Advice #34: Is a Freelance Career Right For You?

ask nubby advice

ask nubby advice

Image: Convoy.

Hello, I am a graphic designer and long time reader of your blog. I’m writing to ask for some advice on how to start a good freelance career and to hear your experience as a freelancer for design agencies. How long did it take to you to become a valuable freelancer? Do you send resumès to agencies, or do the agencies call you directly? Are recommendations important in finding a freelance job?

First of all, design is an immensely competitive field — for every one designer hoping to make it at an agency level, there are probably 100 more candidates waiting in line. Over the last year, I’ve started doing portfolio reviews at colleges and the talent coming out of schools is astounding! Students are more well-versed in what’s required to work in the design field now more than ever. Talent isn’t the only component of building a successful freelance career, though. Work ethic, personality, the strength of your portfolio and industry connections all play a part.

As a freelancer, there are a number of ways you can seek new work. The tried-and-true method of sending resumés and portfolios off to agencies and setting up interviews is perfectly okay. Placement agencies are another great option. And finally, it’s always a good idea to build a client base on your own outside of agency work because this could supplement your income if that area slows down. They say that you should never put all of your eggs in one basket and I agree 100%. As a freelancer, I’ve diversified my revenue sources as much as possible and they are now split between a steady freelance agency gig, a roster of my own clients and ad revenues.

Start building your career while you are still in school.

It’s never too early to get started with your freelance career. The day school ends, work doesn’t just magically appear — I know that this seems like common sense but I cannot tell you how many students are ill prepared for the harsh reality of being out on their own! By ‘building your career,’ start networking (with fellow students, teachers and local agencies), perfecting your portfolio, building an online presence (these days, a blog and online portfolio are a must) and reaching out for internships as soon as possible.

While I was in school full-time for design, I also worked full-time. I don’t think I had a real day off for a year. But, I still made time to start thinking about my portfolio and picked up the occasional freelance design job so that it wasn’t all school work. Once I finished my first year of school, I began working on getting an internship. Luckily, I got my first choice and spent my second year interning at an agency. A combination of things helped me get in the door and jump-started my career:

1. My portfolio was diverse and included projects that I’d done outside of school. This showed that I was a self-starter and able to handle real world deadlines.

2. My design teacher provided me with a solid recommendation. Having a teacher vouch for you is invaluable!

3. I showed a willingness to do whatever was asked of me. Initial tasks included spray painting shoes in the parking lot, filing invoices and designing CD labels. These small assignments built up a level of trust and led to much bigger projects.

4. Even though I was in school, I had a blog that I updated five days a week and the agency I interviewed at was very savvy with social media.

Though your question wasn’t about interning, finding internships while still in school can help you build a relationship with agencies (that may need freelance help later on) and add solid work to your portfolio.

If possible, gain in-house or agency experience before going freelance.

Attempt to build a reputation working full-time with at least one agency before branching out on your own. Learning how to work with varied teams of people, responding to feedback (both positive and negative), learning how to build presentations, picking up new creative tips from fellow designers, mastering the art of multitasking and making friends in the industry will all help you once you decide to take your career into your own hands. Also, I really do feel that being surrounded by creatives who are more advanced than you early on helps to push your boundaries and essentially ‘get better faster.’ Working at an agency when you’re starting out can also help in the portfolio department and can be a stepping stone to bigger things.

Work with placement agencies.

Once I’d built a reputation at one ad agency, I was able to successfully interview at placement agencies (in Portland, I highly recommend Aquent and in New York, I work with 24 Seven) where agents were able to pitch my work for other positions.

As a new freelancer, having an agent to assist with lining up interviews while vouching for the quality your work is hugely beneficial. They have the connections directly with top agencies — and they are the first people that get called when help is needed. Recommendations are very important — agencies don’t want to waste their money. They want to have someone who’s reliable the minute they show up. If you make a great impression and have solid work, agents want to place you. After all, they get a commission and the more you work, the more they earn.

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Image, Convoy.

My first year as a freelancer.

What’s that old advice? That the first year of running your own business is the hardest? I’d have to wholeheartedly agree. Since you’re just starting out, the fear of the unknown can get the best of you. And, it’s really hard to know how to budget when you have no idea how much you’ll earn. Since I wasn’t sure what to expect, I felt like I couldn’t stop working…because what if I did and it all came to an end? During that first year, I found most of my jobs on my own. They came in through recommendations from previous clients, interviews and a few lucky breaks. I constantly refined my portfolio, fired off emails, went out to events and lunches with people in the industry and most importantly, never gave up. Before I knew it, I’d freelanced at five agencies in that year and doubled the projects in my portfolio.

Even though the first year was a struggle at times, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. If I’d spent that year sitting at the same desk every day at the same agency, I wouldn’t have made as many connections or become as rounded as a designer. Working in completely different atmospheres with a variety of teams gave me a better perspective of the design world and what was expected of me. In the process, I concepted the direction of an entire ad campaign from scratch, designed a book in a week, assisted with building graphics for every team store in the NBA, revamped corporate guides, and, well…did production work for months on end. Though I learned something valuable from every experience, not every job was brimming with fun and excitement. But, that learning in varied situations, surrounded by a variety of personalities and deadlines (that ranged from extremely fair to you can’t really be serious) all prepared me for whatever may be just around the corner. Freelancing tends to push you outside of your comfort zone and forces you to have a can-do attitude.

It takes time to become a valuable freelancer.

Looking back, I would say that I became a valuable freelancer within six months. Every agency I worked at did things slightly differently and it took me awhile to get well-rounded enough that I could bounce from working on an intensely creative assignment to building production files. And, different agencies focus on different niches — for instance, I designed a website at one, created retail signage at another and worked on 100+ page catalogs at yet another. But sometimes, gaining the skill set needed for the wide variety of jobs that you’ll encounter isn’t the hardest part — adjusting to completely new environments and expectations is. There are always going to be times where you’re scared to death or wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into. Yet somehow, you always get through it.

Why would you want to go freelance?

The reasons for going freelance vary for each designer but almost all freelancers relish the freedom of choice. It’s up to you to decide who you want to work with and how much you want to work. The variety of clients, both big and small can be another appealing factor. And, there’s the opportunity to travel — I’ve packed along my laptop and worked in multiple locales with total ease. Also, there’s a chance to learn how to wear many hats instead of doing the same job every day. And finally, perhaps best of all, there’s no limit on how much you can earn. It’s completely up to you to decide how hard you want to work and what to charge. Though freelancing isn’t for everyone, I’ve found the experience to be highly exciting and rewarding. Perhaps you will, too.

Extra Credit

One Year of Freelancing: What I’ve Learned
Freelancing 101 for Graphic Designers
7 Tips For Creating A Print-Based Design Portfolio

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