The freelance web designer's guide
The missing guide to becoming —and making a living as— a freelance web designer.
Freelancing has always been a common “hobby” for creative professionals like designers and writers, but in the last decade or so, creative pros have started leaving the 9-5 life in droves.
Now, this post isn’t meant to lure you to the “dark side” of freelancing, but to explain why it’s become the fastest growing professional group of our time.
But if you’ve even thought about taking the leap, now may be the best time in history to do so.
Why has freelancing become so popular
Surprise! The answer is: tech.
Every aspect of workplace logistics now has an app that lets you join and chime in from anywhere.
And if you can work from a laptop anywhere in the world, why bother spending time at a desk?
And again, thanks to technology, much of the work traditionally done by creative professionals (like web design), can be done more quickly.
I know that personally, before Webflow, it would take me weeks (or months) to complete a website project. After Webflow, that same project sometimes take hours.
This gives freelancers an all-new ability to take on more than one project at a time. Leading many creative professionals wondering: Why work for one person/company/project, when I can now work on many at the same time?
These shifts in tech have led to a similar shift in attitude. Years ago, the idea of leaving a stable job to pursue your “craft” was *cough* stupid. Freelancing was something you did at night before bed, like a hobby or after-school project — not a career.
Yet more and more people are taking the leap into the unknown. Leaving their nine-to-five cubical cells for the freedom of becoming a digital nomad.
And freelancers aren’t the only ones who find the freelancing life seductive. Companies are following suit.
Companies are driving the shift to freelancing
In an interview by PBS, author Richard Greenwald stated that companies as large and prestigious as NASA and IBM have been turning to freelancers at an accelerated rate. And they aren’t alone, with the likes of Pinterest, OpenTable, Panasonic, Unilever, NBC, and many (many) more right beside them.
I’ve found that there are 3 core reasons why freelancers make sense for business:
1. Cost / affordability
Although many freelancers charge a premium rate, the vast majority undercharge for their work (stop it!). These low rates make it extremely attractive for companies to hire freelance workers.
Many freelancers enjoy their flexible lifestyle, and companies are no different. The cost of hiring a full-time employee stretches beyond salary and insurance, including time and commitment in training, culture, etc. With contract workers, companies can cut these costs and gain the flexibility to hire/fire at any time.
Having both freelanced and hired contractors for a company, I can say that freelancers work faster. Maybe it’s the freelancer’s sense of urgency about completing the project and moving on. Maybe it’s the fact that the business can skip traditional onboarding/training. Maybe it’s that freelancers can skip meetings and internal politicking. But whatever the cause, freelance projects often move much faster than in-house jobs.
All of which means that freelancers can now blend their flexible lifestyle with the opportunity to work with some of the largest and most respected companies in the world.
It’s not all roses
I’ve spent plenty of time on both sides of the fence, being a full-time freelancer and a full-time desk jockey. Both have their pros and cons, but here are a few things you should know before jumping in to the freelance world.
They suck no matter what, but they suck harder for contract workers. As a self-employed contractor, you’re not only responsible for paying your own income taxes, but also self-employment taxes.
To make it more complicated, you must also be prepared to track all money going in and out of your business to prove it. You can’t count on HR to handle your monies. You are HR.
This problem is typically a symptom of early-day freelancing, but you will overcome it. Not necessarily because you’ll always have work lined up (although you might), but because you’ll start to charge enough to keep you floating (happily) between projects.
Still, it’s a bit harder to manage ongoing expenses like rent, utilities, food, etc. without a consistent paycheck. This is why I recommend starting your freelance career as a side project. When you aren’t worried about basic living expenses, you’ll be more likely to take on better projects (as opposed to whoever’s willing to give you money).
Most freelancers who’ve been doing it awhile will agree: Freelancing can be lonely.
At first it’s nice not having to leave your house or see another human being for days at a time, but eventually, you begin to miss the team environment of your office.
I learned that the best way to combat this was to simply put yourself in additional social situations. Instead of meeting clients over the phone, offer to meet in person or at least over video chat. Instead of working from home every day, head down to your favorite coffee shop, or better yet, a local coworking space.
Is it worth it?
Yes. There’s nothing more empowering than knowing that every dollar you make is an exact reflection of the work you put in. If you work a few extra hours over the weekend, that’s more money going into your bank account — you can’t say that for your typical salaried job.
Plus, many of the pitfalls of freelancing can be resolved by simple preparation and planning. Yes, there will be hurdles, but when aren’t there?
Ready to take the leap? Sweet. Let's do this.
Why you should consider freelancing
Reason #1: Your life will never be the same again.
I've written for Webflow from Paris, New York, and a beer festival in southern Germany. While working full-time. But I haven’t been making work/life compromises.
If earning money while traveling the world appeals to you, then I'm writing this to convince you to take the plunge.
If you’re a designer working as a full-time employee, maybe you need convincing — I’m here to do that too. If you’re already a full-on freelancer, maybe you'll pick up a few new ideas.
The really good news is that, if you’re a web designer, you have it far easier than most other professions. Why? Because your skills are in demand. Every business needs and wants a site. Your web design skills can be used on short-term projects or for ongoing, long-term work. This means you can coordinate the types of freelancing contracts you take to fit your travel schedule.
And since everything relating to web design is web-based anyway, you don’t need to be in any particular location for a set amount of time.
