Are freelance designers really suckers?

expert freelancer

When someone tells you they’re a freelancer, what are your first thoughts?

Does the freelance job title give an impression of expert, or of someone new to the field, perhaps picking up jobs to make ends meet?

Tony Clark (of and ) prompted me to publish this post after writing how freelancing is for suckers.

While at first he didn’t want to admit it, Tony’s realisation came when he was working on a web redesign for a real estate consultant. About five iterations had been produced, with not one to the satisfaction of the client, even though Tony considered the results to be beautiful, and very user-friendly.

It turns out the client wasn’t at all interested in Tony’s expertise or knowledge of good design. All the real estate consultant wanted was someone to create what he thought was good design, even though he had no design education, and this became apparent to Tony when his client said:

“You’re a vendor, I’m the client. I don’t care what you think, just do it like I ask.”

I’ve been self-employed for just two and a half years, but I already know exactly the design client that Tony refers to.

When I started, I branded myself as a freelance designer, but it wasn’t long before I worked with someone who disagreed with every alternative I presented, claiming that none were suitable for the job. I even took a hit and worked for a lot longer than I was being paid for.

In his article, Tony adds:

“Freelancing is a great way to start out, but if you’re just doing it to cover the basic needs, you’ll be scrambling forever to keep up. There are options though — and I thought I found the perfect solution. .”

Today I brand myself as a graphic designer and design consultant, as opposed to freelance graphic designer. I don’t know if it makes a difference to my clients, but each one since the change has been very happy with what I do.

Here’s an interesting hierarchical diagram, from Tony’s article, showing freelancers on the bottom rung.

self-employment hierarchy
Image copyright:

Tony typically defines a freelancer as one person working on many short-term projects, and Jeanne, of Writer’s Notes, added this comment:

“It is an unfortunate reality that, very often, freelancers, like temp workers, get no respect. (I’ve functioned in both capacities.) Of course, there are many employers who treat their employees with zero respect, as well.”

What do you think?

As a client, would you consider a consultant more knowledgeable than a freelancer? Perhaps you think it takes time before a freelancer earns the right to be called a consultant, but in reality, a graphic designer already wears .

As a designer, do you think the freelance title attracts a negative impression of what you do? Do you, or have you, ever defined yourself as a freelance designer? If so, it’d be great to read your opinion.

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102 comments

  1. That is very interesting.
    I never thought about that…
    I guess I’m going to be calling myself an independent contractor from now on…

  2. David,

    Enjoyed your post–though I’m not a graphic designer. The points you’ve made are really quite universally applicable and offer some excellent food for thought. Perhaps we freelance writers would be better off referring to ourselves simply as “writers.” After all, most employees don’t use the word “employee” when describing their line of work, so why should we be expected to use the word “freelance”? And, perhaps more importantly, consultants, experts, and gurus often freelance but rarely use the word. In today’s world, image is everything.

    Thanks for quoting my comment–and thanks for visiting Writer’s Notes!

    Jeanne

  3. I have had many similar clients and came out with the same conclusions. Ok, I understand if someone doesn’t like my work but to be rude in purpose, it’s just wrong. If I can be a professional so can my clients.

  4. Brian, I’d thought about something similar before reading Tony’s post. Food for thought, even if you choose to continue freelancing.

    Jeanne, my pleasure linking to and visiting Writer’s Notes. Great point about employees not using the word ‘employee’.

    Marko, sorry to read about that. Some people don’t know any better. As designers, like any profession, we take knocks personally. I invite criticism on my projects, as it’s a great way to learn, but criticism must be constructive to be of any use.

  5. It’s interesting you call yourself a consultant David, that paints a completely different picture in my mind to either a contractor or a freelancer. A consultant is someone who I think of as being hands off, advising as opposed to doing. Although I think that’s more down to me being fully entrenched in the software development side of things and not in “creative”. As a BA I’d consider myself a consultant and if I were to break away from the company I currently work for, I’d label myself as such, and not a freelancer or contractor. Horses for courses I guess.

  6. Interesting discussion David. I agree with Simon somewhat – the word “consultant” gives me a picture of someone who gives their opinion and expertise, but doesn’t necessarily produce a design. But, hey, if it’s been working for you, that’s good. I prefer just “graphic designer”, or “designer”, leaving out the word “freelance” all together.

  7. Never really crossed my mind before now, but yes, I could see from a client perspective where the word “freelancer” could hold a negative impression. To someone in the business, it doesn’t, but to someone on the outside I guess they could interpret freelancer as being someone who does design work, but basically just does whatever the client wants (like you mentioned in the article). Regardless of what everyone says, the client is not always right. :)

    Calling yourself a consultant or graphic/web designer does sound somewhat more professional I guess.

    Nice write up.

  8. After doing this for about 6 years and looking back over my diverse client base – there are the majority of client who work with you and the project ends up being a sucess as a result of open, two-way communication. And there is that handful of clients who fall into that “I’m paying you – you will do what I want” category and no amount of ‘consulting’ changes the flow or direction of the project.

    I can’t say with any authority whether or not wearing a “Feelancer” or “Consultant” hat would have changed the direction of those particular projects, quite honestly.

    No matter what we call ourselves… there will always be *those* clients, I think.

    Interesting post, David!

  9. Simon, hat picture is one I have too, how the consultant is more hands-off. Maybe I could label myself more effectively, it’s just that as I see it, I provide a lot of feedback to clients, and they ask for advice on many topics other than simply identity design.

    Randa, it’s working so far, although the only place I actually label myself is on my ‘about’ page. When talking, I say ‘graphic designer’. I’d do the same as you, leaving out the word ‘freelance’ altogether.

  10. Deron,

    Thanks for your take on things bud. I think it does seem a little more professional to go the contractor / consultant route, even if you continue with the same skills.

    Lisa,

    Been a while, I hope all’s well with you? I think you’re spot on, that there’ll always be those clients, no matter what hat you’re wearing. Perhaps the frequency might change, but like you, I’ve no actual proof of that.

  11. David – thanks :) Things are better now that I’ve leaped some of the more chaotic hurdles in life over the past few months….I’ve been reading your feed, though – I’ve just been falling down on commenting on some of your great articles :)

  12. David,

    Perhaps you could go the “graphic designer/consultant” route. That would make it obvious that you do the hands-on work (which, in itself, takes a great deal of skill) but, at the same time, would lend more authority to your work–which could help with “those” (more difficult) clients.

