Should you work for yourself or somebody else?

Paul Boag

This week on the Boagworld Show we are joined by Jon Hicks to talk about his experiences of working as an employee compared to being an independent contractor.

Skip to the discussion or this week’s links.

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Paul: Hello and welcome to, the pod cast for all those involved in designing and developing and running websites on a daily basis. My name is Paul Boag and joining me as always is Marcus. Hello Marcus.

Marcus: Hello Paul.

Paul: And, Mr Hicks. Jon Hicks. How are you?

Jon: Hello Paul, yes I am well thanks.

Paul: Good, good. It’s good to talk to you, it’s been a little while.

Jon: It has it has, but it’s a good time to talk.

Paul: You’ve got a job on this show, just so you know. Because both myself and Marcus have just been on holiday and we’re going to have a holiday showdown and you have to judge who has had the best holiday.

Jon: Oh, okay, that sounds good. As long as I’m out of the running and just judging, that’s good.

Paul: Well I am presuming that you haven’t been anywhere exotic recently.

Jon: No.

Marcus: Aww.

Jon: I’ve been down the High Street.

Paul: When I said that I presume, it’s not that I presume you never go anywhere exotic, is just that I hadn’t seen any instant photographs.

Jon: Too late to back out of it now Paul.

Paul: You haven’t been flaunting your holidays as is a custom these days.

Jon: That is just vulgar though, I don’t do that.

Marcus: Like you do Paul.

Paul: But they are not vulgar, let’s be honest. So Marcus do want to go first? Tell us about your wonderful holiday and where you went. You went to Bognor or something?

Marcus: Yes Bognor. No I didn’t, I went to an island called Sal in Cape Verde. It was very nice and it’s the third time that I’ve been to Cape Verde. Is quite desert-y and hot at this time of year which is nice, 29 to 30°. But a bit of a downer on it all which probably means I might use this particular vote is that both Caroline and I got a bit of a nasty tummy.

Paul: So did we, mind.

Marcus: It wasn’t so bad as it was literally on the last day. We suddenly thought, oh dear not too good. And I’m still not right three days later.

Paul: I to make it through this podcast?

Marcus: I am okay now. If we had done it yesterday am not so sure.

Jon: Your holiday has had a brown taint to it.


Paul: Was that really necessary Jon, was that really necessary?

Jon: Do you know what, that was so much cleaner than what I was going to say before I remembered it was no swearing pod cast.

Marcus: Oh you can swear as much as you [beep] like.

Paul: No you can’t. I don’t want the explicit tag.

Marcus: Oh all right, I’ll edit that out. But other people swear, loads of people swear on this podcast.

Paul: No they don’t, not that often. It’s usually PG swearing, not the F word.

Marcus: I am trying to remember the most recent guest was doing some serious swearing, it was probably…

Paul: Let’s blame a random person.

Marcus: Yes anyone. It was Jon Hicks earlier.

Paul: Yes, the last time he was on the show.

Marcus: Anyway we are supposed to be talking about my holiday. What was particularly good this time was that we went to a different island. We were staying in a bog standard for very nice hotel and we went into the local town and got accosted on the street basically by a guy who was fairly mad…

Jon: ‘Are you Marcus Lillington from the pod cast?’

Marcus: He didn’t actually say that. He was probably thinking that, but he didn’t say it. Basically he said he wants to take us out on a trip around the island on his pickup truck to show us all the sights. And we were think you were not so sure about this. But by the end of this pitch, basically was the best sales pitch that I’ve ever had, and we said give us your phone number and will go back and have a think about it. A couple of days later we called him up and went out on this trip and went to see all the cool stuff like the salt lakes and the sharks and swam in a natural pool, but he also showed us the poverty that was on the island as well and how different countries are helping them out to build schools etc. It was just a fantastic day out and it really made the holiday. Most of the holiday was just lazing about drinking and eating and watching the sunset, but this day just made it. It was the high point. Your turn Paul.

Paul: So I went to Thailand.

Marcus: Which is more exotic in Cape Verde, I have to say.

Paul: For a start. Also the other big bonus of mine is that I didn’t pay for it, which is good.

Marcus: Well kind of I didn’t either. Mrs L paid for the holiday this time.

Jon: How does that work? How does your wife pay for something not you? You don’t have a joint account?

Marcus: Yes we do but she was a part owner in a business that was sold up at the end of last year and with the payment one of things she did was pay for the holiday.

Paul: That is good. It feels free then doesn’t it.

Jon: It was a serious question though because I do know some couples who have very separate money.

Marcus: Oh not in our case.

Paul: So ultimately I did end up paying for this because I could have kept the money if I hadn’t taken family. So families cost you a lot of money don’t they.

