Jenna Van Hout - Freelance Designer
Jenna Van Hout is an independent designer & artist in the Bay Area
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The maker’s itch

These are my teapots. I am very proud of them. 🍵

I took a pottery class in December and have found myself completely intoxicated by clay. The past few months I have spent hours upon hours in the studio—experimenting, playing, and most of all, learning.

This tea set is for my dad, a big tea nerd 🤓 who loves Japanese style kyusu teapots. It was my first complex construction challenge that I’ve seen through and am pleased with the results. I made two of them in case I messed something up along the way—many of my pieces don’t quite turn out the way I would like, and if I’ve learned anything so far it is that nothing is precious. By making two I could both play with variations on form, and have a backup in case I broke one.

Here’s to growth and continued learning, and to scratching that maker’s itch!

Going to Disneyland

This past weekend, I went to Disneyland with some dear friends. It was my first time ever, at 32 years old.

“Going to Disney” is something that escaped me in my childhood. I grew up with a pretty counter-culture ethos—my parents rejected the consumerism of experiences like Disney, and preferred to take us on trips to go camping or to the beach, to enjoy natural wonders rather than the artificial. Now that I’m older, I realize that part of that may have been growing up without a lot of excess money—the ability to take a family of five to Florida or California was just never a reality on my parents’ income. Regardless of the reason though, I picked up the ethos they engrained in me and prided myself on refusing manufactured fun in favor of real, authentic experiences.

So when it was proposed that we go to Disney, I had a moment of pause. It had become this symbol of all the things wrong in the world, but does it deserve that reputation? In moving to California, I find that I have changed, and the ways I have (or make) fun have changed. I have spend the last few years creating fun for others—building experiences to spark joy and delight, using the vehicles of Burning Man and other art projects to share them with the world. Is Disney really that different?

If you are able to turn a blind eye to to the principles of self-reliance and commodification (you can’t throw a pair of mickey ears and not pass at least 20 articles of branded merch on the way), and maybe also forgot the NO SPECTATORS part, the mechanics around how they create fun are very similar. Immediacy is high and interaction is to be had everywhere you turn. And the perfection to which they have honed and polished their brand of fun is admirable, even downright inspiring. I spent the day marveling at the construction of sets, props and animatronic characters, appreciating that every visual detail of every attraction has been considered. Beyond the stunning level of visual craft, the have dialed the human experience of the place to be absolutely perfect: the place is spotless, employees are kind and smiling, the constant soundtrack is one of playfulness and adventure. They have even made the unavoidable experience of waiting in lines to be bearable, with disorienting snaking that makes you feel close to the front even when you’re 45 minutes out, and entertains you with constantly changing scenery as you slowly creep along. I spent my day in awe of the thoughtfulness and craft of every single aspect of Disneyland.

I think what I’m saying is that, I get it. I get it, and I’m sorry that I had such a misconception of a truly magical place. It is a modern marvel of entertainment, experience and crowd management. I do however recognize that I was able to fully enjoy it from a place of financial stability—one day set me back at least $300 between admission ($179 for a one-day park hopper pass), food and beverage, and a shiny new set of Minnie Ears. I can’t imagine the cost of bringing a family for a multi-day visit that would include travel, room and board. That said, I hope that I am able to bring my someday-children to this magical place to experience the joy I found this weekend.

Why I’m Different

Okay so there’s a lot of freelancers out there. What makes me so special?

Design is my first love, but client services are my second nature. My very first job out of design school (over a decade ago—time flies) was at a technology consultancy. As a consultant, I was embedded on-site with my project teams at businesses such as Bloomberg HQ in New York City for the majority of my work week. Right from the start, my understanding of how to be a good, professional designer revolved around interacting with and presenting to my clients directly, not via a middle man (or woman).

