Freelance survival guide

A career as a designer or illustrator could mean working in a studio, as a specialist within a larger organisation or going freelance. Let's consider the practicalities of freelancing in this expert survival guide...

Whichever option you take, be it a salaried job in a design studio, a full-time post in a more specialised field, or striking out as a freelancer in a collective or on your own, your work will involve the generation of original ideas and the communication of information from your client to its intended audience.

Regardless of the project or the medium you work with, all aspects of design essentially use the same process. So doesn't it make sense to be your own boss, to pick and choose which - and how many - projects to take on? Sounds ideal, but how can you be sure you'll survive out there?

When asked about the benefits of freelancing, most advocates cite similar things. "As your own boss, you make your own creative decisions, rather than being a cog in the corporate machine," says Brett Archibald of Archimedia Design, a sentiment echoed by Nicholas Maroussas of motion graphics studio Mooschool. "You don't have to deal with anyone complicating things with office politics and weird personal agendas," he says.

Convenience certainly plays a part. "A big pro of going freelance is keeping your own hours," says Matt Wellsted from illustration and communication agency Pen. And Archibald considers working from home a major plus: "I no longer travel into London on a daily basis," he says. "Not having to deal with the noise and crowds of the city has done great things for my stress levels!"

The work itself is the most important factor, though, and many freelancers claim they now only work on projects they find interesting, providing greater variation and challenge in their working lives. "Freelancers directly reap the rewards of their hard work," says Maroussas, "It's your reputation on the line if something should go wrong. I like that - it makes me care."

However, branding and design specialist Mike Frank warns that you might initially spend a lot of time pursuing opportunities and taking on non-sexy work to pay the bills. All freelancers admit that chasing outstanding payments and new jobs, dealing with administration and taxes (which may require a third of your working day) and being seen as 'small fry' by some clients are down-sides that those considering going it alone should consider. "The good news," says Frank, "is that once you have a handle on time management and identifying new engagements, things aren't as bleak."

Whether you're currently employed in the design industry, working in another area or still studying, do take time to weigh up the pros and cons of all avenues. If freelancing feels like the right route, make sure you do it for the right reasons, and make sure that you've done enough preparation.

Look before you leap
"Only go freelance if you're confident in your work and prepared to lose the comfort of full-time employment," advises freelance illustrator Steven Mclellan. "Don't do it just because you hate working for your current employer." Once convinced freelancing is right for you, build up a cash reserve before making the leap - just in case.

"A hard break is necessary," says illustrator Dave Curd. "In addition to your day job, take the odd freelance commission to get your feet wet and build up a portfolio before making a full-time go of it." Similarly, you should try to acquire equipment gradually. "Unless you're into 3D or animation, you don't need the fastest, latest computer, and you needn't buy the latest software, which usually runs slower, for the sake of some new features you may never use," says Sean Macfarlane, a successful freelance illustrator.

Once fully immersed in the freelance world - a process that could take about a year - you'll find many problems of full-time employment disappear, only to be replaced by brand-new issues. "Rather than moaning about your boss, you'll wonder whether you've enough money coming in," says freelance graphic designer Robin Green. Work rarely spaces itself evenly - there are always peaks and troughs - and getting through dry spells can be tough.

"When I first began freelancing, I remember eating rice and free soy sauce from the local Chinese for Christmas," says former Computer Arts cover illustrator Jeremyville. "That was my lowest point. I was waiting for a huge payment, but there was absolutely nothing in the bank."

Staying motivated during such times can be difficult, but to succeed, freelancers must remain determined. "Use slow periods to work on your website, learn new skills, or promote your work," suggests Green, "because when it gets busy, you'll have little time to sort such things." You might also find related employment. Illustrator Jem Robinson works as a part-time lecturer at her old university. "The brilliance of this is that it's a steady income, and it also provides me with a creative environment where I can discuss aspects of the industry and then return revitalised to my studio," she says.

Isolation and motivation
"I work in a shared studio, which helps beat the isolation," says freelance illustrator Ben O'Brien. "We ask each other for opinions, and if you're stressed, someone will offer daft conversation to lift the mood."

Oz Dean regularly works in-house at studios, thereby getting the interaction and idea-bouncing opportunities that are so important, and those who work from home recommend instant messaging services and regular meet-ups with other designers. "Exercise also helps keep you motivated and creatively active," claims Nick Deakin, who swims daily. "Staying indoors all day drains you." Deakin also suggests new freelancers should figure out when they're most productive and use their naturally non-productive times to do administrative tasks.

