Hailing from Scotland, David had previously been a member of Coburg House Art Studios in Edinburgh. “Coburg felt like a family, and I knew I wanted to find that sort of community again.” So one of the first things David did upon his arrival in Newcastle was to set up a tour of his new local co-working space – and he was not disappointed. “It feels good to be part of a group: there is that sense of camaraderie. Being at The Roost is great for accountability and motivation – it gets me up in the mornings because I know I’m coming into work to see people I like!”
David is a graphic designer and illustrator, specialising in educational, heritage and science projects – though it took him a while to figure out this was the area for him. When he first finished his undergraduate degree, he set about applying for full-time jobs in design, and picked up the odd freelance gig working with friends and family. “I hadn’t really thought about my career beyond finishing my degree at that point. There was this mythology that you’d get noticed at the graduate show then picked up by an agency in London…but I didn’t really want to live in London!”
While this contract work initially just felt like a side-hustle while he looked for a permanent job, David’s parents – who are themselves self-employed – encouraged him to expand his freelance horizons. “They were the ones who helped me to realise that I didn’t need to work for someone else,” he remembers.
Initially – like many freelancers – David took on whatever came his way, without much regard for a business plan. But it was through working on a variety of projects that he began to learn what kind of clients he wanted more of, namely: smaller scale start-ups and businesses. “I enjoyed being able to get in at the ground floor and be involved in the creative process – it was more engaging to work with actual business owners than an account manager,” David says. “One of the drawbacks with those types of clients is that they tend to have a smaller budget, but I’d choose working with someone with more passion than money over a big budget project that no one cares about any day.”
As well as providing an opportunity for David to make friends, being based at Coburg helped him to land new projects as he grew his networks. One project in particular changed the course of his career, and helped him to realise where his professional passions lay. David and his colleague Will Morris were approached to design and deliver a 150-meter long comic strip to use on the hoardings surrounding the construction site for the V&A Museum Dundee. The stunning piece – “Adventures in Design” – was also modified for reprint in The Scotsman, and selected to represent the UK at the Milan Trienalle 2016.
“That whole project revealed to me that I really needed a focus,” David says. “I realised I was a bit of a nerd, and that I’d never been drawn to the commercial stuff. I knew then that I wanted to focus on educational, cultural, heritage and science projects. I wanted to do more than sell a product – it was more about learning. I told myself I was going to chase these types of clients.”
That chase began more or less immediately with a fair amount of cold calling, but also some backtracking through old networks. Indeed, when a colleague over at Nomad Exhibitions, who David had worked with at the Milan Trienalle, mentioned the group were putting together the visuals for a Genghis Khan exhibition, David saw a unique opportunity. “I had lots of ideas for the project – so I put them together in a long email and they ended up bringing me on board!”
Today, around 60% of David’s clients are still based in the UK. “When I first went freelance I wanted to be able to work remotely – and moving to Newcastle has been the first real test for that and it’s all worked out fine.” He’s still got his eye out for local projects though, and luckily he’s got plenty of experience in building a client base. “I’m in a better position than I was the first time I had to do all this. I’d already worked out the best way to go about this in the UK so I’ve been able to jump straight in in Newcastle.”
See more of David’s work at dmackenzie.com