Just a Card
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The Latest news and features from our campaign

Sarah Cowan

By Sarah Hamilton

Hi - Sarah H here. Today's blog features our fantastic Just a Card team member graphic designer Sarah Cowan. Allow me to tell you a little about what she does for the campaign, and why she's such a joy to work with.

Sarah designs all our graphics and she painstakingly curates our wonderful gift guide. She designed the Benedict Cumberbatch cards, stickers and press release, she makes us banners for social media and updates our posters and postcards. She does this on a voluntary basis simply because she's passionate about our message and creative businesses.

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I'm not sure people realise how much hard graft goes into running this campaign, but I certainly do and I'm incredibly proud and honoured to work with such a dedicated team. Our graphics look superb. Sarah's a very talented and professional designer, and I often commission her for my commercial work too. Top marks to her for interpreting my (occasionally hare brained) ideas and coming up with something beautiful. She has an incredible eye for detail and her typography skills are second to none. She delivers when she says and nothing is too much trouble. Team work is all about learning, laughing and sharing and is, for my money, one of life's greatest pleasures - that and gin and tonic of course!

Thank You Sarah -  I now invite you to read a little more about her…

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Hi Sarah, tell us about you - where are you based and what do you do?

Hello! I'm a graphic designer and typographer - I help people to present their marketing and communications materials clearly and professionally. My clients range in size from individual entrepreneurs to SMEs, and operate across a wide range of sectors. I am based in Scotland (making me the only member of the Just a Card team outside England), but technology means that I can work with clients from all over the country from my home office.

Vast swathes of land between Edinburgh and the border with England are owned by two Dukes. I live in a small hamlet, in a little estate cottage owned by the Duke of Buccleuch. We're just a few miles from the English border, and the local accents are proudly Scottish with plenty of confusing local dialect thrown in!

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The area is steeped in history - there are battlefields, mausoleums, castles, cave paintings, Roman forts, and abbeys galore; but it's not yet on the main tourist trail, so it remains peaceful and largely unspoilt.

That sounds idyllic! Do you find it challenging living in a rural area and being self employed, or does it help and inspire you?

The area is very sparsely populated and the Border towns are small and pretty spread out. There are lots of small businesses here, but they are tucked away out of sight. Fortunately, we have lots of training and networking initiatives in the area which support local businesses. These are really important, as they provide an opportunity for business people to meet, exchange ideas, and collaborate on projects. 

I find the peace and quiet is very restorative, and it's ideal when I'm focusing on solving a creative problem. But I have long believed that the creative mind needs regular 'fuelling', so if I become stuck with a project then I either put on my walking boots and head for the hills or the beach, or I head up to 'toon'.

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Moving to this part of the world from the West Midlands has changed our perception of distance. We now think very little of making the 100 mile round trip to our nearest city (Edinburgh) to visit coffee shops, art galleries, and simply to see some 'life'. But it's always great to come back to the peace and quiet again at the end of the day!

How did you start out in design?

I emerged from a mammoth five years of university training (one year art foundation, followed by a four year degree in Typography & Graphic Communication), and went straight into a job working for a leading university-based business school. To begin with I was the only designer, and on a six-month contract. Ten years later I was still there, managing a team of designers, and producing all the print-based marketing materials.

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Unfortunately, I became ill, and during my extended sick leave I decided that I needed a change. So in January 2014 I began working as a freelance graphic designer, and relocated to the Scottish Borders shortly afterwards.

What are you working on at the moment?

At the time of writing I have a diverse range of client projects underway. I've just completed my largest project to date - branding Scottish Borders Heritage, and producing all the printed marketing materials for their flagship event, the annual Scottish Borders Heritage Festival. I'm also designing advertising for a local solicitor and estate agent (the two services are often combined in Scotland), working on branding for an ice rink which hosts all the curling activity in the Scottish Borders, and designing a wholesale catalogue for a designer maker.

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That sounds pretty varied! What has been your favourite project to date?