Networking is another way of staving off cabin fever, and it can potentially lead to new work. "Rely solely on contacting strangers unannounced, or when you don't know whether they need work doing, and you'll struggle," says Archibald. But cold calling can work wonders, says Ian Keltie: "When in Holland recently, I bought a Dutch magazine with a few illustrations in it. I emailed the art director on my return and within a few days she'd commissioned me to deliver six illustrations!"

Whatever you do, resist becoming introverted, and always be willing to communicate. "You should only work with people you can have a conversation with," says multi-disciplinary designer Holly Wales, and this works both ways. Be approachable and willing to let clients call you to chat about potential ideas. "However small the job, prove you're there for your clients," says Green. This is one way freelancers can better larger organisations, by providing a more personal service.

Once you have clients, it's imperative that you keep them happy, which often leads to repeat business and referrals. "Return calls if a voicemail is left, reply to emails, even if just to say you'll reply properly later and hit your deadlines," advises Green, who claims word-of-mouth provided 75 per cent of his work last year. "Also, put aside time to send a short email to your client list now and then, just to keep in touch. Then you're already in mind when new work is being commissioned," recommends O'Brien.

Learn to say no
One aspect of working alone is actually understanding when to say 'no' to clients, and how to be firm with them, rather than friendly. "Learn to fire clients, if that's the right thing to do," advises illustrator Miguel Ripoll. "And never start a project without a properly written and signed contract and at least 30 per cent of the budget in the bank."

A 'no' may also be required in less confrontational circumstances. Jonathan Lewis of web, print and graphic design agency DigitALLSTARS says that "if you don't like the sound of a project, don't do work for the sake of it," and web designer/ developer Simon Collison recommends softening the 'no' if you're too busy to help a client: "Look at building a gang of trusted 'associates' who you can filter work to," he says. Those people may return the favour when work is slow for you, or you can even outsource to them - as long as no-one is underpaid, everyone comes out happy.

"Don't be afraid to ask if you can have more time," says illustrator Nathan Fletcher. "If the client has come to you, chances are they'll stretch the deadline in order to use you." But always avoid the temptation to take on too much work. You'll regret it later when you're over-stretched and stressed out, and your work is bound to suffer as a result. "One reason freelancing is so tempting is because it offers the potential to free up more time for yourself," says Mclellan. "You can make piles of cash by over working, but what's the point of earning all that extra money if you don't have time to enjoy it?"

Broaden your horizons
Working alone doesn't mean ambition should be forgotten. "Illustrators can break into publishing and TV work - there's never a cap on what you can do," says Collison, and Archibald believes that anyone regularly swamped with work should consider setting up their own agency. "This happens quite a lot with freelancers who have been working for a long time, and it offers the benefits of both full-time and freelance work," he says.

"You should always have aims - to work in certain magazines, or on a bigger and better ad campaign, or to diversify," says O'Brien. "Setting yourself aims keeps you focused on your freelancing career. Most importantly, ensure you're happy in what you do, because you're the one in charge."

And that may prove to be the most pertinent advice. Make sure you love what you're doing - the work itself, as well as the admin, accounts, self-promotion, networking and potential lean times. If you don't, perhaps you should consider the other options...


QUIT IT!
Ten aspects of full-time work that might make you think about setting up on your own

01 Everyone notices when you show up five minutes late, but not that you're working two hours extra every single evening.

02 Your boss has a massive ego problem, knows nothing about design, and treats the staff like peasants that must pander to his or her every whim.

03 Politics have started to become more important than creativity, and you're sick of walking on eggshells all the time.

04 The job you do has become routine, and your passion for the field is becoming increasingly muted by uninspiring briefs.

05 Design by committee has taken over, and all of your best ideas are being mercilessly edited and unnecessarily ruined by others.

06 The boss sees you as the same person that you were when you joined the company five years ago - and treats you as such.

07 You never get the credit for the fantastic work you do, and yet the project managers sit atop gold-plated pedestals.

08 Despite being multi-talented, you're creatively flatlining, stuck working on web banners with no thinking behind them, and aren't learning anything new.

09 It has become apparent that the job you do is a dead-end and there's nowhere left to go in the company but sideways.

10 Minutiae takes up so much of your time that you never get a chance to concentrate on the all-important creative tasks.