Is Freelancer a Negative Term?

That’s one question that came up amongst the many comments in one of our most popular posts, “Too Old To Be A Designer?”

Veteran designer, Jeff Fisher, wrote:

“Freelancer”can convey a psychological thing to potential clients that a designer is willing to work ‘free’ or too cheap……is not skilled enough to get a ‘real’ job, or is simply working ‘freelance’ until the right job comes along.” I think this has been even more so with designers of “our age” who have been laid off in the economy of recent years. Those opting to work independently often put the “freelancer” label on themselves; rather than translating the years of experience and skillset into the more impressive position of “design firm owner.”

What do you think? Is the word “freelancer” negative? Is it appropriate for all of us? Do you call yourself as a “freelancer” or something else? And what how do your clients perceive you?

48 thoughts on “Is Freelancer a Negative Term?

  1. Freelance Designer

    Wow, I guess I never thought it that “bad” a term. some try to refer to me as a contractor, or independent contractor, and I think that sounds like some kinda non-creative temp drone, or you work on houses. so I’ve always preferred Freelance Designer. Technically I’m a small business owner.

    I think “Design Firm” when your pretty much a one person show is overselling yourself. To me it paints a picture you have a building downtown with many employees. So if you tell client that, and they want to stop by your offices sometime for a tour of your “Design Firm” that might be a worse situation to explain.
    Maybe say, I’m a small business owner, I do Art Direction & Design.

    1. George

      I think “Design Firm” when your pretty much a one person show is overselling yourself.
      Yes, but isn’t that what you do for others? Good advertising establishes trust, and portrays the client as being stable and established, so why not set up a business model for yourself based on a small company image? As you think, so shall you be.

  2. Alex Sanso

    I have called myself a “freelancer,” but I’ve actually been working towards eliminating that word from my job description. When people ask if I freelance, I usually respond not with a “no,” but simply say “I have my own design studio.”

    I think what Jeff says is right on target. There’s a subtle negative connotation to the term that I think most people don’t even realize is there—making a “freelancer” seem somehow less invested in the success of their business. Or even if it’s my own negative vibe about it, it works for me to describe myself differently and really own the fact that I’m running a business. I’ll admit, I even wish the Creative Freelancer Conference was named something else! Hmmm…Creative Entrepeneur, anyone?

  3. Lauren Hybinette

    I tell people that I own a studio. I do much more than just design. I want my clients to think of what I do more as a business than something on the side. This way it helps with clients not calling at 8 pm for something. They realize that I do have hours.

  4. superstardkw

    I dislike the term freelancer… but then, I also think just the term designer is misleading. Like Lauren, I do more than just design. I’m an effective visual communicator who gets results for my clients.

  5. Kasia Armada

    Freelance does have a negative connotation. People, especially from older generation think , that if you freelance your work is a hobby, or you are not good enough. They also expect youth do countless things for free and put in insane hours, they would never consider for themselves. They also have an issue if you bill them for it , because ” why you are charging me, for you it was just a click of a mouse”. They are less likely to do that if they think they deal with a business instead of a person.

  6. Laurel Black

    I think it depends on the perception of the audience more than our own interpretations. I would like to know how business people in other professions and industries regard the term. Otherwise I’m with Alex. “Freelancer” does have a connotation of having less substance in comparison to, say, an “independent designer” or “small design firm.” How we present who we are and frame what we do is crucial to clear communication and getting the kind of clients we want. And “freelancer” does sound like it’s a person who will do smaller jobs and be less expensive.

  7. Pamela Saxon

    In show business, my target market, (almost) everyone is considered a freelancer since the norm is that of going from job to job, so you would think it would be okay for me to refer to myself in that way. However, almost everyone in show business is willing to work for free too, except at the top levels, and I’m not. As a designer, I have experimented with calling myself both and definitely receive more respect and attract better-paying clients who are serious about marketing when I refer to myself as a “small design firm owner.”

    I think by saying I own a design firm it indicates that I do not try to do everything myself and that I have a group of people I can call upon when I require extra help. I know from talking to my clients that they feel better about the fact that I’m not trying to be a one-woman-band, despite the fact that I have no full-time employees other than myself.

