There are an estimated 1.4 million freelancers in Britain, with most working in programming, design and multimedia, or writing and translation (PCG, 2011). Approximately 40% or 560,000 of the freelancers work in Design and Media (Office for National Statistics, 2017). Design and media freelancers are commonly referred to as creative freelancers and they can be best defined as managing a business while producing effective visual communication. Typically, a creative freelancer is a self-employed person working on projects either alone or in collaboration with others and offers creative services to the buyers. The most crucial aspect about being a creative freelancer is acquiring the buyers for your services, managing their expectations and delivering work that is expected.
There are many challenges when it comes to acquiring new clients when starting out a career in creative freelancing. As a part of research for this paper, we interviewed eight graphic design freelancers. The interviews centred on their career as a freelancer and how they treat the various challenges that arise. The answer that stood out the most is that freelancing does not bring a full-time salary overnight; it is something that takes time to build. It takes extreme dedication and drive to freelance. As a freelancer, a person has to always be on top of the game, always driven to achieve new goals, and be extremely passionate about what he/she does. They have to find the motivation and determination not only to find new clients, but work on client projects and finish them on time.
The findings of Graphic Designers Surveyed highlights the importance that freelancers place on finding new clients. 11.5% of the respondents have listed self-promotion as the skill that would be the most useful to develop and 9.4% have listed networking as the most important skill to develop. This data represents the significance that is placed on the acquisition of new clients and the challenges around the same.
From the findings of the interview, it is clear that, to acquire new clients, it is very important to build a portfolio. Some respondents even suggested that in the absence of real clients, a fake portfolio could be created which can then be showcased to the potential clients. It is also crucial to keep producing new work, even if it is not for a particular client. The respondents listed many avenues for acquiring clients. Most of the freelancers work with design agencies as freelancers; others find clients on platforms like Upwork, People Per Hour or Freelancer. Some freelancers use the social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn to get new clients. Most of the freelancers do not advertise their work, rather they depend on word of mouth promotion of their work. They also receive work through referrals and networking. Most of the freelancers also have long-term clients, who provide a regular stream of work and income.
While acquiring clients, persistence has been suggested as the most important merit. The potential clients may not immediately hire, but follow ups are important to keep the ball rolling. They believe in creating opportunities for themselves. Also, many freelancers have created recognisable brand name for themselves.
The other important finding from the interviews is about managing client expectations. The general opinion is that work as a graphic designer is less about the designers’ artistic preference, and more about giving the clients what they want. Though the clients are advised about the reasoning for the choices made, ultimately, it is the client who is paying for the service and what they want has to be delivered. There are many instances when the project parameters are ambiguous or misleading, especially when working with non-designer clients. According to Darren McChrystal, one of our respondents, “Some clients are impossible to please and have no idea of what makes good design and feel the most important thing is having a design that appeals to them as opposed to what is best for their company. If I feel a client is going to cause me unhappiness I will cancel the job and give some form of refund, though I have become pretty good at working out if a potential client will be a nuisance.” As a freelancer, there is flexibility to choose the clients that one wants to work with. However, it is equally true that if a freelancer learns how to please difficult customers, they will be well-positioned in the market.
The other aspect of managing client expectations is payment terms. Platforms like Upwork guarantee payment protection. The client deposits the agreed payment is escrow and it is released to the freelancer once the work is complete. The platform also has a dispute redressal mechanisms where the interests of both clients and freelancers are protected. Many freelancers depend on these platforms to ensure they are paid on time. However, in case of direct clients, there is always a possibility of payment default. Most freelancers insist on an upfront payment of 25-50% which will protect them against defaults. To navigate this, they enter into a contract which specifies statement of work, what’s included in the price, what’s not included, payment terms and schedule.
The interviews with the graphic design freelancers have thrown very important aspects of freelancing into a new perspective. When working as a full-time freelancer, a freelancer needs to have some emergency funds, so a delayed payment from a client. The flexibility that freelancing offers comes with its own challenges. To be successful, one has to be good not just at the creative work they do, but also at project management. The cycle of acquiring new clients, delivering as per expectations, receiving payment due on time and maintaining long-term relationship with the client can be exhausting. Though it is termed freelancing, the cycle is equivalent to running a business albeit a small one. A freelancer will be successful only as long as he is disciplined, well-organised and thrives in a non-structured environment. A person looking for structured environment, would work better at a company rather than as a freelancer.