I bring a strong, outside, expert point of view to your project. You may find that it’s difficult to get things done effectively in-house. This can happen for many reasons: it may be because your team is juggling many, varied initiatives, or it may be that you are so deep in your own experience that it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. By bringing in an outside expert, you are able to gain a completely fresh perspective, one that is hyper-focused on solving your business problem for you—without all the noise or chaos of in-house life to worry about.

High value at a low cost. If you were to work with an agency, add a zero to the price I quote you. While there are times you would want to work with a full service team, working with my company of one will allow us to be lean, fast, and adaptable—without the overhead of paying for an entire organization’s time and resources.

If I can’t do it, I’ll find someone who can. My expertise is in visual design, and I can offer limited support in other areas like strategy, writing, and development—however, I’ll be the first to admit when your needs are beyond my abilities. I have a rich network of other freelance professionals to tap, many of whom I have worked with before and have personally vetted—from writing to strategy, film to photography, development to marketing—just ask! (Even if it’s not for a project we work on together—I’m eager to connect companies to great resources, and freelancers to great projects!)

Want to work together?

Book Review: Identity Designed

I was excited to receive my pre-ordered copy of Identity Designed: The Definitive Guide to Visual Branding, by David Airey. I’m a big fan of his books, which tend to be an excellent combination of design theory and a thorough look at process and practice.

In this tome, he get the scoop from sixteen different design studios around the world and digs into a project from each of them—uncovering awesome insights along the way about how they work: not just their strategy and approaches to the actual design work, which is inspiring and exciting for a design nerd like me to read about—but also to business details such as pricing, setting terms, and gathering consensus.

It’s invaluable to gain this kind of no-nonsense insight from top firms, all wrapped up in a beautifully designed book of case studies intended exactly for the audience of me.

Jennabook reviewComment
Why I freelance

I started freelancing because good design freelancers are hard to find. I know, because I’ve looked! During my time in-house and on design teams, we were constantly seeking additional resources to help with our fluctuating workloads. It was very hit-or-miss—the majority of them being misses. Simply put, there’s a lot of mediocrity out there. I wanted someone who:

  • Is both strategic AND executional—can both THINK and DO

  • Can offer a strong point of view and bring something new to the table; isn’t simply agreeable to all requests

  • Has experience managing client relationships

  • Communicates clearly and manages their projects and time effectively

  • Is low ego and professional about feedback

  • Does what is best for the client, not just what is trending right now on Dribbble

  • Creates high-quality design deliverables

When we did find these rare specimens, we clung to them for dear life. But I found most freelancers to fall short of my expectations. So when I was ready to move on from my last in-house role, I decided there was an opportunity to become the freelancer I wanted to see in the world.

Want to work together?

Old friends, new ventures

One of the more delightful parts of going freelance has been the outpouring of support from old friends and colleagues from various points of my life. Over the past few weeks, I have had at least twenty video chats or coffee dates with folks from every step of my decade-long career, spanning from the East Coast to West and even over to the UK. It’s not just enriching from a business development standpoint, but it’s lovely to catch up with awesome people I had lost touch with, yet always enjoyed being around and working with.

It’s also driven home the power of “networking.” I have always disliked that term, and as a more typically introverted person, I dreaded the act of meeting or connecting with folks with a goal in mind (ie to sell myself, or mine for work). But I didn’t previously realize that networking can happen in a completely authentic and mutually beneficial way. It’s an excuse to reconnect, share what we’ve been up to and see how we can help each other out. One potential outcome is that I may get to work with someone I truly appreciate and have an established rapport with. But even if the result is just a genuine, friendly catch-up, what’s not to love about that?

"Madame, it took me my entire life."

I love this anecdote to explain value-based pricing. It holds up well over time:

Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.

"It's you—Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist."

So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

"It's perfect!" she gushed. "You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?"

"Five thousand dollars," the artist replied.

"B-b-but, what?" the woman sputtered. "How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!"

To which Picasso responded, "Madame, it took me my entire life."