    Jeanne

  13. Really interesting post, David.

    The way I’ve separated it over the years is that I’m “freelance” if I’m working on site for someone else and “I have my own graphic design business” if I’m working for a client. As I did less and less work in someone else’s office and more in my own, I called myself a graphic designer. At this point I’m even rethinking that — it sounds too specialized. But “identity consultant” or “branding pro” sound a little forced to me. I like creative director, but maybe it’s more of a title?

    Regardless of what I’ve called myself, though, I agree that sometimes I’ve had clients that just see me as a pair of hands on the keyboard and mouse to channel their great ideas. It usually turns out to be unsatisfying on both ends — I feel like my knowledge and expertise aren’t being used and the client wonders why the idea isn’t coming together the way he hoped. Design should be collaborative, and just as a know-it-all designer isn’t good, neither is the client who can’t take advice.

  14. Leslie,

    How about “branding consultant”?

    Jeanne

  15. Great post David, very thought-provoking.

    I also find it interesting to observe how people working for themselves across different industries brand themselves; some automatically refer to themselves as contractors, while for others the word freelancers seems to apply almost universally. For example, in my previous profession – journalism – those working independently are referred to as freelancers, and in many instances are treated just as you’ve described.

    Another thought; if you decide to set up for yourself as a freelancer, at what point do you make the transition from freelancer to independent contractor? The perception that clients have is one thing (and important to consider); how you describe yourself also speaks volumes about how you consider yourself professionally and how you position yourself in the marketplace. I will be giving this a lot of thought. Thanks.

  16. To me freelancer almost has the connotation of “moonlighter”. It makes me think of places like eLance where it’s about bottom dollar prices. In the context of graphic or web design / development nothing about “freelancer” makes me think of “expert”.

    Why would you include “freelancer” or “contractor” in your title anyways?

    You want to quickly convey your core competencies. What does “freelancer” tell anyone? I can’t think of anything positive.

    Focus on what you do – not the structure of your business.

  17. No worries, Lisa,

    I know how easily things can build up. A belated congrats on your five year blog anniversary! That’s a huge achievement, which kind of dwarfs my recent one year anniversary. I hope the web event in New York is lots of fun, and thanks for reading my posts via RSS.

    Jeanne,

    I appreciate your opinion, and I think the designer / consultant route could work, if I was to push it more than I do at present. Maybe one day I’ll take a less hands-on approach, depending on expansion, or passive income routes, but for now I really enjoy being involved with design, collaborating with clients as Leslie mentions.

    Leslie,

    That’s a great sentence you typed:

    Design should be collaborative, and just as a know-it-all designer isn’t good, neither is the client who can’t take advice.

    I’ve also previously labelled myself as freelance when working ‘on-site’. I guess it’s a way to differentiate yourself from the employees who surround you. What do you reckon of Jeanne’s idea of ‘branding consultant’, or ‘brand consultant’? Personally I prefer it to either ‘identity consultant’ or ‘branding pro’, but that’s very subjective considering only you know what you do best.

    Tracey,

    Glad I provoked a few thoughts. Testament to Tony’s original blog post. Good question about the transition from freelancer to contractor. When becoming self-employed, do you even need to call yourself a freelancer? I don’t think so.

    I mention in the post about a freelancer ‘earning the right’ to call themselves a consultant, but for me, I’d not have made the move to self-employment if I didn’t think I was able to teach people about my trade.

    Justin,

    The term ‘freelancer’ also makes me think of places like eLance and freelancers.net, where low prices are the norm. Not great when wanting to position yourself at the higher end of the marketplace.

  18. I was actually of the complete opposite opinion – that freelancers can be of a very high standard. This assumption has largely been come to by regular visits to CSS Remix, where many of the designs are by freelancers.

    Also, the thing is with freelancers is that they have lowers cost. Whereas a design agency really needs a minimum of £150 a day, a freelancer could probably eek by on £150 a week. So a freelancer is able to do more for the money, but to what standard?

    I only ever did one site as a freelancer and was severely abused by the client. You have done very well to survive for two and a half years :)

  19. One of the things that prompted me to write that series is the number of highly gifted creative people I’ve worked with that “settled” for whatever work they could hustle up. Just by making a small shift in mindset, you begin to realize that you really are an expert, and not just a pen (or tablet and mouse) for hire. What’s interesting is as I was talking with some people about his subject, I gave your name as someone I consider an expert in the field of graphic arts and design. The way you position yourself on your “hire me” page is as an expert, which I’m guessing gets you better and higher paying work.

    My goal with the series was to get other folks out of the “take what you can get” mindset, and see how they can position themselves as experts and trusted advisors. The pay is better, the work is better, and the client respect is definitely better.

  20. David,

    I just want to thank you for the great write-up, and for sharing Tony’s great article. It does make for excellent inspirational reading! The part about how Freelancers gets abused definitely rings true to heart.

    Interestingly, I have to ask if you fine folks can explain further about your experiences with eLance. Reason why is because I’m actually interested in signing up. Sure enough, there are tons of underpaid projects and low-balling quotes are common practices. But at the same time I have noted several higher profile projects also made available over there?

    I know this because I am a free user right now, so I get updates on these ‘higher-profile’ projects.

    Do share your thoughts~! Thanks!

  21. Thanks for sharing Tony’s story and your own thoughts on the situation, David. I just had a very difficult experience with this kind of client and last week I nearly packed it all in. This has given me some things to think on as I move on from that job….

  22. Great post. Time for new business cards…

  23. David,

    Nice to read that you highly value some freelancers, although I’d not expect anyone to become self-employed in order to ‘eek by on £150 ($300) a week’.

    Tony,

    Thanks for the kind words, and for your impression on my ‘hire me’ page. I am able to attract higher paid work at this point, than I have been at any other point in my short period of self-employment, although putting this down to how I position myself isn’t so clear.

    My organic search engine traffic has increased greatly over the past few months, and my portfolio was previously very thin (it still is to some respects, but I’m continuously adding new projects).

    So there are a number of reasons, but I do believe that my ‘hire me’ page is a contributing factor.

    Nik,

    You’re very welcome. Regarding eLance, and similar websites, because there are so many underpaid projects, it takes much longer to find any worthwhile ones. I can use this time to concentrate on my own marketing, and contacting people directly who I want to work with, as opposed to finding the needle in a haystack, then bidding on that job in the hope that I’m selected to do the work.