  8. Catherine Casalino

    I think it’s funny that people are focusing on the “free” part of “freelancer” and not on the “lancer” part! “Free-lancer” is actually a term for any Medieval knight (with a lance) who was available as a hired gun. Not someone who works for free.

    In the original connotation, the word “free” refers to someone who is not tied down or loyal to a specific lord, which I rather like! As a modern freelancer, you have the freedom to take on or refuse work as you please. And the “lancer” part is pretty positive, too! Who doesn’t want to imagine themselves as a warrior being called in to solve problems outside a kingdom’s or client’s reach?

    1. Ana

      Thank you Catherine for the background on the “title”. For me, as a seasoned designer who has worked as the “freelancer” working at a client’s studio, as an “independent contractor” in my own home studio and as an in-house art director/designer who has hired “freelancers”, the term always implied to me that I would have no control over the project. And in most cases, I didn’t – I just came in to solve a very specific piece of the pie. And this is what the hired freelancers do for the company I currently work at. Once I took on my own clients and started to refer to myself as a designer who was an “independent contractor” the projects changed – my involvement and responsibility were much greater. So I guess I would say that its not necessarily a negative term…I was always compensated for my contribution and always felt appreciated for them. I guess I would say the term is more telling of the degree of how involved a designer is in a given project. At the moment, when asked what I do my reply is graphic designer – if asked where, I tell them the company. If I were freelancing I would replace the “where” part of that question with “I’m self-employed”. Looking forward to saying that soon :)

      1. kojo

        Catherine Casalino and Ana you are both on point. Specifics like a ‘graphic designer’ will do for now…if pressed more then self employed closes it all.

  9. Christina D

    My husband is a web developer who works as a freelancer for designers. He’s been told to call himself a “consultant” if he wants to be taken seriously. Freelancer sounds too out there to some I guess.

    1. O.

      Great word, “consultant”. I actually googled “graphic design consultant” and got great results. It sounds professional, however, I wonder how people in other industries would perceive that tittle.

  10. Kathleen Mannix

    “Independent” is the word I use to describe my design business. I work directly for clients. I think of a freelancer as someone who works in a subcontract situation for a design firm or agency.

  11. Joe Morris

    I think Catherine’s comment is pretty accurate and I’d love to call myself a “lancer.” It just sounds bad-ass. However once I introduced myself as a freelancer to another gentlemen in front of a mentor. My mentor corrected me and said: “Joe runs his own business.”

    I liked that. Let me tell you why. Etymology aside, people are moving why to fast to understand what it is we do as designers. It’s easy to boil down the term or phrase to mean very little. Times change and people get lazy in understanding what it is a freelancer does.

    Saying you run a business says you have something to offer other than being a hired hand. I say, if “design” is your specialty and you don’t program, brand or consult, call yourself a contract designer. The implication of the paperwork alone says you are a professional. And that’s all we want isn’t it? To be taken seriously as a professional?

    1. O.

      How about “contractlancer”?

      What I’m getting from all these great posts is that it comes down to how you see yourself and how you project yourself.

      Q: “contract designer” makes me thing you design contracts =/

    1. fellow designer

      Athletes are commodities. We are not.
      Athletes have celebrity potential that reaches the masses and that means BIG money for the team. Poll someone in the street and they will not be able to name a single legendary graphic designer (fashion, yes, graphics, no). Yet they can rattle off a list of athletes.

      With designers it all boils down to personality and your rapport with a client. Let’s face it, we all have the design awards, we all have talent – any one of can do a great job.

      1. Grace Chu

        Of course. I was merely agreeing with Catherine Casalino that it’s silly for people to focus on the “free” part of the word. Personally I tend to use the words “independent” and “consultant”.

  12. Bret Haines

    The fact that we are even talking about it indicates a potential issue. Even though I’m a art director/designer/sole proprietor/small business owner, and I contract work out to illustrators, photographers, web developers, and the occasional graphic designer, in essence what I’m doing is freelance. But I have seen the questioning looks on people’s faces if I say, “Oh, I freelance,” at a party or something. Someone here used the word “contractor” and another “consultant,” and I like both. As a professional communicator I have no difficulty matching the right word to the right situation and I’ll gladly call myself a “Visual Communications Problem Solving Guru” to get beyond the obvious,… I’m a freelancer.

