Things I’ve learned as a freelance designer

You wouldn’t see the “freelancer” title in my LinkedIn profile. But the truth is, I work as one since I was 17.

I had my first paid project while I’m still in high school. It was a 3D design project of the Hebrew Temple of the Egyptian era. Then came an opportunity to do a freelance for an agricultural Startup creating models of a machine. When I was just starting out, I did some work for friends, family and neighbors. And I can proudly say I’ve done EVERY possible mistake. So I’m glad to share with you the important lessons I’ve learned from my 15 years of experience as a freelance designer.

1. Do it for free or ask for full price

– “Man, I need a small favour”
– “Can you give me a friend’s price?”
– “It’ll be worth it – you are going to be famous”
– “It’s gonna take you 5 minutes”

These may sound familiar if you are working with people you know. One of the hard facts about working with familiar faces is, that they have the most draining expectations. They want the best they can get – but at the lowest cost.

The big paradox is, when you give them a discount, they feel as if they’ve paid. Hence, they deserve the best you can do. You – on the other hand – feel that you’re screwed. That low price just isn’t worth the hassle.

So here’s what you should do: either do it for free, or work for a full payment. If you work for free, your friends know that they are the least priority, and they can’t drive you crazy too much. At any point you can tell them: “listen, I gotta finish this, because I have some real work to do, and I gotta pay the rent” or “You can’t drive me crazy, for a favor I’m doing for you”.

While if you bill them for full payment, they may demand for so much, but at least you’re not losing money. You can serve them professionally like you would do with any other client of yours.

As for me, at this point I try to avoid projects for friends or family. I don’t want to take the risk of either of us getting pissed at each other. However, sometimes you can’t avoid it, because you love your friends/family and they really need help. In this case – just don’t give discounts.

2. Market yourself, before you really need it

People think that marketing is something you should do when your portfolio is “perfect”. “I’ll start marketing myself in 2 months, when my portfolio is ready.” Big mistake. I learned it myself when I tried to market an iPhone application I’ve built, only AFTER it was ready.

This is true for every marketing challenge: you need to start marketing way before you have something to sell. What do I mean? Say you are hired, but you plan to leave in 6 months to start being a freelancer designer. Don’t wait for your last day at work to post on Facebook “Yo! I’m a freelancer! Send me your projects!”. If that’s what you gonna do, it’s going to be really hard to pay the rent in the following month.

I know it’s really hard for us – Y generation – to plan 6 months ahead, not to speak of 10 years. We want it all to happen right now. But that’s not how it works. For me, I’ve started blogging two years ago, not for marketing, but for fun. And now, two years later, the results are showing. I get job offers on a weekly basis, without any effort. And you know what? I don’t even have an online portfolio.

Get the word out as soon as you can, and a few months ahead you will start seeing results. It takes time, effort and being consistent, to build a brand. But it’s worth the pain.

3. Tell your clients “No”

My instinct is to say “YES” to anything. After all, I’m a nice guy. I hate confrontation and like it when people offer to pay me.
– You got a project for me? Are you willing to pay me? Ok, yes.
– You don’t like what I designed, and you want something else? Ok, yes.
But then I realized that I am too nice for my own good.

You see, I hate conflicts. I never fight with people and if you push me, I crack. But over the years I learned (the hard way) that the “to be OK with everyone” policy, is not the best thing to do. At least not for me.

I’ve done many freelance design projects even when I was working full time in a studio. I didn’t REALLY need the money, I just couldn’t say “No” to an offer that had money behind it.

At some point I realized it’s not always worth it. When you work nights and weekends – it turns to be your life. So if you don’t really need it to pay the bills, your life could be better without these extra jobs. That way, you’ll have some time for yourself. And you know what? The moment you start saying “No” to clients, they start to treat you differently. You stop being the one begging for work, and you’ll be the one others stand in line to work with. It will change how people see you and speak about you.

There’s another great reason to say “no” to your client. When the project is not interesting. Don’t forget that the projects you’re working on, are the ones you’ll have in your portfolio. Those projects will attract the same type of clients to keep coming, as they say: “shitty projects attract shitty clients”

And what about saying “no” design-wise? If you hate conflicts like me, you probably tend to give up when a client doesn’t like your design. You probably say “Well, whatever. If he wants it to look crappy, it’s his problem”. But that’s a huge mistake commonly overlooked. Don’t create design works, you don’t believe are awesome. Again – this is going to be in your portfolio. And the thing is, just like with the money – when you start saying “no” about bad design, the clients will treat you as a professional.

4. Set expectations with your clients

Most problems between designers and clients can be fixed by setting expectations:

– Schedule everything (including inputs from the client, meetings, and end of project)
– Money (how much and when is it paid)
– Communication ways (when and how are we communicating. How do we ask for changes, fix and show them)
– What are the outputs (what is required, including the specific type of files the developer needs)
– Consequences (what will happen when we’re not happy, we don’t want to work together anymore, etc.).

If you set expectations properly, including a great contract that’s written properly, you’ll save time dealing with conflicts. When something goes wrong, well, then it’s fine because you’ve already laid the consequences. You need to keep in mind that a well written contract protects both parties, meaning you and your client. Our aim as a freelance designer, is to deal with the clients’ fear, giving him the feeling that every little thing gonna be all right.

By the way, this last point is right not just for freelancers, but also for designers who work in the office for a boss.

5. Don’t forget to backup your work

It’s a cliché, and its crystal clear, and still – we often forget to do that. Back up your work. Remember that project I’ve done at the age of 17? After 4 months of hard work, a virus killed my computer (oh, the happy windows days). I had to do everything from scratch, with no added payment of course. Do yourself a favor – make sure it’s all backed up. After all, there are so many simple and free tools to do that these days.

Post by Ran Segall

Ran is head of product, designer and co-founder at the nuSchool. He's also a mentor at The Designer's Pricing Class.

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