David Airey on starting out—and advice for new designers

David Airey at work.

I can’t remember when David and I first connected. It was probably sometime around 2006, before he wrote his first book Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities. I remember him featuring one of our design studio’s projects on his blog. Since then, we’ve kept in touch, albeit entirely through digital means. Although we’ve never met in person, I count David as one of the nicest designers I’ve had the pleasure of corresponding with.

I also admire his achievements. David has amassed a wealth of knowledge on corporate identity and logo design, in particular. Every month, up to a million people visit his blogs, including Logo Design Love, for inspiration and ideas. In addition to his substantial contributions to design discourse, David is a practicing designer. He’s also a busy dad to his daughter, Scarlett.

As we approached the launch of Officehours, and considered who to reach out to, David was at the top of our list. I’m excited that he accepted our invitation, and came on board as one of our first advisors. I’m equally pleased that he’s willing to share some insights here, on the Officehours blog.

How did you make your way to design?

Back in ‘95 when I was 15 I joined a two-year, full-time art and design course at a college in Bangor, Northern Ireland. I knew I wanted to do something artistic, but it wasn’t until the end of the course when I was particularly interested in graphic design. So I signed up for the higher level of the course, another two years’ study with a focus on design, and after that I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, in ‘99 for a degree course in graphic communication management.

My first design job came after a post-grad diploma and some brief, unrelated jobs. The design role was with Edinburgh-based cancer charity Myeloma UK where I was responsible for the company’s print and web promotions. It lasted two years before I quit to go and see a bit of the world. When I returned to Edinburgh some months later, aged 26, my job at the charity hadn’t been filled, and as I’d been thinking about self-employment I suggested that my old boss become my first client. He agreed, and I spent three days each week working for Myeloma UK from the corner of my bedroom, invoicing at the end of each month and simultaneously looking for other clients. It was 18 months later when the charity needed to hire someone full-time, so we parted ways. But by that stage I had enough of a web presence to attract short-term clients and pay the bills.

What did you struggle with when you started out?

A combination of money worries and inexperience made me think I needed to work with every potential client that came my way. But as any experienced designer will tell you, not every client’s a good fit, and it often pays to say no (both in terms of lowering stress levels and saving time).

Pricing was another challenge. Looking back, I undercharged clients for my skills, probably because I didn’t have enough confidence in my ability, and was scared to lose the job. To be fair, some of my early designs were awful — partly due to me, partly because I let clients micromanage. Some people might say I was lucky to earn anything. I suppose that was bound to happen when I was winging it in my fledgling business years.

How did you overcome this?

With more experience I started figuring out how to spot clients that weren’t a good fit, whether it’s after they sent short, impersonal emails, or if they’d had problems working with other designers, for example.

Nowadays I accept about 5 or 10 percent of the projects I’m asked about. Being more selective means I’m a much better fit for the work I agree to. As a result, my job is more enjoyable, and my clients get a better service.

Where pricing is concerned, what I charge has gradually increased over the years, and I tend to judge whether it’s fair by how busy I am — if things are quiet I’ll slightly lower my fee, and if I have a lot of work on the go I’ll increase my quotes.

Did someone help you out along the way? If so, what advice did he/she give you?

Ten years ago, a friend told me I needed more experience before going it alone. I didn’t take his advice, but it motivated me. It’s funny how I still remember that. I guess negative comments affect me more than positive ones.

The comment threads on my blogs contain a ton of advice, critique, and resources from a lot of different people. I owe a great deal to those who’ve taken time to commentate — too many to mention individually.

What does your average day look like?

I wake when my daughter wakes, normally about 7am, and I start work around 8, checking my inbox and reminding myself what needs done for the day.

Client work is mostly within Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, Acrobat, and through emails and video calls. I’ll sketch, too, but for the most part it’s digital. Despite the fact that a lot of my time is spent at my desk, I know the importance of regular breaks, getting outside, keeping fit.

Working from home means I can usually have lunch with my wife and daughter. I love that.

I’ll usually cook around 5:30pm, but my computer’s left on until about 9 or 10pm in case I’m on a tight deadline or if I took a few hours off during the day.

David and his daughter, Scarlett, enjoying the countryside. David and his daughter, Scarlett, enjoying the countryside.

Why are you on Officehours?

To help people who are thinking about, or who have recently started their own design businesses. As graphic designers, we might spend most of our days at our desks, and many of our tasks mightn’t exactly be glamorous, but I know how fortunate I am to have the job and the life that I do, and if I can help someone who wants to do the same thing, great.

What kinds of problems would you like to help learners with?

Anything someone thinks I can help with.

Your daughter is still young, but won’t be for long. What piece of advice would you give her if you could pick only one?

You can be whatever you want to be. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Well, if you didn’t already know David, now you do (at least a little). To learn more, read his blog, buy his book (or his other book), and find him on Twitter.

David’s holding Officehours, soon. To apply for a session, go to David’s Officehours page and check his availability. Act fast—we expect spaces to fill up quickly!