For as long as Abigail can remember she has found joy in making stuff. Growing up in the 90s she spent hours trying to recreate Blue Peter’s version of Tracy Island or paper mâché dinosaurs from Art Attack. In the early 00s, her family got their first dial-up connection and she tried to learn HTML and build her own website, which led to some pretty sweet customisations on her MySpace profile a few years later.
When it came to higher education, Abigail chose a Multimedia course at college, mostly because it sounded like a delightful pick-and-mix of all the things she already loved doing. At university, she studied New Media—a course title she had to explain repeatedly to her parents—which was “actually a little outdated but good for the basics,” she says. After that, she spent a year trying and failing to get into the video games industry, which was when she decided to focus on web design.
“These days web design is the main focus of my career, I design and build websites and WordPress themes for small to medium-sized businesses. The scope of each project varies, so I could design just the visuals for a website one week or build a site which has been passed onto me from another designer. Some projects involve a lot more work and planning, which means creating the front-end design and building a custom WordPress theme too,” explains Abigail. She also spends most of her free time on other creative projects, including The Print Social, where she will organise exhibitions and events such as Liverpool Print Fair, and on top of that, she also runs a small business with her partner selling handmade products they design together. “I just can’t stop making stuff,” she says. The creative itch, something we’re all too familiar with.
In the decision to go freelance, Abigail felt it took far too long to make the leap. “I think it was due in part to me being the only designer and front-end developer in my office. I felt certain that there was more for me to learn before I could run my own business, postponing it until I’d better my skills,” she explains.
“Five years down the line when we finally started growing the team, I realised I was much better than I’d thought I was. I began taking on freelance jobs in my spare time to build a client base, and started saving some money for the first few months as a freelancer.”
There are many pros to being a freelancer, from flexible working hours to selecting who you want to work with and the projects you chose to take on. For Abigail, the projects she loves are the ones where she gets to collaborate with the business owner, rather than work for or even against them. “When you find a client who is passionate about their business but is still willing to listen to your advice and expertise, that’s when the magic happens,” she continues, “I recently built a site for a record producer in Liverpool, who had a rough idea of how he wanted his website to be but was open to that idea evolving. The project was great because while I was able to get creative with the design, I was also asked to add some things which I’d never coded before, so it was a challenge and taught me some new things too.”
Not being afraid of challenges is crucial for anybody who is looking to start up their own business, the process isn’t linear and for things to pay off you need to work hard and get yourself out there. “Obviously working hard on honing your skills is important, but having a solid network of contacts is also key to surviving as a business owner,” says Abigail. “I love attending design talks and conferences, which are really great for inspiration and networking, talking to other designers and developers is invaluable too, whether it’s an online discussion or face-to-face at an event. Most of my work has come from referrals not just from clients, but people I’ve met while attending these events. I’ve made useful contacts online as well, where offering help on sites like Twitter can lead someone to think of you next time they need a website.”
Abigail trades under her own name and hasn’t set up a brand outside of who or what she is. “I put a lot of emphasis on working closely with my clients, working hard to give them a website tailored to their business and its needs. I’d much prefer to build something affordable and personal for a small business, rather than aim for the big faceless companies that need everything approved by a committee of ten.”
For anybody who is looking to start up a business in this field but unsure on where to start when it comes to building a brand, she suggests asking yourself some questions about the work you’d like to do, the kind of people you want to work with and what unique skills or services you can offer them, then build your portfolio and brand on that. “For example, larger companies usually want to work with established and experienced designers whom they can trust to look after their brand image, so if you want to be hired by them then that’s the image you need to project. Freelancers are usually more affordable than studios too, which is something to consider when deciding whether to work under a brand name or something more personal.”
For those considering a career in web design, recognise that you’ll find new tools, libraries, languages and methods appearing all the time and if you’re not careful you can be overwhelmed by it all and feel like it’s a constant battle to catch up. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter which tools you use or how you use them, as long as the finished product works for the client and does the job it was created to do,” she explains. “Anyone can learn to build a website, but in order to be a great web designer you need to be eager to learn and willing to adapt.”
One of the key things every web designer needs is a good portfolio. “Without one it’s impossible to demonstrate what you can do for employers or potential clients,” she says. But if you’re just starting out, you might wonder how to you can build a portfolio when you haven’t worked on any projects yet – solution? Personal projects. “Try making up some companies and designing their websites, or create something for yourself which showcases a topic you’re interested in. It’s great practice and it also demonstrates your eagerness to learn and create, which will get you huge bonus points in interviews if you’re looking to work for an employer.”
Whilst you might be eager to learn, and hands-on experience is something you’re itching to get hold of, Abigail suggests not to get stuck doing unpaid internships for companies who like to exploit the free labour. “You shouldn’t have to offer your services to other people for free either. Do some research on the companies you want to work for beforehand and if unpaid really is the only option, make sure you’ll actually be getting worthwhile experience and not just doing the work nobody else in the company can be bothered doing.”
The more your experience grows, it’s then important to have a general idea of the direction the web is going in. Something Abigail tries not to do is get swept up in the trends and constant changes happening in the industry. “It’s much better to speak to your peers and find out what other people are actually using. Podcasts are also great for sparking ideas and giving you things to research, and I’ve always found Twitter to be a useful resource for front-end development discussions too.”