Taking the plunge

The life of the freelance can be tempting, but there are also pitfalls. To see what it’s really like when you go it alone, Trish Lorenz has spoken to freelances, recruitment agencies and employers to find out more

Freelance life can sound tempting, with its lure of a more flexible lifestyle, better pay and greater variety. But leaving the security of a full-time job can also be daunting. As some financial confidence in the industry seems to be finally returning, it is an option that many might be considering.

However, there are lots of questions that need answering before you take the plunge. You might, for example, be keen to know whether it will be possible to find rewarding work and exactly how do you go about finding work? Freelancing can be a means of finding a permanent job, allowing both sides to see if they like each other before tying the knot.

But this needs to be balanced against the suggestion that the life of the freelance can be addictive and could actually impede your future career. And the realities of the work on offer needs also to be considered carefully: freelances often face the prospect of being brought in to firefight a project that may be halfway through, rather than have the satisfaction of working on a job from beginning to end.

Employers can be looking for a variety of things, but personality fit and recommendations are the factors that push prospective freelances up the list. According to recruitment agencies, a practical approach rather than prima donna-ish attitude is likely to lead to success.

The freelances

Sandra Curtis

Sandra Curtis, a graphic designer with ten years’ experience, works from home and for clients rather than groups. She has been freelancing for 12 months and really enjoys the freedom and control it offers.

She finds her clients through friends of friends and says it’s important to get out and see the people you’d like to work for.

Curtis advises focusing on a specific area. ‘You need to know what you like,’ she explains. ‘There’s no point bombarding lots of people, you’re not for everyone and everyone isn’t for you.’

It’s also important to have a financial buffer, she says. ‘You need to give yourself six to 12 months to find your feet. You want space to concentrate on work and not stress about financial things.’

Mark Delaney

Mark Delaney, a product designer, has spent most of last year freelancing. He found work through people he knew and stresses the importance of a good contacts book if you’re contemplating a freelance move.

Delaney enjoys freelance work, but counsels younger designers in particular ‘not to get caught up in the freelance lifestyle. ‘It’s well paid, but you need to consider what it’s doing for your career. It does stop you advancing,’ he says.

On the flip side, Delaney says it can be a good way to get a permanent job with many companies, using freelance projects as a test period to see how you work out.

Getting clients to pay on time is a challenge for freelances, says Delaney, and 30-day payment terms are rarely met.

Robin Richmond

Typographer and former managing director of Meta Design, Robin Richmond is firmly at the heavyweight end of the market.

Richmond has been freelancing ‘intermittently’ since September 2003 and says moving into freelance meant ‘retraining myself, relearning the craft side of things’, highlighting the hands-on nature of freelance work at all levels.

Among the frustrations of freelancing, he identifies a lack of control and the absence of direct access to clients.

Is it difficult to find senior-level freelance work? ‘There is work out there,’ says Richmond, ‘but it’s fiercely competitive and there is still a lot of speculation and uncertainty about whether work that’s talked of will come about.’

The employers

Susanna Cook, creative director, Allies Design, London

Freelances are brought in for specific projects at Allies, and it’s important that they are able to ‘pick up and run’ with them, says Cook. ‘We want freelances who can get on with it and don’t need too much direction.’

The group interviews all potential freelances, and although design excellence is important, it’s personality that’s vital. ‘However good at design they are, they still need to have a personality that fits,’ says Cook.

Her advice to freelances is not to overestimate their abilities. Many groups rely on word of mouth to find freelance designers, and while a positive experience can get you plenty of other work, a negative experience can have the opposite effect.

Harriet Devoy, creative director, The Chase, London

The Chase tends only to use freelances who are junior designers or specialists in a certain area such as Web design, preferring to have them in support roles rather than leading a project.

Harriet Devoy and account manager Sarah Ilsey are on the receiving end of a lot of freelance applications and counsel against ‘crazy CVs that try too hard’.

Instead, they recommend that freelances send PDFs of their work, as well as a letter and CV, and instruct them to do some research on the consultancies they approach. They advise freelances to ‘look at a group’s work and see if its right for you and you’re right for it’.

Devoy and Ilsey always interview to ensure personalities fit.

Alistair Sim, managing director, Love, Manchester

Love uses freelance cover in several ways and Sim distinguishes between those who support the consultancy on a day-to-day basis, helping with tasks like artwork, and collaborators – specialists the group seeks out for specific projects.

Alastair Sim treats the sourcing of freelance talent in the same way as the search for a prospective employee, looking for the right mix of portfolio and personality. He prefers to choose people on the strength of a recommendation and advises freelances to ask employers for referrals.