So we went to Thailand which is very nice and stayed in a very nice hotel. We went to Phuket, but the northern part where there aren’t quite so many lady boys and drunken behaviour. So again, like Marcus lots of lazing around on the beach, eating and drinking in a beautiful place. But we did have some day trips out as well. One day we went out to the islands, like the one that was in James Bond. So we went to those and into some amazing sea caves where you have to lie down in the kayak to get through because it was so low. Which was amazing. And there were bats in there as well, hundreds and hundreds of bats which is just amazing. And then down into lagoons and such.

Another day we went out to take an elephant ride, we went to a local farm and saw the Buffalo and also monkeys getting coconuts. They get the monkeys to go and pick the coconuts because they are too lazy to climb the trees themselves, which I think is awesome.

Jon: What they just take them off the monkeys?

Paul: Yes. I tell you they were the most spoiled monkeys I have ever seen. I they were incredibly well looked after and of course they got rewarded every time they came down with a load of coconuts.

Jon: Ahh ok, there were no hurt expressions then.

Paul: There were no crying monkeys. So that was very cool. And then you go and see all the Buddhist temples and that kind of stuff which was a lot of fun. I never knew that Chinese Buddhists, part of their worship or their prayers is letting off firecrackers. It scared the crap out of me. So it was a really good holiday.

Marcus: I forgot one very important point actually Paul. Which means I win. No jetlag. They are one hour behind us.

Jon: What about food? What about Thailand I assume the food quality was really very good?

Paul: Yes the food was amazing. It really was.

Marcus: I wouldn’t go as far as amazing so viewed probably win on that one. It was good but not amazing.

Paul: But the flipside of it is that I think my wife reacted badly to some of the not so kosher food if that makes sense. Like when we went out of the boat for day it was an amazing spread they laid out in the boat and it was absolutely delicious but I don’t think my wife responded very well to it. So there was little bit of suffering going on there.

Jon: What about thinking about work? Was there any point in either trip that you thought about work?

Paul: Good one.

Jon: Did you actually think about, not necessarily worrying about it, but the thought into your head about things that you’ve been doing things that you are going to be doing work?

Paul: Well of course, in my case, the first two days were work. Because I was out there giving a presentation on one day at a workshop on the next. And that was a weird feeling. Because you go into a conference room and had no windows to it and you spend the whole day doing the conference workshop thing and then walk out at the end of the day and it’s like, oh crap in Thailand. And you just completely forget about it when you’re in and doing work. So I did have to do some work and because it was a last-minute trip I did have to keep an eye on email while I was away as well.

Jon: But the conference bit was at the start? That was good.

Paul: Yes. I got it at the way. First two days and then done.

Jon: But then you still had to dip into email.

Paul: I did, unfortunately.

Jon: Marcus?

Marcus: I got phoned by a client.

Paul: Ohh!

Marcus: And then I had to phone back home. Also I was speaking to Chris and a couple of occasions. I shouldn’t complain really because we’re really busy and it’s worked out that I had to do, is worked out that I’ve had to work all day today for I decided to take the rest of this week off as well. So yes, it didn’t go away. But it wasn’t anything that was particularly bothersome. I wasn’t lying on my sunbed thinking about work but a couple of things nudged me and one thing led me to have to do some stuff.

Paul: But to be fair Marcus, you actually prefer that don’t you? Because I always remember when I was at Headscape and you went away on holiday, you always said that you’d much prefer us to contact you on holiday then you to come back to a load of problems.

Marcus: Always yes I always say that especially fits one phone call. I can be lying on a sunbed with a drink in my hand and that can be sorted there and then rather than come back 10 days later to a huge pile of steaming stuff. I really don’t mind that begetting client phone call was a first.

Jon: That’s great.

Paul: Did the client know you were on holiday?

Marcus: No. They did when I told them.

Jon: Did they offer to stop calling you?

Marcus: Yes they were very apologetic.

Jon: Because I’ve had that before, not on holiday but at the weekends. I think it is very early on a Sunday morning, I had an American guy bring me and instantly launch into this work spiel about this job he wanted me to quote for. And when I managed to get a word in edgeways I said, but it’s a Sunday morning, really early. And he said, oh I don’t mind.


Then I said but I do, so call me back tomorrow.

At the moment though you’re level pegging, there’s a bit of a draw action going on so I am going to ask the killer question. Did either of you have access to Scotch eggs on your holiday?

Paul: No.

Marcus: No, no Scotch eggs but on a sausage related theme, every morning they had chorizo sausages for breakfast that were amazing. Little tiny ones.

Paul: I can up that. The buffet that we had in the morning, you could easily have a full cooked English breakfast if you wanted to then everything from there all the way to a curry for breakfast. You could have anything you wanted except Scotch Eggs. It was a pretty impressive spread and I have to say there were several times when my breakfast consisted of ice cream. Because that’s the kind of guy I am.

Jon: I don’t know, this getting really hard to choose.

Marcus: I did have beer for breakfast on one day.

