My freelance secrets

Bringing this week's little freelance special to a close, we get 11 top creatives to spill the beans about their freelance experience.

So, we've had a bit of a freelance thing going on this week, and to finish off we thought we'd dig out the Computer Arts address book again to interrogate some more leading names in design.

If you want insight on the freelance life from the people who've been there, done that and got the limited edition t-shirt, you've come to the right place. We asked our panel of experts why they went freelance, what the pros and cons have been what their advice to budding freelancers have been and how they deal with nightmare clients. And did they ever reply.

It's a big one, this, so to make things easier here are some handy links to each of our design experts: San Ng, Jeffrey Bowman, Tony Hung, Martin Fewell, Matt Booth, Tom Baker, Oisin Prendiville, Oz Dean, James Wignall, Tom Lane, Justin Maller.

San Ng

What made you decide to embark on the freelance life?
I started out as an in-house designer and found it limiting as the work was not varied. And trying to move into agency work is difficult as they expect you to already have agency experience. So the other option was to freelance and to work for myself.

What are the main benefits you've experienced from working as a freelancer?
Main benefits as a freelance designer - apart from the variety of work is the freedom you get. You can pick and choose your clients and jobs as you please. You are your own boss. Also you get to meet great people which could always lead to other jobs. It is an adventure, you never know where you will end up. And if there are clients you do not like you can always finish the job and leave them :). Plus as a contractor your money is better per hour!

What do you think you miss out on by working solo?
Creative banter - If working from home you will of course miss out on bouncing ideas with team member and Friday drinks!
Stable working hours - If you work from home you could be sat at the computer all day and night because you don't have to catch that last train home.
Security - There is always the fear of not knowing when and where your next job will be.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of going freelance?
For those who are thinking about going freelance I would say:
1. Network Network Network! It's not what you know it's WHO YOU KNOW!
2. Do some freelancing after hours while working to get some clients under your belt.
3. Get an online portfolio - web is where you can get the most exposure.
4. Have at least three months worth of wages in the bank for those quiet periods.
5. Definitely have other creative outlets or hobbies to keep your creative flow fresh.
6. You need to be a self-starter.
7. You must be happy to work on your own a lot of the time.
8. Join freelance recruitment agencies.
9. If you are not a dab hand at accounting definitely get a good accountant to do your books.
10. Get insurance (if you are going to become a limited company).
11. Create yourself a client brief form / contract.
12. Avoid emails that say "We can't pay you anything but it will look great in your portfolio ...".

What tips would you give on managing the inevitable nightmare client?
When dealing with a nightmare client it is best to keep a cool head. Never be rude and try to explain why making his logo bigger will not sell more insurance. And you must always remember "the customer is always right", that is until you reach the point where you would rather stab yourself in the eyes with two pencils.

Jeffrey Bowman

What made you decide to embark on the freelance life?
After spending around two and half years in design studios, and building my name up, I felt I was ready to go it alone. I had begun picking up more and more regular work and it felt right. Studios taught me masses and I would recommend it to anyone in the start, but it was always in me to do this on my own - it was just a matter of when an opportunity presented itself for me to take the plunge!

What are the main benefits you've experienced from working as a freelancer?
You get to do what you want, you're free, hence the title freelancer I guess, but your time is your own. I can have a day off here or work weekends, and I think this benefits my work a lot, I'm under no pressure other than my own.

What do you think you miss out on by working solo?
The social aspect of working in a studio. If you work from home, which I do at the moment, there is no one else around to speak to, to keep you sane.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of going freelance?
Make sure you're ready, make sure you have a resource of money in the beginning to help you through and make sure you have a good network of friends to communicate to about your work etc.

What tips would you give on managing the inevitable nightmare client?
Never let your guard down. I think the more experience you have the more you can tell off the bat what sort of client they will be and if you can spot it I tend to turn the work down before it starts. But if you do take the work on I would try not to make them aware that they are being hard work. That's why it's good to have a moan to friends, if you don't it might end up costing you a job and damaging your reputation. Word of mouth is a powerful tool for both good and bad!

