Creative + Co-Pilot

What I've Learned From Teaching as an Adjunct Professor This Year

Hard Lessons I've Learned from Freelancing Too Early


How many of you know someone who jumped straight into a freelance design career right out of art school? I can't think of any instances in which that move could be sustainable that early in one's career. I'm continually talking about making your own way and I won't sit here and say it can't work, but who are you going to learn from? Do you have the right experience to make this work? Most straight out of school do not, and I don't recommend it. Here is my worst experience as a freelancer to date, and it was straight out of school when I was still shitting green and didn't know my head from my ass.

I remember quitting my job at a local printer here in Nashville during my last semester of school. I was gearing up to take the world by storm with my bag full of Student Addy's thinking I was the shit, but it's so apparent now in retrospect how little I actually knew. I was unprepared for what lie ahead. I was juggling student work with a small repetoire of clients and hadn't prepared myself for the craziness that was set to ensue. I had contracts but they weren't specific enough. They didn't cover my ass in the way they should. I didn't have enough money in the bank. I wasn't charging enough and I wasn't confident or experienced enough to charge what it takes to have a profitable business. I hadn't even spent one day as a professional in my field, and I thought I had what it took to jump into the game and sustainably support myself on a high level. I didn't realize how big of a mess I was until a few months in.

I had a great opportunity to work with a local shop that sold home decor and lighting in Nashville. I was approached with "Hey we need a rebrand, with the retail signage, logo and storefront ASAP." With the chance to have a high visibility project, and seeing $$ in a time in which I didn't have enough saved up, I jumped in without writing a proper contract (which hurt myself and the client) I didn't determine on paper what the extent of the work would be, how long it would take me to complete or how the payment process would be implemented. I rushed in because they said they needed it so quickly, but in addition to hurrying I lapsed in communication with the client. I also had a heavy workload before I took the project on, so I was ultimately setting myself up for disaster. Never ever rush through your process and ignore or revise it to accommodate a client who needs something done "ASAP." Your process is the only thing that protects you, and for me personally it is what continues to supply me with more work.

We had a few meetings, I took a deposit and I started working on revised logo marks. Everything felt fine, I created tons of marks and presented 5 I thought were worthy to the client. Unfortunately communication issues go both ways and I had not asked the right questions before hand. I didn't have a brief or fully dig in to what the clients needs were, and they didn't know how to express to me what they wanted either. It was a communication deadlock. As a freelancer I didn't have the experience to know which questions to ask. That led to a bit of passive sass back and forth which is a horrible way for someone to remember you by. An acquaintance from school that had connected me with the client was now playing mediator and it became a complete shit show. After a few weeks of work, which should have been about 6 months of work in all actuality, we were at a tense dead end. I was stressed the fuck out. I felt like I had let down the client. I had let myself down and put myself into a position of unnecessary ulcers and panic-attacks. I was being art directed by someone who had no experience in design just to finish the project and get it out the door. I came to my breaking point (all self-inflicted) and said I'm done. This was the only time in my design career I have refunded money and stopped in the middle of a project. I still feel dirty about it to this day, but I learned a hard lesson. 

  1. Go get a job straight out of school. Learn your trade and craft first. Get your ass handed to you while you learn and make money from an employer, not from freelance clients. Learn how to interact with other professionals, spend a few years digging in and working within a team. Gain those tools you need to be successful first and save some money. Build up a few clients before the jump. Once you have 5K in the bank and an understanding of how contracts work, jump in and make it happen.
  2. There is character to be built working for others, especially so in a position that's not so glamorous. You'll come to appreciate the value of hard work. You realize the things that you want your freelance business to become, and most definitely the things it can do without. Without working for someone else and seeing their processes (good and bad), you'll never have that context to build something better. 
  3. Don't bite off more than you can chew. It's like a plague that latches on to everything you are working on. One bad experience can poison the well and bring down other projects, morale and relationships you have built. If you jump into the game straight out of school you will more than likely have to take on a ton of projects because your value as a designer is lower on the wage totem pole. 
  4. Be patient. Successes will come if you are putting in the hustle, but when you are fresh to the game you have to realize that it only comes in time. That whole "it's a marathon, not a sprint" bullshit is spot on. It's cheesy, but it's the damn truth. Freelance life is the most rewarding/ daunting aspect of my short career, but it's not something I was ready for straight out of the gate. Stay hungry, but put in the time first.


Stephen Jones