If you’re a freelance creative, you’re entrepreneurial. You prefer self-determination, can be choosey about your clients and projects, and like to work your own way.
Establishing and managing a business so you can make a living from your creative work — your way — isn’t easy and probably not what most of us expected when we started out.
I have become a strong advocate for building a real business and doing it the right way so that it sustains your creative work.
The thing is, with all the competition out there, and now with AI looming as both an asset and a threat to creative work, how will you stand out? How will you make a living? How will you continue to build your business, attract your best clients, and become know for significant work?
I offer 4 ways for your consideration.
Don’t settle for less in your creative process.
Put in the effort in everything you do.
Along with the business effort, your creative process matters if you want to thrive. If you have a tenuous process, you will lose trust with your clients. Your solutions may not work out well for them. You may be taking too long with ideation and exploration. You may be coming up with ideas that don’t fit the client and are rejected. You may be relying on templates and DIY design sites.
Do you really want to create work that’s just good enough? Or that will do well enough? Is that why you freelance?
Many times we jump to the first idea that forms in our thinking, and we run with it. IT’s good enough. It’ll do. We get paid for our work and move on.
There’s an exercise I’ve given to my design students and it’s something they complain about, but realize the benefits once they’re in the middle of it. They have to come up with 100 different ways to express the same idea or subject. So what happens is the first couple dozen or so are pretty much the same. There’s a lot of commonness to the first ideas. Nothing’s really innovative. It’s once the person pushes through those obvious mundane ideas that innovative ideas start flowing. But you have to get through the mundane things first, set them aside, and keep going.
If your operating under the “good enough” banner, that’s not good enough. Especially in the times and seasons in which we live and work. Competition isn’t just other freelancers. It’s the easy solution. It’s AI. It’s DIY sites. It’s software.
You need to decide what your approach will be in developing creative solutions for clients.
Stop thinking like an artist. Start thinking like a designer.
Don’t just value the process. Value the purpose.
What I mean by this is that a focus on exploration is good, but don’t throw purpose out the window.
The well-known, innovative designer, Paul Rand, once said that clients don’t come to you to make something pretty. They come to you to create something that will do something.
Your clients come to you not because you’re very creative, but because you can solve their problems. You have the ability to understand their situations and craft creative solutions that can get them out of their funk. They’ll appreciate your creativity in the end result, and not value it for itself.
I’ve talked with so many creatives who wait to begin until they’re hit with some inspiration. They put off starting, and then end up rushing as the deadline looms. They believe they work better under pressure.
That’s usually not the case. They just think their ideas are amazing, and then get upset when a client picks them apart or expresses skepticism.
The thing is, inspiration comes once you get to work. You won’t recognize it otherwise. So start your research and ideation early. Don’t wait for something to spark. Pursue inspiration through research, concept development, and trial and error.
What does creativity lead to? How does it serve in the marketplace?
Designers and artists use the same aesthetic principles but apply them differently. They use color, shape, balance, hierarchy, structure, proportion, etc. for different reasons.
When your aim is to profit from your creative work by serving clients, you have to deal differently with yourself and your approach than if you’re an artist.
Designers solve problems and meet needs. Design is a service profession. It’s not self-expression.
I talk about this difference a lot. Artists are often broadsided when working with clients because their approach is creative expression, not serving the client’s business and branding needs.
In my design courses, students who come from a fine art background complain that they can’t be creative as they’d like because of the constraints of a project. Having to deal with the purpose and function mitigates their enjoyment of the creative process. That’s on them, for not understand their purpose as creatives working with clients.
Even illustrators are different in focus from fine artists in that they’re creating imagery that communicates specifically, whether it’s an abstract concept, a story or narrative, or it’s showing off a product for advertising purposes. Illustration may be style-driven but it’s not self-expression. It has a service purpose.
The same can be said for commercial photography and copywriting.
If you prefer to focus on serendipitous exploration, you certainly can, but you most likely won’t serve your clients well if you do. Every client has a particular situation they need to address. They’re looking for you not to create something pretty and creative, but something that will help them grow their enterprises.
If you have trouble with that idea, go be a fine artist, and use your process to create things to sell to customers and collectors.
There’s opportunity be both an artist and a designer. But if you’re making a living at both, understand that you have two different audiences. With one you’re B2C, with the other you’re B2B.
Learn to get along with failure.