Tony Hung

What made you decide to embark on the freelance life?
To have the ability to explore my ability.

What are the main benefits you've experienced from working as a freelancer?
Being a human being.

What do you think you miss out on by working solo?
Human interaction.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of going freelance?
Go with your heart, think with your brain. Balance.

What tips would you give on managing the inevitable nightmare client?
Don't be afraid to say no. Stick to your guns. People/clients only respect people who respect themselves.


Martin Fewell

What made you decide to embark on the freelance life?
Freedom, money.

What are the main benefits you've experienced from working as a freelancer?
Freedom, money.

What do you think you miss out on by working solo?
Banter and office politics.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of going freelance?
You need contacts for work - sending out mailers and cold calling doesn't really work. Use an accountant. You can get feast or famine, work loads and once you're established it can be very long hours.

What tips would you give on managing the inevitable nightmare client?
All clients can throw things at you at the last minute and be hard work - you need to judge which ones are worth keeping and which ones to let go.

Matt Booth

What made you decide to embark on the freelance life?
The main reasons for going freelance was to work with the studios/designers/developers that inspire me, on the kind of projects that you jump out of bed in the morning to work on. This is a dream scenario and doesn't always work out like that, but so far so good.

What are the main benefits you've experienced from working as a freelancer?
The main benefit for me as a freelancer is the freedom. The freedom to choose which direction I go in and the freedom to choose who I approach for work. This freedom gives me chance to take time out to work on those personal projects that have been in the back of my head.
I've gained a lot of experience working with the agencies/studios I have since going freelance, which I simply wouldn't have working full-time. Not to mention the friends/contacts I've made.

What do you think you miss out on by working solo?
Christmas do's and having someone to make me a brew. No, the pros for freelancing for me more than outweigh the cons.
What I sometimes miss though is having creative people around me who I can bounce ideas off. We all have friends we can ask opinion of, but I find that difficult when they're detached from the project.
Working from home as much as I do, I sometimes miss the studio atmosphere too. This is easily solved though by renting studio or desk space, which is something I'm looking into.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of going freelance?
Promotion is your main tool. Unless you're some creative superstar, chances are the people you want to work with don't know you from Adam. So get in touch with them. It's as easy as sending a carefully crafted email explaining who you are and what you do.
Promote yourself right form the outset. If there's a certain type of project you are best suited to and want to be considered for make this obvious through your website.
Talking of your website, just remember the people you will be contacting have dozens of creatives just like yourself contacting them every day so make sure your site is memorable but also useable. People don't have time to be searching through your site to find out what your skill set is or to see examples of your work.
If you're going freelance because you care about who you work with and what you work on, then carefully pick who you contact rather than every design outfit on the planet, or you'll end up working on projects you have no interest in.
Make contacts by going to conferences, networking events and meetups. If there aren't any in your area, set one up, it only costs your time. Use Twitter (properly), by following the right people, announce new work, awards, news etc. Agencies are increasingly using Twitter to recruit freelancers.

What tips would you give on managing the inevitable nightmare client?
You'll sometimes get a feeling that a project is going to be a nightmare before you've even started it. If you're in this position and the benefits of taking it on are low then try to avoid it.
Always be clear from the outset what the client is going to receive and when. That way if the client tries to add bits in at the end or change the brief halfway through you can talk about moving the deadline and increasing the cost.

Tom Baker

What made you decide to embark on the freelance life?
It wasn't really a choice. I wanted to be a character animator, and character animators are almost always freelance.

What are the main benefits you've experienced from working as a freelancer?
Variety of work and to some extent life. Every year I work in a number of different studios and on different projects which means it feels like I cram a lot into a year. Moving from job to job introduces me to lots of talented people, new ways of working and opens my eyes to different approaches to work, in addition to keeping my enthusiasm for it all fresh. Each new job is like a new start and a new chance to improve and push my work.

