Dreaming of being your own boss? Our guide to going it alone will see you earning more, being more creative and having more control over your work.
Gazing out of the window while at work and imagining life as a freelancer is something most designers have done when creatively frustrated, or disgruntled with one's boss, colleagues or pay.
Many never get any further than the daydream, yet plent y do. And what do these brave souls find? That freelancing is a panacea for all that's wrong with salaried roles, or that it is about trading one set of problems for another with which one is more comfortable?
No - the truth is the realities of freelancing are contingent upon personal and professional circumstances, and what motivates you as both a designer and a person.
Take Flash Web developer Guy Watson, who - after years as an employee - felt creatively choked by red tape. "I quickly came to learn that there's a lot of bureaucracy in large companies and new-media agencies," says Watson.
"It's supposed to be beneficial to the company, but actually stifles progress and creativity. There's none of that when you work for yourself."
More importantly, Watson says, it was the ability as a freelance to fit work around his biorhythms that appealed most. "I was never good at time-keeping - the 9-5 thing never suited me. I now work a lot at night, when there are no interruptions, something you can't do in a full-time job. I could never understand why it should matter when you do your work."
Meanwhile, those in other disciplines, such as illustration, say they have little choice but to go freelance. "I'm an illustrator, so that's all there is - freelance," explains Gary Neill (www.bareps.com).
"You go freelance and do other jobs in between to fill any shortfalls in money." Many people think of freelancing as an insecure way of life when compared to being an employee - yet for print and Web designer Liam O'Leary (seven21.co.uk ) this was very much the reverse.
"I went freelance early this year after being made redundant for the third time. I got to thinking it was always going to be like that, so for me becoming freelance was a security thing.
"At least now I've got control, and am not subject to anyone's plans to merge and scrap their print department, which was what happened to me last time round."
One aspect of freelancing that appeals to many designers is getting sole credit for work - that rarely happens as a cog-in-the -wheel employee, Guy Watson says: "Freelancing has enhanced my reputation somewhat, since I now spend time on self promotion, particularly networking at industry events around the world and blogging.
"I am regularly invited to speak at industry events in the UK, America and Australia. This is all great self-promotion for myself as an expert in the field and my work.
Gary Neill agrees. "I can build a reputation because I am the face of the company, as opposed to working in a design agency, where the agency takes the credit."
But regardless of your situation and motivations, after turning freelance there is never any guarantee that work will flood in from the get-go. Paying the mortgage or rent and meeting bills can be a big worry in the early months, which is why it's prudent to plan ahead.
"Write a business plan and talk to your bank manager," advises Essex-based graphic designer Sarah Fawkes (www.sarahfawkesdesign.co.uk ). "Think realistically about costs - equipment, insurance, premises, tax the list goes on. Plus your earnings; what do you need to survive on?"
Guy Watson urges would-be freelancers to plan well ahead before making the leap. "You can't just jump into it - you will soon fail if you don't build up a client base before quitting your full-time job," he says.
"My advice would be to use your evenings and weekends to work on side projects, not necessarily for clients, but on things you like doing. Build something, experiment, and share it with the world on the Internet. Eventually clients will come."
Gary Neill, meanwhile, believes debt is the enemy of freelance illustrators. "The less debt you have the longer you can spend forging a career and strong client base. A huge number of illustrators try to go freelance, and the majority fall by the wayside after or three years, primarily because of financial reasons."
Even with healthy savings, no freelance can survive long without regular work, and achieving this comes down to self-promotion - not a skill that comes naturally to many designers, especially after years of being spoon-fed work and instructions in the workplace.
Liam O'Leary admits he has struggled in this area. Although he's flourished as a freelance through work from former colleagues and college associates, his bid to win work from new sources is yet to bear fruit.
"I'm trying to break into the public sector," he says, "but it's difficult. Setting up meetings is fine, but the hard bit is securing the work. You've got to be much more business-minded as a freelance.
"It's one thing selling yourself with a portfolio to get a [salaried] job, but trying to sell a service is very difficult. I've come quite a long way since I started but I've still got a lot to learn. It comes down to trial and error, and gaining experience."
For freelance animator Luke Allen (www.luk3.co.uk), the Internet has proven to be a lifeline. "Most of my work comes through my Web site, but I still apply for jobs through forums, and regularly email studios around the world, to ensure I'm on their books, and that they're aware when I'm free for work."
He also attends "as many festivals as possible, where I hand out business cards and show reels". And both Allen and Sarah Fawkes have found (Yell.com), an unlikely but useful means of free promotion.
This year alone, Allen has landed three jobs through the site. "It also boosts your Web site listings," he says. Guy Watson, meanwhile, has found blogging an effective means of promotion.
"By posting articles, tutorials and experiments on your blog, it's easy to promote yourself as an expert in your field. People will come to read what you have to say, and you soon attract attention."
