Freelancing


Every Freelancer Ought to Publish a Weblog

Right now I am downstairs in my living room listening to Christmas music — which seems to sneak onto the radio a little bit earlier every year. As if the station that plays Manheim Steamroller first, wins? Next year they’ll be jingle belling right after the 4th, and by ’09 “All I Want For Christmas Is You” will be the #1 song for Valentine’s Day.

There is something about the holidays that always puts a thought into my head to just quit everything I do that involves a computer and get a job as a carpenter or bank teller. I like to muse on what my life would be like if I worked a normal 9-5 and only got half a dozen emails a week. What if I canceled my cell phone and got a land line with a tape-recorder answering machine?

Well, none of that is happening any time soon, but still, I thought about it. And that thought led to another, as thoughts usually do. And I thought about what things were like before I began to pursue a part-time job as a freelance designer. And that led me to thinking about my life before I owned a Mac, and that led me to thinking about what I was doing four years ago… I was a professional drummer. Seriously. I played drums for a living. (Technically I still do, but it’s different now than it used to be.)

Four years ago my band and I were finishing up our first studio album, and for some reason I needed a hi-res JPEG of the cover art. And that led to the first interaction I ever had with a professional freelance print designer.

This guy and I connected right off the bat. And after I got my Mac and began to learn design he was a mentor to me. He happily endured the wretched looking CD covers I thought were so awesome as he picked out exactly what I had done wrong. He helped me see why my design looked like an 8 year old had done it…in Word…during an earthquake.

Today my friend is still a freelance designer/phtographer, and he is still incredible at what he does. We hang out often and he continually has new work to show me. His designs are always clean and spotless, and his photo shoots are consistently stunning. But, like so many other freelancers, he is struggling for business.

I’ve asked him a few times if he’s ever considered blogging but he gives me the “nah…” with the hand wave. It’s not really for him he says.

Though I certainly don’t know everything about how life and business and self-employment work, I do have a fairly confident opinion about the worth of weblogs.

Blogging has virtually nothing to do with being old fashion or not, and everything to do with selling yourself to artists, musicians, corporations and everyone else who may need a designer living on every continent on the planet.

In an interview with Michael Lopp, Brent Simmons says -

The main thing is: if you don’t have a weblog, I probably don’t know you, and I don’t have an easy way to get to know you. If you have a weblog, I’m either reading it already or I can read it and look in the archives a bit to get a sense of who you are. It’s kind of like if we all lived in the same small town. The people who have weblogs are like the people who make a point of going to Main Street at least a few times a week. They go to the barber shop, the grocer’s, the lunch counter — they get out and talk to people. If you don’t have a weblog, it’s like you live on the outskirts of town and have all your food delivered and you even have people come mow your lawn so you don’t have to go outside. No matter how big the web gets, it will always be a small town because that’s how you interact with it. You can’t help but make your own small town out of it. As your body is to your physical presence, your weblog is to your web presence.

As a freelancer you can’t afford not to publish a weblog. Here’s why:

Step outside your office from the comfort of your own home

Publishing a weblog is a way to meet new people who know things you don’t.

When I started publishing my first site a few years ago I was totally blown away by how deep some communities went. I was shocked to find people blogging in all sorts of niches and focuses. By writing my own articles about various nerdy topics I quickly met others who were like minded and who had input and ideas into things I had no idea about.

By connecting with others and reading other sites within the online design community I am constantly encouraged, inspired, mentored, and strengthened as a designer. I’ve learnt things I never would have otherwise, and I’ve avoided mistakes and blunders that I totally would have fallen head-long into.

Oh so much more than business cards

Publishing a weblog is like putting your business card and resume into the hands of ever person in the world who uses the internet to find a designer.

There are countless ways they could come across your site. They could google you, find you through someone’s linked list, or notice a comment you made on someone else’s blog.

This is word of mouth on a global scale.

The possibilities are endless. There are many people looking for a designer. And even though they don’t know you, if they find you through the referral of someone they trust, they are pretty likely to at least contact you, and who knows if they won’t hire you?

A weblog is different from a static website

Continuing in Brent’s analogy that publishing a weblog is like showing up on main street and hanging out with others. You shake their hands and ask how their kids are doing. You become a familiar face.

Yet if all you have is a website with some java-script to display your portfolio it’s like nailing flyers up on the light poles and then waiting at home by your phone.

Flyers are helpful but they are much less effective than actually being in a conversation with the local florist where you discover she needs a new logo and are able to offer your services.

Publishing a weblog is like having a resume with personality.

