1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?
I spent a lot of my early years playing with design / publishing packages first on the Amiga and then on PC. I’ve always enjoyed using a computer to create things, not just design, but music, video and writing too. I got into web design when I was fairly young, and created a few websites in my early teens (some code, some using WYSIWYG apps like Dreamweaver and Homestead). I worked in Flash a lot and enjoyed making animations.
Throughout school, because I did all of this in ICT, I presumed that’s what I was doing. It wasn’t until I took A levels I realised that this was actually design and it was its own subject entirely. I did some work experience at a printers and my best friend guided me onto a Graphic Design college course that then steered me in the right direction.
2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?
I left University right in the middle of the recession, I’d seen so many people struggle to get a job and took the first one I was offered at a small catalogue retailer. In hindsight, I perhaps should have aimed higher or in a different trajectory – but I really enjoyed myself in that first job and ultimately it lead me to where I am now it, just maybe took me a year or two longer to be where I wanted to be.
The biggest hurdle was having a child so early in my career. Ewan was born just under a year after I left University and it forced me to take a step back from the design community at a point when perhaps I should’ve been more involved than ever. After home life settled I then made a big push to get involved and focus more on my career and continue to do so. The balance is always hard, and I make constant adjustments to where I apply my time, but it’s a lot easier than it was in the first couple of years.
3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?
I’ve (deliberately) never been in a situation where I need to go out and get clients, so I’ll answer this with my Badego hat on and in the form of getting speakers / sponsors. Badego is my arts organisation that promotes and connects the creative community of Birmingham, we run events regularly that range from meet ups to talks, workshops and exhibitions.
The key I’ve found to getting people to work with us is being honest and having a very pure goal of what we want to achieve. Badego exists solely to help shout about the great things Birmingham based creative are making and put on events to celebrate and connect them.
I have no issue asking for things from people because it’s ultimately about a greater good. I receive no financial benefit from anything we do (nor does the company) and as a result I’m able to be a little more forward with requests in the hope that people buy into what we’re about.
4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?
This I can answer from a design / agency point of view, and it’s not going to be overly enlightening. Do good work and talk to the client throughout making sure they’re on board with what you’re doing. I saw a great talk from David Wall and Colin Harmon of WorkGroup and 3FE last week that discussed both the client and designer needing to trust each other. The client knows their industry and the designer knows how people will interact with (e.g.) their website.
There’s an element of trust there that says if you don’t agree on something you maybe need to take a step back and say ‘they know what they’re talking about, I’ll trust them on this one’.
That said, there’s been plenty of instances where I’ve had to make bizarre design decisions to appease the client. The more you can talk about these the better, to avoid any issues for the user. If a user can’t navigate a website properly then it reflects badly on us, and the client is going to see it as a negative on your work if someone complains, even if it was them who made the decision.
5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?
This is precisely why I don’t do any freelance. I find it too stressful trying to manage relationships outside of work and inevitably I will end up working on something that is of no real benefit to me other than money and that’s just no fun. This is why I fill my time working on projects I am passionate about instead, like Badego and Birmingham Design Festival.
6. What does your typical work day look like?
I’ve recently discovered that I’m way more productive early in the morning than late at night, so I tend to wake up at 6 and pop the laptop on for an hour. I’ll then respond to emails and work on any number of things that are Badego / BDF / Substrakt related until my son gets up and I take him to school.
I get into the office around 8.30am, we work in sprints at Substrakt so I’m usually on the same project for a whole week and depending on the stage of that project I’ll be planning, designing or working on the front end code all day and interacting with the team and clients via Slack and Basecamp. Sometimes the day is a bit more bitty and I’ll jump from project to project if there’s clients that need support.
Lunchtimes are reserved for more Badego / BDF work – these are often in the form of lunch meetings at the moment.
I pick my son up from school at 6.00pm and then once he’s in bed I’ll try and do another hour or two of work – this usually depends on how tired I am, it can often go on longer but sometimes I literally just stare at a screen nudging pixels with no real purpose so I call it quits. I generally try and get on the playstation for an hour, but it’s becoming a rare occurrence at the moment.
7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?
Get involved and meet people. Over the past 4 years of attending and running Badego I’ve met some brilliant people and those connections have led to great things and will continue to do so.
I’m a big advocate of giving back to the community if you’re doing well. Over the past year I’ve been looking to get involved in education at college and university level and they are crying out for industry professionals to come and share their experience with students. I was absolutely stunned to hear it’s not a regular occurrence of people offering their time to those institutions.
It’s easy to get wound up in your own life (and I’ve definitely been there), but becoming less introverted benefits everyone in the long run. The Birmingham design community needs to engage with each other way more than it does. Events like Glug and Badego are helping, as does the Design Birmingham Slack community. But it’s up to the individuals as well as the groups to make sure we’re all talking together and building Birmingham’s reputation for design, because we’ll all benefit from that.
Daniel Alcorn is a UX/UI Designer and Front End Developer at Substrakt based in the Jewellery Quarter or Birmingham. Substrakt specialises in making websites and applications for organisations in the arts, cultural, heritage and creative sectors. In his spare time Dan runs Badego, an organisation dedicated to connecting and promoting the creative community of Birmingham and is currently working on Birmingham’s first large scale, annual Design Festival.