The brutal truth about freelancing as a designer

Freelancing is a topic that junior designers frequently ask me about. They hear a lot of jazz about being location independent and working around the world as a “Digital Nomad”.

In this article, we’re going to cover what it’s really like to work as an independent designer.

The upsides of freelancing:

 

More job variety & more job experience, faster

Freelance jobs range in length from 2 weeks to 12 months. This is a lot shorter than the 2-3 years you spend as a designer in a full-time job on average. Every time you work on a new project, you have to get acclimated to a new work environment, new people, a new set of rules and a new set of design challenges. You also rarely have anyone holding you by the hand and training you. Because of this, you rapidly gain experience and learn to develop a drive and self-sufficiency that most full-time employees lack.

You can take time off whenever you want

If you want to take a month off, you can take a month off. Since you’re not an employee, no boss can make extreme demands on your schedule. This is huge.

Make more money (usually)

A good freelancer will almost always make more money than a good full-time employee. Your rates are higher, you can do more things to lower your tax burden, and you can put away more money into IRAs.

Less company politics

If you’re working full-time at a company, you’re a part of their cliques and gossip and politics. You may be part of a group that doesn’t talk to another group. Someone might get jealous because you got promoted over them.

But as a hired gun, you are everybody’s friend. You can use this to your advantage to push through barriers and get things some sometimes.

For example, when I was working at WalmartLabs in San Bruno, the building had six floors, each floor housed a different department, and none of the departments talked to each other. But I talked to everybody and got along with everyone. So when there was a project I was working on that involved three different departments that never talked to each other, I was able to get them all into a room, talk the issues out, and get agreement in 30 minutes on issues that were dragging on for weeks.

Freelancing cons:

 

No paid time off

You can take a month off whenever you want, but you won’t get paid. This can lead to situations where you really could use a break, but you don’t take it because not only are you spending money on a vacation, but you’re also losing the money that you could be making in the time that you aren’t working. This in turn can lead to you burning yourself out.

No benefits

That’s right — no medical/dental/vision, no 401k matching, no paid seminars, no gym memberships, no holiday parties, no gifts. You get no company perks because you are not truly a part of the company — you’re a hired service worker, in the same vein as the team of contractors they hired to renovate the bathrooms.

No growth opportunities (except the ones you create yourself)

When I was at Google, I became aware of an internal development program they had for their full-time employees. I could see the classes, but not participate in them.

There was all kinds of stuff in there: negotiation classes, coding classes, public speaking classes, mindfulness classes, time management classes, etc etc. They also had yoga classes, and regularly had renowned speakers come in and speak on various topics.

All of the things I had to teach myself, these people got handed for free as a part of being an employee. It’s a nice life.

As a freelancer, you need to invest in your own growth. No one will do it for you. If you don’t do it, you will quickly stagnate.

Taxes, paperwork and business development

That’s right — you need to do more complex taxes, you need to keep track of your expenses, you need to put away money to pay your taxes, and you need to go out and get new clients.

You often work on the least interesting projects

Companies hire freelancers and contractors when there’s a spike in workload that their core team can’t handle. This means that a lot of the time, you will get work that no one else has time for, or wants to work on. Especially when you are just starting out. Nike is not going to hire some untested freelancer to work on the new Air Jordan campaign. You will get the lame uninteresting stuff.

No long-term connections / loneliness

The downside to gaining experience fast and switching jobs often is that you never spend enough time in one place to really build trust and get to know people. So you will have a very large network of people you don’t know that well. This can get lonely sometimes.

You may not find work

Yes, there’s a very real chance that you will go through a spell of not having any new client work at all. It’s happened to me on more than one occasion. The longest I’ve gone without a new project is 9 months. Imagine what it does to your mind, to deal with that kind of uncertainty, as your savings slowly dwindle.

Freelancing can be great, but it can also be terrible

Don’t believe the hype — freelancing is not all about working remotely in beach huts while sipping cocktails, like certain “Digital Nomads” would have you believe.

If you make it at freelancing, it’s far better than working full-time. You make more money and have more freedom.

But if you don’t make it, it’s far, far worse, because you’ll be on Fiverr and 99designs scraping the bottom of the barrel for job opportunities, working with unreasonable clients that pay late or not at all, and you’ll have no time to invest in your own growth.

Being an employee is a nice life if you can work at a good company. It’s a good path to take with your life. Only a certain type of person succeeds at freelancing. If you’re not that type of person, don’t do it.

Share your experience

What has your experience been with freelancing or working full-time? I want to hear what you have to say. Share your experiences in the comments. Make sure to keep it civil.

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