As with pretty much all of our “opinion” pieces, this one grew out of an ongoing discussion at the studio. There are a lot of obstacles when you’re young and establishing yourself that make it difficult to be a creative freelancer. Despite that though, we feel like there are a few general rules that if followed can make your life somewhat easier. (Thanks to Matt G for making this graphic for the post)
This list is by no means the key to creative freelancing success. It is instead, we at PUBLIC SCHOOL tend to do in our circle to stay somewhat sane in the crazy world of advertising.
A Desire To Learn
This is an important trait, especially for us younger folk. There are far too many people young and old (but especially young) who think they know all they need to know. The truth is, you won’t ever know everything. All you need to understand is that everyone can teach you something, including people outside of your field. Ask questions and understand businesses of all sorts. What someone does in their world can potentially teach you something about your own.
That old stuff you did sucks. It’s ok though. The old stuff I did sucks too. Not all of it, but a lot of it. Why? Because this new stuff we’re working on is even better. I remember reading shortly after I was out of college, an interview on A Photo Editor with a photographer who was huge in the late 90′s. He got incredibly dependent on one style that he developed and never made an effort to watch what was going on around him. Other people started ripping him off, clients slowly stopped calling as time went on, and in the end he spent the next few years complaining about how raw of a deal he got.
People are inevitably going to be inspired by what you do if it is any good. Which is exactly why you should do even more good. When you’re done with that, do massive amounts of more good on top of it. The second you get hung up on what you did instead of what you’re doing, is the second you miss the train.
As a side note, while you’re doing all that good, pay attention to what is going on around you as well. There’s nothing worse than watching someone’s business die because they weren’t willing to adapt. This doesn’t mean rip off other people or strictly follow the trends. Just be aware of the technology and shifts in the industry.
Display Your Work
This is incredibly important. Get your stuff in front of people that matter. Be it through blogs or in promo pieces you’re mailing out to people. Just do it.
Take for example my friend Adam Voorhes. He is a talented still life photographer who had an idea to take “exploded” photographs of every day objects as a personal project. One of the shots from that project is below on the left. That exploded project ended up in front of an art director at ESPN, who then came up with an idea for their magazine based on Adam’s work. He then hired Adam to photograph exploded next generation football helmets.
Sometimes people don’t realize how much they need you until you inspire them with something else you did. Get to work inspiring.
Money sucks. Aside from clients from hell it is probably the most stressful aspect of being a freelancer. It’s easier said than done to tell you to make sure you have money in the bank before you go out on your own, but I promise that it will help. Having several months of cushion is the best way to keep the stress off of your back. Nothing can more adversely affect your work than rushing through projects because you want to get paid sooner rather than later. Do yourself a favor and allow yourself some financial breathing room.
A Reliable Support
As a freelancer you are a creative ninja. You are the help and support that others don’t have on staff. It’s why they’re paying you a premium. In that role though, you need to be as reliable as someone on staff. The overwhelming thing we hear from our clients about other freelancers is the inability to count on the people they have worked with in the past. Crazy unreliable freelance work schedules makes it hard to work with people who have normal work hours. Enjoy being on your own schedule, but understand that its important to work around the people who are hiring you if you want to get hired again.
Be open to critique from your clients. Too often we get hung up on being right and the fact that they are hiring us to solve their problems. That is absolutely the case, but most problems don’t have just one solution. Be open to their critique. It is ok to push back and sell what you feel is the best solution, but keep in mind something Aaron Draplin told me. Sometimes we dismiss the fact that “our clients are paying us to make them happy. We can’t get so married to an idea that we lose sight of that and get frustrated with what they want.”
Get your own support system. We started PUBLIC SCHOOL entirely for this reason. It’s much easier to buy the 9 different ink cartridges for our printer when its split 7 ways. Paying rent in downtown Austin as a group is less painful as well. Find a group of people you work well with and utilize everyone’s strengths for the better of the group. You don’t have to office together, but doing things as simple as buying software at group purchase rates can save you and your other freelancer friends a lot of money. Groups of folks are cool. Get in one.
Rigid and Flexible
Finally, keep in mind that its important to know your price financially and creatively. Be rigid and don’t let people push you around. If its not worth the money don’t do it. If the work isn’t going to move you forward creatively, its not worth it either. Work for work’s sake is a fast track to burning yourself out. Know your limits. If you don’t already, take the time to figure out what they are. You’ll be happier in the long run.
That being said, keep an open mind when it comes to long term payoffs. Sometimes clients legitimately don’t have money, but will. Sometimes projects won’t be financial boons but can have a massive creative payoff. Weigh all of those things when figuring out how involved in a project you’d like to be.
This header isn’t on our safety graphic, but is a good way to wrap things up. Be happy with what you’re doing. If you’re not, find something else to do. There’s no greater tragedy creatively speaking than to spend a lot of time doing something that doesn’t please you. Keep it in mind and your creative life will be a lot more enjoyable.