The where and when of how we work isn’t what it used to be, as the freelance vs full time debate gains traction in an increasing number of industries. For many, trudging to the office every day is a bygone practice, unnecessary and obsolete. These professionals are part of the freelance economy, now representing 35 percent of the U.S. workforce, and graphic designers are among the creatives who are joining the ranks.
Much has changed in the past five years when it comes to the graphic design biz. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that about 20 percent of graphic designers were self-employed in 2014. According to global business intelligence company IBISWorld, though, the graphic design industry has been growing for the past five years, and freelancers now account for almost 90 percent of industry participation. While the report notes that the startup costs for a freelance design business are low and “new graphic designers with a strong portfolio can attract clients,” it also points out that competition is tough.
Why, then, do so many graphic designers choose to work independently? What’s the appeal of going it alone as opposed to receiving a steady stream of work — and a stable salary — as a full-time employee?
We talked to two graphic designers with experience on both sides of the freelance vs full time spectrum – here’s what we learned.
From Freelance to Full-Time and Back Again
Thomas Romer began his graphic design career in 1993 at New York’s The Cooper Union, the same visual arts school from which he graduated. While working in the design center there he started freelancing, and found that he could make more money on his own.
Romer had Tor Books to thank for that; the science fiction and fantasy publisher kept him busy with book cover designs for several years, during which time he was making “almost double” what he had earned at his salaried job. When two other Cooper Union grads expressed an interest in partnering up, Romer launched what would become another successful freelance business: A creative firm called The Chopping Block. The company, founded in 1996, went on to produce websites and other digital content for brands like Turner Broadcasting, as well as rock bands Phish and They Might Be Giants.
Over the course of the next decade, Romer’s freelance career morphed back into a full-time position — but he found himself wanting more than the typical diet of site builds. In 2008 he created a side business called Chop Shop Store, for which he designed T-shirts, posters, and other merchandise for consumers and brands.
The idea of making a product that he could sell and profit from for years to come appealed to Romer. In his daily work with The Chopping Block, he sometimes found himself having to “take design pointers” from clients who weren’t well-versed in graphic design, and that irked him. The quality of the jobs he was getting in The Chopping Block’s later years played a part in pushing him toward Chop Shop, too. “The spirit had left the industry,” he says. “The work was getting boring.” Brands gravitated toward do-it-yourself web design tools, and took the interesting projects with them.
Then, in 2013 one of his partners accepted a gig with a major software company, and Romer closed The Chopping Block after 17 years. A freelancer once again, he poured his energy into Chop Shop. Today, Romer is primarily designing T-shirts for radio shows and is free to indulge his long-time interest in space travel by creating prints and stickers based on satellites and interstellar missions. His new partner is The Planetary Society, which he’ll be selling merchandise for starting next month.
“Happiness with my work is exceeding what it was when I first started,” Romer, who has since moved to Philadelphia from New York, says. “I love the work I get to do, the content, and that’s one of the theories behind my business model. I want to do design for really good content.”
Takeaway: For graphic designers, freelancing can become the perfect marriage of income and creativity. To get the experience you need to successfully branch out on your own, though, you may need to put in some time at a conventional job first.
The Ups and Downs of Freelance Life
Like Romer, Canadian graphic designer Chris Lacey didn’t start out freelancing. After obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in business administration in Saskatchewan, he did a U-turn. He enrolled in art school and got a job with global digital agency Critical Mass in Calgary, Alberta. While there, he freelanced a little to offset his bills. Nine years later, a round of layoffs left Lacey with an opportunity to start fresh.
Armed with the contacts he’d made while at the agency, he began to freelance full-time. That lasted close to seven years. “I never saw it as permanent,” Lacey says, but he thought, “It’s happening, [so] I better make it work.”
In many ways, it did work. Freelancing wasn’t going to be a volume-based business for Lacey. As he says, he doesn’t like to “push out just anything,” and so he took jobs that met his artistic standards, such as designing an album cover for local artist Matt Epp and a new and improved site for a Calgary dance troupe. By the time he became wholly self-employed in 2013 he had two small children, and setting his own schedule made managing his home life easier, too.
But that flexibility came with a price. For a while, Lacey rented an office space to work out of, but he found that he was often there late at night. “I was developing bad habits,” he says. “I couldn’t push the creativity at any point. Then the deadline is right around the corner, and it’s an all-nighter.”
Eventually, business in Calgary slowed and it was too much of a “feast or famine” situation for Lacey’s liking. Today, he works full-time for an interactive agency in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with the occasional freelance project on the side. How does freelancing compare with his full-time, salaried job? Lacey enjoys the consistency of his current work, but he believes that he had more earning potential as a freelancer, and in retrospect those all-nighters were a small price to pay for being able to design when he felt the time was right.
“I always have to let projects percolate, and sometimes that takes a few days,” Lacey says. “I really do miss the flexibility of the (freelance) work schedule.”
Takeaway: When they’re able to set their schedule, graphic designers are free to listen to their muse, which doesn’t always speak up during normal work hours.
While their experiences vary, Romer and Lacey’s stories reveal a common thread: Being self-employed allowed them to take on the kinds of projects they love, on their schedule and on their terms.
In other words, freelancing often equals freedom. And for creatives, that counts for a lot.
All Images by Bloomicon