    If anyone has a different opinion on freelance website pricing it’d be great to know.

    Denise,

    Sorry to read about your experience last week. Don’t be discouraged, however, as I’ve found that it takes those bad experiences to make more good ones. For every negative there’s a positive, and I’m sure you’ve learnt a thing or two in the process?

    Harris,

    I’d like to see your business cards, either now or following some new designs. Have you posted them online anywhere?

  24. Hi David, I’ve been subscribed to your blog for a couple of months now and I look forward to the emails arriving, keep up the good work.

    Back on topic!

    Recently I considered using a freelancer’s services to help cover the workload. I get quite alot of CV’s sent through, and this particular chap had an excellent portfolio of flash based projects.

    Unfortunately, although he was initially very keen to complete the work on offer, over the next few days it became increasingly difficult to contact him to discuss the requirements and costs in detail.

    In the end I did not use his services, simply because of the initial communication problems, I dreaded to think what might happen if there were any alterations during the project itself, which in turn would have a detrimental effect with the client relationship.

    James

  25. Just wanted to say thanks for this thought provoking entry. I really enjoy your blog and your articles are great! I have to say, having “freelanced” at one of the USA’s largest financial corporation’s advertising agency, I no longer think of myself as a freelancer. I went in to the office every day and myself and other freelancers would commiserate on the great benefits, employee discounts and perks that we weren’t getting. Going in to the corporate world every day knowing full well you’re not a “real” employee will cure you of that quickly!

    Freelancers, to me, are those seeing jobs through creative agencies, not those who are running their own thing with their own clients. If you’re running your own business, you are a consultant/designer/guru. To the client, you are all those things. If you still want to “freelance” at a few outside sites, so be it but when they’re your clients, you’re no longer a freelancer.

  26. That’s an interesting thought, which I hadn’t considered before.

    I’ve noticed a difference in the type of clients I’ve been attracting lately as well. I never purposefully thought about my wording, but after looking over my Services page, the word freelance is nowhere to be found…

    With that said, I think having a blog is a huge factor in the new-found respect. It’s one thing for a client not to take the advice of a designer they’ve never met, but it’s a lot harder to ignore their advice when their blog shows that x-hundred (Or x-thousand for some :p ) other people are taking their advice daily.

  27. James,

    That’s great that you’re an email subscriber. Thanks very much. Had you thought about using RSS as an alternative? Over the past year I’ve found that some people unsubscribe from email alerts because they prefer to keep their inboxes work-related, and RSS is a good way to do that, without missing any blog posts.

    I think you were definitely right not to go with the freelancer you mention, and for those communication reasons too. That’s a benefit of hosting a blog, as a potential client can see that you communicate frequently.

    Jessica,

    Good of you to leave your take on things, thanks a lot, and it’s my pleasure providing info you think is relevant.

    Michael,

    That’s a great point about having a blog with a decent readership. For those potential clients who are familiar with subscriber stats, it’ll certainly help build trust. Without my blog, and the information I publish, I’m sure it’d take a lot more time attracting those clients who approach me through my website.

  28. how do you deal with rude clients that does not respect your design?

  29. Chiho,

    When clients don’t respect your work, approach them with a level head. Stay calm, and speak to them as you would like to be spoken to.

    Treat them as your teachers, because we can all learn how to practice patience.

  30. I know one thing that seems to help a lot when dealing with the rude clients:

    Make sure to clarify the relationship up front as much as possible. I always make it a point to ask if the client is working with us to come up with an effective solution together, or if we’re expected to be more of a production company for the client’s ideas. It’s weird to ask this, but I’m always surprised how often it’s not what I expected.

    Usually that gives me a pretty good awareness of how the project is going to go.

    If there’s still a little bit of ambiguity with the relationship I stress that the project is for the client’s customers. Not the client. And that there’s a good chance the client may not like it personally, but will get results with their customers.

    After that, you’re pretty much guaranteed to know whether or not the client is going to be a pain in the butt.

    Great post! Thanks!

  31. Great discussion here, folks.

    I’ve recently become a freelancer myself and in the last week alone I saw a little bit of everything discussed in these comments.

    I was asked to design a logo for $15 and to write a 1,000 word SEO article for $2. I refused both commissions because I’m not about to set the bar that low for myself or my fellow designers. Seems low prices like that are contagious, as you guys mentioned with eLance and Scriptlance.

    But on the other side of the coin, I picked up a WordPress redesign, business card/logo design and some writing work for prices that were just fine. The fancy thing about those is that each came from clients who’d already hired someone else but who had stopped communicating.

    So basically, even though I was second or third in line, I still got work just due to communication alone. Definitely a learning experience for me.

  32. Sounds like Tony’s client is a textbook example of the kind of client who should be fired. ;)

  33. Dan,

    That’s an interesting way to clarify the working relationship. Do you ever find, that when you say your project is for the client’s customers, that the client tells you they know their customer best?

    Regardless, no doubt your method lets each party know exactly what’s happening. Thanks for commenting, and keep providing those great quotes.

    Charlie,

    Very glad to read you refused both those ridiculous commissions. Some people are really quite ignorant of the services other people provide.

    That’s great that you’re learning. Each day is a learning process for me too, and no matter what happens, it’s always obvious how important good communication with the client is.

    Wendy,

    Yep, you got that right. Even though I hate doing it, and it’s a very rare occurrence, sometimes you’ve just got to pull the trigger.

  34. I don’t actually have business cards because I have no idea how to market myself. I made a design a few months ago that I thought was good, but I can’t find it right now. I think my name is too long to market myself by full name like you. There is no image that fits well with my name. And I don’t have much money. That kinda limits me. By the way, I noticed comments are now “top notch” instead of “excellent.” I’m glad to see the quality has improved.

  35. My name is really long too, even the name of my design studio is long. It’s the hardest thing to market yourself, but I suggest you just bite the bullet and do one look. You can always change it later. Even David on this blog has the evolution of his own site. I’ve had my business for a year and already changed the look once (although I doubt I’ll do it again for a while.) Invest in a book like “The Best of Logos, Corporate Identity, Business Cards” etc and browse through for inspiration. Whatever you come up with is better than having nothing. I know the decision can be paralyzing but push through! You’ll be glad you did.

