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Getting started on my own
June 18, 2008 7:12 PM   Subscribe

How do I best set up space to work as a solo graphic designer (furniture, computer equipment, etc.)?

I am in a position where I might be able to work as a freelance graphic designer (or my own, single person company) instead of looking for a full time position at a studio. If I go this route I definitely want to upgrade my work environment (new table & chair, mouse, computer & monitor). I am mainly a print designer, mostly working in InDesign & Illustrator with the occasional retouching in Photoshop. I don't often need to work on photos with 100+ layers and am not interested much in motion work. Think Corporate Identity work, logos, books etc.

My experience includes 6 years at a tiny design studio with everything (including Herman Miller chairs) already set up. We used G4 towers, regular mouses and Apple displays. I've been freelancing on and off for a few years, making do with the equipment I have. I'll be renting a new apartment with, hopefully, an extra room to use as a work space.

Computer:
I am currently on a Mac G4 tower, but am in the market for a new machine (and all the $oftware) this summer. I loved my 12" iBook and would like to have a laptop again. I was planning on getting a new MacBook or MacBook Pro, a good, large monitor and mouse. My tower is okay but I don't think it could run CS3. I feel that a laptop would be enough to run the programs and files I would need. I prefer not to buy a tower and laptop for financial reasons, although the portability is mostly for personal use. It may be handy to take my computer to a client every once in a while.

Mouse:
My current mouse is a small old Fellowes mouse that was free. Although my hands are really small, even for a woman, it's uncomfortable to use and my wrist and outside hand have been getting more sore/numb/clicking.

Do I really need a wireless mouse? What about tablets? They look cool but I think it would definitely take some getting used to. I might benefit from a mouse that keeps my hand in a more natural position (thumb up) might help my current wrist problems. I've never really liked those mouses with the huge ball. I recently used a new Mac mouse for the first time but it seems I've become accustomed to my trackwheel and extra buttons (without hitting a key to use them).

Keyboard:
I have a new extended Mac (wired) keyboard so I'm not worried about that.

Monitor:
My current monitor is way too small for all my pallets and is slowing me down. I think it's around 17" so I imagine I need at least a 22" monitor. I usually leave color correction up to printers so I wouldn't think color would be terribly important, but I probably couldn't get the cheapest model out there. I've looked around at reviews of LaCie monitors, but I'm not sure if it's worth it or if it's better than Mac displays. I always felt that Mac displays were overpriced, but I'm not sure.

Backup:
I plan on getting some sort of external hard drive. Everyone has bad luck with every brand so I'll probably just go with Western Digital or something. I was thinking 500Mb, if I need more space I could buy another 500Mb drive.

Printer:
I definitely need at the very least a black and white laser printer. A color printer would be nice, but I'd like one that doesn't make me replace color cartridges to print black. One of those printer/scanner/faxes would be nice, but I remember spending so much time dealing with printer issues at my studio that anything cheap seems too good to be true. I have a fax machine I could use separately already, if I need it. I do scan things sometimes, but not often. I probably wouldn't scan anything for print myself, I can't afford something of that high quality.

Furniture
Table: I'm currently using an old desk and chair which don't fit together well. The chair is too high for the desk and the table too shallow for my monitor. I have an old library table that I'd like to fix up, but it has the legs cut down. I was planning on replacing the legs so it was about waist height when I stand. I loved the tables in high school art class and would like something similar that's sturdy and has lots of space so I can work around all sides of it, spread projects out and use it for other projects (painting, sewing, bookbinding or whatever) too. I was planning on putting wheels on the table with 2-4 locking wheels. I usually see tables have only 2 locking wheels but I want to make sure it stays put when I need it to.

Chair: I like being "high up" and am excited about working in a stool with foot rest. But I also have a bad back and posture problems. I need a good stool. If I could afford a stool Aero chair I would. The used chairs I've seen are still $300+ and I'm going to be putting down a lot of cash at once.

What else? I suppose I need some file cabinets. I have book shelves. Am I missing anything?

I'm currently small but as I take on more projects my paper system of recording hours, invoices etc. is starting to seem silly. I will probably use some sort of program to do this and have looked at a few. I'm putting this in computers/internet instead of work because it's so computer heavy. Any insight would be appreciated.
posted by Bunglegirl to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
I resisted tablets for a long time but am thankful I gave in.

I work exclusively on a PC, so I can't address your computer issues, but for backups you might consider USB thumb drives. Two per project (a backup of the backup in case one goes bad).

I work off of a separate server, which is probably overkill, but every machine I own has two hard drives in it...one that is in use and one which simply holds a backup copy of the other drive. On the server this is automated since that's where my client work is stored, but on the work box, I just do it once in awhile since all that is there is software, OS and my personal photos.