What do you think you miss out on by working solo?
I rarely work solo even if I'm the only person on a project but if you mean working freelance it's probably holiday pay and job security. Because I worry a little about having worked booked up I take on pretty much all work I'm offered which can mean sometimes I have to miss stuff I have planned to do (like a skiing holiday this year). It can also lead to irregular working hours and working through the night which not everyone is happy to do.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of going freelance?
It depends on what reason they have to be going freelance but there are essentially two bits to it. You need to get in new work and you need to finish work you already have booked. I initially concentrated on getting work at a few big clients (Cartoon Network, Passion Pictures, BBC) because these sort of companies have more regular work and look good on a person's CV. It's also important to try and get on with everyone you meet as you're likely to meet them again. Share skills and tips with them because people will get you in on a job if it makes them look good. My final tip is I always draw a little seat plan when I go somewhere new with everyone's name & role written down. I'm terrible with names AND faces which is bad news for a freelancer.

What tips would you give on managing the inevitable nightmare client?
Call them on the phone as soon as things start to go wrong. Clients usually only become nightmares when their expectations have not been met. If the client is new to whatever service the freelancer is providing make sure they know what they can get for their money and how long it will take. Remember you can't please all the people all the time so learn from bad experiences.

Oisin Prendiville

What made you decide to embark on the freelance life?
I was working in an animation company doing bits and pieces. It was a fun job but not exactly my calling. A good friend of mine, John Ryan of Life Forms Design, had been working freelance for a while and had a lot of work on his plate. He asked if I wanted to work with him on some projects. I decided to give it a shot, quit my job, and haven't looked back since.

What are the main benefits you've experienced from working as a freelancer?
For me the main thing is that it's given me the freedom to travel. I left Ireland in January 2009, flew to New York and worked from there for a few months, then started on a trip south through Mexico and Central America, all the while working from my laptop. Currently we've made it as far as Bogot¡, Colombia and will be based from here for the next few months. The rough plan is to get to Buenos Aires by the end of the year.
This is the kind of trip I'd been dreaming about taking for years but it took a lot of work to reach a point where it was possible. I worked for three years in Dublin building up a reliable client base. By late 2008 I felt that I could take a chance working remotely without risking losing everything I'd built up. Fourteen months into this journey and I'm delighted with the decision.

What do you think you miss out on by working solo?
I miss out on the experience of working on bigger projects. I've missed out on the education that you get from working in an organisation with designers who are more senior than you. Socially I guess at times I've missed out on the camaraderie of having work colleagues but I've done by best to make up for that by sharing office space in Dublin and co-working in New York.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of going freelance?
I've found that it's very important to have a broad skill-set. As a designer for example within an organisation you might not necessarily need to know much about coding (I think you still should know but you might be able to get by without any html/css/javascript experience). On your own you're going to need to be more self-sufficient. Opportunities will arise to collaborate with other freelancers and to specialise but often you'll be on your own. But be careful not to spread yourself too thin.
Keep learning. Don't ever just sit back and think you know everything you need to do your job. The technologies we use are evolving (and multiplying) so you should never be short of something to be learning.
Having your own side projects helps in this regard because you can experiment with ideas you might not have the opportunity to implement on a client project. With side projects you work on exactly what you want to work on. It can certainly liberate your creativity and if you can find a way to make money from it you might not have to leave it on the side for too long.
Some of my side projects include day516, Tweet #1, What's Your Bus? and Twequency

What tips would you give on managing the inevitable nightmare client?
To be honest I have a client relationship or two that bordered on "nightmare" but I have to take responsibility for those relationship difficulties more than the client. As far as I've learned it's all about setting reasonable expectations and ensuring that everything is communicated clearly so that nobody is left in the dark, unaware of what exactly is going to happen next or what to expect.
It's also critical to ask the right questions to ensure you get feedback that is constructive rather than infuriating.

