‘Self-Employed Penny’ is smirking. I had funny moment the other day when I was reading through my final years essay about the Gig Economy I had to write for my Bachelor of Arts and Media degree.

I say ‘had to write’ because I REALLY didn’t enjoy writing, especially research papers with referencing, I was there to draw pretty pictures wasn’t I?! It was an ARTS degree wasn’t it! Well, no, and man was I a pain to teach (I am sorry tutors!) while it was interesting, I complained pretty much my whole degree about having to write essays.

But, I digress, I was reading my essay and was smirking to myself, about myself, as I thought back to my headspace and thinking 4 years ago when I was writing my essay. You see, I was convinced at the time that writing an essay about my final artworks (a collection of graphic design projects and personal branding) was a ‘tick the box’ exercise and not really at all relevant, cause I wasn’t creating an artwork with a deep philosophical meaning that I had been inspired by a bunch of great artists and philosophers right!?

I thought I was just working the system, writing something that was loosely relevant to what I had created, making up some deep meaning just to tick the box and get my degree… well jokes on me, on re-reading my essay it has become strangely precognizant of what I would end up doing… what the!?

…jokes on me, on re-reading my essay it has become strangely precognizant of what I would end up doing…

Um, I probably need to explain what type of student I was for this to make sense, you see while most of my classmates were school leavers, not really that worried about the future, just having a good time with minimal responsibilities, I was a single mum of two in my 30s.

I was very much worried about my future, and my main concern was being employed when I graduated, which was one of the main reasons for choosing Graphic Design as my focus, it seemed to be the surest thing in terms of employment. I wanted a 9-3pm 4-5 days a week job with flexibility to work from home during school holidays and sick days and a regular pay check, with annual leave and sick pay.

Safe. Reliable. But still creative.

‘Self-Employed Penny’ is smirking

So, 4 years later, ‘Self-Employed Penny’ is shaking her head at ‘About To Graduate Penny’, I am 100% part of the Gig Economy that I wrote about and researched. I think this was always going to be my journey and I love the way my business works now, and I while this way of working was something that was already increasing in popularity, since the pandemic this has grown exponentially on a much wider scale.

I am 100% part of the Gig Economy that I wrote about and researched.

I have copy and pasted the first part of the essay below, cause I think you will find it interesting, and you may even resonate with it on a personal level.

If you want to read the whole essay you can find it here (the artwork project it references is here).

‘About To Graduate Penny’ having no idea 4 years later she would be part of the gig economy

Excerpt from “Creative Employment in a Gig Economy” research paper by Penny Royal


In a society with a strong emphasis on economic-self-responsibility, it could be said that being employed in the creative industries is one of the greatest challenges facing arts graduates today. Society and how we are employed has changed drastically from when creatives were simply craftspeople,[1] and even when they became solitary geniuses, their approach to employment was wildly different from today.

What tools can be used to help art graduates gain employment in their chosen field? How can these tools be best applied to specifically present design and illustration skills into a workforce that seemingly has a self-employed bias? This paper looks at how a portfolio can be a solution to these questions, how and why the idea of a ‘gig economy’ has been used to describe society today, and how this, combined with experiences of creatives working in the industry today, has informed the authors work “Portfolio 2018”.

The Gig Economy

The term ‘gig economy’ was first used in 2009 at the height of the financial crisis in America.[2] It refers to unemployed individuals ‘gigging’[3], meaning working several part-time jobs whenever they can find employment. However, the earliest usage of the term ‘gig work’ (which is short for engagement) was actually referring to jazz musicians in the 1920’s, where they would get short term work playing music at a venue before moving on to the next location.[4]

Business journalist Christopher Niesche, believes the trend towards a gig economy is driven by the desire to achieve the “holy grail” of work-life balance, by changing from the traditional five day, nine to five working life to something more flexible.[5] But, are creatives achieving the desired flexibility that the gig economy promises?  Niesche is not convinced.

“…it is sometimes questionable to what extent workers get the flexibility they want. They can find themselves working through the night or on weekends on an urgent project because they know if they refuse it, the client will go elsewhere and cut them off from work.”[6] Niesche

Figure 1: “The Diva is Dismissed”, Poster for The
Public Theatre identity and branding campaign, by
Paula Scher, 1994.

This is an interesting point and questions the idea or the utopic notion of freedom that we are sold. Are we sacrificing financial stability for artistic freedom? Questions such as this appear to suggest that ideas surrounding the gig economy function as a façade created by optimists making the best of a changing economy. Nonetheless, there are those who prosper within this environment.

For example, Paula Scher, whose role as a partner in a large design firm, has formulated a flexible work structure, that many designers try to attain by being self-employed. She has achieved a work-life balance and makes her situation work for her.

