Taaryn Brench on freelancing during the pandemic, and the change she wants to see in the creative industries

Taaryn Brench is an independent designer and illustrator based in Leeds whose style reveals a love of bright colour, geometric shapes and playfulness across everything she does, that's whether she's crafting a brand, making her illustrations move or designing new packaging.

Originally from Bradford, she went to Sheffield Hallam University to study law but didn't complete the course, dropping out and moving into the world of digital marketing. When she realised she needed a creative outlet, she did a graphic design apprenticeship through Voca Voca, an independent provider founded by Bob and Erin Sanderson. That led to her working as a multidisciplinary designer for a full-service agency.

After a few years, Taaryn went freelance and now works independently across design, illustration and motion. When she's not working, she enjoys gardening, sewing and bird watching – gentle pursuits that sometimes spill out into her work. We caught up with Taaryn to find out about her career so far.

What made you decide to go freelance?

I've always wanted to be my own boss! I've never really enjoyed any of the full-time jobs I've had before and always felt boxed in. When I retrained as a graphic designer (from client services) in my mid-20s, I saw it as a career that would eventually allow me to work for myself. I've been freelancing on the side of having a full-time job ever since I retrained.

In the last year, I've had more time to dedicate to freelancing since leaving my agency job. I'd started there as a junior designer, but in 2019, I was getting a bit restless. I was stuck doing jobs that weren't fulfilling. I felt like I'd progressed as far as I could, and there were all these things I wanted to do but couldn't because my job took up all my time.

The dream had always been to quit and go freelance, but it always felt so far off in my head, I'd not actually made any concrete plans for how to get to that point, I was plodding along! And then my work pal handed in her notice last summer which gave me the kick up the bum I needed to finally hand mine in too.

How are you finding it so far?

It wasn't easy at first. I struggled with transitioning from full-time to self-employment. I felt bad if I wasn’t at my desk working and it took a long time for me to realise that I don't need to be sat there for eight hours to be productive and work hard.

Then with more jobs coming in, I started to get into the swing of things a lot better after figuring out a routine that works for me. I absolutely love it now! For me, I think it's about having that level of control and my career progression not being dependent on someone else. I'm involved in everything, talking to the client, project managing, doing the work, all the business stuff, I really enjoy it all!

2020 has been quite a year. How have you coped?

Oh, it’s been so up and down! At the start of the year, I went on a much needed three-week holiday to India, and I was looking forward to coming back refreshed. Then two weeks later, we went into lockdown! I freaked out massively. For the first two months, I didn't have any freelance work, and I wasn't eligible for any of the government's help schemes. I'd started a part-time design job at the beginning of the year because I was getting really lonely working on my own and having that small amount of money coming in was a lifesaver. Freelance work has slowly begun to pick up again and financially; I'm hanging in there.

I've been conscious of being a lot easier on myself throughout the pandemic and not expecting too much day-to-day. The absolute minimum I need to do is get dressed and go for a walk. If I can do more than that, super. And if not, that's ok. I've also been enjoying pivoting my business during the quiet periods to do some mentoring, start an online shop and experiment with making illustrated textile homewares. Helping other people and learning some new things has been really beneficial and has helped me come back to client work feeling refreshed.

Exercise has massively helped my mental wellbeing this year. Before March, I was pretty lazy and hated all forms of exercise. Now I start every day with a workout, and the difference it's made mentally is amazing.

That's great to hear. What have you learnt about yourself this year – or, in fact, since going freelance?

Before I quit my job, I was worried that I would struggle mentally with freelance and I'd let knock backs really affect me as I tend to let negative thinking patterns spiral out of control. However, I've learnt that I have a lot more inner strength and resilience than I give myself credit for. If I can get through a pandemic, I can get through anything, to be honest.

We all doubt ourselves. But it seems you listen to your gut a lot and change things when they're not working?

Oh, definitely. It's taken me a long time to hone that. When I first started out, I was crippled with self-doubt and anxiety and I always felt like a fraud. I still have those feeling occasionally, which is normal and we all get that at some point.

But over the years, with experience and learning from mistakes, I'm a lot more confident in myself and my work. Thankfully, I've also got a perfect support system. I'll usually chat through things with my partner and my best fellow illustrator pal to get some clarity and perspective. My partner's not a creative type, so it's especially helpful to get a different take on things.

You dropped out of university. What made you realise it wasn't right?

I was studying law, and it was incredibly dull. Looking back, it was a low point in my life. I wasn't really enthused about going to university in the first place, but it had never really occurred to me that there were other options. I was toying with the idea of journalism or history but there was pressure from my parents to study law. It came from a good natured place, I'm sure. South Asian folks will understand what I mean. Each generation had its struggles and your parents want you to be successful and have a better life than they did. But there's that real lack of education at school level about how you can have a viable career in the creative industries.