Oz Dean

What made you decide to embark on the freelance life?
At the time, a pressing desire to be as far away from the daily horror of a large, antiquated, advertising agency* as possible. Office politics, monthly reviews, stifling briefs and angry people whose only interest was to climb over others to get to the top had left me flatlining creatively. I felt a very real need to regain my passion for creativity and the only way to do this was to get out.
*I do now freelance in some fantastic advertising agencies but am selective about who I'll work for.

What are the main benefits you've experienced from working as a freelancer?
The variety (of work and people) and the freedom to work on my own projects if and when I choose.
I have found that I am able to learn more from many people simply because the people I come into contact with are all different 'teachers', with different skill sets, and exist in many places that I wouldn't otherwise get to (if I worked full time).
I am able to avoid office politics and rarely get involved, which leaves me stress free.

What do you think you miss out on by working solo?
Often I find I am rarely asked to come in at the conceptual stage of a project, even though I like to be involved at this stage and have the skills (I attended Australia's Award School in 2004).

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of going freelance?
Jump in but don't start working immediately. Spend 6-8 weeks designing your portfolio, planning who you want to work for and contacting them to line up meetings. Then meet as many of the list as you can and only then start working for a client. By doing this, you'll build up a good foundation of clients that will set you up properly from the start.

What tips would you give on managing the inevitable nightmare client?
Suck it up, be professional and get the job done and know that in a few weeks time, you will no longer need to deal with them again. You have the choice.

James Wignall

What made you decide to embark on the freelance life?
For me I really liked the idea of working with lots of different companies. I enjoy meeting like-minded people and socialising so for me it was a perfect fit.

What are the main benefits you've experienced from working as a freelancer?
Without a doubt choosing when you want to work and what you want to work on is really nice. Want to take summer off? No problem, just work really hard either side to compensate!

What do you think you miss out on by working solo?
The nature of working on the animation side is that you pretty much always work within a team anyway so you build up a network of friends who you naturally like to work with. A bit like a collective. If I was to work just in illustration then I'd think you'd miss out a little bit if you only worked from home, get a bit of cabin
fever. I'd recommend renting a desk space rather than working from home just so you get out and see people, plus it's good to leave work and home separate.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of going freelance?
Get a good accountant! Socialising and meeting companies is key. Basically just be a nice, honest hard-working person and you'll do well. Companies are normally pretty loyal so if you do a great job then they'll keep coming back to you.

What tips would you give on managing the inevitable nightmare client?
Sometimes you need to be able to say enough is enough and don't be afraid of firing the client (just as they aren't afraid of firing you). If they ask for additional work that wasn't in the brief then make sure you get paid for that extra work, or if they are taking ages to pay for work then don't be afraid to hassle them!

Tom Lane

What made you decide to embark on the freelance life?
There wasn't really one clear decision that led to my freelance life. It was a combination of decisions and realisations that led to where I am now. It began with being offered a job to teach by my university when I graduated. I accepted, but on a part-time basis, and just for a year. My intention was to probably do a masters degree after.
I thought it would be good to get some design work to fit in between my teaching days and began putting together a list of design companies in Bristol that I would like to work for. I thought it was probably a good idea not to directly ask for a job, knowing that there would no doubt be a stampede of recent graduates doing the same thing. My angle was to just get my foot in the door and show people my portfolio. I simply needed these big scary design studios (they turned out to not be that scary) to know I existed. No pressure!
Well, there was some pressure, because I actually did this face to face. Yellow pages in one hand, portfolio in the other, knocking on the doors of said design studios. Some would tell me to come back another time, call next time, or no, but the good majority said yes, and we would have a tea, a chat, and I would make a good contact there and then. This approach worked, I got a gig, three months I think, to help put together a travel brochure. However, the boss didn't want to sort out my tax, or sign me up for longer than he needed so asked if I could work freelance. I duly accepted and luckily an accountant worked in the same building and set me up on my first day!
From that point on, I found myself working as a freelance. I was offered a couple of full-time jobs but I had got used to the idea of working for myself by then and over a bit more time didn't enjoy working in other people's studios, so got my own and just became fully independent. Never did do that masters degree, maybe one for the future. Having too much fun now!