  36. Freelacer, contractor, expert,….in my opinion, nothing from that is really important if your work sucks. If your designs are good, you can call yourself whatever you like, also> freelancing contracting expert < and people will still order the stuff by you. Harris, marketing is one of the most important stuff, belive me, you must promote yourself somehow. If not, you can be a Picasso, but if people will not know you, noone will order something by you and you can call yourself whatever you like. Don’t think about, when your name is to long,…..” NewWebPick ” sounds this something special ?, like for some experts, good designers, artist ?. For sure not, but it’s probably one of the best and most readed online graphic designer & digital artist magazine in the world.

  37. David,

    Dang! Thats’ always a tough one… The client always knows their customer better, but they usually don’t know the medium and how to communicate effectively with it.

    I like to look at it from an “idea vs. execution” perspective. If the client says something needs to be blue, for example, they’re making a design execution. I always try and pull it back to the idea level and find out they don’t think it’s professional enough, or whatever the case may be. Then solve that problem, hopefully, in a more effective way than how the client was approaching it. I try my best to never let a client make a design execution. After that happens a few times, the client tends to get the point.

    And, of course, sometimes they’re just stubborn. Then I just do the best to make the client happy, skip putting the project in the portfolio, and try and find out what I did or how I presented myself in a way that created that relationship. Live and learn. :)

  38. Interesting, I have actually started saying that I’m a “self employed” designer rather than “freelance” designer, I think it sounds more professional

  39. I view myself as a freelancer who works for his own entertainment, mostly because the money just isn’t there in my blog niche.

    As far as money goes, I make very little, but the respect and admiration of my co-workers is undeniably cool.

    Now, if I could only start making a little money with my hobby…

  40. Harris,

    There’s nothing to say you need a mark, image or icon to go with your name, and you could always abbreviate, such as Todd And (for Todd Andrlik). I can empathise with creating a personal identity though, and I struggled for some time before I had to say, “enough is enough”, and just get on with it.

    You have a keen eye, noticing how comments are now top notch. ;)

    Jessica,

    That’s good advice, and you’re right. It can always be changed (or evolved) as I’ve done on more than one occasion!

    Mati,

    Of course if your work is no good, it doesn’t really matter what you label yourself. The point I’m getting at is that many people see your name / job title etc. before getting a glimpse of your portfolio, and you want to give the most favourable impression possible beforehand.

    If you have an excellent portfolio, but your business card reads, “David Airey, mad skillz at dezign”, you’re not really doing yourself justice.

    Dan,

    Nicely explained, and I’m glad it’s working out for you. Live and learn is very apt.

    Design Submit,

    Thanks for commenting, and best of luck in your self-employment.

    J.D.,

    Making money from a hobby is certainly a goal to aspire to. Even before working in the field, for me, design is more than just a hobby. It’s a passion that I find very difficult to imagine living without.

  41. David Airey
    Sure, why not if you have foud a way, which brings you more customers and long time projects is that great, but on the end, your works & marketing have bring you on this stage and not how you have call yourself. I call my self simply an artist because i working with digital paintings but i could call my self also an freelancer and when i speak with an customer, he always look at the first stage on my works, image and my online presentation, everything else doesn’t really metter so much that he wouldn’t order some stuff by me if he love it…. Sure if i would be an self deployer, maybe i would have some customer more, but such customers, which looking so much on ” if you are self deployer,…..” doens’t even look at 1. point on quality, probably they looking just for some cheap stuff.

  42. And where are you in this hierarchy, David? ;)
    Of course, as usual this is a very good entry and you make very good points, but I will allow myself the freedom to say that it is practically our duty to educate our clients. I’ve been involved in many design processes, and I did manage to convince the clients to do it my way. The results spoke for themselves.

    I may seem easy, but if I have to put my name on a project, I expect full trust, or I don’t take it. Stubborn Mig features, what do you know? He, he.

    On a private note, David, when you have the time, I’d like to talk to you about something. Let me know.

  43. Tony’s client should’ve just bought products from here: http://www.makemylogobiggercream.com/

  44. I am going to have to read these comments another time (looks like an awesome discussion with tons of great ideas!), but I wanted to chip in. I can’t believe Tony’s client actually said that! I guess we as independent consultants need to learn to tell the difference between a client who wants a production artist (like Tony’s client) and a creative professional (what we all hope our client wants, our recommendations based on experience). I think even the title graphic designer has its issues. Some people view us as little more than artist who play in the computer, as we all know clients who have thought, if not actually said, “My 11 year old could’ve done that!”

  45. Totally agree. I had one client who was like that and I like your idea of calling yourself a contractor or something different instead of a freelancer…

  46. Mig,

    I completely agree that it’s part of a designers job to educate. A very important part too.

    Where am I in the hierarchy? I’ve always preferred a flat-level management system, where everyone’s on the same plane. Some people know more than others about particular things, and vice versa. We can learn something from everyone. Hope that doesn’t sound like a cop out. :)

    Lauren,

    There are many great comments left here, and yep, there could be some limiting factors to ‘graphic designer’, mainly because so many people don’t understand what the job involves, like you say. That goes back to Mig’s point about educating our clients, although the main focus of this article is how we’re perceived before we get that chance to educate.

    Jermayn,

    Cheers for the comment. Anyone in the business for a decent length of time will uncover a similar client.

  47. I’ve always treated the term “Freelance” with respect, after all these people are making a living without the security of a regular employer. As a potential client, I would actually prefer to employ a freelance than an agency, for example. I’d prefer to pay for the quality of the work rather than pay for the preputaion or image, which some agencies seem to convey.

    Mark.

  48. I associate ‘freelance’ with my first encounter with the term – that of freelance photographers and writers that shop a portfolio to magazines, that pick and choose what they like, or commission work to specification.

    In either case, the implication is that the freelancer fills a useful niche – providing ‘filler’ material of a suitable composure and topic to complement what the customer is doing. ‘Freelance’ seemed, to me, to be creative in business tactics (paparazzi come to mind), but mostly technical rather than creative about the art.

    And it may be that others feel the same way. Tony seems to have found at least one customer used to setting the specs and expecting a technically competent response to those specs. That is, for that customer the role was ‘freelance’, and not ‘designer’.

    As for how universally the ‘technician’ baggage has to follow the label freelance, I imagine that varies. I think Tony’s real problem was starting the job before finding out what the customer actually wanted. Unsatisfied expectations were left dangling about the work. The ‘freelance’ title might have set the stage, but the wreck would surely have happened anyway.

