Emily Markwood’s life, like many freelance creatives, is something of a balancing act. Professionally, she helps build brands from scratch each day. Hayes Barton Designs, her studio, just celebrated its 7 year anniversary, and business is booming. There are also kids to wrangle, an office space to renovate and cute animals to feed.
She’s also one of 99designs’ star brand specialists. 106 contests have been won, 116 1-to-1 projects completed and 31 repeat clients have left glowing 5 star reviews in the few years she’s spent on the platform. And that’s on top of everything else going on in her life.
We reached out to Emily (AKA EWMDesigns) to understand what lights her fire and empowers her to do it all. We learned that as warm as she is, she’s also extremely intentional about what she pours herself into, taking on only a few projects at a time to ensure that each of her clients receives the attention they deserve. And they do, walking away with a final product they’re so proud of, and that extra *oomph* when they launch their small business.
We hope Emily’s story will inspire you to fall back in love with the process and encourage you to follow your path.
Do you remember when you realized design was the right path for you?
I remember it really clearly, actually. After graduating from North Carolina State University with a degree in business, I found myself working for a small pharmaceutical company. There was often a need for design projects to be complete. I always loved creating, so I volunteered as they came up.
At this point I didn’t know anything about design and had never even heard of Adobe creative software. A colleague, who had previously worked with a book publishing company, introduced me to Illustrator and I was hooked right away. There’s a learning curve for sure—figuring out how to manipulate anchor points to create something that doesn’t look like it was drawn by a six-year-old—but I caught on pretty quickly and I couldn’t get enough.
After eight years with the company, we were acquired and my position was eliminated. While I was sad, it seemed like the right time to figure out if I could make a living as a freelance designer.
A total “now or never” moment.
It was frightening and freeing all at the same time. I had no idea how I’d find clients or even what I wanted to design. It all worked out, though, and I’m so thankful that this is how I get to spend my ‘work’ days.
It was frightening and freeing all at the same time. I had no idea how I’d find clients or even what I wanted to design.
You recently celebrated 7 years of Hayes Barton Designs. So first of all: congratulations! Tell us the story behind the name?
When I decided to give this all a go, I discovered that I needed to register my business with the state. I knew I didn’t want to use my name, but coming up with something meaningful so quickly seemed daunting. Hayes Barton Historic District is a neighborhood just outside of downtown Raleigh, developed in 1920 through the mid-twentieth century, and it’s where I live with my husband and two children. I’m a Raleigh native and including a bit of the city I love so much in my business name ended up being the perfect choice, I think.
That’s lovely. What would you say you specialize in?
I work on my own and these days focus primarily on small business branding. I still have clients from connections I made during my time in pharmaceuticals and spend some of my time on corporate projects. Branding is, without a doubt, my favorite.
What’s your favorite industry to design for?
My natural style is a bit quirky, organic and imperfect and seems to fit best with creative industries. I love working with other artists—makers, musicians, and chefs—and have found that my design style is usually a good match for folks in this space. There’s a ton of room to be creative.
It’s nice to have a mix of clients with a wide range of design needs; it keeps things interesting and every day brings new challenges and opportunities. Some designers say you need to define a niche, and that kind of happens naturally, but I sincerely believe that I’m a more valuable resource to my clients because I’m able to adapt to a variety of design styles. I pride myself on presenting unique and thoughtful design concepts.
I love working with other artists—makers, musicians, and chefs—and have found that my design style is usually a good match for folks in this space.
What do you think has been the most rewarding part of being creative?
The rewards are multitudinous. The best part, though, is watching brands come to life. Creating a thoughtful and intentional brand identity is often a lengthy and tedious process and my hope is always that the final designs will serve the client well as they begin and grow their business. Watching these brands succeed is such a source of joy and pride for me. I feel so honored and humbled to have a small (albeit important) role in their journey and it’s incredibly rewarding to watch them flourish.
Another big advantage is working for myself. When I started freelancing my son was one and my daughter hadn’t yet joined us. Now they are eight and six. Having the flexibility to be there for them—to drop them off and pick them up from school, to help with homework, or give hugs after a rough day—is such a privilege, one that I wouldn’t have if I had chosen a different path. I didn’t realize, seven years ago, how important these things would be. But it sort of makes the whole ‘things happen for a reason’ saying ring true.
