Freelance learnings so far…


I’ve been a freelancer for a while now – I quit my last full-time design job at the end of 2009 in London and started freelancing in January 2010.

In the beginning I did mostly long-term contract work for industry contacts I already had – it didn’t really feel like freelancing but I couldn’t complain. My biggest and most recognizable job at the time was probably working as part of the Event Communications team responsible for graphics at the award-winning Riverside Museum of transport in Glasgow, the structure of which was beautifully designed by world famous architect Zaha Hadid.

Since moving back to SA, my freelancing has been up and down because of the kids, but it’s definitely taken on a more typical / ‘traditional’ feel of late where I’m juggling LOTS of clients and LOTS of different types of projects at the same time – and I LOVE it!

I get to do what I thrive on (being creative; solving ‘problems’ creatively) while being involved in so many varying industries all at once – no time to get bored here!

But as with any sort of job/freelancing role, there is a lot of learning to be done and things don’t always come easily/naturally – the learning never ends either but over the past 9 months or so I really feel like Im getting a grip on the whole freelancing game…

So here they are – my pearls of wisdom to share with anyone who may be interested – some of the things I have learned over the past few years that I now try to live by when it comes to freelancing:

You choose your clients as much as they choose you.

This may sound arrogant or crazy in a world where people are competing for work daily but I truly believe that a good fit with a client is more important than money and can help to eliminate the possibility of issues later down the line, time wasted and the potential to produce sub-standard work. If a client contacts me with a brief and I don’t feel the vibe, or can tell that said client is going to be a mare, I politely decline the work and where possible recommend an alternative designer who I feel might be a better fit. It has happened before that I’ve had to ‘axe’ a client or two mid-project, yikes – not an ideal situation at all but totally the best decision for both parties – if I don’t feel like I can give you my absolute best then I would rather say so as soon as possible. I try to only work with people / on projects that I will be proud to show off.

Honestly IS (mostly) the best policy.

In line with point number 1, being straight up with a client is the utmost respect I can offer as a freelancer. If this means giving my advice or opinion too, I will. If it means I lose out on work, so be it. A client may not always like what I have to say or may not always follow my advice, that is up to them, but I feel better knowing I have given someone all the info they need to make that decision. I like to pride myself on designing like I give a damn, because I really do.

There is more than enough to go around.

Some people are cagey and don’t want to share information, leads, work opportunities, contacts and knowledge. My thinking is the opposite. There is plenty of whatever you are looking for around – in the words of the late great * Paul Arden: “Do not covet your ideas. Give away everything you know, and more will come back to you.” The same goes for work – if you are proactive, genuine and provide an excellent value for money experience for your clients, I really don’t think you will ever want for work. Share, learn, share some more, collaborate, grow – the more you give, the more you get. The power of attraction is strong.

Anyone who respects you and your skills will not expect you to work for free.

I’m not saying don’t do pro bono work – I do think it has a place and I have one or two clients who I choose to work with for free – BUT under-charging and constant freebies for friends and family will only lead you down the deadly path of resentment and discontent. Your time IS worth money. Likewise with your skill and experience. OWN IT! I’ve worked out what I feel is a fair rate for my time and skill level, and I try to stick to it, within reason – I do give close friends and family ‘mates rates’ which I think is a fair compromise. The people (mostly charities) who I do do free stuff for are generally very grateful, always offer to pay even though I seldom invoice them, and often show their appreciation in other ways – through word of mouth and recommendations.

Social media is your friend.

Your very BEST FRIEND! Do it, but do it properly. And engage! There’s no point in accumulating ‘followers’ if you are not going to connect with them. Rather use fewer social media channels well, than use all of them without the time to do each one properly.

Always have an accountability partner.

This is nothing new in the world of freelancing – pick a friend or fellow freelancer who thinks and works similarly to how you do. Someone who you can bounce ideas of, someone who can put pressure on you to get stuff done when you need it, someone who can advise you when you are stuck – do the same for him / her if they need it! I’ve talked about Nicola before, she has been one of the main contributing factors towards my growth as a freelancer. And whenever I need to have a work-related-rant, she is also always there to have a glass of wine with me ;)

Constantly re-assess the way you work and the way you engage with your clients.