  49. I think calling oneself a design consultant gets much more respect that to say you are a freelancer. But there are certain clients who will always think they know more no matter what you call yourself.

  50. I have to agree that presenting yourself as a freelancer can many times lead to problems. I had some similar issues before and this made me transform myself into a firm. I made all the paperwork and now, even if I am still the only one to work since the firm is young, I am not a freelancer anymore. And yeah, it really helped with the way my clients see me ..

  51. Excellent article. I too found that when I went form using my name (Marcus Neto) to using my company identity (Blue Fish Design Studio) I gained some respect with clients. I also added a part-time employee and listed my best friend and sometimes helper as an employee as well. When people view my site now they get a different perspective than before. Nothing has changed. Does this mean that we see less of the “I want what I want and I aint telling you any more till you give it to me” type clients? nah. We still have a few. But I am fortunate in that I have the kahunas to fire clients. If I feel they are going to be too much trouble I refund their money and walk. It is hard sometimes but you have to do it. Otherwise they eat you alive.

    M.

  52. I have long thought that knowing when to turn a client down was an important part of business ethics.

    Working an unworkable contract or project is unfair to you, to anyone working with you, and to the customer. When you walk away, the customer gets feedback that either they picked the wrong vendor, or there was a problem with their expectations or their communications. Continuing to struggle delays the opportunity for anyone to work out a ‘do it better next time’ strategy, and everyone involved feels the other guy is the bad guy.

  53. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” That’s what Shakespeare said.

    In the real world, insular mindset of certain clients will read “freelance” as “lousy” and “consultant” as “no action talk only”. And yes, like LA said “there are certain clients who will always think they know more no matter what you call yourself.”. These people basically shut themselves out of excellent options.

    Some of the best talents I’ve worked with are freelancers.

  54. Mark,

    Great that you have respect for freelancers. I fully agree about some agencies selling their image, as opposed to the quality of work. I wonder if you see any negative aspects of choosing a freelancer rather than agency?

    Brad,

    You pick up on a valid point with Tony’s client. Satisfying those expectations before beginning a project could be considered an art form, and one that I’m doing all I can to learn about.

    You put it very well about working an unworkable contract. How it’s unfair to all parties. Thanks for leaving your thoughts.

    LA,

    Absolutely. Some clients are going to be awkward no matter what you call yourself. The trick is knowing how to spot them from the start.

    Wtricks,

    That’s great that you’re finding clients better to deal with now. Long may it continue.

    Marcus,

    Something you said made me think – how you refund clients money and walk away if you find them too difficult to work with. One issue I’ve come up against, is receiving a downpayment, creating a lot of work, then finding out that we’re at a stalemate. How would you handle that? Would you refund their money even though you’ve spent a lot of time working with them?

    Vivienne,

    I completely agree that our titles don’t affect our quality of work, but right or wrong, they can affect what other people think of us. I hope my post doesn’t seem like I’m putting down those who call themselves freelancers. The aim is to have you think about how other people perceive you.

    I’m no expert, but it’s an interesting discussion, and thanks for stopping by.

  55. I hope you don’t mind me joining in this one a little late – it’s a great topic for discussion. I haven’t read all 54 comments yet, but I’ll try and get through them.

    In my last job I was ‘the client’ and hired lots of freelancers – not just designers but also writers and occaisionally photographers and illustrators. I can honestly say that I never had such negative impressions of ‘freelancers’, based on their title. However I can see what you mean – maybe some people do have negative connotations with the word ‘freelancer’ – it’s just in the organisation I worked, it was a big organisation and we used lots of freelancers, and that was the culture – we loved freelancers :)

    I think this can work the other way too. I personally have negative connotations with the word consultant. I think ‘consultant’ and I think of vastly overpaid and stuffy individuals coming in to do a job for a few days and getting paid ten times my annual wage, just because they’ve got the word consultant after their name.

    I guess it all depends on what level you position yourself at and what kind of work you want, but if I was working in a PR role again and I wanted someone to design a one-off leaflet or a brochure or something, I wouldn’t look for a consultant, I’d look for a freelancer. On the other hand, if I wanted to get someone in to help with a major branding overhaul I may be looking for a consultant.

  56. Don’t mind at all, Aaron. I value your opinion, as I do with everyone else here.

    It’s good to get your take on things, and I agree with your comment about it all depending on what kind of work you want. It was also mentioned in the comments above how the term consultant can have negative connotations for some types of client, even designer, in some respects.

    Ultimately, and stating what many will think as the obvious, the key is to focus your job title around the work you want to present.

  57. David, about your question to Marcus, from one perspective, you are doing the customer a favor, and saving yourself grief by walking away from a project. From another perspective, the customer has invested time into negotiating an agreement, may have put effort and time into preparing requested and relevant materials, and has an unexpected delay – they thought they had a project in process, and now they are back to looking for a provider, making arrangements, and waiting for that project to sink or swim.

    Since the decision to walk away is essentially about ethics, I think the customer should be given an initial choice – full refund or the work that has been completed or at least started. If there is any disagreement or challenge, refund all the money with an apology and carry on.

    If this seems harsh, you might tell yourself that you took on a job you couldn’t finish. Whether anyone failed to meet expectations, whether the customer was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – you broke a promise. Make what amends you can, and review your ‘new project’ procedures, to avoid similar problems in the future.

  58. Hi Brad,

    Thanks for answering the question I posed to Marcus.

    For me, ethics in a working relationship are vital, and whilst I’ve made some wrong decisions in the past (and probably will in the future too), I always stick to a personal code that I have in place.

    It’s a good point you make about how promises are broken when a project breaks down.

  59. Hi David,
    It’s been a while since I made my last visit.

    My comment about freelance graphic designer are explained with some probabilities:
    1. They are new to the industry
    2. They are experts who exiled themselves from regular employment
    3. They just people who doesn’t have any background on graphic design education and just wanted to try out their skills

    I just started freelancing since the 1st year of college. Even though I take my course in Accounting, the surrounding people knows me for worship graphic design. You can say that I am type 3 and type 1 at the same time.

    It seems to be rude to say that freelance designers are suckers, but I do believe that the term freelance is also means an expert. Because they only focusing on certain skills they are good with.

