many clients and working on all the design myself. I have recently started hiring freelancers to help me out with certain projects, but at times it becomes very difficult for me to work on everything.
Are there any exciting projects you're currently working on?
Since we are on NDAs we can’t give out names, but yes, very exciting stuff. Some fashion, fitness, jewellery, and a couple others.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Usually from Tumblr, Behance, or my morning commute to the office. Really taking in the surroundings of everything that is going on in the world and online is very important.
What's it like being a freelancer in the Big Apple? Is it tough?
Sometimes it’s tough. I remember a couple years ago when I barely made rent and had to live job by job. It’s important to hustle in this city. Stay busy and you stay relevant.
You talk about how you have to stay busy to succeed in NYC... is that what drives you?
I think it's just that. It's NYC that pushes you. You realise early on as a designer that you need to work in a bigger city, NYC is the biggest in design and if you don't work hard to put yourself out there it's very easy to become lost and fail. About three years ago, it happened to me. When I was working a 9 to 5 and hating my job, I walked onto a street with graffiti that read 'do something every day to remind this city why the hell you're here'. And that was it.
People don't come to NYC to hate their life working a 9 to 5. They come to NYC to live their dreams. That next day, I quit. I focused on perfecting my portfolio and taking on freelance clients.
Coming from Oklahoma, what has surprised you the most about New York?
The culture. There is one culture in the Midwest. There are so many cultures in the city.
Are you ever tempted to return to your roots? What pulls you back? And what keeps you where you are?
I have been tempted. I moved back once but was back to the city in under seven months. Family pulls me back. Along with the amazing friends and fantastic girlfriend – jobs, appreciation, and respect keep me in the city.
"Stay inspired, busy, relevant, and continue to promote yourself anyway you know how to."
How do you find new work?
Usually, work finds me. Mostly from Behance and our website.
You also part-time lecture at Shillington School. Tell us about your role there.
I love it at Shillington. I teach part-time on Mondays and Tuesdays. We teach the students all about the programmes, the process, and share our real-life experiences with them. My first class just graduated, and it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
So you run your own studio in both photography and graphic design. You blog. And you're a part-time lecturer. Do you think 'portfolio' careers are the future?
Definitely. The more you do, the more impressive you come off. The more you know how to do, the better off you are.
Could you ever work for someone else?
I could, yeah, for sure. Freelancing is great, but at the same time, anyone that has freelanced knows, that times are rough. Sometimes you have to give it up and go back to the full-time life. Everyone needs to eat.
What frustrates you about the creative industries?
There are two things that have been frustrating me lately. One thing is when you have a 'creative' client, or at least they think they are. I recently worked on a project where I was hired to do some branding. My team and I had presented some of our best work we'd done and it was torn to shreds. We didn't receive constructive feedback, we received detailed instructions on what exactly they wanted. And what they wanted didn't make sense for their brand. Their email was basically a list of anything 'cool' they found, and they wanted to smash it all together in one brand.
So all in all, I was just someone's robot for a month and a half, literally doing everything their way. Which brings me to my next point. This client just decided he didn't want to pay me. So the next thing that frustrates me at the moment is the disrespect of designers in this world. You wouldn't tell your doctor you're not going to pay would you? No one likes to work for free.
Describe your local creative scene of Brooklyn... Is it friendly and supportive? Where do you hangout?
It seems very friendly and supportive. Lots of young professionals. We usually hang out in coffeeshops in the surrounding Greenpoint Area during our working breaks.
Describe what you'd do on your perfect day off
Do a personal design project. Designing for someone else is fun, but not as fun as designing a personal project.
What advice would you give to those wanting to go freelance or start their own design studio?
Stay inspired, busy, relevant, and continue to promote yourself anyway you know how to. If I’ve learned anything from designing in the city, once you take a break, you become lost in this massive pool of designers.
To find out more about Saxon Campbell, visit www.saxoncampbell.com. For more information on the part-time graphic design courses he teaches, check out Shillington School on Madison Avenue, New York City.