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Embracing Upskilling: a freelancer's journey to success

Freelance life comes with some serious perks; being your own boss, prioritising clients and work you’re passionate about, and freedom of course. Yet that doesn’t mean it's easy, without the safety net of steady employment, you have to truly learn to stand on your own two feet.

Minja van der Paard has been in the graphic design game since 2008, trying her hand at both the agency and freelance life, eventually founding her own company, Relatable Design Co.  She has learned that self-accountability is crucial to success, as you can no longer count on internal KPIs or a dogged determination for promotion to motivate you. It's all on you as an individual to dig deep, upskill and stay relevant. In this article, Minja shares her wisdom with us on investing time wisely and keeping abreast of an ephemeral market. 

Having your finger on the pulse of changing client expectations has been key to Minja’s ability to act with agility throughout her career. She notes that when she began working as a graphic designer, print was her bread and butter and the general expectation was to specialise in a particular field. But things soon changed. “Now everything is more broad, clients like to have one person that can help them find the best solution for each element of design, which can sometimes include managing outsourcing for parts of the project so that the client has the ease of dealing with just one person.” she explains.

Minja with one of her website design brand guidelines printed

Not only did Minja have to navigate this changing expectation of skill, but she also faced a hemispheric shift, making the move from her home country of Germany to New Zealand. In a metaphorical sense, Minja momentarily found herself out of touch with client demands, only through time, patience and learning could she begin to pulse-check her new market. 

Illustration of plane going to New Zealand

On top of dealing with changing client demands, was an industry shift away from print media to digital. Minja quickly realised that her niche of print needed to change, “you have to move with the times,” she says. Website design soon became an area of interest for Minja, as she realised just how important online presence was becoming for businesses. “If you hear about a business, generally the first thing you do is go online and check them out. If they don’t have a website that is at least somewhat good-looking and secure, that sows doubt in their abilities,” she explains. “Essentially there is a lot of judgement based on how we present ourselves online.

Pull quote that says: “you have to move with the times”

Upskilling was Minja’s solution to this digital shift. Initially, she taught herself web design through online courses and her judgement. Her foray into this area happened at a time when designers worked intricately with web developers, it was a two-step process of sorts. But as technology developed, website builders that handle the back end began to crop up, giving designers more autonomy to focus on the creative. Queue Minja’s discovery of Rocketspark, and her decision to enrol in the Rocketspark Academy.

“I knew I had all the graphic design, branding and print knowledge, but it always translates differently to the online space,” explains Minja. “The Academy allowed me to see if what I had taught myself for web design was the right thing to do, and expand my knowledge base.” The course was pivotal in taking her web design skills to the next level and giving herself the confidence she needed to deal with her clients with ease, which is crucial for a freelance career. Reflecting back on this experience, Minja wishes she had done it earlier. “I think the earlier you educate yourself on new skills, the better. You get into a habit of doing things certain ways, I learned it’s way harder to ‘re-teach’ yourself  than just beginning on the right foot from the get-go.” 

Quote that says: "I think the earlier you educate yourself on new skills, the better. You get into a habit of doing things certain ways, I learned it’s way harder to ‘re-teach’ yourself  than just beginning on the right foot from the get-go."

So, what has Minja learned in her upskilling journey? Firstly, the big differences in media consumption between print and digital. She notes that people have a much shorter attention span for online content, not to mention the need to tailor the presentation of content for a desktop, tablet and mobile device. More conscious thought into the user journey and how people will best digest the information you are presenting them is needed. 

Secondly, she’s learned the importance of finding a niche. “This is a process I’m still in at the moment, but going forward I think it’s very important to find an area of expertise that you excel at and upskill hard at it.” Why? Because of the fierce competition in the graphic and web design space, and the confidence that comes with knowing you are really good at a particular thing. Bear in mind, as we discussed earlier, the market has changed to expect generalist design services. Yet Minja believes having one particular niche on top of a generalist skill set will better equip freelancers for the future and give one a point of difference. 

Picture of Minja's winning Rocketspark site of the month: Picnicka

Picnicka, website designed by Minja

Minja’s final gem of advice is about time, more specifically making the time to invest in yourself. “It’s so easy to fall into the trap of saying ‘I really don’t have the time’ but if you are willing to make time to take on that extra but not-ideal-red-flag-waving client just to make a few extra bucks, you should consider using that time to learn new skills instead. It will pay off tenfold,” she muses. If you aren’t where you want to be right now, some sacrifice is required to get to your destination. It all comes down to upskilling and educating yourself, aka self-accountability. 

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