  60. Hi Didik,

    I also think it’s wrong to call freelance designers suckers. Tony (who wrote the original article) was also referring to what someone else said, and I’m sure he wouldn’t stoop to call anyone a sucker either.

    What will you do once you finish your accounting course? Will that be the end of your short graphic design career?

  61. My website says “creative marketing consultant”.

    I mostly work as a hired gun for large ad agencies or sometimes smaller design boutiques.

    Working directly for small businesses are the worst. The don’t value creative development. They don’t expect to have to pay a dime for a damn thing. They want to make a thousand changes, and don’t expect to get billed for it. Yeah, that’s for the birds.

    I’m a “consultant”. I have been for years now.

    My website says “creative marketing consultant”.

    My business cards have my name, logo and contact information, no title.
    On the back, I have a sticker that has the iChat logo with my AIM account name, a divider line, and the Linked[in] logo. The sticker is small, high gloss, full color.

    Spend money on your business cards, print a lot of them, and give them to EVERYONE. Have high quality cards printed. Put $750 on a credit card if needed. Do whatever you have to do to have high quality well designed business cards. People pay you to do design work. If you do not have a well designed business card, what should they think?

    I’m stunned that there are people here who call themselves designers and they don’t have business cards.

    If you’re a graphic designer, art director, or whatever you call yourself, and you don’t have a business card, I hate to say, “you are a sucker,” but I’ll just say that you’re doing yourself a great disservice.

  62. Chris,

    Do you actually press a sticker onto the reverse of your card?

    You’re absolutely right about the importance of a quality print job.

  63. I’m going to refer to myself as a “expert freelancing design guru consultant ” from now on. Just nipping down to the printers to get my new biz cards done.

  64. I am only a Freelancer to the design firms that contract me for work. Otherwise, I’m my client’s “Web Guy” or “Graphics Guy”

    I thought myself a freelancer for a long time until I realized that I was in fact a business owner. I have a DBA, I pay sales tax, the checks I get are paid to my company name and I have a business checking account.

    Sure, I have clients who think they are designers, and I have clients who rely on me for every graphic need and fend off other designers who approach them with “Oh, we use GoycoDesign for all our graphics.”

    Honestly, I find it the hardest designing for designers..for example, I’m doing a logo for a large design agency because their in-house designer is swamped, and I’ve done so many variations it’s crazy.

    “We’re not there yet” and “Scrap what you’ve done” and “Let’s try a different direction” is what has come back, and this is before they’ve even shown the client. (they ARE paying me though, so It doesn’t matter how many times they have me re-work something, as long as they are happy with my work..and they are).

    Actually, my business card says “Owner”

    jorge

  65. Good morning,
    I find that identifying as a freelance anything seems to signify a lack of something. Maybe this means that we are newbies or unsure of our status. Maybe it means that one is transitioning from hobby to paid professional.
    I have chosen to introduce myself as a graphic designer and wait for any exploring questions. Usually, people want to know my education and how I can best help them. I am probably hyper aware of my “introduction” as a graphic designer because I am female and look super young. There is a twilight zone dynamic that seems to take place when I have been introduced as a freelancer -a lot of people really have no clue what that means. *ahh* the Midwest

    Peace + Earthly Chills,
    Shauen

  66. Shauen, in recent years several companies I have come in contact with have been very aggressive that people don’t reveal their wages at work. This past fall I finally heard a rationale that makes sense – that people tend to assign a ‘worth’ to your work, depending on whether they make more money than you. And they also balance your work against others, based on salary.

    As a freelancer, my hourly rate is right up there. And I find in low-waged shops I have trouble talking to the people with the information – the owner keeps me talking to senior people instead. At more moderate wage shops I have trouble getting access to the people that make decisions.

    I sometimes think I should call the receptionist, ask what their wage is, multyply by 4.5, and use that for my hourly wage for that business. Not really – they probably can’t or won’t reveal ther wages. While suggested in jest, I think in some cases I could do better work for the organization, if they were paying me at that kind of ‘worth’ factor..

    Shauen, all this brings me around to your comment about ‘super young’ – perhaps you could adjust your image, your body language, a bit to emphasize your professionalism, and check that your rates are high enough to be respected.

  67. All in all, my age is usually perplexing for many. They say it is because I have such a young face and warm spirit. They do not expect someone as professional, respectful, and keen as I to lack the stiffness and cynicism as others in my/our generation in the creative field. My design skills are not secondary and they are certainly not all that our clients pay for.

    My rates are appropriate for the client. I have respect as a result of my integrity, value, and global consciousness. I do what we do to make our world aware of social locations and more glorious to live in. The monetary value is just that.
    doors + boards,
    Shauen

  68. Brad K., thanks for the feedback and for sharing your experience as a freelancer. :) Some of the people and business I work with do not have receptionist but I have found that more and more the front desk staff is making a grand wage. I imagine that a survey of their wages would make for an enticing and awakening ethnography.

  69. I have been freelancing over 2 years and have yet to stumble across a client who belittles me.

  70. I think whether you are contracted, permanent or freelance it shouldn’t really matter to the client how you are employed, as long as you do the work they want you to do. Obviously each has a slightly different way of working, but part of building rapport with a client is also getting used to the system from which you work.

    In essence really all they need to know is what profession you are. And if your freelancing/contract/permanent you all have a certain skillset and the title should reflect it, not how you are employed.

  71. I do a bit of freelancing and I’ve come to a conclusion that you can’t make everyone happy.

  72. C’mon guys! Half the ‘Graphics designers’ I use are very talented, creative, really nice…. loonies. Invest in a suit, look and think like the kind of people you are pitching to and you will be taken seriously and not for a ride. Remember what you sell is an abstract. It’s not like stock the customer buys and doesent pay for…once it’s out there it cant be taken back. Dont offer too much until the contract is signed, otherwise you will get your brains picked alongside your pocket!! Remember to tell the customer (sorry, client) that what you do will have a direct and immediate effect on their sales. That’s all they want to hear.
    Have fun.

  73. I totally agree with you David.

    It is so hard to lose the “freelance” kind of identity that you get associated with if you are not careful right from the start.

    At the end of the day people don’t realize that even large online design firms, these days, work with freelancers to deliver projects.

