When I started freelancing full time in May 2009, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Freelancers seem to have quite varied experiences which is to be expected when you’re working as your own boss. I’m a very structured person that was accustomed to working in teams with other designers and art directors; I wondered if would I be able to trust my own judgement and still output high quality work. I questioned whether I could handle not having a set time to show up to an office every day. Would I be able to keep a schedule that allowed me to not only get all of my client work done but also have time for meetings and blogging?
Though I’d been taking on freelance jobs since 2005, I’d always had another job to back me up. Taking the leap into running my business full time was scary because it meant that I was fully dependent on my design and networking skills to make a living. Though, I was lucky because I already had a few big clients in my portfolio (including Forever 21 and Virgin Records) and had received great hands-on training during the year and a half I’d spent at an ad agency. And, my largest freelance clients were in LA and New York so I was accustomed to working remotely. Sending off rounds of work through email and having conference calls instead of in-person meetings was an easy adjustment.
To drum up new work, I didn’t have to do any pitches since I had a steady stream of clients who contacted me through my blog. Though, I did do a few other things to secure new work:
1. I built a print and PDF portfolio of my newest work. By having a PDF on hand, I could upoad it to my blog and let potential clients know that I was accepting new projects. If they liked what they saw, they could email me for a quote. I also kept an 11 x 17 print portfolio ready to go for face-to-face meetings with creative directors, clients and designer friends. I took every opportunity where I thought a critique could be possible and drug my book along. The feedback, though differing, made my work stronger overall. 7 Tips for Creating a Print-Based Portfolio can provide some pointers.
2. I set up appointments with placement agencies. I pounded the pavement, went to as many placement agencies as possible and in turn, had a steady stream of offers in Portland and New York within the first few months. Not every one was a perfect fit and I turned down more than I took but because of these contacts, I was able to do work for companies including the Wall Street Journal and Nike. My agents did the screening, found suitable positions based on my experience and set up the interviews. If you’re just getting started and need to build connections and contacts, placement agencies are a huge asset.
3. I contacted ad agencies directly. Design communities are pretty tight knit; everyone knows each other, even in larger cities. I reached out to producers and agency owners, forwarded them my resumé and portfolio and when there was a need, they brought me in to work on projects. Once you’ve passed the test on a project or two, demonstrated that you are reliable and easy to work with, chances are that you will get called back. Building strong connections with just a few agencies can keep you fairly busy.
First of all, you get to become your own boss. You can go anywhere, work for anyone you choose and take on a huge variety of client projects while getting out and seeing the world. I spent a huge chunk of last year traveling. During stays in Orlando, Phoenix, New York and Seattle, I was on my laptop, still meeting deadlines and keeping current with client emails.
While freelancing, the sheer variety of jobs that I get to work on has made me a much more rounded designer. Some of the current jobs I am working on include a wedding photographer’s media kit, a logo for a restaurant specializing in hot wings, album packaging for a metal band, an identity for a gourmet line of sweets, a media kit for a burlesque star, a full website design for an art organization, a logo for a fashion line and more. The combination of styles, not to mention striving to meet a wide variety of client needs keeps me on my toes, stretch my skills to the limits while diversifying my portfolio. I love being able to work with people from all walks of life – it’s refreshing and satisfying.
From a networking standpoint, it really is astounding how many contacts you can make when you’re not sitting at the same desk all day, every day. Your world as a designer begins to expand infinitely. Being a freelancer forces you to get outside of your little bubble and to interact with the community. As you start working with more agencies, going out to art openings, visiting open houses, reaching out for informational interviews and emailing people you admire, opportunities begin to pop up. Creative stimulation is important for designers and the internet can only provide so much; it’s important to make regular face-to-face contact.
Along with the perks, there are many potential downsides to freelancing as well. The work / life balance becomes increasingly hard to manage, in part because there’s not a clear division of where your ‘day job’ ends and your personal life begins. It’s easy to get caught up in jobs and spend the entire weekend in your office, to turn down invites to stay home and work into the night and to check your email at 6 am, only to realize that there’s a looming client emergency and jump out of bed.
One of the most significant downsides to freelancing is the lack of a consistent or steady income. Some months, the stars align and money pours in at a rate you could have never imagined; you think you know what it feels like to be rich. Other months, deals fall through, agencies don’t call and it seems impossible to wrap up old projects. Overall though, if you’ve built up a solid network, the good and bad months tend to balance out. Diversification helps immensely in this area; keeping agency work, staying in contact with agents and working with your personal clients tends to keep the jobs coming in.
Lastly, it is easy to become isolated. If the phone doesn’t ring for awhile, it’s all too convenient to sleep in, have your food delivered and sit in front of the computer in the same room every day. Lulls in work should be viewed as an opportunity to create self initiated projects, a chance to take short trips and to go out on lunch dates with friends.
Some techniques that help me function as a freelancer are quite simple but work wonders. Now that I have a dog living at my house, I use that as an excuse to get out and take regular walks. It not only helps to clear my mind but is also a chance to take different routes every time with the intention of scouting new spots to take outfit photos. Recently, I’ve also been writing out daily schedules of what work needs to be accomplished by what time. If I don’t do this, it becomes easy to surf the net and lose focus. By holding myself accountable and crossing off accomplishments as I move along throughout the day, I can see tangible results. Finally, I set up regular meetings with friends at coffee shops and bars to break up the day. Human interaction, not to mention the chance to explore new establishments across the city keeps things interesting.
As a freelancer, I would say that it takes a solid six months to really cement your branding, overall vision, to make enough contacts and to get up to speed in general. I’ve had an amazing time freelancing and running my own business has been hugely fulfilling. Though I am open to returning to agencies on a full-time basis, the opportunity to freelance has taught me more in a year than I ever thought possible. Freelancing has forced me to grow up, to take charge of my professional career and to realize that I am responsible for my success or lack thereof. Freelancing can make or break you…and in the process, at the very least, you have the opportunity to learn so much about yourself. That in itself is invaluable.