Freelancing: how to avoid wasting time and get paid right

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Starting as a freelancer is a great ambition for many creatives, and for good reason: no boss, no 9 to 5 hours, often the ability to work remotely and with more choice of which work you take on. This all sounds great, but there are undeniably hurdles for every designer facing freelancing life fresh faced and eager.

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As of three months ago I took on this ‘desirable’ way to work (freelancing), and my naivety is still smacking me in the face far too often. So, allow me to save you some of the trouble that I (and other blissfully ignorant newbie freelancers everywhere) have experienced.

Inevitably, if you are used to working in-house/on salary, you will underprice your work a few times. Everyone’s got to learn, and sometimes these lessons are a bit pricey! Reason being, you previously never had to think about how long something would take you, the edits that might be required and unforeseen development that the client didn’t realise they would need. The only thing you have to worry about when you have a salary coming at the end of the month is getting the work done (ah, the simple days…!). Being aware of these elements and the confidence to add it into your initial work scope comes with time, but here I will try to give you a bit of a heads up.

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Project structure

The Three Stage design process

When giving a potential client a quote, always give them a Three Stage design process. This should be split up into:

Initial ideas and directions: would recommend posing three pretty different versions from which they can gauge how to move forward. (Moodboards, etc.)

Development of decided direction and prototype: from their comments of the previous round move forward into design development. This can go back and forth a fair bit, so account for this in the quote.

Final build and tweaking of design: from the previous round you should have a pretty decent idea of what your client wants to see as a final result, so this stage should be a nice and easy ‘getting the work done’ part of the process.

Once each stage is agreed upon, make it clear there should be no moving backwards. Once Stage 1 is finished, move forward; once Stage 2 is finished, move forward, etc. – there should be no going back a stage. Make this clear and it’ll save you both time.

If you give your client a fixed price based on this structure you can explain the value in your work, they feel involved in the process and you are less likely to waste time with uncertainty of what they’d like. Furthermore, you can increase the price for additional rounds of edits (and they understand this is due to time and the value in your work: you seem professional, efficient and reasonable). On the other hand, if a design they are happy with is found prior to Stage Three then brilliant – everyone is happy and you can suggest a lower price due to a lessened period of time (10-20%), you’ve saved time and they’ve saved money.

This can be applied to most design projects in one way or another. You can propose a timeline for each stage. Then you and the client will know what to expect when and communication is clear (saving everyone a lot of time!).

Decipher what the client wants

All too commonly, freelancers spend hours on a piece of work they are thrilled with, only for the client to come back with the ‘it’s just not really what I had in mind’ comment. This is incredibly frustrating, and thankfully often avoidable.

The purpose of ‘Stage 1’ in the above structure is to get an idea of your client’s comfort zone with the project. You give them three options initially, usually: modest, bold and somewhere in between. From here you are able to gauge a lot quicker what your client has in mind. To keep a client happy it is essential to make them feel like part of the process – this gives them a say early on and saves you a lot of time later on.

Additionally, if you give them options they may come round to a better idea more easily, under the impression it was their idea – then you can have more fun with it!

Dealing with hundreds of amendments

This one I had a huge problem with. Initially, I would price my work on how long I thought it would take me, almost forgetting the client’s say in the matter. As a freelancer, you never work alone – this is for someone else, don’t forget that. Once you are considerate of this, then everyone will be happier.

Once you establish with your client you are expecting them to be part of this process and comments are freely welcome, their respect for you will increase dramatically (and they don’t mind paying for a service they are happy with!).

All you have to do is think about this before starting. When pricing, say each additional round (post the Three Stage process) will cost them X amount. This has never been a problem for me, I have only got respect for my time and my consideration of their input. Job done.

Not getting paid

ALWAYS ask for a deposit (my standard for a fixed project would be 50%), and ALWAYS have a contract (outlining scope of work and when payments are due). Getting a deposit ensures your client is serious about hiring you, wants your service and is willing to pay for it. NEVER start anything creative without a deposit.

Depending on the length of the project you can either ask for regular sums throughout the process (longer projects), or the final 50% on completion. NEVER give over high resolution files before the final payment has been made (no matter how nice the guy seems) – otherwise they have no rush in paying you, they hold all the trump cards.

It is a freelancer’s nightmare to spend all this time on a beautiful piece of work and see the rewards being reaped elsewhere – but if you implement the above, you ensure you maintain an element of power in this situation. Yes, I have learnt the hard way (as you may do too) – tighten up your structure and clarity on expectations and problems should diminish.

I hope the above hasn’t scared you off being a freelancer. Like everything worthwhile, it takes time to get there (rest assured, I still have a long way to go!). With any luck, the above advice will save you a bit of time (if only I knew all this when I began…!)

Wish you all the best!

Saskia Everard
Using graphic design & illustration freelancing to take her to unexpected corners of the world.

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Saskia Everard

Author: Saskia Everard

Using graphic design & illustration freelancing to take her to unexpected corners of the world.