“I balance three major things: getting business, doing business, and educating… I get to work around 9:30am and usually go home around 7pm… I’m generally in New York (at work) four days a week and in the country (at home) for three… For me, I have to have change and stability. They seem like opposites, but they’re really not: the stability is knowing that I have familiar places, and the change is mixing up what’s going on in those places.”[7] Scher

The question is where has this change to our economy come from, why has it developed, specifically in the arts, and how has this created the climate that creatives operate in today. Author and literary critic, William Deresiewicz links how the audience and changing method of earning a living from art, has been the driving force behind this. Creatives originally served apprenticeships like other craftsmen, creativity was prized, but credibility and value resulted from tradition.[8] Artists were grouped in the middle or lower middle social classes[9], below merchants.

But this started to change in the late 18th century, as part of the Romanticism[10].[11] Where individualism and originality combined with rebellion and youth, led people to break with tradition and make their own way[12]. Arts became a new creed where people pursued higher truths and artists became solitary geniuses.[13] By the modernist movement[14], a century later, the artist was at the pinnacle of their status.[15]

This idea of artists being a creative genius in their own world appears to have fixated the public’s imagination as somewhat of a fairy tale, where in reality, being a fine artist in today’s society is generally not a full time employment option, in fact, rather a part time pursuit at best, supplemented by a ‘real job’.

After WWII art became institutionalised, an entire bureaucratic system evolved, which inevitably transformed the artist from a genius to a professional.[16] The air of mystery and the sense of a divine calling disappeared[17], replaced with educated professionals who worked hard, and could prove their work was a collection of legitimate art built on, over years of hard toil.

“The genius became the professional. Now you didn’t go off to Paris and hole up in a garret to produce your masterpiece… and wait for the world to catch up with you. Like a doctor or lawyer, you went to graduate school.”[18] Deresiewicz

All of which leads us to today where the impression is that society is changing from working for big corporations your entire working life; 40-50 hours per week, focused on the next promotion; to flexible working hours and freelance/consultancy work for a range of clients, working remotely and having a range of skills. As Max Whitehead, an employment law specialist explains, we are a nation of contractors, and a large proportion of employees are now preferring to be part time.[19]

“…baby boomers want to top up their pension …. Gen Z like work life balance, high powered work for high pay and less time at work…. Millennials want flexibility, they don’t want to be committed to one business…”[20] Whitehead

While it seems to be affecting the workforce generally, it appears to be particularly prevalent in the creative industries. Where the changes are being driven by employers as well as employees, companies have the ability to pick and choose their creatives based on specific required skills for individual projects[21], rather than simply having a full-time creative department.

In portfolio specialist Fig Taylor’s opinion, the industry is changing, and multi-talented creatives are becoming more desirable, in an interview with creative director Doug Powell, he says “I think most young designers can improve their marketability by having a broad set of skills – assuming it is not watered down.”[22] Paula Scher also shares this opinion, “I believe most good designers are generalists, which means they can solve any problem.”[23]

Designers today perhaps don’t need to be specialists in one area, in fact this may not be desirable at all, having a range of skills and the ability to problem solve and think creatively appears, now, to be as important as your design skills.  

Working on a freelance basis, instead of working for one company full time, is a popular, and often necessary career path for many young creatives entering the workforce, and this often starts while still studying. French illustrator Jean Jullien studied graphic design but started working on commercial projects while he was still a student, which meant he moved into freelance self-employment quite naturally when he graduated.

Figure 2: “Checkout”, Giclee Print from Allo show at Kemistry
Gallery, by Jean Jullien, 50x70cm, 2013.

“…never really felt like I had to intentionally start a freelance design career – I just continued sharing my work and accepting jobs along the way. I worked on professional projects with clients and kept schoolwork as a playground for my creative experimentation.”[24] Jullien

This approach is also one that has been taken with “Portfolio 2018”, which is comprised of a mix of professional and personal projects. This has allowed the author to both explore and experiment with illustration, but also to gain real-world experience working with clients, expanding her graphic design experience and expertise, and further developing her ability to problem solve and think creatively.

Figure 3: “Best of Jazz Poster”, by Paula Scher, 1979.

In contrast to the author, Jullien and other graduates entering the workforce today, Scher has worked as part of a company for most of her career. In 1970[25]  she started her career as a graphic designer; when it was the norm to get work in a creative department in a large company and specialise; she started by designing the inside of children’s books, and then moved to designing record covers at CBS.[26] Now, as a partner at Pentagram[27], she finds that she works best as part of team rather than on her own as a freelancer.

“My partners at Pentagram stimulate and inspire me; I compete with them, and I like the intellectual stimulation. I was president of an organization called Alliance Graphic International for the past three years, and I have friends all over the world who are terrific designers. I’ve learned a lot from them and they make my work better.”[28] Scher

­However, when entering the workforce in the creative industries today, in the gig economy, how do these issues influence career choices and how graduates present their skills to maximise their appeal to potential employers? Whether this would be an inhouse designer for a company, a junior designer at a creative agency or indeed a freelancer with multiple clients, what strategies are likely to be effective in taking the step from student to professional?