The benefits of freelancing are all about freedom:
Freedom from commuting – save yourself the cost, stress, and time of commuting.
Freedom to choose who you work with – avoid office drama.
Freedom of schedule – work when you want, as much as you want.
Freedom of location – work wherever you want, in whatever space you want.
Let’s see if I can convince you to take the plunge.
Freedom from commuting
The average commute to work in the US is 50 minutes a day. Working from home saves you more than 5 full working weeks per year ... spent alone in your car or crammed on public transit like a sardine.
I propose using those 50 extra minutes a day to actually work. And then take the 5 weeks you saved to travel the world. The math just makes sense!
Commuting can also be harmful to your physical, mental, and emotional health. It increases your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, depression, back pain, anxiety, and reduces the quality of your sleep. I sound like a drug commercial, but I’m not exaggerating.
And commuting is expensive. The average cost of car ownership in the US is around $8,776 per year. If your city has great public transit or a good “walkability” score, you could ditch this expense and put it towards a more centrally located apartment. Or a vacation. (I keep mentioning vacations because you should be taking them!) I recently spent 7 months backpacking throughout 17 countries on 3 continents. That was certainly more memorable than owning a Ford Focus.
Freedom of location
I work full-time while traveling. For me, and for many others, this is by far the most attractive aspect of the freelancer lifestyle: being remote.
I could work from my home in Canada, a Parisian cafe, or a beach bungalow in Thailand. As a freelancer, you get the best of both worlds. You get to explore different cuisines and cultures, make diverse friends from around the world, and immerse yourself in alternative ways of life. All while earning money to pay for it. And if you’re from a more developed region, you can easily find relatively inexpensive countries to live in. This means you get to pocket a lot of extra income.
For example, if you currently live in New York, spending time in a city like Budapest would result in a 72% cost reduction. Earning $1,400 per month there would support the same standard of living you had in New York costing you $5,000 per month.
Not bad for living in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I bet there are also quite a few things you’d love to do with that $3,600 per month in savings.
For those wanting to work away from home, cafes are a common option for workspaces, but co-work locations are my preference. They're great for meeting other interesting and motivated people, and generally only cost a couple hundred dollars per month. This fee often covers desk space, monitor usage, high-speed internet, meeting rooms, and full-time access. You don’t need to bring anything else with you.
Freedom to choose who you work with
No matter how great a job is, there’s usually someone at the office you'd just rather not have in your life. This person might be your boss or the coworker two desks over. Colleagues are generally the people we interact with the most in life, so why do we leave it to someone else to decide who they are?
Luckily, as a freelancer, you get to choose everyone you work and interact with. If they annoy you, just break ties and move on. Life is too short to waste your energy dealing with people you don’t like.
And you shouldn’t have to listen to endless stories about people’s pets, or be repeatedly interrupted by unsatisfied coworkers looking for an excuse to procrastinate. It’s killing your productivity and enjoyment of your work (and not to mention your life)!
Freedom of schedule
When you're freelancing, no one is there to tell you how many hours you have to work — it’s up to you. If you want to save for a house or an extended holiday, you're free to work more than the standard 40-hour week. If you want time to write a book or explore cities, you can work less. It’s up to you.
You can also choose what time of day, and even which days, you work. I enjoy the flexibility of making myself a nice lunch, having coffee with a friend, or going for a run whenever I feel like it. I also enjoy being able to take a long weekend here or there to camp with friends without having to clear it with a boss.
Remember, freelancing doesn’t mean you have to be traveling. There’s nothing wrong with staying home. If you have a family, freelancing still means you can easily make time to attend your kid's events and go for ice cream, without giving your coworkers an excuse.
If you’re single — like me — you can be home to feed and love your cat. Mittens Jr. will love you for it.
Not only can you save money by getting rid of your car or by living in less expensive countries, you can also earn more as a freelancer.
The average salary of a full-time, desk-sitting web designer in the US is $66,000. This ranges from interns earning little more than minimum wage to senior designers in San Francisco earning over $120,000. Regardless, $66k USD is much lower than what a skilled, confident, smart designer can make per year as even a moderately successful freelancer. (Read "How to find freelance design work" for more on that.)
A fairly junior web designer can charge $50 an hour for their services. That’s already over $100,000 per year. An experienced designer can get up to $100 per hour or more — which brings us to at least $200,000 per year. If you use a site builder like Webflow to speed up your workflow, and continue to charge at market rates, you could earn even more.
Yeah, that’s a brash plug for Webflow, but it’s the truth. Most Webflow users are professional designers and businesspeople. We rely on Webflow as our exclusive means of designing professional sites because it makes prototyping, designing, pushing to production, and team collaboration way quicker.
Considering your happiness peaks at around $75,000 a year, you might want to consider working part-time and using the extra 20 hours a week pursuing other passions. Or sleeping — I hear that’s pretty good for your health too.
In short, it’s all up to you
As a freelancer, you’re in charge — of almost everything. You make all your work decisions, including who your clients and coworkers are, where and when you work, which software you use, and how much vacation time you get and when you take it.
The only other person you need to consider and listen to is your client, and you get to choose them too. But remember, once you have chosen them, you need to listen to and respect them. Your clients are your business — without them, you’re unemployed. Just choose wisely and you should be fine.
More than fine, you’ll be a freelancer.
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