Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

Build your profile to get more freelance work

Posted on 13 October 2008 38 comments

Article illustration for Build your profile to get more freelance work

Last week I wrote a post called Why being freelance does not mean you have to work more hours, which seemed to resonate with a few people. But I hold my hands up for deceiving you with the title, because – as I realised a couple of days after posting it – I didn’t actually explain the why; in other words, I offered no explanation as to how I work less hours now that I’m freelancing.

Not only that, but I came under some criticism (fair criticism, I hasten to add) because I neglected to mention that getting work is obviously a lot easier the more ‘known’ you are in the industry and also if you have a portfolio that contains a few big-name clients. A friend and former colleague of mine also pointed out that I wouldn’t be in my current position if I hadn’t originally been “working for the man.” Well, he’s absolutely right.

Work for the man first

So I’d like to set a few things straight and make sure I’m not putting out mixed signals. My main concern is that I wouldn’t want a university graduate to read my post and think, “great – I’ll go freelance and I’ll never have to bother getting an actual job!” Don’t do it! As much as I love the freelance life, I’d never recommend it to someone who hasn’t had at least some experience in the world of full-time employment. There are two reasons for this:

  • The experience. You get to deal with clients, deadlines, co-workers, and read-world situations on a daily basis. Not only are these vital in terms of your social skills as a designer, but you get these experiences given to you on a plate: there’s no attempt to drum up work because work is already there by default.
  • The portfolio. I’m extremely grateful for my time at EMI – my first job – because it allowed me to fill my portfolio with world-famous artists and bands right from the get-go. If I was freelance at that point, it would’ve taken me ages to get clients of that calibre, but being in-house got me them straight away. (I guess you could call that cheating, but hey!) Likewise, when I was at Carsonified, I got to work on sites that were frequented by important people in the industry, and being at the company also allowed me to make some very valuable contacts.

Let’s assume for a moment that a higher profile and a famous client list are the secret ingredients to successful freelancing. I’m not sure they’re the definite answers but obviously they help, so let’s run with it. Now, let’s dismiss the myth that gaining a high profile is impossible, because it’s not. Do some decent work, get your sites submitted to the numerous website showcase galleries, blog about what you do, and interact with the community. Gary Vaynerchuk will tell you all about ‘personal branding’ but essentially I think it comes down to getting yourself (and, by implication, your work) out there. If you have some decent clients in your portfolio because you worked for the man, then that’ll help. If not, raising your profile will get you those clients, eventually. The two things go hand-in-hand.

Writing and speaking helps

It’s funny that writing is such a different discipline from designing. And speaking, too. They have almost nothing in common with the day-to-day work of the average designer. Yet – unquestionably – they will help you raise your profile. As I said before, I really don’t have a definite answer to all this, but approach magazines and ask if you could write for them. Let’s face facts: offline publishing has way more kudos than online publishing, so it’ll look better to prospective clients. But at the same time, you probably won’t get the magazine gig if you haven’t done some online writing first.

I don’t think I need to explain the benefits of speaking: if you get up on stage, people will remember you.

So does this mean that those designers who can’t / don’t want to write and speak are at a disadvantage? Well, on the whole, yes. That’s my personal opinion, so feel free to disagree, but I can’t think of one ‘big name’ web designer / developer who isn’t also an author and / or public speaker. Oh, actually, that’s not true; I can think of a couple. But they’re exceptionally good designers, so their work goes a long way. And they’re still very active in the community (which, again, usually involves some form of writing).

Please let’s be clear about this: I’m not saying that becoming well-known will secure you freelance work. I have friends who are completely unknown in the web design community yet still have a stack of great decent clients a very healthy workflow. Don’t forget: our industry is a bit of a naval-gazing one; being respected by your peers because you wrote a book does not necessarily mean your clients will think you’re the best designer in the world. But it will get you kudos… and kudos transcends industry.

More to come

I’m aware that I’ve only really answered (or attempted to answer) one question: how to get noticed in the industry. And that is definitely not the only way of securing a good amount of freelance work! I think I’ll have to write a series of posts about different aspects of freelance life, as the topic is so huge. If you have any suggestions or would like me to address any particular issue, please let me know in the comments below.

For now, I hope at that least some of that helps!

(Photo: my new home office)

38 comments

  1. Alex Older

    Alex Older

    13 October 2008 @ 05:01PM #

    Some great tips that I shall certainly put in to practice. Thanks!