Jullien, successfully navigated this transition by starting to do commercial work whilst still studying and then sharing his work online, capitalizing on the burgeoning blog culture that is thriving today.

Figure 4: “PETIT APPÉTIT” by Jean Jullien,
Giclee Print, A1.

“I actually started when I was still in school. In those days, it was the beginning of the blog culture, so I began posting work I was making at school on MySpace. Soon after, a blog called Manystuff found my blog and did an article on it. That started the snowball effect that characterizes blogging and social media today: as more people shared it, I started to get commissions.”[29] Jullien

An online presence is seemingly expected in today’s gig economy where creatives appear to promote themselves, not just to employers, but to the public, for freelance work. Developing an online following is often synonymous with being offered regular work. People think nothing of tracking down the creative behind a ‘liked’ image online to license the work for another application. The author has experienced this phenomenon when Stroke Foundation NZ[30] found her “Kowhai” fabric design in a google search, then traced it to her Spoonflower.com[31] shop, where they found her contact details on her website. They licensed the design from her to use in their Christmas campaign mailout (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Stroke Foundation Christmas
campaign mailout documents, 2017, photo by
Penny Royal

keep reading

[1] Deresiewicz, William. 2015. “The Death of the Artist – and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur.” The Atlantic. Feb. Accessed 07 28, 2017. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/the-death-of-the-artist-and-the-birth-of-the-creative-entrepreneur/383497/.

[2] Hook, Leslie. 2015. “Year in a word: Gig economy.” Financial Times. 30 12. Accessed 09 25, 2018. https://www.ft.com/content/b5a2b122-a41b-11e5-8218-6b8ff73aae15.

[3] IBID

[4] IBID

[5] Niesche, Christopher. 2017. “Christopher Niesche: The rise of the gig economy.” NZ Herald. 05 02. Accessed 07 25, 2018. https://www.nzherald.co.nz/personal-finance/news/article.cfm?c_id=12&objectid=11795137.

[6] IBID

[7] Essmaker, Ryan & Tina. 2013. “Paula Scher on The Great Discontent.” The Great Discontent. 19 11. Accessed 10 19, 2018. http://thegreatdiscontent.com/interview/paula-scher.

[8] Deresiewicz, William. 2015. “The Death of the Artist – and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur.”.

[9] In developed nations across the world, the lower-middle class is a sub-division of the middle class that refers to households and individuals who are somewhat educated and usually stably employed, but who have not attained the education, occupational prestige, or income of the upper-middle class.

[10] A movement in the arts and literature which originated in the late 18th century, emphasizing inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual.

[11] Deresiewicz, William. 2015. “The Death of the Artist – and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur.”.

[12] IBID

[13] IBID

[14] From the late 19th to the mid-20th century, particularly in the years following World War I.

[15] Deresiewicz, William. 2015. “The Death of the Artist – and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur.”.

[16] Deresiewicz, William. 2015. “The Death of the Artist – and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur.”.

[17] IBID

[18] IBID

[19] Whitehead, Max, interview by Karyn Hay. 2018. “Getting to grips with the ‘Gig Economy’.” Lately with Karyn Hay 18 October 2018. RNZ. 18 10. Accessed 10 23, 2018. https://www.radionz.co.nz/audio/player?audio_id=2018667467.

[20] IBID

[21] Taylor, Fig. 2012. How to Create a Portfolio and Get Hired: A guide for Graphic Designers and Illustrators. Second Edition. London, UK: Laurence King Publishing Ltd. Page 22.

[22] Taylor, Fig. 2012. How to Create a Portfolio and Get Hired: A guide for Graphic Designers and Illustrators. Page 22.

[23] Scher, Paula. 1992. The Graphic Design Portfolio: How to Make a Good One. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications. Page 12.

[24] Heneveld, Tammi. 2016. “Jean Jullien.” The Great Discontent. 09 08. Accessed 04 04, 2018. https://thegreatdiscontent.com/interview/jean-jullien.

[25] Essmaker, Ryan & Tina. 2013. “Paula Scher on The Great Discontent.”

[26] IBID

[27] Pentagram is the world’s largest independently-owned design studio.

[28] Essmaker, Ryan & Tina. 2013. “Paula Scher on The Great Discontent.”

[29] Heneveld, Tammi. 2016. “Jean Jullien.”

[30] The Stroke Foundation is a New Zealand charitable national organisation that supports stroke survivors, and their families and friends.

[31] Spoonflower.com is an American based website that sells custom printed fabrics, wallpaper and giftwrap. Designers can upload their designs and sell them for a commission.

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