I would personally hesitate to recommend a laptop as an everyday machine, but I've never really cared for them...I've never been to a client's where they don't have their own machine, or print-outs wouldn't be a better option to draw on and make notes. Last thing you want is the client directing you as you do "in office" revisions.
posted by maxwelton at 7:43 PM on June 18, 2008


My current set up might fit what you want to achieve. What you want is first and foremost to have a desk and chair that you really like for doing your work. No matter what else you're doing, you won't be very productive if you're uncomfortable.

I use a MacBook Pro 15" for all my work, school and graphics, and I connect it to a Dell 24" Ultrasharp display when I'm at my desk. I use a standard Apple Keyboard and a Microsoft Laser Mouse. I would say a Wacom tablet is a necessity if you will be doing any work in Illustrator or Photoshop - the Wacom Graphire 6x8" has been working extremely well for me. As for backup, I do it over the network to a Windows Server, but if you plan on getting rid of your G4, you might just want to grab an external drive. What capacity is completely up to you (I assume you meant GB, not MB ;)). You can also do offsite backup to Mozy or Amazon S3 if you want to have an extra layer of protection - I prefer S3. For printing, I use a Lexmark laser printer because its cost efficient and I almost never need to print proofs in color. If you do, then you might want to look at the higher end Canon Pro inkjets (depending on whether you require wide-format) and such.
posted by cgomez at 7:59 PM on June 18, 2008


I'm interested in the idea of using a thumb drive for backup of projects I'm currently working on (or as a double backup). I still would want another drive as a backup for archived, older projects etc.

I did mean GB, not MB, thanks cgomez. My brother is itching to take my old G4 off my hands but I think it may be too slow for him (he needs it for arranging and recording music). If he gets fed up and buys a machine himself I'll keep the G4 as a backup/archive machine.

Tablet people seem to be very adamant about their usefulness. I've used Illustrator and Photoshop for 12 years with a mouse so I've always considered them an indulgence. I don't do too much illustration but it would come in handy for some drawing and logo development. I guess I'd like to try one out, but I'll have to find a place where that's possible.

I'm torn on the printer thing. Inkjets aren't really what I'm after. I have a photo inkjet printer that I could take off my parent's hands if it came to that. I need to see sharp type, and things like kerning are important to me and I don't feel inkjets are crisp enough. 11 x 17 would be nice... we'll see.
posted by Bunglegirl at 8:19 PM on June 18, 2008


Web developer here. I use a 15 inch Macbook Pro, hooked up to a 22 inch Fujitsu LCD. Apple wireless keyboard and Sony Playstation 2 USB mouse (had it for years, love the thing).

My backup solution is a 200Gb external Western Digital Drive, split into two 100Gb partitions; one for big media stuff like movies, mp3, photos, the other set up as a the backup target for Time Machine. Works a treat.

My printer is some generic HP Deskjet. Use it roughly once a month to print out tax forms.

I have a big, curved corner-style desk, pretty generic, and a lovely lime green office chair straight from the 80's.

The one thing I don't have in my office is plants. I plan on getting lots.
posted by ReiToei at 4:44 AM on June 19, 2008


Freelance designer on print and web, working from an extra room at home. A few pointers from personal experience and a description of my current work arrangement.

Tables: desks don't fit to a designer. As large, as many as possible. I currently use two cheap-ass ikea tables about 5 by 3 ft. (sorry, metric system here, so take measurements with an ounce - or 28gr. of salt), the ones where you choose the top and stick legs bought separately. I still own large, heavy CRT monitors (and hope to keep them for a while) so I installed an extra leg in the middle of the far side of the table to support the extra weight, because the tops tend to bend a little under the weight). On one table I have the computer, and the most immediate paperwork, on the other one I usually spread proofs, etc. for checking. It can double as a meeting table if needed. You want a table that's a bit deeper than the usual desk, say 3ft., to be able to keep your monitor at a decent distance.

Chair: probably the most important piece of your office furniture: I tried many different office chairs, ended up with aching back, tried one of those "swedish" ergonomic chairs (google "Stokke") but it just shifted the problem from the back to the knees. Now I'm with an old drawing stool (adjustable height) bought for a steal on ebay. Seems to hold well, but you never know. Whatever floats your booty boat, really (and is able to do so for 6 months without shoulders/back pain).