Paul: That’s pretty good. That’s pretty impressive and never did that.

Jon: I’m going to have to lean towards Marcus actually. Because yes fair enough you got to do conferences at the start that gets it out the way, but emails during the holiday. That’s not a holiday.

Paul: I remind everybody of that. I haven’t actually been on holiday to Thailand, I’ve been working in Thailand. That sounds much better anyway.

Jon: Such a martyr.

Paul: Exactly.

So we managed to spend 15 minutes talking about holidays which I think is a result. So let’s quickly talk about a sponsor and then we can get onto the discussion of what we are supposed to be talking about today.

So the sponsor is again. We are really pleased to have them as a sponsor, they’ve been really great supporting us on the season of the show. Just in case you don’t know anything about DevBootCamp and you haven’t been listening the last few weeks, they are basically the original and immersive coding program. So if you really want to get in there and get your hands dirty, we’re not talking about the distance learning Treehouse/Lynda type thing. We’re talking about getting in there, attending these events and learning how to code properly. That kind of environment. These are the guys to check out. It will take you all the way from being an absolute beginner and you don’t need to know anything going in and you will come out the other end a full stack web developer. So there are loads of locations across the US that they do this, from downtown New York all over the country. You can check them out at And if you’re thinking about becoming a software developer then you can go on one of the short term software development programmes and it will transform you into a coder, but not just in a know how to code sense, but in a real job ready, I’m ready to go out and do this sense. You’re not just going to learn about backend web development, you’re going to learn about things like teamwork, leadership skills, all the kind of stuff that you need for natural job. So check them out at

Discussion around in-house vs. freelancing

Paul: Right, so. This season we are talking about careers, motivation, passion, success. Those kinds of things. I don’t like to use the word passion because we just ruined that word in the first episode. So we can’t talk about that anymore. But were talking about the kind of thing. So I thought, we’ll get Jon on the show because… I won’t say, but Jon just take us through your career path. What have you done since starting off in the world of web design? What are the different jobs that you’ve done?

Jon: As in different clients?

Paul: No, I mean who have you worked for, when have you been freelance, what is the arrangement there?

Jon: Oh well, basically I started off doing natural history illustration out of college. That was my training, I wasn’t a designer by trade. So I did a two-year course in technical instruction which was basically exploding gearboxes which wasn’t really my kind of thing and then three years of natural history illustration. And that was going to be the plan, I was going to be this wildlife artist or illustrator but I found it really hard to break into the market in the UK especially. They had three and they didn’t need any more. That’s basically it. So I got a job as a junior designer for Coventry City Council and that’s where I learnt a lot of designer knowledge on the go really. They taught us some illustration as well but is learning how to do things like sending jobs to print, a variety of stuff from really boring this leaflets for the leisure centre to nice big interpretation boards for a country park called Coombe Abbey, which was great because I got to do some big wildlife illustrations for that. Then I went on to work for a charity called UCCF for two years, as a designer for them in Leicester and then I worked in publishing for an educational publisher called Heinemann. And it was really from that point that I started learning web design and I gave it all up in 2002 to go freelance. I knew that if I stayed in that job I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do any web design. It was pretty much books we were dealing with. It was also very managerial as well, so managing budgets and schedules. You got to design the covers we didn’t get a lot of input into the inside. So in order to have that creativity and in order to be able to do the coalface work, I decided to go freelance. And that’s when it all took off really.

Paul: But you haven’t just stayed freelance? Let me get this straight, see if I can get this right. You started freelance then you went to work for Opera, then you went freelance and now you work for Opera. Is that right?

Jon: Yes, pretty much.

Paul: Oh spot on. I’m quite impressed I got that.

Jon: Yes, I worked for Opera for just under two years. 2008 I started working for them. And this was an interesting period because basically they hadn’t had a designer in their staff. They had always hired local designers in Oslo, to do various things. And so that was kind of a weird job because basically it was covering mobile as well which was a bit of a new thing. For various reasons I decided to give that up and go back to freelance but then when I went freelance I was made sure that with Opera I didn’t burn any bridges and over the last few years we’ve been doing a little bit of work here and there, in fact quite a bit of work over the last few years. But mainly on stuff that actually never got seen. I did a lot of experimental work as a freelancer and it was fun to work with but there’s nothing to show for it in my portfolio which is a shame. They are a nice client deal with and it was certainly nice regular work. Last year, last May they were doing a big reshuffle and they were cutting down a lot on staff and they offered me basically this role which is the head of desktop design. So not looking at mobile browsers or anything, just the desktop one for Mac, Linux and PCs.

