Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian once quipped that “On the internet, no one can hear you screw up.” The fertile digital landscape’s low barrier to entry and massive audiences is one of the more exciting parts about the creative world.
But when you can do anything, it’s easy to be paralyzed by the options. Should you find that dream job? Freelance? Start a company? Plotting the course of your creative career is tough and takes some bold choices. Which is why Lauren Hom’s path is worth analyzing — one of many creatives utilizing our increasingly networked world to purposefully build a career she loves: In her case, it’s one of autonomy and complete location independence.
With a bit of luck (like getting noticed by a book agent when she was 21 for her Daily Dishonesty blog) and a lot of around-the-clock creative work, Hom has built a career that antsy workers everywhere can appreciate. Hom is a digital nomad, someone who works abroad, moving around frequently. As part of the Remote Year program Hom packed up her Brooklyn apartment and is now spending four months at a time in Europe, Southeast Asia, and South America as she continues to field a full client load and maintain her collection of side projects.
We asked the 25-year-old illustrator and letterer how side projects are the gateway to creative freedom and whether working while traveling is totally overrated.
A lot of people (and social media accounts) romanticize the idea of being a digital nomad. So what is something that people never talk about when it comes to working while traveling?
The only thing I can say is that it’s different. It’s like full-time versus freelancing. There are pros and cons to both. You just have to learn how to readjust your expectations and lifestyles and go with the ebbs and flows. You see the photos of people on the beach with their laptops and you think “Oh man I wanna do that!” but once you get there you realize it’s cool, but it’s just different. It’s not better or worse.
It’s also a tradeoff. When you have a home base you can be a creature of comfort with your coffee shop, routine, creative community, as well as your desk and your beautifully curated space that you pay too much money for (laughs). You sacrifice all of that when you want to have maximum flexibility.
What would you say is the hardest part of that?
Keeping a closeness with people around you because it’s so fleeting. I spend a month in each spot and even if I meet someone the first day, grab a coffee, and collaborate with them creatively, there’s just not enough time. It’s exhausting. I won’t lie, I’m 25 and I’m tired (laughs).
Between your side projects and the remote work, it sounds like autonomy is the number one thing you’re looking for.
Absolutely, and that’s the way the job market is going towards. Employers will have to be a little more flexible. We’re realizing we don’t have to work 9 to 5 in an office to be our most productive. Especially as creatives, there’s not a lot of inspiration in routine.
So for those that want to get out of that, what do you recommend they do?
My way out was side projects. Even if you like your job, there’s no reason a designer shouldn’t have a side project. If you’re inherently creative, you could win the lottery and never have to work again, but you’d still make work. It’s just what we do.
The reason I could leave my job is that I had this passion project [Daily Dishonesty] on the side. On the subway home from my job, I would be sketching. When I got home, I’d be working after hours on it. That gave me the leverage to leave.
We all know client work isn’t the most fun and you don’t always have the most creative control. With a side project you can have this baby that is 100 percent yours. I had no plans on ever monetizing the blog or switching careers, it just happened to go in that direction. I happened to have landed a book deal for the blog and that gave me the financial freedom to leave.
That’s a big jump from “I’m just messing around on the subway” to “someone is handing me a check for a book.”
That is a big jump! There was no overnight magic. I really believed in this side project and kept at it. A year later a literary agent found me and we started putting together some pitches for publishing houses and then it was out in the next year.
Do you still count sales from the book as a portion of your yearly income?
Very tiny royalties. It’s like drinking money, it’s negligible.
How do you calculate the audience before these side projects?
In most cases the audience is myself. I’m 25 years old. I like to travel. I’m creative. I like wine. When I think about that, all my friends are the same way. So what are the chances there are hundreds, thousands, millions of people just like me? Pretty high. I think we should design for our own demographic because you are your best marketer because you are your target audience. You know what you want.
Everything I have experienced, I assume someone else out there has also experienced. I think the beauty behind something like Ex-Boyfriend Tears is that no matter who you are are, where you lived, or who you love, everyone knows what it’s like to go through a breakup. It’s very humanizing and very easy to relate there. Just like Daily Dishonesty, everyone knows what it’s like to say “I’ll be there in five minutes!” when you haven’t even left the house.
One thing that’s tough for folks doing side projects or working for themselves is the lack of constraints. How do you create those, if you even do?
Before I sit down, I create some tight parameters to work within. Take my “Will Letter for Lunch” project. The premise was whatever I wrote I got to eat. I had no chalk experience, so I couldn’t expect people to pay me. So that was a fun way to practice. I set out some guidelines: chalkboards, eating what I write, no branding or menu design.
Before I start, I vet it and make sure there’s not too much room to let it go haywire. I try to keep the concept simple and easy to digest in one little bite. For example, if your side project was illustrating dogs, that’s so broad! You could do 100 different things with that! The way we consume media is insane. So to launch a successful side project it has to be so easy to understand within the first 10 seconds.
There’s a self-serving element here though that starts with you deciding you want to learn a certain skill and then making a project around it. You could have easily been angry about school not teaching you this stuff, but here you are.
I guess so. I took one class on type and I regret not taking more design classes at SVA [in New York]. I went into the advertising major because I had parents that were supportive but somewhat skeptical of me going into the creative field so advertising seemed to be this happy medium. It wasn’t a bad gig, I just found something better suited for me.
How did you grapple with the expectations of your parents, doing something like lettering that they may not totally grasp?
My dad and I were having a funny conversation where he said “I don’t understand your generation. You guys demand happiness with everything you do.” It sounds absurd to us but for him, he thinks it’s lucky if you get a job after college and you should just keep your head down and do it. Work is work, play is play. I think my dad values the security and I get that, but I think our generation craves flexibility and autonomy. There’s no way doctors, designers, illustrators, teachers all function and thrive between 9 to 5. Who decided 9 to 5? I think employers are realizing that as long as the work gets done it doesn’t matter. Things are shifting. My parents get it now and they are happy because I’m happy.
So where does your income come from now?
In New York, I was 75 percent remote digital work. Stuff done by hand and scanned into Photoshop. Then 25 percent on-site projects. Now that I’m traveling, it’s more like 90 to 10. But because of the Remote Year structure, every time I get to a new city I send out my feelers via social media and have been able to do a mural or lettering workshop in every city I’ve been in so far. I do a lot of editorial, advertising, and social media work with agency.
So building your audience via Instagram is key?
Honestly I just got onto Instagram two and half, three years ago. I didn’t realize how valuable building that audience would be. I definitely wouldn’t be able to book onsite work that fast without my audience. To be a modern day creative you have to build one and play the game.
My first editorial job ever came from Type Everything. They reposted one of my Daily Dishonesty things and the next day I got an email from Los Angeles Magazine. The editorial world is very small and other regional magazines subscribe to other regional magazines and within the next month I had four to five editorial inquires. And it came from an editor browsing my site one late night. And that’s why having this presence on social media is helpful. Everyone has an art director friend.