Freelancing not only forces designers to become sales people but business managers, too. Neglect in this area can seriously undermine an otherwise successful operation - with fee negotiation, cash flow and tax obligations the key areas.
"I take a wage each month that will pay my mortgage and bills," says Sarah Fawkes. "I am very organized, and this helps to keep good cash flow."
This area proves much more testing for some, though. "Over ten years experience of getting it wrong on pretty much every front," is how Gary Neill has learned.
"I've got it wrong on everything, from quoting to cash flow to tax and bills. Apart from the mortgage - you should never cock up on a mortgage payment."
Late payment is the bane of every freelancer's life. One option is to act as your own credit controller, but Guy Watson has opted to use a third party - a bank - to secure payment.
"One good way of ensuring cash flow is to use invoice factoring, where you get paid a large percentage of an invoice by the bank as and when it is raised," he says.
"The client then pays the bank, which chases them up for payment on your behalf. You find clients will pay when the bank starts barking orders. The downside is that you have to pay for this service."
Financial uncertainty - and the long hours associated with freelancing - can prove stressful for partners, wives and husbands, which is why it's important that those close to you fully back your decision to ditch the day job.
"Partners have to be considered," stresses Sarah Fawkes. "Talk to them about it first, and be honest about whether it is the right or best thing to do for both of your lives, personally and financially."
"Deadlines can often mean changing family plans at short notice," Gary Neill points out. "An understanding family can make this less of a problem, and the ability to re-negotiate deadlines with clients is an invaluable skill."
Another key decision when going freelance is whether to rent desk space in an office or work from home. In deciding. It's a case of swings and roundabouts, says Gary Neill.
"I've worked both at home and in a studio, and both have their merits. Working from home, as I now do, means my work-life balance is not determined by a commute to a studio, and financially it's better, too. The flip side of working from home is you can miss the social, intellectual challenge of being around other designers and illustrators in the workplace," he says.
Sarah Fawkes concurs: "At home you can fit more working hours into the day, your surroundings are comfortable and the overheads are low. But working from an office makes it easier to meet clients. It's also easier to shut the door on work when you leave an office for the day."
Homeworker Liam O'Leary, meanwhile, says fresh air can all too easily become a stranger. "Sometimes I realize I haven't been out for days on end, but then I remember it's because I've been really busy, and that makes me feel OK about it."
Being at home also means making it clear to those around you that you're actually at work, says Guy Watson. "Your family needs to understand that even though you're at home, no, you can't just drop everything and go to the supermarket with them."
Despite the myriad challenges of freelancing, most who eschew employee status say they are happy with their choice. For Gary Neill, flexibility and freedom have been the huge pluses.
"Being freelance allows me to teach one or two days a week, which I find incredibly rewarding. I get to see my kids grow up, go to the park during the week and take afternoons off to have lunch or go to the pub with my family and friends. Fabulous."
For many designers, freelancing is a mid-career move, something to be considered after two or three jobs, by which time one's industry and client contact book is likely to be pretty healthy.
Animator Luke Allen says colleagues and friends in the industry warned him of the difficulties of freelancing – "especially in animation, where demand can vary greatly from year to year".
But for Allen, freelancing was an out-of-college experience, thanks to some luck - but mainly, bags of talent. (During his course he was good enough to gain work experience at the renowned Aardman studio, and also undertook some freelance Flash and After Effects jobs.)
Working from home, he believes, is fine, but only if you create the right space in which to do it. "For a while, I worked in my bedroom which was awful," he says, "as it blurred the boundaries between home and work; I'd push to work through the night because my bed was only a few yards away.
"Setting up a studio in my spare room has quadrupled my work quality, output and has helped redefine work and free time."
Freelance illustrator Judith Knight quickly realized after college that establishing a viable freelance career was not something that was going to happen overnight.
"I visited a few agencies and they've said I needed to have published work in order for them to be interested in promoting me," she says. "I've heard that it can be many years before illustrators gain a reputation."
Knight relied on a weekend job to keep her going, and also relied on the support of family, but after two months of showing her portfolio, she gained experience in design studios.
"The trick is getting your portfolio in front of people," advises Knight. "The Internet is a great tool, but nothing beats personal contact."
Of the tribulations of becoming a freelance illustrator, she says: "My advice is to expect some initial difficulty, but don't give up. Even though I am a newly qualified illustrator I feel I've learnt a lot in recent years.
"It's important to be optimistic and enthusiastic in whatever you do. Be prepared to take small risks. Be persistent, patient and above all flexible. You have to be ready to do the boring jobs - which often teach you more than you think - in between the more interesting ones."
Planning ahead before turning freelance is vitally important, stresses Knight. "I would say that goes without question, but you can take your time deciding. "The Association of Illustrators (theaoi.com) is a good place to start for advice about setting up. I'm relatively new to the industry myself, but after completing my degree this year I have learnt to be careful with my money."