Right before I moved out, my parents got divorced. And then things quickly began to unravel after Freshers' Week. I struggled to apply myself to my course and then just stopped going to lectures. I would frequently get panic attacks and feel anxious, so I stopped leaving my room. I'd just sleep most days and then go out at night. Trialling out different anti-depressants took their toll on my body. I constantly felt dazed and spaced out. I ended up losing a lot of weight while on them, I was under 7 stone. So it wasn't at all surprising that I failed everything and would have to repeat the year. I decided to take a year out, but after getting a job, I never went back.

It's great that you're in a good place now. You mention the high expectations we put on ourselves – do you think that pressure comes from the creative industries? Can you see it changing now?

With social media, it's so easy to see what everyone's up to. And we tend only to show the good parts, the client wins and the shiny new work. I know I have an unhealthy relationship with my phone and social media. When I've been scrolling endlessly, I definitely feel the negative effects. That I'm not good enough or that my work must be crap because I haven't had a big job as so-and-so has recently done. It's awful to let myself feel that jealousy burning. I have to remind myself that I'm on a different path, and there are a lot of other things going on behind the scenes for people.

I'd also like to see more chat about different career paths. I don't know if this is a common feeling with other people. Still, when I first started, I always thought that to be a successful designer, you needed to work at a fancy pants agency with high profile clients with the kind of projects that are splashed about on all the design blogs. Even now, sometimes, I feel like I should have more big names on my client list.

Is there anything else about the creative industries you'd like to see change?

Definitely the lack of diversity and inclusion. Representation matters. If you don't see yourself reflected in the industry, you start to question whether it's a space where you belong. I've talked about this a lot in the past and I've had that sentiment minimised by other people which is so frustrating. I blocked out some time recently for free mentoring, I had a lot of chats with black, South Asian and East Asian creatives who all said similar things, that it can feel alienating at times. I've been to countless events and design festivals where I've been the only brown woman in the room. It's rare to see someone like me, a woman of Indian descent, be in a senior leadership position. Especially up north.

With the spotlight over summer being on Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd, it felt like people were making the right noises. But it quickly disappeared. I'm seeing a lot of sharing of content on social media but very rarely does this translate to real life action. I want to see some accountability and what white agency owners and white people in senior leadership roles are actually doing to not only increase diversity but make their spaces inclusive and nurture people to rise through the ranks. It's been a bit quiet on that front.

If you're not using your privilege to do outreach at schools, looking at how and where you advertise your jobs, speaking up in your company or giving up your space on an all white event line up, then you're complicit in maintaining the status quo that benefits you and excludes marginalised groups.

Let's talk about your gorgeous work. Recent clients include the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. You must pinch yourself?

All the bloody time! I mostly work with small businesses, but every once in a while, I'll get something like this in my inbox, and I'm like, "Have I made it yet?!"

We've got to celebrate the wins. Are you optimistic for the year ahead?

In all honesty, I'm finding it a little difficult to be positive about the future. Last month I was feeling pretty low, as most people were what with it being around the six-month mark. It's hard because you can't see a point in time to look forward to when this is all over and back to normal. And who knows if it ever will be normal again. Which makes it challenging to think ahead and make plans because you just can't predict what's going to happen.

The self-employed and the arts have been left behind during the pandemic. Did you take Rishi Sunak's job quiz, out of curiosity? And how does it make you feel, how the government has responded?

I just took the quiz, and my top three were paramedic, lecturer and magistrate! Ironically, I really do want to be a part-time lecturer, but not having a degree is a barrier to that.

The government's response made me really angry. Especially as I wasn't eligible for any of the help schemes despite paying my tax my entire working life. And when you see tax-dodging businesses getting a life line, it's like rubbing salt into the wound.

Sinead Taylor wrote an excellent Instagram post with sources that I look back to every so often that said that creative industries create £12.7m every hour for the economy. And workers with a design element to their work were 41% more productive than the average worker. Creative people are so resilient. As if we're going to let some out-of-touch posh Tories tell us our careers don't mean anything!

Many people have gone freelance this year, some not out of choice. What would you say to them to help?

Start with emailing everyone you've spoke to in the last few years to let them know you're going freelance. You can't get hired if people don't know you're available!

Also, Twitter is so underrated as a networking tool. Don't be afraid to have an opinion on things. Get involved with industry discussion, build up organic and authentic interactions with potential clients and your peers. Share other people's work without expecting anything in return, and you'll find people will want to do the same for you. The goal is to be seen and to make people aware of who you are and what you do without being salesy.


Get the best of Creative Boom delivered to your inbox weekly