The Human Side of Freelancing!

I have been freelancing for many years and know a lot of different freelancers at various levels in their career. I was asked to speak to a class of design students at Indiana University – Northwest, about freelancing. I’m a strong supporter of fundamentals and that’s where I started. I gave this speech about the Human Side of Freelancing. I wanted them to understand what it takes to freelance – as a person – before they ever jump into the rapid waters of the design industry.

Over the years I have identified many attributes, that when combined, make up a very well-rounded individual and I believe are the keys to a successful career. Full disclosure: I didn’t have a way to organize this information until I heard my Pastor Mike preach one weekend, on a new series about the hole our gospel. He talked about, Christians we can have all the knowledge in the world in our head, but it must filter down to their heart and translate into doing good deeds and works with their hands. After hearing that it really help me make sense of the following information.

The first set of attributes I have identified is broken down into Head.

Predictable Process: As a freelancer or design professional in general you must have a process for which you work. You need a predictable and flexible process to your work flow. Having a process that is tightly outlined will translate into a smoother, organized, and reliable outcome. Failure to have a process in place can result in missed deadlines, unneeded stress and unprofessional outcomes. This takes time and over the years I have picked and pulled from other freelancers processes to make one of my own. My process starts with a phone call, email or referral requesting services. For the sake of this example I will use a logo as the final product. After the initial contact, I’ll send the client a questionnaire regarding the logo, this questionnaire is a great starting point and a means of gathering information before we get started with the project. After I receive the questionnaire back, I’m than able to see the scope of the project with a little more light and for clarity I’ll either call the client or meet with them in person(the preferred option). Now that I have talked to them about their project have all the information I am than able to give them a proposal for services – an estimate, project timeline, and contract. Once I receive my 50% deposit I start the project. I work on the project, go back and forth with the client, create the final logo, submit final files and style guide, than final invoice. They pay it in 15 days. And I’m done. Of course every project has its hiccups, but since I have a process down I’m able to adapt quicker and smoother to hiccups that happen along the way. No two projects are alike, clients are different and so is the project. A strong process to deal with change is key to any successful outcome.

Multi-Tasking Ninja: The ability to do more things at once goes without saying. But recent studies have shown that you are less productive than you think when you multi-task. Be it true or not in the design world. The type of multi-tasking that I’m talking about is the ability to do multiple things away from the computer. Like listen to an audio book while getting ready in the morning or driving to work. Sketch while watching your favorite T.V. show, Hold more than one thought in your head. Yes, I still think that you should be able to work on more than one project at a time. I’ve never had a project that didn’t overlap with another one in my whole career. You should be able to switch from print to web and back again in the same day. If you have trouble multi-tasking then you’ll have a rough time juggling projects or responsibilities.

Administrative Bones: When you’re the king of the forest you call the shots. As a freelancer you are in charge…of everything! That means from sending countless emails, numerous phone calls, meetings, billing, taxes and all the things a secretary would do. You have to use the side of your brain that is organized and structured. You need to be deeply involved with this process of your business in order to run effectively. As a freelancer there are tons of tools out there for billing, taxes, time keeping and so on. The tighter you are on the administrative end of your freelancing the less headaches you’ll have to deal with, freeing up your creative side. Take note that I send “less” and not all. Being a freelancer you have to deal with multiple problems on a daily basis that fall outside of the scope of your proposal and process. There are tons of thing that can happen, which translates into phone calls, emails and communications that need to take place. Just know as a freelancer you have to deal with this stuff along with the creation of your projects.

Marty McFly: The ability to manipulate time is the key to my success. I know exactly how long it takes me to do any number of task, travel or process. I have  an ultra heighten awareness of time. It’s something that I can have 10 layers back in my thought process about any given number of things. Knowing how to use your time wisely is beneficial not only in life but as a freelancer. You can’t take for granted the time you have every day. Like writing this blog post for instance. I’ve moved and managed time over the period of two weeks in order to write this. It’s a constant game of chess and you’re in control of the pieces. It comes with practice and over time you’ll be able to know how long something takes – from getting ready in the morning to illustrating a logo – once you have an appreciation of time, it works for you.

Responsible, Disciplined, Organized Robot: The bottom line is that clients are paying you (hopefully) money to create materials or experiences for them. There is a great responsibility with that. Once you have gained their trust and received your deposit – you are now obligated to come through with a product. Not just any product, a creative, professional, under budget, on time, working, functional product. As freelancers we must do so, time and time again. If not, then we won’t have any work to even talk about. There is a level of discipline that is required to be a freelancer. Be it as simple as not going to hang out with friends because your on deadline or a creating your own typeface for a project instead of reaching for one in your list. This often gets over looked and taken for granted but a focused and disciplined freelancer will win every time over one who is not. To wrap up this section you couldn’t do any of this unless you were organized. You have to have the ability to put your ducks in a row. If not you won’t make it to meetings on time, you’ll forget to contact people, you’ll miss a deadline, have issues with billing. You have to be organized – period.

