By Sebastian Barrymore
As a designer, I've been through a lot in my career, from the highs of landing my first-ever design role as a Junior Web Designer in 2000 to the lows of being made redundant during the dot-com crash. I've spent 20 years freelancing, not considering full-time positions, fearing becoming institutionalized and unemployable. But I was proven wrong.
Back in 2000, I landed my first-ever design role as a Junior Web Designer. It was one of the proudest days of my life. Previously, I had been designing small projects for personal clients using self-taught skills. Getting recognition from the industry felt like all of my hard work and effort had finally paid off.
Little did I know at the time, this would be my last full-time position for 20 years.
The year 2000 was the height of the dot com boom. Companies like lastminute.com were flying high on the back of a new technological revolution that had begun to enter the homes of Generation X. Steve Jobs and Apple were making a comeback and the new digital age had firmly entered into the Zeitgeist of the Western mindset.
The Internet had arrived.
On the back of this revolution, I stumbled across an industry that would give me something I had never planned (back when I started doodling in Illustrator and Photoshop and reading software books with CD-ROM tutorials), I had found a career.
One year later the dot-com crash happened and my greatest fear became reality, I was made redundant.
The obvious solution for me was to join the new breed of designers taking over the industry. I wasn’t the only designer who found themselves out of a job, the same story was heard up and down every recruitment consultant’s office across the western hemisphere. The digital freelancer’s time was now!
But this isn’t a story about me and freelancing this is a story about my observations coming back to full-time work after all of these years of freelancing. A proposition that I had always feared, due to the notion that I had become institutionalised and unemployable.
Back to full-time
2020 arrived, and as with all decades, a new paradigm shift had been ushered in. For the first time, I find myself struggling to get freelance work as the whole contract industry came to a standstill amid the global crisis of COVID-19.
To cut a long story short, I had always relied heavily on a buoyant industry and a good reputation to get work. Now, all of a sudden, I couldn’t rest on my laurels, I had to get out there and graft to get whatever contract I could get. Quite often, not culminating into the work I wanted.
So, I decided to apply for full-time positions too. To my surprise, and within a matter of months, I found myself in the role of a full-time senior Product Designer in a small but ambitious design agency called Fortnight Studios based in Kings Cross, London. This experience gave me a unique perspective on the differences between freelancing and full-time employment, and I'd like to share some of my observations with you.
Firstly, as a freelancer, your time is an expensive resource for any project, and you're expected to hit the ground running. However, as a full-time employee, your progress and development are factored into the productivity and long-term goals of the business.
The business recognizes that we work in a constantly evolving industry where new skills are the name of the game, and they invest in your personal development. For example, one minute everyone is using Sketch then, almost overnight, we all have to transition to Figma. Or one minute we annotate our designs for clients and developers then the next were are creating prototypes to communicate our work.
This leads to the support you need to develop and being able to reach a higher quality of work while still being able to hit the ground running for your clients - and not gonna lie, I always enjoyed learning something new.
Secondly, as a freelancer, you very rarely get to work on projects from conception to launch, or 'end-to-end'. This greatly impacts your development as a Product Designer. Quite often freelancers are brought in for one aspect of a project, like after a discovery phase or the early conception of an idea. This means a lot of key decisions have already been made that can impact your design. This could involve; what the key features are or how the brand should be interpreted and executed.
So you lack complete ownership over a project, and you rarely get to learn skills that happen during the discovery phase, like UX Research, for example. Another aspect of the 'end-to-end' process that freelancers are quite often cut from is the handover to development. This means that so many crucial decisions are made without the designer's input, which can make or break a design.
Not unlike the real world, professional relationships and friendships in the industry are naturally harder to develop in a short period. If your contract is less than a few months in duration then you’re always going to struggle to be a valued and respected part of the team. In addition to that it is hard to understand all the emotions and energy that was already put into the project and to implement these emotions into your design.
This isn’t necessarily down to you as an individual but quite often how you are perceived by others. When you work full time you are an integral part of the team and you hold a shared sense of tribalism among each other. Team members will go out of their way to help and support each other. It’s in everyone’s interest to look out for each other.
It’s not always easy, as a freelancer, to come into a project midway through and take the lead, potentially changing the course of its direction. Even if you know you are right and can back up your claims with a strong rationale, it’s quite common that you can be met with resistance. It can take a long time to gain the trust of stakeholders, directors and decision-makers to let you completely take the reins. As a freelancer, you normally don’t have that time.
As a full-timer, you are part of their team and carved out that trust and built up your reputation. The relationship is a big part of your overall work and you can and should put more time and effort into that.
But with great strength comes great responsibility…
Predominantly, freelancers are seen as wild spirits. Irrespective of how they perform they get paid, quite often not having to bear any responsibility for the outcome of their work.
However, being a full-time member of staff means there is nowhere to hide.
As a freelancer, you are still required to carry out your work professionally and competently but you generally won’t be held to account if, retrospectively, it is deemed that you didn’t follow processes to the letter of the law.
As a full-timer, you know you will be judged on every important decision you make. This responsibility can have a really positive influence on you as a designer and ultimately, drive you forward to a level of excellence that wouldn’t normally be achieved. Your work and your process must be absolutely watertight.
It’s very rare that a freelancer is entrusted with a junior member of staff to take under their wing. This can be quite a missed opportunity for both the designer with years of experience and expertise and the company with junior members of staff who need to learn. Understandably, a freelancer isn’t part of the inner fabric of a company and they don’t really fit into the hierarchy of the business.
The older we get the more apparent it gets that we should be sharing our knowledge with designers at the beginning of their journey. Training another member of staff can be a very rewarding experience and not only can this benefit your own knowledge as a designer but it also displays good leadership which can help further your career. Being part of the company hierarchy is the perfect environment to share the wealth of knowledge you’ve accrued over the years. Whether you’re a Creative Director, Art Director, or Head of Design, there will always be someone who will look to you for leadership and guidance.
Freelancing is always dependent on getting the work done. You have to be constantly on it, and getting one contract straight after one finishes is easier said than done. It never really happens like that in reality. This time between projects can sometimes be weeks or months. During this time we can lose our sharpness, and lose our footing on what’s taking place in the industry.
Nothing beats consistency as a designer to really hone your skills. Keeping on top of all of the innovation, software and trends that constantly change around us is a never-ending crusade.
Being an integral part of a company means you are always aligned with the in-house structure and processes. You’ll always be on top of your game because (holidays aside) you’ll always be working. Getting into 5th gear as a designer is a great place to be. Once you get there why not stay there?
Getting the recognition you deserve is very difficult to do as a freelancer. No employer really knows what you did on your previous projects and only you yourself know what you’re truly capable of. By working in-house you’ll be working consistently with the same people who will see, project-to-project, who you are as a designer. They’ll understand your skillset and your limitations better than anyone you’ve ever worked for on a contract. As a lead designer, you’ll have real ownership over your work and projects will generally be remembered for the good work you do.
Any kind of awards or industry recognition that a project receives will always be attributed to the full-time members of staff.
My advice would be to focus on your personal development and invest in your skills, and to consider full-time positions that may offer you the opportunity to work on projects from start to finish and to have a greater impact on the final design. It's not an easy road, but it's one that's worth taking.