  13. Michelle Gorenstein

    I’ve always used the term “freelancer” in relation to someone subcontracting to big firms through a placement agency. I hustle to get my own clients directly (like Kathleen), so I’ve always referred to myself as owning my own design studio, or running my own small design shop. I agree that the connotation of the word “freelancer” to most small business owners is that your fees will be cheaper. My experience is that by referring to myself as a business, the relationship is on a different level.

    And I second Alex’s remark, I wish the “Creative Freelancer Conference” had a different name, something that implied solopreneurs!

  14. Tyler Kemp-Benedict

    I had heard of the origins of the word freelancer before, and it sounds cool for the person doing it (if you think being a mercenary soldier is cool). But the “free agent” meaning of free doesn’t seem like a big selling point for my clients, any more than the “gratis” meaning is for me.

    When someone asks if I’m freelancing, I usually say “Yes, I’m self-employed,” but I think I’ll start saying I run my own business. I think the word freelancing can imply moonlighting or experimenting or, especially these days, it can be a euphemism for “between jobs.” I want to be clear that I’m not waiting for a real job – this is my real job.

  15. Martha Dean

    I agree with several of the posts such as Kathleen who says, “I think of a freelancer as someone who works in a subcontract situation for a design firm or agency.” I have never likes the term freelancer as I think is diminishes what those of us as independent business owners do. There are many who only do work for other designers and as such I think the term freelancer fits, but there are also many of us who run our own design firm and work for our own clients and as such wear many hats. Many of my clients do not know – and do not need to know – that I am a one woman shop. I have people I hire as needed for specific projects which enables me to do the work of a larger firm with employees. My clients like that I am a business owner and am focused on getting their job done, whatever that takes.

  16. Charles Renne

    I think that it really depends on the situtation. If your speaking with the clients then don’t use the term “freelance” although if your attempting to get work from peers or agencies I feel it is very well accepted. I hire freelancers all the time for overflow.

  17. Tony

    I think it comes down to how you want to position yourself and being accurate about what you actually do. I used to call myself a freelancer when I first started because I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of being a business owner. I also was more one dimensional in the service that I offered. As I gained more experience, and especially when I attracted corporate clients, I shifted to consultant.

    Consultant positions me as a creative, strategic partner that has value in the planning stages of a project. Freelancer tends to sound like someone I would hand the concepts off to for production if I were too busy to do it myself. I can certainly charge more as well as have more influence as a consultant than as a worker-bee (freelancer). Clients all to often hire designers because they need someone to get their ideas into Illustrator or Photoshop. I think that’s what freelancers do. Consultants get in before the design is done to shape the concept and reveal creative avenues the client has yet to see.

    At least that’s my take on it…

  18. Stephanie Sharp

    I’ve never liked or used the term freelancer. Like Kathleen I’ve always interpreted it to mean you work for an ad agency, other design studio, etc in-house on an hourly basis. I work directly with clients and price by the job, not hourly. I state that I own a design studio. Compared to when I first started (20 years ago) today clients don’t care if you work at home or have an office. More people in all fields are consultants working at home and some of these have multiple employees all working from their respective homes.

  19. Rachel M Cotton

    I do freelance design and web work, and I have had certain clients tell me that my prices were almost agency prices (with discerning expressions no less). This leads me to believe that my services are valued as lesser than other types of designers, and I find it insulting. My rates are relatively cheap too. I only charge $60 an hour.
    Maybe it has to do with the word ‘free’ being included in the word, or maybe it’s because I don’t have a secretary or an actual office building. I now just call myself a graphic design and the owner of Cotton Studios. But when someone knows you are solo, they still view you as less.

    1. George

      Our response to this is: “Yes, but unless you spend in the millions with an agency, you will likely have a junior assigned to your project, while if you hire us, you will have the attention of our chief designer who has 35+ years of experience, and has worked for those same agencies.”
      By and large, though, if our clients can’t see value in the services we provide, then our relationship is likely to be short lived.

  20. Craig

    For me the term “freelance” conjures up an image of someone madly scrambling after any job that pays while “independent” sounds more stable and assured. However, I think the term “consultant” is becoming overused. It also has the connotation of (as various jokes imply) someone hired to offer opinions rather than perform work. I prefer “independent” but use “consultant” when it’s appropriate.

