Monday, February 8, 2010

So you want to be a freelancer?

Some of us freelance while in school, some of us freelance on the side of our main jobs, and some of us freelance full time. I freelanced full time for three and a half years; and I did it even longer if you count the side gigs I did during my college years. I’ve recently aquired a full-time position as a production artist so it looks like my corporate freelance days are over. So as I work through a whole other set of rules and proceedures, I wanted to write about some of my experiences as a freelancer and leave some tips that I've picked up over the years.

One of the main difference so far between working full-time and freelancing is actually social. As a freelancer, people are fleeting. Names are forever temporary; more than likely you’ll only deal with a small number of people at any given time. For the most part, I was always assigned to a single designer or art director. Most of my contact with the company was through this one person. I do the work, hand it off, and it evaporates somewhere into the company. It’ll come back magically with red marks from various hands from clandestine meetings that I never saw. This means I never see much of the company past the creative department. That would change once you get into long term assignments; but for the most part, onsite gigs will fall between one day to a month.

Parking is always a fun adventure for a new gig. Sometimes it's fairly easy, just a big parking lot with some reserved spots. Other times they ask you park in one area and stay out of the "Visitor" spots. And the most fun times is when the gig is downtown, where finding a spot is all sorts of headaches. I try to take the DART rail when it was a downtown gig; most places are within walking distance from one of the stops. So on your first day, be sure to ask someone if you parked in the right area.

Dress codes will change from place to place. Some are very casual, some are a bit more business. For the most part you won't be needing a suit and tie as a freelancer. One of my agencies was fairly consistant with informing me of the dress code. However, if I don't have that information up front, I'd default to a polo and slacks both usually in black. I always wore my Vans instead of your usual business shoes. I just made sure they were always of a solid dark color. I never had anyone comment on them. I always kept myself fairly well groomed; nothing too outrageous. After the first day you can assess what the office policies are.

Over the years I developed a “freelance bag”. It was a dedicated bag, separate from my art bag, that I took to all my gigs. I added and subtracted items over the years; but anything that I put into the bag stayed in the bag. It just became a hassle to try to remember to take stuff out or put stuff in constantly. VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: You everything you bring into a gig, you have to take with you at the end of the day. There was one occasion where I got an email after I left the office that the gig is over. I never got a chance to get back to the office for my stuff. And honestly, offices have the gamut of different personalities. You never know who's going to be slim shady; so only leave behind stuff that you feel you can easily replace.

Mouse: This is really important. You never know what sort of mouse you’ll be assigned when you come in. Sometimes the scroll button doesn’t work; or it will only scroll one way. For a while I kept getting mice with an actual ball instead of an optical. When you are on assignment for a single day, it’s much easier to just have one handy than try to find a spare one from the tech guy.

Notepad: You’ll be taking a lot of notes; and I mean a lot of notes. UserIDs, PWs, server addresses, file locations, phone numbers, extensions, meeting rooms, etc. I use a small 6x9, top spiral bound lined notebook. Finding scrap paper for notes can be a real hassle. Best to have one ready.

A Good Ballpoint Pen: Office pens are horrible and usually out of ink. The ones you find around the office are usually the scraps because the office manager is strict with handing out office supplies. I recommend a ballpoint because it can right on most surfaces and won't bleed through the paper. You’ll be filling out form for job spec and initialing proofs on all sorts of paper so it’s best to have something universal. Plus ballpoint ink will not bleed if it gets wet.

Highlighter: At every place I’ve worked, changes were always marked up on a printout. So i would mark the changes I did as I went along. Highlighter are the best for this because you can still read any text after you marked it. I do not recommend getting a yellow one. Yellow highlighters don't stand out on white; pink or blue really pops on the page.

Jump Drive/External HD: As a freelancer sometimes you don’t have access to email, some servers, etc. This is the best way to get your files around the office. You won’t always find a blank CD/DVD to burn to. Plus it’s a handy way for you to carry around your reference files and preferences. Though remember to double check with your AD about any stock photography/patterns that you would like to use. This include fonts; only use the fonts that they have loaded. Companies have a responsibility to show proof of purchase for any stock/font used in their designs. I only bring with me textures and patterns that I created myself.

Hand Sanitizer: The office is like kindergarten: it’s a freaking petri dish of germs. You’re in a small enclosed environment for hours at a time. Bathrooms, printer stations, etc. are used by everyone in the office. And as a freelancer you don’t get paid sick-days.

Headphones: My philosophy with headphones is the bigger the better. You’ll have audiophiles tell you that it’s about directional speakers or sound proofing or whatever. Putting on huge headphones is the office signal for “leave me alone”. There’s a lot going on in the office around you: meetings, office chatter, personal calls, TV talk, etc. As a freelancer, most of the time you are there to help out an understaffed department/team. So more than likely you’re going to be slammed with work. Being able to block out the world to rock and roll on InDesign files is probably in your best interest. Plus it’ll come in handy when you get stuck next to talkative co-worker. Ug.

Cash: I’m talking actual cash, dollah dollah bills, ya'll. I carry a small handful of change in my bag for the vending machines. Being able to grab a snack or a drink is always a good idea. A few $1 won’t hurt either.

Traveler’s Mug: Most offices will have some coffee around for free. One gig even had a free soda fountain in their break room. At the very least, all offices will have a water fountain. But they won’t always have cups for you.

Badge Holder: I’m talking about the one with a clip, preferably one that is retractable. If you do get a badge, two things are pretty likely. One: with security awareness on the rise, you’ll need to have it visible at all times. Two: you’ll need to scan it to get in and around the building. Having it on a retractable clip is easier than having it in your pocket or around your neck.

Tablet: If you can swing having one with you, I'd say do it. You'll never know when you'll be ask to do an illustration or a retouch on a photo. Having the tablet will make this much easier. You'll be able to grab the drivers from the website at any time. Whether or not you'll have access to install them is another story.

File Folder: Handy to keep all your freelance paperwork together like timesheets, NDAs, office policies, etc. Anything you sign, ask for a copy. Your paperwork is your own business, and you'll have to look after yourself. One freelance agency that I used had their own timesheet/invoice so I kept a few copies in there. On the actual folder I wrote the agency's main number and fax. Every office has different internet security, I never know whether or not I'll be able to get into my personal email to get those numbers.

Being able to handle yourself well and working at your best is really important as a freelancer. And the best way to do that is to be prepared. You performance on any given day will determine the likelihood of getting called back in the future. Plus the design community is actually very small. Having ADs and HR speak highly of you to industry friends will be a great help to your career and bank account.

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