Getting work as a freelance designer – Part 1: The meat grinders

meat grinder

Freelancing websites can be a quick way to find your first jobs as a freelancer, but it’s a race to the bottom. Are they a waste of time, or a response to a changing market?

I’ve been a freelancer now for just short of two years, and while I wouldn’t say my business is completely stable just yet, it is my sole source of income and I’m definitely in this for the long run. In that time I’ve been down just about every avenue to find work, and in this four part series I’ll look at a few different techniques for securing clients and getting the work in. I’ll be sharing my own experiences, as well as a few tips and tricks that will hopefully give you what you need to get started. First off – freelancing websites.

What are freelancing websites?

When I first flopped into the freelance life I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I’d just taken voluntary redundancy and had very little notice before I was out the door and fending for myself. Fortunately the payout meant I had some pretty sturdy stabilisers while I worked it out. On recommendation from a former colleague, I signed up to PeoplePerHour – a freelancing website. There are plenty of other options; Upwork, Freelancer, Fiverr and Bark to name a few. They vary in how they work but ultimately the idea is the same; clients list jobs and freelancers pitch for them. Some also let freelancers set up a shop of specific products or services that clients can buy, either straight off the shelf or made to order. While they’re popular with designers, web developers and media producers, most of them also list jobs for copywriters, accountants, translators and virtually anyone else who might work freelance. The site takes care of payments and communications, and takes a small fee out of your earnings for their service.

Understanding the market

Before you delve into freelancing websites (and indeed, before you voice your concerns about them), I think you need to understand the design and media markets. Like any industry, we work with lots of different clients who require different levels of quality and quantity. At the top you have the multinational corporations with marketing budgets that end in “illion”, hiring world class agencies and production houses to create award winning work. At the other end, you have the small business, the startup, the community project or the entrepreneur who has a budget ending in “but it’ll be great exposure”. Somewhere around that bottom line, you’ll find your typical freelancing website client.

Filling the gap

It used to be that good quality design was reserved for those with big budgets; the software was expensive and required highly tuned skills. Over the years the software (and hardware required to run it) has become more and more affordable, and thanks to the likes of YouTube virtually anyone can learn the basic skills. Sure, the top end work still needs those highly tuned skills that can’t be learned through free online tutorials, but what would once have been a logo slapped together using clipart in Microsoft Word is now being produced with the same tools as the professionals, and the quality is drastically improving. Some may see this as the industry being sold short, but I disagree. Just as with any technological advances, work becomes easier and the standard of product available to anyone improves. There starts a race to the bottom for who can offer the best work at the lowest price, while those at the top of the industry are forced to innovate to compete. Top end agencies like Pentagram can’t compete with those offering a logo for a fiver, but they never would have anyway and never needed to. A lot of these freelancing websites have been blamed for creating this race to the bottom, and while this may be true in part, I don’t think it’s anything new. I also think there’s a whole scale between these two extremes, and there are plenty of clients at every level who will still pay more for better quality work. This School of Motion article about animated logos demonstrates this quite well.

Has the design industry turned around?

Instead, the way I see it is that the work at the bottom of the scale has simply improved in quality. A web designer can create a beautiful, customisable WordPress template that can be used over and over again, each time for the fraction of the price of a bespoke website. Graphic designers can follow current trends and create icons and images that could be ready to use and reuse in appropriate circumstances, or they might have a bank of assets that can be used to build a logo quickly.

The results of this quick work is never going to be as good as anything you’d get from the industry elites, but it’s affordable, accessible and good enough for the vast majority of clients in this market. Freelancing sites simply make the connections that mean these clients aren’t resorting to designing their logo in Microsoft Word.

Why I stopped using freelancing sites

At first, finding work on PeoplePerHour made sense. There was a huge list of work available, and requests were coming in fairly regularly. It was pretty simple work too! But in the end, the race to the bottom got the best of me. I simply couldn’t afford to produce the work demanded at the price expected; I’d be pitching for 2 minute explainer videos – maybe 1 or 2 weeks’ worth of work – and losing out if I charged over £350. Or I’d be selling sets of 10 icons for £20 to customers who then expected endless amendments, or who thought “icons” meant “illustrations”. I was losing money fast and getting unnecessarily stressed in the process. In the end, I found better ways to get more fulfilling work (which I’ll cover in the rest of this series).

