This time last year, I was clearing out my desk drawer. Bits of fluff, gnarled promotional pens from all manner of printers, a treasured stockpile of bulldog clips that had to be returned to the stationery cupboard – meagre evidence of my years spent as in-house designer at a little quango in the North.
In my memoirs, I'll recount how I made a stand and stormed out of the office leaving nothing but the lyrics to Monkey Wrench as a resignation letter, but in reality I was actually set free by that 2011 favourite: redundancy. Although the jump wasn't entirely voluntary, I decided to embrace the shove and take it as an opportunity to go freelance.
I left with a suitably unprofessional leaving present (a LEGO Millennium Falcon – surely the pinnacle of mankind's attempts to make the ultimate procrastination device) and a sense of liberation from bureaucracy and inane quango-speak. No longer would I have to action paperwork by the close of play, surface ideas in endless committee meetings, or brown-bag the merits of comfort zones. I could actually speak English again.
And I was finally free from that burden of my own making: The Style Guide (Gill Sans, 549U, Cyclus Offset … one day I'll forget my own name and how a healthy digestive tract is supposed to operate, but I'll still know this stuff). I think it's fair to say that working in-house for so long had made me just a tad bitter.
But all that was behind me now – I could do what I want! No more paperwork! I could frolic in pure design! I could work at home! In my pants!
I was like an excitable Charlie Bucket, inheriting a whole chocolate factory full of opportunity and freedom. But that freedom became very daunting very quickly. You don't realise it until you're left to your own devices, but metaphorical chocolate factories are vast, lonely deathtraps full of sticky mistakes and malevolent homunculi. As much as I'd prepared for it, the culture shock of moving from in-house to out-house was unavoidable and paralysing.
I resented that old bureaucracy, but it had been shielding me from the realities of finance and administration. And aside from winning over the occasional in-house client who begrudged having to put their precious report anywhere near design ("Why do we need him? We have PowerPoint."), I had no idea how to sell myself. I'd always just been That Quiet Guy With The Mac And The Bulldog Clips. I didn't appreciate it at the time – the grass looked so very green from over that tired old fence – but there's a lot to be said for being paid to sit at a desk, waiting for work to be brought to you.
I'd been spoilt in many ways, and had formed all sorts of bad habits over the years that simply wouldn't work in the scary outside world. As much as I'd prepared for this change – lining up clients, sorting out a little home studio, absorbing guidance from everyone (never underestimate the generosity of your peers) – that learning curve just refused to get any gentler. For some reason, owning three copies of How to be a Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul and making them into a little Shaughnessy-fort simply didn't help.
It's a curve that was worth climbing though. A year later, and I've learnt a thousand lessons. Some came naturally, some painfully. One of the most important lessons was realising that a lot of the structure around me in my previous job was there for a bloody good reason, and worth reconstructing: you simply can't underestimate the value of having a decent accountant on your side, and sometimes it's actually a good idea to wear trousers (when meeting your accountant, for example). Going from in-house to self-employment is liberating, but every now and then you have to stop and differentiate between liberty and chaos.
Looking back now, the post-redundancy bitterness has gone and there's a lot I miss about being an in-houser: the people, the security, the stationery cupboard. But I have my own desk now, my own drawer full of crap, and I'm rather happy. As difficult and terrifying as freedom may be, this bulldog clip trove will always be mine.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Creative Review.