How to Thrive as a Freelancer
As part of a special focus on freelance designers, we share advice from industry figures such as Emily Forgot and Ben Tallon on how to be successful as a freelancer.
“Always hold dear the reasons you were drawn to the creative industries in the first place. We all have to strike a balance of paying the bills and feeling passionate about our direction, but like attracts like and it’s easy to compromise too much, losing faith in what instinct tells us is right. Remember, your brand and portfolio has to be as much a statement of intent as it is a showcase of what you can do in order to stay on the right path for you.”
A regular Design Week contributor, 34-year-old Ben’s Freelance State of Mind columnoffers both practical and more general advice for freelance designers. He has been a freelance illustrator for nine years, working for clients including The Guardian and Unicef, and hosting his regular podcast series Arrest all Mimics.
“My advice for freelance designers would be to take advantage of quiet periods to explore and develop self-initiated projects. It is so important to feel productive and creative without clients or deadlines. This has become a big part of my creative practice – such as my headshot seen above, which was a self-initiated collaboration with photographer Bruno Drummond – and often results in more fulfilling commercial briefs and commissions.”
Emily, 35, has been working as a freelance designer and illustrator for the last 12 years after studying graphic arts at Liverpool John Moores University. Her clients range from galleries and museums such as The Welcome Collection and Somerset House, to retails brands including Selfridges and Harrods.
“As a freelancer, you need to wear two hats – a business owner hat and a creative hat – and they don’t always match. Of course you want to build your portfolio and create amazing work, but ultimately you need paying clients to cover the bills. Be wary of working for little money on the promise of future work, no matter how sincere it may seem. Once a fee has been agreed, it is very hard to move that as your baseline. You won’t always get paid for every minute you spend on a project, but the client needs to appreciate your work enough to pay fairly.
My creative advice is to question presumptions both during your own design process and when discussing client briefs. Your first instinct might be that users aren’t buying a product because the website link isn’t big enough on the design. But maybe it is down to the location of the link, or that the background image used isn’t resonating, or the brand’s tagline doesn’t appeal to them. As a freelancer, the key to building effective client relationships is to apply creative thinking to problems, giving them your expertise as well as those ‘pixel pushing’ skills.”
Alan, 36, has worked as freelance designer for the last 15 years. He is currently creative director at London-based studio Sane & Able, and is the author of several design books, including An A-Z Guide to being a Freelance Designer and How to Live with a Designer without Killing them.
“The most important thing I’ve learned in my career is to trust my intuition. Does something feel ‘off’ with a client? Don’t be afraid to turn a job down. Feel like you need to change the direction of your work? That’s ok, it’s always good to review your portfolio. Want to clear your schedule and work on your own ideas? Go for it, it’s so often passion projects that drive a career forwards. It’s fine to make mistakes, as long as you grab the opportunity to use those experiences to grow. Chances are you’ll run into a nightmare client that’s so late-paying you think they might actually be a dragon hoarding gold, or maybe you’ve been seduced by emails offering ‘fabulous exposure’ for a tiny fee (or worse, free). But trust your gut and develop your spider senses for freelance foes. That way you’ll have so much more time to work on what you love.”
29-year-old Emmeline has been a freelance illustrator for seven years, and does work for publishers such as Egmont Publishing and other brands like Tesco. In 2016, she was voted national freelancer of the year at the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) awards.
“The main thing I’ve learned about being a freelancer has nothing to do with the actual job, its more about not having any work. When it comes to work it’s either feast or famine, and not having any on the horizon can be quite stressful. It’s nothing to do with ‘mindfulness’, or ‘Hygge’, or whatever the current buzzword is, but it does help to try and make yourself feel ok during the quiet periods. So don’t feel bad about watching that TV series in one sitting! Arranging to see people, going to exhibitions, watching films, going for walks or visiting another city or town nearby can all help and inspire. After all, that is one of the perks of being freelancer – you have free time. If you think you might be off, plan something. And have faith, as there will be work coming along. If you’re looking for work tips – always keep a phone charger and a pair of headphones in your bag, and an online resource of useful bookmarks.”
Ty, 41, originally studied art and design at Leeds Metropolitan University. He has been doing freelance design, art direction and branding for the last seven years for the likes of Transprt for London (TfL) and the BBC.
“The best thing I’ve learned during my time as a freelancer is the value of relationships. All of my work has come via recommendations; from managers, strategists, copywriters, account handlers and even clients from previous agencies — not just designers — so put the effort in with everyone. Advice wise, if you are freelancing in-house at a company you are there to take pressure off the studio. So help out the junior team, offer to take a look at proposals or press releases, and for goodness sake empty the bin if it’s full. I’d always be armed with a power ballad playlist too. You’ll be asked to put some music on at some point, and generally you’re going to make more friends with Bon Jovi or Michael Bolton than you are with Metallica.”
32-year-old Adam Ding has been doing freelance design work for the past two years. His current job title is independent design director, and he works in-house with organisations such as the National Society for the Protection of Children (NSPCC), where he leads the design teams on specific projects.
“I think it’s very important to manage your time properly. When I first started out I worked part-time, so this helped me condense my working hours into more productive blocks of time. I’ve been freelancing fulltime for two years, and work from 9am-6pm, five days a week. Obviously there are times when I work evenings and weekends too, but I try to keep a 9am-6pm mentality. I find this helps me maintain a healthy work–life balance. It’s also important to know that it’s ok to have time away from your desk. Don’t feel guilty about taking breaks, a walk around the block can do wonders for your productivity and wellbeing. Starting out on your own can feel very lonely, so it’s important not to feel too isolated. Get networking – even if it’s just on social media. It provides a community where you can source advice and guidance.”
Freelance illustrator Livi, 27, specialises in creating maps, food and drink illustrations and children’s books for the likes of Jamie Magazine, Lonely Planet and Zizzi. She studied illustration at Falmouth University, graduating in 2012.