My vision of success after graduating in 2012 with my BFA in Graphic Design was being a designer in an ad agency or corporation's in-house team. I imagined I'd be working in a colorful office, with young people like me, and working on everything from print to web. During the next 5 years, I worked for a variety of companies on a contract, freelance-to-hire, or full-time basis. The diversity in companies, work, and office environments ranged from feeling like I was at my dream job to having a hard time waking up to go to work. My journey has been far from static, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I gained valuable experience and knowledge to make an informed decision on whether my initial vision was something I still wanted. That's why I recently decided that freelancing was the best route for me.
Sharing this blog post is for anyone that is curious on how I got to my decision to freelance. It's also to inspire anyone that wants insight to a designer's highs and lows of real life opportunity-searching. Everyone's path is different; there is no right or wrong way to get there since your desires and values can unexpectedly change through time. But this is my journey and I couldn't be happier with how I got here. And thanks in advance for taking the time to read!
First, what is a freelancer? My definition: a self-employed individual who sells their work or services on an hourly or project basis, versus working full-time for a single employer with a salary. Some examples are writers, designers, and artists.
When I was new to the working world, I wasn't sure where or how to start looking for jobs. I was recommended from peers to work with creative staffing agencies, since they are known to place designers quickly with companies they deemed a good fit, after meeting you and looking at your portfolio. I saw this as a positive convenience since the agency acts as a middle-man between you and the employer to set up interviews and negotiate pay.
During the summer, I interviewed with a company in the suburbs and had a confirmed start date in September. The agency told me there was a standard 3-month probation period and then I would be converted from freelancer to permanent employee. Relieved, I told my family that I had found a full-time job right out of college.
Well, was I in for a surprise.
I worked there for 40 hours a week as a freelancer, and things were going well. I was designing trade show materials and booklets, plus my co-workers were extremely friendly. But on a Friday, 6 weeks in, the creative director nonchalantly told me I didn't have to come back in on Monday, and they would contact the agency if they ever need me again. Stunned, I contacted the agency and expressed how I thought I was hired for the long-term. How come my time was cut short? Did they not like my work? The agency was thrown too and got in touch with the employer. Turns out, there was a misunderstanding of the "freelance to full-time" terms. The agency thought this was the case, but the employer said they were only looking for someone to fill in until there wasn't enough work—they just happened to underestimate the timeline. Regardless, I felt disposable and was out of work.
Therefore, I was wary of trusting the staffing agency again, so I did my own search on job sites, such as Indeed. Eventually, a local digital agency contacted me back. They didn't offer much, but I took it because it was close to home and I thought I could not afford to be too picky at this point in my career. They decided to offer me the digital position despite my print experience. I signed a contract where after the 3-month probation period, they would evaluate whether to take me on permanently. I was working with great people and designed for UI/UX, web frames, and social media. But long story short, the micromanagement style was a poor fit.
So I went back to the staffing agency and they placed me at the headquarters of a corporation to be part of their in-house branding team. I enjoyed that job because I was able to design a variety of collateral, like sell sheets, catalogs, postcards, labels, etc. But 6 months later, the position morphed into a production job. My time was spent clipping out images in Photoshop all day. Once I informed the agency, they contacted me for a new full-time position designing magazines in the city. Hearing the details of that position sparked an excitement I didn't know I had.
I transitioned from the corporation to a smaller media company in downtown Chicago designing a quarterly magazine with an amazing team. And I was converted full-time from the agency with no complications. It really felt like I was at my dream job because I had so much creative freedom and made decisions with creatives that had similar interests and design styles. I looked forward to commuting to that job everyday, and I believe my strongest work comes from that company. But a year and a half later, I had to quit because I decided to move to California. However, I left there with a high sense of accomplishment, strong design work, and life-long friendships.
My 2+ years so far in San Diego consisted of: remote design work (events, production, infographics, etc.) from another staffing agency, bartending & dog-walking (for supplemental income), and then a full-time in-house design position for a year and a half. I quit about two months ago because I was seeking change and thought freelancing would be the right avenue. I didn't want to run back to the staffing agency right away; I wanted to take the idea more seriously, as in be completely self-employed and control all aspects of my work.
