7 Habits of a Highly Successful Freelance Web Designer | October 22, 2006
I’ve had a few people contact me recently, asking how to make it as a freelance web designer. Rather than answer everybody individually, I thought I’d post my thoughts online. So in my best impression of a self help book, here are my 7 habits of a highly successful freelance web designer.
Love what you do
If you work for a large company, it’s easy to clock in, do your job and then leave it behind at the end of the day. I’ve seen companies where the staff just don’t seem to care about what they do: either the projects they are working on or the profession in general. For them it’s just a day job and they wouldn’t dream of reading a web design book or going to a conference outside office hours.
To be a successful freelancer, you need to have a passion for what you do. Passion (with the aid of caffeine) will keep you working late into the night when the rest of your friends are down the pub or fast asleep. Equally passion will keep you focused, motivated and away from the TV when times are slow. It’s the driving factor that got you into the industry in the first place, and in all likelihood the reason why you chose to go freelance.
Passion is particularly important when dealing with potential employers, be they design agencies or end clients. As somebody who uses freelancers myself, being able to demonstrate your love for the industry is much more important than your experience or technical ability. After all you can teach somebody a new skill, but you can’t teach them to enjoy their work. Ultimately this passion will be contagious and will rub off onto your clients, prospects and the work you do.
Never stop learning
Web design is a multi-disciplinary skill that’s as broad as it is deep. Every day new ideas or techniques are discovered and sometimes it’s hard to keep pace. However the best web designers are endlessly inquisitive and always want to keep abreast of the latest trends and technologies. They will scour the web reading every blog post or article they can find, their RSS reader literally building under the weight of new content. Their Amazon wishlist will be full of the latest titles and they will always have a couple of unread books lying around just waiting to be digested. Simply put, the successful freelance web designer loves what they do and is constantly learning how they can do it better.
Having a broad range of skills is vital as a freelancer as you never know what you may be expected to do. However gone are the days when you can get by being a Jack-of-all-trades. Now you need to specialise. Some skills are more in demand than others, but if you’re the top of your field in a particular language or skill, you’ll always be in demand.
Information Architecture is a hot field at the moment, as more and more companies focus on improving the user experience. Good graphic designers are also extremely thin on the ground, especially those who have an understanding of Interface design and the vagaries of CSS. And while on the subject of web standards, it seems that companies can’t find good standards based developers fast enough. Traditional programming languages will always be popular, particularly if you understand higher level concepts such as OOP and UML. However Ruby on Rails is the language du jour (OK, I know Rails isn’t a language), so if you happen to be a Rails expert, you won’t be short of a contract or ten.
It’s important not to specialise at the expense of your other skills. Clients and agencies like well rounded people with a wide set of interests. Your skills should resemble an inverted T. Generally very broad but with one (or preferably more) areas of deep knowledge.
Get a killer portfolio
As a freelancer, your resume isn’t worth the disk space it’s saved onto. Instead what you need is a killer portfolio. If you are new to freelancing, building up a portfolio can be quite tricky. The best way to do this is to contact friends and family and offer to build them a website. I’m not suggesting you do this for FREE as this is potentially damaging to the industry and can also leave you in the difficult situation where your work isn’t valued. If you must do something for FREE, consider offering your services to a charity or community group who just wouldn’t be able to afford the services of a professional designer. Alternatively, create your own personal project or sandbox where you can demonstrate your ideas. I’ve hired freelancers in the past based solely on the basis of their personal work.
If you’ve been working on the web for a while, don’t post up every project you’ve ever done. You’re only as good as your last couple of projects so put your best foot forward and showcase your most recent work. After all, Nobody wants to see a website you created back in 2002, no matter how good it was. People are very visual, so portfolios are a much easier prospect for designers. If you are a developer or Information Architect, case studies may be the better way to go. A good case study will allow you to explain your involvement with the project, justify the decisions you made and demonstrate how you contributed to the success of the project. Above all, be honest. If you didn’t do the design, or worked in partnership with another agency, let people know.
Network like crazy
As the old saying goes, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. This couldn’t be more true as a freelance web designer. The best way to get work is to use your contacts and network like crazy. When starting out, let all of your friends and family know what you are doing. Ask if they know anybody who needs a website and whether they would mind introducing you. If you are going directly after end clients, local business networking events are a great source of contacts. Events like the local chamber of commerce are a great way to meet potential customers or gain those all important referrals.
Targeting end clients can be very time consuming and costly. Instead, consider letting others do the work by contracting direct with a design agency. Agencies are always on the lookout for reliable freelancers, often at a moments notice. These agencies do the hard work of finding and managing clients, leaving you to get on and do what you’re best at. If you can hook up with half a dozen agencies in your local area, you should find enough work to keep you busy. One way to find potential agencies is to email everybody in your local area and let them know that you are available for freelance work. An even better way is to go where other web developers hang out. Geek events.
Going to pub meets, user groups and conferences is one of the best ways to make useful connections. On a basic level, people much prefer doing businesses with somebody they have met and feel comfortable with. Next time they need help on a particular project, they are much more likely to remember you and get in touch. If they know you are actively looking for projects, they are also more likely to recommend you to other people.
Networking sounds like a scary thing to do, but in reality it’s usually just a case of hanging out with people in your industry, sharing war stories and occasionally getting some work out of it.
Manage your time
As a freelancer, you need to make sure you manage your time well, and keep on top of all the administrate tasks you need to do. Many people expect to do less work as a freelancer then when they were in full time employment. However this couldn’t be further from the truth. As well as doing the work you get paid for, you also need to market yourself, manage your projects, do your accounts and everything else that’s involved in running a small business.
When you’re busy, it is very tempting to work all the hours under the sun. Even when you’re not rushed off your feet, the work you have always expands to fill the time available. To combat this you need to put some boundaries on your time and manage your work-life balance. This is particularly true if you work from home. Make sure people know the difference between your work time and your home time. Just because you’re at home doesn’t mean you have time to do the dishes, clean the house and take out the trash. Conversely don’t participate in avoidance techniques like doing the chores, making snacks or watching TV. As well as putting on the pounds, you’ll end up spending twice as much time working as you really need to.
One of the benefits of being a freelancer is being your own boss, so make sure you’re both strict and fair. Feel free to be flexible with your hours, but if you email a client at 10pm, don’t be surprised if they phone or email you outside regular office hours as well. If you find your attention fading, rather than sitting in front of the computer take a walk or go down the gym for an hour. When you come back you’ll be refreshed and much more productive.
Build your reputation
One of the best ways of becoming a successful freelancer is to become the person people want to do business with. That way, rather than searching for new clients, they will come to you. To do this you need to build a solid reputation. You can do this by doing great work and turning past clients into new sources for referrals. You can also build your reputation by sharing your experiences and knowledge through writing articles, blogging and speaking at local events. By building your reputation as an expert, people will be happy using your services and recommending you to others. Blogging is a particularly good way of doing this and is something I highly recommend. When looking for a new freelancer I’ll get a much better sense of their interests and abilities though their blog than I’d ever get from reading a resume. It’s a great marketing tool, so if you don’t have a blog, you should set one up straight away.
So those were my “7 habits of a highly successful freelance web designer”. Feel free to chip in with your own suggestions. Next week: “What Hex Value is your Parachute” and “Developers are From Mars, Clients are From Uranus” :-)
Posted at October 22, 2006 10:06 PM