An Interview with Freelance Graphic Designer Diego Gomez

An Interview with Freelance Graphic Designer Diego Gomez

Creative career moves in graphic design launch a freelance enterprise...

May 8, 2007

As a freelance graphic designer based in San Francisco, Diego Gomez has flexibility and creative control he requires for career satisfaction as well as the ability to set his own hours and chooses his own clients.

Diego received a Bachelor of Science degree in Graphic Design from the Art Institute of California – San Francisco. A student internship led to his first job in the field and then several years establishing his skills and creative mindset in graphic designer roles with Bay Area companies.

To gain creative control over his work in a way that was not possible when working for a larger company, he formed his own business, Diego Gomez Design. "I feel like I get to be more creative all around by working as a freelance graphic designer," he explains.

Diego & His Career

Tell us about your graphic design career.

I've worked as a graphic designer for several different companies. The first place that I worked for was an internship at a company called Th.Inc!, which later led to a full time job with the company. I was involved in the production and presentation design of textiles; they would provide me with textile pattern designs or with specific items, and I would work on making sure that the presentation was correct. I also worked on designing presentation boards used to sell the company's services as the graphic design company to other large businesses. Then I went to work for a company called Keeco doing similar work, but working more on designing packaging and presentations.

I also worked for Youth Outlook magazine. That work gave me more opportunity to work on illustrations, which was what I was initially hired for. Drawing is the area of the job that I particularly like, although it's not necessarily a huge part of graphic design, so this was a really great opportunity for me. I moved up in that company and was able to get wholly involved in the graphic design and layout of the magazine, eventually working my way up to being the co-director of the art department for the company. I left the job because of social politics there, but it was an invaluable experience because it taught me about how much I like the drawing and layout aspects of the work. From there, I went into freelancing, which is what I do now. I actually returned to Th.Inc! for a little bit as a freelance designer years after I'd originally worked with them.

How is working for a company different from working as a freelancer?

I work as a freelancer now because it gives me more opportunity to have creative control over my work. This is true in the sense of the design (although that is sometimes dictated by clients) but it's more true in that I really get to choose which clients I work with and which jobs I take on. I feel like I get to be more creative all around by working as a freelance graphic designer. On the other hand, it isn't a steady income, and I really have to work at the business end of it if it's something I want to develop and make money at, so there are trade-offs. I can do more illustration and fine art stuff working on my own. I really like the freelance jobs, so it's been a good switch for me.

What are some favorite projects you've completed and why?

I've done freelance work for a number of different places. I worked with Artists Studios Ltd., designing mock-ups of novelty products which would eventually be placed in stores. I've done a lot of work creating identity materials (logos, advertisements, business cards, etc.), which is really neat because that is something that lasts over time – meaning that I get to see my work around town on a regular basis, which is a satisfying thing. I've worked for Canada College doing set paintings and fliers for plays, which allows me to use my skills to get involved in other types of creative work. I enjoy collaborating with others, so that's always a positive thing for me.

What do you enjoy most about your career? What do you do dislike?

I was interested in art for as long as I can remember, so I'm happy to have found a career which allows me to make money doing the work that I enjoy. I'd really like to be working strictly in drawing, but there isn't as much of a market in that as there is for graphic design, so it's something of a compromise for me. It's hard working with certain clients because they might have particular ideas of what they want done and then that puts restrictions on my creative abilities. But I'm able to use my skills to get work I enjoy which pays well so that I can pursue my other art as well, which is a positive thing.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I'd like to do more and more work which is based off of my own ideas. I really don't like working for someone else, so being completely self-supporting off of my own creative ideas would be an ultimate goal. But other than that, continuing to do projects which interest me and to further myself as a freelancer.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your graphic design education. How did you decide to study graphic design? And how did you find a school?

It's actually kind of funny because I didn't really have any intention of going into graphic design. In my senior year of high school, the Art Institute came in and gave a presentation to one of my art classes, so that's when I first learned about them. I showed someone my work and they liked my portfolio so I followed up with them. Another school had come in as well and didn't seem as interested in my portfolio, so I just went with the Art Institute initially. I was really actually interested in drawing and illustration but the Art Institute didn't offer a degree for that. The degrees with the most classes in drawing were animation and graphic design, so I learned about them, and I found that animation seemed really repetitive to me, so I went with graphic design.

What classes did you take as part of your degree?

I took a lot of classes that were really similar to one another actually – classes in packaging and design, some drawing fundamentals – basically it was a lot of project-based classes. So we would have a project to, say, create a CD booklet, and that would be what we learned to do throughout the class, then we'd have the project complete when the quarter was over.

How has your education benefited your career?

I really would prefer to work by hand, so the whole field of graphic design had to kind of grow on me, and the education really helped to nurture that. It showed me what I could do with my skills that would earn me money. And of course, I couldn't even have gotten a graphic design job at all without the degree, so that was important.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs?

I didn't ever plan on leaving the Bay Area for education so the only schools that I really know anything about are the ones that are here. Of those, my school was not one of the most prestigious ones. The prestigious ones are the San Francisco Art Institute (which is not affiliated with my school) and California College of the Arts. But those are also very high-pressure educational places, which would have been really stressful, so I think which school you choose depends a lot on what you want from your education.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in certain areas of graphic design, like consumer goods brand identity and package design?

Different schools will offer different things, so if you know that there's an area that interests you, you should find a school that has it. But at the same time, you should be open to what different opportunities are out there. Like, with me, I didn't really plan on going into graphic design but I knew that I was interested in the general field of art, and this ended up working out for me. It doesn't hurt to just jump in to the education and get some experience and go from there.

