You may not have noticed, but we’re currently living in a golden age of design. I don’t mean aesthetically; that’s a matter for debate. But what is undeniable is that the business value of design is greater in 2019 than ever.
Design was once seen as merely an add-on to business. Take, for example, the humble website.
Once it was an optional extra, as companies sold most of their goods through physical stores, or telephone, or mail order. Now, for everyone from Airbnb to Deliveroo to Uber, the website is the business, and smart improvements to its design can net billions in boosted profits.
For manufacturing, too, design is now of prime importance. From smart fridges to internet-connected doorbells, clever design is helping reinvent every mundane product we once took for granted. Any business that is not a design-led business is soon going to be left behind, so demand for good designers is at an all-time high.
Which has got be good news for design freelancers…. right?
Unfortunately, on the ground, it’s not quite that simple.
One thing about increasing demand is that it tends to generate increasing supply. And that’s exactly what’s happened over recent years, believes Mike Hince, a UI/UX designer working remotely in Shrewsbury for a range of global clients.
“As an app designer, finding work is more challenging than ever,” he says. “Thankfully I’ve been doing this for years and have good visibility from Google. I get lots of client referrals, and regular, recurring clients keep me busy. But that doesn’t stop keeping me awake at night thinking: ‘What if the work runs out?’”
So what’s changed? “A few years ago there wasn’t many designers who’d successfully converted from traditional print design to UI and UX,” Hince explains. “But today there’s more competition than ever. Not only are younger designers coming of age, with the advantage of growing up using apps, but there are also hundreds of talent acquisition sites that will go and find talent for companies, often occupying Google’s front pages. Many of those services drive cheap rates, which isn’t great for the industry: I’m talking about Toptal, Peopleperhour, Freelancer, Upwork, Fiverr and more.”
Fiverr is a particular bête noire for many creative freelancers, who accuse it of providing design work at super-cheap prices that don’t always stand up to professional scrutiny.
“Everyone is running to Fivrr because they’re equating cost with value,” complains Seattle-based digital designer and inventor mentor Lisa Stewart. “What really unnerves me is when I’m supposed to contribute to a networking group and my talents are dismissed. One entrepreneur will tell another, ‘Go to Fiverr for your logos and websites, they’re so cheap!’ – right in front of me.”
So, what’s a freelance designer to do? “Those of us with years of experience need to carve a niche to make our services palatable to our target market,” she believes. “In my case, one example is to work with realtors who only work in the floating home market. That’s definitely three levels of niche to keep one busy!”
But it’s not just the automation of talent acquisition that’s making things difficult for design freelancers in 2019. There’s also the automation of design itself.
Design apps such as Figma, and website creation tools such as Squarespace, are making basic design tasks far easier for keen amateurs to perform themselves. There’s also an increasing number of visual resources available online – often for free – from stock illustrations to website templates, fonts to vector graphics.
As a result, Ranjit Sihat, a freelance graphic designer based in Edinburgh who often works with health and wellness clients, is feeling the pressure. “My main client base is small businesses,” she says, “but after the initial setup, they often have friends or family minimising expenses for them by using templates and vectors.”
She explains how this can happen in practice. “On occasion, a client will tell someone else about the job in a passing conversation,” she explains. “As a result, they end up with a list of referrals to people who’ll do the work, either at a fraction of the cost, or in return for a free health and wellness session.”
She also cites a situation when a real-estate client paid for her work, “but then had a family member make a number of adjustments to it that resulted, in my opinion, a poor final product. We’re now living in a time where everyone has access to a camera, to editing software, to a high-tech computer or laptop, and that leads to people thinking that they can do it for themselves without learning the skills and tools of the trade.”
Such stories are common. It seems that despite being a “golden age of design”, the double-whammy of increased competition and increased automation means that finding work at the rates you’re looking remains a challenge.
But what steps can freelance designers take to secure themselves in this golden age?
Strategies for success
Firstly, recognise that talent acquisition sites are not all bad, and have upsides as well as downsides. In fact, some may even prove useful. Experience designer Jenna Law recently moved from London to New York and says that Toptal has helped with the transition.
“In London the majority of all my clients came from either word of mouth or repeat client work,” she explains. “But right now I’m prioritising remote work, so most of my clients are coming from Toptal. This has helped me to just focus on getting the work done and not have to go seeking, new clients, saving valuable creative time. The rates are higher than London and the turnaround to interview and kickstart projects has been impressive.”
Secondly, following Lisa Stewart’s example and finding a niche can help you step away from the ‘race to the bottom’. Somerset-based graphic designer Nicola Jones did just that by specialising in advising startups.
“I’d recommend any freelancer should find a speciality rather than generalise,” she says. “At the beginning I was scattergunning, and eventually it all ended up getting way too much. My experience is if you spread yourself too thinly, it can prevent you from giving your clients the best, and cause you to burn out. Specialising means you can focus in on one thing, which makes it easier to both find clients and streamline your work.”
Thirdly, remember that the industry as a whole is in a good place right now. “There’s a new wave of young founders with brilliant ideas looking for experienced talent,” notes Hince. “Traditional businesses are looking to release digital products and tech companies with older looking products are realising they need to keep up with trends. So, on the ground it’s challenging, competitive and changing daily, but there are still incredible opportunities to be had.”
Fourthly, be aware that if you’re struggling to find work, there are an equal number of companies out there desperate to find good freelancers. Hadrien Chatelet is creative director of The Wern, a communications consultancy for startups and entrepreneurs based in London. “It’s really hard to find good freelancers, especially using traditional recruiters,” he says. “So I make an effort to go to creative networking events to source new talent and contacts, as well as checking out online networks like The Dots.”
The moral: do whatever you can to put yourself out there, from online networks to physical events, and it’s sure not to be long before you and a recruiter meet in the middle. Luke Woodhouse, creative director at London branding agency Ragged Edge, tells a similar story.
“There are plenty of great freelance designers out there – it’s finding the right one that’s the real challenge,” he explains. “We receive a lot of PDF portfolios, but the difficulty is getting a real sense of the designers behind them and what they’d be like to work with. So receiving a folio that gives as full a picture as possible is really helpful.”
What does that consist of? “Enough examples to get a feel of the designer’s work,” he replies. “I’d say five projects is a good amount. But, no matter how great the images are, we also need to know the story behind the projects. What size was the team? What was their role? What stage did they join that project? What was the process like? Do they like to work collaboratively? The element of storytelling throughout the PDF is vital. It’s difficult to offer work to someone we know nothing about, regardless of how talented they are.”
Finally, above all, if you’re struggling to find work as a design freelancer, believe that perseverance will get you there in the end. That’s exactly what happened to Bristol-based designer Domini McMunn, who went freelance in 2015 after being made redundant from her last permanent role as an art director.
“The best things about being a freelance designer is undoubtedly the freedom and control I have over my work,” she enthuses. “I pursue the projects I want to do, and my work-life balance is good. I’ve flourished because of it and I’m way more creative too. Initially, I was lacking in confidence, and it was a struggle at first to think I could do it alone. But it’s worked out…finally, and I’d encourage anyone to do the same!”