Questions for Freelancers

I am a recent grad with some internship and minimal free lance experience. I have had no luck finding full-time work (though many places show interest,most do not have the funds to hire) so I thought that I might try to pick up some more free lance work to keep me designing. I live in an area that has enough consulting firms and larger corporations that hire designers, so I have plenty of places to contact, but I don’t know quite how to start.

What do I send? A resume? work samples? a brochure? I would like to keep it simple and the cost low, but I’m not sure what they expect from a freelance designer.

what do you send and how do you present yourself?

Also…if you don’t mind my asking, who sets the rate and when do you talk money?

thanks in advance!

Sometimes Core77 can be a deeper wealth of information than it appears. Just do a search on Core (not the forum, but the rest of the site). There are some valuable articles on freelancing with a wealth of information apropos to your questions.

Do exactly what 914 said. Here are some of my own suggestions though, everyone’s experience/prefs are different:

-Teaser / flyer: Nice stuff, takes no effort to glance and get an initial impression that you may be good enough to contact. It’s very low cost, so you can send out tons of them (I’m not suggesting to do that though, I’ll tell you why later). Make it just good enough to peak interest, gotta have more impressive stuff to show at the interview. I put an abbreviated resume/client list on mine so the viewer can get a quick summary of who I am, want more details…call me in!

-Know what your strengths / weaknesses are and advertise that (the strengths!). I’ve had potential clients want me to do 3-d stuff. I’m okaaay, I have a couple of examples in my portf but I’ll tell them straight up that I’m not the best for it, still learning, etc. If you say you can do something, you have to be “fluent” in it. Nobody wants to pay you to be online trying to figure out something simple like making 2 surfs tangent.
P.S. for 3-d work, people generally mean you better be able to do fine tuned surfacing. Not the “carving the block til it looks real close”, or the “machined widget” projects you do when you’re first learning SW or Pro.

Not being very experienced, I’d ask up front what they typically pay out for the type of pj they’re considering you for. Freelance rates vary drastically depending on where you are and whether it’s for a consultancy or corp. Also, if you’re working in-house or using your own studio / equip, your experience level, what others in the area charge, etc…

A little thing I like to do (why am I giving potential comp my techniques?!!) I like to do “focused” searches as opposed to the mass mailings. Do the research and make a list of all the firms you would like to do work with. Categorize them, potential f/t, just freelance, last resort, etc. Keep your list organized, with contact info, etc. Then I do mailouts in groups of 5-10 (depending on how many options you have in your city). In that group, I have some from each category (would love to work f/t, would be good learning exp., etc, (except for the last resort, don’t do that group yet)).
My personal reasoning for the focused attacks is that you don’t want to use all your ammo at once. Send a couple, wait for replies, in that down time you can work on your portf. You may get contact from your first group and then you’ll be busy. If you get back 20 hits, you have to turn down at least 17 (although, that would be an extremely good sign). I personally don’t like having to “leave em hangin” if they were interested enough to contact me, I want them to have the feeling that I can be counted on in an emergency.
In other words, I wouldn’t want them to NOT call the next time because I’m always unavailable whenever they do call. I’ve had some potential clients who seemed to only call me right when I was already in the middle of a big PJ already. So they’ve been contacting me for over a year and I still haven’t gotten the chance to work with them yet. That’s the reasoning for the focused hits.
Also you can keep a constant new flow of teasers. If you send them all out in one week to 100, you have to wait until you have a whole new set of pj’s and new teaser before you contact that whole 100 again. So you end up with a big gap (however long it takes to make a new set w/ teasers) between the times you can cast your lures. If you do them in cycles, you can send lures every 2 months to different groups while upgrading the teasers on the side. By the time you go full circle, you can hit your first group with the new one. Basically, there’s less downtime in terms of you being able to contact people. One way you’re casting a huge net, then thumb-twiddling. The other way keeps you busy and keeps you constantly contacting people.

