Freedom or folly?

When the office gets us down, freelancing can seem mightily attractive, but does the reality live up to the promise? Sean Ashcroft investigates.

Meetings. Appraisals. Tube strikes. Late nights. Risible pay increases. Office politics. If there's a designer who has not dreamed of turning freelance at least once, they must be in a minority of one. But staring out of the office window in just such a reverie is one thing - being faced with the reality of paying the bills and supporting a family as a freelancer is quite another.

But what if the daydreams of turning freelance refuse to subside, and morph into something altogether more serious? Then it's probably time to begin laying plans and asking the right questions. The first of these must be "Why do I want to be a freelancer?" - the answer to this will ensure you're at least setting out from the right starting point.

For some, this question can dominate their thoughts for years before turning freelance. Somerset-based Chris King is a freelance designer, illustrator and web designer, and says the notion of being freelance "has been extremely attractive to me since I discovered as a kid that people can actually make a living as professional illustrators."

King tried the staffer route but from the outset knew that the working routine wasn't for him. "I've no problem with the nine to five work ethic, but I found you can't simply turn on the creative process at 9am and off at 5pm. The flexibility that freelancing offers is a much more comfortable and productive way for me to work."

Feeling restless?
Others find that the lure of freelancing creeps slowly up on them. Zac Thorne has been freelancing for two years, but for the previous three worked for a marketing and communications firm and, prior to that, a design agency.

"I went freelance because of an inner restlessness," Thorne says. "I'd had a couple of mediocre jobs but I thrive on variety, and I got bored. Plus, I love designing from concept to completion, but in an agency environment I was finishing off other people's work and not getting involved fully."

Even after nine years, illustrator Jonny Hannah still finds the freedom of freelancing intoxicating. "I hated the idea of working in the same place every day. It's always so exciting when the phone rings and another job comes in. It's a worry when it's quiet for a week or two, but I still wouldn't have it any other way."

And for others, like freelance animator, illustrator and designer Mark Taplin, the decision is foisted upon them. "I was getting restless in my job, only to get made redundant anyway," he says. "That taught me that no matter how good you are, or think you are, you're always replaceable when you work for a company."

Tellingly, of the eight freelancers we interviewed, none mentioned money as being a motivating factor. "At the moment I have less money than when I was permanent," reveals Zac Thorne, "but I'd rather be happy doing what I'm doing than be richer and in a permanent job I didn't like. I have more control over creativity and this leads to a more fulfilling life."

Financial plans
Once the decision has been made, the success of your venture will depend largely on how well you plan before taking the plunge.

"I made sure that before leaving my day job I had three months' wages in the bank as a security blanket," says Chris King. "I figured if I couldn't land a job in three months then my career as an illustrator/ designer wasn't meant to be. Having that cash as a fall-back takes away some of the pressure of going it alone, too."

London-based freelance motion designer and art director Chris James Hewitt agrees, saying: "The scariest aspect of turning freelance is that next month you might not have earned a penny, so making sure your finances are in order way in advance is a good move."

Graphic designer Seija Chowdhury says you should also plan for worst-case scenarios. "You should factor-in getting ill and not being able to work, and save to cover for this."

"I would also suggest having goals and a vision," advises Zac Thorne. "I'm beginning to see how important this is for structuring elements of the business, otherwise you just treat each day as it comes and it makes you wonder where you are in the whole scheme of things."

And anyone in a relationship - or hoping to start one - would do well to consider the impact of freelancing on those closest to you before slapping that resignation letter on the boss's desk. "I didn't have a serious partner when I set up the business, but I do now," says Cambridge-based print and internet designer Nick Welsh, who has been freelancing for 12 years. "We're expecting our first child in a few weeks, so obviously the finances of any business venture need to be looked at carefully."

Welsh - whose regular client include the Arts Council and BMG Music - adds: "If you're going to work from home, you need to consider how much it will infringe on your family life. Setting up your kit on the dining-room table might not be the most sensible option."

