Jenna Van Hout - Freelance Designer
Jenna Van Hout is an independent designer & artist in the Bay Area
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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.

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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.

2018 in review

What a year. In short, I thrived. There’s some amount of guilt that comes with feeling personal satisfaction when the world seems to be going to shit, but as an individual, I feel very fulfilled in what I accomplished last year.


  1. Marrying the love of my life in an insanely beautiful, weird and unique ceremony, in a church we built, surrounded by our amazing community in the middle of the desert


2. Facilitating a silly and wonderful naming competition in which our new last name was decided

3. Helping Thomas to swingbomb San Francisco (#SwingbombSF)

4. Leaving an unsatisfying job to start freelancing—a journey into the empowerment and responsibility of self-employment

5. Sewing my own wedding dress, among other new costume pieces I made this year (including matching his and hers weirdo jackets, 3 different headpieces/hats, and several pairs of leggings)

6. Reverse-engineering a discarded geodesic dome, which was a wildly satisfying logic puzzle to solve

7. Roadtripping across the Southwest for the first time and seeing so much natural beauty my head exploded; subsequently falling deeply in love with canyons and red rocks

8. Designing side projects that brought me great fulfillment—such as partnering with witty geniuses to create a satire publication from scratch, and high-production party invites for an intergalactic gala

9. Nurturing newish friendships and creative partnerships that provided great nourishment to my soul!

10. Buying my first car. Yes, I’m 32—but I’ve lived NYC and SF my entire adult life and gotten by just fine with some combination of my feet, my bicycle, public transportation and the occasional Lyft. I still more or less bike everywhere for my day-to-day life, but having a car has been liberating for weekend trips and spontaneous adventures.

Missing Obama

I just finished reading Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming. It was a great read, and made me nostalgic for our former first family and the legacy they created. Her story was authentic and heartwarming, and painted a very human portrait of both herself and Barack through what must have been such challenging years.

I found myself enjoying her stories as a young girl—how she perceived her family and surroundings, how education and discipline played such a strong role in her development, and the role models and mentors she leaned on and learned from as she grew.

The chapters focused on the White House years were fascinating—it’s rare to be able to get the insider perspective of things that happened in our country and touched our nation and the world over those years. Even the more mundane details about everyday life in the White House were interesting—it’s a life I could never imagine for myself, and hearing how someone with humble beginnings navigated such a foreign environment was captivating.

It’s a punch to the gut to wake from this warm story’s reverie to realize where the presidency has gone since Obama left office. I miss the dignity, respect, and human empathy that characterized the Obamas’ eight-year reign. How far we’ve fallen! I’m looking forward to 2020, praying that the blue tide will continue to rise.

"Don't refer to yourself as a brand."

I got some good spiritual advice this weekend from an experienced freelancer. He encouraged me to spend this initial start up time exploring my art and figuring out what my voice is. Which is… pretty much exactly what I’ve been trying to focus on. It’s awesome hearing it from an outside source though. He was really speaking my language when he told me that “you spend so much time working for companies that you train you to think like them, to deliver what they want. The commercial world mainstreams your point of view. Right now you should focus on what makes you unique as an individual and a person. This is one of the few chances you get to really recover that identity, and think about the kind of work you want to do, and then go do it.

…And don’t refer to yourself as a brand—that’s a small version of who you really are. You’re a person. You’re authentic. Don’t become like them.”

So nourishing to have that discussion. Thanks for the advice!