Illustration by Avirup Basu
Imagine the sweet, sweet freedom of being a freelancer — no boss, no office, and hours of your own choosing. It sounds like paradise, and for some people it is, but the funny thing about a professional life built around freedom is that it requires a lot of organization and discipline. As an employed UX designer your main concern is doing good design work, and that’s already challenging enough for most people. As a freelance UX designer, you’re also a business owner, which comes with the added responsibility of administrative tasks and sourcing future clients.
I believe almost everyone can benefit from at least trying to freelance. Even if you return to a full-time job, freelancing increases your value as a designer by building an entrepreneurial mindset that is difficult to learn otherwise.. I did it for nearly a decade on and off – at one point I even built a small business with four employees. That work helped me develop skills that I never would have learned in my salaried jobs and those skills have served me well over the years. Pitching to clients like your livelihood depends on it, adaptability, independent problem solving, accountability – these are just some of the good work habits you’ll develop as a freelancer. In my current work at OneMethod, we look for these characteristics in all of our hires. In fact, that’s why we often recruit employees through our freelancing relationships.
To describe everything needed for successful freelancing would require a book, but let’s look at the fundamentals you’ll want to consider before you take the leap.
For some people this is the biggest downside of freelancing. “Selling yourself” can be uncomfortable and asking around for leads can feel embarrassing but it doesn’t need to be awful if you keep a few things in mind.
- When to make the leap — While you can absolutely start freelancing right out of school (and I know someone who’s done it successfully), I think it’s easier for most people to make the transition once they’ve had a few years of work experience. At the very least, begin your freelancing as a side-hustle while you still have the security of a full-time job. It’s a lot of work to have an extra job, but you’ll learn how to succeed without worrying about paying the rent.
- Start with a client — Once you’ve done a bit of freelancing on the side, you may choose to make it a full time thing. I don’t know many people who’ve decided to start freelancing and just “hung up a shingle” with no clients lined up. It is much easier to look for work when you already have a job, so use your last days as an employee wisely and find some good opportunities to work on.
- Pitching — For larger projects, a prospective client might require you to “pitch” your services, a process you should consider carefully before investing your time and effort. Preparing a pitch might feel like you’re bragging, or worse, begging, but neither of these is the right approach. Instead, consider that the client has a problem and your pitch is your chance to show them how your skills can solve it. A good starting point would be to consider your own point of view on the problem, if it’s not clear to you then you’ll struggle to convey it to others. A pitch isn’t just your opportunity to win over a client, though. My advice is not just to show your work and your thinking, but also listen to the prospective clients and understand what their challenges are. Decide if they’re people you want to work with and problems you want to solve. Choose wisely because your clients will largely determine how much you enjoy your freelancing.
- Client Relationships — If you want to be a successful freelancer, getting clients is only half the battle. Once you’ve connected with a client, you’ll need to foster your working relationship just like any other. Delivering on-time and on-budget is a good start, but you’ll also want to manage their expectations throughout by understanding what they need to achieve, not just what they say they want.
- Say no to bad clients — Turning down work can be very difficult to do, and “firing” a bad client can be downright terrifying, but both are sometimes necessary. It’s a fundamental truth that you “get the work you do.” If you’re doing work you’re not proud of for a shady client then you’re likely to get more of that work from them and worse, get referred to their shady friends. Everyone has to do the occasional project we don’t like to keep the lights on, just don’t make a habit of it or before you know it you’ll have an uninspiring portfolio and a stable of lacklustre clients.
You should spend about a third of your time looking for work and managing existing clients, a third doing the actual work they give you, and the rest of your time doing all the admin tasks that keep your freelance practice running smoothly. It’s definitely not the most fun but it’s critically important, so make sure you set aside time to deal with it.
- Pricing — How much should you charge? Your options are usually hourly and project based. Both have their place and you’ll develop an understanding of when to offer each. A reasonable way to start is to look at how much money you need to live/want to earn. You can use your current salary as a starting point. Divide that into the number of working hours in a year and you’ve got an hourly rate that you would need to charge if you were working 100% of the time. Given that you will have downtime, I suggest adding at least 30% to that as a safety margin.