Those flyers may be on fancy card stock with fantastic typography, but they will never beat a smile and a good joke. By publishing a weblog where you share your experiences, obstacles and victories in design you are opening up your personality to those who may want to hire you. Having a weblog makes you a real person. And real people get hired every day.

Location is less and less important these days

What with the internet and all.

Consider your time spent setting up and then publishing your blog as part of your global advertising campaign.

Organization, Roll Top Desks, and Basketball

Most people want to get organized, and know they ought to but aren’t willing to take the necessary time and energy to actually get there. Then those that do begin to get organized don’t survive the initial time of frustration that comes due to their change in work-flow. Thus, millions of people live their whole life and never get organized. They spend their personal and professional life surrounded by clutter, nonsense and junk mail.

Heck. Why do you think the roll top desk was invented? To cover up clutter. You know it must have been invented by a guy that just couldn’t keep things organized and was sick of looking at his messy desk. If you’ve got a clean workspace you want to show it off.

What high-school basketball can teach us about organization

How about we use a sports analogy to discover how being organized could make you the new Michael Jordan of the freelance world. (Am I exaggerating? Probably.)

Lets say you grew up shooting hoops in your front driveway with your brother. You were always better than him, because you had some natural skill. Your specialty is the free-throw, and on a scale of 1-10 you’re at a skill level 6.

The problem is you have bad technique and poor form. If your game stays that way you’ll never be any better than a 6.

When you join the high school basketball team your coach starts teaching you the proper stance and follow through. But the new technique hurts your game and brings you down to a skill level 3.

However – if you keep practicing the right techniques you will soon be back to where you were (a 6) and continue to get better. Moving on to a 10. Did someone say Pepsi endorsement?

At first, it sucks dropping from a 6 to a 3, but if you don’t then you will never get free soda for life.

Now do you see why the same goes for your organizational skills?

Where the problem lies: Don’t be a noob

The three primary areas of input and output for any designer’s life exist within email, tasks and files/folders. (This goes for non-designers too).

One of the differences between pro-designers and noobs is those that have nailed down a bulletproof system of squeaky clean organization.

Hopefully I can give you some ideas and help you to avoid roll top desk syndrome. Here is how I manage each of these areas.

Email

Get a system set up for how you handle your email. Keeping it all in your inbox is not the way to go. The breakthrough came for me when I realized that there was no cut and dry answer for everyone across the board. Make your email organization into a system that works for you, using language that you understand.

I have 4 folders setup that handle every single one of my emails. They are labeled in a way I understand. When I open my inbox I can sort through all of my emails very quickly. Even if I don’t have time to reply or take action right away.

My email folders are -

1. Reply – Any email that I need to read and reply to goes here. Simple as that. If I have time to reply right away then I will, otherwise I file it and reply as soon as I have time.

2. Action – Any email that contains a ‘todo’ item, or needs some sort of involved follow up goes here. If I can quickly put that action item into my task management system and delete the email then I will. Otherwise it goes into the ‘Action’ folder and I get to it as soon as I have time.

3. Hold – This is a temporary archive folder for emails that contain important information that is only relevant for a short amount of time. Such as directions to my friends wedding next weekend. I filter though the ‘Hold’ folder about once a week to delete any emails that are no longer relevant.

4. Archive – This is where I place all the emails I want to keep long-term. They may contain important information or a sentimental letter. Either way I want to hold on to them.

Everything else gets deleted. Yes. Deleted.

Task Management

Now that I don’t have to live inside my email application I still have to manage action items and ToDo’s.

For this I use iGTD. Primarily because of it’s ability to sync between multiple Macs.

The key to successful task management is not only putting your information in, but utilizing that information.

When I begin a new job I create a new project in iGTD. From there I can add as many ToDo items as I want with notes, tags, contacts, due dates, flags and more. This way I can keep all the communication and specs and details of a project in one central location.

The great thing about having an organized task management system is that I am relieved of the responsibility of keeping edits and due dates in my head.

(I have heard about the glories of Mail Tags’ integration with iGTD but have yet to pop the $20 and try it out.)

File Structure

Having a well named file structure with a clear distinction between proofs and concepts and finals is very important.

I primarily use folder hierarchy to keep my files structured and label the open design files with the concept number.

To keep a full resolution open design file of every version of a design would be outrageous. So a practice I just began doing is to keep the low-resolution proofs I send off to the client. I used to delete those low-res PDFs but now I keep them so if the client ends up wanting to revert back to an older proof versions I can quickly pull it up, know what they are talking about and deliver.

Conclusion

As you begin to get your system put together there are two important things to remember.

First of all, make your system work for you. Use language and structure that makes sense to you.

