When I was starting my own business about 9 years ago, I should have read about things to avoid. Instead, I did no research at all and learned it the hard way. Luckily, you don’t have to. So here we are: me trying to help you out a bit, fellow freelance design starter. (Illustrations by Sabrina Fenske —check out her portfolio and let her do such nice stuff for you as well!)
1) Take it easy
Are you sitting in a café right now? Sipping a latte and reading stories on Medium (gotcha there!) is an all-time perk of freelancers, right? Lucky you. Most of my freelance days have been different.
Design, done right, is hard work. Being a freelancer is hard work, too. It’s a long way from the start until you can be content with your self-employed business life. You will have to invest a lot of time in working and learning, also on weekends. You will have to deal with bad briefings, tough clients and a short budget. You will have to disappoint friends by cancelling and reschedule vacations. Social life will suffer.
I’m not trying to scare you, but if you don’t face these things heads on, freelancing will be tough on you. I was working through these things without even noticing, leading almost to a burnout. A good plan is the key to reduce the impact of your business on social life and keep you happy.
2) Don’t know what you’re aiming for
Talking about plans, there are several reasons to work as a freelancer. You might be a design professional already and want to work on your own terms. Or you slipped into the freelance life by accident as I did.
I had no idea where I wanted to go with my business a couple of years ago. Design somehow paid the bills, and I was happy about that. I had a big client and a few smaller ones, keeping me busy most of the time. Sounds reasonable? The problem was, that I almost did not improve my skills.
Design can be so much more than utilizing your creatitivy for money. It should keep you in a constant state of unrest and questioning the world around you. Ask yourself: “Why am I doing this? What do I want to achieve? What are my work ethics?” I firmly believe that design can change our world. So it’s up to you and me to aim higher.
3) Never listen to any advice from other people
You can always do better as a designer, that’s a fact that will never change. Even if you feel like the hottest shit in town, trust me, you’re not. And now stop counting the positive comments you got on Dribbble. That’s only visual sugar.
Go out there and talk to people, showcase your work and get into conversations. Don’t get stuck at your home office. Discuss your projects and ideas as often as you can. If you feel like there’s nothing to talk about, you’re probably doing something wrong. But most of all, it will prevent you from running in the wrong direction withouth taking notice. Don’t expect your clients to be the ones that give you proper feedback. Let it be other designers, friends and family. Great insights and ideas can also come from people who don’t work in the design business.
4) Working for free all the time
There will be a lot of occasions to work without getting paid. Friends and family will ask you to do them a favor. They’ll say things like “You get to do what you love” or “It’s your hobby, right?”. Some might even expect you to be thankful for such an offer. Don’t ever do that. If people have a design project and they ask you to do the job, they must pay you. If you go down the ‘working for free’ road, you will be exploited.
There’s a simple rule: If they get to make money using your work, they must pay you. Don’t believe the ‘let’s see what’s in there for you’ talk and get things straight from the beginning.
You can help out a friend, sure. But be very clear to yourself what is a favor and what is work. I once got the offer to design the website, the menu and some advertising for a restaurant. The suggested payment was a crate of beer.
5) Ruin your market
Fair payment is tough when starting as a design freelancer. As I told you before, I was a lateral entrant. I had no idea about the market or what would be best to charge. I got paid what my clients offered me, without even negotiating. Needless to say that my clients really enjoyed my invoices. In fact, they were even laughing about them. It turned out that I was working hard, delivering quality work, but was afraid to ask for a fair payment. And happily destroyed my own market.
There are many ways to determine what you need for a living and what you‘re spending to keep your business going. Tools like nuSchool and blogs help you to calculate you hourly rate based on those information. That being said, I knew it years ago and still was afraid to charge what my work was worth.
Get in touch with professionals and ask them what they charge. You don’t have to work for a couple of bucks, even in the beginning of your freelance career. Build up revenue and deliver good work. Be proactive and speak your mind. People will honor that, usually by willing to pay you a decent amount of money.
To break it down, your business should at least pay your bills. What would it say about your freelance career if you’d need to work half-day at a Starbucks?
6) Take every goddamn project
I always thought my next client might be the last one. If I’d say no to a certain project, they’ll find a better designer. I will end up taking the Starbucks job again. Oh misery! Needless to say, I took every job I could get.