Mouse: I'm usually the strange kind of client that asks to "try" the mouse at the shop. You will hold that mouse for 8+ hours/day, so you want to be that client too. I'm working with logitech extra-cheap mice of the OEM kind or knockoffs of those; they lack all the nifty functions other mice have, but have the right form and size for my hands. My lady partner, who has really tiny hands, swears by them, or by microsoft (cheap, OEM) mice. Wired or wireless, optical or with a ball (do they still make them?) I found no substantial difference.

Tablet: if you retouch photos, go for it. If you plan on drawing illustrations, go for it but you'll have to retrain yourself to that 'feeling' of pen-on-paper that becomes 'plastic on plastic'. A few friends use a sheet of paper taped to the tablet to recreate that "drag". Kills the pen tips, though. You can buy an extra-cheap A6 tablet, see how you like it and in case go for larger, more expensive models, later on. Wacom is your only choice. I have one, I've been using a mouse for my whole life, but it helps in retouching. Not so much in everything else.

Printer: I have a small bw laser printer which is mainly used to print invoices and documents. You could use a color printer for mock-ups of packaging, etc. but you'd probably find yourself needing an A3 printer (or larger) which is a totally different market than the usual A4 office printers. You couldn't use it for color proofing anyway, so my advice (and tactic so far) is: have a good, reliable print service not very far from your home/office who has calibrated printers, plotters etc. where you can email/ftp your files and collect prints once/twice a week.

Computers: I'm not comfortable in working with laptops (limited ram, slow hard disk) but that might be just me. I have an old-ish laptop that I take with me to show things to clients, and that's basically it. Lots of people I know work with a laptop and are happy with it.

Monitors: lacie are good, apple are more or less on the same level, eizo are a bit better, barco are overkill. Samsung or LG are decent, but you don't want the extra-cheap series. The more screen real estate, the better. 20" or 22" is good, 24" might be better (panoramic monitors are strange beasts, if you are - like me - used to a 21" with a 4:3 ratio, a panoramic 22" looks 'short'). 30" is overkill in my opinion, there's a limit to the area you can keep under control at a given moment. If you're not working with a laptop, you can also consider a dual monitor setup with two smaller monitors.

I hear people who are very happy with the relatively cheap Pantone monitor calibrator thingy.

Backup: hard disks are cheap - the advice above is good. Be anal in filing your work and adding it to your portfolio as soon as it is finished.

Filing/Invoicing/Management: I use a spreadsheet to keep track of current/future/past/paid/ etc. works, a word processor to write invoices. That's it.

Paper filing: a large, large (about 8' long) bookshelf with glass doors (dust!) for holding copies of older works, CDs/DVDs, paper samples, books, catalogues, etc. etc.
posted by _dario at 6:46 AM on June 19, 2008


Another freelancer here doing everything (standard def video, audio, commercial graphic design, compiling source) with a Macbook Pro. It's handy and it's greener than running a desktop when you don't have to. You could even get away with a new Macbook if you aren't doing GPU-intensive stuff (if I'm not mistaken, neither Photoshop or Illustrator make use of the GPU for most tasks, although they might in CS4, or maybe not, which might be coming out in several months, or maybe not). Either way, be sure to max out the RAM.

If you aren't the kind of person who is comfortable doing microsurgery to your laptop, get the extended Applecare. The engineering and production on the Intel Macbooks is poor (or there is some kind of planned obsolescence thing going on) and you are likely to get some issue in the two years after you're out of warranty. If you are the kind of person who is comfortable doing microsurgery to your laptop, I'd say not to get Applecare, because the most expensive thing which is likely to break inside only costs as much to purchase as Applecare does. I have always had to fix my macs after year one, but I have never spent as much fixing them as Applecare would have cost. Actually, it's probably something which you should only consider doing if you enjoy that kind of task, otherwise you have to factor in the value of your time as well, so Applecare is probably usually a win.

I don't use a tablet and I have no opinion on that, but I am not a professional illustrator. I have a plain-jane corded Microsoft laser mouse and it works. I had a cordless one for a while but I didn't like having yet another battery-driven thing. Go to a store with different meeses attached to the display computers and find one that fits your hand, and maybe save some money by not getting anything fancy.

I think the 20" and 23" Cinema Displays are actually pretty good value for money, but I've heard that the Dells are frequently the same LCDs, and they are often cheaper and have more bells and whistles. IMO 23"-24" is the sweet spot for not overspending or getting a power-sucking behemoth while still increasing your productivity/comfort. The 30" displays are awesome, but it is surprising when you use them how low-res they are in contrast to their size.

