Going freelance takes careful planning and nerves of steel: top freelancer designers and illustrators tell us how they set themselves up for success.
Most salaried creatives have daydreamed about turning freelance – and many will have it as an active part of their career plan. The benefits are obvious: working for yourself gives you independence, creative freedom, the ability to pick the clients and projects that interest you, the potential to make a name for yourself, and the flexibility to fit around other commitments, such as children.
If freelancing is so attractive, then why isn’t everyone at it? It’s simple: freelancing doesn’t offer the financial stability of a salaried design job. Many freelancers will concede that it was only once they made the leap that they appreciated the benefits of being on someone else’s payroll – perks such as a regular pay cheque, holiday and sickness pay, and even simply having colleagues around to socialize with are all things that freelancers have to go without, certainly at first.
Job security, too, used to be another factor, but at the moment there’s considerably less job security than there used to be. Agencies are shedding staff rapidly, meaning that for many, freelancing is not a matter of choice.
Whether you jumped or were pushed into going solo, you’ll face a series of challenges. If you’re going freelance because you’ve lost your job, you might have some redundancy money to help you through the difficult early months, when many find that their income is almost non-existent because of the huge amount of self-promotion needed – and even if you win some commissions, it may be months before you see any cash.
If, on the other hand, you’re choosing to go freelance, it’s more likely that you will have paved the way for yourself by building up a client list through out-of-hours private work, or – a little cheekily – sounding out your company’s clients for freelance work.
Here, five long-term freelance designers – in disciplines as varied as illustration and 3D design – talk about what they’ve learned over the years. While each design field poses unique challenges, some things are universal.
Whatever your discipline, our interviewees show that carving out a successful, long-term career as a freelancer demands discipline, dedication, self-belief, imagination, energy, organization – and a little luck.
The illustrator Adrian Cartwright
Location: Mickleover, Derbyshire
Time freelancing: 19 years
Ever since I was at art college, freelancing seemed the way to go – back then, our lecturers used to brag how much they made. I never really considered working as an illustrator for anyone else.
One of the most important things to do before turning freelance is to plan it out financially. Usually, you’ll wait between 60 and 120 days for payment, which is a lot of time to have to balance the books.
Unless you have a nest egg, you’ll need to put aside at least two months’ living expenses. In the first four years, I worked under my own name from home in a spare bedroom, but I found that renting office space at a local ad agency gave me studio experience, and it’s also cost-effective if it brings you work.
Usually you can rent somewhere on a short-term basis, but be careful not to pay too much. The art director at the ad agency and I started a new company, Planet Design, which didn’t last very long, but I kept the name, because we’d invested time and money in it.
While freelancing as an individual using your own name does gets your name about, it also shouts “I’m a freelancer”. The downside to presenting yourself as a company is that it sounds like a bigger deal, and clients with small budgets may be scared away.
Deciding how to market yourself is a tough one. I’ve tried lots of different approaches. One of the best – and cheapest – is to knock on doors; you need to let people know you’re there, and meet them face-to-face.
I also email existing clients, and keep them updated about new work I’ve done. Honesty has to be paramount in your working relationship, and that’s never more important than when you’re really busy.
If work dramatically increases, as it does at times, I’m honest and quick to approach my clients to see if deadlines can be extended. My clients trust me to give them the best possible service.
I used to hire other people [during busy periods] on an ad hoc basis many years ago but I felt uncomfortable doing it, as I feel that I’m selling myself as well as my services.
I think the best aspect of being freelance is the sense of accomplishment – the fact I’ve managed to survive this long, when the odds of survival were five per cent in the first year, and two per cent in the second. I love being an illustrator, and it’s part of me now. I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I had to stop – it’s my life.
The Web designer Alex Peterson
Location: Knutsford, Cheshire
Time freelancing: 18 months
Before turning freelance I worked at the BBC for about seven years across a range of digital platforms, such as web, interactive TV, IPTV, mobile and even the big video screens at train stations.