  2. Nathan Dailo

    Nathan Dailo

    13 October 2008 @ 05:04PM #

    For the past 6 or so months, I have considered freelance, but have been scared to take the plunge. Hopefully I will be able to break out of the block of fear soon enough, and take the jump. Great post by the way, definitely a great follow up.

  3. John

    John

    13 October 2008 @ 05:10PM #

    In my experience, and I agree with you Elliot, it is all about “Networking”. And that, I’m afraid, is true of every business and every industry. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know (and have known in the past). Look at the media industry and just check out where a huge amount of the people went to University – you will find there are a hell of lot of Oxbridge graduates in the media (TV/Radio etc). Coincidence? Nope!

    Your advice about getting your name out there is spot on – and of course if you hang about with the right people you and you get on with them and they get on with you they will want to work with you. . . oneday.

    I’ve had a business for seven years now and all my work has been based on the contacts I’ve made and the people I’ve known over the years. I could not have done this straight out of college. The trouble for me is that as I get older I need more work to survive and fund my life – therefore working less is not really an option (as per your previous post). So to that end, I disagree that you will end up working less if you freelance in the long term. It is very hard to get the balance right and trust me if you have, then hang onto that formula.

  4. Christoph

    Christoph

    13 October 2008 @ 05:19PM #

    Very good article, thanks!
    This one goes more into depth and anyone who want to go freelance gets really helpfull and important information.

  5. Ben

    Ben

    13 October 2008 @ 05:19PM #

    Some good thoughts there. I am not convinced about the speaking/ writing thing afterall the number of people who speak publicly (or write a book) and the number of people who earn a living as a freelancer are going to be worlds apart – however writing on a blog is always a good idea. I do however agree entirely with getting a real job. When you work for yourself you tend to stick within your comfort zone but working for others (at least in my experience) forces you to learn skills you wouldn’t otherwise.

  6. Ben Spencer

    Ben Spencer

    13 October 2008 @ 05:43PM #

    Great follow-up to your initial article on this subject Elliot. Thanks.

    Approaching magazines and asking to write for them is something I never thought of. I always presumed that the magazines approach the designer.

    Have you, or any of the other well known designers had any formal training in writing or speaking I wonder? Or are you all just naturally good at it?!

  7. Ony

    Ony

    13 October 2008 @ 05:55PM #

    Thanks for sharing! Freelance is something I definitely hope to go into in the near future, but I think I’ll need to acquire some more work under my belt before I even consider it! I always feel embarrassed when I think of my portfolio!

  8. Rick Hurst

    Rick Hurst

    13 October 2008 @ 06:19PM #

    I agree with this – most of my experience comes from having spent most of my web career working for agencies (big and small) and getting to know how it all works, before I made the jump – not so much the techinal side, but being involved with big projects (i.e. bigger than a freelancer could take on alone) and managing clients.

    Also the two aren’t exclusive – I spend a lot of time freelancing on-site for agencies, so I get the best of both worlds there.

    As far as being “well known”, i’m not, but i’d say I have a high profile locally (in Bristol) through participating in skillswaps, local web developer mailing lists and meetups etc, and i’d say the majority of my work has come through this route.

  9. Sarah Parmenter

    Sarah Parmenter

    13 October 2008 @ 06:19PM #

    Really enjoyed this blog post Elliot, I think you’ve answered it superbly to be honest and given people a lot of food for thought.

  10. Gary Stanton

    Gary Stanton

    13 October 2008 @ 06:51PM #

    Excellent post and good advice… I seem to be taking the ‘get there eventually’ root though!
    Still, would like to see more thoughts on this topic.

  11. Brett Nyquist

    Brett Nyquist

    13 October 2008 @ 07:44PM #

    Definitely agree on the “Working for the Man” part. The things you learn from working with others is invaluable. I think it’s also crucial in your freelancing circle to have contacts that you can collaborate with and expand on each others skills.

  12. Simon Bowler

    Simon Bowler

    13 October 2008 @ 09:05PM #

    Thanks Elliot

    I agree on the writing, I feel that the fact don’t blog is putting me at a disadvantage. It just means there’s less content over the web with my name on it.

    Ive just gone freelance after being in my first web design job. I was fresh out of uni and got a kind of placement job. With no pay increases and them changing my code from xhtml to tables I decided to leave, it was the best thing i’ve done.