- Contracts — I hate writing contracts but this one is non-negotiable. If you do nothing else that I’ve mentioned here, do this. There are many places on the internet to download an example freelance contract, or you can pay a lawyer to draft one, but you’ll need to have a signed copy before you even think of doing work. I’m not qualified to give advice on what should or shouldn’t be in a contract, but I can tell you that without a doubt you should look into it and make sure you’ve always, always got one.
- Billing — I once worked for a small agency where the owner would have his mother call delinquent clients and guilt them into paying. That man was a genius. Getting paid is, as you’d imagine, pretty important to a successful freelance career but it’s not always easy. Your level of experience will partially determine the terms you’re able to get a client to agree to, but for hourly work I highly recommend billing weekly with invoices due immediately. For projects, I suggest a 30% down payment, with a 40% payment at the midpoint and the final 30% due upon completion. This allows you to have money to live on while you work and avoids you assuming all the risk in a project. Never ever bill 100% at the end, and beware of large corporations that insist they take 90 days to pay invoices. You may have no choice, but I’ve walked away from such terms when I was able to and it’s surprising how often they suddenly find a way to make it happen.
- Incorporation — All I’ll say about this is that it can be a good idea once your practice has reached a certain size. Look into it while you’re getting your contracts sorted out. Incorporation can offer legal protections and tax advantages, but it’s non-trivial so, many people don’t do it right away.
- Taxes — Account for them from the start and pay them on time. Do not fool around on this one. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. If you know you won’t do it then hire a bookkeeper or an accountant. It is 1000% worth-it to get this handled properly.
- Credit Cards — A powerful tool in the right hands and a weapon of personal financial destruction in the wrong ones. Are you good with credit? Disciplined? Organized? If so, credit cards can be a great way to track spending, earn vacations, put cash back in your pocket, and all sorts of other benefits. If you have any doubt that you’ll be able to pay them off every month then I’d just steer clear.
We’re a long way into this article about UX freelancing and we’re only talking about doing UX work now — this is not a coincidence. You already know how to do UX design, so I’ll just touch on a few things to keep in mind as you practice.
- Mental Health — It’s important to try and make sure your work area and your rest and relaxation areas are not the same. I once had my desk in my bedroom and I can tell you that waking up at the office wasn’t awesome. In addition, don’t forget to treat yourself fairly, just because you’re your own boss, doesn’t mean your boss can’t be a jerk. Make sure you’re taking vacations, working reasonable hours, and generally enjoying the benefits of freelancing that prompted you to make the leap.
- Get a routine — Not mandatory, but routine can be a fantastic tool for increasing productivity. It allows you to focus on work for a given period and then spend time doing whatever’s important to you. Get up at the same time during the week. Get dressed. Freelancing is still a job, and some of the habits from your old life as a 9-5’er will serve you well.
- Work clean — as a freelancer you’ll sometimes be asked to supplement a client’s existing team. In these situations it’s very important to make sure that your files are clean, well labeled and well organized. While the bosses may judge you by the quality of your output, the team you work with will at least partially judge you by how easy your file was to work with. Designers and developers that struggle with your files will be unenthusiastic about working with you again, so make sure you’re handing-off properly.
- Integrity — Last but definitely not least is the concept of your name and what it’s worth. Short answer is that it’s probably the most valuable thing you have, so guard it well. The short-term benefit of over-charging a client or missing the deadline on a lower-paying job to deliver on a higher-paying one that fell into your lap is not worth the damage to your reputation. Besides being shoddy behavior, working without the highest regard for integrity will always screw you in the end. Word gets around and people always figure things out. If you play fair and do your best, people will come back and refer you to bigger and better opportunities.
So yeah, that’s a lot of stuff to absorb. While it may seem daunting, freelancing is an incredible opportunity for personal and professional growth, and if you do it well then you can make a great living and get a level of control over your life that is hard to beat. Good luck!