Being An Efficient and Mobile Freelance Designer

GoProof and Adobe Creative Cloud user Stacy Trager from IdeaWorks Design in Grayslake, Illinois talks openly about how efficiency and being mobile drives profitability for freelancers in today’s design world.

 LISTEN TO STACY

I am a freelancer, I’ve been in business since 2006 and I originally started working in Michigan and we moved to the Chicago area for my husband’s job.

I am primarily a brand designer and print designer. I focus on logo design and creation, building brands, and then all printed items. Everything from brochures to multi-page documents.

I primarily work with small business owners; many of them are also somewhat freelancers as well. I work with a huge variety of clients and my biggest clients are meeting planners. Another very large client of mine is an entrepreneur who owns multiple restaurants. He’s one of my most regular; I have been working with him for easily 10 years. I also have a few government contracts and a few non-profits. So I kind of work with a little bit of everything. Most of my clients have been long term clients, so I’ve been working with them for many years.

I work from home, have two young children, so my business has changed a lot in the last 10-15 years from when I first started, because when I first started I was working full-time somewhere else and freelancing on the side as an extra.


MY SETUP

My setup… I work off a laptop, I use an external monitor for my main monitor and then my laptop monitor so as a secondary monitor and that’s where I host my palettes for my Adobe suite or whatever other documents I have to refer to while I’m working.

I have my own office in the house and there are times though where I have to be mobile because I do have two young children and work has to be done! So there are days when I have to work at a coffee shop, there are days when I’ll work at my gym – and so having my laptop is very important because then I can pretty much work from wherever I need to.

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I was formally trained in Adobe. I went to school and have a degree in graphic design and I learned in the Adobe Suite.

I was working back then in Macromedia Freehand as I was looking at doing this as a career and knew that Adobe was the way to go. And the program that I attended at school focused on Adobe, so I learned in Adobe Illustrator, Adobe InDesign and Adobe Photoshop.
And I started working in Adobe CS2; that was what I originally learned in school and then I’ve just followed the suite all the way through from then up to CC.

[I started using Adobe CC] I want to say about a year ago? When it first came out, when it was first an option.

I’m a person who always goes with the new software right away. It’s important to me that I have the most up to date software because I don’t want to have compatibility issues with my clients, or with my printers, because not only do I design I also broker printing, so it’s really important that when I’m dealing with my vendors that my files are crisp and clean and ready to print without any issues.


APPROACHING A CREATIVE PROJECT

I am a traditional pen and paper person. I do have a tablet; I have a Samsung Note for my tablet – I don’t have an iPad but when I’m starting the creative process I always start with a creative brief, whether I fill that out for myself based on my conversation with a client or my client fills it out and we review it together.

It’s always a brief of who’s our audience, what’s our main goal, what’s our short-term goal, what are the main points we have to get across, what are the mediums we’re going to be using… various things like that. Because I need to make sure that I am designing not even at the appropriate look but also the appropriate file type for their needs as well.

And then I always sketch on paper, with paper and a pencil, just for a concept. That’s how I was taught in school, it’s a good habit to get into, I can take it anywhere, and if I don’t have a paper and pencil available then I actually have an app on my tablet. I just use Microsoft OneNote and I hand-sketch in that, to get my ideas just out on paper.

From there, if I’m working on a logo, I go immediately into Illustrator. I do all my logo work in Illustrator and if I’m doing layout it’s done completely in InDesign with elements brought in from Illustrator and Photoshop. So I do use the software as it was intended and I guess you can call it traditionally. I do page layout in InDesign, I do logo design in Illustrator, I do photo work in Photoshop and I pretty much stick to that process, It’s worked well for me.


HOW GOPROOF MAKES ME MORE MOBILE AND EFFICIENT

[Using GoProof] it’s made a huge difference for me. As my children have gotten older and don’t nap anymore, my business has had to become more mobile and I’ve had to become more efficient because my time is less and less during the actual work day. And so I have to make the most of every working moment when I’m at my computer during normal business hours.

And so efficiency is really, really important for me, and before I found GoProof, efficiency was a really big issue, especially when it came to the proofing system. Because what I was doing was every time I had to proof something, I would have to export a PDF and, of course, I would do a password-protected PDF because I don’t want my clients to print something that isn’t approved yet or completed yet.

