I met Steve Smith on a damp Brisbane morning that felt fresh and bright—the sun was struggling out after some gloomy days of rain and the city felt optimistic and somewhat relieved. We waved like old friends and sat down at a wet, white wrought-iron table on Winn Lane in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, and colourful people bustled about us while garbage trucks smashed glass in the gutter beside us. Steve revealed his curious nature immediately, ordering a peanut butter and banana smoothie, while I, a slave to addiction, ordered a coffee.
Steve has worked in the design industry for the better part of a decade, having graduated with an animation degree in 2006. He now freelances from the creative hotpot that is the Thought Fort, an amalgam of designers, animators, modelling agents and web developers, also based in the Valley. Steve himself is a complex blend: animation, illustration, web and print design, film, video editing, motion graphics, post production and app development are all part of his formidable repertoire. Having attained a postproduction internship at Movie World on the Gold Coast straight from university, he moved into his first job at QMG and put his hand up for whatever work was on offer. Being open to learning new skills propelled him into graphic design.
‘I wanted to work in the design industry because I don’t like working for other people!’ Steve laughed. But why would any driven, dedicated creative person fritter away their time on the demands of others? Far from being work-shy, Steve intimated that he’s something of a workaholic, loving to be camped out at the studio, deprived of sleep, working towards highly improbable deadlines. Besides avoiding tyrant bosses, Steve realised early on that he wasn’t interested in working for the sake of working: ‘I decided I’d rather spend time honing the skills I wanted to develop.’
It was with some difficulty that Steve broke into freelancing, which he has only been doing for the past two or three years. He is now making a reputable living, though perhaps not by the standards of graduates of other fields. Nevertheless, he remembers starting out with some fondness, despite its difficulties, and is full of optimism about being on the threshold of a career in the design industry—‘at the beginning you have so much time to work on your own projects, which is amazing.’ The emerging designer should relish those first hesitant steps, that period of uncertainty but of unrestrained freedom, when she is not yet subject to the demands of clients or pressured by living costs on an unsteady income.
‘A part time job when you’re starting out is great,’ Steve enthused, ‘there’s no shame in that. All artists need to live, and you need to fund your art.’ His fearless advice for the beginner is that ‘your work speaks for itself in the design industry. Not having experience, or being at the bottom doesn’t matter.’
Steve agreed that the design student should build up a brand for him- or herself. Maintaining a specific look throughout your portfolio and online presence can help you get the kind of work you want to get. He cites designers who cultivate this ‘brand’ even further through blogs, which showcase their personalities as well as their work. For Steve, it is crucial that the novice designer have an online presence, since at that stage of your career, no one knows who you are.
Steve is a fan of a trade economy between creative friends. ‘Your friends will become really talented with time,’ he told me solemnly. If your web developer friend needs a logo, he advises that you do it on the basis that you can call in a favour down the track. Steve isn’t a fan of doing work for free, or for a ‘cut of the profits,’ but believes that helping out people you admire is a good way for people with little money to start out. And every piece is valuable in a portfolio. ‘I always try to learn something new when I do something free or cheap for a friend. Then it’s definitely worth something for me.’
Being open to unexpected jobs and collaborations, Steve has certainly picked up a few skills on his way. He’s had the opportunity to collaborate on a music video, doing all manner of work from background design to compositing to animation. His whole person emanates an air of curiosity and genuine openness. His attitude is one of grasping the things that really interest you rather than desperately latching yourself onto whatever is available. And the key, he says amicably, is friendliness. Networking is effortless when you approach others in an unaffected personable way.
The hardest parts of freelancing in Steve’s mind are all interconnected. Quitting your job is a difficult first step, as is the ensuing pressure to make a living. On the tail of this is taking on jobs you don’t want to be doing. But Steve isn’t one to let it get him down—‘that kind of easy work pays the bills, and it’s still fun.’ And little animation projects for the Commonwealth Bank don’t look too shabby on one’s portfolio, and perhaps even give one a little room to learn something new.