Freelance Design

By Michael Fleishman

To paraphrase cartoonist and illustrator Randy Glasbergen, freelancing is a bit like Christmas. Will Santa bring me a shiny, new logo assignment in the morning? Will one of Santa’s helpers email me with a special surprise brochure job? What will I find when I unwrap the goodies in the mailbox this afternoon? Santa doesn’t come every day to the freelance designer, but each day has the potential, and that’s still pretty exciting.

What does it mean to be a freelance designer? Well, hey, it’s a bit like Christmas – ya gotta work hard and be real good!

Defined ‘simply’, freelancers are self-employed sub-contractors who market their design by the job to several buyers. In the real world, a freelance designer will also be the office manager, secretarial pool, sales staff, marketing department, maintenance and mailroom rolled into one. The ever-growing stack labeled “Important Things That Must Be Done Right Now” lies immediately under the bowling ball, cleaver, and cream pie you’ll swear you’re juggling as a one-person shop.

Common to all freelancers is a dedicated passion for what is a demanding vocation; it’s more than a mere job, it’s a calling. Freelance designers are entrepreneurs with an independent spirit, a sense of adventure, and their own bold vision of success.

You’re going to hustle, and you’ll work extended hours. More hours, yes, but you can do a wider variety of more creative assignments, do more of the type of work you want to do, with the potential to earn more money in the process. For a freelance designer, the buzzword here is ‘more.’

Freedom, at last. No time clock to punch, and providing you meet your deadlines, you decide when to work and for how long. Alas, the steady paycheck is history and, hey, Ms. Designer – can you say ‘cash flow’? That salesman’s gig your dad hounded you about? Congratulations, son, you got the job (trust me here – marketing and self-promotion will become very important to you).

And this one is good-many people will actually believe that, because you freelance from home, you’re not really working (ha! At the end of your day, you know very differently).

So here’s a little quiz to see if you have the right stuff to be a freelance designer. Ask yourself these questions and think about the following points:

  • What are you getting out of this? Why are you doing it? Question your motives and answer honestly
  • Do you have the drive and ambition to turn skill into a success? Talent without drive and motivation does not generate income.
  • How’s your business acumen? If you have little or no sense of how to run a business, it is time to learn.
  • Are you self disciplined? You must diligently face the small daily drudgeries with the same aplomb shown those “bigger” responsibilities
  • Can you do grunt work and think in the long term? You must attend to all those “little” tasks with a healthy, positive spirit.
  • Are you decisive? You’ll be making all of many decisions and taking responsibility for the consequences-professionally, no one else goes down the tubes with you if you fail.
  • Can you tolerate a fair amount of rejection? You will get rejected for many reasons, and those misjudgments regarding your abilities probably will be the least of your worries.
  • Can you thrive on competition? They’re out there. They’re good. They’re waiting for you.
  • How do you handle stress? Self-medicating was not the best answer for Elvis, right?
  • How’s your bankbook? In times of low pay, slow pay or (heaven forbid) no pay, can you – and should you – support yourself and your business with personal savings?
  • Do you mind working alone? Art school is a pleasant memory now (but Taco Bell is still open late).
  • How do you feel about selling yourself (I didn’t say selling out. Realize that you’re selling your work, not your soul).

How did you score? It’s all theory at this point – the real answer sheet arrives when you open the door to your design business. But we’ll sum up with the true bottom line (drum roll, please):

Design must be your love-something enjoyed with all your heart, something you need to do, something you would do purely for yourself without pay. When you come right down to it, how many folks can say they truly love their work? As a freelance designer, you can — and that’s the biggest plus of all.

The Ten Commandments of Freelance Design

  1. Thou shalt learn when to say “No.” If you don’t like the suggestion, work it out amicably. Learn the art of compromise. Compromise is not capitulation; it leaves both parties feeling that they work well as a team. However, accept the fact that there are actually some clients who just won’t meet you halfway. These folks are not worth the headaches or heartaches. At this point you just need to safely get out of Dodge with some style and grace.
  2. Thou shalt be polite, persistent, and positive. Always communicate in a professional manner. Listen to your client. Educate your client.
  3. Thou shalt strive to constantly increase your skill level and expertise. Grow and learn; get it better than the day before.
  4. Thou shalt relax and have confidence in yourself. Nobody’s shooting at you, and you’re not doing brain surgery on your mom. Believe in yourself and others will too.
  5. Thou shalt make it a point to have fun. Love your profession. Do what you want, work where and when you want, and work with nice people only.
  6. Thou shalt have a personal life. Never feel guilty about making (and taking) time for yourself and loved ones – it’s important.
  7. Thou shalt always be honest and ethical. Never promise something you can’t deliver; and remember: You are selling a product, not your soul.
  8. Thou shalt be a good businessperson. With stars in our eyes, we key on those first four letters in the word “freelance.” The financial (and physical) costs of running and maintaining your design business will quickly wizen you to the realities behind the lofty conceptions. Be an informed designer: protect your rights by keeping abreast of the ethical standards, laws (and tax reforms). Stay current with pricing guidelines. Learn effective negotiation skills. Maintain excellent records. Don’t start a project without paperwork. Join the Graphic Artists Guild.
  9. Thou shalt not take rejection personally.
  10. Thou shalt never miss a deadline! Be late with a job and chances are that particular art director will never call you again.

Michael Fleishman is a freelance illustrator, graphic artist, and teacher of commercial arts with over thirty years of experience. A former president of the at-large chapter of the Graphic Artist’s Guild, he is also a contributor to How Magazine and a former contributing editor of The Artist’s Magazine. He lives in Dayton, Ohio. His book, Starting Your Career as a Freelance Illustrator or Graphic Designer, from which this article is excerpted, is published by Allworth Press.

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