And so that’s a multi-step process creating that password-protected PDF, and then I’d have to take it into my email program, type my email, send it as an attachment, wait for a return typed email from my client and then reference that when I reopen my software.

And it doesn’t seem like a lot of steps but it truly was, especially when I was dealing with multi-page documents like a catalogue or a conference booklet that would have multiple changes. And I just a needed something that would make the whole system more streamlined and more efficient.

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I did a lot of research into a lot of different systems and I selected GoProof because the price point was right – I am a freelancer, I am a small business owner, so I needed the price to be reasonable.

I liked that it didn’t require my clients to set up their own accounts. I liked that they didn’t have to install any specific software – it was user friendly right out of the box.

I have clients who are very technology proficient and then I have clients who are very much not. So if I was going to ask my clients to use this, I needed something that was going to be easy for everyone across the board. I needed something with a very low learning curve because I didn’t want to be spending my valuable time on that as well.

And so what I was really looking on doing was reducing what I call my ‘non-billable hours’ because I was spending way too much time on things like writing invoices, writing quotes and sending proofs, when I should be spending that time actually working. And so that was one of the things I had to cut down on.


PHENOMENAL FEEDBACK FROM CLIENTS

My clients have given me phenomenal feedback on it. They’re really happy with the system. But what I love the most about it is that – especially with my two monitors – when I have a client who responds to me with feedback on a proof, I can open that proof, the artwork, right in my Adobe program.

I can open the plugin right in my palettes and I can read their feedback and make the change all on one screen, without having to go back and forth between my email program and Adobe InDesign, or a print out of their email or a fax response.

I can literally check off each revision as I complete it, which is really nice because if I’m working on a 60-page document it helps me keep track of where I’m at, which is really helpful.


OTHER ADOBE CC PLUGINS I USE

[I also use] Extension Suitcase. I have probably 5,000 fonts on my system and keeping those organized and being able to find what I need and find it in a reasonable amount of time is really important, especially for a print designer. So I rely very heavily on that software and have been using that plugin for a number of years.

Another one that I use is Specctr Lite / Pro and that I use because I do a tremendous amount of signage design. When I do sign design it’s really important that I show on my proofs to my client dimensions for their signs or if I’m submitting something for a permit I have to be able to show the measurements for certain things. And so Specctr Lite is a plugin that allows me to write draft-like measurements on my proofs for easy reference for my clients or for the permit department to approve.

Time tracking is super important. I have to make sure that I am billing my clients appropriately and fairly. I need to make sure that the projects are worth my time and again it’s all about that efficiency. I don’t make money unless I am efficient.

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I’m very conscious of the fact that I am a small business owner and so are my clients. It’s important to me that I do excellent work and that my customer service is top notch but that my clients also feel like they are getting a good value. Because I know that as a small business owner I appreciate a good value and I need a good value in order for my business to be successful and make money.

Like I said, whatever I can do to be more efficient, so that way I know I can offer a good price point to my clients and still feel like I am making a fair enough amount of money, that’s really important. And I have spent a lot of time reviewing my timesheets, my billing, my markup, where I need to be at to for it to be worthwhile and profitable for me but also be competitive. All of those things feature into it. I think that’s really important for any freelance designer.


QUANTIFYING THE GOPROOF RETURN ON INVESTMENT

I would say that before I found GoProof, I was spending approximately… yeah, I would say about an hour a day on making PDFs, attaching PDFs, writing emails, having to check emails, having to review PDFs, having to print out response emails.

I can tell you I have saved a significant amount of paper since using GoProof! I would print out an email from a client with a response of all of their changes, so that way I could go through it point by point and check off each item that needed to be revised as I was making revisions. Now I don’t have to do that on paper anymore. Now I just go into the plugin and as I read the revision request I hit the little check mark above it on the palette and BAM! I’m done!

So it has saved a lot of paper for me that’s for sure but it’s easily saved me a good hour of back and forth between my email program and my Adobe Suites – and just making those PDFs.

My clients make a lot of revisions! I can make 6 / 7 revisions on one document before it goes to be approved. So having to make that PDF 6 or 7 times in the course of a day is really frustrating.

