I’ve worked in design and branding studios for 6 years and have just celebrated my 2-year freelance survival anniversary. Though I don’t like to dwell on the past, people often ask me which is better, so I am constantly revisiting the pros and cons of each position. Is the grass really greener on the other side?
Recently, I had the pleasure of being a guest lecturer for the graphic design department of the Prague College talking about exactly this subject, so I thought I’d share those ideas with you all.
What are the main differences?
Learning from other people with experience is invaluable, but the internet is alright as well. There is something to be said for skipping the trial-and-error cycle and getting the final learning directly from another person that’s been through the problem before. I’ve had a number of incredible teachers in the agencies I worked for and I cannot imagine having gotten to where I am without the knowledge I gained from them.
As a freelancer, those teachers become the internet, books, and magazines but, most importantly, your own mistakes. It takes a bit longer and they are not as keen on giving you the quick way out, but they get you there eventually.
When you go freelance, the sentence “I’m a graphic designer” will eventually become a bit of an understatement. Whether you like it or not, you’ll have to become a jack of all trades and, let’s face it, a master of none.
Even the simplest design projects require at least 3 jobs: talking to the client, dealing with the financial aspect, and of course, design work. So the luxury of just doing design is not part of being a freelancer. You need to up your game in project management, finance, sales, legal aspects and so much more.
3. Time management
A freelancer needs to be responsible for themselves and become very disciplined. FAST. Juggling multiple tasks and projects at one time can get very overwhelming and there will be no traffic manager to plan out your days.
Feedback is an important part of the design process. It’s a big part of how we learn and challenge ourselves. When you spend 6 hours staring at a layout, it sometimes becomes difficult to see problems that are very obvious to someone with a fresh eye.
As a freelancer, you usually have no one around to consult, so you have to be able to see your work objectively and challenge yourself constantly.
When is feedback too much feedback? Sometimes in an agency with a complex hierarchy system, each person feels the need to leave their mark on the project so it might happen that the end result is very far from the designer’s initial intent.
When I talk to other freelancers, this comes up as the most common frustration that led them to leave agency jobs: not having projects to be proud of because most of them end up as a mere remnant of their concepts.
Speaking of being proud of your work, being able to say “I made this” is a huge help to our motivation as designers. When you work in an agency, no work is ever your work; everything is a product of the team or agency in general. Awards don’t have your name engraved in them and sometimes designers end up feeling like their efforts are not being recognized.
As a freelancer, you do all the work, so you get all the satisfaction of a successful project.
Also, when you do all the work, you get all the money as well. Don’t get me wrong, you will definitely not get the same amount of money that an agency would, but (assuming you price yourself correctly) you’ll get more than in an agency.
It’s your party so you can procrastinate if you want to. Freelancing is a sweet, sweet relief from the 9 to 5 prison. Sure, it might mean you’ll work from 5 to midnight instead, but hey, that’s totally your choice.
Creativity cannot be programmed, so if ever the inspiration doesn’t come, instead of waiting for the clock to hit EOBD, you can just go out and do something else.
The customer is definitely not always right. But when you work in an agency, that’s not your call. Bottling up emotions tends to be a good skill to have while working in an agency because you will sometimes need to do things you don’t like or don’t agree with. And sure, that’s a good lesson for life, and I’m not saying freelance work is all rainbows and daisies, but working for yourself means you get to choose what you are prepared to deal with.
The unfortunate truth — there is no clear answer
Unfortunately, or fortunately, the answer to “what’s better?” depends on a lot of factors. While freelancing might be better for some people, it’s definitely not for everyone. And just as people are different, agencies also vary a lot, so it might just be a matter of swiping left until the right match comes along.
I personally tend to lean towards freelancing and I am often absolutely sure I won’t go back to agency work anytime soon, but there are times when I am so overwhelmed that I would give a kidney in exchange for a project manager.
It all boils down to each person’s character. Are you generally unorganized, a victim of procrastination and a slave of social media overuse? Then probably freelancing is not for you, unless you’re willing to go through a boot camp of your own doing. Do you have trouble working with other people and dealing with a fixed schedule? Agency life will be a challenge.
Whatever road you choose, make sure you give it your all and, if it still isn’t making you happy, then just take a leap and try the other one. It just might work out.