I also think you should know something about the type of education that you're looking for – if what you want is to get a degree from a good school, you'll want to look at certain schools. But you'll also get a different type of education. The good schools are known for being very high-pressure, high-stress schools. You hear about students having their work ripped up and just completely criticized, and that might not be the right type of education for everyone. So you should ask current students what the experience is like and really find an environment that gives you what you need.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

To an extent, it might. I mean, it's always easier to get a job off the bat if you got high grades at a good school – that's probably true of any career. However, I really think that your education is what you make of it. And I also think that graphic design is a field where who you know is important, so if you go to a less prestigious school but you get internships and meet the right people, you have just as good – or even better – chance of getting a good job.

What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in graphic design?

You should realize that there's a lot that you can do with a graphic design degree and it might take some time to figure out what works for you. My job at Th.Inc! was very different from my job at Youth Outlook and both were different from the work that I do now as a freelancer. It's okay to have some trial and error before you find what works for you. That's what life is all about.

The Actual Work

What exactly do you do as a graphic designer?

Well, the first thing that I'll do is to meet with the client and find out what they want from me and see if it's something that I can do. For example, I'll meet with a client who wants a brochure made up for the business, and I'll see how that matches my experience and decide that I can do it. Then the next thing I'll do is research on existing materials which are similar – so I'd find brochures for similar types of businesses as an example. I'll look over those and identify ways to improve on them, ways to alter them to make them more of what my client wants, and ways to use the good ideas in those products to work with mine. Then I'll do several sketches of the initial design and I'll take 2 or 3 of those to the client. The client will usually choose one and we'll talk about it and I'll further develop it, going back and forth with the client until I get it the way they want it. Then we'll have a complete product.

So what types of jobs do you take on?

Anything like brochures, magazines – I have a lot of experience with design layout so I do a lot of that; fliers, logos, artwork for other creative fields such as plays. I might be working one day on a very professional, demure logo for a small, conservative business and then the next day working on a really ostentatious eye-catching flier for an event, so I do a lot of different types of work.

How does graphic design relate to any other artwork you do?

Well, like I said, what I really enjoy doing is drawing, and that's what I do a lot of in the initial stages of most projects. I'll work by hand on the initial sketches and come up with ideas and then later I'll put it into the computer and do more of the layout and design part of it.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

There's really a need to balance working for the client with staying true to my artistic integrity. This is easier in freelance because I work directly with the client and I only have my own concerns and theirs to deal with, whereas with the companies I would be dealing with a boss as well. But it's still necessary to try and capture their vision and use my own style to execute it.

What are the greatest stresses, what causes you the most anxiety?

Haggling over price with a client is really difficult for me. I often let them suggest a price first and work from there to negotiate but sometimes that can be difficult. It's hard to determine how long a project will take so it's difficult to come up with an hourly rate. That's different from working with a company, of course, where I would get an hourly rate from them.

Best graphic design tip for a novice?

If you're just getting started with freelancing, you'll really need to figure out how to meet the client's needs but still do your own work. One thing you never want to do is show a client work that you wouldn't want out there with your name on it; inevitably, they'll love it and you'll have to give it to them. Then it's out there in the world for all to see and associate with you.

Job Information & Advice

What specialized computer programs do graphic design professionals typically use?

I work with Illustrator, In Design and Photoshop the most. At my particular school, we only learned Photoshop, because that's the program which most of the people in the graphic design field use.

How important is it for graduating students to be well-versed with these programs?

I think that you need to be familiar with Photoshop because it's what you'll see coming up again and again in the field. My school didn't actually teach us a whole lot about it, although it was the one that we did study, so it's probably not important to know it inside and out, but you should know the basics. You should play around with programs and find one that you really like so that you can get knowledgeable about at least one of them. But, programs are changing all of the time, so it's not necessarily as important to know a specific one as to stay on top of what's out there.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about graphic design in order to be successful on both a personal and professional level?

It's always good to be passionate about your job, but I don't think that graphic design is a field where it's absolutely necessary. I think that you can be good at this field by being educated and skilled and not necessarily because you love it. I do think that you need to be passionate about it to be a freelancer, though, because you really have to sell yourself and your work all of the time.

What kinds of jobs are available for graduating graphic design students? Specialty areas?

It's really a wide field because graphic design is such an important part of many different types of companies. You might get a job with an actual graphic design firm, but you might also get a job with a company that has nothing to do with graphic design, but needs a graphic designer. So you can combine different areas of interest by finding a job at a place that you like that needs a graphic designer – for example at a fashion company if you like fashion. Also, there's always the option of freelancing, which lets you do many different types of things.

How is the job market now in the industry? How do you think it will be in five years?

It's a competitive field, and there are more students graduating in it all the time. There's a lot of need for graphic designers, but there's also a lot of people out there willing to work. You'll have to put in your time doing internships and low level jobs at first, but there's always going to be room for growth.

What other career advice can you offer graphic design school graduates?

I would beware of working with non-profits ...they often don't have the money to invest in the time and technology of graphic design, so you end up overworked and underpaid, which isn't necessary in this field. You should always make sure that you're getting your money's worth – which may be limited to begin with because you have to do internships and get experience – but you should know what you're worth and get it.

What are the best ways to get a foot in the door?

It's all about who you know, so start making contacts as early as possible. Think outside the box with your networking, because it's not so much other people in the graphic design field that you need to know, it's people at various companies who will need a graphic designer. There are a lot of opportunities if you keep your eyes open.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the graphic design profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the field?

That there are a lot of different ways to make a graphic design career work, so you should do what you can to find something that lets you be creative and artistic but still earn good money.

Editor's Note: If you would like to follow-up with Diego Gomez about this interview, click here.

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