    Now my plan is too do some freelance work to build my portfolio up then apply for jobs in the new year.

    Shirley Bassey has just asked for a site so that will be good for the portfolio.

    Thanks for the great articles, nice work as well!

  13. Samuel Lavoie

    Samuel Lavoie

    13 October 2008 @ 11:39PM #

    Great follow up on the previous article Elliot. Nice advice that I try to keep in mind and put them in practices as I’m an inhouse Internet Strategist/SEO since 1 year and Web developer since 1.5 year.

    I think those advices can be apply to anyone in the web as developer, designer or marketer or a mix of that ;)

  14. Jason Armstrong

    Jason Armstrong

    14 October 2008 @ 12:02AM #

    I agree wholeheartedly and I would like to add that “going freelance” certainly doesn’t have to a be an all or nothing thing. Work into it gradually. Most of the designers I work with (yes, for the man) also do freelance on the side. It’s just a great way to make extra money. I think most of us hope to one day be as fortunate as Elliot and be a successful freelancer, but Rome wasn’t built in a day now was it ;-)

  15. More traffic

    More traffic

    14 October 2008 @ 12:43AM #

    Absolutely great, and it’s real slick and simple. I am using it now!
    Thanks

  16. JPH

    JPH

    14 October 2008 @ 12:56AM #

    Some great pointers here - thanks for the clarification on the other post. I was curious about how you worked less and were able to be successful aside from time-management and being your own boss. Thanks for the scoop.

  17. Mark

    Mark

    14 October 2008 @ 04:20AM #

    Nice one Elliot, it was a great read and very relevant to my situation.

    After some traveling i ended up in Oz, love it, armed only with little experience and an unrelenting eagerness to stay and work. Thankfully I’ve been able to, working for the man, yay!

    The issue I have is he has me working from home, which is fine, but I’m loosing gaining experience dealing with clients and building that all important contact list you mentioned.

    I find working on my lonesome is really quite hard at times, especially as I’m used to being so social. It’s hard to keep motivated, there’s no one next to you to bounce things off and the phone isn’t exactly running hot as my boss deals with the client side of things. The work is there for me, we’ve had some great jobs, but i sometimes feel the lack of interaction means i’m loosing my spark, amongst other things.

    I would love to hear any suggestions on staying motivated, as without that, not much will get done no matter who you are… right?

    thanks again

  18. Francis Booth

    Francis Booth

    14 October 2008 @ 05:07AM #

    Humans love interconnectedness… the internet is a network of people, not computers. I think balancing the real with the on-screen though is essential, whether that be working alongside colleagues or meeting potential new clients face-to-face.

    If I were to work alone I certainly think I’d be a more active blogger/tweeter, but even in the world of the interwebs and its design, working around other people really has a lot to offer.

  19. Jonny Haynes

    Jonny Haynes

    14 October 2008 @ 01:24PM #

    Great article as always Elliot,

    I agree with what you’ve said, I tried to go it alone unsuccessfully after I got straight out of uni. I have now been working full time for an agency for 2 years and have much better contacts for when the day I decide to go freelance arrives.

  20. Adam

    Adam

    14 October 2008 @ 01:39PM #

    Elliot, Just a very quick comment on experience. I think that for some it helps to work for the man to realise why they don’t want to work for the man, thus pushing them harder in their own freelance work…

  21. Lee Munroe

    Lee Munroe

    15 October 2008 @ 12:19AM #

    Nice follow up Elliot. You’re right when you say it’s not what you know it’s who you know and speaking/writing/showing your face at events contributes to the network of people you get to know.

    It’s interesting what you say about working for the man first. Obviously in-house experience can only be good (either teaching you how to do things right or how not to do things right) but is it not harder to get off the employment ladder once your on it? And if you part-time freelance while studying at Uni you have the problem of giving up the freelance network/clients/rates you already have in place.

    Although it would be nice to get away for a year or two after Uni and work for the man abroad :-)

  22. Brendan Falkowski

    Brendan Falkowski

    15 October 2008 @ 06:45AM #

    Nice timing cough – graduating in 7 months and thinking constantly.

  23. Dainis Graveris

    Dainis Graveris

    17 October 2008 @ 12:49AM #

    Really good next article too :) Yes, I am trying to start freelancing too, but looks like at first I need to return to agency for regular payments..

