So You Want to Become An Independent Designer

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As I have worked at becoming an independent designer on the side for many years, I thought I had an idea of what to expect from doing it full-time. However the reality is in many respects much different, in both positive and in negative ways. Yet there’s still nothing I’d rather be doing.

I’ve always thought that there is now no better time than ever before to work in design. To be sure, there are many challenges, but there are also so many more opportunities to take advantage of. There is probably no field in which the startup and operating costs are as affordable and within reach, and there are many more potential clients than ever before.

I think it’s a great field to be in, and I just wanted to share some insights on making it into a career option if that is your passion and desire.

1. You Are a Marketer Before A Designer

A lot of clients looking for someone to design something for them think they are just looking for someone to design something for them. But the truth is that on a deeper level they have a problem that needs to be solved. Perhaps they are a small business looking to get their name out there or find better ways of connecting with potential customers; they are coming to you to help them do that, even if they don’t consciously realize it.

The entire purpose of design is to use visuals to persuade the viewer to undertake some specific action, even if that action is just increased awareness.

As such, your value as a designer is more than just creating pretty visuals; it is helping your clients to put their best foot forward, to help them reach their target audience in the most robust way possible. For you that will usually mean more work on the research and conceptual end, because your greatest value is in creating visuals that not only look great but more importantly that will solve the particular problem, reach the particular market, etc.

Being able to intuit the needs and market of your clients will help you craft visuals that hit where they need to hit, and will often help you on the visual end as well. It doesn’t matter how great your visuals look if they completely miss the mark with the desired audience. Helping your clients on the marketing end is a great way to bring a distinct value-add to your work and attract and retain quality clients.

2. The Last Thing It Is Is An Unending Creative Romp

When I was working full-time and doing independent contract on the side, I often longed for the day when I would be doing the latter full-time. I had this notion that there was some sort of rarified air of creativity that I would constantly be inhaling, and that ideas and concepts would roll in without effort.

Of course, that is a lie.

Rather, I’ve found that much of my time is spent on what I consider the more mundane aspects of the business; composing and responding to emails, sending previews, iterating designs, creating and sending invoices, deciding on creative directions over texts, etc. The administrative bit of this field is not my favorite, but it is nevertheless important, because if I’m not on my game with this then the rest will invariably suffer.

I am usually not the greatest emailer, but I have learned that clients really appreciate prompt responses, even if it’s just quick note to let them know you’ve received their message and are working on their project. I’ve also found that if you can get on top of that a little more, you end up having more creative freedom since the client can feel like they are part of the project, rather than just handing it off and hoping it turns out well.

You also need to learn how to become a project manager, especially as you start to build up a larger base of clients. There is the constant tension between wanting to devote as much time as you can to each project and getting things out the door. I’ve always hated project management and scheduling time, but I’ve found that unless I intentionally devote certain periods of time to X or Y, I simply don’t have time to work on a project and find it difficult to get things out the door on time. But by taking time to schedule and plan things and times to work, what seems a waste of time actually frees up more time to work productively. Once I started being more intentional with when I was working, I found that while the total amount of hours devoted to any one project probably decreased, I ended up being much more effective and efficient and was able to start creating higher quality work.

Creativity feels like it should be a spontaneous thing, and sometimes it surely is. And while you can’t always turn it on or off, developing good disciplines with planning and scheduling (boo! hiss!) can help you train yourself to be more creative and productive when you need to be, and will counter-intuitively give you more space for those spontaneous bursts of creativity that we live for.

3. Focus Your Creative Time

Piggy-backing off the last point, because of all the administrative demands, I’ve found that it’s absolutely essential to be able to carve out creative times. You can get completely bogged down with requests and emails and communication and the like, and if you aren’t careful you’ll be trying to focus on your project while also juggling responses and phone buzzing and all their ilk.

I’d suggest intentionally setting aside X amount of time to have quality focus time with your work. Turn off your devices, close your chat windows, exit all browsers and just create. The other stuff can be dealt with in its proper time; otherwise you will always be running around feeling stressed and trying to churn out things at the last minute.