Relationship risks
"Before you go freelance, make sure your partner understands what you're about to embark upon," stresses Zac Thorne. "Let them know there will be times of uncertainty, and make sure they understand your goals and passions. They will need to have patience and be willing to listen to what you're going through."

And warn them they might not see much of you, says Seija Chowdhury. "You must take into consideration that there will be many late nights involved, and that freelancing doesn't offer the routine of a design job in an office."

Jonny Hannah believes the best way to keep his wife and "two young bairns" content is to be happy himself. "For that to happen I need to keep myself sane, and being freelance helps me do that," he says.

But even the best-laid plans will come to nought if you are invisible to potential clients, which is why marketing yourself is crucial, particularly in the early days of your freelance career. Paul McNally specialises in design, illustration and art direction, and says marketing oneself "is probably the most difficult area for a designer", and goes on to warn, "It doesn't matter how good you are - if nobody knows your work or who you are, you have a big problem."

Marketing yourself
Chris King agrees: "Selling my wares has been one of the hardest things for me to do. I think most creative types are quite modest or even shy about their work and feel uncomfortable in 'sales' mode."

King says in the early days there was nothing for it but to call people and visit with his portfolio, which he found "a pretty soul-destroying experience." It bore fruit, though, because he says he now survives purely on 'word of mouth' advertising.

Networking is Nick Welsh's favoured approach: "I'm out and about a lot. You can network formally - there are lots of networking organisations out there - but I prefer the informal approach." But Welsh says he found advertising to be ineffective. "I placed an advert in the local Chamber of Commerce directory, but it yielded nothing. In my experience, small- to medium-sized enterprises buy from people not from adverts. Having said that, a really great website won't do you any harm."

Zac Thorne believes presentation and performance are the ultimate marketing tools for a freelancer. "Branding and presentation are key. I want to look and feel professional at all times, and this comes down to how I answer the phone or type an email response. At the end of the day, it's not just about the design you can produce, it's how you project yourself."

The choice of whether to project yourself as an individual or as a brand is something that divides opinion. "I can see the mystique in having a moniker," says Adrian Johnson, "but for me 'Adrian Johnson' does exactly what it says on the tin. There's some quite snazzy names rocking around in illustration at the moment, and there's also some really rubbish ones."

Nick Welsh trades under the name Mono Industries "because 'Nick Welsh Design' doesn't exactly role off the tongue." He adds: "Although people are essentially buying me, I still think it's important to create a brand. I'm in the communication business, so I need to communicate in creative and interesting ways."

Zac Thorne's professional identity is Milk It Design. "I think it's professional to have a company name, and it's a nice little branding exercise to create a business identity," he explains. "I wanted to create a company that reflected my personality and values, and decided to make my website appear as if I was a business. I've now decided to go for Limited status to add an aura of professionalism."

Once you've marketed yourself successfully, you're then faced with the challenge of doing what you do best - creating. But with what, exactly?

Creative set-up
Illustrator Adrian Johnson has been freelancing for his entire ten-year career, and says "pencils, paper and paint rarely need updating." He adds: "I didn't start working digitally until about six years ago, but nowadays I use a Pentium Mac, a 23-inch Cinema HD Display and, of course, loads of paper, pencils, and paint."

But if, like Mark Taplin, you work at the processor-heavy end of the creative market then you'll need to be prepared for some serious outlay. Taplin says: "I had to fork out for a G5 on my credit card about six months into freelancing because my 400MHz PowerBook just couldn't cut it with animation work." But he goes on to warn against "computer envy". "If you're going crazy for the latest technology, you're missing the point that it's really about your ideas and resourcefulness."

Self-taught designer Nick Welsh has always been freelance, but at the outset he borrowed £1,500 from a friend to buy an entry-level Mac, printer, scanner, and software. "In the list of people to ask for a loan, banks should be at the bottom. Parents and well-off friends should be at the top. It's important to keep up to date with hardware and software, because you'll be able to work more efficiently."

Chris King reveals that for a designer, he has gone against the flow and invested in a PC set-up. "I'm using a PC desktop and laptop, as I've never been able to justify the extra four figures you have to pay for a Mac. The Adobe CS Suite is also essential - I couldn't exist without it, although I wouldn't upgrade every version - and my Wacom tablet is my best friend in the digital realm."