The truth is: nothing like that ever happened. It’s alright to say “no”. Clients don’t like to search for designers. It’s a tedious task that no one really wants to do (that is why networking is so much important).
I find myself drowned in work sometimes, because my clients value what I do for them. There will always be a cheaper designer, but to get the job done right, they rely on me and my skills. And what’s most important: They tell other people.
In the beginning it’s hard to be that picky, and it might even be impossible. But keep in mind what you’re aiming for and learn to say ”no“ more often. On the long run the work you do defines the kind of designer you are.
7) Do everything by tomorrow
As a freelancer you can streamline a lot of processes. In fact, I profit from my ability to work quite fast in several ways. Mastering your tools over time will make execution faster. Your clients will love that, right? Fast and cheap (that’s where I came from, congratulations if you already got rid of the cheap part).
What would be much better though is to take your time to improve your work. If execution takes you less time, invest more in the concept or creating more variants to choose from. Good decisions can take time, you should not rush them.
Allow yourself to have a free day as a buffer to reschedule your activities. If you talk to your client about the time frame, be more generous than you would. It will pay off in the end.
There will be projects that need to be done very fast. Clients often have a bad reception of how much work design can actually be. So tell them! And if there’s no other way, your payment should reflect the effort you have to take.
8) Be always available
When I was starting as a freelancer, I felt the need to always be available. I thought answering within minutes was a key asset to a successful business. Guess what: It’s not.
Making up excuses for not answering fast enough wasn’t reasonable at all. You need to provide reasonable communication with your clients. But most of the time people won’t ask for your emergency mode all the time — well, if you stop offering.
By now, I decide to answer project related mails and messages only when I am actually working on the project. That helps me to focus and keep my schedule lighter. In the end, you became a freelancer to work on your terms, more or less. This is a part where you have full control.
9) Don’t think of freelancing as if it was a job
One thing I like about being a freelancer is to have total control over my workday. What does that mean? Starting at 11am? Sure. Leaving for 2 hours of lunch 15 minutes later? Absolutely. Having a beer with friends in the evening? Done deal.
That behaviour forced me to spent many weekends, evenings and even nights in front of my computer. Under the impression of my freedom, I got lost in fragmented responsibilities. I had to cancel events with my friends, slept horrible and was very edgy.
It’s crucial to plan your freelance life as if you were working for a company. And you are the boss already — congratulations on your promotion. Keeping your work hours straight will not only boost your productivity. It will help you to separate your work and private life, which is a key factor for staying healthy and happy.
When I got my weekend back, my personal life improved. That made me more productive at work, due to higher motivation. You get the point.
10) Stay where you are and follow the rules
Being a designer means being a critical person in the first place. You should have the desire to identify problems and to ask the right questions. That what makes you the top choice for your clients. And that’s what makes you a key asset in changing the world.
Starting as a freelance designer, you will not have the sense of responsibility for the world. It might seem like an unachievable goal to have an impact, but is it?
Does it help to design a better interface for a ticket machine? Sure. Let’s take it one step further: Why do we need ticket machines? How great would it be if there’s a solution to use mass transit without even thinking about tickets?
Design changes the world all the time by getting over old constraints. That leaves us with the task to bring society and technology together. Even if you work in more traditional design fields, rethinking the world around you should be a task. It helps to keep your mind sharp, which eventually will lead to better design solutions.
Always question the briefing if you think there’s a better way to achieve things. Don’t limit yourself and get stuck in the same procedures and projects. Being a freelancer is a challenge, but it’s also a great possiblity.
Design is hard work. But if your avoid the things I have been doing for years, your decision to work as a freelancer will pay off. Manage your power, always work hard on yourself and your design skills — and never become your client’s toy. Be strict about your work time. Be a designer all day long, but don’t work as one the whole time. And remember: You have the greatest job there is. Enjoy it!
Michael works on solutions for design problems — including digital products, print and concept work. He believes that an app isn’t always what people need. But may it be the case, he know how to make it user friendly and beautiful at the same time. Occasionally, you’ll find some piece of writing here on Medium. You can also check his website for further information.