Freelancing & Collaborating in Detroit

This past week I had the opportunity to travel to Detroit, Michigan to work with the non-profit, Detroit Food Academy. The goal of their main program (Small Batch Detroit) is to help high school students get better career opportunities within the food industry, and invent/sell their own products.

My good friend, Margo Dalal, works for DFA. Naturally when they needed help with branding and lettering, she thought of me.

This was my first time traveling to a new city to complete a paid freelance project! I wanted to quickly share a few highlights and things I learned from the experience.

Key Takeaways

  • Collaborate with artists from other disciplines

  • Internet strangers become friends when you put yourself out there

  • It's incredibly easy to organize a meetup or a collab

  • Traveling builds perspective and empathy, which leads to better design

  • Done is better than perfect

  • Tight deadlines force you to focus and make decisions

  • Clear communication is the most important part of a client relationship

  • Experiment and try new styles of working



Meeting & Collaborating with Local Artists

Regardless of where you are traveling, there are probably at least one or two people who are passionate about the same things you are.

Before leaving for my trip, I reached out to two of my favorite lettering artists from the area, Sean Tulgetske and Neil Tasker. We organized a small drink n' draw meetup (coffee, that is) at a local spot called Trinosophes.

Originally we were planning to make a mural, but we weren't able to find a good (indoor) wall, so we illustrated a large poster size piece.


That collaboration was completed in the span of about four hours at the studio space of Wesley Eggebrecht. I hadn't met any of these guys in person before Sunday. It took an hour or so to plan out the piece and find the flow, but it ended up being super fun! Afterward, I used that momentum to prepare for the big project ahead.


Gaining Inspiration from a New City

From my prior research, I knew that the city of Detroit has many problems: Tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, underpopulation, high crime rates and a poor education system.

Despite it's issues, I found that much of Detroit has a warm and welcoming neighborhood culture. Every person who I encountered seemed to be very caring and positive, regardless of their circumstances. This was a really nice change, coming from busy New York where everyone seems to have an agenda.

Seeing other points of view builds empathy. Greater empathy leads to better design.

Seeing the city and meeting the people firsthand helped me to better understand the target audience.  Although only half of my time spent in Detroit was spent directly working, I considered the first half as research. I probably could have gotten the project done from my home studio, but the solutions would not have been nearly as insightful.

One of the most enlightening parts of the trip was interviewing the clients, the students, and other people at Green Garage, the co-working space. I learned some of the nuts and bolts of how a triple bottom line venture (people, planet, profit) really works.

Interestingly, a few of the employees are working there under Americorps job placements. I had never heard of this before, but basically they have government-funded grants to pay for their salaries, since their roles are very community-service driven. They are paid at the city's poverty level so they can better understand the people they are serving.

I wouldn't choose that route for myself, but I have a lot of respect for those who do. They were some of the most open-minded, down-to-earth people I've met in a long time.



Traveling & Working On-Site

Does the client pay for your travel expenses?

A few people were wondering this, and the answer is yes. I would not have went out there to do this project if the travel and expenses were not covered by DFA. That being said, I ended up staying with Margo instead of getting a hotel, to save them some money. Nothing wrong with a little couch surfing.

But how can they pay for the work AND cover your expenses if they are a non-profit?

It's simple. I made sure from the beginning that the problems I was solving had real business value. Their goal was to quadruple their production by 2017, and we all knew that more cohesive branding will help them build awareness and sales. Once it was clear that my work was a good investment, it was a no brainer.



Working Within Tight Deadlines

Since I was only coming out for a few days, I decided to try out a new process for this project. Rather than spending weeks agonizing over the finer details of a logo, I aimed to bang it out quickly and just keep iterating until the end of the project. (This process was inspired by my friend Steve Wasterval and his studio Worst Of All Design.)

Done is better than perfect.

In the end I found that the pressure of the deadline forced me to truly focus and make quicker decisions. It resulted in a much higher yield of work per day than I am used to. While it didn't have the same level of craft as a longer project, I learned to accept that done is better than perfect. I'd personally rather put out a larger volume of work over the course of a year, than just a few pieces that took months to execute.


Collaborating with the Client

Typically I do my best work when I have peace and quiet, completely isolated. I thought, how would it work if I was sharing a space in close proximity with my client? Would it be too much pressure, or would it help inform the process and make better decisions?

There's no single process or way to work with clients, so I tried this as an experiment. Considering my background and extroverted tendencies, I was confident I'd be able to solve their problems and manage it all on-site. Luckily, I was right.

This certainly wouldn't work for every project, but I had a feeling this organization would be open to it.  It's always good to try new things and see what yields the best product.


Clear Communication is The Most Important Thing

The only way this would work was if we clearly established the roles up front. In other words, there needed be a mutual respect between the client (they're the expert in their industry) and me as the designer.

Because we had all that squared away in the initial phone discussions, I was able to focus on creating the best results without worrying about the client being hypercritical.

The design process went through as any other project would, but it was just condensed into 3 days. After the first 3 days of being in Detroit (research), the process looked like this:

  • 1 day for exploration
  • 1 day for design
  • 1 day for refining and presenting

I know that doesn't seem like enough time, but as with much of graphic design, you can always go back in and tweak things afterward. Plus, I had Margo there helping out with smaller tasks like production design and color work.


I presented my designs twice; first as in-progress work, and then again as finished artwork. In the end it was a win-win situation. I got to gain valuable experience and experiment with a new style of working, and the client received their shiny new designs, plus a couple extra things that were above and beyond the scope.

I hope this article was interesting and helpful for you. If you have any feedback or questions, feel free to reach out directly at I read every email that comes in.

To see the finished project, check out the case study in my portfolio.