On the flip-side, you need to be just as focused about your time-off as your time-on. The beauty of working for yourself is that you can make your own hours, but that can easily turn into you working all of the hours. It is effortless to let your career take over your entire life, and so you have to take intentional steps to make your time-off to really be time-off.

4. Be Business Oriented

I will be perfectly honest: business is not my strong suit. And keeping track of finances and the like is very far down the list of things I would ever possibly want to do. But when you are your own boss, you are also your own bookkeeper, and if you’re not careful all your hard work can go out the window.

It’s vital that you keep your business money separate from your personal money. Create a separate bank account that only expenses and invoices go through, because whatever is left over is profit, meaning that this account can function as a quick and dirty profit and loss statement. You absolutely need to keep track of what you are bringing in, how much you are spending, and how much you need to pay in quarterly estimates for taxes. Or if you are doing payroll, you have an even more urgent need to make sure that is being handled properly. Otherwise you may find yourself struggling between paying the IRS at the end of the year and eating.

Keep good records, and know what money you have coming in and going out. Otherwise you simply will not make it.

Keep all your business relationships professional. It is great to find a client that you can be on a first-name basis with, and some of my clients I would consider myself to be good friends with. But you always have to keep in mind that this is a business relationship, and so you still have to treat it with professionalism and in a business-like manner. With some clients that will look different with others, but you want to make sure that you are consistently meeting your obligations and responsibilities and expectations, even if it’s a more casual business relationship. Don’t allow the casual nature of any business relationship to let things get sloppy; this is what will sour the non-business aspect of the relationship.

5. Be Multi-Discplinary

In the previous world of design there tended to be a lot more specialization in a field; you were an illustrator, you were a photographer, you were an editor, etc. To be sure, that is still true in many respects, but more and more clients expect a certain level of competency in multiple areas of design.

As an example, it is very difficult as an independent designer to only be a video editor any more; even in years past the market for pure editors was very small, and outside of larger productions is is largely becoming non-existent due in large part to the greater availability of tools.

When working in video production (to continue the example) many clients now expect you to be able to shoot, edit, color correct, mix audio and deliver the final product as part of the production. Whether this is a good situation or not, it is simply the ways things are.

Likewise for other areas of design. For myself as an animator, most of my clients expect at least a passing familiarity with applications like Illustrator and Photoshop, and to be able to collaborate with other designers I almost certainly need to know my way around these, and more often than not I am expected to be able to generate much of the artwork used within any of the animations I create.

The more value you can bring to the table through you competencies, the more valuable you are to potential clients. You don’t have to master everything (and you certainly can’t), but having familiarity with multiple competencies (even so that you can at least speak the language) will help you in the long run, and is increasingly non-optional.

6. Don’t Buy Your Job

I will admit that I am often tempted to upgrade my computer, the tools that I have, etc. It is easy to justify new things as a business expense; after all, the rationale goes, having X or Y will increase my productivity, allow me to take on more projects, etc.

In many cases this may certainly be true, but often we tend to justify the things we want to buy that we don’t really need. The danger is that you can end up unintentionally dumping all of your profits into these kinds of expenses without really realizing it and without realizing a meaningful (or even quantifiable) return.

By all means purchase the things that you need, but only do so if there will be a reasonable return on that expense. For example, purchasing an element of some kind that you need for a specific project will have a fairly immediate return, but only if it’s proportionally worth it in respect to what the project will bring in. Don’t use a project’s needs as an excuse to purchase things you don’t actually need; that is, a “this-thing-would-be-nice-for-this-and-I-can-use-it-for-other-things” is not necessarily a necessity.

Make sure you know where your business’ money is going, and make sure you can track the return on those investments. Often times this will mean waiting to purchase something at another time or foregoing something altogether.

7. Quote High

When you are starting out you may find yourself feeling desperate to take any job or project you can get because you want to eat, but eventually you have to be comfortable with foregoing projects that just won’t be worth it. A lot of this comes with experience and knowing how long it takes you to do X or Y; that can help you determine how much your time is worth.