As you can tell, I really like going the mailout / teaser route. I like to let the work speak. I personally hate the cold-calling, always feel rushed, and like I’m interrupting them, then your cordless battery wears out, or the neighbors dog starts barking, etc… But some are really good on the phone so if that’s a strength, go for it. I’d rather read “no” in a letter than to hear it told to me constantly, just my own psychological thing. The only people I ever call are people I’ve already worked with or who have already contacted me before. Email is great, I find that to be the easiest, everybody gets to communicate on their time, not like demanding the attention on the phone when they have other things on their mind.

Don’t forget your corefolio. Depending on where you are, it helps tremendously. I don’t cold call, teasers are really the only way I contact places. All the rest contact me from my corefolio when they need work done. That’s one of the biggest things about freelancing, just getting the timing right. Lots of pj’s only last a couple of weeks so just because you get rejected (if you contact them out of the blue), it may just be because they don’t “currently” have work, doesn’t necessarily rule you out. But if you’re too pesky, could rule you out before you even get to work with them at all. When they contact you, then you know there’s definitely something brewing.

Check out the other corefolios of people in your area, see which ones are above you or below (honestly). See if any of those people freelance from their resume to see what places use corelancers in your area. You might start seeing recurring firms, etc. See how it compares to your firm wishlist. If you see people you feel you’re more skilled than, you better contact those places that used them for pj’s (if they hired THAT guy, they’d HAVE to want me! lol) You know what I’m saying, honestly compare your skills to others in your area who you see may have done pj’s for places you would like to and make sure your stuff is definitely up to par or better.

Good luck to you I’m sure others will have more to say or will rip me apart for my ramblings (if you work like that, no wonder you’re still skinny!) Anyway, hope this helps some.

thank you so much for your help!

I’m still getting into freelancing and I have a question for you skinny. What do you do if not 3d work? I say this because it seems everything I see that is freelance or part time where I live is for CAD monkeys and 3d modeling. I still can’t get all my surfaces to be tangent, so I have to ask…what should I be selling?

Lastly, thanks for this:

“Do exactly what 914 said.”

I wish I heard that more often.

If you go for consultancies, they want to see research skills, trend boards, fast/accurate/clean freehand drawing ability (I used to think I knew what that was), and illus+phots skills (for presentations), and good foam study models (accurate shapes, clean surfaces, “800grit / hold it to the light” stuff). And you have to be NICE!!! I’ve seen folks that do photoshop work that looks like Alias renderings, except they do them in a couple of hours (probably much faster than it would take to do a 3-d model, set up correct lights, and render).

Granted, there are a lot of places that are “one stop shops” where the designers do the 3-d modelling, etc. Consultancies I’ve lanced for generally have a couple of engineers on staff, so they take care of those things, you just have to give them good ortho lines to work off of (vellum, etc), makes their job easier. But then again, the time it takes to do a good set of orthos in a 2-d, if you know a 3-d well, it would probably take just about the same amount of time. Then you add in time getting the environment right for rendering, that’s the extra time expense.

You don’t want your designers doing that stuff, they should be on paper thinking, conceptualizing, and working out details, or in the shop with their hands on foam or whatever, not fumbling over a program. Ideally you could get a 3-d animator or illustrator to just do that type of stuff based off of your drawings and specs (when it’s JUST for presentation). I’ve heard of places that do that with models also. The keep inhouse modelmakers (who aren’t designers) to make the presentation models based off of designers sketches and renderings. The designer “looks over the shoulder” to ensure all “intent” and rules (draft, etc) are kept intact. In general, those guys are a lot less expensive than designers or engineers.
The main benefit of doing 3-d for presentations is if you know you’ll most likely be going to the next phase (engineering, etc). You’ll already have accurate lines to work off of, then the engineers just have to tweak and fill in the blanks. That streamlined workflow and the WOW factor at presentations (especially if you’re competing with other firms that do 3-d for presentations). But most of what consultancies do is conceptual. I’ve heard that close to 70% of the consultancy workload generally doesn’t go to manufacturing ie; their efforts on that project will end after concept presentations. So if your efforts will end after presentation, you didn’t need that time tweaking surfaces, or with techsupport trying to figure out the variable radius thing, etc. Especially if you could’ve gotten similar (visual) results with pshop in a quarter of the time.