Now I don’t have to do anything. Now I just hit Save and then right in my palette I click Send Proof, I type my quick little ‘Hey, here’s a proof for you to approve’ and I hit Send. And, I’m done!

And it even keeps track of my versions for me, so I don’t even have to sit there and go through all of my emails to say: ‘Oh my gosh, what version are we on now, I don’t remember…’

So, easily an hour a day. Easily 20-30% more efficient. My workflow is just so much smoother than it was before.


THE GOPROOF MOBILE APP

And one of the other features that I especially love because I am on the go all the time and my business is a mobile business – the mobile app. [The mobile app] for GoProof is really important for me too because I can check that when I’m not at my computer. I get a notification on my cellphone when a client approves a proof or makes a change to a proof.

That lets me know whether or not I have to go to my computer to go attend to it. I can read right on my phone what that change is, if they have one, so I’m not having to sit there and check my emails and again having to open software and cross-reference. So that’s an enormous time saver for me as well.

It’s been a game-changer for me.


CLOUD-BASED QUOTING SYSTEM

I was spending a lot of time writing quotes, cross-referencing them to timesheets when the job was done, then going into a separate program, writing an invoice…

A lot of my clients do do their print work through me and we do a lot of reorders for items such as business cards, envelopes, letterhead, menus, whatever it might be. And so I often will have to reference invoices down the line to see what their last order consisted of because they want to reorder at the same quantity.

So invoicing was also a big challenge for me, because I was spending probably 10 hours a week writing invoices and running payments. And while that’s a really important part of my business – that’s how I got paid! – that’s work again that I can’t bill for. And so I needed to reduce that as well.

In this past year I moved from a stand-alone invoicing system which was hosted on my computer’s hard drive to a cloud-based accounting system. When I am done with a job I can invoice it on my cloud-based system – I am using Xero – and so now through that system, as soon as I’m done writing an invoice I can immediately from that same screen hit Send Email and it will generate the PDF for me.

So again I don’t have to make my own PDF and it will automatically email it to my client with a Pay Now button. So they just click on the Pay Now button and they can enter through PayPal or their credit card and it’s done!

So I’m getting paid faster, which is nice, and I’m not having to sit down every week and manually enter credit card payments on my end. Which is really nice – that saves me a good 5-10 hours a week of just doing that.

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And then the other thing I love too about that is they will automatically send reminders on overdue invoices. So again I don’t have to my spend time combing through my accounts receivable list to see who’s overdue, how much they owe, having to generate a PDF of the statement, send it in an email attachment. It will automatically in the system send them an email reminder for me based on the schedule that I’ve set up.

And I implemented that system at the same time that I implemented GoProof. And those two things alone have been so influential in the whole way I work.


ADOBE CREATIVE CLOUD TOOLS

The most amount of work I do is layout, print layout. I’m not a fine artist, so I don’t use a lot of special T brushes or anything like that in Photoshop or anything. I’m not a huge plugin fan. I’m pretty selective. It has to work fast and easy and out of the box. It’s got to be something that’s going to make my business more efficient or I don’t spend my time on it because my time is so valuable.

Oh, I am a religious Bridge user. Everything starts in Bridge. That’s how I view all my projects, that’s how I preview all of it, that’s how I catalogue everything.

I do have training in Dreamweaver, also in Adobe Premiere and I also do have training in Flash. I don’t try to advertise myself as a web designer because I’m not a coder. I know enough to be dangerous! Quite frankly I’m busy enough with my print and logo design work, so I pretty much stick to that. I feel like you find your niche and you do it well.


FILE SHARING AND STORAGE

I used to use Dropbox but because I’m a PC user and I was looking to save my business some money, I was paying for a TB on Dropbox and discovered when I updated to Microsoft 365 that OneDrive offered me that TB already with my subscription.

So, I closed my Dropbox paid subscription, transferred everything over to OneDrive and I host all of my files on OneDrive. I have client boxes set up so that clients can easily upload files to me or I can easily upload printer files to my vendors and I do love that too because again I have to be totally mobile.

So it’s great because I can check that from my tablet, I can check it from my phone, I can check it from my laptop and my files are always everywhere that I need them to be. And I don’t have to worry about my computer crashing because nothing’s on my hard drive.