5 Essential Skills and Characteristics for Freelancers

When it comes to the skills and characteristics that are essential to having success as a freelancer designer, the most obvious ones involve creative skills and the ability to design. While this is of course important, there is far more to achieving success as a freelancer than simply being able to design. In fact, the non-creative skills and characteristics are sometimes the most important since they often have a profound impact on the experience for clients.

In this article we’ll take a quick look at 5 skills and characteristics that you should be aware of if you are currently freelancing or planning to make the jump. You won’t necessarily need to be an expert in these areas prior to getting started as a freelancer. In most cases, with some effort and attention these are things that pretty much anyone can do. With time you can even improve your abilities in some areas that you may consider to be weaknesses.

1. Communication

Communication is a critical skill for freelancers. You’ll need to be able to communicate effectively and efficiently with clients throughout the design process. Your ability to communicate will impact 1) your understanding of the client and the needs/wants of the project, 2) your ability to share your vision for the project and to secure the work, and 3) your ability to explain things clearly to clients.

Each designer has a different process for communicating with clients. Some use the phone or Skype to get familiar with the project. Others prefer email throughout the process. Some designers have an intake process that they use with each client, and others use a different approach for each project. What’s important is that you find an approach that works well for you and your clients.

2. Organization

One area that many new freelance designers struggle with is organization. If you’ve worked as part of a team before, you probably were only responsible for certain aspects of working with clients, and you probably had little to no responsibility for running the business. As a freelancer you’ll wear many hats, and this requires outstanding organization. Many new freelancers underestimate the importance of organization. and the scope of responsibility can be a big shock.

As a freelancer you’ll have to handle marketing, sales, finances and bookkeeping, customer service, management of any outsourced work, plus the actual design/development work. All of these other responsibilities will reduce the amount of time and effort that you’re able to dedicate to doing the design/development work that brings in revenue. So the more organized you can be, the less time you will need to dedicate to each area, and the more time you can spend doing the actual design/development work.

Your organization skills can also have a big impact on your clients and the experience they have working with you. They’re not really concerned with all of the different responsibilities that you have by running your own freelance business. They just want you to manage their project in an organized manner.

3. Reliability

One of the reasons that some clients prefer to work with a design agency rather than a freelancer is the issue (or in some cases, the perceived issue) of reliability. Freelancers often have a stigma of being unreliable. No client wants to start working with a designer only to have them prove to be undependable. You can help to demonstrate your reliability by communicating effectively and promptly with potential clients from the start. Clients often start to question the reliability of freelancers when they don’t get a response or a proposal promptly. If you present yourself professionally and respond promptly to potential clients it can go along way towards easing any fears about your reliability.

4. Discipline

Many people have the idea that freelancers sit around the house most of the day and work whenever they feel like it. Of course, this isn’t the case with successful freelancers who have have put in a lot of effort to build up their client work. But as a freelancer you’ll have no boss looking over your shoulder telling you what to work on, and you’ll have no one to tell you what time to start work and what time to stop. Being a successful freelancer requires a lot of discipline. Since most freelancers work from home, there are plenty of potential distractions that you will need to avoid.

5. Assertiveness

As an independent worker, your success rests on your own shoulders. For this reason, freelancers often need to be pro active, aggressive, or assertive. If you’ve been working as an in-house designer or as an employee for a design agency, you probably are used to having projects assigned to you. As a freelancer you will need to find the work. Some freelancers are fortunate to have most or all of the clients coming directly to them, but it usually takes some time to get to that point. Many freelancers will need to be more assertive when it comes to finding clients. This could involve marketing efforts, networking, pursuing referrals, social media, or even cold calling.

Freelancers also need to be assertive when it comes to problem solving. When you’re working as part of a team, the responsibility to solve every problem and overcome every challenge will not be only on you. However, as a freelance you’ll need to be pro active at finding solutions and working through challenges

What’s Your Opinion?

What skills and characteristics do you think are most critical for freelancers? Feel free to share from your own experience in the comments.

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10 Responses

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  • Web Design Fact, November 22, 2012

    Really a nice article about descriptive skills and characteristics that are most important for freelancers to acquire. Thanks for sharing !!

  • mark, November 23, 2012

    Basic Accounting Skills! In determining what “success” means to a freelancer, you must SURELY include “keeping the doors open!” As such, you must have a basic understanding of what it costs to offer your services: hardware, software, subcontracting, travel, taxes, possibly office rent, advertising–and so much more. Then…pay yourself !! How much money do you want/need for your personal living standard? Take time to calculate how much you must charge the client IN ADDITION to cost so that you can “keep the doors open.” Take a basic bookkeeping class (online/classroom) and get a basic accounting computer program that does budgeting–and use them! –Mark

    • Steven Snell, November 23, 2012

      Very true Mark. Thanks for the feedback. This is something that most creative people struggle with but it obviously very important.

  • Steve Bonin, November 23, 2012

    Hi Steven,
    All good points. Time management flows across your points 2,3 and 4. Sometimes you just want to be in the zone designing and the bills have to be mailed and the banking has to be done, etc. I find setting aside certain days to work on administrative stuff, other days to work on my own SEO or website is a must, otherwise it doesn’t get done.

    • Steven Snell, November 23, 2012

      Hi Steve,
      Thanks for the feedback. I’ve tried the same approach at times and it has worked pretty. In reality for me it is usually more like half of a day on something specific like that as it seems I always have a hard time setting aside the entire day. I think the most important thing is that you find the approach that works best for your own efficiency.

  • SDGSteve, November 24, 2012

    Determination / longevity, a lot of people set out to freelance, don’t instantly get thousands of dollars worth of work and give up, you’re constantly having to keep pushing yourself to find work and establish a solid client base.

  • Isadora Design, November 26, 2012

    Well done – you definitely need all 5. Although Communication is probably the most important for me lacking any one of these important factors will cause you to end up with long nights of stress and unnecessary headaches.

    Make sure your upfront screening process is rigorous!

    Isadora Design – Creative Design Studio

  • Vincent Sevilla, November 28, 2012

    All of these are really important specially if you are a freelancer.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge

    Good Job!

  • Julia Howard, December 1, 2012

    6. Obsessiveness! I know…not usually considered a good thing. Can’t believe I’m going to post this but it illustrates my point perfectly. This past week I came down with the flu and was unable to work for a couple of days. I was pretty upset about this, as I was right in the middle of implementing my blog, which I was very excited about.

    So for the next two days I proceed to have re-occuring NyQuill induced dreams where I’m setting up nested blog categories about various types of illnesses, tagging them, and feverishly coming up with blog topics and evaluating their possible SEO merits.

    That would actually be a great blog topic…you’re most off-the-wall coding dreams.

  • Richard, December 18, 2012

    Great points you’ve outlined here, Steven.

    One thing I could add that I look for are his/her previous experiences. I look at sample work by doing an initial interview.

    It used to be so hard and critical to do this. But, with today’s technology especially with sites like https://www.staff.com that’s designed to be a place of some of the best freelance workers out there, it’s pretty easy to choose them.