On the other hand, I’ve also worked at corporations where the designers did everything including mech part design (the “not too risky” stuff we can do that doesn’t really need an engineer). But their workload was such that they could do those things. Projects werent’ in and out in 2 weeks like they are in consultancies. Also, they never had to do slick presentations or a gazillion concepts. When it’s inhouse, you’re not competing with other firms, you know whatever you come up with is most likely going to be made, so you try to get to the end goal as soon as possible. Do your quick sketch studies and foams (enough for the people you work with to understand), then get straight to orthos, engineering, sla’s etc. There’s no need for the slick presentations (alias w/ texturemaps, lights, etc).

I fell into the trap of looking at the corefolios and seeing the 3-d work and rushing to learn it so I could put things like that in so I could compete with all these new kids graduating. And most of what I heard interviewing was that it wasn’t necessary. Sketching and ideation is absolutely, THE most important if you want to be a designer, that’s what you’ll be doing 80% of the time at consultancies. It doesn’t hurt to be good at the 3-d stuff, dont’ get me wrong. I wish I was nice at it, as it would increase my freelance marketability (and my ability to pay rent). But I do know on those freelance jobs, that’s all I would be hired to do. If I’m not in on the brainstorm sessions for the pj, sketching on the wall, overhead projector, roll or whatever, or the product refinements, I don’t consider myself one of the designers (decision makers). I’ll be able to contribute, don’t get me wrong, and may refine things and add important details, etc, but I know I’m not the bold print 12pt guy in the product credits, I’ll be one of the sanserif 8pt guys.

I had a teacher tell me way back in school to be very careful about what you advertise in your skillsets or what you focus on in your portf. If you want to design, focus on your design skills and abilities (refined lines + forms, color, sense of proportion, functionality, innovation, etc), not on the “presentation” of your designs (alias, lens flares, overbearing graphics, etc). He told me you’ll quickly get typecast, and you’ll just get hired for that one thing you focus on and that they can easily see you’re good at. Show them slick 3-d, you’ll be the 3-d guy doing renderings of the other designers work. It’s an easy no risk hire because they already know you do that well, so you’ll get hired just to do that. Slick photoready foam models…you’ll be in the shop all day killing your lungs, making models of the other designers designs.

It’s all about delegating, having the best people for specific things, the most streams of focused energy. Fighting the fire with a good sprinkler system or a lot of fire hoses to nip it in the bud as opposed to one big fire hose to tackle the whole blaze. But different places have different endgames so they work under different models. Places where the designers do everything might be smaller and have lower budgets to work with so they can’t afford to hire seperate people for different disciplines. So the designers tackle everything, which we should be able to anyway, it just isn’t the most efficient way assuming you have the funds. Or they may know that their company is also going to tool the design, so then they’ll work under a slightly different set of rules. Or the type of work they do, they can get away with not having engineers (like my plastic soapdish with the living hinge, not too difficult to just spec out). I know of some 2-man type groups that shop everything out, bring in freelancers when they need fresh thought + concepts but shop out alias work for presentation to local cg companies, shop out photo ready models to the generic modelmakers in the area,etc…

Basically, if you don’t want to be a monkey at something, don’t focus on it in your portf or you will get typcast. Focus on your good brainstorming, design and problem solving ability if you want them to bring you in to design and be a “big baller / shot caller” instead of a “big bawler / collect caller”. When you’re green, you may just be brought in for some monkey work because it’s doubtful you’ll be able to hang in a brainstorm session with the 10-15 yr vets that can draw accurately like the guys sketch portf with no rulers or ellipse guides under 10 min. Most of the designers work is done drawing, working through problems, so you have to make that your best, most effective tool and showcase that.

The other things are important too, they just come a little further down the line as ways of illustrating and presenting the design. Initial decision making (for the consultants) is done during the brainstorms, and further definition with the hand sketches / mockups. You want to sell that you can contribute during those phases if you want to be one of the decision-makers. Most of the other things that come after these phases can be delegated to non-designers and the fresh grads, with the designers buzzing around to keep the squad in check and make final decisions.

