More Freedom, More Opportunity, More Time to Surf! Dann Petty on the Freelance Life

by Patrick Faller

posted on 12-12-2016

Ask Dann Petty what he does, and he’ll say he’s a freelance web designer…but if you were to stumble into his studio you’d see him doing much, much more. He designs apps, print ads, shoots photographs, and hosts his own design ‘non-conference’ Epicurrence. Oh and he loves to surf, a lot: he even built a surf app using Adobe XD.

At Adobe MAX this November, he shared his latest project with a crowd of designers: documentary filmmaking. Dann is a committed freelancer and wants to tell the stories of his fellow freelancers too. Next year, his film FR$$LANCED comes out. We talked to Dann about what makes him tick as a designer, and why freelance is the life for him.


When you start creating your designs, where does your inspiration come from?

I don’t sit down to get my inspiration…unless it’s at a bookstore or somewhere outdoors with a buddy, drinking a light drip coffee or something. It definitely comes from outside: typically a surf in the Pacific.

If I don’t have time for that I always head to the bookstore before I start a project and look at magazines. I’ve got my usual suspects I always go to: WIRED, Surfer, and so on – editorial design really inspires me. I’m a believer that typography and imagery make a design work before anything else does. I always start there first.

Did you ever have a ‘breakthrough’ moment as a designer, when you knew THIS is what you wanted to do?

Definitely when I realized I belonged as a freelancer. I mean, I quickly realized that clients were paying my agencies top dollar and sometimes I was the only one doing the work. There had to be a better way. That was freelance for me: a better way to cut out the middleman and make more money, learn a ton, and have ‘more free time.’

Although, even though you do have more free time, a lot of the time you never take advantage of it because you’re so busy.

So what’s is the secret to living a sweet life as a designer?

Not letting the hate get to you and understanding everyone has an opinion. That’s what design is, an opinion. Once you learn that, the critics don’t get to you as much.

I’d also say working for clients you believe in is huge to enjoying your work. Early on I made a decision I wouldn’t work for certain brands or companies.

You’re a freelancer, but you’ve also worked for companies like Medium, where you were the first designer. What’s the difference between working for yourself vs. working for others?

One, meetings. When you freelance, like I do from home, you don’t have as many meetings or ‘pop-up’ meetings. The office can be a hazardous place sometimes; meeting goers might appreciate that I haven’t had a 1-on-1 in a while.

Two, bosses. I’m the boss when I freelance. Some might argue the client is, but I see us as more of teammates. When you’re at a company there are likely multiple bosses and project managers to go through.

Three, loss of time traveling to and from work. Sometimes it can take 45 minutes each way to get to downtown San Francisco. That’s nearly two hours of my day lost.

Four, you can work when you want. When you work for a company, you typically need to be in the office working when everyone else is. When you freelance, you choose when you work and go at your own pace – I think this is key to creativity.

And five, portfolio. My favorite thing about freelancing is that I get to work for multiple companies on multiple projects. I get burnt out quickly on long projects. I mean, it’s why I became a designer in the first place: to have fun and work on whatever I was into at the moment.

With that portfolio you must be in-demand. Why keep freelancing at this point in your career?

Honestly, because I just enjoy it: the unknowns, the challenges. It gives me the flexibility to try my own things out in life. I get more time with my family and less rules. More money, more opportunity, and more time snowboarding and surfing.


And you’re making a documentary all about freelancers, called FR$$LANCED. Why?

I was getting asked questions all the time about freelancing and my take on it and noticed I never really had good, deep answers, besides just loving it. I reached out to a friend and asked why they enjoyed it and the answer was totally different, which sparked the idea to ask others about freelancing from every angle. I got so much out of just asking for myself and realized you couldn’t get this information from anywhere. I needed to put it out there.

It needed to come from a reliable source: the freelancers themselves. Don’t just take one person’s word for it, hear from everyone…then make a decision on whether it’s right for you.

I was also very into video. I believe it’s the future and I had to learn it as fast as I could. The best way for me to learn anything is hands-on so I decided to dive head-first into this film all by myself. The goal now is to hopefully inspire others that they can do anything on their own.


And what have you learned so far from the freelancers you’ve interviewed?

I would have never said, before filming this documentary, that you can truly work from anywhere. Not only that but you can make just as much, if not more, from anywhere. Times are changing and location is not 100% important anymore. If you would have asked me prior to this film, I would’ve said you HAD to be in San Francisco.

And when can we see the film?

I’m going to launch the website with the film in March 2017. The URL will be and it will house all sorts of videos on the topic.

I’ll remind you, I’m doing all of this myself: filming, editing, audio, color grading, designing the site, developing the site…everything. Well, everything but the music going in the film – that’s by Spencer Norman. I wasn’t about to tackle that one. That’s a gift you need to be born with!

What’s the biggest piece of advice you have for other freelancers out there?

Start yesterday, follow opportunity – if there isn’t any, make it.

And how do you make opportunity, if it seems there isn’t any?

Just keep doing things and keep pushing. The process is hard; it takes a lot of work and patience. For example, when I started learning photography I was able to charge extra and shoot my own photos. I made that opportunity, but it wasn’t easy. It took learning how to shoot and edit.

I do a lot of .com redesigns, and I made that opportunity by showing that type of work in my portfolio even though I do much, much more. That’s why you only see me showing the bigger .com redesigns and app redesigns…that’s the work I want. That’s the opportunity I want to have and I guide myself towards those.

You control your pace, you control how much you learn and grow.

Get to know Dann Petty and hear the latest on his documentary FR$$LANCED by following him on Twitter: @dannpetty



Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design

Products: Creative Cloud