After three years of freelancing full-time, graphic designer James Round shares his biggest lessons learned and offers advice for anyone considering taking the leap.
Three years ago (this very week!), I embarked on the greatest adventure of my career and started working for myself. I wanted more flexibility, more control over the kind of work I did, and more time to pursue personal projects. After careful consideration, I realized that the best way to achieve these goals was to go freelance.
Working for yourself can feel like a daunting undertaking, and it certainly comes with its fair share of ups and downs. But it’s also exciting, varied, and creatively satisfying, and I can’t imagine working any other way. Now that I’ve been doing it for a while, it seemed like a good time to reflect on my experiences so far, and share some of what I’ve learned over the past few years.
COVID-19 has changed lots of things, and how we work is no exception. Businesses are still navigating a lot of uncertainty brought about by the pandemic, and the competition for jobs has never been more intense. At the same time, employees are starting to reassess the role of work in their lives, and the sudden rise in working from home has revealed that their work-life balance perhaps isn’t all that balanced.
In many ways, there’s never been a better time to jump into the world of freelancing. And while it’s a big decision, it might just end up being the best one you’ve ever made! So, here are some things to consider if you’re thinking about taking the leap.
Experience is important.
There’s no perfect time to start working for yourself, but I made the transition once I’d reached the level of senior designer, and the experiences I’d gained up until that point in my career provided an important set of skills, and a lot of knowledge that definitely made things easier.
Knowing how to deal with clients, how to properly quote and schedule projects, and how to clearly present and communicate your creative work can make a big difference. I had also reached a point where, despite sometimes feeling insecure about my work, I had the confidence to work through projects without needing advice or support.
If you’re at the start of your career and thinking of going freelance, bear in mind that it might be a little more challenging.
Consider spending some time within an agency or similar environment for a few years to develop your skills and build a better understanding of how a creative business operates. And if you’re still really keen to go it alone straight away, try to grow a supportive creative network around you, do lots of research about the industry, and be aware that some skills and experiences just come with time.
Be proactive about everything.
Working for yourself can be immeasurably rewarding but it’s also hard work, especially at the start. The best thing you can do is take control, keep yourself busy, and as much as possible, create your own opportunities.
Send your portfolio out to lots and lots (and lots) of people. Do personal projects that represent that kind of work you want to get paid to do. Contribute to creative communities like Dribbble. Write articles about your creative specialisms. Enter your work into awards.
Know that most of these endeavors will likely lead to nothing, but will still provide valuable experiences. And occasionally, they’ll lead to an amazing new project or a gratifying moment that will leave a smile on your face all week.
Find your creative focus.
One of the big benefits of working for yourself is that you can become exactly the kind of designer you want to be. Reflect on the work you enjoy doing most. Take the time to seek out meaningful opportunities. Focus your attention on building the skills you want. Set goals to help you along the way, and grow your business with purpose.
Be realistic though—you still need to pay the bills! In the beginning, it’s important to be open to any project that comes your way as you make connections and build the resilience of your new business. It takes a little time and patience, but soon enough you’ll be able to start being more selective, and focus your attention on the kinds of work you enjoy most.
I always knew I wanted to work on printed projects, infographics, and illustrations for clients whose work related to things like science and the environment. When I look back over the last three years, I can see a progression from the more general output of my first year, to the last six months, where my projects are much more representative of the types of work that I always wanted to do, and the kind of clients that I aspired to work with.
Take the boring bits seriously.
There are some very uncreative aspects of running your own business. Keeping track of your finances and expenses, reading through contracts, invoicing, and paying taxes are all fairly unappealing ways to spend an afternoon. But these are all integral parts of working for yourself and keeping things running smoothly. Neglecting them can have consequences down the line that means you’ll eventually have to spend even more time focusing on them.
Stay organized, use spreadsheets to keep track of everything, and when something admin-related crops up, jump on it straight away. Doing so will ultimately mean less time thinking about the boring bits, and more time working on the fun creative stuff!
Sometimes there’s no work, and that’s OK.
My freelancing started off pretty well. I landed a couple of good projects fairly quickly, and the work kept coming in. Until it didn’t. Four months in and everything stopped—I didn’t work for a whole month, and at the time it felt like I’d never work again. But sure enough, one day a new project landed in my inbox and things soon picked up again.
Don’t be discouraged by the quiet times and if possible, set aside some savings to help you feel more comfortable during these periods. Use that time to work on your own stuff, learn a new skill or focus on getting new clients. Better yet, take some time to hang out with friends and family, or just watch Netflix all day.
Once you’re comfortable with the fact that work may occasionally be a little sporadic, you’ll realize that the downtime is actually a gift. And there will certainly be periods where the opposite is true, and you’ll lose evenings and weekends to a project that arrived during a busy period, but was just too good to turn down!
Remember why you do it.
Working for yourself isn’t for everyone, and as with any job, there are pros and cons. It can sometimes be a bit solitary, which may be difficult for those who thrive on teamwork. It offers great flexibility, but to make the most of it requires a fairly considerable commitment. And you need thick skin and some resilience—client issues, negative feedback, and day-to-day frustrations are yours alone to figure out.
But the benefits are also substantial. There’s a special thrill that comes from seeing a speculative email turn into a project. A greater sense of pride from finishing off a complex project, knowing that you were the driving force behind it. And a real satisfaction that comes from building meaningful, lasting relationships with your own clients.
For me though, the best bit has been to see my work develop over time and slowly reveal the kind of designer I always hoped I could be. At the end of a challenging day, I reflect on these things and the opportunities that the last three years have offered, and I know that I wouldn’t have it any other way ■
MORE FROM JAMES:
- Mastering Data Visualization: 3 Tips For A Smoother Design Process
- How to Use Data Visualization To Tell a Compelling Story
- Card Tricks: 5 Tips for Designing an Ace Deck of Playing Cards