Thank you for applying; we went with someone more experienced.
I heard that plenty coming straight out of college, and I bet you have, too.
With today’s job market, recent and upcoming college grads are increasingly looking toward freelancing to follow their design dreams.
But surviving as a freelancer requires a different set of skills than getting that high mark in design class, and most students find that their education didn’t prep them for the freelancing world ahead.
Luckily, here at GDB, we’ve been there before. We’ve taken those first baby steps and we’ve been through the school of hard knocks.
And we want you to have a smoother ride than we did.
So while we don’t want to be grandpa in the rocking chair hollering about those darn kids these days, we do have a few words of wisdom.
(Fellow veterans, post in the comments the many things I had to leave out.)
#1: Proactivity required!
As a new freelancer, you’ve got to become the mighty hunter, using all of your wit and wherewithal to carve out your (financially-viable) spot in the world.
Gone are the days when you groaned about being given more work to do. Now you’re thrilled to get a project, but they rarely just land in your lap. (Wouldn’t that be nice, though?)
In the “real world,” you have to compete for work, and you’ll find that no matter how long you’ve been freelancing, how and when you’ll land that next job is never far from mind.
Not only are you seeking out clients, but when you do land that new client, they almost always come unprepared.
It’s not because they’re lazy or terrible clients, it’s because they know little or nothing about design/websites/marketing — that’s why they hired you!
So instead of receiving a link to a folder full of web-ready photos, expect to go hunting through stock photography. Instead of being given a project spec sheet, expect to hear, “I’d like you to make me a website.” The rest of the details are up to you to uncover.
While you might’ve been able to go to your professor with an issue or obstacle on your school projects, as a freelancer, it’s all up to you now. From understanding the problem and deciding on a solution to determining from which angle you’ll attack, all of those decisions now rest squarely on your shoulders.
Example: Your client wants you to create three versions of a poster; one each in English, Russian, and Arabic. How you address technical problems like dealing with right to left text and different character sets are entirely up to you. But you certainly don’t want to go to your client saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t figure this out.”
#2: The world moves faster
Deadlines in the real world are tighter and less negotiable.
The average non-designer thinks we “wave our magic wand” (ugh) and magically produce spectacular design work. They have no idea how long it takes to create a website, put together a point-of-sale display, or print 5000 brochures that will have 16 pages, or maybe 20…they’ll know on Monday.
They only know they need it in hand by next Wednesday because the trade show is starting Friday. Oh, and they need 6 upper management personnel to sign off on it, one of whom is in Japan this week.
We might hate the magician or wizard reference, but as a freelancer, sometimes we feel like one.
How to succeed in the transition:
Freelancing is scary. (Any veteran who tells you they haven’t been nervous recently about some aspect of the job is likely bluffing.)
But step one is to start conquering your freelancing fears.
One of the best ways is to start with smaller, simple projects.
- Design a logo for a local startup.
- Update and maintain a website for a non-profit, even if it’s at a reduced rate.
- Create posters for a local theatre, your public library, the next charity event, or a music venue.
Your goal right now is to build a portfolio of professional work, learn as much as you can about the freelancing process, and boost your self-confidence so that you can say (or think) the following to those bigger potential projects:
- Yeah, I CAN do that! (…because I’ve done it before.)
- Yes, I HAVE worked with that software.
- I DO know how to properly design and prepare a document for printing on a 4-meter vinyl banner.
Step two: be prepared and anticipate.
You look young. You sound young. It’s totally stereotypical, but most people are going to secretly question your capabilities.
That means your clients will be easier to impress.
Strut your professionalism and earn repeat work or referrals by doing exactly what it is your client thinks you’re likely to fail (in their eyes) at.
- Predetermine what you need to know about a project to succeed and start asking questions (so you don’t have to bother them 10 times over the next week).
- Anticipate what questions and concerns your clients might have over the course of the project — and practice answers — so you sound polished and knowledgeable when the situation arises.
- Nip procrastination in the bud with goal-setting and to-do lists. The credibility you lose over a half-finished or late project is worth far more long-term than the down payment you gained when you agreed to it.
Step three: stop reinventing the wheel.
Because the world is in such a hurry, we as freelancers employ templates, saved email drafts, and canned responses for all manner of client communications.
From contracts to payment disputes to requests for referrals, when you find wording that works, stick with it!
And don’t forget that unused design elements from project A might make excellent illustrations for project B.
Finally, be resourceful.
I’d argue this skill is perhaps the most useful, both personally and professionally.
You don’t have to be the smartest. You don’t have to be the most creative. You don’t even have to be the fastest.
When you’re in a pickle, stay calm and think quickly. It’s no use fretting about the problem. Focus on the solution instead.
- What might work instead?
- Who can help us overcome this obstacle?
- Where can we get the materials we need at this hour?
How you react in a sticky situation just might save the day and earn you a repeat client for life.
Is this the end-all list?
I wish. Freelancing is so much more than the few bits of advice I can supply in one blog post. But that’s why we have GDB: an entire website devoted to becoming better freelancers.
If you can’t find what you’re looking for, post in the comments and let us know what we need to cover next!