I always had bits of work on the side to supplement my income – usually small jobs through friends and colleagues. The luxury of being a web designer is most of the communication and work can be done online.
This has enabled me to move from London to Cheshire with my wife, to get out of the Big Smoke and be closer to family. I’ve always wanted to work for myself, and knew that sooner or later I’d take the plunge and go freelance, with the greater goal being to set up an established business with premises and staff.
My father has run his own business for years and has been an inspiration to me to do the same. I set up Pixel Air about 18 months ago. I’ve found having a business name and visual identity leads to bigger and higher-value projects.
Most days I’ll get a call asking for the head of marketing or the HR manager; I don’t think there’s any harm in coming across as bigger than you actually are.
Being prepared before you turn freelance is definitely a good idea – even if in my case I wasn’t so organized. I spoke to the bank about an overdraft just in case, but luckily I managed to get enough work in at the beginning to stay afloat.
I did have a fallback plan, however – that I’d go with a recruitment agency and sign on for contractual work. Ideally, though, you should try to get at least a month’s wages in the bank before you start.
To begin with, the kitchen table was my office, which suited me fine, as it kept costs down and meant I didn’t have far to go in the morning. There were plenty of local coffee shops with Wi-Fi that came in handy if I got bored of staring at the same four walls.
I plan to hire office space in the near future, and think this will help separate work and home life more effectively, which is vital. For a freelancer, discipline is vital. Strict hours and efficient project management ensure that things run smoothly, although this is a challenge in itself.
It’s easy to become complacent when you’re your own boss. Being disciplined also means not overdoing it. When starting out it’s very hard to turn down work, as there’s always the fear that the phone will stop ringing.
Sometimes, though, you have to know when enough is enough. Working 60-plus hours a week isn’t sustainable in the long term.
Working in isolation, I have to draw creative inspiration from design magazines, podcasts and books, not to mention the web, but I find it even more rewarding to get out of the office and visit exhibitions, attend conferences or even just walk around a new part of town. You can find inspiration in the most unusual places.
The graphic designer and artist Michael Murray
Time freelancing: Six years
Before turning freelance, I was a games artist for Qube Software in London, working on 3D modelling, texturing, level design, and particle FX for a Lego Harry Potter game.
I felt creatively stifled and overly controlled in a studio environment. I now enjoy a far better work-life balance, although when you actually enjoy working as I do, the two tend to merge anyway.
I think this is an important state to aim for. I’ve chosen to work under my own name, so I’m treated as an individual artist rather than a company, which is important because I occasionally undertake original work for exhibitions.
Before I took the leap into freelancing, I worked with the Business Gateway (www.bgateway.com) on a business plan and sales forecast, before applying for funding from the Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust (www.psybt.org.uk), which thankfully I received.
It really helped a great deal with buying equipment and materials to get me started. I also took a short bookkeeping course through the PSYBT, and was given a mentor who helped me a lot in the first year or so.
I have two rooms in my flat that I work in. I find it really useful to work where I live, as I tend to do my best work really late at night, and this would be a problem if my studio was elsewhere.
To market myself, I do art fairs and exhibitions, as well putting occasional pieces in magazines and newspapers. I’ve also had some success in the past by phoning and arranging meetings.
Generally, though, most of my work comes from word of mouth. Being organized is key. I have an A4 diary where I keep lists of day-to-day tasks as well as current list of projects, along with details and deadlines.
I’d be lost without it. I tend to invoice on delivery of work, and thankfully I’ve only ever had a couple of small problems with getting payment. Every month I have a target to reach, which covers rent, bills, and living expenses, and I’ll work as hard as I possibly can to reach that target.
I find it helps to have a target, for every week, month, and year. You’ve also got to have the right equipment. I had a computer custom-built to my specifications, because it has to deal with large file sizes.
I recently designed an image for Bar Strata in Glasgow which was 15 feet long, and over 7GB, which would be difficult for a standard-spec computer to deal with.
The 3D artist Stephen Wilson
Location: Worthing, West Sussex
Time freelancing: Five years
I took redundancy from a design studio and this gave me the opportunity to travel. I ended up living in New Zealand for 18 months, during which time I found confidence and belief in myself.
