The truth about what to expect as a new freelance designer

Young Woman with Newspaper Using Laptop

If there’s one reason to start freelancing I hear more than anything, from college students to recent grads to design veterans ready to break out of their cubicle, it’s this:

I’ll get to work on the projects I want to work on and I won’t have a boss telling me what to do.

And I wish I could tell them how wonderful and true this perception is.

Because while freelancing is one of the most rewarding, amazing jobs I can picture myself having, it isn’t really either of those things.

(Veterans: am I right? Add your 2 cents in the comments…let’s keep it real but light-hearted, okay?)

The reality check

So if freelancing isn’t getting to work on the projects you want to OR not having a boss tell you what to do, what is it?

Scalpel, please…let’s take a peek:

“I’ll get to work on the projects I want to work on”

In my experience, rather than getting to choose the projects you DO work on, you get to choose which projects you DON’T work on.

What I mean is, unless you find a client that needs your ideal project, you may not get the opportunity to work on whatever type of project that makes your heart sing.

BUT, you have the power to reject projects (professionally, of course) that you’re not interested in, not qualified for, or simply don’t enjoy doing. Or, you can take them and contract them out, making a commission as the project manager.

And that’s still pretty awesome.

“I won’t have a boss telling me what to do”

It’s true that you won’t have a person with the power to fire you badgering you about the project they gave you 5 minutes ago.

(Pretty darn cool.)

It’s also true that generally*** you can “do” when you want: work, play, sleep, exercise, eat, go to the dog park, be at your kids’ events, etc.

(Also pretty darn cool.)

However, you now have X bosses (where X = the number of clients you have), and they all have different expectations:

  • Sally lives halfway ’round the world from you, so you talk to her at noon her time/4am your time.
  • James’ coding team doesn’t speak your language well so you have to spell. everything. out. in. very. simple. words. exactly. as. you. want. it. to. appear.
  • Frederico’s upper management is totally disorganized and is late to deliver on almost every project, so you’re a lifesaver when you turn around a project in record time. Again.
  • Xiao is just an all-around super client you love working with (and who loves working with you).
  • Maria needs a bit of hand-holding, so you spend extra time with her explaining why your idea is a great idea. (But she listens.)

But you know what? Every day is a new challenge, a new opportunity, and often, a new fire. Freelancing is never boring!

And you can fire those clients who expect you to be available on Sundays, berate you because the grandma you picked looks “too old,” or haggle with you over your pricing.

***I say generally because there are many exceptions, and usually they pay better, unless it’s just that you procrastinated badly. ;)

The reality (and why you’ll still love it)

Okay, freelancing isn’t quite what you pictured. But it’s still fantastic, and here’s why:

  1. You get to choose who you WON’T work for. (Stuck with a jerk for the paycheck? Survive with these tips.)
  2. You get to choose what you WON’T do.
  3. You get to set your own pricing (need help? Check out this ebook.).
  4. You get to create your ideal work environment.
  5. So many fewer pointless meetings!
  6. No commute!
  7. And so much more…

The reality of freelancing is that (to a point that people will still hire you — always that’s the end game!) it’s a choose your own adventure. The pages are there to be turned to…you just have to choose whether you’re continuing your story on page 8 or page 15.

New to freelancing? Or been freelancing for years?

New and upcoming freelancers: What perceptions of freelancing do you have? Not sure if they’re realities? Post them in the comments and we’ll share our insight.

Veterans freelance designers: Why did you start freelancing? Do you feel like that’s reality you live in today, or do you wish someone would’ve busted your myth when you first started out? Add your comments!

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Comments

  1. says

    All true to a T.

    There are pros and cons to freelancing just as there are to the 9-to-5 world and at different points in your life as your journey through your design career continues, you’ll decide the pros just aren’t worth it at a 9-to-5 and the cons just aren’t worth it as a freelancer.

    My happy medium between the two worlds is working for a company part-time to get their pros and working for myself part-time to get the freelance pros. This ebbs and flows too of course, but that has been the best balance for me.

    And it is super nice to hit the grocery store on a Monday at 1pm.

    Happy freelancing people!

    • says

      Corey,

      Super input! You made me laugh with the grocery store…I feel the same way!!! Love having flex time.

      If I found the right position and the right company, I’d consider a part-time job, too. I keep my eyes out for jobs in the city government offices as well as with the multiple colleges around my area. They generally have good pay and will sometimes provide a partial benefits package for part-timers, or at least retirement.

