10 Things I have learned in my ten years as a freelance designer
1. Sometimes, the client is actually right.
Beginner graphic designers are often defensive about receiving criticism. While clients sometimes blunder and have ridiculous ideas about design, they know their brand best, and often they can point you in the right direction when they give feedback. In fact, the best designs I have created came to life as a result of a previous design concept being rejected or heavy editing by the client.
After 10 years in business, my client network is now the backbone of my freelance practice. Returning clients or client referrals make up more than 70% of the client work coming my way. As an independent specialist, I have the luxury to vet my clients and only pick those client personalities, industries, and brands I enjoy doing work with. This is the key to doing your most inspired creative work – you have to enjoy the people you are serving.
After so many years in design, I rarely find novelty these days. I might experiment with new design techniques, refine my creative process or upload a new portfolio showcase, but the initial mad excitement I felt about design in the early years has mostly faded.
What keeps me on my toes these days is even better than excitement – it’s the quiet determination to serve my clients and their brands that I love so much. This is what ultimately puts a smile on my face and gets me through the challenging times, not so much the financial rewards.
4. A failed working relationship is always the designer’s fault.
As designers, it is always our job to ask all the right questions and smoothly guide the client through the design process. Clients are not designers and don’t understand what it is exactly we do and how we do it. If communication with the client goes south during the project, it is mostly the designer’s fault for not having communicated clearly and not having an efficient process.
Even if the client is difficult or downright abusive, it is still our fault for having overlooked the red flags before shaking hands on a project. As independent creatives, it is our job to vet the clients we work with and make sure they are the right fit for us.
5. The importance of having a process.
Over the first half of my decade-long career, I would ask myself after a tough project “what went wrong?” or “How could I have prevented this delay/misunderstanding/failure”? By debriefing after each assignment and learning from my mistakes, I would often sneak a new technique or feature into my workflow. After ten years, the result is a bulletproof 10-step creative process that almost never fails to deliver results that my clients love.
Here is a glimpse into my creative process.
The digital detox I take on Sundays and two 10-day digital sabbaticals I take twice a year are the single reason why I have kept my sanity over the years and still love my job. Freelancers often find it hard to mentally separate themselves from work – taking offline downtime is the only way to reboot your mind and get back to the surface for a gulp of fresh air before diving back into the deep end with projects and deadlines.
7. Less is more.
Good design is about knowing what to keep more than it is about knowing what to add. By stripping a design to the bare essentials, every color, letter, and symbol you are using has more impact and falls into its proper place. This rule also transfers to life. By focusing on the essentials and filtering out the noise, you get much more out of life.
8. People buy people.
After a client has seen and liked your case studies of previous work, they are now looking for a genuine person that understands their needs, puts them at ease, and takes their interest to heart. Being an excellent communicator and being trustworthy is just as important as being talented.
9. Community matters.
In my early years as a designer, I made the mistake of being a lone wolf. I would rarely socialize with fellow creatives and would never join creative events and gatherings. It was only in the last few years that I opened myself up to the local design community and it has helped me grow and enjoy my work more. Receiving support from fellow designers and knowing that you are not alone is priceless.
10. The Ego is the greatest enemy of an aspiring artist/designer.
Getting high on your own supply as a successful designer and believing that you are a creative God is the quickest route to mediocrity. Any artist needs a healthy dose of self-doubt to keep them humble and always learning. This comes easy to me – as a self-taught designer without a college degree in design, imposter syndrome is always at my heels. It is what has always kept me trying to always do better.
In conclusion, the past 10 years have been a journey of learning and growth for me as a graphic designer. While I was down in the trenches working on challenging assignments, I learned profound life lessons. Working with clients from diverse backgrounds has taught me to be humble, flexible, and tolerant. To listen, respect, and be open to feedback. I look forward to continuing to learn and grow as a designer in the years to come.