Design Dilemma: Which Is Better — Staff or Freelance?

by on 12th June 2013 with No Comments

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Jill K. writes: I’m graduating art school (yay!) and can’t decide if I should freelance or take a staff position. Which one is better?

Well, congratulations, Jill! I’m guessing none of your teachers discussed the possibilities of a future in the industry. Yet another art school fail. But, the question is valid although you may not have a choice as a new graduate. Let me go over the strengths of each, as well as the pitfalls, and discuss what you will find are your immediate options.

There are many articles exploring staff vs. freelance, so let me provide a different view by getting down and dirty about some of what you’ll find with both. Mixed with the more gentle approach other writers have taken, it will give you a good view of what to expect. Join us as we delve into another Design Dilemma, helping to answer your questions, queries and concerns about the murky world of design…

Firstly, Humble Yourself

“I would have gladly cleaned the office toilets with my tongue just to be working at such a famous magazine.”

When I was working as an art director for a well-known magazine, a chairperson at my old alma mater called me to request (more demand) that I give internships to some new graduates. I had already hired several interns from the school because I was still taking some night courses there and they seemed to be smart and promising students. Unfortunately, the chairperson demanded that the interns work designing the magazine and not just “making copies” or “running for coffee.”

As I told him, when I was first starting out, I would have gladly cleaned the office toilets with my tongue just to be working at such a famous magazine. Prepare yourself for a learning experience if you choose the avenue of working at a staff position, as well as being the lowest of the low. It’s referred to as “paying one’s dues.” In other words, you need to prove yourself both with talent and dedication.

Working on Staff

A staff position provides stability (as long as you are employed there, naturally, but that can change at any moment these days). You get a regular paycheck (in most places) and healthcare benefits (in most places) and can learn from coworkers and superiors, which can lead to a greater role with the company and a higher position. You will also work on bigger brands than you will as a freelancer, use the company’s clout to stuff your portfolio with impressive work. It’s great place to start if you’re a team player.

Don’t expect an eight-hour a day, five days a week proposition with a staff position. You’ll find yourself working for the same salary but putting in extensive hours and days, which can be rewarding, depending on the work you are doing. I have some great memories of 48-hour sessions on projects, staying up all night, working side-by-side with coworkers to accomplish the impossible. Sometimes, however, you’ll really resent the long hours and requests you work weekends.

“Don’t expect an eight-hour a day, five days a week proposition with a staff position.”

At one employer, management would send out corporate memos after major snowstorms, when the entire city would be closed and the mayor would ask people to stay off the roads, stating that there were no “snow days” as the company would never close due to the “collaborative nature of the business” and taking the day off would be counted as a vacation day. The running joke is that our managers would call in and say they were “working from home.”

To this day, I don’t know how a manager would manage people and work flow from home, but those of us who showed up didn’t think too hard about it as we sat in the conference room, watching DVDs all day… aside from the three-hour lunch.

You will make friends who will be valuable connections throughout your career. Being part of a team can create a closeness, and brings out some… interesting interpersonal dealings referred to as office politics. It can be a small design firm or a huge corporation, but as long as there are human beings working there, you can expect certain daily dealings and power plays you might not like. People say there are employment rules and human resource personnel to make sure your rights as an employee are upheld. Oh, I always throw up a little in my mouth when I have to bring that up.

You will need to develop a thick skin and sense of self, along with a defensive strategy with some coworkers. It ain’t fantasyland where you’ll skip around the magical unicorn. Bullying in school was nothing compared to what can happen in an office. Sometimes a paycheck just doesn’t cover the aggravation, and that’s why some people decide that going freelance is a good idea.

Working Freelance

People believe that a freelance career means freedom, flexibility, tax-deductions, and saying good-bye to commuting and office politics. It does… maybe… not really… it depends.

Some choose a freelance career and others have it thrust upon them through unemployment, but it has some unique challenges and, although some may argue this, few are cut out to be successful in a freelance career. When you are a freelancer, there are many skills you must master as you are running a small business and being weak in one area can sabotage all of your efforts. Frightening? Sure, but a successful freelance career can lead to wonderful things. Here’s some pitfalls and strengths you’ll need:

“You need to be self-motivating because those deadlines are a cruel master. Working from home can be a real challenge as there are multiple distractions. Expect to put on weight, watch too much TV and have days… sometimes multiple days when you never change out of your bathrobe.”

