UX & BEYOND BOOK
-The Human side of design
Jan 29, 2024
I spent at least eight years of my career freelancing. For years, it was my “full-time job,” but I even did freelancing as a side gig when I was an employee. I think I can be considered an experienced design freelancer, and I would like to write about the pitfalls of freelancing.
The beginnings and the first junction
In 2004, I started design freelancing as a side job while I had a regular job. Web design was what it was called back then. This type of job had just started in Hungary at that time. IT workers created designs. Still, mainly, it was programmers putting together prototypes rather than dedicated designers. Don’t worry. I will not tell my whole professional life story, at least not in this chapter only the essential things to understand the freelancing pitfalls.
I was always good at drawing, even in primary school, and the whole thing started for me with designing the website of my father’s furniture business. It turned out that I had some talent, so I started to create website designs for local hotels and restaurants and started to work for companies outside the country. I got pretty great clients. This was what created the first pitfall. I started to not care about my regular job that much. It is hard to balance two jobs, and when you make three times more with your side job than your regular 8-hour job and start to work for US companies with great vision as a freelancer from Hungary, you have two options. You quit your daily job and deep-dive into freelancing, or you continue your daily job with less intensity and focus on the side hustle. There are benefits and pitfalls to both ways. I did both.
Build long-term relationships
I was making good money, and that started a cycle. I accepted more and more projects, so I ended up working 12-14 hours a day, including the weekends. It is hard to turn down projects when they offer half your monthly salary for just 2-3 days of work.
While the money was great, I started feeling burnout after a few years. Back then, one of my mistakes was not focusing on engaging in long-term relationships with clients. I was terrible at effectively networking and building up social capital then. I had some recurring clients, but too many just showed up, ordered a couple of designs, and left. Never saw them again.
The main reason building relationships can spare you from hard times is how design works as a profession. Even though we have our research and implementation techniques that make design jobs quite straightforward and nonstop, some part of the design process–especially when we talk about technical implementation–remains subjective. All clients have “their thing.” When you get to know them more and build a long-term working relationship, you learn more about what is essential for them and their team. Communication will also get more manageable and smooth as you get to know each other's style.
Picking up the leftovers
One thing good networking can do is get you more embedded within the client infrastructure you work for. One problem with freelancing is there are many times when all the work is messy enough that no one wants to touch it, and it will end up on your plate. I’m not saying integrating more into your client processes will save you from this. Still, it will at least help you succeed more efficiently, as you will have a more profound knowledge and available resources.
Suppose you think about it with the modern research-driven methods we use nowadays. In that case, being well-integrated into a client's infrastructure and organization as a freelancer is inevitable. There is no other way. All the necessary product iteration rounds and quantitative performance checking are impossible without a continuous relationship.
Save your money.
Another possible pitfall is income uncertainty. As a freelancer, you may have a low-income stream, and predicting when you will get your next project can be challenging. This can lead to financial uncertainty, making it difficult to plan and budget for the future. So some advice here is to save enough money that lasts at least a year if you don’t have a stable income.
The end of the year is an excellent example of why it is necessary. What do regular employees do at the end of the year? They usually slow down or stop working after the 10th of December; they go to Christmas parties, enjoy the “Dim the lights” extra days off and start working only in January while they get their salary and a possible bonus if they are lucky.
You, as a freelancer, might stop getting work for 2-3 months. Of course, you can get different contracts with clients that might cover some of these in-between periods, but this is only the case sometimes. When a financial crisis or a global epidemic hits the economy, contractors and freelancers are the first to be cut.
A competitive landscape
There will always be someone who will get the job done, many times cheaper than you. If you do a great job as a designer, have a solid portfolio, and can communicate well, your most significant competitor will probably not be a Fiverr designer. The best way to beat the competition is by being specialized in your products and services and continually educating yourself. As a freelancer, you are responsible for finding your own clients and marketing your services. This can be challenging if you do not have an extensive network or are uncomfortable with self-promotion.
The ‘quality’ of projects you work on
To be frank, you can not achieve the highest levels on a project alone as a freelancer. Even if you are an outstanding talent, the big name projects don’t just land on a freelancer's desk. While you can get some big logo work if the project involves branding, designing complex projects is not a freelancing job. Onsite UX teams do this type of work. Let me tell you a story about this. I knew a programmer, not a designer, who decided to quit his corporate job and start his own business with a friend. Although both are super talented, they work on nonsense projects because that is what they can get as company contractors. Most of the exciting work is done by in-house employees. Imagine building Drupal themes with 12 years of programming experience. With this story, we get to the next pitfall.
You are technically an employee, even when you think you are a freelancer and not an employee.
Most freelancers are incredibly proud that they are entrepreneurs and not employees. They ‘own their destiny’; this is what they think. One freelancer told me he was happy to be free. They don’t realize that they have the same dependencies as employees. They mainly depend on their 4-5 clients and get paid at an hourly rate. So, even though these companies do not employ them, they are technically the same type of employees. In fact, they are in a worse situation than regular employees, to be honest, as it is much easier for any client to get rid of them. They do not receive traditional employee benefits, such as health insurance, retirement plans, or paid time off. You will also realize that you often turn down incoming projects from new clients and stick to one or two clients. Basically, hourly freelancing is really like being an actual employee–except without the benefits.
The ‘unlimited earning potential’ myth
As an hourly freelancer, you set your rate and work as many hours as possible. While this sounds appealing, I would not encourage you to dream big with your financial expectations. You will have a rate limit if you are not one of the great talents that can set whatever rate they like. Your rate limit is your market price. Although it sounds great that you can work as much as you would like to, believe me, you will not want to work crazy amounts of overtime for decades. Trust me, I’ve been there. After a couple of months or years, if you really like your job, you will start to hate the whole situation and start to burn out really fast. It is tough to return from that. I’ve been there, too.
When you are in, you will ‘roll with it,’, but later, you will settle and not want to work more than 40-45 hours per week.
Managing client expectations
You have a safety net when you work for a company as a designer employee. You have a manager you can turn to, a project manager you can cooperate with, developers to brainstorm with, and QA people to reach out for quantitative data. These resources are limited if none when you are a freelancer. Most of the time, you must solve issues and wear all these hats. Freelancers must often work closely with clients to understand their needs and expectations with little help from other departments. This can be challenging and can lead to misunderstandings and dissatisfaction.
A team of one is a sad one.
This last point might be the most painful. If you have ever worked on a great team with excellent synergy, you will never want to work again. Good teamwork is liberating. Getting feedback and brainstorming together with people who face the same challenges as you is something you can’t buy with money. I declare there is no place where you can grow better than within an inclusive professional team as a designer. I was part of such great teams throughout my career that I realized that being in a great team is the most important thing for me, much more important than the salary. The synergy and intellectual excitement can be even more important than the actual projects you work on.
How to decide whether to be a freelancer or an employee? That is a valid question. The first thing to do is find out if freelancing is for you. If you just started your career, you can give it a try. This is how I also started, and it gave me some excellent extra skills. Negotiating with people and managing things, you learn much. How extensive is your network? How extroverted are you? Are you someone who needs autonomy? Are you a team player? Do you feel well in isolation?
Once you answer these questions, you can see whether freelancing is for you.
Don't miss it.
Buy the book