Rise of the Freelance Designer - Is this a vision of the future?

Posted by | July 20, 2013 | Design Jobs, freelance design | 19 Comments
A freelancers workspace

Is the freelance designer the future?

When I became a freelance designer, it was through what I thought was a natural progression and lifestyle of working in the creative world. I had started at the bottom, working in-house for an estate agent.

It was a great platform, a place where I could learn practices, techniques and make mistakes without being in the high pressure environment of a creative studio. There were 3 designers in-house and all of us were young, wet behind the ears but all were keen, talented and had been cherry picked as potentially someone who could be a ‘designer’. Maybe even a Freelance designer.

It was a clever move by the company. They would visit the university open evenings and approach students that showed talent, and just as important, a personality that would fit. We would work 40 hours a week on a variety of projects, building confidence, trying ideas that sometimes worked, sometimes didn’t, but all in all we spent 3-4 years getting a great grounding in design.

It helped that the Director had a keen interest in marketing – and design. Not all of his ideas were ones we agreed with, but looking back it taught us that compromise you need to embrace when working with clients – a real skill any freelance designer will recognise. Some could handle it and some dug their heels in. If they had that attitude of ‘Mr BigShot’ and failed to learn that it was not going to get you anywhere they were gone and replaced with another. Harsh? Maybe, but design snobbery is not something you need to carry with you in your first job. you are not Senior Creative, you are an artworker, a desktop publisher, hell, you’re at the bottom fella. But you were building a portfolio. A real one. For proper companies and to a brief. Looking back, it was brilliant.

I learnt my trade and love of design at University – like many – yet the transition from education into the working world is never easy. I have seen more students than I can count struggle with the rules, deadlines and world that is a design agency. It is one of the key areas I believe education lacks, a training to work in the outside world. It is getting better mind you, students these days are taught business studies which is invaluable should you enter the world of freelance employment. However, from working to 6 week projects, to a 6 hour deadline shocks many – it still hurts me today on occasion. It is stressful and getting through a deadline of this sort is often only solved by having the experience of managing these situations time after time.

Deciding to become a freelance designer.

After about 10 years of working and progressing through agencies,  I decide to go freelance. I had experience. From watching and working with older designers I saw how they managed projects and solved problems. I also met a lot of other freelancers. These were specialists. At that time a freelance designer was a hired gun, someone with a skill that was needed only occasionally and was not worth paying full time wages for. However, the tide was turning.

(As an aside, i do recommend you sell yourself as a freelance designer with a speciality skill – something that you can say I am the best at. It does wonders for your confidence and you know you are a level above many also competing for jobs)

Becoming a freelance designer was the best move I ever made, I think primarily due to choosing to do so. I wanted to be on my own. I knew the risks and the benefits and was prepared to gamble.

Today the modern design agency comprises a plethora of various freelance designer, mainly due to economics. You can hire a freelancer on a daily, or weekly basis and get top notch design skills without having to pay the benefits of full-time employment. Holidays, sickness and pensions are all a thing of the past as far as I can see so your Design Agency can actually hire you for the whole year without paying more than just your wages. It’s an understandable decision by them but it can be mutually beneficial.

But what if the decision is not yours?

So what of the people who do not choose to become a freelance designer, but are forced into it, either by redundancy or circumstance. The only thing they lack is confidence. I also find they lack a business based attitude ironically about promoting themselves. I say one word to you on this. AdWords. You sign up for Google AdWords and you can get yourself to page one overnight. Yes it is a cost, an outgoing you could do without, but I promise you it works and you will get work. After nearly 10 years of being a freelancer I still use Adwords to ensure I am on page one for services I cannot get my website onto that elusive first page for. Many pages are high ranking and I do not need to advertise, but it is a competitive business and you need to have a marketing budget to enable you to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the big boys.

A lack of confidence is understandable. As I said I chose to go down this path. Choosing to go freelance is a decision you have weighed up, whereas someone who feels forced into in is not going to appear as confident in their abilities. Understandably they are coming into it from a negative situation but I can offer them this nugget of hope. I know of many designers who have gone freelance from a negative situation and nearly every single one now makes a very good living, being their own boss, and the very best are able to pick and chose the design projects they work on.

How many employees can say that.

In summary…

Being multi-skilled helps massively. I hate the term ‘Jack-of-all-trades’, and much prefer ‘Full Service’ – This is a great help for any freelance designer. If a client comes to you for a logo, and you can offer stationery design, website design, email marketing, print design, brochures and a knowledge of internet marketing as well then there is less chance of them going to anyone else and you can also offer those services as your relationship develops. The best freelancers offer all of these BUT also have a speciality. Mine? Well it is property brochure design. I work for Estate Agents, Construction Companies and Developers and even through the recession I get work as I am known as a specialist in my field.

As freelancers we are now on an equal footing with those in full time positions. We equal, if not outnumber them and are on the rise. The beauty of the internet is people who are considering freelance design as a career can now research it, talk to existing designers and make an educated choice.

Come join us and please feel free to share your experiences below, whether as a freelance designer or not, you may be helping someone out with your input.


