The ten freelance commandments
1. Thou shalt ALWAYS get a down payment before starting a project.
25% is good, but 50% is best. This single act weeds out so many problem clients, and guarantees you won’t be totally screwed if someone ghosts you mid-project (trust me – it happens). A buddy of mine in the mortgage industry calls this “a financial handshake” – it keeps everyone honest.
The exception here is large companies or agencies with a history of, and a process for, working with independent contractors. I usually feel ok about not getting anything upfront in that case. Just try to protect yourself in any way you can.
2. Thou shalt know thy rates.
Pricing… Not an easy thing to figure out. But, you need to give it some hard thought and consideration BEFORE you start getting inquires. Think about how much you need to make in a year to survive, your monthly overhead, how long an average project takes you to complete, and what level of designer you are. Be realistic about how much work you’ll get, and how many hours a week you’ll be able to bill (your clients don’t pay for you to update your website or do other admin work). You’re going to need to put a monetary value on your time, talent, and knowledge. If you are a humble, people-pleasing type this is going to be pretty uncomfortable, but if you’re a self-assured narcissist, you might need to dial it back a notch.
I’m not going to quote any numbers here, because inevitably some newbie freelancer in a small town will get mad and say that I’m a pretentious entitled snob quoting unrealistic numbers. And then some pretentious entitled snob from NYC will climb up on his high horse and tell me I’m devaluing our profession and not charging nearly enough. There are lots of pricing guides online, other designers of your age, experience, and in your area are a good resource, and yeah… watch that Chris Do video, and read this article by Jessica Hische.
A friend of mine has a saying… “The cost is as much as you can get them to pay” I know this sounds harsh (and super vague), but it gets at the subjective value of art & design. You need to price the job AND the client. The swoosh doesn’t pay the same amount for a tee graphic as my local coffee shop.
Side note: I studied sign painting at a trade school, and learned more about pricing and best business practices in 2 or 3 one hour lectures than I did in my entire 4 year BFA at a liberal arts college. It is borderline criminal to charge what a 4 year institution does, and never mention anything about the economics of our industry. Y’all design professors need to step up.
3. If thou art 1099, thou shalt save 30% for Uncle Sam, and whenst thou annual income reaches $50,000 thou shalt seek out a financial professional and get ye house in order.
4. Thou shalt learn the dark arts of self promotion, sales, negotiation, contracts, and client relations.
I know, I know… Figuring out the art side of being a designer is hard enough, but business too? Yeah… well, its what you’re signing up for when you hang out your own shingle. You’re the CEO, the janitor, and everything in between. If you feel up to it, it’s definitely worth taking a shot at going freelance for a while – even if it isn’t permanent, it’ll give you some great perspective, broaden your experience, and make you a MUCH better employee when you land back in-house.
And read this blog post from Jessica Hische.
5. Thine Ego is not Thine Amigo.
Look… art and design are subjective. There are very few completely right or wrong answers. Clients have good ideas, smart changes and well thought out edits all the time. It should be a collaborative process. I make it a rule to at least try every edit (within reason) that the client is suggesting before shutting it down. And if you find yourself in an argument about kerning with a client – pull your head out of your a... you know where.
6. Thou shalt know when to say “no”.
There are lots of good people in this world… but there are also a few toxic ones. Potential clients will try to devalue your work in myriad ways, for many reasons: in search of a better bargain for themselves, out of being uninformed, and sometimes just out of spite. This is pretty tough to deal with as an artist – Your self worth, livelihood, and sense of purpose are all on the table in these negotiations. It’s OK to say NO. Just because you're capable of doing the project, it doesn't mean you have to do it. No amount of money is worth sacrificing your dignity, your soul, or your mental health over.
...unless studio rent is due and the business account is pegged at zero.
7. Thou shalt continually seek to improve thine own skills.
Tutorials, podcasts, workshops, books, conferences, online classes. And not just in your field.
Do some personal projects. Make some stickers or posters. But does the world really need another t-shirt that says “FREELANCE AIN’T FREE”?
8. Thou shalt help the needy.
Non-profits and charities… Not your friend’s cousin with “a great idea” but “no funding yet”. Freelance is about skill & connections, but you’d be suprised how much dumb luck plays a role too. You’re going to need all the karma you can get.
I use Catchafire.com to find organizations in need of pro bono design work. (Shameless plug: I found this through Patagonia Action Works) Their platform makes it dead simple to find projects that are a good fit, and takes a ton of guesswork out of the process on both the client & freelancer side. I actually wish there was an equivalent for paying jobs.
And hey, donate blood while you’re at it. I go through Vitalant.
9. Thou shalt mentor the young.
Pay it forward – We were all young and inexperienced once. You help yourself (and all of us) when you share information. United we bargain, divided we beg.
If you are young and inexperienced… Respect ye elder’s time, lest ye find yeself in the spam folder.
10. Thou shalt stack thine cash.
Seriously though – Save some money when you can. Just got a windfall payment from a big job? Maybe don’t blow it on a trip to Tulum and a new laptop. (Or whatever the “global pandemic” equivalent is... cashmere sweatpants and a new mattress?)
Freelance life is a rollercoaster that you’ll get used to if you stick it out. A financial cushion will really help you manage your stress level, and keep you from having to accept every yahoo job just to make rent.
I'd be remiss if I didn't thank Mathew Foster. When I signed on to Radical Co-Operative in 2015 he graciously shared years of hard won knowledge with me, and then we continued to hammer out the rest of these practices during our tenure at RADCO World Headquarters in Chinatown, LA.
Its OK if you disagree with this list. Some folks are going to be mad that I'm saying not to take certain jobs (they’ll think my head is too big, and that I think I’m “too good” for some work). Somebody will yell "NEVER WORK FOR FREE" at me in regards to the one about pro bono work. And I guarantee that kerning joke is going to trigger a bunch of font designers... It's tough to write a guide like this that will be relevant for freelancers at all levels. If you're early in your career, you're likely just waiting for the phone to ring. Any kind of client inquiry would be welcome. As you grow into a more seasoned veteran, you're going to become a bit jaded, and your perspective will be different. Being a freelancer never gets easier; every time you solve one problem, another will crop up. First, develop a workable art style and figure out your craft, then find clients, next figure out pricing, then employees... all they way down the line until you retire (Do people even do that anymore?). And all the while, the problems you thought you had solved will keep un-solving themselves. Being your own boss has a lot of upside, but you know what they say: the grass is always greener...
Mad at me for giving this info out for free? Put your money where your mouth is... Feel free to hire me for speaking gigs, option the coffee table book version, or send me a crisp 100 dollar bill.