Freelancing like a Pro: Resources & Tricks

May 8, 2016 · 6 min read

By Cristina Silva

Freelancing when you’re a full-time student can be tricky, although rewarding (Can you say next months rent covered? Ka-ching!). Luckily, we live in the golden era of web applications and tools that make our lives easier. Here’s a breakdown of our commonly used freelance suite of tools and processes.

Getting Work

If you’re just starting out, working on a project for a family member or a non-profit is a great way to boost your portfolio. You can also get involved with the Husky Startup Challenge and other Entrepreneur’s Club events. Student entrepreneurs are always in need of design help for logos, websites, business cards and more.

Once you get a few projects under your belt, freelance work will find you. You can use your Dribbble or portfolio to help get your work out there. If you do find yourself on the lookout for freelance projects, ask around campus. Between IDEA ventures, faculty side-projects and marketing collateral — there’s a constant need for design help. We send multiple projects a week to the directory, so it’s a great way to put yourself out there for design jobs in the Northeastern community. You can also look to the internet for jobs. Sites like Coroflot, Behance, Hubstaff Talent, and Craigslist post jobs ranging in skill level, time-commitment, and type.

Vetting Work

Now that you have options lined up, how do you decide which one to take? Unfortunately, there’s no tried and true way to know if a client will be a nightmare before you take on the project, but there are some red flags you can look out for.

They want free work. There’s a time and place for doing work out of the kindness of your heart (your mom’s birthday invitation, non-profit work, etc.), but if the client is making money off of your designs, they have the money to pay you. No matter where you’re at in your design career, you have a valuable service to offer. Agreeing on payment terms legitimizes your work and makes you a true professional.

They talk down to you or belittle the value of design. This one can be hard to catch, but if a potential client seems to have little enthusiasm for design or thinks of it as an afterthought, you may want to think twice about taking on the project if you think they will be difficult to work with. If you do find yourself in this situation, you could use this client as a teaching moment and fight for the value of design.

They want to be the designer. It’s a good thing when a client knows what they want, but be wary of a client who treats you like a pixel monkey. There are important decisions that go behind your design choices and it’s easier to work with a client who understands and values that.

In the end, go with your gut. If you sit down with a client over the phone or face to face and get negative vibes from them, it might be wise to think twice before agreeing to the contract.

Legal Things No One Likes Dealing With

Contracts can be a pain in the ass, but they legitimize the work you’re doing and can protect you in the worst case scenario. There are great online resources for writing up a general contract to cover the bases. AIGA and Docracy both have a slew of contract templates for most design projects. Contract Killer is also a great open-source contract for web designers and developers that’s easy to understand and does away with confusing legal jargon. You can use a service like HelloSign to handle remote signatures for contracts or simply print, sign and scan them.

When in doubt, you’ll want to make sure your contract includes:

Start and end dates of the contract. Or else you could end up with a never ending project that you can’t get out of.

IP (Intellectual Property). It’s typical to transfer the rights to the client at the end of the project upon receiving payment. Make sure you are retaining enough rights to use the work in your portfolio.

Explicit deliverables.
You don’t want to end up doing 24 iterations of a web page when you only budgeted for three. Set an expectation about what you are explicitly responsibly for.

Payment terms. Make sure you include if you will be billing the client hourly or at a fixed rate. You’ll want to specify how often you will invoice the client too. If you’ve agreed on a fixed rate, a good tip is to ask for 50% of the payment upon starting the project and the remainder upon completion.

Taxes are hard too. If you make more than $600 from freelancing over a year, you have to report it to the IRS. It looks scary, but check out the resources from the IRS for reporting freelance work. You can do it! We have faith in you.

Managing Work

You’ve landed your project, sorted out your legal issues, now it’s time to get down to business.

defeat the huns
defeat the huns

Each project will be different in timeline and scope, but remember that you are a student first. Take a few minutes to look at your calendar and identify where you have the most spare time. Put work time in your calendar and treat it like you would a class or co-op.

Here are our favorite resources to help manage your projects, track your time, and send client deliverables.

Project Management
Trello. Trello is a free and flexible way to manage your projects (even classwork or personal to-dos). In each project board, create lists for ideas, to-do’s, in progress work, completed work, and more. You can even invite your client to the board to keep them in the loop.

Basecamp. Basecamp keeps your to-do lists, calendars, files and notes all in one place. It’s email integration also makes it useful to communicate with a whole team.

Time Tracking
Harvest. Harvest is a simple way to keep track of your time. They also have built in invoicing and analytics about your projects to keep you on top of things.

Dropbox. Dropbox is a way to share files online. Set up a shared folder between you and your client. Create folders for each round of sketches, wireframes, design, and other deliverables you may have. Pro tip: Adobe programs love to crash and glitch out. If you work from a synced Dropbox file on your computer, it stores previously saved versions of the file. You can restore a file to it’s last saved state if your current working version gets totally FUBAR-ed.

InVision. InVision is great for web design projects. You can create clickable prototypes of your design with their tools so even if you aren’t well-versed in the ways of HTML and CSS, you can give your client a better idea of how the live site will work.

External hard drive. Photos and videos can take up a lot of space on your computer’s hard drive. If you’re planning on taking on photo or video work, its helpful to have the client purchase an external hard drive to store the files and serve as a final deliverable.

Wave. Wave is a great service for managing and sending invoices to get you paid.

Wrapping Up Work

As the end of the project approaches and you’re wrapping up your final deliverables, make sure you are aware of your last responsibilities. It should be on the client to get files to the printer or get a site hosted on their own server unless otherwise stated in your contract. If a client wants more work from you than previously agreed on, write up a revised or new contract. Try not to provide out of scope work for free no matter how much they beg and plead with you.

Most importantly, end the engagement on a positive note. Say “Thank you”, let them know you appreciated their business. Every client, good or bad, has something to teach you. Don’t burn any bridges this early in your career. Any client could provide you with connections to your next project or even a full-time job eventually.

Hopefully you’re ready to take on some real freelance work to support your dependence on alc- I mean, late night pizza cravings. It’s time to put what you learn in the classroom into practice and build up your portfolio.

Did we miss your favorite project management tool? Have a tried and true way to handle tricky clients? Leave your favorite freelance tips and tools in the comments and we’ll add them to our list of resources.

Scout Design

Northeastern University's student-led design studio


Written by


Northeastern University’s student-led design studio.

Scout Design

Northeastern University's student-led design studio

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