The right tools
Starting out with the right tools is key, too. "It's important to know what software you need and what computer is capable of running it effectively. Often, an old computer is not the best option."
Being proactive about drumming up business is another area Knight identifies as critical: "The first thing I did was set up my own Web site. To save money I am currently using a small, free site to promote my work.
"You don't even need large pictures to show the quality and ideas in your designs. There are also various other ways you can promote yourself but with minimum expense. For example, there are many internet galleries you can join."
Freelancing, Knight believes, has enhanced her reputation. "I feel I have more confidence to show my work to creative directors. I can show them I'm capable of producing something different."
Looking to the future, Knight is contemplating a new marketing ploy - rebranding herself as a company rather than an individual. "I currently use my own name to promote my work, but I am thinking about using a company name. I think this may help clients to remember your work better."
Freelance Illustrator Jules (www.jules.net) is responsible for this month's cover illustration. She turned freelance four years ago.
"A company that had initially turned me down for a full-time position came back to me and asked if I would freelance for them, and things sort of went on from there," she says.
But, she warns, "freelancing can mean long hours and frantic deadlines, and when you start out there's always the worry of being unable to pay the bills". But overall, she is positive about the experience:
"It's great working with lots of different people, and I'm lucky enough to have some really lovely clients. Plus I can turn up to work in my pyjamas."
Freelance illustrator Gary Neill (www.ba-reps.com) says economizing on overheads is crucial, especially in the early days: "Freelance was a hand-to-mouth existence until 3-4 years ago, and various financial decisions were often put off until the last possible moment.
"Until last month, I've always bought second-hand Macs, and I've shared studio space with photographers, or worked out of the kitchen at home. "But the one area I don't scrimp on is advertising. Every year you have to believe in your work enough to do some advertising - whether it be in the annuals or self-promotional activities. It's absolutely essential."
Flash Web designer Guy Watson (www.flashguru.co.uk) built a career and a reputation before becoming freelance.
He began with a GNVQ in Web design when 16, worked on-site for company during the dot-com boom. "It was there I was introduced to Flash, and I've been working with it ever since," he says.
After being made redundant, he worked full-time for a start-up in London, where he "gained recognition for some of the work, and won numerous awards".
Watson says: "I used that recognition to my advantage, and become an active member of the Flash community, which helped to keep my name out there, and brought in some freelance work on the side.
"I took another full-time position but kept working on freelance stuff, building up my own client base."
Watson advises operating as a limited company to reduce risks: "I operate under my own limited company, primarily because I then have total control over my finances and avoid any tax issues.
"Granted, initially there are more forms to fill out, and also more paperwork on an on-going basis, but a good accountant will be able to handle all of this stuff. Another thing to bear in mind is that being a limited company also minimizes the financial risk of setting out on your own. It is a protection blanket."
"My life has improved dramatically," [since turning freelance] says Liam O'Leary. "Creatively, there's a lot more to be had from freelancing. It's not just about creating design work, it's also about finding solutions to how you deliver a service. Financially I'm better off now, too."
Some top freelancing tips
1. Plan ahead long before turning freelance. Save enough money to see you through the first lean months, and put feelers out for freelance work with clients you deal with in your salaried job before taking the plunge.
2. Speak to someone who is already freelancing to learn of the challenges ahead. Better to decide freelancing is not for you while still in a job, rather than after having resigned.
3. Don't be afraid to ask questions. A contact already in the business will see you through a lot of difficult situations.
4. Know your market. Research the current trends in the area in which you plan to work. See what's popular.
5. Have a support network of fellow illustrators, friends and family. This help with a huge range of issues, such as advertising choices, technical problems, problematic clients, quoting and pricing, emotional support, and general reassurance.
6. Market yourself. Create a simple but original Web site; have business cards printed; list yourself on as many directories as possible; network at festivals and exhibitions; and email, direct mail and then call those studios and companies that are a good fit for your type of work. All communications should be addressed personally, usually to the creative director.
7. Keep up your personal work. This will help keep your portfolio fresh and varied, and will also keep your creative juices flowing.
8. Enter as many competitions as possible. Clients love winners.
9. Maintain and expand your skill set. Versatility means profitability. Play with new applications, or pay for a course.
10. Get a deposit for all new jobs, because this helps to weed out the timewasters. Aim for a figure around 25-50 per cent of the fee.
11. Manage your workload. If very busy, it's better to decline a job than accept it and then miss the deadline. If you do this, the client is unlikely to wish to work with you again.
12. Never give anything other than your best. The quality of your work is the biggest marketing tool you possess.
13. Be disciplined. Always meet deadlines, and treat your working day as you would if working in an office; the pay for lie-ins is £0 an hour.
14. Work on developing sound interpersonal skills. You are selling yourself, your work and the service you provide, and you need to be confident and focused in meetings. Working at home means making it clear that you're actually at work