  • Deirdre Durkin says:

    Thanks James for again another great read. Love following your blogs, you put air in my chest, helping me to stand up and say ‘I can do this’ … :) I have always throughout my working career dabbled also in some freelancing, but since my redundancy (which floored me in my confidence) I have decided to take up freelancing much more, and hopefully create a great business. And I know in my heart and soul that I can do this, I delight any client I’ve had the pleasure of working with, yet my low confidence and lack of the business side of it all is slowing me… I know in time these weaknesses will strengthen. Thanking you again for your great knowledge and insights…

    • JimAdams says:

      Thanks Deirdre, glad it gives you the confidence to take this on – and all it will take is that first job and it will soar. Please forward me your portfolio when it is up and running and we can always do a post on it here. As a footnote, I’m yet to meet any designer with a good business sense haha. We all have someone in the background doing the numbers!

  • Susan Cooper says:

    What a great grounding you had at the beginning of your career. Going solo in any profession can be a bit scary, but as you said, it gets down to confidence and working with your strengths. The reality is in todays economy there often is only one choice. Knowing where your strengths lie can aid in an endeavor to go freelance. :-) You have done that and are seeing the benefits of that decision.

    • JimAdams says:

      Thank you Susan, there’s that old cliche that you ‘learn by your mistakes’ and that is certainly true when you are working alone. But the learning curve is steep and you soon figure it all out. Well, it is Monday morning, 8.30 so i had best get on with some work. Coffee anyone :)

  • Leora Wenger says:

    James, I enjoyed reading the history of your career and also how you see the design freelancer today. I work as a freelancer, and I would say my specialty is in WordPress coding and in tailoring a WordPress site to meet clients’ needs.

    The web design world has changed radically in the short time it has been in existence (since about 1994). Designers, developers, business people all have to go along as it changes even more.

    • JimAdams says:

      Thanks Leora, I truly believe that as freelancers we are blessed, but my word we have to work hard. Arguably harder than those in full-time positions. Interesting that you are a WordPress specialist – I might have to speak to you regards some of the more complex PHP issues that I farm out to developers when designing bespoke WP sites. I’m a designer, not a PHP coder (It’s witchcraft I swear haha) so always looking for experts – especially in responsive design?

  • Mary Slagel says:

    I completely agree that Universities aren’t teaching everything necessary to survive after graduation. They are getting better about it, but they do not do enough to prepare students for the transition. They feed students knowledge with out teaching them how to apply it when it comes to the real world.

  • Grace says:

    I enjoy the flexibility that working as a freelancer gives me. But there is a lot of discipline required to be successful! I make sure I get showered and dressed and sit at my desk by 8:30 each morning, and I keep my distractions to a minimum!

    • JimAdams says:

      Haha, do you know what I do Grace. I always put my shoes on to work. That signifies ‘starting work’ to me. And of course I get dressed. Or I would look stupid :)

  • Claire Cappetta says:

    Personally I always look for freelancers because they can think outside the box more readily than some in a “company setting”.
    We become scared when we are laid off from work or a company downsizes but sometimes it can be the most rewarding journey when work becomes our own total responsibilty, although daunting too

  • Patricia Weber says:

    What a fabulous piece for the budding freelancer of any profession. The truth is, and you mentioned it here, that many people are going to need such an entrepreneurial perspective with our job market at least in the USA.

    It’s fabulous that you mentioned people having a specialty. It’s easier to focus your marketing when you can speak to a particular audience.

    Over here from LI, BHB.

    • JimAdams says:

      Thanks Patricia and I agree. Entrepreneurs are the backbone of our society I think. More than the big brands!

  • Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) says:

    I come from a long line of employees. When I told my mother I was going to start my own law practice (after hating an associate job I had), her response was “Oh, you couldn’t get a job?” Times have certainly changed. I think colleges, universities and even tech programs should have at least one required course in entrepreneurship and basic business principles. I was a lawyer, but I had learned nothing about actually running a law practice (a business) in law school. One of the great things about the freelancing world in many professions is the chance to be location independent. My 25 year old son supports himself running several on-line businesses after deciding her really didn’t enjoy working for other people. He can work from just about “wherever” and is currently traveling for 6 months, but still bringing in an income.

    • JimAdams says:

      Your son certainly sounds like he has the best of both worlds! You must pass me his details haha. I can recognise the reaction of your mother too. Although getting rarer, there are some who still see it like that.

  • Arleen says:

    Great ground laying to start your career.

    I have several freelance designers working for me and I love it. The most important thing I have to say is not only does the work have to be good but from my stand point it boils down to trust. They bill me for the hours and I can’t see if they are working or not but we have a good relationship so it works. There are advantages for the employers as well. I don’t have to worry about taking out the taxes.

    • JimAdams says:

      A good freelancer is worth his or her weight in gold and I believe we work harder to keep clients so you’re right, trust is essential and building a great working relationship can make the difference between success and failure. Thanks for commenting Arleen!

  • Felicity says:

    Great article! I’m one of those people who was “forced” into freelancing. But I’m incredibly grateful as I don’t think I would ever have left my secure agency job to freelance of my own accord. I love the freedom and I don’t think I could go back to a regular job now!

    • JimAdams says:

      Thanks Felicity – I hear that more and more that actually, what seemed to be a negative turned out to unbelievably positive. Glad it all turned out great and I’m with you on not being able to do a regular job now – People think it’s just about picking and choosing when to work (as if huh, I know we do more hours than the regular employed) but I think it’s a sense of being in control of your destiny. Can’t beat it huh. Nice work on your site by the way but If i could suggest one small amendment it would be make the ‘SHOW MORE’ button enormous as I nearly missed it and there’s some cracking work further down – I love the Raw Fitness site, is that a WP site?

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