For example, I usually end up quoting projects on a per project basis (because each is usually pretty unique), but as I’m quoting most of my estimate is based on how many hours I think it will take to complete. The rest is often based upon the nature of the project, the types of resources I’ll need to acquire to complete the project, etc.

You want this number to be reasonably high, not just because you want more money but rather because your time is really your most precious asset and in the end is what your are being paid for. You can have all the technique in the world, but if you don’t have time to use it, it doesn’t mean anything. Make sure that you are getting compensated fairly for your time, every time.

Of course, quoting high doesn’t mean that you can’t give a client a great deal. Your quotes should probably reflect the nature of the relationship with your client.

As an example, for projects that are one-and-done, I will usually charge a higher per-project price for a number of reasons. Firstly, since it is likely I haven’t worked with this client before, I don’t know exactly what to expect as far as timelines, timely feedback, revisions, etc. The premium pricing helps me build in a bit of a buffer so that if even if I go over my estimated hours, I can still deliver the project and get compensated as if I had hit the estimated hours.

There is also a very important consideration in that by taking on any project I am likely having to forego some other project. In some respects the premium pricing in this scenario covers the opportunity cost of other potential projects, especially if I have to turn them down because of already being booked.

On the other hand, if I have a regular client who perhaps contracts with me on a monthly or weekly basis or has me on retainer, I am usually more than willing to offer a discount on my pricing model because of the regularity of the work. Seeking out new clients and connecting with them about potential projects is time consuming, and until an agreement is reached it is time that you are not being compensated for.

But with regular clients the work is usually a lot steadier and predictable, which means you can schedule your time much more reliably. There is also the reality that the promise (or contract!) of X amount of money is greater than the hope of Y amount of money, even if overall X amount is less than what Y might possibly be. Since this is your livelihood, steady predictable contracts are the holy grail, and the reduction in stress itself is usually worth a discount to keep a great regular client on board.

8. Have a Relevant Portfolio Rather Than a Killer Portfolio

Granted, this point’s title is a bit of a bait-and-switch. You should certainly put your best foot forward with your portfolio by showcasing your best work. However, one thing that you have to realize is that most clients are going to have very little interaction with your portfolio.

What I mean is this: We put a lot of work into the pieces that comprise our portfolios as well as the website it lives on; we want it to look great, function well, and- let’s be honest- just be really cool. The reality, however, is that most of your potential clients care very little about how your portfolio “feels” and oftentimes care little about how cool the projects or pieces are.

This can seem disheartening, because you have put a lot of time and effort into the entire “experience” of your portfolio. But an experience is not what your clients want- what they want is to quickly find a competent and professional designer who can work well within their specific brand and company ethos.

You might imagine potential clients leisurely browsing through your portfolio, soaking in every piece, enamored by the depths of your creativity. But you potential clients are busy, and simply don’t have the time to devote lots of time to browsing portfolios. I don’t have any data to back this up, but my guess is that most potential clients aren’t going to be looking past your front page and what resides there.

Now, all of this isn’t to say that your portfolio can’t be really cool and showcase great work. It actually probably should, the previous statements notwithstanding. But what is most important is showing potential clients work that is going to connect with them and their needs.

This can seem to be a moving target, given how broad your potential client base may be. But the reality is that due to your particular style and expertise, you will likely develop a niche of some kind of clients. They may be in different fields, but they are looking for a certain kind of marketing or a certain style of product from you.

You want your portfolio to showcase the type of work that you are not only good at producing, but that you want to be producing. After enough time you will get to know your niche and what they are looking for; if that is the type of client you want to serve, then display that kind of work. It can be tempting to highlight projects you think are fun or cool or even little fun things that are personal projects; that stuff is probably fine, but it has the potential to get in the way.

You want what you do- and especially what you do well!- to be front and center. You want your expertise in solving X problem to be evident in the work that you have created; basically a showcase of success, how you have helped X or Y or Z client move their business forward, engage in better marketing, etc. Your portfolio is your potential client’s initial window into this, so make it as easy on them as you can to see a vision of what you can do for them.