  74. Yes, I’m a sucker, but it’s getting better (I hope!) I’m mostly an illustrator & designer, but I also do websites.

    The most glaring example has been a web site & search engine optimisation I did for a backpackers hostel on South Africa’s Wild Coast, the Coffee Shack. This should have been fun, but wasn’t; in fact the guy tried to get away with not paying me the last installment. The result of the job was at least a 30% increase in business for the hostel (millions of South African’s Rands!) I know this because I’ve got the stats, and also I’m now doing sites for his competitors, who’ve been completely cleaned out in the last year & are crying for search engine rankings (and business!)

    Maybe it’s just that businessmen are by nature ruthless exploiters who get away with what they can, and designers are essentially commercial artists with a tendency to be more sensitive and gooey. However, it reaches a point (characterised by being flat broke) where enough is enough.

    So I found a solution to bad payers – it consists of massive invoicing for use of Intellectual Property, coupled with getting their names to appear on search engines as bad payers. A rather extreme solution to be used only when all goodwill has disappeared, but it works like a bomb (a nuclear bomb) – try it!

  75. P Soteriou

    Good article. I think it’s quite important to realise that the language we use determines how people perceive us – even though our skills remain the same. I think in future I will avoid the the term ‘freelance’!

  76. Sharath Bhat

    David,

    This comment comes from India, where we have our fair share of hard-to-please clients who walk into creative review meetings with a “red pencil”. I can quote an example where a designer had to make 50 adaptations to a pack design of a leading brand of tea – for a client that can be classified multinational.

    I’m a freelance writer and work with a team of writers and designers, that we call The Freelance Network. In India, “freelancer” essentially means you’re on your own and not working for an agency. So, for the moment, I guess we’re okay.

    Thank God for small mercies.

    Sharath

  77. Hello Sharath,

    Thanks for visiting and offering your own take. I hope 2009 brings lots of success.

  78. I’ve quit calling myself a freelancer and instead tell people i own my own design business. it garners a MUCH better response, and I think clients feel more secure in that than in a ‘freelancer’…I think ‘Freelancer’ implies fly by night and “Im only doing this til I can find a real gig”. I’m not saying I agree with that implication at ALL bc I used to call myself a Freelancer way back when… I just saw the change in perception when I started telling people I was a business owner instead.

  79. Indeed, I agree. Just as a designer shapes visuals into aesthetically pleasing, the right wording can make all the difference. I’ll be changing my business cards accordingly…

  80. To be quite honest I had never thought of it like that. When calling myself a “freelancer” I was and am committed to providing satisfaction to clients. Henceforth, I will be calling myself a web development consultant as opposed to a freelance web developer.

    Until I read your article, I never gave any thought to being given less respect through the title I gave myself. I wanted to make sure that the project exceeded the expectations of my clients. You have very valid points that you have brought to light. Thank you so much for your enlightening article.

    Jason

  81. Nice article! I think “freelance” does have more of a “worker bee” feel to it. I personally refer to myself as a “Branding Specialist”. I feel it’s to the point and provides just the right amount of authority on that specific subject, without sounding too “snooty”. :P

    Really, I think after the first impression, and you are actually working with your client, it’s all about mutual respect and the desire for a quality design. The client can want what he/she wants, and we can give it to them. We just have to make sure to follow the design laws while doing so. Hopefully, with some patience and creativity, this goal should be met every time.

  82. Branding specialist sounds good, JWG, but don’t you want people to see you as “snooty”? ;)

    Patience and creativity, I’m definitely with you there.

  83. After reading this, I can definitely see why I’ve been having so many problems making money as a self employed person. I see myself as a freelancer, even though I actually don’t use that title. Although I’m not fond of it, Guru is better( sounding in terms of self reflection.
    Generally I never use the word “freelancer” because it sounds kinda flaky. I prefer contractor, and in most instances contractor is the word that self employment is related to.
    Consultant sounds strange to me though. It seems to be more about standing around and telling people your opinion and not really doing something. But then again, CEOs seem like that to me also, and they get the big bucks.

  84. I’ve pondered over this issue many times and never really come up with a satisfactory conclusion. There’s no avoiding the fact that the term ‘freelance’ does carry some negative connotations, although you might not always experience that first hand. On the flip side, I think it’s just plain wrong / misleading to describe myself as an agency when I’m only one person. I did start to toy with the idea of calling myself consultant but as discussed here, it can sound a little ‘hands off’. The best compromise I’ve ever come up with was ‘Independent Graphic Designer’ but it just seems a little vague.

    In the end I’m working under the title of freelance (although i don’t particularly shout about it) and have a page on my website dedicated to putting over all the benefits of working with a freelancer, with a little wry humour to make it less ranty.

  85. I agree, David—I once showed myself as a company larger than I was, with a generic business name and a lot of third-person references. Pointless, really.

  86. Matthew Kay

    I think these terms or titles change every few years. Eventually the people hiring will catch on and those looking for clients will have to find new titles to give themselves. But for the now, I would stay away from the term freelancer, especially now in this time of economic chaos. It kind of says unemployed.

  87. It’s a matter of perspective too, I think.

    As a ‘freelance’ web designer, I personally have the idea of a freelancer as someone committed enough to whatever they are doing to have forgone the comfort of a monthly paycheck to follow a passion and work damn hard at making it into a not just a career but part of their way of life.

    As Matthew says above, a company client may think this means “recently unemployed, desperate for work”, even if that’s not the case :)

    On the other hand, I’ve always thought of ‘consultant’ as a nebulous thing; ok, if you have been hired before to ‘consult’ for other clients it affords a veneer of expertise, but doesn’t really say what you actually DO as has been mentioned earlier in the thread.

    I take phone calls every day from (existing and potential) clients looking for web advice; am I a ‘consultant’ because I give them advice on best practices, or is that just part of my job as a designer / developer?

    Anyone self-employed wears many hats, it’s a shame but inevitable we have to sum ourselves up in one word or term to busy potential clients looking for a ‘freelancer’, ‘consultant’, ‘expert’ etc….

  88. This is a very common problem with people who want to go off on their own. Like most every designer I want to be approached because of the quality of my work rather than my price. I understand that you need to be competitive but the key is define who your competitors are and how to compete with them. Using the word “freelance” won’t get you business it will get you a hobby. I have to admit I’ve used the word and I’m pretty sure all designers when then begin to try their own thing will too or at the very least think about it. “Independent Designer/Developer” has worked for me in most cases to get the picture clear.

