Freelance is a four-letter word

I’ve been a long time advocate of those in the creative field branching out on their own (I “stepped out” on my own in 2001 — by way of being fired, which is another long story. I like to imagine I was a pioneer, a trendsetter, a beacon, a fish taco, But no really, I wasn’t). Perhaps our perspectives shift, priorities change, or our career ambitions warp; and we choose the path of the “freelancer”. It’s a lifestyle that can be hugely rewarding as well as hugely risky, but the term freelance is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad word, and here’s why.

Also free lance
1. Also, freelancer. a person who works as a writer, designer, performer, or the like, selling work or services by the hour, day, job, etc., rather than working on a regular salary basis for one employer.

In my decade of being an independent designer (e.g. living paycheck to paycheck) I have come to loathe the term “freelance” and it’s undesirable, oft unspoken, associations. There is nothing inherently wrong with the word freelance, but not all words adhere to their definitions. It has developed a different meaning beyond its literal definition. While we might think of the word to mean independent, professional business person worker (I don’t know about you, but that’s what I wanted to be known as), The overall contextual implications of the term to clients (those outside of design) has come to mean inexperienced, inexpensive and/or unprofessional (or within an industry “couldn’t hack it in the real world”).

Whether or not you are inexperienced, or inexpensive, or unprofessional, there is an unspoken assumption that one or all of the aforementioned traits apply to you as a freelancer. At certain times in my freelance career I have been each of those, but I was not interested in being chained to those traits by using the word “freelancer” to describe myself. The only way for me to overcome that connotation was to eliminate the term.

To be a good freelancer you must honestly understand your abilities and limitations (and believe me, this is difficult and sobering, well, at least it was for me). Do not misrepresent your skills and abilities. If you are inexperienced then you can’t say you’re a veteran. When I started on my own I already had seven years of professional experience (working in two different studios), my experience did not include my college time (because, seriously?). You’re inexperience will quickly become apparent, and create an unprofessional experience for the client. In order to continue “freelancing” you will have to lower your prices to get work. The formula may vary; inexpensive = inexperienced and unprofessional; unprofessional (by missing deadlines, doing bad work, etc) = inexpensive and inexperienced. All perpetuating the pretext of freelance.

First and foremost you run a business, whether it’s just you or a team of collaborators; you’re a business. It doesn’t matter your hourly rate, if you work from home, or if you work in your pajamas (which isn’t unprofessional until you show up at a meeting in them), you’re still a business. You’re not just a freelancer, you’re an administrator, a sales executive, a client services manager, a creative director, a bookkeeper and a designer. If any of those things sound terrible to you — and they should because so much of it sucks the life out of you — I suggest you either find someone who can do what you’re unwilling or unable, or stop and find a steady paycheck. Understand the realistic value of what you do and how well you do it and act accordingly, but above all else reclaim the perception of your career.

Understand your abilities, find solutions to your weaknesses, confidently assess your market value and pursue new work like a pro!

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Paul Armstrong’s story.