      Thanks again for sharing!

      April

      • says

        I think the majority of Freelancing is
        1. Getting Clients
        2. Selling yourself getting the client to sign a contract
        3. negotiating the time it takes to produce the project
        4. Getting the client to give pertinent information on the project, preferably before the deadline?
        5. Doing the project, invoicing, collecting the down payment (deposit)
        6. Emailing, networking for the revisions. Preferably one person but mostly everyone in their office including the fish in the tank?
        7. Tweeting and Facebook updates (client permissions)
        8. updating your web site (not my strong area)
        9. Collecting the final payment
        10. Listening to the client’s revisions, changes, etc
        Obviously design and project are a very small part of the equation. You could easily add, self promotion, brochures, business cards you will need on a continued basis. If you use the online bid format’s you will be making less than a Wal-mart Cashier most of the time.

        • says

          Stephen,

          Design is but a small part of your new job description as a freelancer – thanks for the list of the rest of the duties! We have to be much more well-rounded individuals than most with a “regular” job.

          Thanks for sharing!

          April

  2. Ton Limburg says

    I started freelancing as the assistant of a well settled designer. He quaranteed me twenty hours per week, payable per project. Some weeks there were a hundred hours, others however nothing to do. I had to find clients of my own. There my ‘Master’ helped, by passing some clients he didn’t want to work for any more on to me. Later, I did the same with my own assistants and co-workers.

  3. says

    I started freelancing way back in 2002 after being laid off post 9/11. That was a bad time for the nation and the economy. But it was the beginning of a new journey for me. One that overall has made me happier than being an employee. I think the biggest bubble bursting occurs when you realize that no matter what path you choose, you don’t really get complete creative freedom on any project. Oh I almost forgot how 90% of what I do is more like “production work” since I am maintaining the brand I’ve established. I know new graduates struggle with that.

    When I worked for agencies and other companies there was never enough time to really think outside the box and when I started freelancing there wasn’t a budget for thinking outside the box. You kind of come to terms with the fact that your job is to create what the client wants and make it as attractive as you can. And you come to terms with the fact that those really awesome design projects to the big agencies.

    So the pluses and minuses:

    I love setting my own hours and taking days off when I want. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have really long days where I work late into the night or over the weekend trying to meet deadlines for multiple clients. But that doesn’t happen too often, normally smaller clients are more flexible in their schedules.

    I do decide what types of work I bid on. But once they are an established client I do whatever they need me to because I am like their design department. They don’t have anyone else.

    But the biggest thing for me is swapping out the stress of office politics for the stress of where will I get my next job.

    I didn’t do very well with office politics. I cringe even now. So freelancing has been A LOT better for me. I still deal with “personalities” from time to time but usually it’s not so bad since I don’t have to sit in the office with them. Every once in a while I have to separate from a new client because we just don’t click but I try to do it in a way that doesn’t burn bridges.

    But basically my biggest stress is finding new clients and I’ll take that periodic stress over daily politics any day.

    • says

      June,

      Excellent input – especially being an established client’s design department where you do what they need whether you’re excited about it or not. I love the freedom of setting my own schedule, too, and generally I get more vacation time, too.

      Thanks SO much for sharing…this is a great summary of freelancing!

      April

  4. says

    Great articles btw!!
    Having worked about the same number of years in house in Education and then freelancing i can say that you cannot have your cake and eat it too. This article helps one to see the positive and the concerns. Working in house was great – nice people (most of the time) and a steady pay check and even benefits. After several years one starts to what to branch out as the design work can become very limiting and even boring – being restricted to the same subject in 100 different ways.

    Working for yourself, the variety is so much better and challenging. You can take on new aspects of design and go for the moon. However, the not so up side is that the feast or famine thing comes to visit – you have to become equally adept at running a business as you do as a designer and that can be really tough. These articles really help though!

    So thanks again!

    • says

      Del Carry,

      Spot on – when you work for a business, organization, school, or government, you work on the same brand the entire time, so it can get tiresome to always work with the same colors, design style, etc. And in some cases your portfolio stagnates if what you’re working on (or what your bosses approve) really isn’t work you’re proud of.

      But yes! Feast or famine is 100% correct. Some weeks I am just SLAMMED. Others I can afford to be lazy. Some weekends are all work, and sometimes you’ve got a few days of breathing room smack dab in the middle of the week.

      Thanks for sharing!