9. Network Like Crazy In Your Niche

Just creating a great portfolio and putting online is usually not enough to land a steady stream of clients. Instead, you have to proactively seek them out. While it might seem more promising to take a broad based approach to this by marketing your services everywhere, you will probably find more success by excelling in a certain niche (or a few) and aggressively going after that market.

If you can demonstrate expertise in a certain area or two, potential clients are much more likely to avail themselves of your services. Here’s the reality: most potential clients don’t have great imaginations. You can have really cool looking work in your portfolio, but they are most interested in work that pretty closely relates to what they are wanting.

In other words, they kind of want to see that you’ve created the type of project in an industry or area of business that they are in, essentially almost like a mockup of what they are looking for. I have had lots of clients show me examples from their industry that they basically want to mimic in their own project.

Use this to your advantage, and as you start marketing in your niche make sure to showcase your expertise both in the projects that you display in your portfolio and in the interactions that you have. Get involved in social media groups that are related to the field you are in, look for other networks around your city or town that you can become a part of. Get your name and your work out as much as you can (as appropriate). The more you can gain recognition, the more likely you are to get leads out of the networks you are in.

Just make sure you actually have a passion for the networks you participate in. No one likes the person who is juts there to market; you want your “marketing” to flow out of your passion, involvement and expertise. This means you will likely be answering a lot of questions, doing a lot of pro bono consulting, and perhaps even a few projects here and there for free or for a substantial discount to get your foot in the door. Demonstrate the value you bring to your niches and networks in everything you do.

10. Never Stop Learning

Design can be a grueling business, and after creating things all the time your brain can begin to feel like mush. Half the time you want to just turn off the computer and your mind.

There is nothing wrong with taking breaks, but to keep your creative edge you always need to be creating and- more importantly- you always need to keep learning. Creative blocks can come from stress and overwork, to be sure, but often I think it is largely due to a form of creative ennui. Deadlines loom and you are rushing to create things for multiple clients, and you feel like you are doing the same thing over and over and over again, world without end. And so even though you are being creative, you are actually not being pushed, since sometimes it’s all you can do to get projects out the door.

But creativity is a lot like exercise- you are either developing muscles or your muscles are in a state of atrophy. Doing the same creative thing over and over might keep you in shape, but you will never get beyond it. To move forward you have to work some other muscles or work them in new ways.

Learning new techniques, styles, and the like will help you to keep your creative muscles engaged. Like any new exercise it can be painful as you develop a new habit, and there are bound to be failures, frustrations, and even walls that you run into. But even little creative exercises that break you out of your routine can help you keep your mind fresh and sharp and give you a continually expanding repertoire of creativity from which to draw.

11. Work Like You Have Lost Your Mind

All of the preceding points are vitally important, but probably the greatest contributor to your success as an independent designer is a willingness to work A LOT. If you want to be successful in the field of design (especially on your own), you can pretty much write off a 40 hour week as an unrealistic expectation, at least as you are getting started.

I’m certainly not suggesting becoming a workaholic, but if you want to stand out you have to be willing to work when other people aren’t. You will likely have some flexibility with your hours and times to work, but creativity doesn’t always come between 9 to 5, deadlines don’t always work out as planned and opportunities do not always present themselves after your calendar has been cleared. Building a successful business in design (and likely anywhere else) requires lots of hours and tons of sacrifice.

Your first few years likely need to be filled to the brim with work, because you have to do more than just create things. That is actually the easiest part. Building a client base, networking, running the details of the business, keeping track of invoices; all of these things are necessary to the growth of your business and won’t necessarily wait for your current project to be finished.

This might sound discouraging, but it’s the reality. The goal, of course, isn’t to slave away at your career forever, but rather to sacrifice for a period of time in order to get to a place where your business is more self-sustaining. But it simply won’t get there without a ton of time and effort, which while not pleasant in the moment can pay off greatly in the end.

After all, that’s why you’re getting into this.

Conclusion

Being an independent designer isn’t for the faint of heart, and in many ways it has as many frustrations (and perhaps even more) as those found in a more traditional job. But it can also be a very rewarding experience and afford you creative opportunities you might not have otherwise.

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Jason Watson

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