After working as a freelance designer in Portland, Oregon, for three years, Maria Guerriero was lonely. “I would work at home all day, but I needed other people around me, whether for taking an occasional break or talking about what I was working on,” she says. “I felt trapped in my house.”
Then she attended a networking event at Studio Co/Create, a coworking space for designers. “I walked in, and I was like, ‘Holy cow, these people are awesome, and I want to be like them,’” she remembers. Guerriero was in awe of their high-profile clients— such as National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution and Nike—and their creative courage. “With my insecurities and being wet behind the ears, I was like, ‘I’ll never be like that.’”
A year later, Guerriero became a fully integrated member of the eight-person office. With their help, she has found the gumption to charge a client 50 percent more for her native files. She has learned from her peers’ creative habits. “There’s this one woman who draws a lot, and the other day, she said to me, ‘Most of the time, I don’t know what I’m doing—but I do it anyway.’ And I thought, ‘She feels this way? Then I’m going to do it, too.’ She helped me draw more, create more and share it with the world.” Since joining Studio Co/Create, Guerriero has started illustrating and sharing daily drawings on Instagram. Meanwhile, she continues to find more clients for her identity and web design work. She says her office has helped her grow creatively and professionally.
In coworking offices, a member may rent a private desk or simply pay for use of a shared space, generally month to month. More and more freelance creatives are joining coworking spaces, not only to cure their cabin fever, but also to inspire their visionary spark, push their work to new heights and build their network—a must for independent businesses. In late 2015, coworking spaces reported an average of 76 members. That’s 50 percent more than two years before, according to Deskmag’s Global Coworking Survey. The market has responded to the demand. In 2016, more than 10,000 coworking spaces are slated to open worldwide.
For designers, illustrators, photographers and the like, the options seem endless. They can choose a space that caters to their kind or an office teeming with potential clients—like a coworking space tailored to software developers and startups, rife with opportunity for an interactive designer. MakerHive in Hong Kong is expressly for designers, with a laser cutter, a sewing machine and a 3-D printer. BIG Oakland recently raised more than $20,000 on Kickstarter to launch a coworking space in the East Bay for architects and other workers in the building industry—environmental graphic designers are also welcome! Then there are more traditional studios, such as the Pencil Factory in Brooklyn, which supports many illustrators.
Despite the growing excitement around coworking spaces, there are some drawbacks. For one, they can be costly—up to hundreds of dollars a month. If an independent worker rents out the common area, instead of a private dedicated desk, he or she can be prone to the distractions of an open office layout. “If you’re a social butterfly, you might not get any work done,” says Ilise Benun, a programming partner for the HOW Design Live podcast and a marketing mentor to many freelance workers. “It all depends on how you work best and what you need.”
But the benefits can far outweigh the costs. When asked to measure how well they thrive on a seven-point scale, coworking members rate themselves near a six, as reported by the Harvard Business Review. With regular events, private social media groups and happy hours, coworking members have ample chance to connect with others. They often find community, helping each other clear business hurdles and land clients. As a result, corporate offices are mimicking the architecture and social tissue of coworking, says Steve King of Emergent Research, which studies the future of small businesses. “We study coworking as a window into the future of work,” King says.
Every freelance designer should try it for a day, Benun argues. “In coworking, there’s a built-in community, and that solves one of the biggest problems of working independently.”
A SPACE FOR LIKE MINDS
In San Francisco’s posh Hayes Valley neighborhood, near a small-batch ice creamery and a park bustling with toddlers and French bulldogs, the Makeshift Society welcomes artists and designers of all kinds. Soft sunlight illuminates shelves stuffed with design books, from a manual on pinhole cameras to Pantone: The 20th Century in Color, by Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker, to the crafting memoir Crochet Saved My Life: The Mental and Physical Health Benefits of Crochet, by Kathryn Vercillo. A motivating wall installation offers the word “MAKE” in dangling letterforms made of bright piñatas. Large wooden tables and a well-loved couch ease creatives into their workday.
Rena Tom, a founder of the San Francisco boutique gift shop Rare Device, started Makeshift as a way to support other small businesses and creatives. She had toured other coworking spaces and felt alienated by the large contingents of programmers. “I want Makeshift to stay small, to stay like a family,” Tom says. “I’m rooting for the underdog. I want to keep that layer alive in San Francisco and help out that person who not only has a printmaking business and does headshots, but also puts on creative art shows on the side.”
Tom thinks artists and designers seek out their kind in coworking spaces because the creative process requires vulnerability and communal understanding. “If you work in a creative discipline,” she says, “you feel like, ‘These people are weird like me and obsess over the same details that I do!’ This happens with designers. They need to feel that comfort.” The space, which opened in 2012, currently has around 260 members.
When she joined Makeshift in 2012, April Walters faced a crossroads. She had managed social media for the app Foodspotting, and though she still adored food, she wanted to try a new career. After taking a watercolor class at Makeshift, something clicked. She posted a watercolor donut on Instagram, and friends clamored to commission more donuts—and pay for them. Since then, through her Etsy shop, she has sold more than 500 Donuts of the Bay Area Calendars.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for the influence Makeshift and its members have had on me, whether it’s a watercolor class or the life coach who helped me transition at a pivotal point in my life,” says Walters, who now works as a full-time freelance illustrator and artist. “When you’re unsure of your direction, [coworking spaces] are awesome because you can see all these different ways you can show up in the world, outside the traditional nine-to-five desk job.”
MAKING THE MOST OF IT
If you’re interested in coworking, shop around for the best cultural fit, Tom says. “Visit as many spaces as possible,” she says. “Be in a location you love because everyone is lazy and doesn’t want to leave their neighborhood. If it’s too far, you’re not going to go!”
Your coworking spot might spell the difference between a full client roster and an empty one, King says. “I would look for a space where there are a lot of people interested in your line of work,” he says. “But if I wanted help on my creative journey, I would choose a specialty place where I could be exposed to different types of artists.” Benun says you should look critically at a space by showing up to a few events. “I know a lot of places have a calendar of events, but are people actually attending? Is it the same people over and over? How active is that community?”
Once you’re committed, truly commit, Benun says. Show up regularly and integrate yourself. Start by chatting with people in the kitchen. “One of the myths about self-promotion is that it’s about tooting your own horn or bragging,” Benun says. “But to me, curiosity is the most potent ingredient of networking. All you have to do is start conversations about what others are doing.” Then take advantage of the social calendar. “By far, the people who tell us they’re getting the most out of coworking participate in events,” King says. “Help others. And get help yourself. Those are the folks who are most successful at a coworking space.”
Leif Parsons, an illustrator and artist who has worked out of the Pencil Factory, has found professional motivation and collaborators for creative projects at his Brooklyn-based studio. The environment helped him structure his work life more efficiently. There, he started a group drawing project with artists Josh Cochran, Mike Perry, Damien Correll and Jim Stoten. They took turns contributing to the same drawing every few minutes, and Parsons says the project helped him gain more flexibility as an illustrator. Regarding coworking, Parson says, “‘Just do it’ would be my advice for a young illustrator. It’s an unquestionably positive move for most people. For young people, coworking forces you into professionalization.” But he understands why budding freelance creative workers might hesitate for financial reasons.
Guerriero herself was unsure if she could afford Studio Co/Create in Portland, Oregon. “My business at the time was still starting up, trying to get more clients and consistent work,” she says. She fretted, “Do I have the budget to do this?”
In the end, she’s glad she bit the bullet. “One of the best business decisions I’ve made—ever. Easily.” ca