One thing which completely revolutionized my work was putting my external monitor and my Macbook Pro both on suspension arms next to each other. I was able to set the ideal position to avoid ergonomic stress and I have more screen real estate than I need. I work in Adobe CS3 apps with all palettes open and the entire piece on-screen; it's marvelous for productivity and if I'm antsy/twitchy I can move things around and change posture and perspective. You only need to calibrate the one with the art in it. I can push them up and sketch on the desk where they would otherwise be sitting. Those arms are pricey, though, and the cheap ones don't work that well.

I've tried out all of the time-tracking and invoicing software for the Mac, and it's all a compromise of some kind. Mostly, they are incredibly similar to each other and irritating to work with, with pricing which seem to have been pulled from an orifice of some kind given the relative simplicity of the programming task. But, I think Billings is the closest to useful, and it has estimation tools which can help you to learn how to do good estimates, which is one of those essential freelancer skills. Depending on how natural its UI feels to you, it may have a learning curve. I have also used On The Job, which is cheap, well-designed, and works, but is feature-poor, and Hourly, which is obscure and funky and overpriced but which allows more invoice customization than any other product, and which remembers the actual timeframe in which a work chunk occurred rather than just keeping a running total, which I value. A lot of people swear by online time tracking sites but I'm not familiar with them and I hate the idea of having that much of my data on someone else's server. It always feels weird from a client confidentiality standpoint; do I make up client names and project names? If so, why am I paying someone for a service that I have to do weird mental workarounds for? But they definitely have fans, and I'd say moreso than any local client software for OS X.

I would always recommend getting a good external HD case and then putting a drive in it with the features and reliability rating you want. Usually competitive with or cheaper than pre-packaged drives. I like these ones because they are future-proofed in case you ever move over to eSATA, and they take SATA internal drives which are cheaper and which will be a little faster when used with the eSATA interface. In my experience, WD external drives are to avoid, but I guess this is a point of contention so I'll just say that you can choose a case and a drive which are separately known for reliability, and you'll probably be happiest in the long term. You can also open the case without voiding the warranty, which would be pretty important for me since I wouldn't mind having the option of swapping that thing out and storing it, and putting in something bigger.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 7:24 AM on June 19, 2008


Oh, and congrats on going freelance! It's fun.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 7:25 AM on June 19, 2008


Computer: You'd definitely be limping along with your current machine. You definitely don't need a current tower. A current, maxed-out Mac Mini might be a bit puny, but would run CS3 adequately. A 24" iMac would be quite plush. Either of these combined with a used laptop (say, a first-generation Macbook) could come in cheaper overall than buying a new Macbook Pro, so unless you're averse to having two computers (which has pros and cons--more trouble to keep in sync, but you've always got a reserve machine), I'd urge you to price out that option.

Mouse: My wife is a petite graphic designer, and she swears by her Kensington Expert Mouse, which is actually a gigantic, expensive trackball. I can't get used to it myself. You do not need a wireless mouse, and my experience with my own has been mixed.

Monitor: Bigger is better. I've got a 20" iMac right now and my next one will definitely be a 24". Dell generally has good deals, and if you google for "dell coupon code" you can occasionally get very cheap prices.

Backup: If you do go the two-machine route, you might consider getting a Time Capsule.

Furniture: A friend of mine with a bad back set up a standing desk by laying a worktop across a couple of bookcases. Her actual work is not desk-work, so this was where she did admin stuff, not work stuff. If you have the room, you might set up a sitting desk and a standing desk for different tasks—switching postures during the day would probably be a good thing.
posted by adamrice at 7:25 AM on June 19, 2008


Mouse: I would really recommend trying a trackball for at least a week, if someone has one you can borrow. If you don't like a big ball, try a small ball - I'm sure I've seen small trackballs out there. Aside from taking up less space, they often offer multiple buttons for clicking (mine has four, and you can specify what they do - I have one for single-clicking, one for double-clicking, and one for dragging). I've found mine to be a tremendous help in relieving wrist stress.
posted by kristi at 9:54 AM on June 19, 2008


Thanks for all of your comments!

I wonder where I can go to try out trackballs and different mouses (mice?).
posted by Bunglegirl at 7:32 PM on June 25, 2008


.. just in case you ever check back here, I'm a storyboard artist and I have a 15" Macbook Pro sitting on a CRT monitor desktop mount with a homemade stand/retaining clip bolted to the monitor tray. It's powering a Cintiq 20WSX (which might be the greatest hardware purchase I have ever made). It might not suit somebody who needs perfect colour calibration, but if you draw or paint a lot, it's great. It's reasonably portable too.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:44 PM on July 29, 2008


Definitely get a larger screen, but keep the 17". Then go dual screen! You get to keep the larger screen for your work space, and the smaller screen for palettes, email, iTunes, etc.
posted by UnclePlayground at 2:09 PM on August 6, 2008


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