Things I wish I’d known before going freelance
As the design and advertising industries become more demanding and dynamic, there’s an increasing amount of Wacom-armed nomad designers wandering in and out of creative agencies’ revolving doors. There are fresh new faces that appear with a puff of smoke on a Monday morning, never to be seen again after the late night Thursday review.
Having recently spent 18 months exploring London’s advertising landscape in a full-time freelance capacity, I have compiled some of my observations that I hope will benefit any designer looking to take on the freelance challenge.
SECURE MEETINGS AND WORK
When I promoted myself to freelance designer, I realised quickly that you have to take a step back to step forward. Meaning whatever path your career has taken thus far could be quite restrictive for you going forward in this period, as certain creative jobs narrow your focus. One of the most exciting aspects of being a hired gun is that for once you have the opportunity to take on some disparate projects.
Set yourself back into I-just-graduated-and-am-happy-to-show-my-work-to-anyone mode. As draining and daunting as that may be, throw your net out far and wide. Everyone is a good contact: meet anyone who will listen to you talk about your work. Even if a certain discussion doesn’t seem like the right opportunity at that point, they may introduce you to someone else who you have previously found hard to reach, or they may move into another area of interest of yours later on. It’s surprising how much competing agencies and studios talk and share contacts.
Spend some time reading blogs, design annuals, and going to talks. Make an evolving list of all the agencies, studios and houses you’d like to work for, find the names of their design director, creative director, production director, and assistant to the regional designer, and spin the LinkedIn wheel.
Avoid sending out PDF portfolios, they can get pinged around the industry beyond your control, which means you won’t have a later chance to update or correct them. Arm yourself with a personal Squarespace, update it regularly and get it into every suitable inbox in town.
IT CAN BE DANGEROUS TO SWIM WITH THE SHARKS
When you publicly go freelance, you’ll probably find recruitment agencies trying to lure you towards the opportunities they are trying to fill. Certain recruiters will try to represent you exclusively and many freelancers become complacent with whatever work comes through them.
Third-party recruiters will occasionally throw up interesting gigs and offer you work when you find yourself with idle hands, so it’s very important to keep them on side and entertain their advances. But remember you’re never obliged to take anything that’s offered. More often that not they won’t have your best creative or long-term interests at heart, so keep them at a Macbook’s length. Before you accept any project or contract, find out as much as you can about what’s expected of you and who it’s for.
Creative agencies and studios would also rather avoid finding extra resource through recruiters and paying the extra 20% fee (approx.) that comes with that so it’s really beneficial to create your own relationships with the people you’d like to work with. However, certain agencies and brands, particularly those with in-house studios, source all freelance resource through recruitment agencies, so it can be worth building relations with them if their line of work suits.
Be clear with yourself about what you want from this adventure and do your best to fulfil this ambition. As much as your work could diversify, you also need to prepare yourself for the fact that glaring portfolio holes are unlikely to be filled quickly as a freelancer. People will typically hire you on your existing strengths, rather than bringing you in to learn or experiment.
It can be difficult to curate your creative output, see projects through or get onto projects at crucial times. More often than not you are brought in to fill a very specific need and it’s a lot harder to ‘own’ projects in the way that you can in permanent roles.
Working in a freelance capacity forces you to learn on your feet, as you’re often thrown in at the deep end and have to think quickly. It’s exciting to feel yourself develop quickly and I personally found this aspect the most rewarding.
Taking on a freelance role for a sufficient amount of time will give you the opportunity to learn a completely new skillset, and even negative experiences can shape your approach going forward. There aren’t many industries where the output is so open to interpretation – there isn’t a right way or a wrong way in the creative industries – so all experiences should be insightful.
MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME
No one will really put the effort in to talk to you sadly, so for your creativity and your sanity, it’s also your job to go and makes friends with the people at the next table. Professionals can find new freelance designers intimidating and threatening, so talking to people and showing an interest in the work and the world it occupies is very important.
