Life’s not a cosy biscuit

Graham Rhodes has been freelancing since 1975. He has shared his experience with KindredHQ in this guest blog.  All photographs copyright Graham Rhodes.

Freelancing is not a career choice – it’s a lifestyle choice. I say that as someone who chose this route way back in 1975 and is still at it 37 years later. I’d just hit London from a Northern Art College, with a full portfolio and a naivety that, looking back, amazes me. I took a job as a designer in a print house and after a couple of months of being bossed around, making tea, and doing paste up I was ready to rebel. During that time I had noticed these guys that breezed in and out again who were only called in when we were busy or under pressure – when I asked I was told they were freelancers. What’s a freelancer I asked? Believe it or not, at no point during a three years graphic design course, had the option or even the concept of becoming a freelance worker ever been explained to us.

Freelancing is not a career choice – it’s a lifestyle choice.

Within the month I walked out of the job and walked straight into a freelance opportunity as a book jacket designer – then as a designer in the newly created A/V industry.  A/V doesn’t exist anymore its old technology now – it was using slide projectors and 35mm slides to create shows, conferences and product launches, but it depended upon freelancers – as designers, graphic artists, photographers, programmers, even slide cleaners and mounters! Often you would move to another company who had a big product launch and find yourself working with the same team you’d just left. In fact at one stage there were a number of freelancers who grouped together to form something called Conference Rescue – if a production company ran into trouble putting a show together Conference Rescue would throw the right people at it and the show would be back on the road.

Freelance freedom

Freelancing also gave you freedom both mental and physical. I remember doing book jacket design for a major book company, the work and the pay was good but the head of design was a right bastard who spent most of his time doing other projects. He treated his staff atrociously, but he couldn’t do that with freelancers. In fact, back then, word quickly spread about anyone or any company who treated their freelancers badly and no one would work for them.

Freelancing also allowed me to do the work I enjoyed. At one point I was designing conferences and at the same time designing record sleeves & promo material for the new small independent record companies who had sprung up on the back of punk, who couldn’t afford to employ full time staff.

Over the years punk became mainstream and A/V gave way to video production, but the ethos of the freelancer remained, production companies simply couldn’t exist without them. Looking back at my career I’ve done three times as much work, and three times as varied as I would have if I’d attached myself to one company.

Working for one company one tends to become pigeon holed, become experienced and expert at one thing only. Being freelance has enabled me to move freely between media, to move forward alongside new technology. I’ve been a graphic designer working in book design, magazine design, and record sleeve design, an art director, an A/V designer, a conference designer, a video producer & director and a scriptwriter. I’d never have done half of that if I’d stayed with one company.

Today, as I approach retirement age, I call myself an artist/photographer and run my own photographic gallery selling my photographic images that have taken all my working life to learn how to produce. If you look closely at my work you can see the influence of all the photographers and cameramen I’ve ever directed over the years. Of course I still do a bit of scriptwriting – one has to keep ones hand in!

Ups and downs

Freelancing has many up-sides. Creative freedom, in that you never get bogged down in a “house style”, mental freedom that includes the avoidance of office and company politics, and tax advantages. For a start all your equipment is tax deductible, as are your research materials. Today I’ve a record and book collection that numbers thousands, all bought and claimed back as research – well after all, for both video and A/V production you had to keep abreast of music trends.

Of course there are down-sides, sometimes when there’s no work around, it can get a bit scary. There’s no Christmas party, no security and no pension benefits, unless you go private. You have to put up with friends and family asking when you’ll get a “proper job”. You also have to remember to buy your own stamp, and, it’s bloody difficult to get a mortgage, even with a full order book and a written commitment from any number of production companies. For some reason financial companies have always been prejudiced against freelancers. God knows why, in my experience freelancers are much more capable of looking after their money and finances better than employed people – they have to! A freelancer has to be their own creative, marketing and accounts department.

As I said at the beginning, freelancing is a lifestyle choice – it doesn’t suit everyone. If you are like the character in Roger McGough’s poem “Comfy Biscuit” who wishes:“What I wouldn’t give for a nine to five, Biscuits in the right hand drawer, teabreaks, and typists to mentally undress”, well the life of a freelancer will never be for you – however if you embrace change, have an endless curiosity, and always want to know what’s over the next hill – well what’s stopping you – just don’t forget to make some pension provision. Me? I’m planning on selling the record collection!

You can find out more about Graham’s freelance work and art at:


Who is Alex Butler

Hello, I'm Alex Butler and I founded the KindredHQ community and blog back in 2011 after I re-started a freelance career. I LOVE freelancing and I wouldn't swop the freedom, control and joy of working for myself for anything. But I realised how much I missed the company and energy of other people - of having a team around me. So, I got a few people together one day with our laptops, a jar of coffee and some jelly babies and we sat and worked together one afternoon. We've been doing that every week in London, UK since then! I am still 100% freelance and I like to share the everyday highs and lows of being a freelancer here on the blog.

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