‘I’m looking for someone I can trust, ideally someone I’ve used before or who’s been referred, who will fit in with a tight team,’ he explains.

In Manchester’s localised market good freelances are in demand and are, he adds, ‘always busy’.

The recruitment agencies

Kate Marsh head of graphics, Adrem

Kate Marsh counsels against going into jobs with set preconceptions as to what you’ll be doing and says, when freelancing, that technical ability is often more valued than creativity.

Consultancies will have creative specialists and are more likely to be looking for support in areas such as artworking, so she advises brushing up on your software knowledge and craft skills.

It’s important to be aware of the erratic nature of the market, Marsh adds. There will be tight months, so you’ll need access to savings.

Sarina Hussain senior consultant, Major Players

Freelances should be versatile and they need to have a broad range of skills, says Sarina Hussain. In her opinion, freelances who are willing and able to see a project through from concept to artwork will find themselves on the receiving end of much longer contracts than those who merely want to be involved in idea-generation.

It’s important to be thick-skinned, she adds. ‘It’s the nature of the industry that you’ll go for interviews and not get all the jobs. You can’t take it as a personal setback.’

Fiona Watson, senior consultant creative industries, Periscope

Successful freelances need to be prepared to get out and sell themselves, says Watson. And that means meeting with design groups.

‘Capitalise on your contacts,’ she advises. ‘You need to be out there showing your portfolio to as many consultancies as possible. Get out there and really go for it.

‘It’s a visual industry. People are more likely to use you if they can put a face to your name and remember your work,’ Watson adds.

Standard rates

Graduate

£10-£12 per hour or from £80 to £96 per day

Junior designer

£15 per hour or £120 per day

Middleweight

£15-£22 per hour or from £120 to £176 per day

Senior designer

£25-£27 per hour or from £200 to £216 per day

Creative director

£28-£30 per hour or from £224 to £240 per day

What our freelances like:

• Freedom – you can choose the hours you work to suit your lifestyle and work with the clients and designers you really admire

• Variety – you’ll work with a large selection of clients and across an assortment of projects.

• Focus – generally you’ll be brought in for a specific project and freelances say having just one project to work on means you can really give it your best.

What drives them crazy:

• Chasing payment – 30-day payment terms are not always met.

• Lack of control – you will rarely own the entire project or deal directly with a client, which can be frustrating.

• Rejection – it’s not personal, it’s business and you need to be able to accept rejection and move on.

Things to remember:

• It’s not just about your portfolio – your personality and fit is just as important as your work.

• It’s a small industry and your reputation is everything. Don’t over-promise. Try to over-deliver.

The Practicalities

You’ll need a financial buffer – at least two months’ worth of income, advises Periscope’s Fiona Watson – as work can be erratic.

Speak to an accountant or the tax office before you leave a full-time job – there are several ways to operate as a freelance and you’ll need advice on which suits you best.

Put your portfolio together with spare copies and PDFs of key projects before you leave a full-time job. Ideally your portfolio should include examples of conceptual and development work along with the finished result.

Ensure you have e-mail and Internet access.

Call on all your contacts and recruitment consultants as soon as possible – there is a lead time in generating work.

The recruitment agencies

Kate Marsh

head of graphics, Adrem

Kate Marsh counsels against going into jobs with set preconceptions as to what you’ll be doing and says, when freelancing, that technical ability is often more valued than creativity.

Consultancies will have creative specialists and are more likely to be looking for support in areas such as artworking, so she advises brushing up on your software knowledge and craft skills.

It’s important to be aware of the erratic nature of the market, Marsh adds. There will be tight months, so you’ll need access to savings.

Sarina Hussain

senior consultant, Major Players

Freelances should be versatile and they need to have a broad range of skills, says Sarina Hussain. In her opinion, freelances who are willing and able to see a project through from concept to artwork will find themselves on the receiving end of much longer contracts than those who merely want to be involved in idea-generation.

It’s important to be thick-skinned, she adds. ‘It’s the nature of the industry that you’ll go for interviews and not get all the jobs. You can’t take it as a personal setback.’

Fiona Watson

senior consultant creative industries, Periscope

Successful freelances need to be prepared to get out and sell themselves, says Watson. And that means meeting with design groups.

‘Capitalise on your contacts,’ she advises. ‘You need to be out there showing your portfolio to as many consultancies as possible. Get out there and really go for it.

‘It’s a visual industry. People are more likely to use you if they can put a face to your name and remember your work,’ Watson adds.

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