  21. fellow designer

    “Freelancer” is DEFINITELY a dirty word. I completely agree. It makes us sound desperate, unprofessional, terminally unemployed, and at its worst, makes us sound like beggars. I also agree with the post about overselling yourself as a design firm. Use “design consultant” because that is what we do. The word “consultant” takes back ownership of our knowledge, talents, skills, and experience. “Freelance” sounds like a design handyman who will do all the bitty, dirty work proper designers won’t touch.

  22. Kevin Criswell

    I agree that ‘freelancer’ may not be the best term to use in a business conversation, just in blogs such as this one where everybody is a ‘freelancer’, but like everybody else, I too am trying to come up with a more professionally accepted term. Maybe, ‘graphic design professional’. I do like the ‘graphic design consultant’ title. I may switch to using that in conversation. Every time I use the term ‘freelancer’ in a conversation, I get this look from the potential client or contact that says, ‘Oh, so you are doing design on the side as in moonlighting and you are not the owner/chief creative director of a design firm, no thanks.’ Hey, I am an in-house graphic artist for a large company. Does that count for something? Any pointers would be helpful. Thanks.

  23. Ilise Benun Post author

    The way I see it, there are two related issues here: 1) How you perceive yourself and how that manifests in what you call yourself and 2) how your client perceives their need and the language they use to describe it.

    The organizations and people handing out comprehensive branding campaigns, for example, are probably not looking for “freelancers” — so if that’s the kind of work you want, what you call yourself should correspond to what they’re looking for and then be woven into every marketing message they see.

    How do you find that out? Ask your clients and prospects what you should call yourself — what best represents the services you offer.

  24. Jean Feingold

    When people ask what I do, I say I’m a professional writer. If they ask what I write (or for whom), I tell them I write anything people hire me to write except papers for students. Very few, even those who are well educated, have ever met anyone who does what I do. For them, writers are novelists or authors of best selling non-fiction. They’ve never thought about who writes the words in ad copy or magazines or websites. When I have mentioned working on a freelance basis, no one thinks I work for free.

  25. sanmitra

    i agree to Ilise. In fact there is also this self- confidence that goes bonkers when people eye you as a free lancer. They think ‘oh you are free lancing, means you must be doing this as a hobby hence you can give it to me for free’. There is another side to this that if you tell your in-laws that you work as a free lancer, they feel oh that means it is simply a way of passing time.. nothing more. no serious work. but if there is a firm name, where in I say I am the founder Designer of my own studio, makes a difference to the client as well as the Family.. specially in India, where family can actually pressurize you into quitting free lancing and joining a job.

  26. Monica

    I agree with what a lot of people are saying here. Freelance is generally received negatively by a lot of people. I’ve been doing freelance on the side, and for a while was looking into a full time design job. Once I said that all my experience was freelance, the HR person immediately seemed to turn off. I think a lot of perception in the business world is that a freelancer essentially hasn’t been able to find a full time job and that raises a lot of red flags.

    Lately, I’ve been saying I own my own design firm (and have been more serious about being self employed instead of working for someone). The response I get is always overwhelmingly positive and people tend to be very impressed – much more so than when I said ‘oh, I freelance’.

    My recommendation to everyone is to say you own your own company – Afterall, chances are you do everything a company does! Just because you find the clients, do the billing and secretarial work, and the design work yourself doesn’t mean you can’t be considered a company too!

  27. Julie Riley

    What a great discussion! Freelance, by definition, means “working for different companies at different times rather than being permanently employed by one company.” I consider my own company quite viable, and myself permanently employed there. Of course, different audiences call for different measures, but for the most part, being the owner of a small design firm carries much more professional weight than the term freelancer.

  28. Justine Clay

    For the last 12 years I’ve represented a roster of ‘freelance’ talent, but I always refer to them as ‘independent creative professionals’ when reaching out to clients. It implies that being independent is a choice (which it is for all of my people) and not a stop gap until a “real” job comes along.
    Great point to raise and I enjoyed seeing what your other readers thought.

  29. steven threndyle

    Sole proprietor is the legal term here in Canada, specializing in corporate communications. Or, communications specialist. Yeah, I used ‘freelance writer’ for quite a few years but people do not take it seriously and you should NEVER use it on a resume or it won’t get past the HR gatekeeper. Even ‘self employed’ is highly risky.