So basically in the situation now where I am still kind of freelance because I am working from the UK still, I’ve still got my little office in Witney that I share with other people. So it’s all remotely and occasionally I go over to the main centre which is now in Wroclaw, Poland. A beautiful city, really nice and is actually a lot easier to get to them Oslo was. It’s just an easy situation. But it was basically an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Paul: So that’s really why I wanted you on the show Jon, because you’ve done this ping-pong thing between freelancing and working in-house. So thought you’d be a great guy to talk about that kind of stuff with. But before we get onto that I just want to talk a little bit about your freelance career, because as a freelancer you ended up with a pretty stunning client list. It all started with Firefox obviously but since then you’ve done so many big brands, including the likes of Spotify etc.

Marcus: And Headscape.

Paul: Which was the pinnacle of your career obviously.

Jon: I’m still happy it’s being used, that’s quite a key thing because you do a lot of work as a freelancer and within a few years things change. Like MailChimp for example has been updated and is in a different form. It’s great to actually have something that still being used.

Paul: It’s only because were too lazy to be doing anything else about it really.

Marcus: We changed it a little bit. We got rid of the blobs and we lost the colour. We’ve gone all greyscale. But other than that it’s exactly the same.

Jon: Ah yes, I remember the colour choosing decision meetings where it came down to coffee. Coffee was the theme.

Marcus: It’s gone now. The brown has gone.

Paul: You always wanted the black and white, didn’t you Marcus. So basically you got your way now.

Marcus: Basically you did a bunch of mood boards and I wanted one of them and Chris and Paul wanted the coffee one. Now we go down the route of the previous mood board.

Jon: The thing is, logos can be flexible like that. You see people putting photographs inside the actual logo itself and as long as it’s something quite recognisable like an outline, I think you can get away with quite a lot of variation.

Paul: So anyway, my question was before Marcus started ranting about personal preferences, was that you have this really cool client list. And I’m sure that there are a lot of people listening to this that are quite envious of your client best. Is it because you are incredibly talented or is it because of luck or something else? What did you think led to that kind of success and that kind of client list?

Jon: There’s a few things really. For a start I don’t do any kind of marketing or putting myself out there.

Paul: This is what I don’t understand about you.

Jon: The thing is, I probably could do more. Bigger companies, higher profiles or at least bigger projects because a lot of these projects may be for people like Spotify for example, but are not necessarily a lot of work. Because it was just the icons not the actual design. So you are talking maybe a month or two of work and that’s it. That’s not enough to keep you going all year. And so there is a mixture of that, and I think the first thing that it all comes down to is the Firefox thing obviously. That was just doing a project for free that turned out to be at the time, was very non-high-profile and was very niche and geeky but that absolutely took off. That got the ball rolling really so I think the rest is just momentum from that. So in some ways there’s been a lot of stuff for companies that hasn’t worked out. Being in talks with big clients who for various reasons either don’t want somebody working remotely and want them to actually be in the office physically or they just never get back to you. Which, especially when it’s big company, a big name, you expect to be treated at least with a thanks but no thanks email. When you just get tumbleweed, it’s quite bizarre. But yes, there is no kind of marketing but maybe I should be. And I think it’s really a bit of luck since that Firefox start.

Paul: See now that’s interesting, because we always tell people don’t work for nothing. But that actually really paid off in your case.

Jon: Well, I always give advice to young designers starting out because especially when I left Heineman the publishers to go freelance, I had a very publishing portfolio – lots of educational book covers which wasn’t going to get me very far. So I always say to people who cup with a local charity. Someone who hasn’t got any budget to pay for a website but would really appreciate the free work and in return you get to work on an actual real project. Not something you’ve created yourself that you just bunged in the looks nice, but you actually get to work on something for real and some will benefit from it. And then you’ve got a portfolio piece. So there are instances where I think free work does pay off, and I do still occasionally do the occasional free project, normally one a year. I did one last year for this tiny little charity in America called Calvin’s kids and it was all about this golden retriever called Calvin who was used to help kids who have cancer – companionship and taking their mind of things for while. And I was talking to the owner of this charity for a while and I just thought, I could tell that it was a case of whatever I could give them that they would be very happy with. There wasn’t going to be this umm-ing and ahh-ing all these iterations, so I did them this golden retriever type mascot logo. So I do still occasionally do free stuff and I think it matters.

Paul: It is good to free stuff like that, I have some charities that I’ve worked with that they’ve paid me and I finished whatever it is I was doing but actually said and carry on working with them because I know that the easy and nice and it keeps the relationship going. It’s all about relationships at the end and one person recommending you to another and that kind of thing.

Jon: Exactly. And there is definitely that area of work that it’s expected for free that is not from something like charity.

Paul: It’s when people say, if you do this for free then something good will happen and it will lead to something bigger. That’s the kind of free you should never do.

Jon: The kind of free that you can never feed your kids on.

Paul: Yes, exactly. But bearing in mind that you’ve ended up with such an impressive client list, you have to ask the question, why on earth go and work for someone else? Okay, you were saying that you are super tempted by the second time of working with Opera, but what about the first time? Why did you go and give up the freelance work?