The other issue for me was that I wanted to improve as a designer, and I was really working in the dark. Since finishing my undergraduate degree I’ve worked alone pretty much exclusively; I haven’t worked in studios or creative teams, and as such I lacked any sort of mentorship or informed, constructive feedback. I’ve always seen this as a hindrance to my development, and freelancing websites are no different. I wanted to find work opportunities where I could work with other creatives, so I started looking elsewhere.

How to make freelancing sites work for you

Despite this, I am not anti-freelancing-websites. I do believe they serve a purpose to a select audience of makers and users. Good looking, trendy design shouldn’t be unaffordable, it’s 2018 for crying out loud! But what I do think is that if you want to use these websites effectively as a freelancer, you have to have realistic expectations about what you’ll be doing and what you’ll get from it.

Primarily, I think these websites are great for those just getting started in the design industry, especially when you consider that the alternative route in is often low paid (or even unpaid) internships. Students, beginners, hobbyists, this is a way to get some practice of working with clients and make a bit of cash too. When I was a student myself I had a perspective of what good design is, and that perspective hasn’t changed much, but I’ve learned that a lot of people don’t need – and can’t afford – that same standard of design. Freelancing websites create a space for those at the beginning of their design careers to practice, and clients with smaller budgets to access higher quality work than they could produce themselves. If good design is a gourmet steak dinner in a fancy restaurant, then freelancing websites are the hotdog stands. People like hotdogs – they don’t care what goes into them.

So if you want to make these sites work for you, it’s time to start grinding the meat. You’ll need to build up a library of resources that can be reused and repurposed easily. If you’re a graphic designer, that might mean drawing hundreds of logos and icons that you can then sell quickly. If you’re a motion designer like me, that might be creating characters and scenes that are pretty common, maybe a few template character designs that you can easily redress or restylise. If you’re a web designer, customisable templates will be your go-to resource. In all cases, think about commonly occuring themes; technology, customer service, finance, the fact that a new coffee shop opens every hour and each one needs its own branding job.

With freelancing websites, it’s all about speed, quantity over quality. But that quality doesn’t have to be that low if you can prepare materials beforehand. Sure it’s not particularly personalised for the job, it’s not very creative and it’s really breaking all the design rules since you’re not exactly considering the problem at hand. But if you’re good at what you do then you’re making good looking stuff and helping those who normally wouldn’t be able to afford it. Surely that’s worth something?

And while you’re doing that, there’s no reason why you can’t be doing other jobs too. If you can grind out enough of this quick and easy work, it won’t take much of your time to work each job that comes in, leaving you free to focus on being a real designer.

One crucial thing to consider however, is that you make sure you’re learning as you go. Reflect on what you’ve produced, how could it be better? Share your work with other designers/creatives and get some proper constructive feedback; the kind that your clients simply can’t provide. Without that, you’ll never make any progress churning out the same cheap designs.

The alternatives

Of course, if you’re going down that route, then freelancing websites aren’t the only option. I’m talking about stock websites. Envato, Shutterstock, Noun Project and Storyblocks are just a few options but there are countless out there! Stock websites can potentially be an easy way to supplement your income, but don’t expect it to happen straight away. You have to put a lot of work out there for the money to start coming in.

Conclusion

To sum up, freelancing websites are one way to get started as a freelancer. They can be good practice of working with clients, but not necessarily helpful towards improving your work. While a lot in the design community see these as bringing down the industry, I see them as just another development that forces innovation and improves the quality at the bottom of the market. If you can game the system by creating a lot of content that’s easy to reuse, then you could potentially make a living out of it. It’s not glamorous, or particularly satisfying. But if you can get it to work for you then it could even free up more time to focus on doing better work. So if you’re up for the challenge, go grind the meat.

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