How to be a busy freelance designer


It can be tough for us freelancers to stay busy. It takes time to build up a client base and there’s shedloads of competition out there. So what do you do? Well, I’m about 88 million light years away from being a guru on the subject, but after 20 years in the business, as both freelancer and full-time art director, I can say that the most important thing is to make the art director’s life easier. That’s your job. No art director wants to spend all day spoon-feeding and hand-holding their freelancers all the bloody time. Here are my ten tips for getting, and more importantly keeping, clients.

1. Specialise. There was a time when I struggled to find enough work to keep me in beer and doughnuts (it still happens very occasionally). The thing that turned it around and made me a lot busier was specialising. I know that narrowing your options when you’re struggling to find work would seem to be counterproductive, but it has certainly worked for me. Think about it, say you decide you want to concentrate on, for instance, finance titles, or gadget mags, or 18thC French doorknob journals (don’t get too carried away like I just did there).

An 18thC French door knob

An 18thC French door knob

Now imagine if you’re an art director across a range of, say, finance titles, and you’re eyes are glazing over yet another stream of jack-of-all-trades portfolios showcasing totally irrelevant layouts to do with skate parks, concrete step close-ups and a menu for a local curry house, when suddenly you come across a portfolio where the first words are, ‘I design finance magazines’. And lo and behold there are examples of…finance magazines! You’re immediately several lengths ahead of everyone else. You’ve neutralised the opposition and increased your chances massively.

2. Do your research. If I get a booking from a new client I try and find out as much as I can in advance about the company and the title I’ll be working on. Often I’ll contact the art director/editor to send me some copies in the post. They’re happy to do that and pleased that you’re the type of freelancer who likes to arrive prepared. If I’m booked in-house I like to take a notepad and pen with me and write down any important info that I’m usually bombarded with, including the myriad of usernames and passwords, the labyrinthine server structure, as well as the names of the people I’ll be working with.

3. Be reliable. I’ve found this to be perhaps the most important thing of all in keeping a client. Never let a client down, even a bad one. Keep your standards high. Turn up on time for a start. Some designers seem to think that being a ‘creative’ makes them exempt from this old-fashioned, fascistic punctuality nonsense, but it doesn’t. I’ve found that being on time, every time, makes you reliable, which is a major plus because it’s so rare. Just by doing that you’ll be ahead of a lot of competition (literally). And try not to slink off at 5.2o either. All that art director really wants to know is that the mag will get done, to deadline, and that it doesn’t look like shit. Oh that reminds me…

4. Try not to look like shit. I’ve been guilty of this in the past so I’m not about to get all Victorian Dad here, but I’ve also learned over the years that making a bit of an effort with your schmutter does make a difference. It makes me look and feel more sort of… professional. I don’t mean suit and tie necessarily, although there’s nothing wrong with that. Just look reasonably presentable really and avoid ‘I’m a sloppy bugger who can’t be bothered’ chic. It’s so last year.

5. Don’t try and blag it. I’ve done it. I’ll be honest, I’ve done it. When I first started out as a freelancer I wasn’t averse to the idea of a cheeky blag here and there. The trouble is eventually you’ll get caught, just like I did. Believe me they’ll know. If they give you a task and your first thought is, ‘Oh Christ, what the hell’s he on about’, just be honest and say you can’t do that but that you’re keen to learn. It’s OK. It’s much better than sitting there sweating like a tiny nun at a penguin shoot while hoping good ol’ Mr Google will bail you out of the mess. Don’t try and blag it!

A nun at a penguin shoot.

A nun at a penguin shoot.

6. Learn, learn, learn. This follows on from the previous one. Never stop learning. That way blagging will eventually become a thing a thing of the past. Never stop looking too – really looking – and reading and snapping and experimenting and practicing. Go on the brilliant video tutorials site as well and sign up. They’re excellent value and there’s tons of useful stuff on there!

7. Work hard. In other words, don’t take the mickey. I try not to do social media ‘breaks’, and long chats on the phone. Editors just don’t like it for some reason. Work hard and do the best you can. They’ll respect you and will almost certainly ask you back.

8. Be good. It goes without saying that you know your design onions. You don’t have to be a Carson or a Glaser or a Müller-Brockmann. You don’t even have to be a Müller Lite. Of course excellent is better, but good is good enough and often a major improvement on what the editor/art director had before you. Go prepared, know your stuff, know the subject and you’ll be fine.

9. Get the teas in. If you’re booked in-house then one break you are allowed is to get the teas in. But when was the last time you saw a freelancer shuffling back from the kitchen area with a thin tray trembling under the weight of fourteen mugs? Halley’s Comet hurtles by more often. Yes, it’s a massive round, and yes, you can’t for the life of you remember who wanted what, but if I’ve learned one thing over the years it’s that once you start doing the honours in the kitchen area the regular team will start to think of you more as part of the team and less of a misanthropic, water-sipping loner, which means you’re more likely to get hired again. These little things do add up. Get that kettle on!

10. Get the beers in. When was the last time you saw a freelancer joining the team at the pub? They generally switch off and slink home without so much as a by-your-leave. Come Friday, or any day for that matter, if someone asks you if you’d like a pint, say…“YES”. Postpone your journey home and do it. If no-one asks you, ask them. I know things have changed these days, and the gym or Prêt à Manger has almost completely replaced the dear old pub, but damnit this is still publishing and there WILL be someone who’s desperate for a cheeky pint. And when you get there, get the round in. Believe me it will be noted and remembered. Cheers!



So there are my tips. Be good, be reliable and be liked and you’ll always be busy.

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