Flying Solo

From a staff designer’s perspective, the freelance life can seem ideal. It’s flexible, full of variety and enables you to pursue those dream clients. But this life of uncertainty isn’t for everyone; we’re not all equipped with the extreme self-discipline, tenacity and passion required for a solo career.

Do you have what it takes to fly solo? You’ll need the following essentials should you make the choice to go it alone.

A client. According to John Chuang, CEO of Aquent staffing agency, the first step to a freelance career is having a client (not designing your business card or choosing a name). Nearly all freelancers get their first client from an existing relationship, but it can be a tricky situation if it’s a connection at your current job kicking off your new business. “That’s how most people do it, but you want to work with your employer and the client to do it ethically, whether there’s explicit permission, a time gap or a phaseout period,” Chuang says.

A business sense. It’s crucial that freelancers be sensitive to the fact that clients are trying to achieve a specific business outcome. Whether it’s a new company brand or an attention-getting poster, you’re providing a solution. “You’re not selling graphic design. You’re, for example, increasing sales through a better point-of-purchase,” Chuang says. “Graphic design is the means to the end, but the end product is what you’re selling.” (Learn more about strategic thinking.)

Marketing and self-promotion know-how. Selling yourself can be a time-consuming and energy-draining element of freelancing. According to Chuang, beginners spend 70% of their time getting their names out ther—and those aren’t billable hours. Take advantage of downtime and devote several days a month to building your contacts and sending promotional materials to prospective clients. A sagging economy, Chuang says, provides a perfect opportunity to build your contacts. However, the best solo artists are always looking for another gig—your next project may be right in front of you.

Passion. A must for all creative freelancers, passion for your owrk gives you energy, drive and motivation. It keeps you going on the eve of a deadline and through workload droughts.

Sense of humor. “It’s not threading pipe or tarring roofs, but graphic design is hard work,” says freelance designer Stefan Bucher, who operates 344 Design in Pasadena, CA. And, in addition to the blank piece of paper staring you in the face, you’re bound to be met by system crashes, printing errors, shipping delays, lame ideas, sudden deadlines, revisions, slashed budgets, lost disks and corrupted files. You must have a sense of humor. “Odds are that civilization as we know it will survive,” Bucher says, “even in the face of a forcibly increased point size.”

The ability to learn from clients. According to Chuang, the best designers are pushed to their professional heights by demanding clients. If clients didn’t exist, many designers might be tempted to repeat the same work, changing and growing too slowly. An unsatisfied client forces designers back to the drawing board, stretching imagination and skills. “Designers need to respect client feedback and learn from it,” he says. “The client is not the enemy and not someone who is limiting their work. If they view it that way, then they’re toast.”

A focus. If you try to do everything for everyone, you’ll inevitably feel scattered and unfocused. Chuang suggests making yourself an expert in a particular market and knowing the type of work you’re looking for. It’s much easier to sell yourself when you know specifically what you have to offer. Instead of cold-calling a prospective client and saying, “I do graphic work,” you can confidently call and say, “I specialize in P-O-S packaging and can increase your sales by 20%.”

From HOW, December 2002.