Computer ArtsInterview

Go it alone

Five creatives who have turned freelance in the last 12 months tell Sean Ashcroft why they finally took the plunge.

Freelancing has always had a distinct appeal for designers, because of the increased creative freedom it offers over salaried positions. But the reality is that turning freelance opens up a world of new and often unexpected challenges, which to overcome require skills that are not natural strong suits for many creatives.

Yet forewarned is forearmed, and those who have already taken the plunge are best placed to advise not only how to survive, but thrive, as a freelance creative. Even better placed are those who have defied the downturn and established successful freelance careers in the past 12 months, often out of necessity as much as their own choosing.

Before turning freelance in January 2008, 32-year-old Jennifer Ellis was a senior designer for a pet product company in Liverpool, which went into administration while she was on maternity leave. "I decided to give freelancing a go because it meant I could stay at home with my daughter and work flexible hours," says Ellis.

Then there's 30-year-old Mat Harris, who before setting up creative group Fluro in autumn 2008, was studio manager for a design and print company that went into liquidation after 30 years' trading. "Having run my own department I didn't really want to take a step back and start working for someone else again," says Harris, of his decision to establish Fluro.

Gary Frost, meanwhile, was working in-house as a senior graphic designer for a creative agency in Surrey, when last autumn all employees were put on a four-day week. "I saw this as the perfect opportunity to start freelancing to make up the financial shortfall," says Frost, 28, who finally turned freelance full-time in April 2009.

It wasn't the recession, though, that instigated Emma Devine's decision to go it alone. She says creative stagnation had led to an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction in her salaried job. This prompted Buckinghamshire-based Devine, 29, to set up GUI Design in July 2008. "The job was so dull I thought I would be better off trying freelancing, even though the credit crunch had just hit."

Steven Bonner, 34, from Stirling, Scotland, had also grown creatively stymied after eight years at an agency he'd co-founded, and took the freelance route in January. "We'd fallen into the trap of churning out formulaic work in order to keep influential clients satisfied, and it was getting me down," he confesses. "I needed to get back to being truly creative again in my daily work, so I left."

Regardless of your reasons for turning freelance, though, the core challenge remains the same: finding and retaining clients in a tight market. This requires a secondary set of skills besides simply being a good designer. Mat Harris sums them up well: "You need to be a salesperson in order to get the work. It's all very well being a great designer and really creative, but if you can't sell yourself, or you aren't very client friendly, then you're going to struggle to get new work. Next there's the account handler element - liaising with clients, getting briefs, presenting work and receiving feedback and criticism. The third role is that of project manager, to manage your time effectively and organise your workload. Lastly there's the financial controller hat, to keep track of your money and chase clients for payment."

Initially at least, the foremost of these roles is that of salesperson, for which initiative and proactivity are the essential ingredients. While Steven Bonner was also able to use contacts he'd established during his eight years at the agency he co-founded, he didn't rest on his laurels. He had promotional posters printed to promote himself to new prospects, backed up with a mail-out and a monthly newsletter "to remind people I'm still here, and showcase any new work I think might be of interest."

Emma Devine also agrees that contacts are priceless in launching a freelance career: "I contacted everyone I knew from previous companies I'd worked for, telling them I'd gone freelance," she says.

But using and making contacts has to be allied to effective self-promotion, and a website or online portfolio is an absolute necessity in earning those vital first freelance commissions. When Gary Frost was put on a four-day week, he used the extra time to rejig his online portfolio. The old version was designed to attract full-time employers, but now he needed it to help him win commissions. "I've always used my online folio to give potential employers an insight into what I can do," says Frost. "I spent some time making alterations to show my freelance potential. Rather than just showcase my work, I wanted to give potential new clients an insight into the services I offer. Having a site was a major factor in establishing myself as a freelancer; there is so much potential with the web."

Jennifer Ellis found that marrying a web presence with other promotional activities has been central to her success. "After getting my website up and running with a selection of recent work, I spent some time working on search engine optimisation [read our top tips for how to do this here]. I also registered myself with Freelance UK, and sites such as Elance and People Per Hour. Advertising can cost quite a bit, but it's something that has to be done to get your name out there."

Against this background of many different roles to juggle, how does that craved-for 'creative freedom' play out? And is it enough of a gain to outweigh the extra time-demands of freelancing? Emma Devine thinks so. She reasons that being freelance allows you to cut out the middle man; and gives an example of this in practice: "Having done their brochure about four years ago, The Rathbone Hotel in London asked if I was available to do a rebrand for them. Working directly with the client, I had full control over the project, from design and artwork to finishing and printing. I have a good relationship with my printer, so I know the finishing on the job will be fantastic, and I can take proofs to the client to discuss any last-minute decisions face to face. Being freelance brings a more personal touch to the whole design experience."

Steven Bonner agrees. "I found that limits were placed on a project not just by the client, but also by the 'This is how we've always done it' mentality. Freelancing gives me the freedom to explore a brief fully on my own terms, which is absolutely invaluable."

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