Top freelancing tips in a crowded design market

At the end of last year, each of the three companies we represent – Fairley & Associates, Gabriele Skelton and On Pointe Marketing, launched Design Industry Voices 2010. This was the second annual report on what people in the UK design and digital industry really think and feel about the agency they work or freelance for!

We found that the number of people working as freelancers increased five-fold since 2009. Plus, almost six in ten workers in the design and digital industries plan to look for a new job in the coming year. Many of these will be seeking permanent roles but, given the rising freelance trend, we can assume there will also be a lot more freelancers on the market in 2011. With such a vast array of quality and experienced freelance talent out there, employers are understandably becoming more selective.

Combine this with the fact that agencies continue to be squeezed by their clients on pricing which impacts on what they’ll pay you, and the possibility of a double dip recession, and it all makes for rather grim reading!

But it’s not all bad news. Ongoing uncertainty of the market means agencies are still reluctant to commit to hiring permanent employees so they continue to turn to freelancers. And Design Week’s annual freelance survey in September 2010 reported that freelancers achieved an average 5.7 per cent pay rise over 2009. Encouraging stuff, considering that the 2009 survey found that average pay fell by 17 per cent. So whether you’re an established freelancer or just starting out, what can you do to rise above the competition and assure yourself of ongoing work?


First things first – you need to make some fundamental business decisions and get the basics right.

• Think carefully about whether the market can sustain you

The freelance market is currently brimming with senior creatives made redundant during the recession. Agencies appreciate senior people because they provide value for money – they’re able to dive in and get on with the job in an efficient way. If you’ve got less than 5-6 years of experience under your belt you may not get the volume of work you’d anticipated, and you may want to consider sitting tight in a permanent position until you get more experience under your belt.

• Decide on what type of freelancer you want to be

Agencies generally hire two types of freelancers: longer term ‘permalancers’ that tend to have longer, 3-6 month contracts and those that dive in and out of agencies for short-term projects. Which type of freelancer you choose to be is dependent on factors such as your personality, your attitude to risk, your financial stability and your desire to feel ‘part of a family.’

• Limited company, umbrella company or self-employed?

Seek advice and decide whether you want to be registered as a limited company, work through an umbrella company or have self-employed status. There are pros and cons to all, depending on your personal situation but we don’t recommend the self-employed option taken by sole traders. Due to rules set by HM Revenue & Customs, most agencies (and some clients) will avoid hiring people with this status, despite protest by freelancing campaigners. Here’s a good starting point on the differences between the three main statuses of one-person traders.

• Invest in a good accountant

Find an accountant that can give you good advice. Consider hiring an accountant on a monthly retainer basis rather than trying to understand the vagaries of HMRC yourself – this will free up your time to focus on building your reputation to win work, then to do that work.

• Don’t forget professional indemnity insurance

While you’re no doubt diligent in the way you deal with clients, the fact is that mistakes can happen. The last thing you want is to be sued for neglect, errors, acts or omissions which could cause financial loss to your clients. Invest in professional indemnity insurance each year to cover yourself.


Your CV and Portfolio are your shop window. Agencies will often hire freelancers without first meeting them, so you need to invest time in getting these two tools right so they make a positive impact. Consider the following:

• We’re moving into a generalist market. Rather than focusing on specialists in niche disciplines, agencies are increasingly looking for designers that can provide smart, channel- neutral, innovative solutions to tough marketing problems, because that’s what brands are looking for from their agencies. Consider revamping your CV and Portfolio to demonstrate how you can add value in this way.

• Show off your most creative work, but don’t forget that’s only half the story. To add value, demonstrate how you think, how you respond to briefs, and include proof points that the work was effective for each brand that you featured. Ultimately your clients’ clients want to see great work that speaks for itself, so expect agencies to want to see how you achieved it.

• Whether you’re a graphic or digital designer, your CV and Portfolio should be designed as an interactive PDF.

• If you’re a digital designer you must have a website to demonstrate your expertise.

• State precisely the parts you were responsible for in all projects. And don’t over-exaggerate as this can come back to bite you.

• List what sectors you have worked in and for whom.

• Update your CV and Portfolio regularly.

• Make sure there are no typos. If you can’t get the spelling right on your own communications, agencies will question your attention to detail, should they brief you on paid, client-work. Because the freelance market is so competitive right now, agencies are looking for reasons not to hire you. Don’t let a few small typos take you out the running!

Check back for Part 2 - including how to go direct, intellectual property, discretion, greed and much more!

This is Part 1 of a two-part series by Rachel Fairley, managing director of brand and marketing agency Fairley & Associates, Karina Beasley, managing director of specialist design recruiter Gabriele Skelton, and Stef Brown, founder of marketing and communications consultancy On Pointe Marketing.


9th February 2011

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