SBHD: With small consultancies using freelance staff to provide a depth and strength they can’t afford to keep in-house, Ashley Goodall offers advice to both sides
An unattached loner with no mates, or a sharp-shooting gunslinger for hire? In the design industry the freelance as gunslinger is becoming more and more the norm, and what used to be an enforced working practice is becoming a way of life.
Time was when almost 60 per cent of the design industry was freelance. In the winters of 1991-2, surviving specialist consultancies were cut to the bone, and so they used recently redundant designers on a casual basis to cut overheads and keep costs down to budget by minimising staffing levels. Redundant designers declared themselves “freelance” to save face and scrape a living from the remains of the industry.
But things have changed since then. While freelances are still an integral part of the industry, their role has changed and they now provide far more than an extra pair of hands. As times get better, freelance ranks are shrinking. But demand for the freelance market is still hot and what’s left is a harder core of specialist freelances. We are beginning to see virtual companies that comprise a web of specialist designers, each with their own folio of clients. This new ecology becomes more pronounced with diminishing company size. Start-up practices tend to have a small core of full-time staff and a much larger roster of contractors.
An excellent example of this process can be seen at Atelier. Quentin Newark explains: “From a core of two designers we have grown to five, but we often need to take on an additional 10 to 15 workers.” Atelier uses specialists to support the core members but also to enable the company to offer the design skills it doesn’t have. In this way the group can punch above its weight.
What started out as a means to control costs has blossomed into a mutual relationship between companies and freelances, with companies helping freelances to find work with like-minded set-ups and, in turn, being taught fresh ideas and working practices by people with plenty of experience of working for other companies.
This theme is endorsed by the studio manager at Sherwood and Co, William Richardson, who uses freelances for their specific skills. Richardson finds that freelances generally have unforseen talents to offer; they import a fresh perspective and new ideas. Both Atelier and Sherwood and Co find freelances a source of flexibility and enrichment, but both stress the importance of a stable core of people who know the company culture and get stability of employment in return.
Peter Widdup, head of creative resources at Sampson Tyrrell, senses a shift towards a steady roster of around 50 highly specialised freelances. But Widdup also says that good freelances are becoming harder to find, resulting in longer contracts where designers are built into the company on a closer basis. This is also a result of increased workload and more predictable income levels.
But what can you expect if you’re working as a freelance? Well, the answer varies according to your perspective and desires. Do you want to use freelancing as a relatively easy means to build up your own consultancy, hedging your bets while you acquire clients? Do you enjoy the freedom and independence of freelancing, or regard it as a way to earn money between jobs?
If you are a career freelance then, ideally, you should develop a folio of your favourite clients, choosing to work for say four consultancies on a regular basis to avoid uncertainty of income, work-flow and companionship. You will also allay the negative aspects of full-time work – feeling that you’re in a rut, controlled by a single employer. But remember that most consultancies are looking for a particular skill, so you have to have or develop a specialist ability – like Apple Macintosh technology, conceptual flair in brands or corporate identity.
In terms of income, being self-employed means that you can write off transport, materials, phone bills and the like, but you will need to keep working to pay for downtime and holidays. Rates vary according to the length of contract on offer, with consultancies favouring a project fee or pro rata wage if the job is likely to take more than a month. Smaller consultancies tend to pay less than high profile consultancies and will also favour less senior people and graduates, but the biggest factor is you and your skills.
So, if you see yourself as a pollinator dipping in and out of a number of design consultancies, just remember: you are doing them a service, revitalising their core players and teaching them new tricks. Perhaps it is time to introduce a new terminology to reflect a more equal status and mutual respect?
Ashley Goodall is a senior