Jon: There are downsides to freelance life. Even though I share an office with other people, I am still working by myself and I had a taste, especially the first time and I was working with Opera, of working as a team and having colleagues to work with. I don’t know if you found this from having to go from working in head scale to buy yourself?

Paul: No I am massively antisocial.

Marcus: He wouldn’t admit to it anyway.

Jon: He misses you really. But I prefer working with other people. I prefer being part of a team. So initially there was also that thing of being really into browsers and browser design. And to be honest at the time Opera really needed someone. A lot of people say well Apple would be my ideal design job, but not for me because first of all Apple have got good designers already so you can’t make any difference there and I know that for products like that there isn’t the potential to change much. Is quite rigid really, whereas with Opera it was really up for grabs, this was really something that didn’t really have a proper in-house designer so it was a chance for someone to make a mark. I’m honestly looking back on the work I did then I think it’s awful but it was still better than what was there. And it definitely is fashion -related as well, because what I did was very much of that period, of three dimensions. It was what everybody else was doing this you have to do something similar otherwise you look really odd.

Let’s be honest about this, also when you have a family the idea of regular pay and not having to go out and chase the work or chasing invoices to be paid or chasing the clients we’ve got everything neatly scheduled in and the client says, were not quite ready yet, we going to be another month or two and suddenly you’ve got this big gap right now and then a bottleneck two months down the line with all the other projects. That’s one of the hardest parts of freelance work, the whole getting the work in, getting it in schedule in time and making sure it doesn’t over run and get bottlenecked, and I really don’t miss that to be honest.

Paul: You are right, it takes a certain type of person to do that kind of stuff. You can be the best designer in the world and you can be very attracted to the idea of the freedom and flexibility that being a freelancer gives you but if you don’t like all of the other stuff that goes with it then you are ultimately going to be miserable.

Jon: I think if I was single and young then I think it would be much easier to ride out the waves in the way that freelance work comes. You do have those two or three months where people still haven’t paid you and the bank account is running dry and then you get the period where everyone patient once and suddenly you’re well back in the black. It’s those waves that are harder when you have mortgages, family, all the usual stuff – it’s another stress you could do without really.

Paul: But, then you went to work for Opera and fair enough you explained all your logic for that, but then you went back again! What happened there? I don’t we turn round and say I hated everybody at Opera because obviously you are now working with them so you can’t say that. Make up some reason, what was it that then pushed you back into the freelance world?

Jon: At the time the people I’m working with are completely different to the people I worked with originally.

Paul: Oh so you can slide them off then?

Jon: That’s as most as I’m going to say.

Paul: I think you’ve answered the question.

Jon: I think at the time it wasn’t quite what I was wanting and I just wanted to get back to freelance, and it happened to be a really good time because the announcement of saying I am leaving Opera coincided with Skype deciding they were going to redesign their emoticons and saying, we just noticed that you are now available for work, and again that was just luck because there are a lot of great icon designers out there and it could have been someone else, but I think it was the fact that the timing meant that my name was then put back out in front of people, so that was great. And that worked out really well, but when I left Opera I was leaving it as a permanent employee and still having that knowledge that we still might work together again in the future on something different. In fact, I think it was only probably a gap of a year before I started working with them again. So was your question about why I left, or why I started again?

Paul: Well either really. You switched from working in-house back to freelance when you’d obviously decided you want to work in-house and didn’t want to work freelance. Do you see what I mean? On the surface it’s a bit of a weird thing to do.

Jon: I think a lot of it comes down to where you are at the time. Some people have plans, a five or 10 year plan about where they are going to be and what they can to be doing. I don’t have any of that. I find it hard to think beyond today or the end of the week at least. So it really is a case of at that time. Because there are pros and cons to both and I’ve talked a lot about the pros of regular work and money coming in and working with the team. But there are constant as well and one of the cons is possibly a lack of creativity, you don’t have that wide variety of possibilities for example when I’m freelance, I could be working for Spotify one minute and doing a website for someone else another minute. There are whole possibilities of different options, of different creativity out there but obviously if you’re working for one company doing one thing, then that’s possibly the only downside.

Paul: Because I admit, I’m sitting here— I’m going to make an idiot of myself now— but I’ve got Opera as the web browser that I use, and I got it up in front of me now and I’m sitting here thinking, what does he do all day?

Jon: Well depending, which version have you got? Serious question.

Paul: I don’t know, I have version 35.

Jon: Well the beta for 36 came out yesterday.

Paul: Oh it did? Well I need to upgrade then.

Marcus: I am on 34.

Paul: You are so behind.