  30. Jim Katorski

    You can find a vast host of differing people doing freelance work. Most of them are attracted to it for the convenience of working from home. I’m sure for some, this means the difference of working, or not. As to the question of are they less or more than traditional office setting designers: There are good cops and bad cops, the same goes for shoe sales, doctors, electricians and every occupation under the sun. Some will work for less money out of ignorance, or desperation to work at all. As seen with some worldwide branding, logos and other forms of advertisements, freelancers can do the same work the big named design houses can, by skill, luck or design.

  31. interior designing

    I focused on freelancing sites so it wouldn’t hurt if I will say I am a freelancer since that is what I usually do. Some people wouldn’t mind working for cheap rates because some freelancing sites are competitive in what they do. Having not enough skills to get a real job is another thing, recession still affects most people so I don’t usually care what other people might think of my job. I don’t think the word “freelancer” in a negative way.

  32. Irshad Ahamed

    yes, its not a correct word to call ourselves as FREELANCER,
    so i choose my own way, this may be good for many of you too. i show up as i have a small design firm and i call my self the creative director/consultant, that will explain the clients i am sort of person who is in charge and also they may get the idea i should have developers to work under me, actually i do so. so not over selling call my name as design firm owner or not put myself lower as just design contractor / freelancer.

  33. Heather Searl

    Before I struck out on my own I managed several departments and hired a lot of writers and designers who called themselves consultants, freelancers or contractors. To me these titles implied three different things.

    Consultants: Very experienced practitioners who charge big bucks. I expected them to bring a high level of creativity and new ideas to the table. I hired them to solve problems we were struggling with, and expected them to charge a fair bit to do so. I also found that these people were not always the best people to do the work once the vision was in place.

    Freelancer: Freelancer are independent, self motivated and able to take a project and run with it with little supervision. They are good at the hands on work required to get things done in keeping with the vision, while bringing their own skills and ideas to the table. A freelancer (like a consultant) calls the shots on when they are available and when they aren’t, but delivers on time. They know their value and charged accordingly. I always felt it was worth paying a good freelancer because they could could deliver quality work on time without requiring a lot of management on my part.

    Contractor: A temporary employee who gets the work done according to spec but doesn’t need to bring a lot of innovation and creativity to the table. I’d bring these people in on large, longer term projects where they’d work as part of a team under the direction of internal resources. They would often be required to work on site a lot of the time.

    I wouldn’t likely interview someone who called themselves a consultant when I was looking for a contractor and vice versa because I have definite notion of the skill set and rates associated with each title.

    So now that I am self employed I use the title consultant or freelancer as appropriate (I don’t want contract type work) based on the who I’m talking to and what kind of engagement we’re talking about.

  34. Aubre Andrus

    My website and business cards say Author and Lifestyle Writer and I’m glad I chose that over “freelance writer.”

    I’ve found that some people don’t know what freelance means, so I say “I started my own writing business” or “I’m an independent contractor” depending on who I’m talking to. I think people respect that answer more than “freelancer” because these days “freelance” sounds like it’s an unfortunate circumstance, not a choice. And people are more likely to ask me to rattle of my clients when I say “freelance writer” (which is kind of annoying because it’s like they don’t believe that I actually have work) than if I say “I own a writing business.”

  35. Elizabeth

    I’ve been working as a freelance web and graphic designer since February 2011. I haven’t experienced many negative feelings towards the term freelancer, and as a new designer, I definitely don’t feel comfortable saying I have my own design studio…because I don’t! However, after reading the article in HOW, I think I will now refer to myself as an ‘Independent Web & Graphic Designer’.

  36. Elsy Aumann

    I agree with Jeff Fisher LogoMotives. On another blog post he wrote:

    In 30 years, I’ve never marketed myself as a freelancer. Instead, I’ve always projected an image of having my own design firm. I recently tweeted: “‘Freelancer’ can convey a psychological thing to potential clients that a designer is willing to work ‘free’ or too cheap……is not skilled enough to get a ‘real’ job, or is simply working ‘freelance’ until the right job comes along.” – See more at:
    SOURCE: http://www.creativefreelancerblog.com/designers/too-old-to-be-a-designer/?et_mid=605646&rid=3812805

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