I mentioned above that creating an experience for your clients is what will set you apart from others – you can streamline this to work for yourself too, to make your work flow more smoothly and efficiently, and to help you to manage your time… Ask yourself: How can I do that better? How can I make this a more efficient excercise? How can I help my client communicate with me better? Often, the answers to these questions will lead to ways in which you can improve the way you work and the way your client experiences your service.

Surround yourself with inspiration and immerse yourself fully in your craft.

Design is everywhere. I’m always on the lookout for inspo. I read design related books and blogs. I follow other designers on social media. I pin stuff (oh boy, do I pin!) and I look around at how other people are doing things. I also do other non-computery things (DIY, crochet, pottery etc) that help to keep my feeling like a hands-on creative. Before I open up a new document in Illustrator, I often draw my idea on paper first… As a freelancer, we fly solo for the most part and by immersing yourself in the culture of your craft, you will help yourself to keep ahead of the crowd – to notice the trends, to see what is working out there and what isn’t – to keep yourself inspired :)

Trust your gut.

This is a big one and related to so many of the points raised above – I have learned that using my gut instinct is the best way to vet potential clients and jobs and to get a feel for what people really want from me. Instincts based on my interactions with a client right from the first hello will tell me if this person will be fussy, problematic on the finance front (in terms of paying) and/or whether the job will be right for me or not. From a work perspective, sometimes I have clients whoΒ  think they want something, but my gut tells me they need something else and this is where my Honesty Policy often kicks in. Not listening to my gut has landed me in a few tricky situations so – at the risk of sounding completely airy-fairy (but then again, isn’t there an element of that which actually makes you a good and perceptive designer?) – I have discovered that connecting with my inner feelings about a client / project is generally what influences the outcomes.

* One of my favourite #freelancelife related books is It’s Not How Good You Are, Its How Good You Want To Be by Paul Arden – TOTALLY worth a read if you are keen for some quick, sharp and thought-provoking nuggets of inspiration to be a better freelancer!


7 thoughts on “Freelance learnings so far…

  1. Carmia says:

    I love these tips, Andrea! It’s so great to hear a South African perspective on freelancing. We only find articles on this topic written by Americans usually. Choosing your clients is something I learnt early on. I still find it difficult to say no sometimes, but the more I do it, the easier it becomes. It’s also a great opportunity to recommend another freelancer who needs the work, and who would be very grateful for the referral.

    • Andrea says:

      Thanks C, so true – very few good SA related posts on the topic so glad you found it a good read and Im sure you can relate to a lot of it :) I also struggle to say no but it often saves me so much stress and time down the line because I really believe in following my gut :) x

  2. Mel Goldstone says:

    I can honestly say that you are doing so well at the social media aspect! The few times i’ve commented on your blog or Instagram you’ve always replied. It’s these kinds of personal interactions that keep people coming back!
    From a work point of view… do you make clients sign a contract with the terms agreed to? And how long do you typically give them to make payments? I’m also a freelance designer (from Howick but living in Vietnam at the moment!) and my worst part is getting people to pay me!!
    Thank so much!

    • Andrea says:

      Hi Mel, thank you so much for your kind words! So funny, I put two and two together after I replied to your last comment – I know you FIL, met him years ago through working at my dad’s hardware store as a kid, he also came to my house a while back to do a quote for me and he even mentioned you after I told him what I did etc. Small world! I totally feel your pain on the payment side of things – what is your email address? Will email you a copy of the contract I use and you can see how it all works – have learnt some lessons the hard way when it comes to clients and having a contract is a must! x

  3. Suzie Davis says:

    I meant to read this post on the day but I didn’t have time. Just read it, lovely stuff as always. Being true to yourself will always set you on the right path. Thank you :) x

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