Cultural Projects and Freelance Niches

Thought I’d post the answer to this anonymous question I got on tumblr somewhere more visible and easier to read, and expand on it a bit. Maybe it’ll be helpful to other folks.

Hey Noah, love your work! Been following you for some time now and really look forward to all the work you put out. My Q: I’m early in my career right now, working in an in-house role that is not the most creative (at least in my perspective). I’m similarly interested in working on cultural related projects, in music and art, and find that to be a nice release to be more expressive in practice. I’m wondering if you have any advice on how to get more projects along these lines?

Totally hear you, and thanks. Below are a few thoughts that might help.

1. Making work that people see (online, mostly) will lead to people reaching out to you.

2. Relatedly, doing work in one niche area (ie. luxury fashion branding, weird electronic music covers, small New York museum signage, modern art books, mainstream hip hop merch) leads to more work in that niche area. This is because of 1, and because clients can already imagine what you’d do for them which is comforting aesthetically and financially.

There’s danger here too — getting pigeonholed as a music designer and never getting any branding projects, for example. At the end of the day, you control what you show. So if you’re getting too much of one thing you don’t like but you still need the money, keep taking the projects but don’t show them in your portfolio/online.

3. If you don’t have work in a certain niche, you can make it yourself. Find a friend who makes music and do their cover. Do an art exhibition booklet for an exhibition of your favorite artists. This route isn’t for everyone. Certain versions of it (“Look at this sick fake Nike project I did!”) leave a weird taste in my mouth. But if you have the free time and the energy AND you want to dedicate it to graphic design, this can be a good “release” as you say and free you up to make some expressive work without the typical client process.

4. Often times these cultural projects will come along, but the budget or the deliverables will be disappointing in some way. Again, IF you have the time and energy, this can be a good place to push things beyond.

To use a real-life example, I was asked a couple years ago to “just layout the back cover” of a record that already had a cover. In speaking with the artist, it was clear to me that a more holistic design approach would improve the

By speaking with the artist about an overall concept instead of just throwing type on the back, we were able to get to something much more holistic and satisfying that involved printed innersleeves as well as center labels. Something I was prouder to showcase in my portfolio, too.

One more. Right out of school I took on a branding and web design project that I got paid poorly for ($500, I think) but still worked hard on, because I knew it’d be one of the few “real” branding projects in my portfolio at the time. It took forever, but it’s a project that I still get emails about.

That logic still holds now — I do work that pays terribly occasionally (almost all music does, by the way). I’m able to do that work in part due to my full-time job, which allows me to take on projects for non-monetary reasons. I recognize this is a very privileged position.

I largely disagree with absolutists who say you should never work for free no matter what. Your intuition on whether to accept or decline a project will get better over time, but you’ll probably make some mistakes before then.

5. Reach out to people who have access to these projects. Art directors or CDs at larger brands/labels, designers you admire. You can also reach out to “clients” directly — I once got a job by reaching out to a photographer who I really wanted to work with and asking if they needed website or book design. I do less of this now as the work comes at a pace I like, but it’s still really useful. People are flattered when you reach out to them in a complementary and helpful way! Brands may not respond as kindly.

Happy to answer any other questions in post form, anonymous or otherwise.

Brand design at Medium, freelance design at noahbaker.work