Why I discourage graphic design students from wanting to be freelancers

Many of my students at Globe University/Minnesota School of Business look at freelancing as a romantic journey where they will be their own boss and control their own destiny. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Freelancing, especially for new grads, is a hard way to try to earn a living.

Let’s start by taking a look at the work. Where does a new designer look for work? This is truly the hardest part of freelancing. You are constantly looking for new work and new clients. Knocking on doors and calling strangers is not easy. It takes a lot of dedication and a tremendous work ethic to get on the phone, research, and explore new contacts. A designer who has a few years of studio or agency experience has contacts in the business. Calling someone you know and have worked with in the past is so much easier than talking to someone who doesn’t know you, your experience, or your level of production. Then once you have a client you constantly worry that your work is good enough, that you don’t screw up, or make some major error that costs your client tons in reprinting. And an error on a website can lead to your client losing customers or even getting sued over misinformation.

This brings up the point of growing as an artist. A new grad needs to work with other professionals to learn, to grow and collaborate with others in the field. I tell my students they will double their knowledge the first year they are working everyday alongside other designers.

I’m not going to get into what hourly or project rates a freelancer could charge. That varies so much on the client, the artist’s abilities, and the extent of the project. Experience and time will tell you what you can charge. What I do want potential freelancers to understand is when you will get paid. Let’s look at a project you might do for an art studio. You finish the job and send an invoice. They add your work to whatever they are doing and submit an invoice to their client or an ad agency. If it’s an agency, they do more work and then submit an invoice to their client. Payment is trickle-down just as invoicing is a trickle up. The client must pay their bill to the agency before they can pay the studio, which then pays the freelancers. A three month wait for payment after the job is billed is not uncommon. And if the job took a month or more to do that means the artist may wait up to four months from start to payment. And then there’s the occasional client who is just a poor money manager and can’t pay his bill at all.

Take a look at a typical pay stub from any job you might currently have. Look for the amount of Social Security taken out of your pay. Did you know your employer matches that amount before sending it to the SS administration? When you’re freelancing you have to pay the full amount, your share and what an employer would add. You also are responsible for your own health insurance unless you’ve got a spouse or partner who can carry you. And how much of your pay are you going to sock away for retirement? Believe me, the more you can stash now the better off you will be when that distance time comes. State and Federal income taxes are another item to consider. Depending on your income level you will have to make quarterly payments to the IRS that will approximately match your tax burden. Failure to do so will most likely end in penalties and fees on top of the tax.

Vacations? Time off is practically non-existent unless you’re not worried about losing work and potentially a client. Clients can be fickle and find the strangest reason to send work to someone else. I lost a client one time because I couldn’t answer the phone when she called. A balanced budget is practically impossible unless your work creates a fairly steady income. You’ll find yourself with free time to do something fun but won’t have the money. When you do have the money you’ll be too busy with the next project.

Don’t get me wrong, freelancing can be a very rewarding lifestyle. Your projects will be more diverse than working for a single employer and your “reach” as an artist will be extended. You will meet more people and see more design philosophies than working for one company. But wait until you’ve got experience and contacts before striking out on your own. You’ll be much happier and more successful.