Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, co-founder of lifestyle magazine Lagom, founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, and an electronic musician.

Build your profile to get more freelance work

Posted on 13 October 2008 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)

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