More than a year ago I left a super-secure job at Nike. They were pressuring me to move and, while I certainly LOVED working there, I often felt I wasn’t performing at my design potential. They gave me the option to relocate and pay all my expenses or be let go. Next to choosing a wife, this was easily the most serious decision I’ve ever made.
I knew I wanted to build something on my own. To create something that was my own and that wasn’t a part of someone else’s master plan. I wanted to flex other muscles I knew I had, but wasn’t using. I felt like a body builder who was skipping leg day, parts of me were atrophying with each hat and t shirt. I felt…like an average designer.
So I left.
I’ll save you all the boring details, but it's been awesome. Seriously. It’s difficult and scary and I struggle, but it’s also amazing and beautiful and has pushed me and I’ve loved every minute of if (almost). I can’t tell you whether it’s the right path for you or not, whether giving up the steady check is worth the creative freedom or opportunities to use all those extra muscles but, if you’re considering it, hopefully this will help.
10 Learnings after a year of freelance:
LEARN TO MARKET YOURSELF: While it's obviously important to have all of your best work online, you should be actively creating new and inspired works for people to see. Getting the big ad campaign is cool and all, but if it isn’t the best representation of your abilities, it’s wise to create some labors of love just to show off. You want people to follow your work. You want it to get shared. You want to make your creative presence known.
Like most of the world, I was a big Breaking Bad fan. I found myself drawing a series of portraits at lunch one week and decided to put a little extra effort in and share them online. Those things were shared by anyone and everyone, and the portraits eventually caught the eye of the bigwigs over at AMC. The things that move you move other people. Move people.
COLD CALLS WORK: How you get work is based on who you know. While I sometimes get the, "I saw your work and want to hire you" client, most of my work comes from people I reach out to directly. Some I've known from previous jobs, and others I stalked on Linkedin. I simply email them, "Hey, I'm Josh. I want to work for you. joshuaariza.com". That's it.
Don't be a diva, you may be talented but none of us are above trying to solicit work. Send a bunch of these emails - I'm talking hundreds. Keep them VERY short. No one has time to read your life story and, to be perfectly honest, no one really cares. They have their own life and their own problems and, if you’re lucky, needing a good designer is one of them. If your work is good you’ll get a response. In keeping with this whole honesty thing, I only see a response to about 20% of my cold emails.
PICK THE RIGHT CLIENTS: Clients can be unpredictable and even unruly at times and can demand a lot of time and attention. Meetings, phone calls, emails, texts can pile up as they try and figure out the status of the project or worry whether they’ve expressed what they want adequately. The more you're able to focus on executing on the demands of the project itself, the more efficient you can be with your time.
I find the best clients are ones who deal with designers on a regular basis. Agencies, apparel companies, studios, and major brands are typically all great because they understand how we work better and don’t need as much hand holding. They understand a creative brief, have actual budgets, and tend to be less emotional than someone hiring you with the money they saved from whitewashing fences.
Even still, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. If I've hustled on a project, tried to meet their desires, and my client is still not happy - I know it's time to part ways. This isn’t a breakup here and doesn’t need to be a bad thing, sometimes you just realize you aren’t a great fit and it’s better for both sides if you move on from a project or relationship.
PICK THE RIGHT PROJECTS: I try to take projects that will make me better. I seek out projects I haven't done before but that make excited to learn about. This past year, I've really gotten into package design and manufacturing because it was a completely new area I wanted to add to my skillset. Not only am I learning a ton, but I’m adding entire new areas I can work in (and getting to vary my projects a ton which keeps it interesting).
Lengthy projects are nice for financial security, but if a project will take months to execute you need to make sure it's worth your while. If you're unable to put new work in your portfolio for months at a time, it could even be a detriment to your business in the long run. Great work gets great clients, but great work twice a year is pretty easy to miss.
WORK WITH THE DECISION MAKERS: This advice comes from my friend and mentor Ty Mattson, and it’s some of the best I’ve received. I've had many projects killed just because the boss of the person I was working with didn't like the direction we were going. That boss had never been included in the process. Work with the person who calls the shots.
IF YOU'RE NOT SHOWING IT, YOU WON'T GET IT. It seems obvious, but if you want logo work, you need to show logos. Show the work you want to get, even if you have to make it up. Fake projects are done by even the best designers. It’s called 'research and design'.
I didn't get illustration work until I started showing illustration.
DESIGN IS BUSINESS: Look, I'm not a fine artist. Design is not a personal expression about how I feel or a commentary about culture. I provide a service and create a product for someone else, and I’m lucky enough to get to put enough of myself in it to keep it interesting. In the end, these are business decisions, not personal pieces of art. If my design doesn't eventually raise brand awareness, aid in consumer experience or contribute to companies' bottom line, then I'm not doing my job.
GETTING PAID CAN GET WEIRD: Some businesses, especially bigger or older ones, can take a long time to pay up. I have my client explain their policies on how long it takes to fulfill and invoice before I begin working on a project for them. If it turns out their accounts payable is net90, I might be charging the credit card for that dog food.
I recommend setting up a separate email account for gently reminding your client that you haven't been paid. Call it "YOUOWEMEMONEYJERK@whatever.biz".
YOU GOTTA HUSTLE: You're on your own now and you need to develop a reputation for doing good work AND delivering work on time. Some solutions will come easy while some others will come painfully and in the middle of the night. But, if you work hard, your clients will come back. After a while, you’ll be able to choose your projects, rather than just taking what's available – but only if you develop the reputation of being professional.
FIND A COMMUNITY: I cannot stress the importance of feedback from peers. Attending regular design-related events and gatherings has brought a ton of value to my freelance experience. No man is an island, or something like that. With other designers I can collaborate and curate a culture of creativity around me.
Find mentors. They might not even know they're your mentors, but you need someone to look up to. No one has it all figured out and there’s no end to what you can learn from those around you. They don't need to be older than you or have been doing it forever, just have some talent and wisdom.
Freelance design is a grind, but you can do it. It involves a ton of risk, but if your work is good, you're a nice person, and you learn to grow some of those business muscles – you’ll have no problem in the world of freelance.
written by Joshua Ariza