There are some guidebooks but definitely no rule book when it comes to creative freelancing. Different projects, clients, services, and circumstances lead to a wide range of considerations.
Without much experience, it is easy to take missteps and detours when providing freelance services. Everybody makes mistakes and that’s okay. With the right resources and network, though, you can learn from others’ errors and avoid making them yourself!
Here are some of the unfortunate mistakes many new freelancers make and some tools and strategies to help you stop committing these fatal sins.
It isn’t cool when you’re dating and it is even less cool in a professional relationship. Freelancers who are non-responsive are a common client complaint and can make companies think twice about hiring any freelancers in the future.
Redemption: Suck it up and respond to the email or, better yet, answer your phone. Even if you aren’t delivering good news, avoiding the problem is extremely unprofessional and unfair. Explain yourself, be apologetic, and keep your client from wondering (and worrying) where you have disappeared to. It will save your client time and save you energy spent dodging calls and feeling guilty. Plus, it makes a big impact on your reputation.
Sin: Missed Deadline
Most freelancers have been there. You’re a one-woman or one-man show and it isn’t always easy to manage your time – especially if unexpected personal obligations or projects crop up. That previously far-off deadline draws nearer and you hold out hope, even though completion looks less likely, only to miss the date entirely.
Redemption: Return to the first point and COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR CLIENT! Usually, they’ll be understanding and even appreciate the fact that you have given them the chance to readjust their expectations or put together a backup plan. Show respect and earn it by calling attention to your scheduling error and being honest and upfront.
Sin: Forgetting Copyright
The internet has made for even more shades of grey in the already confusing realm of creative copyright, intellectual property, and licenses. It can be time-consuming and challenging to sort out the budget for licenses and you don’t want your work to be compromised – but it is illegal and unethical to use another artist’s hard work without permission.
Redemption: Go through the proper process with your client and walk them through purchasing the approved assets. That way, they’ll be able to reuse fonts and images in future designs. If the client doesn’t understand why they need to buy, explain the value and risks associated with open source or illegally used content. Highlight that using an open source image for a main web page photo dilutes the impact, since many companies will be using it, and put the brand identity in jeopardy. Illegal image or font use also makes the company vulnerable to legal action.
If value is your top concern, these are some of our favourite resources to get the most out of your design dollars:
Photos and Images
Stocksy – Huge variety of stock photos that are modern, varied, and beautiful.
iStock Photo – Stylized sets are available for reasonable rates.
Noun Project – Popular site for tons of icons. Read attribution requirements carefully.
My Fonts – Full versions, frequent sales, and demonstrated use-cases for each font in a helpful gallery.
If budget or time restrictions are tempting you to skip the necessary steps, these free resources from the creative commons are available:
Photos and Images
Pexels – Big variety of images, mostly handy for secondary design pieces and digital content like blog posts.
Unsplash – Food, nature, and stunning free shots. Bonus: the site features work from local photographers.
Google Icons – Credit the source and follow the directions.
Font Awesome – Extensive library of useful icons.
Flat Icon – Use or submit icons in a variety of formats and file types.
Google Fonts – Credit the source and follow the directions.
Dafont – Read the licensing details carefully as there are differences between commercial and personal use.
Font Squirrel – Easy to use, diverse font selection.
Sin: Unfriendly Feedback
It isn’t always easy to hear criticism, especially on a piece you have put a lot of time and energy into. Sometimes clients will take liberties with your designs and make their own changes. Seeing your work edited butchered can be frustrating. How you take that criticism can make or break the relationship and impact your growth as a creative, though, so think twice before snapping back with your own unfiltered thoughts.
Redemption: Remind yourself that you are not your work and don’t make it personal. Learn the right language to talk about design or illustration with people who are not familiar with the field. This will help you justify your design decisions and offer palatable feedback when faced with client DIY changes.
Approaches to Try: “Always acknowledge the feedback you’re given. It shows respect and makes your client feel heard and understood, even if you don’t incorporate those changes,” offers experienced designer Rachel Ma. “Try saying, ‘Now that I see what you want, let me take a stab at it.’ It shows you’re listening and allows you to push your design closer to what the client wants.”
Other gentle ways to offer criticism? Say it looks “busy” or unfocused, avoid phrasing that veers into good or bad value judgements, and explain the importance of visual hierarchy. You can also express that the design or messaging looks “off-brand” and focus on how the change or feedback is not optimized for the medium or platform.
Special thanks to Rachel Ma, Eitan Zohar, and Kassem Ahmed for offering their expertise on design resources and all of our Design Discussion attendees for sharing their sins with us. Additional thanks to Ivan McCuistion for the photograph.