Having a Long-Term Purpose as a Freelance Designer

Freelance designers are often so focused on the present and the immediate future that a long-term career plan is non-existent, or at least under appreciated. What needs to be done in order to complete that big project? Where will the next client come from?

Many don’t want to deal with the stress and unpredictability of freelancing forever. Without a long-term plan you may earn a decent living, but down the road you’re likely to find yourself wishing you had been more prepared. Some freelancers are comfortable enough in their careers that they would like to continue to freelance for the foreseeable future. Others would like to eventually expand their business and limit the amount of client work that they must do.

I recently wrote a post for Freelance Switch, 7 Reasons Why You Should Pursue Your Own Projects. My primary point with that article is that most freelancers have compelling reasons to pursue their own interests in projects that they own rather than spending all of their time on client work. Obviously there is nothing wrong with client work, but as a freelancer being paid for your services you will be limited to how much you can earn because you are limited to how much you can accomplish working on your own.

Freelance Switch readers left some thought-provoking and insightful comments on that post about their reasons for working on their own projects and other thoughts on the subject. One reader in particular, Brian, left a comment that I thought summed it up pretty well:

I really feel freelancing should never really be full time. Or if it is, it should be a path to starting a small agency, or something more lucrative and self sustaining. The ultimate problem with freelancing is that you are limited by yourself. You can only make as much money as you can literally work at one time. Yeah you can raise your rates, learn a new skill, take on bigger projects, but ultimately you can only do so much as there are hours in a day. With a business you really have no limitations. Aside from having other creatives to collaborate and draw ideas from, people to actually interact with on a daily basis, and being a business owner, I feel it is truly the only way to remove the salary cap that is freelancing.

I feel that freelancing should be something you do on the side to supplement your income. Just adding two websites a month to my salary based job adds a nice padding of income. I work at a small agency and it’s nice to be able to get up and go someplace to work. If you’re not truly the business type, look for small agencies that you can rise quickly and get on a closer level with the principals – while building your skills freelancing.

I feel freelancing should be a path, not a destination.


While I wouldn’t agree that freelancing should never be full-time, I do strongly agree that it’s important to see the opportunities that could be just a few steps away in the future. If freelancing is a path and not a destination, a long-term plan is needed to help navigate through that path and ultimately wind up at the destination that we’re after.

How a Plan Impacts Your Career

All of us, regardless of our occupations, need to give thought to our long-term plans and where we want to be later in life. In almost every case, where we want to be in the future is not exactly the same as where we are now. Getting to where we want to be takes movement, and movement requires a plan, or else it’s wasted effort.

With a plan you can identify the distance from where you are to where you want to be, establish some key achievements that will get you there, and set up a plan to meet them one by one.

The core work involved in freelancing day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month tasks get the job done, but it may not help you to develop and secure your future unless you make planning a priority. By establishing a plan you’ll be able to see what changes, big or small, you need to make, what skills you need to develop, and why it needs to be done.

Steps to Planning for the Long-Term

1. Set Aside Time

Freelancing can be a pretty hectic and busy career. Setting aside some time to think and plan is the first step. You may already know exactly what you want to do down the road, but chances are you could use some more time for planning how to get there.

2. Think About What You Enjoy

What aspects of freelancing do you enjoy? What other types of work do you enjoy that freelancing cannot give you? Think about what you would like to do in the future and how freelancing can fit into that plan. If you want a lot of things that freelancing cannot give you, you’ll need to think about how you can eventually make a transition.

3. Think About How You Can Earn a Living Doing What You Enjoy Most

The ultimate job satisfaction will only come when we’re able to support ourselves and our family doing something that we truly enjoy. If there is something that you’ve always loved but never had the opportunity to pursue it professionally, try to identify opportunities to combine your interests and your career.

Freelance web designers have a unique opportunity in the fact that they are skilled and able to build websites for themselves to own and operate. For example, if you enjoy traveling it’s possible that you could build a website of your own focusing any aspect of travel (photos, a blog, reviews, bookings, etc.) and potentially down the road that could turn into a full-time income for you.

4. Set a Deadline to Meet Your Goal

Even though your plans will be long-term, it’s still helpful to have deadlines or target dates of achievement. Deadlines for this purpose aren’t intended to label your career as a success or failure, but rather to give you an idea of where you are now and to keep you motivated to move forward.

5. Set More Detailed Checkpoints

Once you have a big-picture goal in mind, work backwards and think about what needs to be done to get you from where you are now to where you want to be. These smaller goals and objectives will keeping you on track and focused on the actions that will help you to achieve your ultimate career goals.