      April

  5. says

    Thanks for these excellent input on the perspective of freelance world!

    I’m now starting my second year into complete self-employment after having worked as both graphic designer & internet/new media officer on contract on and off for 7 years for a federal agency and 4 years for a marketing firm/private sector before that. I was let go 2 years ago due to massive federal cut back. The initial months were especially hard as I had great camaraderie with office colleagues, had always worked in an office but the politics were quite stifling (what artist strive in politics, yuck!).

    Last year, I was fortunate enough to be able to go back and work for one of my previous private sector employer as their all-around design/marketing support. I work for them at their office 2-3 days/week as their consultant instead of employee (so I bill them my time). After a year of this arrangement, I have to say I’ve hit a great balance! Between the projects on the side (at times pulling all-nighters) and this steady in-flow of work at the office, it has really helped with my freedom to choose when I work. The few days I’m in the office reminds me why I also enjoy my own company ;)

    Yes, it’s true that most projects ends up being 90% production work but then I’ve picked up a couple of volunteer organization for whom I decide to be a bit more creative. Also, it’s nice to work for clients who appreciate your input (that’s the choice you get to make on who you want to work for).

    I’ve spent many, many years wanting part-time work doing what I love. Thanks for this timely post…it reminded me that I’ve reached a happy balance :)

    • says

      Nathalie,

      Sounds like you’ve got a great thing going there – I would do the same for the right company, the right amount of time, and the right type of work!

      Thanks for sharing,

      April

  6. Ellie says

    I have been a graphic designer in a print company for 20 months apprentice for 18months of that. now I would love to go off on my own freelancing, I have a logo sorted, website, email and advertising ready to go, the only thing holding me back, (sounds a little silly) but I am afraid that I’m not good enough, how do you overcome that? I feel afraid that every job I will be offered, I won’t be able to do. have you got any words if wisdom to help me overcome this feeling?

    Regards, Ellie

    • says

      Ellie,

      Your fear is common, and nearly all of us have experienced it (and sometimes still do). For example, about a month ago I signed a contract to redesign a website and implement a Learning Management System with subscription-based online courses. I’ve never done that (and I was up front about that), so I was nervous. I didn’t know which LMS to pick or how any of them worked. I just knew it was possible. So I did my research, and I’m happy to announce that the company I’m working for is going to showcase the website and LMS I created to the State of Colorado, which could be big for them (and maybe me). Wow!

      Also, know that almost everyone is a bit embarrassed about their first gig and made hardly anything off of it. I remember mine – the web design was pretty busy and since it was pre-CMS popularity days (no WordPress), it was brutal for the client to update. And McDonald’s pays way better for the hours I put in.

      Some tips to help you conquer your fears:
      - Have you shown anyone you consider a professional your portfolio/website? What do they say? If you need an honest opinion, I’m happy to help.
      - Why, in your mind, won’t you be able to do the project? Is it that you’ll hit a creative block? You won’t have the technical skills? You’ll struggle with creating something the client is happy with? You can increase your chances of creating something your client will like 100-fold with good communication and questions up front. Understand what the client wants, how they want it to “feel,” and what the main message should be from the finished piece.
      - Look for first projects that will help you build confidence: businesses with established identities that need new marketing pieces (so you have guidelines or at least a color scheme and logo to work from), projects you’ve already done at the print company, or smaller projects that can be completed fairly quickly.

      Finally, don’t quit your day job until you don’t have enough hours in the day to do both. And then, see if you can go part-time. This will keep paying the bills until you build a client base you can live off of. You’ll be able to be more selective about the projects you take on as well as the clients you want to work for.

      Freelancing doesn’t have to be a huge leap of faith, especially when you have a job. Test the waters first to build that confidence. What’s the worst that can happen? No matter what you do, you can’t please your client. In this case, it’s probably both of you, not just you. So you end relations professionally and move on to the next client. You’re out some hours, but by having a job, you’ve still got income and you can chalk it up to education.

      Good luck!

      April

  7. says

    Thanks for sharing these benefits of freelancing. I too love working as a freelancer. It surely gives a choice regarding the projects on which you want to work and on which you don’t. But I think this makes your schedule worst as you have to adjust your time according to their time.

  8. says

    I started freelancing because I couldn’t afford to go back to school for yet another degree. I am for the most part self taught, and therefore won’t make it past the robot-sort if I apply to a corporate job where, oddly, the first requirement is usually something like “four-year degree in graphic design” instead of “demonstrated ability to deliver great design.”

