Freelance Trial and Error: The Locked Vault

Design school taught me the basics on how to use the right software, how to mock projects up, and the best practices of being a designer. They teach you to forget your style and try to be a blank canvas, as clean as possible to fit in with the corporate world, but they failed to mention what working as a freelancer would be like. The following are true client stories about how I learned through trial and error the best and worst practices of being a freelancer

The Vault

When you freelance through big recruiting agencies, you’ll probably be sent to larger companies that already have design teams. Usually your role is to “help out” until their work load is more manageable. Maybe your situation is “contract to hire” meaning they are testing you out and if they like you, they’ll keep you. And by keep you, they’ll pay the “finders fee” to your agency so that you are no longer employed by the agency that sent you there, but by the actual company. To read more about the pros and cons of working with recruitment agencies, read my post.

In my case, I was sent to a large retail company in the Bay Area. My job was simple: production artist. Which mostly meant re-sizing things into new formats and taking pre-existing elements to create something new with them. At first it was great. Then it became tedious and boring. I started to see what other fun projects the others were working on and I grew envious. Every young Jr. designer thinks they are above production work and no one tells them that production jobs are mostly what they will find in their first year out of college. No established company is going to trust you to re-design the brand standards manual, or even design a window display until you get a feel for the brand and learn how they do things. In my case, they did eventually throw me a few small “design” projects, a few of which I was really proud of. They were a refreshing change, but came with their own dilemmas. Everything I made had to pass under great scrutiny by several people, each one having a different opinion. What I considered to be “good design” was too far from their comfort zone and was “off brand”. Slowly, through trial and error, I learned where I could explore and where I had to stick to their strict guidelines. After 5 months, my contract was ending and there was no talk of keeping me. I had felt very little bonding with the people I was working with, probably because I didn’t try very hard and had nothing in common with them.

I finally had a discussion with my boss and asked her what their plans were for me since my contract was “contract to hire”. She said they were looking for full time talent and that I could apply if I was interested in a full time position. It felt like a slap in the face. I decided it was best if we went our separate ways. In the last month I was there, I started breaching the portfolio subject and was met with a firm “no”.

Nothing I did for that company in the last 5 months was able to go into my portfolio. I applied with a formal pdf including all pictures and copy I would use and they still said it was against their policy to let freelancers use their projects in their portfolios because it’s too easy to give away their brand secrets. I was beyond furious. I called my recruiter and asked if I had to follow their rules, and he said when I signed my contract with him, I agreed to follow the rules of each company I work for.

Hands tied, I left very bitter.

And so concludes this story on my quest of being a better freelancer.

Lessons Learned:

Before proceeding with a client big or small, ask them how they feel about you using your designs in your portfolio (web, print etc). If they push back, they might have valid reasons. Some projects, such as the brand standards manual can’t be shared (though I have seen design firms share select spreads). Other projects are time sensitive, like holiday window concepts. Discussing this topic in heavy detail before you start working will help. You wont have any tense arguments at the end of a project because you already know the rules.

Always get their consent to use your designs in writing. If they give you a wait time of three months, then wait three months and one day. If they ask you to take your work down, you can point to the contract and say “you said three months”.

If you want to get hired on full time, make them want to keep you. Go out after work for drinks with them, eat lunch with them and find something of common interest. Make the effort to show them who you are and share what is best about you. If they like you, they’ll keep you. If they know nothing about you, they’ll probably end your contract. In the end, when working on a team (especially for retail), it’s more about how you fit with the team, and less about if you’re a “rockstar designer” or not.