  24. Wendy

    Wendy

    17 October 2008 @ 03:50AM #

    I’d like to hear a seasoned freelancer talk about the difference between having actual business ‘clients’ and being an ‘extra hand’ for agencies. i have done well for a year freelancing, doing only the latter. This is mainly because I prefer not to deal with green clients if I can help it and partly because, at this time, I’m still a photoshopper and wouldn’t be able to do any css for a small site. Not sure if this will be sustainable over the long haul, but I’m going to try.

    True that agencies often want you to work on site, but I still prefer the change of pace of not having to be somewhere for the long haul.

    I second your sentiment about working full time in the beginning if you’re just getting out of school, to build up knowledge and experience and the ever important contacts.

    Great discussion.

  25. ICU

    ICU

    17 October 2008 @ 08:58PM #

    Working for the man is a smart shortcut but it’s not crucial. I worked for the man for less than a year before going freelance. I hated the office politics, the lack of direct contact with clients and, frankly, watching all the money go to somebody else. So I set out on my own, relying on word of mouth to build my business. I’ve never once cold-called or advertised.

    (I’m not recommending this strategy, only saying it’s possible. There are definitely things I would do differently. For example, reading more and connecting with people, asking for help, earlier and more often. Perhaps finding a mentor. With the Internet, those things are far easier to do now than they were 20 years ago.)

    One of the smartest moves I made—and I wish I’d make it much earlier—was to do a site very cheaply for a local library with a great staff and reputation. So cheap it might as well have been pro bono. Two years later, I got a call from a well-funded environmental organization because they liked that site. A year after that I landed a gig with a museum in NYC, a relationship which continues to blossom. So, as you go, be smart about who you work for.

    Now, nobody knows who I am. I’m not famous. But I do very nicely. you don’t have to be in the top 1% to do very well for yourself. I design Web sites for a handful of companies and NPOs you’ve probably never heard of. I compete nationally and internationally. My portfolio gets stronger every year. Most importantly, I only work six hours a day.

    I work 9 AM-1 PM, then an hour for lunch, then two hours off for non-work related fun, then 4-6 PM. Why do I work less? Because I want to have a life away from design. I have a marriage, and a young daughter, and personal projects, and I don’t want to be one of those “successful” 7 AM – 10 PM guys.

  26. Barry

    Barry

    18 October 2008 @ 05:46AM #

    So, jump straight into freelancing or find a job which doesn’t require you to have at least 2 years commercial experience… I can understand you would benefit from studio experience before going freelance, but from what I’ve picked up on, there’s few companies which would agree to take on a young designer with zero commercial experience.

  27. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    18 October 2008 @ 08:09PM #

    Cheers for the discussion, chaps and chapesses! :)

    @ John: You’re absolutely right about networking. The trouble is, I really dislike the word because subconsciously I associate it with businesspeople going out and making contacts on a purely shallow level, just to make connections for work purposes. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but the work I’ve done for my friends – or at least clients I’ve remained close to after the work is done – has been the most enjoyable. But yes, networking – in any form – is a key ingredient to getting more work.

    @ Ben Spencer: I haven’t had any formal training in writing or speaking, although I can’t speak for the others who do the same. I think it’s just one of those things you tend to learn as you go!

    @ Mark: That’s an interesting point. I think I’ll write a post about working from home quite soon.

    @ Adam:

    “… for some it helps to work for the man to realise why they don’t want to work for the man.”

    Spot on.

    @ ICU: Congratulations, man. It sounds like you’ve got a good thing going there, and what you said about choosing who to do work for is so true. Again, it comes back to the networking thing, albeit indirectly.

    @ Barry: There’ll always be someone who wants a junior designer straight out of uni. You might have to shop around, but it’s how we all started!

  28. alex

    alex

    26 October 2008 @ 11:22AM #

    just listened to your interview on boagworld from a while back and I have really taken in your advice, I was very much considering continuing to work freelance as I have been while working for my degree, but as you say at this level it would take me forever until I get a chance to play with the big boys. As soon as I get my degree in June, I’m going job hunting!

    Good luck with Norway (if your still there) and your freelance career.

    Alex

  29. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    03 December 2008 @ 01:05AM #

    @ Alex: Thanks man! I’m glad you found it useful! :)

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