You’ll probably find yourself in an interesting new part of town with new friends, so let yourself get dragged off to a new lunch spot or the Friday night boozer. Whilst it can be exhausting, it’s a great opportunity to meet exciting like-minded people and extend your future network.
PHONE A FRIEND
Find someone who has been there before. It can be a challenging experience and you’ll find it harder to connect meaningfully with people over short spaces of time. So it’s extremely useful having someone you can rely on for advice who is experienced in this field, especially when you need to reveal a weakness and ask for help.
MONEY MONEY MONEY
Many people dive into freelancing for the fiscal rewards. There’s plenty of advice online about how much you should be charging for your time, but I would advise not to overcharge for your services at first. Build up some experience, make yourself comfortable and open several doors before giving yourself a payrise. If you very slightly undervalue yourself at first, you’ll be a more attractive proposition to prospective employers.
Set yourself a day rate, and an hourly rate based on that. Never work for free. If you’re asked to work late, invoice for that time: most agencies pay double time for late nights and weekends which can be very financially exciting.
Hire an accountant. Most accountants will cost you a few hundred a year, but will save you that much and more with their sleight of hand. The time you save not doing a 60-page tax return incorrectly will also free you up to work more too.
The laws around self employment and related taxes change a lot. You can work as a sole trader or set yourself up as a limited company and work through that. If you’re working for a period of anything longer than six months, it’d be would be worth setting up a limited company; many companies won’t take you on without one, and companies invariably prefer candidates who work through them.
If you’re working as a sole trader, keep 30% of all your earnings in a separate account for Phillip Hammond come April. If you are working through a limited company, you’ll take a salary from it, and get a big payout at the same time of year. Keep receipts for everything you buy, as you’ll be surprised how much tax can be claimed back through being self-employed. Coffees, trains, phone bills, colouring-in pencils etc.
And remember, you won’t have a pension or the extra benefits offered by a permanent job. Some freelancers take out extra insurance to support unexpected illness.
MAINTAINING A WORK-LIFE BALANCE
Breaking free from a standard five-day week with regular holiday is quite unsettling.
Creative environments are stressful at the very best of times, especially when you’re effectively starting a new job every two months. Use your free time effectively, whether that be creatively, or to just relax. Relish time off: don’t panic about finding the next set of work, it will always come.
You may find your weekend runs over Wednesday and Thursday, and then you’re suddenly asked to work four late nights on a pitch. This is normal: I personally worked everything from a one-day contract to a six-month contract.
There are some peculiar benefits to freelancing. There are suddenly no office politics you have to be involved with long-term, and no obligatory leaving drinks or forced fun. It can be lonely not being invited to a Christmas party or not having an annual appraisal, but being removed from the 21st century office soap opera can be refreshing.
There’s a light at the end of every tunnel. If you really feel like you aren’t getting anything from a particular experience or project, you don’t have to do it for long, and if you really don’t want to put it on your CV, you don’t have to. And you’ll still get every penny.
BE YOURSELF (UNLESS YOU’RE NOT NICE)
In any job it’s important to be professional, respectful and polite. When you’re working several jobs over a year, it’s even more important. Alienating yourself from one agency could alienate yourself from an entire industry in which everyone knows everyone.
Never be rude, ungrateful, or uncooperative. There’s another freelancer ready to step in before your seat is cold.
KNOW WHEN TIME’S UP
Once you’ve learnt as much as you can, set yourself a plan to get out. People and careers can get lost in the freelance world and it’s very easy to get comfortable with the extra income and detached lifestyle.
For career-driven types, it’s important to get back into a full-time role at the right time to take more control at work and get your foot back on the greasy corporate ladder.
Michael Bow is a designer and art director at Creature. He was previously employed at Wieden + Kennedy and has experience working as a freelance designer at Mother, Leo Burnett, McCann, VCCP, Droga5, and in-house at Apple, amongst others
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