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Freelance web designer

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What is a freelance web designer?

For most people the answer is obvious but I occasionally get questions about what a freelance designer is and what a freelance web designer does. I thought I would write a quick (?!) explanation of what all it entails and the different types of freelance web designers that exist within the niche. I thought I would also touch on how we get work, how we do work and when we do work. So this article is for anyone wondering what a freelance web designer is and for those considering becoming a freelance web designer and want to get an idea of what it takes and how it works.

I’ve been a freelance web designer for several years, I’ve only been a full time freelance web designer for about 1 year. I’m coming up on my 1 year mark in December for being entirely self employed. It has been a crazy ride, I’ll probably write a story of how it went and what struggles I had to overcome, as well as my success stories of being a freelance web designer. Let’s first talk about the different types of freelance web designers, let me know in the comments if I missed a type.
Quick synopsis of a freelance web designer

A freelance web designer (or web developer) is someone that is independent of a larger organization. They typically work by themselves and for various clients and agencies. With clients we typically take on the full project from logo design, web design, cutup (slicing), CMS Integration and finally building out the content and launching it.

There are a lot of other steps beyond the actual work, such as managing the projects, accounting, sales and marketing that most freelancers will do in addition to actual work that directly leads to income. Fortunately there are a lot of tools that help freelance web designers manage their business. For most freelance web designers we typically focus on a specific skill set, such as design and cutup. For some parts of the project that go beyond our niche skill set we will typically bring on other freelancers to take care of that portion of the project for us, especially when it comes to development (programming). More on outsourcing for freelancers later.
Full time freelance web designer

The pure category of freelance web designers is the full timers, which get all of their income from their freelance business. Which is currently what I do. We typically work from home, from an office or anywhere with a wireless connection. I’ve done all of the above, I used to work out of a private office at the Oklahoma City Coworking Collaborative (okcCoCo), which is a collaborative of self employed professionals, mostly within the tech sphere, who either have private offices or weekly / monthly coworking plans which gives you open seating and free wireless access. I’ve also worked at tons of coffee shops and cafes, usually only for short periods and typically in-between meetings. Mostly I work from my home office.

For a lot of full time freelance web designers diversifying your income is important. Most of the time relying on work to come in solely from clients and agencies can be a pretty big gamble so having other income streams is very important.

Part time freelance web designer

A typical part time freelance web designer is probably the most common type of freelancer. These freelancers typically have a full time job that may or may not be in the same field as they freelance in. They’ll typically work from home and occasionally at similar locations as the full time freelancer but will do their freelance work outside of work, and after normal work hours. Typically part time freelance web designers charge a slightly lower rate due to having a regular income stream from their day job and just freelance to compliment their regular income.

Freelance web design contractors

A contracting freelance web designer will typically work directly with clients on location. Most of the time this is with agencies or other organizations that have a specific project they need to have done and are willing to pay travel expenses and provide work space. Occasionally some of these freelancers will receive limited benefits through the contract but for the most part, they are just there for the short term of the project as an independent contractor. This can be done with a team of other freelancers or employees of the company, and sometimes it is just the contractor.

Freelance web design outsourcer

A freelance web designer that outsources is a little different than your typical freelancer, they typically have a pretty good knowledge of the field and either excel more at sales and marketing or prefer to work with clients and agencies and have a virtual staff that does most of the work. They typically make income on the person they are outsourcing to based on the profit margin.

Some of the outsourcers do send their work to third world countries where they can get an extremely low wage, but for the most part they’ll hire other freelancers to do the work and develop a relationship with a few different freelancers depending on the amount of work they get in. A lot of them use job auction sites to get the lowest price possible, but for the most part they’ll setup a relationship with a few regular freelancers that have an hourly rate low enough to make a profit but a skill high enough to deliver quality work.

Occasionally, some outsourcers present themselves as full service design agencies and have a staff of sales, marketing or project managers that handle the company operation while outsourcing all of the design and development work.

Understanding the freelance web design field

Now that we have broken down the different types of freelance web designer, the next step is to understand how we work and where the majority of our income and work actually comes from.

How freelance web designers work

A freelance web designer will typically work in a pretty organized fashion in that we are in charge of scheduling all of our work while still working to get income in, worry about accounting and project management. All of this is a pretty delicate balance of duties and can be daunting to someone starting out as a freelance web designer. As I mentioned previously, there are a ton of tools available for freelance web designers to use to help make the tasks easier and remember when projects are due, what invoices are paid and where your next project is coming from.

A lot of freelance web designers will set a work schedule that lays out when they will work on their projects during the day and create a solid separation of work and personal life. This is probably one of the most difficult tasks, other than getting new work, for a freelance web designer. For me, I typically work around meetings and other events and determine early in the week when I will have time to work on various projects. A lot of times that work goes late into the night, especially if I’m running behind on a project. Using a scheduling tool like Basecamp to manage my milestones, to-dos, time management and client communication helps to organize all of that really well. I also use Freshbooks to manage my invoices, expenses and income.

