Thinking of freelancing? Here’s what you need to know

There are amazing benefits. Work where you want, be your own boss and choose your own clients. However, being a career freelancer is not just flexible hours and lattes. It’s hard work, recognising that you are basically running your own business and often long hours. To succeed as a freelancer, you need to understand the etiquette of and be able to adapt into different studios, providing consistent high-quality work that that leaves a lasting impression with your clients. Return and referral business will become your bread and butter, so every job builds into your reputation and is important to your career and your ability to succeed as a freelancer.

I have specialised in freelance recruitment for many years, so I have a great client base and a pool of strong candidates. I have always found recruiting in this area very rewarding, but I do see talented professionals enter the market without understanding the full demands of a freelance career. So, I have interviewed two of Sydney’s best design freelancers to give some guidance into what it takes to be a successful career freelancer.

Senior Designer 1, who would like to remain anonymous (A), has 20 years design experience and has been working as a freelancer for 15 years.

Senior Designer/Design Director 2, Jo, has been a freelancer on and off for over 19 years.

What is your specialism?

A: I have a couple of specialist areas. In the last six or more years I have found there is a significant need for PowerPoint designers. Which I know sounds totally counterintuitive to most designers - but it’s true! And there is good money to be made doing it. My philosophy is that a good designer can get past the tools and let the design speak, no matter the application. I would also say that I have a really great ability (I often call it my superpower) to understand what my client wants - often when they don’t really know themselves. Being a strong, capable and empathetic communicator is a real asset when working with rushed and stressed clients who need ‘something’ but can’t articulate what. This shouldn’t be a specialism, but I have found that it is, and it works.

Jo: I specialise largely in design for print, with a particular emphasis on corporate design and publishing, but like most designers, I am used to turning my hand to a wide variety of projects and industries.

What do you think makes a successful freelancer? 

A: I think there must be a Venn diagram for this right? To be successful you need a balance of talent, design skills, speed on the tools and the secret ingredient I think is the blend of soft skills - the ability to connect with someone you’ve just met, find a common ground and make them feel reassured that you are there to help them achieve what is needed for their business. This is all about communication, empathy and reading a room. 

Jo: Creative thinking, good technical skills, high levels of professionalism, attention to detail and the ability to manage deadlines - usually all at once. 

How do you secure work? Agency, network, recruiter?

A: A lot of my work these days comes from word of mouth. People know that I will always take the call or respond to a text or email and be really honest about my availability. I do get work through recruiters and they are a wonderful resource to foster and work with, but that only gets you in the door - you need the connection with the client to keep getting work. Having long standing relationships with recruiters has been a huge asset over the years.

Jo: I get my work both through recruiters and through my own network of contacts. Recruiters are a great way of filling any quiet times, while still leaving me flexible to work on my own projects when I’m busy.  

Is technology helping or hindering your ease of getting work?

A: I’m not really sure. I think helping. The ease with which people can you look you up on LinkedIn is a help - they can see your folio, your experience and testimonials. I also think there is a downside with those 99designer businesses that have a million designers there willing to work for so much less than I am! But overall being able to work anywhere, access large files and turn work around overnight from home is a huge plus. 

Jo: Probably hindering - the rise of overseas freelancing platforms where you can hire a super cheap designer in India means that some local clients are unwilling to pay what a local Australian designer costs. However, it’s not uncommon for them to come back to a local designer after trying the cheaper off-shore alternative, as some of my contacts have found that the quality has been lower and that the difficulty of dealing with someone whose first language may not be English or dealing with different time zones can mean it’s not worth the effort. 

How do you balance upskilling and enhancing your career while freelancing?

A: I feel like this is just a part of being a person - if you are not growing and bettering yourself what’s the point? Even as a full time working parent I still find time to attend seminars that interest me and refresh my knowledge in areas that I can see will be useful for future work. I find this learning beneficial as most of the time it leads to understanding new efficiencies - which means I can do more in less time. 

Jo: It’s important to always ensure that you’re staying up to date with the latest programs, trends and developments, but as a print specialist it’s easier than if I were a front end web designer where technology is constantly changing. I also make sure that study from time to time to keep things sharp. 

What has been the biggest challenge for you as a freelancer?

A: The biggest challenge this year with freelancing has been lead times for work, or clients setting way too limited turnaround times on jobs. I am happy to take on extra work, and I work with a few different businesses that love what I do, but from time to time they will set insanely unrealistic deadlines. I am very honest about my available time and have learnt that there is no point rushing through a job to meet a crazy tight deadline as it almost always comes back to bite me in the bottom with the client not happy with the quality at the end of the day. This, despite them knowing there was not enough time to do a good job, always leads to a loss of faith in me and the work I do, so it is just not worth it and has meant I have had to pass on a bunch of work for the good of my reputation. 

Jo: So far 2019 has been surprisingly busy which is great but managing cash flow is always on your mind as a freelancer, so keeping a relatively constant flow of work without being swamped is an ongoing challenge. Another challenge is to always make sure you leave a lasting impression, when you leave a studio. This industry is too small and if you are serious about being a career freelancer you are only as good as your last freelance job!