What are the main benefits you've experienced from working as a freelancer?
Being freelance has helped create a certain state of mind. How I make a living seems like it has endless possibilities. I never feel restricted to conform, or tell myself I couldn't do anything. I had to learn so much to function effectively as a freelancer and this has helped instil an even greater sense of independence and focus in all of my life. The nature of the beast is that you have to get a good handle on business, marketing/self-promotion, accounting, client relationships, project management, etc. or you'll fail. But if you love to learn then this is awesome, and all that knowledge is so transferable. You will no doubt think of another business idea, or meet someone you might want to partner up with and develop a great new venture and bada-bing, bada-boom, you've got a lot of the hard work done already, you've been doing it!

What do you think you miss out on by working solo?
I feel the biggest loss is in the early stages of any project and the end. When I've done my research, or been fully briefed, a project begins to get turned over in my mind and broken down. There is a very important part of my process when I need to talk about it. By talking about it, I have to contextualize it, and make sense of it. Things I haven't thought of are revealed as I give my subconscious a chance to throw out some new pieces of information. I'm fortunate to have a very patient other half who promises me she loves to hear about my work and a couple of very good friends who are too polite to tell me to shut up. But I would love to have some people here in my studio to run through projects with, bat ideas across to one another, or let run with some of my own.
As I mentioned I also think the final stages of a project really benefit from another person's perspective. Critique and checking. Again, patient and honest other half to the rescue, but it would be nice to have another like-minded individual around.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of going freelance?
My advice is think long and hard about what it is you enjoy doing, and I don't just mean in design or illustration. I mean in your life in general. My experience is that freelancing takes up a lot of your time. You have to wear many hats and this can lead to restrictions in other aspects of your life. On top of managing and completing client work, you'll have marketing and admin to deal with.
If you're aiming high then it takes many hours of dedication to get your talent communicated effectively. I personally find it a non-stop 'way of life'. It definitely ain't no job I can just walk away from at the end of the day. I'm sure it can be done differently, but I guess I'm saying freelancing is not a decision to take lightly if you want to succeed. There are huge rewards however, you will directly feel all the benefit of your hard work, you will have a huge portion of your life in your control, and you will probably go to bed at night looking forward to what the next day will bring.

What tips would you give on managing the inevitable nightmare client?
The most important thing is to make sure, no matter what the client, you get some paperwork in order before anything gets started. Payment terms, design contract, or a commission acceptance form should all be discussed and in place from the get-go. Being professional in the beginning, having a process that the client goes through in order to secure your services will go a long, long way to weeding out the inevitable nightmare client. Get them invested in a process, get them to pay you something up front, advise and work together. If you let people dictate how you go about business, you'll soon find you have a few nightmare clients on your books.

Justin Maller

What made you decide to embark on the freelance life?
It was a pretty organic transition. When I finished my final semester of university, I was just starting to book enough work to sustain myself and make me contemplate art as a career. I kept my day job for six months, until I was able to be completely self-sufficient as a freelancer.

What are the main benefits you've experienced from working as a freelancer?
Being able to travel anywhere in the world and keep my business running as usual. Today I'm sitting in an office at deviantART HQ in LA. This weekend I'll be in Miami, relaxing with friends. Next week I'll be back in NYC. At no time will I be unable to work; all I need is a chair, an internet connection and a power point. That's pretty damned cool.

What do you think you miss out on by working solo?
Talking to other people.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of going freelance?
Go slowly. Don't quit your day job until you know you can sustain yourself.
It should be an easy decision to make; you should be coming home from your day job, and then have no time to sleep because you have too much freelance waiting for you. When quitting your day job makes you more money than quitting freelance, you're making the right decision.

What tips would you give on managing the inevitable nightmare client?
Try to avoid getting in to these situations by clearly stipulating rounds of feedback and rounds of change before entering the creative process. Be professional, but do not be exploited - you're allowed to put your foot down as well.


Want more? Here's the ultimate collection of freelance design tips, and everything you need to know about going freelance