Believe it or not, there are some freelancers who are morons, and I don’t mean that in the good way. In the ranks of creative children who see other possibilities, color outside the lines, make their own lines and blended two or three crayons to create new colors to captivate the senses, there were some who experienced something that set them apart from other creative children. While the schoolyard beatings of we “different” children made most evolve inner strengths that made them incredibly sensitive, and insightful adults, I suspect some suffered brain damage.
As a former art director, there were some freelancers I loved working with, and some who blew their chance for a regular client relationship due to strange behavior and beliefs which were grounded in some fantasy akin to little girls who grow up to believe they are princesses, and boys who are convinced super powers lay somewhere inside them. Some freelancers have self-determining rules that just don’t match the reality of society or professional business.
Where’s My Unicorn, Damn It!
My doubts started when I was freelancing and volunteered to help run a chapter of an organization for creatives. There were members who never seemed to be in tune with other members, and made outrageous demands that could never be considered normal, or even acceptable—in any reality imagined by human… or creative.
One member was always writing letters, demanding programs, services and social programs that the organization couldn’t ever supply, mostly based on the organization’s constitution and the membership pledge printed quite clearly on the application form every member needs to read and sign before being accepted into the membership. Still there were those who wanted their personal unicorns, damn it!
No matter how gently and compassionately it was explained to these members, they would grow angry and usually quit the organization, followed by numerous flaming of the organization on the web. An endearing quality, to be sure.
One member, whose sole purpose, in his own mind, was to write letters of complaints about demanding a huge, gala, member meeting each and every year, costing tens of thousands of dollars, finally quit and joined another creative organization. I knew the president of that organization who forwarded me a four page letter from the former member, making similar demands, and wanting answers not as to if it COULD be implemented, but WHEN it would be, all wrapped in horrid threats and insults to volunteer board members. His membership check was returned to him with a note thanking him for his interest in the organization.
I saw him the other day on Facebook. He was trying to sell some doodles of his, demanding respect and support of creatives. I suspect he was a victim of brain damage at the hands of schoolyard bullies.
We All Know One… or One Hundred
Think about it. Were there these types in your art school? Of course, there were. You wondered how they would ever make it as freelancers or survive a staff position. Many didn’t make it and were never seen again.
Did you know this type in art school?
Were they “too good” to talk to other students?
Did they look at you with suspicion like you were going to steal their ideas?
Were they always late to class and made a disruptive entrance?
Did they break down in tears during class critiques?
Did they grow defensive and insulting during class critiques?
Did they never follow instructions for class assignments or never did them at all?
These are just a few telltale signs that these students were going to be trouble.
The Real World is a Bitch!
It wasn’t until I became the art director for a famous publication, working with several dozen freelance illustrators, designers and photographers that I really learned to hate some freelancers. It quickly became evident which creatives had suffered irreversible brain damage.
As the months went by, I met other art directors, many of whom I had tried to sell my freelance services to, but went without any response or returned contact of any sort. It was then I learned that it was never anything personal, but the plethora of bad freelancers kept most art directors well hidden in the ivory towers we would curse on the freelance side. It was the only way to stay sane for these targets of every freelancer, both sane and insane.
This was the way I started to hear from those unicorn-lovers I had met in art school, and had disappeared into obscurity. Now they were back and trying to use our mutual familiarity to gain work from me. While I welcomed trying new contributors to keep the magazine fresh and find vendors who would make my job easier, I often found a bigger ratio of completely incompetent creatives who would make me stay late into the evening, making up the time they had cost me for the kindness of giving them their big chance to break into the publication.
In the real world, talent speaks above all else and sometimes you can get away with being a prima donna, but only if you’re a fine artist whose work shows in the top galleries. If you’re a designer, you’re never good enough to play games with clients.
Here’s some basic ground rules every designer should follow, both as a freelance and on a staff position:
1. Follow directions!
This is the most important thing that spells out how you will do as a freelance creative. Blow it and everything else will fall to pieces.
Surprisingly, a quarter of freelancers with whom I’ve worked have gotten directions wrong. Even more surprisingly, they were given exact directions in writing before the project started and even shown directions! The most popular excuse was that they never really read the instructions. While there’s no excuse for not reading the instructions, making your own notes should be something you, as the vendor, should also do. Which brings us to another important step in a successful project…
2. Ask questions—don’t guess!
There’s nothing wrong with asking for clarification on one or more points in project instructions. Sure, sometimes you’ll get an eye-roll so far back into an art director’s head they can see their own brain, but I assure you that asking questions is better than screwing up in the end. Personally, I never had a problem with any amount of questions asked to make sure the project worked smoothly.
