Articles on improving your career as a freelancer, instructions for landing projects, and even lists of great places to go for freelance work — it’s tough not to encounter them, with a great deal of the largest design sites focusing on helping their readers and members find projects to work on.
In fact, amongst design blogs, it’s tough to find one that doesn’t cover the business side of the freelance profession.
Amongst the inspiration posts and other showcases is a big assumption: That this type of constant attention to Design is what’s necessary for improving your career as a freelancer.
The truth, however, is that it isn’t. I call it short-term freelancing, and I’m sure others have a similar name of their own for this type of project-by-project focus to design. Its epidemic amongst most of today’s designers and the blogs they follow, and it’s something that, over time, hurts your career.
I’ve put together a checklist below that should help you see what I’m talking about. This type of short-term focus is very common amongst designers. In fact, it’s a major part of freelancing in any type of industry.
The biggest characteristics of a short-term freelancer tend to be:
- A weekly income goal or a similar short-term metric for determining your work’s value
- An immense focus on getting work done now, even if it’s boring, poorly paid busy-work
- A limited or non-existent focus on the longer term, whether in design or another career
There are major job boards out there for designers, along with a sea of Freelancer.com-style sites that offer instant jobs for instant pay. It seems like a world where it’s impossible not to succeed in as a web designer, particularly if you’ve got the skills for the job. But spending all day on these boards, along with completing work for them, is really a long-term career killer.
Why? Because the work is often poorly paid and, many times, outsourced to you by someone that’s already been commissioned to complete it on their own. This means that you’re unable to use it as part of a resume, unable to claim it’s truly yours for clients in the future, and unable to make the most of your own labor.
In short, it’s an immensely short-term type of design career.
I know some designers that have spent years completing this kind of work, paying attention only to their weekly income than to their long-term prospects. The skills that we have as designers aren’t all that scarce, and using them in this way isn’t going to work in the long term.
Why? Because job boards and freelance websites are becoming increasingly filled up with designers willing to work for a fraction of a typical living wage in a developed country.
I can’t criticize these designers; for the most part, their work is almost at par with the more expensive designer competing with them. In some cases, it could be better than many others.
The problem is that by competing for the clients that these designers shoot for, you’re only shooting yourself in the foot in the long-term. Instead of spending every waking moment completing another unrewarding job from a freelance marketplace, invest your time in something that brings you better returns later. It’s a short-term trade-off, but it’s one that really succeeds for the designers that do it themselves.
This could be spending some of your money on advertising in order to secure more valuable, more lucrative, and more rewarding clients. There’s an aversion to spending money amongst designers that’s quite tough for some to shake. However, once you dedicate some of your income to finding new clients through advertising, you’ll quickly see how rewarding it can become.
It could be creating WordPress themes that are branded with your company’s name, building brand recognition and putting yourself first in line for more lucrative projects further down the line. Even a modest investment in getting your name out there — and out there beyond the freelance sites — is a way to improve your career and move you out of the project-by-project grind.
For many designers, it could be creating your own product — whether virtual or physical, since some web designers also possess amazing offline design skills — and using it to create a business based on your design abilities. It could be producing paid-for templates and reselling them. For many others, it could be designing your own websites as an affiliate for someone else’s products or services.
Whichever path is most compatible with you, it’s important that you take one. I can’t even begin to count the number of great web designers that are still stuck in the day-by-day grind of unrewarding freelance work for poor clients. I can, however, count fairly well the number of designers that have used their skills and experience to build a long-term business that’s vastly more rewarding.
These include blogs, WordPress frameworks, applications, marketplaces, and even products built to appeal to would-be designers looking to improve their careers. All of them share one thing in common: they’re sources of passive income, or at least income that isn’t dependent on jumping from one project to another and sending out invoices.
As much as we, as a community, may not like to admit it, the value of design skills alone isn’t what it once was. The popularity of websites like 99designs, which paid out a measly million dollars to the thousands of people that work there last month, is proof. Spec work and unrewarding projects aren’t the exception to the rule anymore — they’re quickly becoming the rule.
The solution? Well, it’s to exist in a different ecosystem.
When you hear of local governments that spend $4 million on a website and multinationals offering six-figure contracts for reworking a tiny banner ad, you know that there’s still real potential in Design.
However, these opportunities can’t be found where most freelancers are looking.
Over the next five years, the most successful freelance designers won’t necessarily be those that can produce great web page layouts or design the ultimate UIs — they’ll be those that invested their off-hours into networking, business development, and long-term projects. Whether products or connections, to succeed in Design isn’t simply just to improve yourself as a designer anymore.
It’s very tempting to fall into the day-in, day-out act of bidding for freelance projects. It’s even more tempting when you see the income trickling into your bank account.
However, next time you’re just finishing up a project, take a look at the variance in pay rates for design work 10 years ago versus today. It’s enough to kick you into gear, and make you start thinking about long-term strategies for your business.
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