- LogoDesignLove by David Airey


LadyLounge is an SF-based volunteer collective of women and female-identifying persons who meet once a month for a variety of enriching potluck experiences led by members. Topics range from the arts, to health and wellness, to horticulture—but the common thread is a supportive, inclusive community of women helping and teaching other women. The organizer reached out to me to design the identity and a system of graphics for the events.

But what is the voice of a modern feminist support group? I started out exploring more traditionally feminine aesthetics, but quickly tired of what I realized was expected clichés: scripty fonts, pastels, gentle florals. From there I turned to a colorful, unapologetically bold approach. The wordmark is a combination of strength and directness in the all caps, sometimes-slab serif structure, but a few rounded edges soften the intensity.

For the system, overhead photography works beautifully to compliment the topics and drives a variety of unexpected and nuanced color combinations and textures.


The logomark


Event graphics

Herbal remedies.jpg
healthful cooking.jpg
houseplant hangout.jpg

I’m excited to continue designing for LadyLounge and see how it evolves over time!

Desert Retreat

Sunrise from Keys Point: a stunning vista overlooking the Coachella Valley. Snow-covered Mt. San Jacinto visible on the far right.

I’ve always romanticized the idea of writers tucking themselves away into remote locations to work on novels, like Thoreau at Walden, away from the distractions of everyday life. Perhaps its the introvert in me but I have never been afraid of solitude, especially to focus on creative endeavors.

Going freelance has not only been an occupational journey, but a spiritual one. I’ve been reevaluating my thoughts around big questions regarding my relationship to design: why I do it, what kind of work brings me joy, how I approach problems, who I want to work with, and where to focus my energy moving forward.

This week, I drove down to Joshua Tree to spend concentrated time looking inward and focusing on those questions. It’s been a deeply rewarding experience, allowing me to zero in on answers. I haven’t figured it all out, but I’m gaining clarity and confidence on where I’m heading and what I want to be doing. The weather was a mixed bag all week with a lot of rain, which encouraged me to stay in some days to work and process rather than go out and explore.

But it’s not all work—I’m in a stunning desert scene, and have enjoyed solo adventures into the wilderness of the national park: I caught multiple sunrises from stunning vistas, hiked to an abandoned gold mine, sought out one of the few natural arches in the park, and found a secret cave packed with petroglyphs. I spent time sitting in nature, sketching trees and boulders, consuming my surroundings with an eye on the edges and details of this weird landscape. It’s been breathtaking, peaceful, productive, and lonely-in-a-good-way.

I’m ready to head home today, but I look forward to returning soon.

Local beta: The contractor of my friends’ house in Yucca Valley (where I’m staying as they finish up the remodel) drew me a map to find a hidden cave of petroglyphs well off the marked trails, up the wall of a tucked-away box canyon. You can see the markings all over the ceiling and walls in faded blacks and reds. Despite it being an unmarked trail, there’s an NPS sign at the foot of the canyon forbidding climbing to preserve the prehistoric drawings.

Barker Dam:    It was bone dry when I was here in August, but right now it’s a breathtaking lake. If you get out early, you can beat the crowd and enjoy the stillness.

Barker Dam: It was bone dry when I was here in August, but right now it’s a breathtaking lake. If you get out early, you can beat the crowd and enjoy the stillness.

Spec Work

I’m enjoying all the new things I’m learning about running a business as I continue to dive deeper into freelancing, but I just had my first encounter with a proposition to do unpaid spec work.

If you walk into a restaurant and order a sandwich, would you only pay for it afterwards if you decided you liked it enough?

Spec work, short for “speculative work,” is the concept of soliciting design work from multiple designers before deciding who to ultimately hire or pay for the work done or a larger contract. Sometimes it happens as a contest, or as part of a pitch, and sometimes it is treated as an entrance exam or a “test” of your skills. The AIGA has a hard line position against spec work, the main reasons being:

1. To assure the client receives the most appropriate and responsive work. Successful design work results from a collaborative process between a client and the designer with the intention of developing a clear sense of the client’s objectives, competitive situation and needs. Speculative design competitions or processes result in a superficial assessment of the project at hand that is not grounded in a client’s business dynamics. Design creates value for clients as a result of the strategic approach designers take in addressing the problems or needs of the client and only at the end of that process is a “design” created. Speculative or open competitions for work based on a perfunctory problem statement will not result in the best design solution for the client. 

