Flying solo

With the design economy in a state of uncertainty, freelances have it all – senior roles, good rates of pay and a flexible lifestyle. John Stones explains why there is no better time to go it alone, with research by Michelle Reeve

While it has been a bit of a rollercoaster for the design economy and recruitment of permanent staff, those who go it alone have had a much better time. Despite – or perhaps because of – this uncertainty, freelance designers have been in the enviable position of being in great demand and seeing their pay rocket.

According to our first survey of freelance rates, the coming year will see a continuation of this rosy picture, with recruitment agencies and design consultancies predicting a further hike in demand and rates. According to the specialist recruitment agencies we polled, average remuneration for design freelances rose by 5.3 per cent last year, and a similarly inflation-busting 4.8 per cent rise is predicted this year.

This inflationary pressure is, perhaps, an indication of the limited talent pool available. ‘There has not been a substantial amount of new freelance blood,’ says Emma Barette of Recruit Media. ‘The previous rocky years have had a hand to play, but the fresh restrictions on working holiday visas and the lack of graduates joining the market two to three years ago have also had an impact.’ She suggests that employers should ‘cast their nets wider and nurse potential, to create the freelance professionals of the future’.

However, the demand is concentrated in certain sectors. Both design consultancies and recruitment agencies say packaging skills are very much in demand. Sarina Hussain, of Major Players, says there have been ‘numerous requests for freelance packaging designers, accelerated by the lack of freelances with this specialisation’.

Packaging skills are likely to attract the highest rates, with a premium of up to 20 per cent, according to some of our respondents. Print and branding are strong, and corporate identity and digital skills have returned as hot areas, after a while in the doldrums. However, if you are a product design freelance, the picture isn’t quite so hot, with none of those in our survey saying there was strong demand. Interior and exhibition design were two further areas where demand is currently weak.

There does not seem to be any definite trend on freelance versus permanent roles. Like Barette, Ian Coulson of Mustard says that, after the insecurity of past years, designers are happy to accept the permanent roles that are becoming available. Others, such as Fiona Watson at RPCushing, suggest freelances are still very much in demand as extra manpower, while design consultancies remain unsure about the long-term need for permanent staff. And freelances are becoming much more ‘business savvy’, says Nathan Myatt of Workstation, noting a rise in the amount of limited company freelances.

Employers may baulk at the pay expectations freelances have now built up, and they sometimes view the sizeable contingent of designers who have, through choice or otherwise, been freelancing for a number of years now, with a certain amount of circumspection when considering permanent roles. ‘Employers may be worried about them being happy, back in the harness, particularly in a more corporate environment, such as the WPP-owned groups,’ says Valerie Gascoyne of BDGXchangeteam.

Design is in the vanguard of employment trends, with its use of flexible workforces, says Ralph Tench, principal lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University, who has just completed research into freelancing in marketing and creative services. His research shows that 60 per cent of freelance work is for senior positions and most freelances are still predominantly female. While pointing out that there are more male freelances now, Helen Thompson of BDGXchangeteam explains that some women with children – if they wish to stay in design – are left with little option but to go freelance, reflecting the more civilised working hours freelances continue to enjoy. For weekend work, agencies say ‘time-and-a-half’ rates are often negotiated.

While the trend is increasingly for – often quite senior – freelances to be brought onboard to work on a project from start to finish, those that use freelances to plug smaller holes also need to be more organised in their approach. With freelances often being booked many months in advance, Hussain points out that design consultancies ‘need to be proactive’ if they don’t want to be caught short. A figure from a major design consultancy says,’It’s much harder to find freelances at short notice than it used to be. I find it difficult to plan, definitively, for more than a week in advance, so when I can be sure that I need a freelance, I find it hard to find anyone available’.

Given the scale of freelance use in design, it is not surprising to find that employers approach it in much the same way as permanent recruitment, wanting to meet candidates and look at their portfolio beforehand. And because of their increasing strategic importance, consultancies are allocating sensible budgets to cover freelance, according to Bernadette Sturley of MacPeople. The other side of this coin – a spate of last-minute cancellations of freelance bookings – shows just how cut-throat the business has become.

The wider question is whether freelance is now a fixture, or whether it is a cyclical affair, acting as a barometer of the health of the design economy. While that cannot be answered with any certainty, our survey suggests that those taking the plunge to freelance will be well-rewarded for doing so – in the near term at least.

What we did

Our results are based on detailed responses from agencies which specialise in freelance design recruitment, and which deal with staff across disciplines and positions, both in-house and at consultancies. The response from designers was limited, but was used as a check and comparison.

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