12 Rules for Freelance Success

Setting and maintaining boundaries will help you avoid relationships and circumstances that are potentially harmful.

Everyone has rules. We may not always be aware of our rules, but we know when someone breaks them. Those who follow the CBS television series, NCIS, knows that the lead character, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, has a set of rules. These rules are invoked by Gibbs or his team members to admonish, to encourage, to discipline, and to keep the team unified in purpose and conduct. The characters will remind each other of “Rule Number 38” or “Rule Number 7”.

Rules are useful tools to keep oneself in check, to maintain boundaries and to avoid issues. Every person and business has rules. I’ve found that the more experienced we become in life and business, the more rules we have.

“… the more experienced we become in life and business, the more rules we have.”

I wanted to share a few of my rules which have helped me stay successful for 35 years. These have kept me from making bad decisions. Some have been formed on the fly and others have been established as the result of a sad situation. Some are simply common sense. No matter what the impetus is for creating a rule, the purpose is to protect my creativity and livelihood.

My 12 Rules for success as a creative freelancer

Rule No. 1. Don’t accept projects that contradict your values. If you are uncomfortable with the premise of the project or the goals of the client, pass it by. It’s not worth it to take on a creative project just for the money and end up hating the work. Invariably, no amount of money will make up for compromising your personal or professional standards.

Rule No. 2. Don’t accept a new client if there’s even the hint of  trouble ahead. Trouble comes in many forms and will always sap your joy and creative energy. No relationship is perfectly smooth, but some are downright not worth it. The trouble is usually not about the project itself but about how you and the client interact. When a client wants to tell you how you should do the work, when they seem to not know what they want, when they fish for ideas or want you to do spec work before they will commit to the project, when they are secretive about their project… when they think actually hiring instead of contracting you… these are all red flags.

Rule No. 3. The computer is only a tool. I am the designer. No software will provide the wisdom, knowledge and creative skill required to design. Personal computers have been around since the mid-1980s. Designers have been around for millennia. That should sum it up.

Rule No. 4. Take a day off every week. Just as you need to pull off the road to re-fuel or re-charge your car, you need to take a break regularly. Most of the designers I know work long hours, including weekends. An annual two-week vacation is not enough to regroup and sustain ongoing productivity. Stopping work to rest and reflect on a weekly basis (this is a great article about the modern-day sabbath) is important for long-term success, health and satisfaction. Unplug, slow down, and reflect on what you’re doing and why. You’re able to put things in perspective when you step outside the flow of daily creative effort.

Rule No. 5. Design your day before you begin it. The design process includes planning and being purposeful, knowing where you need to end up before you begin. This applies to managing your own time in order to be effective in your work. If you plan each day before you begin it, you’ll keep distractions to a minimum and can focus better. At minimum, plan each week ahead of time, leaving room in it for the unexpected. Plan things out first thing in the morning or the night before, you have a road map to follow that will keep you on course.

Rule No. 6. Always be looking. Keep your eyes open. Everything is a potential inspiration. I teach my students about attentive observation, which is the practice of looking and evaluating something in order to understand it better. I am always looking for inspiration, and find a lot of it in places that are entirely unrelated to the projects I’m working on.

Rule No. 7. Always be listening. Listening is a skill few people take the time to develop. Clients are more likely to trust someone who who listens and then applies what they’ve heard. Listen for what problems you can solve. Most creative work done for clients meets a need or solves a problem for them. Listen for what’s not being said directly.

Rule No. 8. Don’t edit when brainstorming. The best solutions are known to come from “brain dumps” where you just start listing and/or doodling everything that comes to mind in pursuit of a design solution. Once the list is made, then review it and narrow it down.

Rule No. 9. Do not work for hire or on spec or bid. These all devalue your work and your contribution to the client’s success. They also depreciate the design profession as a whole.

Rule No. 10. Always begin a project with a handshake AND a written contract AND a down payment. The handshake helps establish the relationship with the client and the contract protects the relationship by outlining specific expectations that both parties have agreed to. Most designers I know will concur on this: It’s when you don’t have a written agreement that trouble shows up. The down payment establishes trust in the working relationship, and sustains you while you work.

Rule No. 11. The client is not your enemy. The designer-client relationship should be one of mutual respect. The designer is there to serve the client. The client is there to facilitate the designer. It’s a give-give relationship. When a disagreement arises or a mistake is made, own your part in it, fix it, and continue. Don’t blame. I’ve known too many designers (and even have been guilty of it myself on occasion) who complain about the client constantly. And I’ve worked with clients who complain about their previous designers. Both designer and client should be about the business of seeking the other’s highest good.

Rule No. 12. Always be thankful. I’ve established the habit of thanking clients at the end of a project or, if their regulars, every year. Send a hand-written note rather than an email or a business letter. Really. It makes an impact. Show your appreciation and you’ll be appreciated.

Rules about making rules

Here are some “rules” for the rules: Determine your values and non-negotiables before you engage with clients. Setting your own boundaries prevents others from setting them for you. Deciding up front about how you will handle things makes it easier to respond when situations arise. Be consistent in upholding your values, but also be flexible. Sometimes you need to add or modify a rule. Setting and maintaining boundaries will help you avoid relationships and circumstances that are potentially harmful.

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