What’s Your Opinion?

How do you feel about the need for long-term planning for freelance designers (and other careers as well)? What are you own personal goals, or what do you hope to be doing down the road?

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13 Responses

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  • Jin, August 17, 2008

    I worked as a freelance designer for several years in the late 90s to early 00s.

    If I have to summon up my experience:

    - Freelance success is heavily depended on economy. Your actual design skill and reputation helps, but the state of economy still trumps all.

    - Freelance is good for fun, doing what you love. However it can get stressful when it’s your only income source when you need to making a stable living.

    - Freelance allows you to meet many interesting people. Take advantage of that, and open more doors. A client is never a work-is-done-thanks-bye type of relationship.

    - Freelance is never a long term solution. It’s a nice supplement.

  • NaldzGraphics, August 18, 2008

    i agree with this ” Think About How You Can Earn a Living Doing What You Enjoy Most”

    I really enjoy being a freelancer. doing designs interest me the most.

  • Bingo. At Men with Pens, we recently decided that we were focusing so much on the short-term that we were shooting ourselves in the foot by neglecting the long term. How could we work on building the business more and other projects if we always had our heads down bulling through work?

    We made some internal changes to adapt to our own needs. Cutting back on posting was one (and our readers appreciated it). Taking on less work and investing more time in furthering projects was another.

    Of course, it means we lose a little income now – but on the other hand, who the hell wants to work 60 hour weeks anyways?

    By focusing on earning less dollars immediately, we can focus on building projects that help us learn long-term dollars forever. And that’s pretty damned important.

    Great post, Steven. (I can never remember if it’s Steven or Stephen, so forgive me if I get it wrong.)

  • Matthew, August 18, 2008

    Steven -

    Great article, and so true. Keep up the great work and congrats on DesignM.ag. I’ve seen numerous plugs for the site on established design sites. Not bad considering you launched about a month ago!

  • Vandelay Design, August 18, 2008

    James,
    I think your approach sounds pretty similar to mine. I’m still working to earn a living in the present (that’s kind of a requirement), but not at the expense of a future. I’m not afraid of some hard work now if it will make things easier or more profitable down the road. Thanks for sharing your experience. (Any you guessed right on the spelling).

    Matthew,
    Thanks. I appreciate it.

    Jin,
    The stress is definitely true. There’s always pressure and no one else to count on but yourself. Networking is a great benefit, thanks for mentioning that.

  • Tom Ross, August 19, 2008

    Thanks for the inspiring post. I personally agree with a lot of your points, and I love combining freelance work with my own projects. Mixing up what you do instead of having the same kind of projects over and over stops you from getting bored. A diversified income and diversified interests/projects help to keep you motivated and more financially secure.

  • Gus, August 20, 2008

    Thats why when I start to make my project I looke d so long for a professional designer and finnaly find him. He made my colors dreams became in one idea and then made this idea live in real life.

  • Corey Freeman, August 21, 2008

    I find adhering to plans is a personal challenge for me, haha. I always have a somewhat cloudy goal in mind. After reading this post, I definitely think that I need to take some time to really define some things I want to get done.

    I like the one about setting deadlines. Setting goals without incentive or initiative to get them done don’t really help you. I just recently had the same mindset as James – I’m thinking too hard about the ‘right now.’

  • SEO Freelancer, August 22, 2008

    The Long-Term Purpose of Freelance Designer or SEO Freelancer is to work anywhere anyhow without any pressure of any Boss. But, if we say Strategy, Tactics, Client, Vision, Competition, Market – we are serious.

  • Bob, August 22, 2008

    So few people make a good living (for me that means a combination of a decent income and not working 18-hour days) doing freelance work that I have to agree that one should dip a toe in the water (i.e., keep your day job) before jumping in full-time. It’s too stressful.

    I wanted to add that I stumbled onto an almost perfect situation for me: teaching and freelance consulting. I love the classroom interchanges, and I love the fact that my schedule allows both the joys of helping students learn and of doing my own creative work. Plus, you can use talented students in your work, and everyone benefits. It’s a dual path that might work for you.

  • freelance net programmer, June 4, 2009

    Freelance design is better job for long term purpose,though it’s too stressful.

  • Freelance web designer, February 26, 2010

    Thanks for inspiring post. I agree with your point. i will follow you tip. yeah i think very stressful job. need to be online whole day. finding jobs and contact with clients. very few time left for Work. its difficult to manage time.