The Secret To Freelancing – FOLLOW DIRECTIONS!
A young digital Illustrator e-mailed me after seeing a post of mine on a business networking site. He asked, “After reading your profile, I would love to hear anything else you have to offer regarding the inside of the industry!”
I wrote back, “Yikes! That would take ten minutes, at least. Not much I can say without breaking non-disclosures with my clients. What did you have in mind?”
He replied back, “Well, being on the other side of the table as an Art Director, what did you look for in freelance creatives? Anything you can impart would be appreciated. Thanks!”
I thought about the answer. What really got me interested in using new talent?
“Mostly talent and a certain style I can see applied to product,” I wrote. “There are many great artists I just couldn’t use because their work didn’t lend itself to the design direction or demographics.
As for dealing with creatives, there were those I found and approached, those who approached me and those who did everything they could to annoy and insult me.
The key, if I had to draw a conclusion, is to have great promotional pieces, stay in contact with those who buy art, have patience and persistence and, most of all, don’t screw up a project. I can’t tell you how many people screwed themselves out of the chance to break into the place I was working because they went nuts. Don’t get overexcited, don’t smell of desperation and don’t take a rejection personally and act as if it IS personal.
Don’t Miss Opportunities
Then there were the people who got their chance and blew it by not following directions and made my job harder. It’s difficult to tell someone they won’t be used again when they are so excited by a regular client and future income. Not easy for them to hear and not easy to tell them.
Just be VERY professional (even when your clients are not) and roll with the punches. Sometimes the guy at the bottom gets the blame when no one else will accept it. Just keep moving forward. Treasure the great clients, court the occasional client and forget the bad clients.”
I suppose I could end this article with just that but experience has taught me that readers love a good horror story of creatives acting like inhuman maniacs.
Four Stories of Epic Failure
Most of my stories revolve around people who either missed deadlines or failed to follow instructions and provided art or designs at the wrong size. Personally, I get paranoid about my ratio math and always triple-check, twice, to make sure an image or design is the correct size. If you use the instructions as a checklist, it’s not that hard.
Lesson One: Deadlines Matter
One regular freelancer, who worked for a publication before I took the position as art director was habitually late with her assignments. I sat her down and explained why it was important she made the set deadline. She went home and posted on the internet about how I was “busting (her) chops” about deadlines. She also had some choice words and suggestions about the matting habits I should practice with my family members. Naturally, she was a bit upset when I stopped giving her assignments.
My favorite horror stories deal with people who just couldn’t follow a line in the dirt without getting lost.
Lesson Two: Know Your Tools
There was the temp designer who smelled so bad I had to put him in an empty office, as the art staff couldn’t stand him. Checking in after a full day, he hadn’t accomplished a thing. Although he was hired to do InDesign work and acknowledged he was “expert,” he admitted later he couldn’t handle the InDesign work and proudly proclaimed, “Photoshop is my tool!”
He and his tool were dismissed before the end of the day and the small office in which he sat was closed, locked and treated as if it was radioactive.
Lesson Three: Don’t be a Tool
A new hire decided he had to comment aloud on the female coworker’s… physical attributes. He lasted three hours!
A new designer showed up three hours late on her first day and claimed the subways weren’t running. She came from the same neighborhood as I did. There were no delays on the trains. She lasted two days. Her second day revealed the discovery that she didn’t know how to make a clipping path. It took a day of her creating the wrong clipping path on two hundred images to help the decision to not use her any further.
Lesson Four: Pay Your Dues
A new designer was given an all day project that needed to be done immediately for the magazine I was art directing. Grunt work, but he was new and needed to build his clout with the staff. He was shown what needed to be done. I then stepped into all day meetings.
Coming back to the art department at the end of the day, after hours of corporate weirdness, and I asked if he was done.
“Check this out!” he said, holding up a highly rendered pencil sketch on a good piece of the magazine’s drawing paper.
He had spent the day drawing what he thought should be the next cover of the magazine. I stood dumbstruck. Who in their right mind would do something so outrageous?
The editor came in to check on the status of the project and saw I was pale from the loss of blood in the upper half of my body. The designer showed the editor his drawing and the editor looked over at me. He turned back to the designer and softly said, “one does not start their career doing covers for this magazine – one ends their career,” and he smiled, turned and walked away.
I turned back to the designer and asked how much he had accomplished on the project. Now he went pale. He hadn’t gotten to it. I had to walk him out. He was crying. So was I at three in the morning while I finished the work he didn’t do.
Instructions are There for a Reason
Please don’t think me cruel for firing these people. I felt very bad about doing it. They were so excited and high from their chance to work for top, iconic brands. They probably told all their friends and family about their new job/client and now had to explain that they lasted one day, or less in a couple of cases. All they needed to do was follow instructions, and simple ones at that.
To this day, whether it’s a client who, and I swear this is true, types the wrong company name on all the copy and it has to be fixed at press time, or a creative who delivers work at the wrong size ratio for a print piece or adds glitter unicorns to a site because “it’s a fun idea,” instructions were written for people to follow, and my father to ignore with a new DVD player.
There was a poignant cartoon on following directions that ran in the now defunct Art Direction Magazine in the October 1990 issue. Entitled, “Artist/Rep,” by Everett Peck, it showed the illustrator’s representative explaining an assignment.
I have seen very talented people who could never follow instructions… and some who never do it on purpose. I choose to deal with neither. You can find talent AND competent service. I have noticed talented but “free-spirited” friends getting less and less work. The day of the diva is over!
Professionalism in the Freelance Market
There are many articles out there that point to the strengths a freelancer needs to survive. Most don’t mention talent as the top consideration. I hate to admit it, but it seems to no longer be the number one…or any number. Some factors that have always been mentioned in the past were;
- Following instructions
- Delivering on time
- Creating a superior product
If I updated the list, I would change it to include;
- Really cheap
Even with those new “standards,” one needs to deliver. Personally, when I deal with clients, the first request is for a cheap quote. I have to turn them down and the client boasts they can get a $2,000 job for $200. They can. Many times, however, I get called back because the cheap person didn’t deliver the correct thing or missed the deadline. That’s when the client sees that quality costs money. They aren’t happy about it, but you do get what you pay for. When I’m the client, I’m always happy with a vendor who gives me top notch service for a reasonable fee.
Many creatives complain about crowdsourcing and wannabes encroaching upon the field and lowering rates. They have, but in most cases, clients then need good professionals to clean up the mess. Just remember, when they call you and ask for overnight work or call on a Friday for Monday delivery, your rate should reflect the rush work. They will make promises of “rewarding you later” if you take a low rate. You know it’s not true. If you can follow directions and deliver on time, you are golden in the industry. Charge accordingly and get a check upon delivery!