How To Earn Your Worth As An Independent Designer

And is collaboration worth more than money?

Bonolo Chepape, founder and creative director of Lulasclan, shares her journey and insights into building a successful career as an African creative. with Mongezi Mtati, brand strategist at Rogerwilco

“As African creatives, we have a responsibility to champion our design aesthetic and tell our stories through our work,” Bonolo Chepape, founder and creative director of Lulasclan tells me in my podcastThe Lead Creative.

She certainly tells a proudly South African and African story in the textile and graphic design work she has done with major clients like Nando’s, Smeg, Bulldog Gin, H&M and Mr Price Home. But how do you get started building a portfolio with big brands and, equally important, what does it cost?

Bonolo took the leap from corporate employment to flying solo when she reached the point where she needed more than just her salary – she needed purpose and longed to explore what she was capable of.

“I was working in an agency by day and pursuing my passion for design at night. I couldn’t serve two masters. Even now, I choose to focus on one project at a time. I commit and go all in.”

She says her work is not just about design; there’s a spiritual element to it too. “I work holistically with clients, building relationships while building projects. My work supports other people’s dreams and that’s my calling. I’m here to help clients create beautiful projects.”

Sometimes money gets in the way

Every freelance creative ultimately wants to collaborate with big brands. Bonolo sent her fair share of unsolicited emails but says that luckily clients reached out to her. Interestingly, she didn’t always work for money in the beginning, sometimes taking a strategic reward instead. In her experience, some brand partnerships can propel you forward more than money can.

“For me it was always about wanting to learn more. I structured one collaboration by licensing a pattern for free on the condition that I could be part of the production process. It’s rare for a client to let an external designer into production. It was a gap in my business that I needed to fill. I would have had to spend money learning about production anyway, so it was a good exchange.”

While the beginning was rough, she was learning and getting the exposure that enabled her to build clientele. She considered certain brand partnerships as the equivalent of paid advertising and some about building her portfolio.

“If the brand alignment is good, it’s going to propel you forward. It doesn’t always have to be about money; sometimes money gets in the way. You need to consider other ways partnerships can grow.”

Even today, she tailors her pricing not just for the scope of a project but for the client too. “You can’t charge someone that’s starting out the same as you’d charge a big brand. I like to be fair and reasonable, not greedy.”

Learning to live with challenges

In the public domain, all we see of a collaboration is the successful end result but anyone who’s ever worked with big brands knows that the challenges are real. Bonolo told me the three aspects of collaboration she finds most challenging are sidelining the artist, lack of transparency in royalties and some clients using the work beyond the scope agreed upon. She unpacks these in our conversation.

Every new entrepreneur takes time to become confident enough to charge what their work is worth. Bonolo had some good advice about this.

“The simplest route is to charge by the hour but you also need to look at all the touchpoints where the creative will be used – the more touchpoints, the more you can charge. Your price should encompass all the deliverables: project management, meetings, revisions, plus all the tiny things that take time. It doesn’t make sense to bill low for something you’ve spent years learning and practising.”

Give generously

Bonolo recommends that you go beyond client expectations. “If a client is buying a design, add a couple of things to the package. Do this for yourself because you’re passionate about the project. And say no to projects you’re not passionate about.”

Working with big brands has a lot to teach us. I asked Bonolo how she grew and evolved on various large projects.

“For Palesa Mokubung I created a pattern that I thought was too complicated but it was acquired by H&M and it blew up. People loved it. That taught me to stick to my style and grow in it. It gave me confidence. Every piece is different so give it a chance to live.”

With Makers Landing she had to learn how to work in a team. “I was used to working solo. Creatives get stuck in their way of working and you get comfy. Working with others taught me patience and how to take guidance. Being paired with someone you don’t know can cause friction and it would have been so easy to give up but I learnt a lot. It’s so important to be able to take criticism and keep on crafting, redesigning, and revisiting. In the end, it was a beautiful project and we still work together.”

Atang, Bathu, Laduma, Thebe… are you listening

Bonolo is inspired by other African creatives. “I’d love to explore creativity with the multidisciplinary artist Atang Tshikare. We have similar backgrounds. I imagine a peer-to-peer collaboration where we both come to the conversation with a blank canvas, no preconceived ideas and learn about each other.”

She also admires the Bathu brand and the fashion designers Laduma Ngxokolo of MaXhosa and Thebe Magugu.

“I think Bathu could teach me a lot about business and production. Where did Laduma get the confidence to create a luxury brand and stick to the pricing, undaunted by the South African need to justify our value constantly? And I’d like to ask Thebe about his journey and his experience within the fashion and design spaces. His talent is amazing.”

Cultural appropriation

The subject of cultural appropriation is getting a lot of attention these days, so I’d inevitably ask Bonolo how she approaches cultural design. She’s not against appropriation if it develops an African style, but it must be done respectfully.

“You need to educate yourself. For instance, in Zulu beadwork every bead symbolises something; in a Basotho blanket, the diagonal lines are very important. You need to understand what signifies each culture. Do the research. Then the artist must have their own viewpoint and put their own interpretation on the design because creativity is about self-expression. It’s a fine balance.”

How to get noticed

Because she’s had such success collaborating with big brands, I asked what advice she’d give to other creatives looking for important collaborations. Not surprisingly, she says that the more work you put into what you do, the more those opportunities will come to you.

“Keep doing what you’re doing and keep it out there, whether on social media, your website, in cold calls or unsolicited emails. Prospects need to see you somewhere. Market yourself. Create awareness. The beauty of technology is that people are watching.” 

Bonolo says that you can leverage one big brand collaboration to grow into the next if you realise that you’re only as good as your last job, so it’s important to keep showcasing your work and telling the stories behind your collaborations.

  • Document every project, even the small ones and even the ones you don’t love. “Sometimes the design I like the least is the one the client likes best!”
  • Make sure you present yourself as a brand.
  • Don’t be afraid to pay for advertising. “See yourself as an investment and make sure you have the right tools.”
  • Don’t be afraid to collaborate with peers. “It’s not just about big brands.”
  • Enter competitions as a way of putting yourself out there. Think strategically. If the brands you want to work with enter the Loeries, enter the Loeries. “It’s expensive, but worth it to be visible to right people.”

In Bonolo I discovered a highly creative designer who freely shares the experience that’s helped her get to the top of her game. If generosity of spirit is an essential element to success, Bonolo has it in spades.

This article was published in INC Africa

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