5 tips for survival as a freelancer

academic cover design freelancer

Steve Thompson is a freelance designer, principally for academic publications and marketing. Here are some of his top tips for freelancers.

Following on from Charlie Wilson’s ‘Ten lessons I’ve learned in ten years as a freelancer‘ post for BookMachine in February, I thought I’d add a few of my own insights. Many of these echo Charlie’s tips but are also particularly from a freelance designer’s perspective.

1) Survival is success (sort of)

There’s no doubt that freelancing can be a real rollercoaster ride, not least financially, and is not for everyone. That said, even just managing to maintain a basic practice over a number of years can feel like an achievement you should be proud of. I for one, would be rather more wealthy had I stayed with the salaried designer job I left nearly seven years ago but still wouldn’t exchange it for the difficult but rewarding struggle of managing my own creative practice.

2) Reflect and refresh

Beware of the adverse effects upon your creativity of a crammed workload and a 12-hour day. It’s vital that you take time between jobs, and breaks in the middle of projects, to reflect on the work you’ve done and are yet to do. You’ll actually end up working faster and more productively as a result of these breaks. Your freelance status gives you invaluable flexibility in this respect so make full use of it.

3) Prime your portfolio

A good online portfolio is probably the basic minimum you’ll need to get clients interested. And if your body of commissioned work is small and limited in scope, there’s no reason you can’t pad it out with a selection of inspired ‘imaginary’ projects for non-existent clients. If it better showcases your abilities and potential, then it’s all to the good.

4) Network productively

I’d recommend setting aside some time every month for networking and promotion. Even if your practice seems to be going well and your workload is substantial, things can always turn around. Clients can bring design work in-house or alternately decide to outsource to designers or agencies abroad. But keep your networking focussed and selective, as well as enjoyable. It’s a bit like job applications – better to target a few relevant and interesting opportunities than spread your time and resources too thinly.

5) Diversify your interests

This will help keep you keen and also curious. My own educational background was in the arts but, just by chance, the majority of my design career has been working for the science and social science publishing sectors. Specialisation can be a limitation as well as a virtue so try and keep yourself open to a range of inspirations and possibilities.

Steve Thompson has been a designer for fourteen years – seven as a salaried designer with a leading publisher and nearly seven as a freelancer. Clients have included Reed Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Bloomsbury, Oxford University Press and Emerald. Visit his site, or follow him on Twitter.

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