  89. You’re spot on, Luke. As designers, we do wear many hats.

  90. William Brodie

    Hi

    Iv just started out as a freelancer… im on my fifth client…

    I started of following online tutorials but i was always the one at school that was asked to help with the year book, or make fliers for a teacher… i then started making designs from skills i learned in tutorials for phantom businesses… I made a portfolio from this, along with a contract i found on the internet and a client questionaire i tarted up. I also said i had 2 years experience as a freelancer (who will prove me wrong)

    I went in for a meeting with an IT management company that wanted some catalogue work and explained to them their logo sucked (i made up a saying “Designer say ABA, Anything but Arial, which i stole from the expression anything but helvetica… because if helvetica should be avoided what about ARIAL!) and explained to them if they wanted to stand out and be memorable they need a new face… I was paid £800 for 3 weeks work… first job ever, they now want to use me for their clients when they need logo design… They said “We will definitely use u for future client work as you are obviously very tallented and extremely proffessional”

    Image is everything in my mind… evan before i met them i e-mailed them a contract which had the clause basically saying “the consultant is in now way occupying the position of employee but is a advisor etc…” – I came in a shirt, trousers, jacket, tie etc…

    I’ve havnt had anyone question a single opinion iv said so far.

    This job doesnt seem to be as hard as everyone makes it out to be… luckily im in Cyprus, where iv lived for 6 years… the greek business attitude is great and the competition is pathetic…. the designers here dont evan bother with helvetica… i see impact and arial everywhere

    But i put down my good experiences so far down to image… Im very good at talking the talk, and so far walking the walk.

    I hope nobody else on this island catches onto what im doing…

    I feel a bit like the guy in Catch me if u can, but my customers are happy. Im dreading the idea of when I move back to the UK, most likely the competition will tear me a new one, (im 20)

    I put down my initial success to insightful blogs like this, otherwise i wouldnt be able to talk the talk in the first place…

    You mention the difference between rich black and full black in CMYK or DPI to a client over here, they are in awe.

  91. Hi There.

    Having had experience in an agency and freelance, I have come across the problem where clients basically treated me as a glorified photocopier. Fortunately my boss at in the agency would stand up for our ideas when presented clearly the “reasoning” of why we went that route. But ultimately when the 2 million revenue client sez jump, its outer space or no space.

    In freelance its trickier as well but that would depend on your character, In one situation I found myself redesigning a chocolate packaging, I had researched, planned and pitched but landed up changing colour and cleaning the kerning…for free. I could not even use it for portfolio..urg. After that it became clear that if I ever do freelance again, that some clause should be included in the first quote, stipulating the terms and conditions, like what William Brodie did in his in the message before mine.

    We should be more professionally upfront with clients in the beginning, maybe that would show we as designers are to be respected as any other profession. We live, breath and sweat at making the best solutions for clients brands. That the certificate hanging on our wall is not for Best Finger Painter 2006.

    Also another interesting thing that has me questioning the evolution of client/design relationships, is the concept of bidding designs. crowdspring does away with one on one consulting and has many designers slugging it out for top position, the winner gets the money but what of the losers? second place portfolio material? I don’t know, but i dont see any other profession doing this (let me know if there are). Is this a step forward or adding to what clients perceptions of what designers are; “glorified photocopiers”.

  92. I feel as if I need to not only be a graphic artist, but an attorney (although I am not an attorney). I am in California, and find that some clients don’t feel the need/desire to pay me. e-mails, payment demand letters….nothing. It’s like someone sent around a memo telling small businesses not to talk to me until we are in court. I would really prefer an employer, rather than dealing with clients myself. Let the employer deal with the contract, the payments, and the business/legal side of things. I unfortunately have yet to come across a client who has one ounce of respect for me. That’s not good when I have all the respect in the world for them.

  93. Hello Noah, it seems from your comment that you’re not requesting a percentage of the fee in advance. I find that helps a great deal, and if you haven’t seen it already, this post series should prove useful:

    How 20 designers charge their clients

  94. Thank you Mr. Airey,

    I really appreciate the response, as well as the link. You are right, I was not requiring any money in advance. I am quickly learning about freelancing through hard knocks…but I am learning….and will do things very differently from now on.

    You have a great site :) I hope you don’t mind that I now link to it from my site.

    – Noah

  95. Just yesterday I suggested to a client to hire a freelance copywriter but he replied, “Nay, freelancers are those who can’t find a regular job, I need somebody good…” Hello!

  96. I don’t mind at all, Noah. In fact, I’d appreciate it.

  97. I think you can begin to call yourself a consultant when you have elevated yourself to be able to persuade and advise the client professionally.

    To be a consultant, you must also be a professional. Whether you’re a sales professional or a project manager, simply being a designer with little understanding of business along with limited training or experience in sales and marketing won’t qualify you as a consultant. Don’t label yourself as a consultant because you believe it will give you more prestige and respect. They are indeed different from one another.

    A last bit of advice for designers and freelancers is to build your portfolio with your own work. Don’t feel obligated to take on work for free from those who won’t return the respect and autonomy for your design. You can create your own mock designs which allow you to showcase your range and artistic expression.

  98. Michael

    I’ve been working as a design assistant at a university and I’ve met both freelancers and independent contractors. From my experience both of them are getting the same amount of respect as the fully employed designer (my boss). But because it’s in a university setting, we (as a public relations/design office) are being looked down upon by the rest of the campus offices. In my opinion my job is probably the lowest in the food chain but I know (we talked) that my boss is also getting the same treatment as I am. I’m learning first hand that it is not an easy job to satisfy clients while expressing yourself as an artist (all designers are artists).

  99. Not easy, Michael, but very rewarding. Good of you to share your experience.

    L, I hope you don’t mind, I featured your comment in brief post: More than just a title.

  100. I’ve never paid attention to the differences between the terms “freelancer” “Independent contractor” in terms of what each name reflects. I have currently “freelancer” on my resume. Maybe i should change that.
    Also, I find that with experience that I gain in the design industry I find it easier to refuse work that is priced below standards (1$ for a logo is an insult…) or asking for 50% deposit (no matter how small the project is).

    David you have a great blog!

  101. Thanks, Yulia. Great Confucius quote on your website. Liking it.

  102. Alfin Akhret

    Thank you David,
    After reading this article, I became relieved. It’s kind of pleasure knowing how much better if I use the term “graphic designer” rather than “freelance graphic designer”. Somehow, It gave me more confidence :-)

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