As a freelance designer and illustrator myself, I resonate with a lot of what graphic designer, art director (and green thumb) Judith de Graaff has to say. Being a freelance creative means wearing many hats (sometimes all at once) and learning how to compromise between client wants and what you think is best. And on top of striking that tough balance, Judith had to manage all of this and run her own creative business while learning the local language. Having grown up in The Netherlands, Judith up and moved to Pairs, France just over 13 years ago for a job and, after quickly learning how to speak French, she’s since made quite a name for herself as a designer, a founder of Urban Jungle Bloggers (one of my favorites!) and proud owner of a gorgeous home and studio (which we featured just a few years ago). Today, Judith is chatting with us about negotiating, the importance of side projects, and making the world more beautiful. —Sabrina
Photos by © The Joy of Plants, © Ikea Family Magazine and © Judith de Graaff.
Why did you decide to start your own business?
Almost four years ago the studio that I worked for was relocated to Eastern Europe. I had been working as a graphic designer in different advertising agencies in Paris, but loved the interaction with clients a lot as well. In most agencies that part is handled by account managers, so starting as a freelancer was an obvious decision: working directly with my own clients, understanding their needs and delivering satisfying designs.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
I never really defined what my business would be, as it came so naturally. However, I do have certain design aesthetics that appeal to certain brands and companies — and I also know my weaknesses, which means I don’t say yes to all projects. One of my beliefs is that I want to make the world more beautiful. It may sound pretentious or superficial, but there’s enough ugliness in the world already.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
Fake it till you make it. It’s not about lying about your abilities or knowledge, but about making things happen and believing in yourself. This advice was given to me many years ago, long before going freelance. I wasn’t an all-around graphic designer yet, but knew I could bring true value to the company that was considering hiring me. My eagerness to learn and my enthusiasm got me the job and I took the chance to learn as much as possible on the job. Shortcuts, printing techniques, software… and a new language. Because when I started working here in France, my understanding of French was somewhat rudimentary. Almost 13 years later, my French is (as good as) fluent and I’m a freelance graphic designer!
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Letting go of what’s precious to me. I used to have some very strong design opinions (and I still do) but clients (particularly French clients) love choice: when I design a logo, they usually ask for several options. When they would choose one that I liked less, I would be very disappointed. But design isn’t just about my personal style or preference, it’s also about making the client happy, about the process, the relationship, about listening and making the best of it. For your client, and yourself.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Trust your gut feeling — and that sometimes you need to educate your client. If you know a better way, staying quiet won’t help your client in the long run. When you approach your client politely and with evidence why you believe another direction would bring a better result for them and/or their customers, they will probably be open to hearing what you have to say. These kinds of conversations actually strengthened the relationships with some of my clients and I delivered a better result at the same time. It requires courage, but it’s worth it!
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
The great thing about failure is that you learn so much from it, that it rarely feels like failure afterwards. However, I can be too generous with my time sometimes and stretch my boundaries. But I’m in the process of learning. Unless you’re a surgeon, there isn’t much that can’t wait until the following morning.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Really, I cannot think of any real sacrifice I made since I started my own business. Of course I sometimes struggle to keep my workload on a healthy level (and not work into the night or weekend) but overall I cannot complain. One of the downsides of not working in the city center is that there are no cool restaurants or hip cafés around here, where I can work from. I’m happy with my home office, though, and plan enough trips to Paris or abroad to get the best of both worlds. And to get out of the house I started running during my lunch breaks. I never thought it would work for me, but it helps me to clear my head, get my exercise and stay focused.
Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?
My entire working life, I always had side projects. When I was working in fashion, I did some illustration work on the side, and while working in different advertising agencies, I started a blog. Now that I’m a freelancer, I need my side projects to keep a healthy balance between working for clients and personal creative development. One of my current side projects is called Urban Jungle Bloggers. It’s an online community about living with plants that I founded with my friend Igor from Happy Interior Blog. Every month we choose a green topic and encourage bloggers to join in and create a blog post around the theme. It’s been a tremendously fun adventure to share our love for greens with so many like-minded people and it’s very rewarding to see the community grow, just like a real plant.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I can’t wait for Studio/Practice to be launched. It’s a curated library of tips and tools for the creative community.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
I have two: Do you have a big dose of perseverance? Are you business savvy enough to take care of the “non-creative” part? If not, join forces with someone who loves that. Expect to find solutions to problems that you didn’t even know existed.