How to hire a freelance designer that fits your companies needs.


Recently, I have been getting contacted by swarms of recruiters with an immediate need for a freelance designer

to come into the clients space and work 40 hours a week for a few months out — and oh yeah — there might be a possibility of it turning into a permanent position (well jeez). But their budget is a tight one so they are only willing to pay $32 an hour (oh tell me more). They are looking for someone with senior level experience (you don’t say). Oh and also, if the designer knows code, copy writing and the ukulele, than that would be a big plus (of course it would be). By the way, do you have any samples of a Power Point presentation you’ve done in your portfolio?

And I would love a 2,500 square foot Midtown penthouse complete with a terrace, industrial chicness and access to a roof garden, gym and an indoor pool, while overlooking the entire city but only pay $800 a month including taxes.


When I return these calls, I find out that the recruiter is having a hard time placing for this pie-in-the-sky position (big suprise). They also tell me that most companies don’t want to deal with entry level designers anymore, especially when they are looking for someone to hit the ground running. They are looking for someone readily available with an awesome portfolio that would “fit” their culture and brand. However, they aren’t willing to pay for that on-demand-talent and are asking way too much when it comes to scheduling and qualifications. It is borderline insulting that recruiters don’t set realistic expectations with their own client-companies before digging around to see if they can find someone desperate enough.

After all, this is not 2008, back when the economy was so squandered that there was nothing in sight and designers jumped at the chance to work wherever for however much. I moved here on January 1st 2008 and had to work at a sign shop installing vinyl in the middle-of-nowhere (Kennesaw) for a little over minimum wage. But Atlanta has recovered and there is a lot of good work to be had. You could say — it’s now a designers market.

The evolutionary difference now is that more companies are warming up to the idea that they can hire a remote designer for a per-project-basis, instead of holding them hostage in the work place for 20-40 hours to be treated just like an employee but without any benefits. This arrangment works exceptionally well for both parties. The designer can still keep the flexibility needed to juggle multiple projects, letting them build stronger, more varied portfolios, while at the same time, be their own boss. The reason why I left my cushy, corporate, well-paying position, was not to go back to another corporate-cubicle-40-hour-a-week-job and pay for my own insurance, while worrying about when they weren’t gonna need me anymore. Meanwhile, the company doesn’t have to make sure the contractor has enough to do, provide equipment, toliet paper, an extra desk, parking and hours of training.

The serious benefit is that an outside designer can give lots of outside perspective. Sure, we can absorb a brand standards guide with some direction but we can also present fresh ideas. Not being silenced under an opinionated Marketing department or by a controlling Product Manager yields a relationship similar to Steve Jobs and Harmut Esslingen (if you don’t know what that means — Google it). I have also noticed that the real reason companies like a designer to work in house is that they are either too disorganized to hand off the work or don’t really know what they want. So, that means getting an extra set of hands so they can stand over the designer’s shoulder, give them jobs the burned-out designers can’t get to, and essentially use them as a software screw driver.

So below is a short list of things to consider before crafting that lofty job description for the recruiters or job board:

  1. Show us the money.

As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Unfortunately, there is no standard price tag answers in the freelancing world, which makes it hard to know if you are getting a fair deal, but most of the time how much you invest will reflect how good the outcome is. For example, your business needs a new logo. To help gauge how much you should pay, try to focus on why you need the logo in the first place. Are you a mom + pop bike shop in town or an international corporation? Set a budget based on your goals and be open to sharing that with the freelance candidate. Your freelancer should be asking good questions as well to help gauge your needs and to give you a reasonable estimate. If you don’t know what you want, then the project will probably take longer than expected, therefore costing more for all their time. Do some research, pull inspiration, think about what you like to get the designer off with a good start.

However, if you need an experienced freelancer for an ongoing project, say to help refresh the company brand book, and you need them to clear their schedule and start tomorrow, you are going to have to pay for that luxury. Freelancers need to make more money than your salaried designer not just because they are paying for their own insurance, time off, equipment, software and overhead but they are also paying for “down time”. We make a bit more so when projects end and we need to look for work again, we have some money to float us. You are paying for their flexibility and the risks they are taking for having unstable work.

As a general rule of thumb, you can expect to pay:

$15 — $30 per hour for an entry-level, junior freelancer
$40 — $65 per hour for most senior experienced freelancers
$75 — $100 per hour for high-end freelancers/developers
$100 — $300 billing per hour through an established design agency

Having said all that, don’t expect to fill an immediately-needed-40-hours-in-house-freelance spot because that freelancer has probably been working on multiple small projects and getting more lined up to pay their bills. Only your underemployed designers will be sitting around waiting for that call and there might be a reason they are underemployed. Just saying.

2. Try the recruiting hat on yourself.

When a recruiter tells me the rate is set for $35 an hour, that actually means the client is paying $55+ an hour, but the difference is going to the recruiting firm for their finders fee and liability insurance. It amazes me that companies will go straight to a recruiting firm before utilizing one of the best search engines of all time to find a freelancer — Linked In. Professional freelance designers are all set up with detailed profiles, ready-to-show portfolios, their own contracts and a billing system. No middle man needed. Trust me, all designers would rather make the full rate the company budgeted for, than the discounted one. This would also allow you to afford a more seasoned designer. That rate could be the difference in landing a senior designer with 8 years experience compared to a junior one where you will be their first client.

3. Set up realistic expectations in your job post and then trust your freelance pick when you finally find the “one”.

The best way to hire the right person for the job, is to craft a job description that is acurate to what you need. Don’t fill out a list of damands. This isn’t a hostage negotiation. I’ve had countless recruiters call me with jobs that sounds highly conceptual and strategic, only to get into the work and realize it’s just production a junior could have done. You don’t want to hire the wrong person that could have easily been avoided by a more on-point job description. Do your homework and pull from what other companies are asking for. Also, make the job title more clear. “Art Director” or “Graphic Designer” says nothing. Try something like “Digital designer needed for rebrand — can work remotely.” Ask yourselves why you need the designer in-house as well before asking for the 40 hours on-site specification.

All clients want to maintain control over their project (especially if it’s their baby), but they also need to let the designer do their job. After all, they are, experts in their field. Listen to their recommendations when they make them and try not to veto them on everything. You wouldn’t hire a plumber and stand over his shoulder telling him what to do, so why do it with a designer?

However, it’s important that you communicate your questions, concerns, and expectations all up front, but when it comes to the creative part, try to loosen up a bit. Stay objective and be thoughtful with your feedback. Especially in the digital world, everything needs to make sense.

A good designer will help you work towards your full potential and realize your business goals, not just make pretty pictures for their portfolios.

What else would make for a better client-freelancer relationship?

Thanks for reading.

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