3.2 Going Freelance

Freelance designers have a long, storied, and mildly honored tradition in our profession. For many designers freelance is regarded as the perfect state of practice…and it can be that. There are plenty of reasons a designer may pursue his career as a freelance professional. Here are a few of them:

Autonomy

Perhaps you long to chart your own course and to be the captain of your own destiny. It takes courage and gumption to choose that course, but many find the satisfaction and rewards to be more than sufficient compensation for the inherent perils.

Quality of Life

If you are willing to trade a certain level of income security and diminished responsibility that come with being an employee for the less-secure, more-responsible life of a freelancer you are likely to realize important quality of life benefits. As a freelancer you may work from home or anywhere else, choose work hours, take advantage of more free time, and generally have license to craft most aspects of your work life. It’s not hard to understand how this sort of general flexibility can be highly attractive. Hell, the absence of company meetings is likely worth all other risks combined!

A preference for working alone

Design is often considered to be a team sport, but this needn’t always be so. Perhaps you thrive on the individual effort, inherent responsibilities, and specific rewards that come from working solo. While a more collaborative, group work environment can be greatly appealing, it’s not for everyone.

Having a clear and/or unique aim, but lacking the desire to run an agency

If you have very specific ideas about how to do things or a very specific niche or focus for your work, this may present incompatibilities with your working as an agency employee. If you’re also not interested dealing with the issues inherent to running an entire agency, freelance practice may be the appropriate choice.

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Any of these factors and still others may be compelling enough to lead you toward a career as a freelance professional. While a freelance career can be both rewarding and fulfilling, the trick is to not misstep as you start down that road.

What apparently far too many designers fail to appreciate is that a freelance career is for experienced professionals only. And by that I don’t mean experienced designers, I mean those with sufficient experience in professional practice and a practiced understanding of what it takes to operate a business. Unless you’ve already spent a few years in the business world (in the design profession or some other business) before becoming a designer, choosing to begin your design career as a freelancer is likely a foolish and unprofessional choice.

Failure to Launch

The designer lacking a background of years spent in some other profession who begins his career as a freelancer will, as a matter of course, acquire none of the important benefits afforded those who begin their careers with an agency or in-house with a company. And this is just compensation for foolishness.

By opting to start with your own private practice without any professional training, you’re proclaiming and participating in a delusion that says, “I know everything I need to know about the design profession and I’m ready to run a business.” Either that or you’re admitting that you have no regard for the results and quality of your choices.

Yes, this is direct, even harsh criticism of behavior, and it is meant to be. Such foolishness is unbecoming behavior for a budding professional.

The pitfalls and penalties for beginning in freelance rather than in a professional environment include:

  • Encourages design fetish.
  • No chance to directly learn the many facets and inner workings of the design business from those who have been there.
  • No opportunity to observe and learn from good and bad professional practices on a daily basis in a relatively protected environment.
  • No opportunity to work as a part of large, complex projects and observe how the pieces work together…or fail because they did so poorly.
  • No direct mentors, habitual critique, or ever-present ongoing expectation of excellence from superiors. (Note: this one is key! A craftsman who lacks a teacher or mentor is spinning his wheels. This is true whether you’re 19 or 89 years old.)
  • No chance to develop a verifiable (first-hand) reputation among professional peers, therefore…
  • No one knows you as a professional (how do you get projects?), so you simply must take on any offer for any project, therefore…
  • High likelihood of being relegated to less-than-professional circumstances without being able to perceive more professional alternatives.

In short, these circumstances ensure that you’ll receive no professional guidance just when you need it the most. The result is that your professional growth will be far too slow, stunted, or non-existent. What’s more, because you’ll lack the support system found in an agency your every inevitable mistake will directly affect your clients (if you’re able to garner any).

Poor choices at the beginning set a tone that will taint your ongoing efforts. By necessity your practice will be riddled with compromises. Compromise begets compromise, and that is a poor characteristic for one’s work. It has no place in the activities of a design professional.

Be responsible. Hold off on pursuing life as a freelance professional until you have sufficient professional experience. In deciding for yourself what is the right moment to jump or ease into freelance practice, take into account your preparedness regarding the practical factors inherent to running a business.

Running a Freelance Business

A freelance designer is, first and foremost, a businessperson. As such, the freelancer is usually required to be all things to his projects. Though organization and responsibility are required of all designers, these factors have special and immediate impact on a freelance designer’s clients, work, and reputation.

As to organization and preparedness, a freelance professional functions almost identically to an agency owner. This means establishing and keeping track of every aspect of the business, including:

  • Day-to-day finances
  • Budgeting
  • Taxes & Licenses
  • Communications
  • Proposal estimation and calculations
  • Writing contracts & documents (proposal, terms & conditions, approval documents, etc…)
  • Project management
  • Invoicing
  • File archiving, backups/recovery
  • Hardware, software, and fonts licenses
  • Marketing
  • …and experience observing and dealing with circumstances where things go wrong, everything hits at once, clients want answers, and you’ve got an inflexible approaching deadline (note that there is no such thing as a flexible deadline).

If you have these bases adequately covered and years of experience swimming in those waters, you’re perhaps ready to move into a freelance practice. If not, you’ll ever be dogged by the voids and deficiencies you begin with. Playing catch-up while you’re also trying to pursue, manage, and work within projects can be a difficult and frustrating prospect. A professional is organized and prepared.

The Freelancer’s Backbone and Reputation

Being a freelance professional requires that you have a stronger backbone than an agency or in-house designer needs possess. Without an agency owner as an authority above you and peers beside you, you’ll lack the team and support group. Every evaluation and every choice lands on your desk alone. In every situation, in front of clients and when presented with internal decisions, you’ll be required to stand for your own and present a professional’s resolve.

As a freelance professional, you’ll need to rely more strongly and more often upon your core values. As the sole decision maker for your enterprise you’ll have to make correct choices at every step because you’ll have to live with the consequences. And consequential choices will arise more often than you might imagine.

One of the most common choices a freelancer is presented with is that between income and professional standards. Potential clients who don’t necessarily measure up to your requirements will come calling. Some of them will offer you highly lucrative opportunities…if only you’ll relax your standards, compromise your values, or momentarily ignore your moral core. On the other hand is your reputation—that thing that proclaims your value and is defined by your every choice.

Income and professional standards; the two are not always at odds, but freelancers seem to face this choice more often than agency professionals. The reasons are manifold, but these types of choices usually stem from one of two factors:

  1. freelancers are often susceptible to anxieties over where the next paycheck is coming from (which invites compromise), and
  2. the nature of freelancing is such that it attracts a disproportionate amount of potential clients who seek, in one way or another, to take advantage of others, or who don’t regard freelancers as true professionals

In the face of these sorts of situations, I offer only the following advice: choose reputation and your professional standards over income every time. Seemingly expedient choices will compound to destroy your ability to earn income or attract clients. A choice may seem difficult when it is immediate, but there is no clearer example of what should be an automatic choice in professional practice than that of choosing reputation over income.

Details on how freelancers should best conduct project and pre-project operations can be found in the Practical Issues chapter.

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Those who have found success as freelance professionals or even agency professionals are often drawn toward ideas of starting their own design agency. It’s an exciting, if perhaps daunting, prospect. As we’ll examine next, starting an agency requires far more than design skill, success, and enthusiasm.