This is just what I’ve seen from some of my experience, I’m sure others have had different experiences.

The main thing I can say is to keep pushing your skills and know your competition. I constantly work on my portfolio, especially after every interview. If I get feedback that makes sense to me, I adopt it. I’ve completely redone my book 3 times in the past year, every new rendition is better than the last and I get better and more instant response from my teasers with each new evolution. I’ll usually get at least 1 enquiry from every 5 teasers I mail out now, don’t think that’s too bad for a coreguy. And without all of the slick 3-d, I only have one project that I could call a slick 3-d model. It’s more to show my aptitude for it, but I don’t want to be hired for that yet, not even for freelance. I’m not fluent enough with it to have someone depend on me and then I can’t deliver.

You have to be shamefully honest about your work also. And don’t be afraid to be humbled. If you need motivation help to keep pushing your skills, think about things this way:
There are plenty of guys/gals that your’e competing with that DON’T have corefolios. Why? They don’t need them. Those are the ones that go in and get hired on the spot, they don’t have any problem getting the type of freelance work they want or hired fulltime. I realized this freelancing at a place where all of the other designers were also my age, but none had corefolios or anything like that. After working with them, I can see why.
So don’t get too cocky when viewing the corefolios. They cover the range from disillusioned high school student (who wants to skip college and go straight to consulting because they’ve finished all of the form-z tutorials and know how to do a solar flare in pshop) to more experienced people.

I would assume (just to be safe and keep myself in check) that corefolios represents people that have a little trouble getting work. So look at the best portfolios in your area and assume those people have some difficulty (why they’re probably here) and judge your skills next to theres. Assume that the best corefolios you see represents the “average” candidates that would be realistically considered for the project (some lower ones possibly considered, and some higher ones that don’t even have to advertise definitely considered). Keep that in the back of your head to help push you. Even the best folios here have trouble, and there are people you’re up against that are better than what you see here. And you ARE also competing against that “invisible” group. So constantly strive to push those skills to the max, don’t be satisfied with any level you’re at or your portfolio until your phone rings off the hook and you have to keep turning down clients.

Good luck to you all. Once again, I hope I was a little helpful. Freelancing is definitely tough, you have to be ready to fight and be frustrated and have many a bread + water dinner to do what you want to. There’s no shame in taking some monkey work to fill in the gaps, it’s all part of the process. Just be careful about being typecast if you don’t want to do certain types of work. It’s harder because it’s easier for companies to outsource that work so it’s more available. Happy hunting.

Thank you for taking the time to make a detailed experience based reply. I am sure that a lot of people appreciate the heads-up. Good Job!

I’ll add my applause for skinny’s excellent detailed expose of freelance work life, his obvious dedication and selflessness to the cause. These are rare indeed in our field today. Skinny, I don’t know where you find the time for such long replies but we all thank you for contributing your valuable experience to a side of ID too infrequently tackled.

I could add my 2.5 cents from my own freelancing days, but pretty much all the main issues are addressed above. If anything, though, DO read up some good books on consulting (such as Robert Bly’s “Selling Your Services”), even if not necessarily design consulting (these are extremely few). It is important you collect and process information from sources as varied as possible and use only what applies to you.

Your one main focus should continually remain the fact you are running a BUSINESS, not begging anyone for temporary employment, as freelancing is considered in some circles (i.e. a last-resort type of service). Your professional image should reflect that, and should go far beyond your design and presentation skills, which is the “merchandise” you offer. If you only intend on solliciting other design firms you know hire freelancers, you obviously have a far easier sales job to learn, but if you target a wider spectrum of manufacturers, your business skills will actually prove way more valuable than your design skills in keeping you afloat.