Sometimes it is the client’s fault. Sometimes something is just lost in translation and sometimes the client is too busy, or lazy, to give the proper instructions. As a freelancer, it is up to you to make sure everything is covered and understood. Get used to writing up creative briefs. You can add a client’s instructions to it, but in the end, you have to pull all the proper instructions, so there are no misunderstandings during or at the end of the project.
Questions and answers will run the entire length of a project, which is not only normal, but essential if you and the client want to maintain an important level of communication…
3. Maintain transparency!
One of my favorite horror stories comes from a lecture held by the biggest marketing design agency in town, when the account executive/partner talked about the importance of complete transparency with the client throughout the project process. One attendee loudly brought up something he called “enigmatic wizardry.” He explained it as the practice of keeping the design process secret from the client as to amaze them when initial discussions on the project were followed up by the finished project magically appearing at some point. So, there’s one of the brain damaged schoolyard beating victims.
After a few moments of dumbfounded silence at the statement from “Dumbledork,” the lecture continued, outlining that a client spends thousands of dollars on their design projects and “design magic” is not what they want.
Clients get nervous from the minute you walk in the front door until the project is complete and published. They hover, bother you, and demand updates sometimes three times a day. Set the tone by promising them at least weekly updates for long projects. Even bi-daily updates with a short note and an image of progress will make them feel a whole lot better.
As a freelancer, I would send updates not only with an image of progress, but include a footer with updates on the hours accrued to that point (for hourly rates) so there were no shocks later on. It’s also a good way to stop endless changes as the client can see how much their changes cost them. Any arguments over the final invoice can be dispelled by reminding them that they received updates on the costs.
Mostly, it’s like the problem with trying to convince your boss that you can do your job by telecommuting. No matter what the savings to the company, or green savings in commuting and electric power, a boss wants to see you working. They want to be able to hover, ask questions, and, of course, generally hassle and abuse you. A freelance client wants the same things, and there are some who will ask you to work on-site.
As an art director, I would get nervous when a deadline was approaching and I hadn’t heard anything from the freelancer. There were, unfortunately, several very talented people who finally answered an email or a phone call on the deadline, only to tell me that they hadn’t done the project, for whatever lame reason. They were never called again, which is a shame, but there are people who just can’t handle deadlines, and that’s another huge career killer…
4. Why there’s a “dead” in deadline!
Plain and simple—when you are given a deadline to deliver a project, don’t ask what the “drop-dead” deadline is.
When you miss a deadline, someone else, usually the art director or the design staff will have to work late to make up for your late delivery so they can make a publishing date. Do you think they’ll love you for that?
As with the aforementioned freelancers who waited until the deadline to inform me that they hadn’t actually done the project, thereby ending any hope for further work, it meant another freelancer had to work harder to deliver within a ridiculous time frame for either the same fee, or the client had to pay a rush fee. In either case, you’ll find your name is not shared kindly across the internet, and with other art directors.
My favorite always-late freelancer was inherited from the previous art director. He had warned me about her, and I made sure she understood that delivering her cigarette and marijuana stench-soaked illustrations would not be tolerated. She was, of course, late with her next assignment and although I gently explained why it was unfair to the art staff, she decided I was an idiot and stated so on every chat board she could find on the internet. She was shocked that I had seen her posts. How could I miss them when a few dozen freelancers told me about them, probably hoping her spot would open up after she was no longer used by the company. Which brings us to the next important point…
5. Keep your big yap shut!
Yes, there are bad clients and there has always been the question of how to list them for all freelancers to see. The stopping block on that is legal liability, slander and libel. Should the freelancer who didn’t like being held to a deadline be the judge, jury and executioner for my work as an art director or the company itself? After she had lost her chance to continue working for the publication, solely due to her own faults, she got really nasty on the internet.
So, where is she today? I have no idea. Her nasty rants only led to her building a reputation as a bitter, unprofessional freelancer. My reputation was good, and more people spoke well of me, even on the chat boards she frequented. With Google searches, her name would show these complaints, and if searches were done by prospective clients, certainly they would shy away from using her.
Clients Were the Schoolyard Bullies, But…
Even the weirdest of the once creative child, now a weird creative adult, can deal with the metaphorical beatings from the bully client. There is, however a different consideration when dealing with another creative adult who is in charge of dealing with other creatives.
Being in charge is a responsibility, and adult responsibilities are fantasy-killers. If following directions, playing nicely, and learning to take responsibilities for one’s own actions are all that’s required from talented individuals, the most unrealistic unicorn-believers can succeed with a viable, and successful freelance career.
Images ©GL Stock Images
Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, “among other professional embarrassments and failures.” He currently writes for local newspapers, blogs and other web content and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. He also continues to speak at art schools across the United States on business and professional practices. Follow him on Twitter @speider.