Becoming a freelance can be difficult at any point in your career but doing it straight from university is much harder. I graduated with a BA Hons in Furniture and Product Design from Nottingham Trent University in 2005, but quickly realised the industry was getting tougher for new designers. So I used any free time I had to develop other skills, including illustration, website design and Flash animation, feeling these would give me an edge.
After graduating I found it difficult to find work, as the opportunities simply weren’t there. I hadn’t intended to become a freelance, but my first commission paid well. I had nothing else lined up, so I registered for work. A year and a half later, with a steady stream of work, I feel more settled and I am looking for- ward to building new working relationships in the future.
It’s a cliché to say, ‘it’s who you know’, but I won my first two freelance jobs because of people I knew, and I’m grateful. Since then, I’ve found it useful to keep in touch and network as much as possible. Websites such as www.facebook.com and www.myspace.com make this increasingly easy to do. Initially, opportunities were rare – you need to be ready to grasp anything that looks remotely promising. Turn bad experiences into positive ones – keep a proactive attitude when things go wrong. For example, my laptop crashed and I had to call out an engineer. We got chatting and he said that he was often asked if he designed websites. He didn’t but I did, so I gave him some of my cards. I didn’t expect anything, but the next day I got a call.
If you don’t think you have the expertise to do the work then teach yourself, ask someone or employ someone. It’s this attitude that keeps me sharp and continually learning. Not knowing a program and becoming an expert in two weeks is a great feeling and will increase your work prospects. I believe diversification has allowed me to succeed as a freelance. While working at an advertising agency designing a display stand, I suggested modelling it up on a 3D package, a skill that wasn’t intrinsic to the company, but I felt it would really sell the concept to the client. It did and subsequently I’ve modelled reception refits and several other products and stand visualisations.
Taking opportunities is easy, creating them is harder. I make the most of free on-line portfolios such as www.viewcreatives.com. It was a while before anything resulted from these but I do believe in having a presence everywhere. Even if you only get a single project, that one project will have a ripple effect.
Use Google Analytics to monitor the traffic going to your portfolios and website. It will give a clear idea of what’s working. Update the better ones regularly; it should put you back at the top of the pile.
E-mail local companies and new business start ups with a link to your on-line work, go for volume but always show an obvious interest in each company, and avoid generic approaches. If you do this often enough, you may catch someone who is considering a new website or identity that day – this has happened to me on a number of occasions.
Speculative work, such as competitions and book submissions, is currently a contentious issue. I believe it’s a good idea in moderation but don’t stray beyond the free ones. I’ve done my share of winning and losing. If you lose then look at it from a personal development angle, you have another piece for your portfolio and if you win, enjoy it, you’re likely to lose next time.
Freelancing is like iStock, it isn’t going to make you millions in a day, but the work that you have done is not going away and you can always build on it. Satisfied clients will mention your name to others and word of mouth is one of the best marketing tools around. Don’t expect instant returns, plant some seeds. If someone puts you on their outsourcers list, celebrate – this is an achievement.
Finally, don’t worry when work is slow to pick up, there are a lot of ups and downs to freelancing. Remain confident in your abilities and focus on marketing, enter some competitions or feature in a book, it will all contribute to your future as a successful designer.
Richard Baird is a recent graduate and founder of Workinprogressdesign
ESSENTIAL SITES FOR FREELANCES
• On-line portfolios: www.viewcreatives.com, www.coroflot.com, www.carbonmade.com • Networking sites: www.myspace.com, www.facebook.com • Web traffic monitoring: www.google.com/analytics • Forums: www.freelanceuk.com, www.freelanceforum.co.uk • Free book submissions: www.debutpublications.co.uk, www.rotovision.com/entries.asp • Designer forums: www.mediainspiration.com