Having the flexibility to be there for [my kids]—to drop them off and pick them up from school, to help with homework, or give hugs after a rough day—is such a privilege, one that I wouldn’t have if I had chosen a different path.
Are there any challenges you face?
Some days it’s tough to feel inspired and all the ideas feel like bad ones. Thankfully these spells pass pretty quickly. I’ve found that it’s hardest to be creative when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
Taking a step back and gaining some perspective helps a lot. For me, that looks like making a list and breaking things down into manageable pieces. Most often, once I’ve done this, the creativity sneaks back in. Here’s hoping this is always the case.
Paint us a picture: what does a day in your life look like? Do you have a set routine?
I’m definitely a creature of habit and having a routine is helpful for me. I start most days begging my kids to get dressed and brush their teeth. Then, coffee. Once my workday starts, I try to dive right into the most creative tasks. Mornings are often my most productive time of the day and I start losing speed in the early afternoon.
I try my best to avoid email for the first few hours of the day, unless there’s something urgent, and catch up on those over lunch. Administrative tasks are saved for the late afternoon, as the creative juice is typically running low by then. Occasionally, I’ll get back to work after supper with my family, but I try my best to keep fairly traditional office hours. Working from home is tricky and if you’re not deliberate, you can end up at your computer for far longer than you should.
Definitely. On the topic of inspiration, could you tell us 3 things that are inspiring you at the moment?
Inspiration is all around right now; spring is my favorite. It’s getting hot here and everything is blooming. The trees are green again and there’s just so much color everywhere—beautiful and inspiring, for sure. I don’t get the chance to read much for myself these days, but my kids and I are devouring The Chronicles of Narnia at bedtime. We’re on book three and I’d forgotten how wonderful the stories are. I can’t say there’s any specific design inspiration for me in there, but the magic in general is certainly inspiring.
I love music and could never pick one favorite, but I love The English Beat, Elvis Costello, Brett Dennen, Gregory Alan Isakov, Lake Street Dive, Amos Lee, Leon Bridges, Bob Marley… I could go on and on. Music is a huge source of inspiration for me, but I have to be careful listening while I’m working; solo dance parties happen if it’s too good!
Some designers say you need to define a niche, and that kind of happens naturally, but I sincerely believe that I’m a more valuable resource to my clients because I’m able to adapt to a variety of design styles.
A lot has changed in your career since you joined 99designs four years ago. What makes you continue on the platform?
99designs has been such a wonderful platform for me. At first, it was a great way for me to try new things and expand my skillset as a designer. I’d browse through the contest prompts and I was amazed by how many people were seeking designs. I just sort of tried everything in the beginning, but pretty quickly figured out where I could be successful. I’d come up with an idea for a design and then start researching how to bring the concept to fruition. Not being a formally trained designer, my skills were limited, but each contest allowed me to learn something new. I didn’t use an iPad at first, so I would sketch ideas on paper, take a photo, and then trace the design with a mouse in Illustrator. It seems archaic now, but if you need practice with the pen tool, that’s the way to get it.
I’ve collaborated with so many wonderful clients—all over the world—that I never would have met had it not been for 99designs. I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunities that have come from my participation on the platform and I intend to maintain a presence here for as long as I can. Things have changed as my business has evolved and I don’t have time to enter many contests anymore, but the one-to-one projects have been a great source of business for me. It’s challenging and time-consuming to find clients on your own and the platform makes it such a simple and seamless process.
Thank you for the kind words. One last question before we go: you faced a “now or never” moment when it came to starting your creative practice. Could you share a nugget of wisdom or advice to designers, maybe those who are just starting their careers? Maybe something you learned from taking that leap?
If you’re passionate and work hard, I really think you can accomplish just about anything you set your mind to. Remember to give yourself some grace and have lots of patience. It took me a couple of years to really settle into doing this full time, and in hindsight, I’m so happy that I embraced the uncertainty and discomfort of it all and just went for it. Learn as much as you can and reach out to other designers for guidance if you need it. The creative community is wonderful and supportive; just remember to pay it forward.