    As a freelancer, I’m able to focus on the latter. I have yet to have a client ask me “Do you have a four year degree in graphic design?”. They do want to see what I have done for similar clients. For that, I have a portfolio.

    (Just to be clear – I would LOVE to go back to school and get a degree in graphic design. Not because the letters matter all that much, but because I would love to learn the academic/philosophical/theoretical underpinnings of ALL of it, in an environment of inquiry where it is expected that you will have questions, and it’s someone’s job to answer them!)

    • says

      Julie,

      I’m with you – when I was in college, which wasn’t *that* long ago, there were no graphic design degrees. You could major in Art or Communications, both of which were more traditionally focused (i.e. painting and speaking). And at the time I wanted to work for Pixar, so I got a Computer Science degree. I took 1 class of “graphic design” (sortof) in 4 years…the only class they offered.

      BUT, I have a ton of experience working in the industry, including working with programmers (myself being one) as well as print shops. And what really matters isn’t the piece of paper – it’s whether or not you can deliver for your clients.

      PS – I’d love to get more formal training in graphic design, too. I’ve taken 2 continuing education classes that were FANTASTIC, and I’d love to enroll again next Spring.

      Thanks for sharing!

      April

  9. says

    I’ve only been a full time freelancer for 2 years now. The biggest con for me is rarely the client (though that happens from time to time), it’s the loss of the great client or the months where the checks don’t come in time…the cons are usually more financial than anything else. I only need “X” amount a week sounds easy but it doesn’t always work that way.

    The pros are giant though…I have a home office where I have breakfast, lunch and dinner with my family. I can work outside on sunny days. Happy Hour client meetings. The joy of seeing my packaging on a shelf…and knowing I don’t have a boss that can take the credit. Being able to CHOOSE the niche I want to specialize in. Happy Hour client meetings. Nailing that big client and having every dollar of that hard work go to me (and the government)…did I mention Happy Hour client meetings?

  10. Samantha says

    My good friend and mentor challenged me with a question before I began diving myself into freelance: “Why do you want to start your own business?” My first answer was “I get to work on projects I love and making clients happy makes me happy.” Then he said “What if you don’t get to work on projects you love and your clients are unhappy?”

    What he was trying to get at, is to define my WHY of starting a business that will drive me to keep going no matter the highs and lows of running your own business. When my friend started his own food truck business, his personal vision for starting it was to build a community in the marketplace and reach out to them. So the odd time he had a bad day with not enough sales, if he still had to chance to build relationships with his fellow entrepreneurs, he was happy to keep going. One bad day of sales didn’t stop him from quitting.

    Great post! Starting a business will be a lot of work, but if you have a conviction of doing it for a higher purpose, it will keep you going!

    • says

      Samantha,

      This is fantastic! Your chances of sticking out the “ruts” of freelancing skyrocket when your “whys” aren’t related to the success of the business.

      Thanks for sharing!

      April

  11. Naut says

    I’ve found that freelancing gives me a lot more satisfied customers as opposed to working with an agency where too many Senior Designers opinions butcher work to a point where the feeling doesn’t match up with the design anymore!

  12. says

    Wow. This is all so very true. Freelancing doesn’t quite afford the “free” feeling I once imagined, but it is still great. I too am mostly self taught, so I stumbled into freelancing because I just wasn’t confident enough to apply to a studio or something similar.

    It’s been a great journey, not only in learning more design and aesthetic skills but learning how to manage a business…which I have found I love. I’ve found that clients care about my work and have also never asked about my education. Which surprised me because when I first started I was barely confident enough to say I was a graphic designer. I felt like a total phony.

    But I’ve worked hard on each project I choose to work on and that’s the beauty…I got to choose. There are some projects I find absolutely dull, and look forward to contracting them to someone else so I can pursue more creative projects. But there’s a right timing for everything. I think that’s important to realize starting out. The right job for me today may not be the right job for me in a year from now. You just have to know where you’re at, be honest, be realistic about your current skills, don’t be a Madonna, and keep learning!

    • says

      Stephanie,

      As I’ve gotten older (past 30 now…almost ancient!), I’ve realized that “free” feeling we craved as high-schoolers and college kids doesn’t really exist, and if it does, it’s hard to find meaning and purpose in your own life because you care about nothing and nothing cares about you.

      The things that “tie you down” are the things that really matter, so they are joys rather than burdens.

