Graphic design, like all forms of creativity, is a subjective experience viewed through multiple perspectives. For Caitlin McEvoy, it’s a source of positive mental health, therapy and an opportunity to flex her creative muscles.
Stoic Athenaeum spoke to Caitlin about her freelance experiences, the nature of creativity and mental health and her personal philosophy.
Thanks for taking the time to chat Caitlin. How did you start your career as a graphic designer and what inspired you to freelance?
Thanks for inviting me to chat!
I started learning to design around the age of 11 or 12. My brother was really into web design, and back in those days you learnt everything from books. I started flipping through these chunky books full of coding and tinkering around with basic websites, yet it was always the graphic side of things that interested me most. I started freelancing when I was 16 but it really took off during university – even though I wasn’t studying design, I was adamant on making it on my own terms.
For me, freelancing was a way to do the kinds of work I wouldn’t be able to do in my day job. I didn’t realise at the time how it would elevate my capabilities and management so quickly, but it doesn’t always translate to your CV when you’re so young.
I was inspired to freelance to keep on progressing when the corporate world wasn’t going at the lightning-fast speed I work at, and to work on styles of design and projects I love that have a niche market.
What does good graphic design mean to you and how has your process developed through the years?
Good graphic design is quite subjective. I feel originality plays a huge part in design – particularly in an era where everything is shared and replicated so frequently. It’s a tough industry to be in now and imposter syndrome kicks in a lot.
It’s important to me that there’s attention to detail and consistency (a massive pet peeve of mine), but also authenticity that goes alongside the originality. So long as the artist or designer is passionate, I think the ‘good’ graphic design really stands out and mean something.
What are your best practices for selling the value of your services to clients?
Transparency and authenticity. Too often I think creatives undersell and undervalue themselves which means they bend to meet a client’s expectations and demands. I’ve done that in the past and it’s made me miserable and frustrated so it wasn’t with it.
At the end of the day clients are trusting you with their project and that trust must be earned. By being authentic and transparent about how I work and putting boundaries in place when projects steer off course (and they always do) the relationship builds a good foundation, and the trust is built for repeat clients.
How important do you feel word of mouth is for expanding your client base in the freelance world?
When web portfolios, Dribbble, and Behance first came about, it was much easier to land clients and standout. Now, there’s so much creativity out there it’s hard to get noticed. There must be a science to it that easily goes over my head. I have no idea how algorithms work and why some people are more visually successful online than others who hustle just as hard and are equally, if not, more talented.
It’s almost like marketing has reversed itself. The internet is great if you’re savvy enough or have enough money and time to throw at it. Word of mouth goes equally as far but the gratification isn’t as quick as likes and follows online – and that’s how people seem to measure themselves these days and not just in the creative industry. There’s a lot to be said for being a bit more off the radar and quietly working in the background while everyone battles it out online.
Is word of mouth the best way to expand your client base? I can’t say. Has it brought me clients? Sure, it has, but it’s not the only way I’ve secured new clients.
Cold emailing has done me well with repeat clients too. The secret is to find a certain market and put your resources into it because that industry might know someone in another industry. That’s when word of mouth works best.
In previous interviews you’ve also been candid about your mental health struggles. Do you feel being creative through your graphic design work and other projects has been a helpful outlet for positive mental health and do you have any specific practices that help with your mental health?
I’m open about my mental health. I’m not ashamed of it and I certainly don’t hide it. When I wrote my book, I talked about how my mental health is my superpower – and it is. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it and despite the low points, I’ve found it a great motivator.
There’s a part of me that wants to say creativity and design saved me. Equally, there’s a huge part of me that knows that isn’t true because I put a lot of pressure on myself when it comes to work, and that does the opposite of saving yourself.
Design has been a great escape for me when it’s personal projects and I can be more selective about the work I do. My mental health takes a dip when that creativity is starved, and I become so frustrated that I want to give it all up and do something else.
Working from home has been an absolute saviour for my mental health and working life. Thank you, pandemic. Before, I’d be in the office at 7am, skip my lunch break, leave at 3pm and work until 8pm when I got home. Now it’s completely different. I work smarter not harder and have boundaries in place to meet people’s expectations of deadlines and myself.
To manage my mental health with design I need to take the pressure off myself, and the pandemic really helped with that – at least from a day job perspective. My creativity is on overdrive but there’s limitations as to how much a person can do in a day and that’s something I need to learn. My mental health may be my superpower, but I’m not superhuman or indestructible.
Therapy really helped gain perspective on my working habits and why I’m so hard on myself. I begrudgingly went but it turned out to be the best investment in myself. I need to move everyday – whether that be a walk, a weights session or the spin bike – I need to get my body moving. I need to keep my mind active on things that aren’t work related – jigsaws and renovating my house are my go to’s.
There’s also always an ice pack in the freezer for those really tough days where tension has built up or I need to regulate my nervous system with a very cold reset!
You’re also the founder of District23, a mental health orientated clothing brand. How has the journey been with the company and did you find you had to change how you did things over the pandemic?
I love District23, it’s such a passion project for me and it means a lot that people know about it.
To be completely honest, it took a back seat during the pandemic. I could have used the time I had to progress it and do all the things I’ve wanted to. I took a different approach and made the offering smaller and streamlined it completely. There were times I had 20 tees on sale and none of them had any interest.
I’m taking the less is more approach with it right now and finding ways to make it meaningful in its simplicity. That includes products now being organic and eco-friendly – being good for the planet’s physical health by supporting our mental health.
What other mental health style brands have inspired you?
None. Is that bad to say? There are mental health brands that do amazing things like Mind and Headspace and provide excellent resources. When it comes to mental health clothing brands, there’s not a lot out there on my radar.
Design inspired me, and my mental health inspired me. If anything, and not to be obnoxious, I’d love to be the Nike or Adidas of mental health brands. Not sure if that’s even a thing but maybe it could be one day.
What is your personal philosophy in approaching life?
Oh man! How does anyone answer that? A few years ago, it would have been about hustling hard and working to the point of burnout – which I don’t recommend at all. I still hustle incredibly hard but it’s more about finding balance and peace these days.
Just before the pandemic hit, I got my first, and only, tattoo – a cross on my wrist. Something I’d wanted forever but I feared of getting because of its permanence and the way my family would react. It’s only small, but it holds a lot of meaning to me.
I was entering a new chapter of my life. Almost a year since a breakdown, six months in therapy, and rebuilding my life from the ground up. It’s a reminder of the sacrifices I’ve made at the expense of myself and my wellbeing and to have faith and belief in the bigger picture.
I’d like to believe that my approach to life in a lot better these days but it’s a work in progress – like me.
What’s your best advice for any graphic designer who is thinking of going freelance?
Remember why you love it, and don’t let that go. It’s easy to get lost in the numbers and fitting a mould to see success rather than being your own person.
So long as you’re passionate about what you do, you’ll keep getting better at what you do and that should be your measure of success. Stay true to who you are, the rest will come.