Trial and error are a natural part of the design process. We try something, and if it doesn’t work, we are okay with scrapping it and trying again. Failing is simply learning what doesn’t work. If we can eliminate what doesn’t work as quickly as possible we are that much closer to developing a right solution.
Do not be afraid of failing in your process. Even seasoned creatives deal with trial and error.
There’s a logical fallacy known as the sunken cost fallacy. You invest so much time and effort, even money, into something that’s just not going to work, But because you’ve invested so much you’re reluctant to scrap it. You have an emotional attachment because of your investment.
The sunken cost fallacy means we hold on to things that aren’t working because we’ve put so much time, money, and energy into them that we don’t want to lose what we’ve invested although it’s lost. It’s already a train wreck.
Keep in mind that the value of your creative work isn’t in the time spent, the money invested, the creative effort put out. It’s in how well the work fulfills the need. The value is on the back end. It’s in the results, not the process. I’ve shared about this principle over and over again in these podcasts and in my courses.
Be willing to let go and begin again. Learn to recognize when you’re spinning your wheels on something and going nowhere. Pull over. Make a change. Get rolling again in a better direction.
It’s okay to be profitable.
Creative freelancers make a living by creating intellectual property and selling it to clients.
There’s a movement known as mutuality where ownership is considered automatically collective and no one owns an idea or the result of a creative work.
The problem with this idea is that it impedes the ability to grow a brand or a businesses. Ownership of IP is necessary to protect trade and commerce.
So you can certainly, by choice, offer your creative solutions via Creative Commons licensing, but how will that turn out for you if you intend to profit — earn money and make a living — from your creative work?
So you may have heard that capitalism is all about scarcity. But that’s not an accurate representation.
In reality, if you study it out, the capitalist system gives you the ability to create wealth. Socialism and communism are about scarcity and redistributing wealth so that everyone has the same amount.
Socialism doesn’t work. Socialism assumes scarcity and there’s only so much to go around, and those who have are supposed to give to those who don’t have.
Capitalism is the only economic system that builds wealth. It rewards effort and doesn’t discriminate. If you do the things that create profit, you will profit. You can grow your own wealth and make a living from your creative work. You can use your resource to help others a you see fit.
As a freelancer your clients will be businesses and organizations that need to profit. They come to you to create the visual and written communications needed to reach the right audience. So you create communications solutions specifically for the client, so they can position, differentiate, and grow. Those communications need to be protected either through © or ® registration.
Ownership is necessary for a business to prosper. This is true for your own business and your clients.
Both capitalism and socialism include ideas about ownership. But they differ in regard to who is the owner. If you’re a freelancer, you own your business, time, process, and destiny. It’s all up to you. You’re responsible to make enough to sustain your life, because living costs money. You need money to live and to run your business. If you don’t generate profits you won’t be in business very long.
Capitalism is considered more advantageous for freelancers compared to socialism because:
- Capitalism provides strong incentives for small businesses to innovate, grow, and improve1. In a capitalist system, entrepreneurs are driven by the pursuit of profit and can retain the rewards of their success. This motivates small business owners to take risks, invest in research and development, and develop new products or services, leading to growth.
- In a capitalist system, small businesses operate in a competitive market where they have the opportunity to thrive and succeed based on their own merits2. Competition encourages efficiency, creativity, and forces businesses to provide better products, value, and improved service. Freelancers benefit from this environment because they have the freedom to enter markets, compete with larger businesses, and find niche markets to serve.
- Capitalism offers freelance businesses the flexibility to adapt to changing market conditions and client expectations. They can quickly respond to emerging trends and changing opportunities (such as AI) and adjust their strategies accordingly. They have the autonomy to make business decisions without the interference of heavy regulations or bureaucratic hurdles, enabling them to be agile and immediately responsive to their clients’ needs.
These factors contribute to the overall success and growth of your freelance business under a capitalist system, providing you with the freedom, opportunities, and incentives necessary for their development creatively and materially.
Every client you work with is different, with their own unique needs and business objective. You have the ability to study the problems, determine creative solutions, and implement them so that your clients can grow. By helping your client prosper you also will prosper.
That’s the best kind of mutuality.
As a freelancer you should pursue profits because they’re the means for you to build your business and support your life.
You should look at failures and mistakes as opportunities to find the better solutions.
And you should stop thinking like an artist and start thinking like a designer and business owner.
© Alvalyn Lundgren. All international rights reserved.