Jon: But that is where, basically with 36 on, that’s where it starting to happen. So for example some of the things we’ve done since I started, we’ve redesigned the Mac toolbar. We’ve got some good developers on board in the Mac team who have been busy doing a lot of replacing code with native code, so things like context menus and dialogues are all native. We’ve also been redesigning the toolbar, as we used to have it in the old El Capitan style. We’ve also been doing the same for windows 10 to update that. We’ve been introducing this new start page, so the history of Opera where we’ve always had this speed dial – you’ve always had the websites that you access the most on your new tab, and then from this place you get all the other internal functionality in Opera, so you get to visual bookmarks and a news section so you get aggregated news and looking at the tabs that are used on your other devices, all these extra bits. So the new design for that is starting to appear now for Opera 36 onwards.

Sometimes it is quite invisible stuff which is good because the point of the browser is that it’s supposed to get out of the way and let you browse so we’re trying to resist the temptation to add too many dialogues, ask too many questions when all they want to do is to get on and look at the websites. But there is such a lot to do and what I am enjoying is the fact that as Head of Design I don’t necessarily have the time or resources to make all the changes that I want to but bit by bit these changes are starting to come through. I’m trying to make things more consistent, more beautiful—which is the subject of thing and people will say that’s not beautiful— but it’s also the time a proper manager, some actually doing less creative work possibly and more managing a team. It’s quite a small team but then again they are all remote people as well and are all fantastic people to work with.

One of the nice things is that all these internal pages in Opera, they are all HTML and CSS. So when you go to the start page its bookmarks, it’s all the CSS stuff so basically it’s like doing a very nice web app but only focusing on one browser. So a lot of the bits that I cover, and I’m starting to do a lot of CSS work on it, is great because you can do Flex box, you can’t do grids yet but hopefully soon, you can do columns and transforms and transitions, is all the things you would normally have to patch and poly fill for all the browsers. You don’t have to worry about and how to do any prefixes pretty much, is just pure modern CSS and that’s really enjoyable.

Paul: I get another thing that must appeal is being able to spend time really thinking these things through. As a freelancer it’s always a little bit rushed. And you don’t get to see things through to the completion either, which I am guessing is nice.

Jon: Know exactly and again you are doing this by yourself, so if there are areas where you’re not particular good at, I’ve now got other people I can talk to, other developers I can discuss things with and other designers to get ideas back from. That’s the thing when you’re working on projects by yourself and working with other people just makes that so much more enjoyable I think.

Paul: That’s quite interesting mind when you’re talking about working with other people now. Do you find that you are missing doing quite so much hands-on design yourself because you are now running a team? How is that now transitioning? I remember very, very vividly that slow decline from being hands-on everyday designer to being a manager and I went through a bit of trauma stage almost of what is it that I do now?

Jon: Well it’s hard because in some ways I think it’s inevitable. I was talking about this with Leigh ages ago— my wife, not Leigh from Headscape— but we don’t really see many old designers. People who actually designers who design themselves, obviously there are people like Paul Smith who while he manages and has a whole company beneath him, he’s someone that still designs. People like Peter Blake who designed the Sgt Pepper cover and Oasis covers things, these are people that are in their 50s and 60s and they still at the coalface working. But they are kind of the exception I think, and I think there was generally this natural gravitation to progress to a more managerial or overseeing or trying to lead other designers. The younger designers have the fresh ideas and a less cynical and sceptical.

Paul: For me that’s the key, not the cynical bit but the fresh ideas. I found I reached a point where I was just regurgitating the same old rubbish, not rubbish but I was falling back on the same things because I knew they worked and I knew they were safe and they were easy to do. That was a warning sign for me that perhaps I need to move on from that now.

Marcus: Is also a question of education and the older and more experienced designer has a lot to pass on to the younger designer, so there was a nice mix of young designer having fresh ideas whereas the older designer can provide guidance, if you like. That makes sense I think. Maybe it’s a little bit selfish to carry on the coalface and not provide your knowledge to the next generation.

Jon: Yes possibly. I think was also an element of— being quite brutally honest here— of getting slow. And I’m finding that often designing is taking me longer than it used to and maybe because I am more indecisive was spending too long trying to think through all the options and not being quite confident about these kind of things. I still do hands-on design at the moment and I hope still keep doing that but it is going to be a smaller part of the job I think.

Paul: So when you say you take longer, do you think that another element of that is that I used to sit up until three in the morning fiddling with the design because I could. I think as you get older you get family and you get a life and other things come in. Is there that element to it as well?

Jon: Yes there’s that too. I am less tolerant of working late. It seems less and less important now to have two pull all-nighters to do things. Whereas when I first went freelance, 14 years ago now, that was part of the course. In order to get clients and to keep clients you had to. But then also that was because of underestimating jobs.

Paul: Yes you get better at estimating the older you get as well.

Jon: You get out of the habit of saying things like, I’ll have it done for Monday, to impress the clients. As soon as you put the phone down you know you are going to have to work the weekend. And you kick yourself but then over time you get out of the habit of feeling that needs to impress people by doing that.