As I mentioned before most freelance web designers subscribe to a specific skill set and will outsource to other freelancers a portion of a project they aren’t proficient in. There are designers that focus on branding and design, but will outsource the XHTML / CSS coding and any development. A lot of times web designers are proficient in design and coding, with a bit of development to compliment some of the limited programming necessary on projects. A lot of times what gets outsourced is the programming, so freelance web designers will work directly with a developer to do the functionality. Trying to do it all will always leave one portion of a project, depending on the scope, a little lacking if the freelancer isn’t terribly proficient at the skill.

Who freelance web designers work with

Direct-to-client freelancing

There are a variety of methods that freelancers will use to get work, the largest method is direct-to-client work. With this method freelancers will contract with a business and design their website or develop their application and once the project is completed so is the contract. Occasionally a maintenance plan will be setup for any ongoing issues or work that will need to be done with the project. When working directly with clients there is typically a lot more project management necessary including phone conferences, meetings and training.
Freelancing to design agencies

Design agencies typically take on any projects that come there way as long as they fit within their budget and abilities. There are design agencies that will outsource to freelancers a large portion of their work, knowing as an agency they can charge more, and manage a variety of freelancers to do certain portions of the project while handling all of the project management and client communication. Also, some web design agencies will outsource their overflow that their current staff don’t have the necessary time to complete.

Freelancing to other freelancers

Finally we have other freelancers, of any variety, that either have too much work to complete a certain project or don’t have the necessary skill set to do a portion of the project. So, what happens is they will work on the project with another freelancer to ensure the deadline is met within budget. They usually have a network of freelancers that compliment their skill sets and will call on them as a project arises. Depending on how much work the freelancer will have they’ll occasionally use job boards and job auctions to find a person with the skills they need.

How freelance web designers find work

Everywhere and anywhere we can find it. There are numerous methods and places that, we as freelancers, will get our work from, I’ll list out a few of the most popular places below.
Job Boards

One of the quickest ways to find work as a freelance web designer is through various job boards, finding the right job board can be difficult. It all comes down to the freelancer’s skills and availability of portfolio examples. I recently wrote an article going over, in my opinion, some of the best job boards for freelance web designers.

Most of the job boards will have a variety of agencies, freelancers and clients looking for a freelance web designer for a specific project or an ongoing working relationship.

Auction boards

There are a ton of job auction boards available for freelancers of any variety, not just freelance web designers, and they are typically plagued with a lot of under qualified cheap labor. The way it works is someone will post a project and have the community bid on what they would charge to complete the project. A lot of times the client will choose the most affordable option, but work can be found that the client is pricing reasonably and actually looking for talent and not necessarily the lowest price. I’ve briefly tried several of them and haven’t had many good results but I really think it depends on the freelancers. I’ve heard of freelancers that make 6 figures working a job board and bidding on projects.
Professional Networking

A lot of professional networking depends on personality and hobbies. Networking with other professionals at events such as design conferences, chamber meetings and various other events is a big part of making this work. The more people you talk to, and I mean actually talk to— not just hand a business card to and tell them you make websites— the better your chances are that they will think of you when they have a project or someone they know has a project.
Social Networking

Networking on social websites is a little tricky, there are a ton of services that allow you to interact with other users and build professional relationships with. Namely I get a large portion of my business from the following social networks:

  • Twitter – Really. Interacting with other professionals on Twitter is a major source of work, through simply networking. I don’t advertise my business prominently on twitter but I do talk with others and you can find agencies and freelancers that are looking for a freelance web designer to do work quite often on Twitter. I get more of my work from Twitter than job boards.
  • LinkedIn – LinkedIn is a great social network geared specifically at professionals and as you connect with other people on the network you will typically have various work come your way because you are connected. Another good place to get work through LinkedIn is joining various groups, such as the freelancer network, and asking or answering questions that build your network and visibility within that group.
  • Plaxo – This service is similar to LinkedIn, I have an account but I don’t use it nearly as often.
  • Facebook – While this network is geared to a much more personal networking, I have received work from it. It doesn’t happen often but networking with people on it can produce great results. I think it mostly comes from having people you already know on it to give existing relationships a better connection.
  •  Blogging – You’re here, aren’t you? I maintain this blog to build relationships and share my knowledge with everyone. I get a large portion of my work from my website by people searching for a specific topic that I have written about. I have done work with a ton of my regular readers and, because they read my blog, they know my level of experience and reliability. Having a blog helps to build authority in your knowledge and ensures others you know what you’re talking about when quoting work.

Word of mouth

By far word of mouth is the largest contributer to freelancers getting work, it encompasses a lot of the other methods but it is so important it definitely needs its own section. A lot of this is through friends, other professionals and work you have done for people in the past recommending you.
Tips for becoming a freelance web designer

Dedication and the ability to manage yourself well is incredibly important. We work alone and for any number of different clients and agencies and our livelihood depends solely on our ability to get work and complete work in a timely fashion. Before jumping off into becoming a freelance web designer, full time, you want to ensure you have a padding saved up for slow months. You also have to consider taxes and manage your business so that you are saving for when tax time comes. Not only setting aside money for taxes but initially you have to create a budget and will need to cut out some of your expenses in order to ensure your success.

Being a freelance web designer can have its drawbacks for the light of heart, but the lifestyle is fantastic. As long as you can get enough work and complete that work you can work from anywhere and at anytime.

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