Financial Transparency: 2020 Edition

As is now my annual tradition, it’s time for me to tell everyone how much money I make!

Why? Well, I find the financial opacity of the freelance world a bit intimidating, and I suspect that some others do, too—particularly those who are interested in freelancing, but haven’t yet jumped in. So I’d like to do my part to lend transparency by laying out my financial picture for all of you. And if you’re interested in more stuff like this, check out the results of the 2020 Cartographic Freelancer Survey.


My business income comes from a few different sources:

Freelance Cartography:
$32,876.34

I mostly make my living by doing freelance mapping (and an occasional bit of freelance GIS) for clients. This number, like others here, represents my gross earnings, before taking out business expenses, etc.

Other Freelancing:
$11,500.00

I also earn money from some other non-mapping freelance work. I do editing and layout for Cartographic Perspectives, and I’ve done some bits of paid writing, other design work, etc. I also got a $2,500 coronavirus relief grant that’s counted here.

Donations:
$2,044.94

I do a fair amount of pro bono work, and I’ve been much more shameless about asking for support for my tutorials, Project Linework, and other resources that people seem to draw value from.

Prints:
$2,233.40

Instead of making maps for clients, I sometimes (or often) spend time making maps for no one in particular. And then I’ll put them up for sale in case anyone wants to buy them. This year’s value is super-high because I sold one of the only copies of my cyanotype atlas for $1250.


The Summary

So, that works out to a gross business income of $48,654.68. Here’s how that compares to the last several years:


My Income is not Quite a Salary

If you’re only familiar with earning money as a salaried employee, my income might seem higher than it really is. After business expenses, I earned about $46,000 in self-employment income. For my personal tax situation (single, living in WI), my take-home pay would have been similar if I had worked a salaried job (with health insurance, but no other benefits) that earned about $37,000.

This difference is because self-employed people pay a much higher tax rate, and have to cover their own health insurance. This comparison doesn’t figure in any other benefits an employer might offer, like retirement savings contributions. If we count the amount that I should be saving for retirement (but can’t afford to), then the gap is a few thousand dollars larger.

Concluding Thoughts

As mentioned above, I earn income from prints of my work. Most of the things in my storefront have never sold more than a few copies. It’s pretty much all income from River Transit maps. But, it doesn’t cost me anything to offer things for sale, so if I can earn $10 from one of the less popular items every once in a while, I might as well take it.

I greatly appreciate the kindness people have shown me over the years through donating to support the unpaid parts of my work. It’s becoming an increasing fraction of my overall income. If you’d like to add your own support, here are some handy buttons:

Finally, I hope all this stuff above offers some useful insight as to one freelancer’s life. I’m sure some others earn more, and some others earn less. I’d encourage others who are comfortable doing so to share their own financial information, to make the picture a little broader.

Critique with Empathy

When I gave my NACIS 2020 talk, A Few Thoughts on Critique, I was very careful to avoid the appearance of telling people what to do. I offered only suggestions that people might consider if they chose to improve their critique practices. I feared that any stronger language, saying what I thought people should or should not do, would probably just lead to endless squabbles over details that did not matter, and which only distracted from the problem that needs addressing: how often we fall into the trap of critiquing for the needs of our own ego, rather than for the benefit of our community. And how the effects can, and have, caused real damage to our colleagues.

But today I feel bolder, and my thoughts have grown new wings. And so I will tell you directly what I think you (and I!) should do to reduce the toxicity that can creep in when we opine on the works of others.


Critique with empathy.

Assume that the designer is, like you, a human being capable of both complex thought and honest mistakes.

Ask yourself how this competent and well-intentioned person could reasonably end up making decisions that you consider laughable, erroneous, or ill-conceived. That was unlikely their intent.

Consider the tools, privilege, and knowledge that this person did not have access to, and which you might.

Ask questions before offering assumptions.

Remember that the answer is always more complicated than “the designer is just stupid.” You know that the real world is richer than that.

Reflect on the ways that you could have fallen into making that “design mistake.” Perhaps you did once, in the past.

Don’t mock your past self for the sin of combining honest effort with inexperience. Critique yourself with the same compassion that those around you deserve.

Accept that other designers’ goals may differ from yours. Realize that the things that you want to change, may in fact be unimportant to what they are trying to do.

Remember that most of the design details that we teach and debate at conferences are usually unimportant in the big picture. This is liberating.

Admit your goal to yourself. If you offer a public opinion because you want attention, that is natural. It feels good to be acknowledged as an expert, or as entertaining. Own this honestly, and without shame.

Ask yourself how you can earn this good feeling without demeaning or otherwise harming someone else.

Remember that critique is always personal. There is no clean separation between the artist and the art that allows a wholly dispassionate discussion of someone’s work.

Think about how you’ve been stung in the past by critiques, no matter how well-intentioned, or how much you agreed with them.

Be kind when wielding the benevolent scalpel.

Understand that it’s OK for a designer, including you, to not want feedback. Sometimes it’s fine to let a work be what it is, and move on to other things.

Enjoy the unintended laughter that you sometimes find in the works of others. Share that quietly among friends, not with the world.

Never feel bad for wanting to improve someone else’s work, but accept that it is not always productive to share those ideas.


I offer this semi-poem as a moral framework for giving critique that can enlighten, without resorting to shame or ostracism. Add to it, remix it, or ignore it. It’s a list that I’m going to try to keep living up to, and continue to think about.