When you’re freelance, friends and family will consider you as “not having a job,” so you’ll be asked to run errands and help people move all of the time. Make sure you don’t have a pickup truck or van (even a minivan) because that’s the real kiss of death!

You need to be self-motivating because those deadlines are a cruel master. Working from home can be a real challenge as there are multiple distractions. Expect to put on weight, watch too much TV and have days… sometimes multiple days when you never change out of your bathrobe. I have personally just put on a shirt and tie for Skype conferences while having no pants on.

Because you are a small business there has to be a salesperson, accountant, collections agent, marketing manager and, of course, a designer. You will really need to be at the top of your game when it comes to all of these skills. Dealing with clients can be difficult (I highly suggest becoming a fan of Clients From Hell to get a taste of the worst situations and request heard by designers), so great negotiating and customer service skills are essential. As a young designer once said to me, she wanted to “borrow (my) bastardness” to deal with a difficult client. It’s not that I’m a bastard — I’m a tough negotiator (but fair) and I can cut a deal without cutting my own throat. As a freelancer, you have to make sure your business runs at a profit or you go broke. It’s the same for any business.

If you think the hours and demands at a staff position are tough, you haven’t seen anything yet. When you have to do all the jobs mentioned above, you’ll find there aren’t enough hours in a day. Learn to prioritize and organize your business, even if it means the laundry or shopping has to be put off a day or two.

You will get tired and lose your inertia sometimes. It’s referred to as “burnout.” Learn techniques to recover quickly. Lost income due to lost inertia must be made up later on to keep paying your bills. It happens, so don’t beat yourself up when you need to take a day off… but get back on the ball as quickly as you can.

Basically, both freelance and working a staff position are tough lifestyles but that’s why it’s called work and not play.

A Dose of Reality

Now, here’s what you will most probably face as someone trying to enter the field; you don’t have much of a choice. While hiring has become “young and cheap,” rather than the old “you need experience to get a job but you have no experience without a job,” it is still hard to convince someone to hire you unless they see real talent in your portfolio. I’ve seen some student work that shows incredible talent in thought process and execution… and, of course, work that shows the person hasn’t hit their stride yet, to be kind as that stride may never come.

“While you are looking for a staff position, which I would suggest for anyone starting out, you should also be doing freelance work to keep your hand and mind designing, along with the crappy job you will need to work while looking for something in the design industry.”

Too many students believe they must go out and work for free to show samples and experience and while that’s a good idea when done correctly, most freebies turn out being a waste of time and effort. Even accepting a project for free from some small business, when they control all creative only gives you a sad example of work that isn’t really yours, so why bother? You want to show your thought process in solving a design problem.

Some people suggest volunteering for a non-profit organization but asserting that you control all creative decisions for your trouble. It will give you samples that show your capabilities and that is what creatives who do the hiring are looking for in a portfolio and designer.

I’ve even suggested taking an existing design and redesigning it to show how you would approach the solution (just don’t show the before and after to the person who designed the before piece).

While you are looking for a staff position, which I would suggest for anyone starting out, you should also be doing freelance work to keep your hand and mind designing, along with the crappy job you will need to work while looking for something in the design industry. If you take a job as a waiter/waitress, see if you can redesign the restaurant’s web site, menu or ads. Keep at it, keep designing (even if it means entering design contests — and people will beat me for suggesting that — but why sit on your arse doing nothing?).

Once you do have a staff position, keep freelancing because that regular paycheck will allow you to take the plum projects you’ll enjoy and designs that will build your portfolio. If you lose your staff position, having at least one or two steady freelance clients will cushion the financial blow.

Send Us Your Dilemma!

Do you have a design dilemma? Speider Schneider will personally answer your questions — just send your dilemma to dilemma@designshack.net!

Speider has created designs for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson and Viacom among other notable companies and is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild and co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee. He writes for global blogs on design ethics and business practices and has contributed to several books on the subject of business for designers.

Image © GL Stock Images

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