As long as I have been a graphic designer, I, as many designers do, have always taken on freelance work regardless of my employment status. My theory is that designers do this for at least two good reasons. One is for the supplementary income (let’s face it, many studio designers spend a lot of time and energy making pretty low wages).
The other is to stay connected to the outside world and to work on a broader range of projects. Again, as a former studio designer, I know how easy it can be to end up working on the same type of projects in the same media. If your entire day consists of working on a very specific print-related project, chances are you need a bit of an outlet to keep things interesting.
After all, you got into this business because you love to design and create, right? Let’s also not forget that designers are by default working in a technologically progressive industry. It is an absolute fact that if you don’t keep up with the trends and technological capabilities of the business, you will be left in the dust.
So how do you find a balance between paying the bills, staying connected and finding time for creative expression?
Streamline your life by choosing what it is you want to do and eliminate anything that is driving you away from those goals. If you have a day job, set some time aside in the evening or on the weekends to work on project that will develop these areas.
Identity vs. Identity
Regardless of your employment situation, one thing all designers must consider is their professional identity. Unfortunately the word ‘identity’ has become one of those ubiquitous terms with many possible meanings. When designers use it they are often referring to the visual identity of a company or individual. The look of their corporate logo, font set, style of photography or illustration and colour system, for example. These are all valid and important foundation elements to consider. But apart from your visual identity, you really need to ask the hard question: who am I really and how do others perceive me?
Determine your position
Asking yourself how others see you professionally will help determine your perceived professional position, which may (surprisingly) be different than your intended professional position, or in other words the way you see yourself. Weather you like it or not, your perceived position is your current reality. The people who have determined this position are your prospective employers, clients or network who will ultimately help connect you to the jobs. They have hired you for specific jobs in the past and have a pretty good idea about your strengths and abilities based on what you have produced or the way you have communicated those strengths thus far.
Your intended position is the “professional you” who is getting the type of jobs or doing the type of work you really want to be doing. The ultimate goal here of course is to merge these two positions, making your intended position the reality.
Choose a direction
The only way to make your intended position your reality is to figure out exactly what it is you want to be doing and then let people know about it. A wise man once told me that no one will ever hire you to do something they haven’t seen you do before. It sounds simple but it’s true. It is possible that you are already doing the thing you love but just haven’t communicated it properly to your network. Weather you’re already there or merely beginning to figure out your declared area of expertise, now is the time to make a list and stick to it.
One way to do this is to write out the type of designer (for example) you want to be. What type of jobs you want to be eligible for or what type of commissions you want to get. This is the first step toward defining your intended position. Next, develop a creative project or two that will get you working specifically in this new area. If it’s something you can do alone, great! But don’t forget to consider that this could be a great opportunity to collaborate with someone and expand your network even further.
Getting the job(s) you want is all about positioning yourself through your portfolio, professional communications and your professional & social networks. So once you have some work to show, tell people about it. Work the social network, send an email newsletter and share your creative project with the world. Clearly defining your position is the key to attaining new professional opportunities.
When developing lists or producing creative projects for myself, I find it helpful to mark a few check in dates on the calendar. This helps make sure things get rolling in a timely fashion and gives you something to work towards. Action beats talking about it any day of the week.
Make sure you can deliver.
One final detail to consider is to make sure you can follow through on your new declarations. If you tell people you’re the greatest new PHP developer on the block, make sure you can back it up. Also make sure you have the time to dedicate to the project.
One of the biggest impediments to holding down freelance work when you have a 9-5 is the lack of scheduling. Be sure to set a production schedule for yourself and the client to sign off on and account for the 20% rule (that many jobs take about 20% longer to complete than originally expected). At the end of the day, people’s impressions of us are the most important thing. They lead to referral business and keep business moving forward.
Ross Chandler is a graphic designer and creative consultant with studio experience in Toronto and Vancouver. He currently runs the creative consultancy Ross Chandler Creative and is developing a new online magazine entitled The New Industrialist.