Choosing a favourite project is tricky as they have all been so different. Generally, the most enjoyable projects are the ones where you feel like part of the client's team - working 'with' them, rather than 'for' them. And I can honestly say that all my clients are lovely, which is really important in making any design project enjoyable. But I've found something interesting in every project that I've done. Even small projects can be very rewarding, and are a great way to get to know a new client.

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What do you enjoy most about your work?

The variety that comes from working with lots of different clients is something I really enjoy, but the best thing about self employment is the freedom. Freedom to work with lots of different clients, on lots of different projects, when I want, and where I want. I may not have the regular pay check, or the final salary pension scheme, but every pound I earn means ten times more to me.

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Where do you work, and what is your working space like?

I work from home with my other half, who is an artist and photographer. We have two dedicated work rooms in the house - an office which we use for computer based work, and a 'studio' which gets used for painting, printing, photo shoots, and packing! This does take up rather a lot of the house, but since we're both self employed we spend a large proportion of our time in these rooms.

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I specialise in design for print so my desk is inevitably surrounded by paper samples, colour swatches, and production dummies. I'm also a bit of a magpie when it comes to collecting examples of design and print which catch my eye - usually pieces which feature interesting combinations of colours or finishes. They can be useful as inspiration, but also for demonstrating finishes to clients.

What inspires you in the world of design and typography?

My particular design interests and specialisms are typography and 'design for use'. Typography is essentially about designing with type, as opposed to 'type design' which is a different discipline entirely. 'Design for use' is simply about considering design and production from the perspective of the user, so it can apply to pretty much any project once you consider who your audience is, and where, when, and why they might be reading your information.

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Let's imagine a pensioner wants to check if the damage just caused by his grandson extending his potato printing to the cream sofa is covered by his insurance policy. We know that we have someone who is likely to have diminished eyesight who is searching for a particular piece of information within a large amount of text in his insurance schedule. Typography and design for use can help with this by organising and structuring the information in a way which supports a 'look up' activity by using lots of visual signposting. Then we can make the text clear and easy to read through typeface choice, line length, line spacing, colour contrast, etc. Printing the information on non-reflective paper will help to reduce glare, and using paper which is thick enough to be opaque, and won't stick together all helps make the task easier for our pensioner.

I love to share my enthusiasm for these subjects, and my clients will often end up learning something about them during the process of a project. I also write articles for my blog as well as occasional guest posts for others.

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What are your plans for the future of your business? Are there certain clients you'd love to work for?

The one thing that I really miss about employment is working in a team, so I’d love to collaborate more with others going forward. To me, team work is about bouncing ideas around, but mostly about each team member bringing their own specialist knowledge and skills to a project. Needless to say, finding the right people is key to success. But when it works a team is like a well-oiled machine - all the components working together to produce an infinitely better outcome. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to learn from one another, and makes the whole experience feel more sociable!

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You're the woman behind Just a Card's Shopping guide, which shares the work of independent makers. Can you tell us a bit about it?

The idea behind the gift/shopping guides came from our lovely blogger Kate Marsden. It seemed like a natural way for us to showcase the work of some of the amazing people who support our campaign in the run up to Christmas. I curated and designed the first gift guide in November 2016, and it was so popular that we decided to make it a regular feature, launching new shopping guides on a quarterly basis.

I’m currently collating entries for the fifth shopping guide, so if you’d like to enter, check out my blog post all about what you need to do, including my top tips on how to increase your chances of being featured.

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Finally, what does the Just a Card campaign mean to you?

Just a Card is about supporting independent businesses of all types. If we want to keep them, then we need to change our purchasing habits so that we consciously spend our money in a way that supports the small guy. The great thing is that for many small businesses, even a small purchase makes a huge difference to their business, so these changes don’t need to be onerous.

The campaign may be called ‘Just a Card’, but the idea applies to my business just as much as someone who sells cards. It also applies to the businesses run by many of my lovely clients, and without my clients I wouldn’t have a business at all.

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Kate MarsdenComment