If you are a designer who works for yourself, no doubt you have often been asked the seemingly innocuous question:
“So, what do you do?”
And whether you work on your own full-time or part-time as a supplement to your income, the question can be tricky to answer. After all, how do you reduce the complexities of owning and running a business, working with multiple clients simultaneously, creating work from scratch, managing cash flow, etc., into an equally brief reply?
The conversations tend to go something like this:
So, what do you do?
I work in design, illustration, animation, and video production.
Oh, that’s cool. Where do you work?
Well, I work for myself as a freelancer.
Oh, that’s cool. How’s that working out for you?
On a semantic level, I don’t have any difficulty with the term freelancer. In fact, it used to have a somewhat martial quality, signifying knights of old who had no loyalty to any particular sovereign but fought for glory and honor (and, let’s be honest here, for money!).
However, in more modern popularized connotations the term freelancer often takes on a more negative aspect, even as those of us who work for ourselves are often forced by descriptive necessity to use it. For some time I have pondered this negative connotation, trying to tease out the reasons that there is far too often a less than desirable reaction to the term, and thus, unfortunately, to those who employ it of themselves.
In the course of speaking with other designers- as well as my own experiences- I have found a commonality in that the term freelancer tends to evoke in others a sense of laziness or lack of ambition. It can also signal to others an absence of professionalism.
There can also be a perception, whether correct or not, that designers somehow have it ‘easy,’ as if the profession is laid back and do whatever you want. Now, those of us who do work for ourselves know that this isn’t actually true. In fact, the opposite is really the case; my wife quipped that “being able to work your own hours means that you really end up working all of them!”
I don’t presume that my experience is paradigmatic, but my sense is that the term freelancer is synonymous in many peoples’ minds with the notion of “this person can’t get a real job.”
And let’s be honest, in some respects that notion may have some basis in reality.
Given that freelancers are often subcontracted for work, many perceptions of the term are directly related to an experience in working with a freelancer. While working for yourself opens up a lot of freedom, it also means that you are only accountable to yourself, which means that to be a successful freelancer you have to have a high level of discipline and professionalism which, given the sheer breadth of the field, means that many do not.
And whether it is fair or not, all freelancers tend to be painted with the same broad strokes. Just based on the term alone we can be perceived as lazy, unprofessional, flaky, underpaid, under skilled workers who are so desperate for money that we will take any project that comes along, no matter how outrageously low the fee must be.
In other words, the term freelancer often evokes a service to be had at bottom dollar, something that would be nice to have as long as you don’t have to pay too much for it. For those of us in design, it often means a Photoshop monkey who will bang on some keys to crank something out that the client would rather do themselves if they could.
The Truth About Freelancers
As true as this perception may be for many freelancers, for all of my professional colleagues nothing could be further from the truth.
Rather than lazy, they are incredibly hard-working and industrious.
Rather than unprofessional, they go out of their way to provide their clients with outstanding service.
Rather than flaky, they deal with clients in a consistent manner, often salted with a lot of grace.
Rather than underpaid, they understand the value of their services and charge a fair but reasonable fee.
Rather than under skilled, they are creators at the top of their game who craft remarkable products and provide outstanding service.
The greatest travesty is that these remarkably talented and hard-working people can end up being lumped into the same category as the bottom-feeders who dilute and disparage the field by playing into every bad stereotype to make a few bucks.
This is why I stopped calling myself a freelancer.
For those of us who take our profession seriously, we should not allow semantic perceptions to sully our craft. Whether it is fair or not, perceptions matter, and presenting ourselves in a professional manner is becoming more and more important.
In fact, we have begun seeing this trend in the design field as of late. The quality of your work can certainly speak for itself, but adding supportive words is never a bad thing. As an example, hand-drawn typography has become a somewhat hot design trend. Even further, the notion of something being hand-crafted has begun to communicate not only something unique and a labor of love, but also exudes the idea that a professional is at work here, doing something with his own hands that not many other people can do.
In this case, the professionalism is already there, but the language to describe the work adds to its luster. There is nothing new under the marketing sun here, but many designers are beginning to realize that the way we present ourselves and our work actually does matter to a client, sometimes even more than the work itself. There could be another post written (and no doubt I will!) on how to communicate professionalism to your clients, but in a world utterly saturated by media and those who create it, exuding professionalism is becoming more and more important in all areas of your design career.
In this respect the term freelancer has become passé, and often only signals to clients a kind of bland and unoriginal creative who is desperately seeking clients and will probably take bottom-dollar to get them.
Thus, I think it is time for those of us who really care about this field and want to bring a higher level of professionalism and creative originality to that field to retire the term forever.
Of course, the real question then becomes: “If not freelancer, then what?”
There are many terms that can give the same idea as freelancer without the unfortunate semantic baggage, and much of the decision will be based on your particular niche and work. But the following are a few that might get you started.
1. Independent Designer
This descriptor has the advantage of signifying that you work for yourself and are open to new clients. Unlike freelancer, the term independent has a more positive connotation since it carries a more intentional flavor, as if this is something you have gone into with a great deal of planning.
*NOTE: The term Contractor could also work here, but I would caution that it often bears the same baggage as freelancer. This is especially crucial to think about if you are looking for long-term clients, since contractor often carries with it the notion of something very short-term.
2. Descriptor Of What You Do
In my bio on my website, I simply describe what I do; I am a designer, illustrator, and animator. Descriptors such as these can be helpful for potential clients since they speak directly to what you do and, more importantly, to what they are looking for.
3. Owner of [Insert name here] Studio/Firm
Potential clients who are willing to pay for good design because they recognize its value not only are looking for someone who does great work, but also for someone who is easy to work with and who will develop their project in an efficient and professional manner. If you work for yourself, you essentially own your own business, so there is nothing wrong or pretentious with designating it as an actual business.
While the terms studio and firm have potentially lost some traction in the last decade, they still have purchase power with many clients, and there is nothing wrong with leveraging that perception. A studio doesn’t have to be hardwood floors and modern chairs and oozing coolness from every pore; if you work for yourself and have only a computer on a desk in your basement you still have a studio. You might feel weird describing your business as such, but the more you think of yourself as a professional and act in a professional manner, the more likely clients are to perceive you in the same way.
Whatever terms you end up describing yourself with, look for ways to communicate professionalism and creative aptitude. You cannot control others’ perceptions, but you can control how you define yourself. And the more you define yourself in the ways you wish to be perceived, the more you may find others’ agreeing with that perception.
And that’s when they give you money. 🙂