I also spent time honing my technical skills in areas such as 3D modelling, texturing, lighting and post-processing, while doing small jobs for people I met on my travels.
I’m now in charge of my work – I can now do the type of work I enjoy, and also work with clients directly. This allows me to build strong working relationships, which increases the opportunity for future work.
Financially, I am definitely better off than in my previous job, although freelancing does entail a lot more devotion, in terms of hours, than a standard nine-to-five job.
The rewards and the appreciation – which you get directly from the client, rather than through your studio boss – make it all worthwhile. I would recommend that before anyone starts freelancing, they assess the risks, and, if possible, have some savings set aside as backup. This will give you the time you’ll need to market yourself and build up a client base.
As well as savings, you may need moral support, as it’s a big change in terms of lifestyle. Without my girlfriend’s help, I don’t think the leap would have been as straightforward.
Working at home is quite a solitary situation. It’s not for everyone, and I do miss the interaction with people you get from an office situation. Making the effort to meet up with people when work allows balances out that solitude.
Although I do work on my own, sometimes a project requires either more experience in a particular area of 3D, or my workload is just too much, and I will contact a fellow freelancer to help me out.
This generally works both ways, as I get calls from time to time from other people who need my help, too.
If you’re looking for ways to get started, I would recommend giving Business Link (www.businesslink.gov.uk) a call. I had a meeting with one of their representatives and they gave me some very useful information on how to improve my business, financially and marketing-wise.
Another key piece of advice is to join as many of the freelance websites out there as possible, and start getting your name known. Most of them are free, but even the ones you have to pay for are fairly inexpensive, and can get you some really good leads.
I think the most positive thing about my work life as a freelance is I have built up a business from nothing, and if work has been good throughout the year, I can relax when things slow down a bit.
On the down side, sometimes you can have four clients pressuring you for results, and it’s then that the job can be very stressful.
The motion-graphics designer Paul Woodward
Time freelancing: Five years
I used to work for an independent TV production company in Sheffield, and the job involved creating motion graphics for a magazine-style TV programme.
My main motivation for turning freelance was for personal growth – the work I was doing was almost entirely on the topic of lifestyle, and pretty much the same week in and week out.
I felt I had a lot more to offer in motion graphics, especially as it was an area whose potential was blossoming. I didn’t plan massively before turning freelance, and I started without a single contact, so the first couple of years were quite rough.
But I could see my client base grow month on month, and I also took the decision to be VAT-registered from the off, as I knew the type of businesses I wanted to work with in the industry would be VAT-registered.
In terms of equipment, it helps that you can produce some amazing pieces with affordable software packages. Take the Adobe CS4 Production Premium, for example. This has everything you need to produce broadcast-standard edits and graphics, and at a very reasonable price.
Before going freelance as a motion-graphics artist, you’ll need a solid base of practical skills, and I can’t emphasize the importance of a good grounding in the basics of production enough.
I meet a lot of freelancers who have no real experience of the standards required, and they do tend to struggle. It’s also crucial to keep your software up to date, as there’s nothing worse than receiving a job that you can’t open.
When it comes to drawing inspiration, I visit some key sites when having a brew break, but Fubiz (www.fubiz.net) is my favourite, as it combines everything from motion work to design and architecture.
There are also loads of sites I use to find answers to problems with coding. Some of the most popular are Creative Cow (www.creativecow.net), Motionscript (www.motionscript.com) and Graymachine (www.graymachine.com). For me, the best thing about being freelance is that it’s really inspiring to know that you have earned your wage all by yourself. In motion graphics, you also get to meet lots of people, and each day brings a new challenge.
One day you might be project managing, and the next day working under a creative director. Without a doubt, the worst thing is the adjustment to a non-salary-based income.
You never know when the next job is going to turn up, but this is something you just have to get used to. Also, be prepared to work some crazy hours, as you are usually called in at short notice to cover a skills shortfall or someone’s holiday.