Paul: And you become more confident in yourself, I think that’s part of it. As you are younger you are less confident in your relationship with the client. Earlier in your career you want to impress the client all the time and you feel an obligation to, that you’re expected to. As you age though you feel that your clients are now more your peers. I have a peer relationship with them and I work alongside them and I think that shift in dynamic, it benefits everyone really. Because then you don’t promise things he struggled to deliver, you are much more realistic in it and they ultimately get better value out of you because you are not trying so hard to prove yourself all the time, you’re being more realistic and saying that you don’t think necessarily that’s the right approach.

Jon: Absolutely, that’s really good way of saying that actually.

Paul: There are many reasons for choosing one side of the fence to the other in terms of what you go freelance whether you are going to work in-house, but from a purely creative point of view, not family or sales or any of those things, but from a purely creative point of view which do you prefer?

Jon: Freelance. It’s straightforward and easy. I think it’s because as you say there are more reasons to why you take something than just creativity and I think it very much explains why I was on and off previously. Working for Opera for a bit and then do something else. And I think it’s that need to have a wider creativity. I hate to say that as it sounds as though are not being creative at all where I am working.

Paul: It’s variety more than creativity.

Jon: It’s the breadth of the work that you do. Freelance basically gives you that option but then again to counteract that sentence, all the enquiries I’ve had a for icon projects and actually it’s less for anything to do like apps or websites or even mascots. For while, because the Firefox and MailChip it was always mascot logos, lots of animals dressed up in this garb and all the various permutations of it. And they stopped actually just became icon work. And that’s the other thing it’s nice having that specialism although at the same time it does mean that is not that variety.

Paul: Yes there are only so many animals in so many ways you can dress them up, isn’t there?

Jon: Oh I don’t know. On the Internet you can find an infinite amount.

Marcus: What I’ve taken from all of this is that really it’s about, as long as the people that you are working with our good and you like them, then that’s enough of a bonus to maybe say I won’t take the varied, possibly more rewarding work. It’s something that hadn’t occurred to me before but it is a double-edged sword because you might hate the people that you work with.

Jon: I wouldn’t have taken the job if I did hate the people I worked with. I was very much at the point where I don’t have to take this and if I don’t take this I would probably never work for Opera again, but it was definitely the people that I’m working with was part of it.

Paul: Do you think you’d ever go back to the freelance?

Jon: Yes I’m sure I will. You see people like Mike Davison, whose been the head designer at Twitter now for a long time. He claims that he is retiring and going to live on a little island with his yacht but I’m sure there will come a time when I will say I want to move on and do something different, just like people who work in the company will. So at this point I don’t have any plan, I am enjoying the new challenge where I am at and the fact that it’s interesting work.

Paul: There was one last question that I want to leave you with, which is that there are people that are listening to this that are starting out in their careers, we’ve already given them a bit of advice were doing some freelance work the charities but if they have the choice, in fact I’m mentoring someone right now who has managed to build an agency while he is still at school, doing well enough to hire me to mentor him as well.

Jon: And he needs your help how?

Paul: Exactly, I keep telling him that. He’s been offered this amazing job as well, so if you have the choice starting out in your career, which way would you recommend people to go? Would you recommend go for it as a freelancer because you got nothing much to lose it your age so why the hell not. Or would you say, go and work for someone as you learn so much? As you can tell I am torn over this.

Jon: Well it’s one of these things, because of the way that I’ve done, I tend to just say, well that worked for me and that’s what I would suggest. But I think if you work for other people first you get the idea of things like working processes and how to do and set things up and work as a team, how to deal with people, which I don’t think you would necessarily get when you are freelance. Basically when you’re working for someone else, you’re being paid to learn how to do these things. Because of what my experience is of working in-house, in design studios I then had a really better idea of things like what to charge, how long things take, which again is a difficult thing when you are freelance, how long do things take. That is quite key as time is your money, so what should you charge. It’s about doing all this first, you get the chance to have some basically paying you to learn all these things, the ropes as it were.

Paul: I kind of agree. It was my own experience as well and even if the company that you worked for are rubbish, you learn how not to do it.

Jon: Yes, exactly and how not to treat people. That’s pure experience and I’m sure people gone straight to freelancing and have made a good success of it and it hasn’t been an issue but I can certainly say from my experience that it’s worked for me doing it that way round and going backwards and forwards.

Paul: And that’s the great thing about freelancing, especially when you are younger and don’t have a lot of obligations, it’s like, what is there to lose? Give it a go for a while and if it doesn’t work out get a job. Although eventually you become like me in which case you can never be employed by anyone ever again, but that’s another story.

Jon: But you get to go to Thailand.

Paul: As long as the money keeps coming in. Going back to what you were saying the something nice about having that stable income and not having to worry about that stuff.