I knew what I was getting myself into and didn't mind taking some time off to get my mojo back and fully embrace the idea.
I had desired financial and job security for so long. Going back to my initial vision of success, I did get there by working in ad agencies with an array of clients or in corporations creating all their design assets. But why did I suddenly feel an itch, usually a year and a half into my full-time job? What kept me motivated would be steady income and the friends I worked with everyday. This is what I should want, but why am I feeling unsatisfied, like it's not really for me?
What I thought would be fulfilling, such as creating all design assets in-house for a corporation, ended up dragging me down. From my experience as an in-house designer, you're appointed to produce essentially anything design-related that the department needs. You could be designing packaging, labels, catalogs, and social media in a single day, like how I imagined. The ability to switch from one project to the next takes self-discipline and time management, which I was able to master. But I started to not enjoy this flow of projects anymore because it was disruptive to my flow of creativity. I wanted to focus solely on the big projects, like the catalogs or magazines. The smaller production projects that I wasn't as excited about took time away from the bigger projects I had passion for. This is when I realized as a freelancer, I have the ability to identify my niche and choose the projects I want to focus on, which turns out to be publication design. And then outside of work, I didn't feel like I had a balanced life when I was working the structured 9-5 and doing the same routine five days a week.
I initially asked myself: Well, can't you just do some more thorough job searching? Maybe avoid the staffing agency route, or join a specific network to find a job more suitable to you? Move to another city to find a better market? Yes, to all of the above. And I don't rule those out for the future either. But since I want a different result this time, I'm going to try doing this on my own for a bit.
When I look back at my career so far, I have no regrets because these various companies helped me gain experience & relationships, improve my communication, and grow my design skills. It helped me determine what working environments I prefer and don't prefer. Just like any event in life, you have to go through the full experience to come out of it with more knowledge and wisdom. So now I have the confidence to find my own work.
What attracts me about freelancing is:
- You work your own hours. My jobs had constrained my creative hours, traditionally from 9-5, give or take. But what if I feel more creative at night? Can I work from 1-9:30pm instead? And do I have to work 8 hours a day? Just the other day, I was working 6 hours, and then 14 hours the next, as long as I met the client deadline. Setting your own hours and working when you feel like it provides more flexibility with our ever-changing schedules and moods.
- I prefer direct interaction with clients. I have worked with teams before and had positive experiences collaborating. But I do prefer to work directly with clients to help them figure out their needs because it feels more personal. My strongest work came from when I was in my zone, followed my own process, and executed the work in my own space. Working from home gives me this ideal environment. I have worked in open spaces, cubicles, and shared offices. I adapted to each one, but I feel more productive working by myself since there is less distraction around me.
- You have more freedom. I love taking breaks to travel, whether its a weekend getaway or 2-week international trip. I remember feeling limited when I had to constrict my travels to my remaining PTO hours. Instead of waiting till we retire to cross off our bucket list, I'd rather maximize my time now in order to match my priorities. I don't believe working Monday through Friday, 9-5, is a one-size-fits-all method for everybody. I believe we can create schedules that cater better to our individual needs.
I listened to podcasts from the channel Our Freelance Life and looked up freelance designers on YouTube to listen to their journeys. It was refreshing to learn that I am not alone in my desire to seek a freelance lifestyle. There is nothing wrong with wanting more freedom and flexibility in our lives.
From what I've read from The Gig Economy by Diane Mulcahy, she claims there is no such thing as job security and that we need to create our own income security. Just like how I was dropped unexpectedly at my first freelance gig, that can also happen at any moment in a full-time salaried position. To be clear, I am not bashing those who are happy with the traditional full-time job. I just wish more people knew, there is a way to create a schedule that fits you better if you want it. Finding these opportunities may not be easy, of course. Just the other week, I went through some normal phrases of self-doubt. But you just have to persist through and work hard. I think that uncomfortable feeling of unfamiliarity is going to be worth it and rewarding in the end.
It's important to do some digging and ask yourself, "What do you want?" In the last few years, I rarely asked myself this question and went down a path I thought I should be taking. But I am taking my time now to define my new vision of success, set my goals, and plan. It will take time but I'm in it for the long-haul and am determined to get there. :)