As with most people who go to art or design school, I had stars in my eyes and couldn’t wait to start my corporate career. What could be better than getting paid to do what I love? However, while there are advantages to working for a business, there are also drawbacks. With time, I realized I didn’t have the freedom I wanted to be as creative as I’d like. I decided to quit the day job and begin a freelance career.
While owning my own freelance web design business is a dream come true, there are some struggles I’ve faced along the way — both in the corporate world and as a freelancer —that I’ve had to figure out how to overcome:
Especially when working in the corporate world, burnout is a serious issue. You may create the same type of website 15 times in a row until you hope you never see another grid layout as long as you live. Because you have less creativity when working in the corporate world, and must stick to a list of requirements, burnout becomes a very real problem.
The best way to overcome burnout is to figure out ways to refill your creative well. Read a book such as Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” and implement little things that make you feel inspired, such as visiting a local art museum.
2. Lack of Knowledge
No matter what you learned in school, there will come a point when you lack some skill you need and feel a bit overwhelmed or ill-equipped to complete a project effectively. If you are adept at coding HTML websites but get a new client who needs better encryption and coding than a typical small-business website, you may feel uncertain how to proceed.
The best way to overcome lack of knowledge is to learn something new. As a designer, you should be consistently learning new skills. If you don’t understand something, take an online course.
3. Low Starting Pay
Graphic design is listed in the top 10 careers to avoid for college students. There is a reason. There are big studios to compete with and there is a fairly low starting pay of $35,000 a year. However, if you love design, it is a very rewarding career field.
Overcome the low starting pay by adding additional skills in the form of a minor on your degree or taking on side work. One designer I know took a job as a coffee barista in the evenings and made enough to get by until she gained some experience and made more money.
4. Lightning Fast Turnarounds
Many designers cite the fast turnaround times as one of the things that stresses them the most. If you work for an agency, they may put unrealistic demands on you and expect you to work 50 or more hours a week for the same low pay mentioned above. If you work as a freelancer, you must keep your clients happy or risk losing them to bigger agencies who can give them a fast turnaround.
Fast turnarounds don’t always allow enough time for creativity to fully blossom. This means you might wind up creating a product you aren’t completely satisfied with. The best way to overcome this is to focus on one task at a time and do the best you can.
5. Cash Flow
If you’re freelancing, your clients might not always pay you on time. Unfortunately, their last priority may be paying that invoice you sent. Since many of your clients at first are likely to be small businesses, they too may face cash-flow issues.
Plan ahead, and when money comes in steadily, set aside enough to see you through those lean times. About 82 percent of small businesses that fail do so because of cash-flow issues. Make a plan for how to get through those lean times, and your business has a high chance of succeeding.
6. Good Workspace
An improper workspace negatively impacts your work, because it’s uncomfortable when sitting for long stretches of time. A good workspace includes ergonomic features, such as a desk that allows your arm to bend at a 90-degree angle and a chair that doesn’t place stress on your back.
You’ll also want to make sure you have plenty of storage space for things such as client files and that you can both sit and stand when working, so you can adjust your position and remain comfortable when working long days.
7. Self-Employment Tax
If you’re just leaving the corporate world, you may not realize that your employer paid half your Medicare taxes and you’ll now be responsible for paying 100 percent of them. You’ll also now have to make estimated quarterly payments, as you’ll no longer have an employer to withdraw these funds from each paycheck for you.
Invest in a consultation with a good tax accountant and figure out how much you need to pay in both federal and state estimated taxes each quarter so you don’t owe a large amount of money at the end of the year. This is difficult if your income is sporadic, so you may need to figure this amount and file with a more extended method for at least the first year.
8. Lack of Respect
Most of the people you work for will not be fellow creative types. You’ll likely work for business owners and managers. They may not realize the effort involved to get that logo just the right color and with the perfect swirl on the letter L. Clients make demands at times that may create stress and seem unreasonable in the light of how much work the changes require.
The best way to overcome this is to educate your clients. When a request is made that will take hours upon hours to implement, explain some of the process to them and give them a quote on how much time it will take. As a gesture of goodwill, you can offer to make the changes this time at no additional charge, but communicate that additional changes may require a fee.
Deadlines are a vital part of design work. Businesses have deadlines to coincide with a product launch or a grand opening, but those deadlines can really creep up on you — especially if you’re fairly new to design and juggling multiple projects.
The best thing to do is look at your final deadline and then work backward to set a timeline to complete small projects that will lead up to the finished website. You should also set a deadline for when the client needs to respond to any mockups or send you material and reminders. You can’t meet your deadlines if they don’t respond in a timely manner.
There have been times I’ve had several projects going at once. It’s very tempting to switch back and forth between tasks quickly and keep multiple windows open on your computer. However, numerous studies show that most people don’t multitask efficiently. What happens is that your attention is diluted among all the projects and you don’t do any of them to the best of your ability.
Solve this by devoting a minimum of 20 minutes to one task at a time. This allows you to get a bit done on that task before having to switch to another. There are times when you must finish more than one item in a day or work on things in batches, so just do your best to focus on the task at hand before moving on to the next and focusing exclusively on that.
11. Finding New Ideas
After you’ve designed for a while, coming up with fresh, new ideas isn’t always easy. Some designers find they have a particular style, and most of their designs look somewhat similar. There are also some basic design standards that make it difficult to break out of the box.
Take time to study the work of other designers. While you should never copy another designer’s work, you can gain inspiration from brilliant designs and apply techniques to your own.
12. Difficult Clients
As a new freelancer, you may need to take on each client that comes your way. However, as your reputation grows and you develop a strong client base, that won’t always be the case. A difficult client is one who demands a lot of your time, doesn’t pay promptly or talks to you in a demeaning way.
Every year, look at your client list and rate your clients starting with your best one and numbering them down. Take the bottom 10 percent or so and decide whether you want to continue to work with them. Letting them go allows you to have free space to take on an awesome client who won’t be difficult.
13. New Technology
As time goes on, new software and technology enters the scene. Designers of yesterday probably never expected the popularity of WordPress websites, for example. New technology is hard to stay with, because it is sometimes expensive to buy or train to use it.
Read articles about new technology and invest in learning the things that make sense for you as a designer. If you need more coding skills, take a coding course. If you need better software, invest in it and take a class on how to use it. Stay updated on everything you can.
Let’s face it: Design work isn’t as glamorous as you initially thought it would be. It means long hours, changes that don’t make sense to you and staying up to date on absolutely everything. All this for lower pay than you thought and lack of job security.
However, if you can keep in mind why you loved designing in the first place, it will keep your attitude where it needs to be. No one wants to work with a grumpy designer, so try to find the joy in design again.
Design Is Worth It
Even though you will face struggles both as a designer working for a corporation and as a freelancer, it’s worth it. You’ll have the opportunity to create something beautiful and put it out on the internet for everyone to see. You’ll develop relationships with your clients that turn into friendships. You’ll be able to tell others you love what you do. At the end of the day, that is what matters most.