      But I digress…while the “free”s in freelancing aren’t quite what we had dreamed about, there are still some pretty nice perks!

      Thanks for sharing!

      April

  13. Dawn says

    I started freelancing because I didn’t want limits imposed by others ranging from: 1. Payscale: When I left my last outside job, I was earning the highest rate area employers were willing to pay, with no hope of receiving more than a token 25¢/hour raise. 2. Hours: As the primary wage-earner, I wanted regular overtime hours to support my college-age family. 3. Type of work available: Being able to choose my own clients and getting rid of the irritating ones. Yes, I have ‘fired’ several clients over the years. 4. Flexibility: Ability to take off hours when necessary and make them up at “off times”. 5. I like to be in charge. And best of all 6. NO COMMUTE.

    Downsides: 1. Clients don’t always pay in a timely manner: One of my largest, long-time clients regularly pays 60 days out. Why keep them? They know they have issues that make them difficult, but are willing to pay a premium – 4X what some of my other clients pay! 2. Due to the global nature of freelancing, there is no such thing as “business hours”. 3. You either need to hire out to cover the administrative portions of your business, or you need to be able to wear many hats (accountant, receptionist, sales, etc.)

    • says

      Dawn,

      All spot-on! There are very few “perfect” anythings in this world, whether it’s jobs or clients or humans. We all just have to weigh the pros and cons to determine if the fit is “perfect enough” for us.

      Sounds like you’ve clearly defined yours, and that’s the perfect way to keep the downsides in check: to remember the upsides.

      Thanks for sharing!

      April

  14. says

    I really hated freelancing. I did it out of necessity because when I graduated, the only jobs available were for people with 2-3 years experience.

    So I did what had to be done, I pulled up my big boy britches and threw myself head-first into the world of freelance to get the experience necessary to get a job.

    I never got out of the house which was a problem because I am a social butterfly. I need real, meaningful interaction with others, and that does not happen when you are working from home.

    My 9-5 job also pays about 5 times what I was making from freelancing.

    • says

      David,

      Freelancing certainly isn’t for everyone! It’s really a matter of personality and priorities. And depending on your luck, opportunity, and industry, the pay can be considerably higher in the corporate world (with benefits!).

      On the flip side, some high-paying jobs come with unbearable stress, so some choose to forgo the paycheck for the personal health benefits. And some totally rock.

      Glad you found a better fit for you!

      April

  15. says

    The whole article is spot on April! I’m a web designer not a graphic designer but wow, it rings so true. The expectations when you start freelancing are wwaaayy to high! You quickly learn to lower your expectations but still high enough so you personally achieve something, I haven’t been freelancing very long but I learned the biggest reality check I got was that people weren’t banging my door down to be my client! (Probably not the first to say that!) Selling your service is a tough learning curve to take when you have no offline sales experience, but you have to learn to keep your business flowing and if you love what you do, it just comes all part of a freelancing career – you keep learning!

    • says

      AffWeb,

      True that! I *hate* selling, but it’s a part of my job description now (what isn’t?! heheh), so I’ve learned how to do it without feeling slimy. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I’ve gotten much, much better.

      Education is the key to a successful business – keep learning and growing so you aren’t left in the dust.

      Thanks for your input!

      April

  16. says

    In 2011 a got a web design certificate from Ocean County Community College in NJ. I found that it’s a catch-22. You got the certification, but you don’t have the experience.
    So I’m trying to start a freelance web design business specializing in family websites like an online photo album. I think it is a unique concept and could work out, but I find it hard to sell the idea. They like the idea, but don’t want to go ahead with me building a website for them. I have had a couple family functions that I designed photo displays for the family. I enjoy do the designing, but right now it’s all for free.
    I find it hard to convince people for me to design a website for them even just one web page.
    How can you convince people to make the plunge and have a website made?
    Thanks,
    Jim Tuzeneu
    jtuzeneu@comcast.net
    732.552.4803

    • says

      Jim,

      I think your idea could be quite successful – especially if (thinking long term here) you could integrate it with family tree websites like Geni.com or Ancestry.com.

      How are you currently marketing your idea? What’s your pitch? Are you showcasing your online photo albums somewhere? What reasons do your potential clients give for not having one designed – are you too expensive? Are they not interested in the idea? Do they not have anywhere to check out samples? Do they not like your design style? Are they confused about what you’re selling?

      Perchance, how updated is your website? Is that a reflection of your current skills and abilities?

      Thanks for commenting!

      April

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