Secondly, stick with it. It will take time and diligence to get into a rhythm of organization, but it is worth it. Even though you may feel like you’ve dropped down to a “level 3″ in organizational skill, imagine how much less stress you’ll feel just a few weeks and months down the road from now when you’ve passed where you used to be.

Freelancing 101: Attention to Detail

Looking back to the original late night random internet surfing session that began this whole thing I am drawn again to Behavior Design‘s Lead and Visual designer job requirements. In fact, I think they are laid out so well that I would love to give some time on what each one means, and how you can incorporate it starting today.

What is this thing you call ‘Attention to Detail?’

This is the first quality that Behavior Design lists for their designers. That is because attention to detail is what separates the men from the boys; the heavy bikes from the rice burners; the Micro Machines from the not-the-real-things.

As any designer will tell you it’s the details that make or break a great design and the attention to those details that make or break a great designer. Paying attention to them requires just that: paying attention. Laziness will be your downfall.

In fact, taking a break from this article to peruse my RSS feeds I read this quite suitable quote thanks to Joshua’s Blog.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. — Aristotle

O.k. Moving on.

Look at your design and now ask yourself …. “Why?”

When I began getting my feet wet in the ocean of print design I had an established designer to help me out. I would send him my pathetic designs and he would tear them to shreds critique them.

He would point out the primary elements of my design and then ask me “why?”

I hated that question. “What do you mean, ‘why?’,” I would respond. “It looks cool. That’s why.”

If it doesn’t have a purpose perhaps it would be better to take it out. It’s amazing how many of my own designs I shoot down simply by looking at the elements and asking myself ‘why?’.

Lazy-shmazey. Go waaaay beyond.

The ultimate enemy of attention to detail is laziness, and laziness is a by-product of indifference.

Not taking the time to line up your text and triple checking your work before you send off a proof will make you look like a poor designer even if you’re not.

For example: Even though the text comes directly from the client, I still spell check it. Because if a word is misspelled it may have been their error, but they’re reading it on top of my design. And that makes me the poorer for it.

Your client should only have to give you feedback based on opinions and updated information. If you’re good, they will rarely have to point out any obvious mistakes – yours or theirs.

[This article is part of the Freelancing 101 Series]

Freelancing 101: How to Get Hired

The number one question about freelancing has got to be “how do you get jobs?”

As a matter of fact, just this morning I received an email from Phil, a bright and talented graphic designer who resides on the British accent continent, about this exact issue. So to answer the question of how to get hired, I am simply going to answer Phil’s email.

It read as thus:

Hi Shawn, I know you alluded to it in your post, but I would definitely like to see a post about how you drum up business. It would be great to see. Hope you are well Phil

I am well. Thank you. And although I cannot promise you wealth and riches, I would be delighted to ramble on and on for a while.

When first stepping into the world of freelance I think anyone and their mom would tell you that doing pro bono publico work is the best way to get your foot in the door. Why would a client pay a stranger to do a job when they could pay a friend? But, if that stranger is willing to work for free – that’s another story.

Additionally, you need to be on top of your professional game and have a network of fellow designers that you know and interact with. Here’s why…

Pro Bono and the Power of Relationships

As a graphic designer the main goal of doing pro bono work isn’t so much to build your portfolio. You could do that at home, deadline free, and under the shade of iTunes. No, the point is of pro bono is to build relationships. One great advantage of being a seasoned designer is having relationships and the repeat business – as well as new word of mouth business – those relationships bring in.

I saw a great example of the potential power of relationships in a twitter from Kyle Neath a few days ago -

Anyone know some good identity designers? I’m debating getting a revamped logo for poetrywithmeaning.com ….

A simple suggestion from any one of the 39 other twitterers he’s following and he’s on his way to hiring a designer. Maybe.

Well here’s a hypothetical situation:

Suppose back in March when Paul had mentioned he wanted a new logo you sent him an email telling him you would love to design some concepts for free. You send some no-strings-attached proofs. Paul likes them. It’s a done deal. Then when Kyle twitters for a recommended logo designer, Paul gives a shout out to you and wa-la. You picked up a job and got your foot in the door and can continue from there.

The bottom line is that you have got to go find yourself those pro bono jobs. Be ruthless. Be obnoxious. Be outgoing. Be like someone who goes after something.

My first pro bono job was a CD packaging. I heard someone chatting about being in the recording studio, and they even talked about who they had hired to do the artwork. But I pulled them aside anyway and mentioned that I would love to do it for free. They liked that idea, hired me, and I was in.