Paul: Anyway, talking about money coming in, that brings me on brilliant lead to my next sponsor. See what I did there? That was good. Seamless.

So this season we’ve been supported by I just love the guys a free agent, mainly because I am so utterly in love with their app, if such a thing be possible and passionate about their app. In fact, so much so, they give me no talking points. They just said, Paul, just talk about it because we know you won’t shut up about it. So I’ve been thinking about what I want to share each week about FreeAgent and this week I just want to focus in on one thing, which is the fact that it gives me a sense of control. One of the things that I didn’t like about Headscape, and I loved Headscape and my time there, but the one thing that I didn’t like was that I could never understand the money. I never understood the financial side of Headscape. Chris, I love him dearly and I trusted him 100% with the money but he produced Excel documents that just made my brain melt. Marcus you understand them don’t you? It’s just me.

Marcus: I understand them better than you, Paul. We also have another non-executive director who is an accountant and Brian looks at these documents. He picks up, the printout of an A4 sheet, a bunch of numbers and there is probably 300 different numbers on these different various columns, and he will point at one go, that doesn’t look right.

Paul: Yes! It’s witchcraft. So the one of the things that I’ve loved about going freelance is that I now use FreeAgent to run all my money stuff. It gives me an amazing sense of control because just the dashboard, the first page that you go into tells you how much money you’ve got in the bank, you know what your retained profit is, in other words after all my bills have been paid and the taxman has been paid, how much money is mine.

Marcus: Does it flash when you are really rich?

Paul: Yes and you get to watch the number go up and it’s great and you think I can spend all that money if I wanted and it shows you how much you owe the taxman. Because that always scares me as it still scares me when I see I owe the taxman 20 grand or whatever it is. But at least it’s all there and I know exactly how much I owe the taxman. I can see at a glance all the people that owe me money and when it’s due and I can shout at them. And in fact I can even set it up to shout at them automatically without me having to do it, which is wonderful. I can see whether I’ve broken even each month and it just gives me such peace of mind and a feeling of control, as Marcus can attest I am a bit of a worrier. I’m not as bad as Christies but I certainly do worry about these kinds of things. So check it out. They’ve got a free trial so go and give it a spin and see what you think., you will not regret it I absolutely love that app.

So, now you miss read my show notes on purpose.

Jon: On purpose? How else can it be deciphered?

Paul: In the outline I send to people it says ‘joke’. Now that the first of the fact that Marcus tells a joke at this point of the show, but immediately below that it says ‘next week Cameron Moll talks about his passion for craftsmanship’. So Jon Hicks decided to interpret that as I think Cameron Moll is a joke.

That’s what you were implying, wasn’t it?

Jon: That’s a bit below the belt. It’s the belief in craftsmanship that I think is supposed to be the joke.

Paul: Oh I see. But that’s by design because it made ‘joke’ look like a heading. But no, we have to do Marcus’s joke at this point.

Marcus: Yes you do. It’s quite short so it will be over quickly. This is actually from the Boagworld Slack channel that I liked it so much I thought I would repeat it. It’s from Kenneth Prenson.

My wife used to take a fish to bed with her at night, just to be able to say ‘not tonight dear I’ve got a haddock’.

Paul: That’s absolutely awful.


Marcus: It’s good, come on.

Paul: There have been far better jokes than that.

Marcus: That’s the kind of thing that appeals to me though, as you know Paul.

Paul: Have you seen the Kermit Jagger joke?

Marcus: I’ve been on holiday Paul.

Paul: Right am going to read this to you. It is truly terrible. So B Salmon sent this, it doesn’t have the rest of his details. I’m going to have to say this slowly with emphasis in order for people to get it.

A frog, called Kermit Jagger went to the bank to borrow some money. He went up to the counter, to a cashier who sat behind a sign saying ‘Miss Black’ and wearing a slightly friendlier badge saying ‘Hi, I am Patty, how can I help you?’

He asked to borrow some money and the cashier asked him if he was able to offer any collateral. He had come prepared and brought out a very kitsch ornament. She said she would have to check with her boss as to whether it was okay and took the ornament to the boss who said,

‘That knick knack, Patty Black, give a frog a loan, his old man’s a rolling stone.’

Marcus: Now that is awful.

Jon: I’ve heard that one before but the setup is so long.

Paul: It’s not worth it is it? But it just really amused me that someone had gone to all the effort of creating that as a joke.

Marcus: What I’ve learnt of the years with these jokes is that some of them work written down and don’t work when you say them out loud. And that’s a perfect example.

Paul: I am sorry that I read it, I apologise.

Jon: Can I leave you with one of my favourite cheese jokes?

How do you approach an angry Welsh cheese?


Paul: So they you go, on that much better joke and as has already been said next week, Cameron Moll will be joining us to talk about his passion for craftsmanship but until then thanks for listening.