Rather than forking out for new hardware, Zac Thorne prefers to beef-up his two-year-old G4 iMac with extra memory and extras such as wireless networking. "Some clients like to know you have the latest software, so it minimises conflicts between different versions," he says. "I certainly wouldn't recommend anyone working in OS 9 Classic mode on a Mac, for example, because everything has now moved forward to OS X."

Whether you work with paintbrushes and paper or graphics tablets and LCDs, a key question is where will your equipment be based? At home, or in rented office space? For financial reasons, especially in the early days, many opt to work from a room at home.

"I worked from my bedroom in Willesden for about two years before moving into my first shared studio," says Adrian Johnson. "The advantage of working from your bedroom is that the commute is cheap, but the disadvantage is cabin fever. In the end I needed to feel like I was 'going to work', like normal people do."

Being unable to escape his work was the problem for Paul McNally, who initially set up at home. "I found there was no cut off from work and home," he says. "Recently I've moved into a studio space in Old Street in London and I am so much happier. Now there is a real division between work and home and I feel more of a business and am happier having meetings in a working studio environment."

Others are better suited to the Robinson Crusoe aspects of home working. "I enjoy working from home, it's where I'm at my most productive," says Chris King. "But you must exercise strict self-discipline. You need to earn your spare time, so I always clear the workload before getting too relaxed." Jonny Hannah, meanwhile, finds working at home to be "bliss".

If you go into freelancing fully prepared for the pitfalls as well as the plusses, then perhaps you'll find it similarly blissful. There's only one way to find out - but even if it doesn't work out, you can always return to full-time employment - just like Seija Chowdhury.

"I freelanced on Channel 4's post production for about a year, helping with website design and re-branding. I worked from home and had regular meetings with the team there," says Chowdhury. "But I decided to go for a salaried job again because it was secure and meant I wasn't working from home every day. Also, I was part of a team again."


TAKE IT FROM THE EXPERTS
Twenty tips from our featured freelancers...

Be warned: many of the lessons contained here have been learned the hard way!

1 Be honest with yourself. Are you really the kind of person who can handle not knowing where the next project/pay cheque is coming from?

2 Don't expect too much too soon. Building a client list takes time and dedication.

3 Get those finances in order. Have at least three months' savings before even thinking about turning freelance.

4 Stay in touch with clients you have worked with in your salaried job, and put feelers out for freelance work before taking the plunge.

5 Don't be afraid to ask questions. A contact already in the business will see you through a lot of difficult situations.

6 Work on developing good people skills - being confident in meetings and selling your work is important.

7 Be disciplined. Start work at 8.55am and don't be late. You won't get paid for lie-ins or watching daytime television.

8 Treat yourself as a business. Get deposits for all new jobs. This will filter out all the timewasters. 25-50 per cent is acceptable.

9 Never undersell yourself. Decide on a rate below which you're not prepared to drop, and stick to it.

10 Always deliver good work as promised and on time. Once you're known for producing good work and being reliable, you're in.

11 Stay on top of your finances. Find a decent accountant and research how your taxes will work, and don't let your bookkeeping slide; organising a year's worth of receipts in April is a wasted couple of days you don't need.

12 All work and no play will dull your wits, and this will be reflected in your work. Take time off during down time between jobs, and keep personal projects on the go.

13 Try not to work in a bubble - seek others' opinions/criticism.

14 Submit your work to competitions to raise your profile.

15 Be honest. If you haven't time to complete a job by the required deadline then say so. Better this than disappointing a client.

16 Be diverse in your skill-set. If you can illustrate as well as design, this is always going to be a bonus.

17 Have a well-presented portfolio that is constantly updated, as well as a website to showcase your work.

18 Get some business cards - scribbling your details on a tissue won't impress prospective clients.

19 Keep a positive frame of mind and be proactive, because the work will not always come to you.

20 If you're planning on finding work through recruitment agencies, be prepared to fit in with the work ethic, be polite and willing to help.