Craftsmanship: As a design professional you must have a high level of craftsmanship tied to your work. It’s the visual representation of your ideas. If you can’t bring to life the ideas of your client then what good are you as a designer. The output is the star of the show. It’s the main item people will hire you for. Yes, there can be great creative behind a failing idea. And yes, you can put tons of talent behind a stupid concept. We see it every day. Big and small companies do it. But the key to success is to combine great creative with an amazing concept. And if you don’t have the skills to make that happen. Then you’ll need to get up to par and beyond, if you want to make it as a freelancer.

Craftsmanship does not mean being handy with Photoshop. It means having an eye for composition and details that the normal person overlooks, as standard. To be a great designer you must have this in you. If you develop it over time or wake up with this gift, you’ll be well on your way to having rock solid work.

Specialized Expert: There are two schools of thought in the design world. Be a Jack of All Trades or be an expert in one or two specific areas. I started off as most of us do, as an all consuming creative sponge. I wanted to learn everything and anything related to design. I’ve design everything from packaging to billboards to bus signs. From web to video and back again. It’s all rather fun. And I think you might have to go through that process before you settle into a specialty. It’s different for everyone. After doing all those different things you come to the realization that you might be really good at one thing. When folks are looking for freelancers they look for the best person for that project. As an agency or client you might have very specific needs. Enter the expert. As an expert in your concentration you will have the upper hand in this selection process. If you are a rock star logo designer then you might not be a good fit for an email newsletter. But if  you are a email newsletter expert then I think you’ll have a better chance at fitting that project. Experts still have to adapt but being super good at one thing may prove beneficial in the future. We will just have to see.

Passion Fruit: Do you love design? Do you love what you? Many of us have a love/hate relationship with design. The process and day to day operation of running a design driven life can take its toll on the best of us. But at the end of the day do you lay your head down with a smile? Knowing that when you wake up you can do it all over again. Having a deep passion for design is critical. When you spend long nights on a project or hours upon hours on getting the logo just right, having this deep rooted passion will get you through the rough times of design. We all get into this business based on passionate at one point or another but its this passion that we can draw upon time and time again to replenish our creative bucket.

Morals and Integrity Compass: Recognizing your moral compass can be hard if you are not grounded in faith and a good moral foundation. There are a lot of opportunities to take advantage of clients or the system. From over charging, to outsourcing oversea’s to copying another designers work to using clip art and calling it your own. You must have some integrity to have long term success. I’ve seen other designers get called out on this. I’ve seen companies put other designers work on their website and try to sell it. I’ve had a major retailer rip off one of my designs. Only offer services you can follow through with and only offer services that you can do well.

I like that guy/girl: Being personable goes a long long long long way. I can’t stress this enough. No one wants to work with an egoistical, snobby, know-it-all. Having a bad attitude or filled with negativity will get you know where. It will ruin your reputation and no one will want to work with you. Clients pick up on this instantly. I’ve meet with clients and have heard horror stories of past designers. I’ve built my relationship with clients much like any personal relationship. Be nice. Be a great listener. Read body language(so important) and be here for them. I’ve had my ups and downs with clients through the years. But I’ve learned how to foster a relationship into a great partnership. It comes with time and expereince, work on being a great person and being a great designer will naturally follow.


Head + Heart – (Hands) = This is a person that has a great business sense, can fully run the show. They also have a deep passion for what they are selling. They love design and can sell you the farm. BUT without Hands they don’t have the ability to create good work. They have a hard time expressing their clients ideas. They may know how to use photoshop but they can’t send a file to the printer. Their selections are horrible and it looks like they cut out a photo with a butter knife.

Head + Hands – (Heart) = This person has an incredible ability to bring to life your ideas and knows every trick of the trade. They can make it to a meeting on time and every project is on schedule. BUT without Heart they do the job as a means to pay the bills. Its just work. There is no real passion behind it. The work becomes stale over time and there is no real creativity – it looks good – but it’s just slightly warm – not on fire with awesomeness. This person might cut corners to make an extra buck or do work that goes against their morals.

Hands + Heart – (Head) = This person is the a rock star, they come up with the latest trends and have a deep passion for creating great work. People love them and what they can do for their product or message. BUT without Head, they can never make it to a meeting on time. They’re constantly stressed or rushed to meet a deadline or miss them all together. They can never get paid on time, has no process and is very unorganized.

Conclusion – Balance:

Have a balance between the three will make for a well rounded freelancer. There are many people who get by just fine and make tons of money not having a balance of all three. The sum of this article was to bring to light what a well rounded freelancer could look like. Look at those around you and see what attributes they have and look at yourself and see how you play into this formula. Long term success has to have a foundation and I strive each day to obtain these qualities. I’ve represented each one of these qualities throughout my career – good and bad – so the soap box I stand on is made of wet paper. I’m still learning and testing this formula to become the best I can be.


4 thoughts on “The Human Side of Freelancing!

  1. You nailed it with that breakdown process and for the last two years, I’ve been in research mode – studying other processes and breaking them apart to understand the pros and cons. Ever since my first client, without realizing it, I felt that integrity, hard work and commitment would be the keys to a successful job. I would’ve loved to see your presentation in the classroom too.

  2. Pingback: More Freelancing Updates, Continues Growth : Odysen Blog

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