2. Requesting work for free demonstrates a lack of respect for the designer and the design process. Requesting work for free reflects a lack of understanding and respect for the value of effective design as well as the time of the professionals who are asked to provide it. This approach, therefore, reflects on your personal practices and standards and may be harmful to the professional reputation of both you and your business.

Think about it in terms of other industries—if you walk into a restaurant and order a sandwich, would you only pay for it afterwards if you decided you liked it enough? Or maybe you go eat a few different sandwiches from different restaurants, and decide which is the only one you want to pay money for. This is spec work.

Coming from a history of agencies, Ive done my share of spec work. My first agency participated in this practice. We would bust our normally-billable butts on non-billable work to come up with multiple concepts to be presented in pitches, where our people tried to convince prospective clients that we were the best partner out there to solve their particular challenge. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. (I’ll note that when I moved on to Blue State Digital, we had a no-spec policy, preferring to win projects based on merit and thoughtfulness rather than shiny pitch decks.)

Spec work was stressful because it felt as though so much rode on the designer’s back to show something beautiful and convincing—but I always felt it was a bit of an empty vanity play. We would be operating on limited information of what we understood the challenge to be, without having actually done the weeks or months of collaboration and discovery that the real project would actually begin with, with a final deliverable being a few choice, ultra-sexy screens. Sometimes it was fun to flex my design muscles in a world with very few constraints—no real users to empathize with, no larger system to work within, just make it look as awesome as possible—but most of the time it was exhausting and grueling work that you couldn’t even put in your portfolio due to the confidential nature of the work.

I think it’s one thing if you are an agency employing hundreds of people, and you’re going after a $500k project—it’s your business’s decision to invest the hours of a salaried employee on spec work. If you win the project, you now have half a million dollars coming down the pipe!—and it only cost you a few weeks of some of your staff’s time. If you lose it, it’s a bummer, but your staff, from the designers to the biz dev team, will still get paid for their efforts. However, it’s a totally different game if you’re a freelancer. The projects you’re going after aren’t nearly as big, and you most certainly can’t afford to work for free.

As freelancers, our expertise is of value, and our time is for purchase.

Now that I am an independent designer, I am a team of one. I am my own founder, CEO, CMO, CFO, and CTO. I do my own business development, marketing, project management, IT, bookkeeping and so on. The time spent on finding and meeting with prospective clients, researching, writing proposals and estimates, and keeping all of my comms up is no small feat—it’s a lot of overhead, and I don’t get paid for any of it. What I DO get paid for is what I specialize in: good, thoughtful design and a unique perspective.

As freelancers, our expertise is of value, and our time is for purchase. The right kinds of clients will understand that value and be willing to pay a fair price for it. Which is why, when a prospective client used the words “design challenge,” it took me a while to realize that what he actually meant wasn’t simply framing a paid branding project as a “challenge”, but to actually DO the branding project as unpaid spec work, pitching alongside a few other designers. It was a gut-punch when I realized this live on our call, and had to explain why I don’t participate in spec work. The call ended shortly after.

While I am bummed to have lost out on a project, it’s an experience I was bound to encounter sooner or later. I’m glad it happened early so I can either better qualify my leads, or be less offended when such requests come in. And on the bright side, by saying no and speaking my mind, I’m (hopefully) educating someone on why this is an unethical request. The optimist in me wants to believe that he will reconsider his approach, or will get results that prove that spec work is simply a race to the bottom.

To learn more about about spec work and how other designers feel about it, check out this resources page from No!Spec.