Personally, I dislike freelancing for design consultancies for many reasons, the main being they often farm out their least interesting work for which they pay poorly and treat you accordingly. Then, as skinny mentions, a very large proportion of consultancy projects (definitely more than the 70% quoted!) die in sketchbooks and on hard drives without ever seeing the light of day. This may be a fine way to add conceptual work to your portfolio but after some years of practice people start wanting you to show proof you’ve actually made a MARKET difference with your concepts. Moral is design philosophers don’t last long. So keep that in mind as well when approaching potential clients.

If at all possible, don’t go at it alone and definitely get set on having a professional office space outside your home. Like it or not, most people will judge you by appearances and, what’s more, negotiate the numbers with you based on perceived value as well.

Core should definitely start a DESIGN & BUSINESS discussion forum as we hear more and more about designers of various experience levels seriously considering hitting the road on their own in what is really one of the hardest businesses to succeed in today. My feel is, as traditional design employment patterns undergo major shifts with outsourcing, globalization and the insane competition for consumers’ pocketbooks, more and more designers will be practically forced into some form of self-employment in the coming years, whether in design services, product consulting, manufacturing or all of these.

CORE can do a tremendous service to today’s design community by emphasizing the very pressing need for designers to become more business-savy and start understanding they cannot keep selling themselves on pretty portfolios alone. To make design truly pertinent and relevant in our transaction-based system designers must offer more tangible, early proof of their business impact to potential clients and employers.

Anything less means we’ll always stay outside looking in.

Just had some down-time. I like to give helpful insights, one-liners won’t really cover the things people really want advice on.
Egg- do you have any other advice for freelancers trying to increase their client base. I always get the impression that places just think I’m out of work as opposed to trying to be a successful business. Most prospects want me to do the work inhouse, which keeps me from accepting other clients simultaneously.
Am I correct in assuming that you would advise focusing efforts to manufacturers and not consultancies? I’ve worked for consultancies inhouse to get a taste of the broad range of projects they work on, and just to see how they operate. I wouldn’t think that manufacturers would take a single freelancer as seriously as a full consultancy.
Any insights/stories would be helpful. Always learning.

skinny and egg,

sharing your experience and insight is a great contribution to these boards…its refreshing to visit and read constructive advice, as opposed to you know what…anyways, I wanted to know if you use a “work agreement” or contract specifying terms etc. (not a proposal). Wanted to know were I could source this online or if you would be so generous in providing me a sample what you guys use for contract work. I support eggs idea in the creation of a Design & Business section…this would not only help all those involved, but perhaps build a network of designers working independently who could benefit from each others contacts. Wish you guys the best - e.

All of the places I’ve done work for have always provided the work agreements, non-disclosure stuff, etc. Granted, I focus my efforts to places that I know already utilize freelancers, so they have that interaction process / standard forms in place already, then you just fill in the dates, numbers, signed by everybody, then ready to go.
I’m sure someone else here can give more insight to when you’re doing it yourself, or are approaching companies that may not have ever used freelance designers.

Sorry, can’t provide actual contract samples for obvious confidentiality reasons. Mine are customized to my own way of doing things which may not suit your needs. Surely there are CORE resources that can provide you generic forms, as you can also find in many business books devoted to consulting work.

Broadly, I start with a detailed description of the parties involved (may be more than 2), the overall results to achieve, followed by a breakdown into any number of development stages expected along with delivery dates I commit to. Fees, deposits and deliverables for each phase are specd. out. Keep any additional clauses and conditions minimal and simple, people aren’t buying a hotel from you.

You should get paid in full on completion of each phase and NEVER start the next phase without a down-payment. It makes both yourself and your client responsible and usefully anxious. People respect only that which they pay.

Try assembling a small, diverse team instead of being a one-man marching band, your saleability will increase a thousandfold, as will your firm’s capacity to deliver more, better and more varied projects. You’ll also lose the “unfed freelancer” stigma that way.

Again, read up and talk to others already doing it. Core also posts some very good design business stories you can relate to. No matter what, though, it’s uphill all the way, and that’s putting it mildly.

If you’re young, healthy and - ideally - mortgage-free, the excitement is still proportionate to the effort and challenge ahead. Best of luck.