Be On Top of Your Game

One of the first large scale jobs I did was a conference guide. I was hired out by an over-worked and under-staffed marketing team. Once I had the project well on it’s way they brought me in to meet with the marketing director and art director.

I went in with the rough proof printed out, the PDF already open on my laptop and a list of questions / issues that I needed answers to.

The senior marketing director was totally blown away by how organized and prepared I was. He liked me and wanted to work with me again because of my organizational and task-management skills. My job security with these guys was no longer resting in my talent as a designer. So I got hired again and again. And when the marketing director moved jobs, he told the incoming director that I was their number one guy.

Not all situations will be the same. But in a world full of talent you need to be sharp and cool in every area of your trade.

Networks and Friends

I have about half-a-dozen friends that are also freelance designers, artists and/or photographers. Instead of competing with them I try my hardest to work with them. I send them rough proofs of my work for feedback and let them know they can send me artwork as well.

If I ever get a job request that I can’t do I will recommend that client to one of the other guys, glad that I can send them business. And hope that they will do the same in return.

Be a Guerilla

You know I had to say it. But it’s undeniable.

Guerilla. Marketing. It. Is. For. Serious.

Get a cheap used copy of the Guerilla Marketing Handbook and go ape. There are some phenomenal ideas in there that will get those little grey cells working. It’s o.k. to invest a little money in yourself and your business and see where it leads you.

[This article is part of the Freelancing 101 Series]

Freelancing 101

The World Wide Web has opened up an entire world of opportunity for freelance designers. It doesn’t matter if you live in a big city anymore. You can live in Sundown, Texas and do business for people and companies all over the globe from your home.

Although I have a full-time job that I love, I have been doing freelance print and web work on the side for several years. Primarily because I enjoy it so much, but the extra income ain’t bad either.

This is one of the main things I get asked about by readers and friends. Questions about how I do freelance work; How I get jobs; How much do I charge? Etc…

Therefore I am starting a series called “Freelancing 101.”

I will be giving solutions and answering questions for the freelancer to help you do your job better, stronger and faster.

** If you have any questions you’d like to have answered send me an email:

Shawn Blanc {at} mac {dot} com.

Be a Better Designer

As internet surfing and aimless link following will do, I ended up somewhere unexpected: Behavior Design. I was browsing through their job listings and a few things caught my eye and reminded me of one of the most invaluable design lessons I have ever learned.

What I noticed were the job requirements for their Design Lead and Visual Designer openings.

Candidates must have the following qualities:
  • Attention to detail and good people-skills
  • Self-motivation, discipline, quick-learner, organized
  • Excellent verbal, oral and written communication skills

The story goes like this…

When I stepped out of pro-bono work a few years ago my first design job was a book cover.

I was nervous, and I did some research of how to work with and bill clients as a freelance designer. But the forums I read only filled my mind with horror stories of dead-beat clients that over demanded and under paid. I started out with some horrible expectations of how the project was going to work itself out in addition to over confidence in my design ability – which led to many surprises on my end.

For instance: I was shocked when my initial design concept wasn’t approved and they wanted another. Then I was shocked when they wanted to do a custom photo shoot using people they knew instead of the stock photos I had put in.

Since I low-balled my design fee I had to ask for more money at each ‘extra step.’ By the end of the project the invoice was nearly double the original quote. And because of all the (bad) advice I had read online I was extremely pushy about their deposit and the terms of payment.

In fact, I never even had a decent conversation with the client (who – as a matter of fact – was also a friend) about his and my expectations for the work-flow, communication, payment, etc…

Once the book was printed I met up with my friend the project manager to get some swag. He asked if he could talk to me for a few minutes and give some advice. He proceeded to tell me about my obvious lack of people skills. He called out each area of ‘advice’ I had learned from those forums as something that had put a negative pressure on the project and made him feel uncomfortable, and gave me ideas of how to do things better.

That five minute conversation revolutionized the way I have done design work ever since.

If I had just been open and honest at the beginning, laid out my expectations, and allowed some room for “fudge” in my design fee then the whole project would have gone smoother and been more fun for all of us.

That was the first and last time I ever acted like a high-and-mighty graphic designer who treats his clients as if they were perpetually inconveniencing him. Now when I receive a job-request the first sentence in my email reply starts with “thank you.”

Thanks for asking me to do this job. I would love to. If I can get more details about the project and a time-frame then I’ll be able to let you know if I can do it and how much I think it will cost. Then we can move forward with the logistics if you would like to.

I want my clients to know I am honored to work for them, and I am proud to take on their job. Even if we are professionals, aren’t we still just folks?

[This article is part of the Freelancing 101 Series]