Problems with freelancers

Just finished our first meeting of our Female founders roundtable, and interestingly, there’s one common challenge: sourcing reliable, efficient freelancers.

Using the theatre (or film or hollywood) business model to grow your business is sound, but it relies on a network of valuable suppliers. And as budgets constrict, the profit gap between buying and selling narrows making errors, revisions and redo’s even more costly for either the buyer or the seller (or both).  They can mean the difference between a profitable or unprofitable project.

There’s certainly a problem with freelancers…

Part of the issue is a lack of clarity around the rules of engagement. Both sides have to shoulder some responsibility, it doesn’t just lie with the hirer. Freelancers have a responsibility to accept and understand the design problem delegated to their care.

It’s worth putting in the work to build clarity: a good designer/freelancer relationship is a win:win. Regular work for the freelancer, and a sustainable business model for the business owner.

Rules of engagement

Have clarity about the role

Often freelancers are chosen in haste to plug a gap.

Instead, pause and reflect. Are you filling a talent void or need an additional pair of hands? A talent void often means hiring a peer, someone with an equal but different skill. An additional pair of hands can mean delegating a specific task. Very different people, skillsets, price-points and perils.

Hiring an over-skilled freelancer can reduce profits unnecessarily. Similarly, hiring an under-skilled freelancer often means additional mentoring/overseeing/re-work to the point you wished you’d done the job yourself.

Note to freelancers: You both have roles: the designer must delegate, but freelancers must take responsibility to understand the brief and the terms of the engagement. It’s OK to wear different hats to maintain a cashflow but be mindful of the hat you’ve been hired to wear. If it’s not your skillset, perhaps it’s not the right role for you.

Part of your role is problem solving and that starts by getting clarity and fully understanding the task needed

Interview freelancers like you would an employee

Freelancers are really short-term employees. You’re trusting your clients with them so interview the freelancer as you would an employee. Ask questions to judge whether you’ll work well together (under pressure). Check CVs and referees. Ask about the way they prefer to work and how they like to get feedback. And leave time for them to ask questions.

Note to freelancers: Prepare a CV and ask for references from previous jobs to make it easier for the employer to understand your skillset. Not all design studios work the same way. You are being invited into their (often virtual) studio so it’s your responsibility to adapt to their culture and their way of working. It’s your responsibility to discuss how you would like to work and ask for (don’t assume) acceptance.

Manage expectations at the beginning.

Make the result clear. Explain what you think a great result is, what it isn’t.

Sounds simple but setting expectations at the beginning stops the ‘I thought you meant…’ at the end.

Note to freelancers: As attractive as it might sound, only commit to those projects you know you can deliver confidently. Only commit to deadlines you know you can meet. Take responsibility for organising and monitoring your own workload and workflow.

Give timely feedback.

Agree on touch-points at the beginning to avoid surprises at the end. At the beginning of a relationship give feedback frequently and expect a back-and-forth conversation. If you’re not both in a studio, use a method that works for your both.

Note to Freelancers: Feedback is your insurance. Expect feedback; indeed ask for feedback, especially if this the first contract. The objective is to have clarity around the next step. Take notes or ask to record the feedback to reduce ambiguity.

Be specific

Creatives giving feedback to other creatives is fraught. Most of us don’t like conflict which means we tiptoe around the issues making something quite simple, complex. Be detailed about what is working and what is not. That doesn’t mean taking responsibility to give solutions, it means articulating how the design solution answers (or does not answer) the brief.

Note to freelancers: It’s your role to debrief the designer as much as it is their responsibility to brief. Ask questions to ensure you fully understand what is expected.

So what?

Freelancing as a career is not a lesser-role. A good freelancer can be the life-line of a business.

Undoubtably there a strong role for freelancers in the creative industry, but there are many studio owners struggling to find designers with a reliable skillset on which to build mutually-beneficial partnership.

Freelancing is not for the under, or unskilled. Freelancers are not mentored, infact often studios learn from a freelancer.

The unfortunately thing is, the only way a freelancer might hear a design agency owner is unhappy with their work is by being ghosted. If an engagement isn’t working, most designers will avoid conflict. They’d rather redo the work than negotiate with a defensive (and sometimes hostile) freelancer, and that’s a shame because no-one wins.

Communication is key. Both sides continually checking in to manage expectations.

Want to continue the discussion? Email Carol. Want more info like this? Subscribe below. (And tell your friends 🙂

Carol Mackay

Design Business Council : business advice for creatives.
We help designers build better, stronger, more sustainable, businesses.

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About Carol

After 30+ years running a design studio, I accumulated a pretty special network of fellow designers. One thing most have in common: a need for more information about the ‘business’ side of design. Most are impatient with any task competing for time spent doing what they love – designing so they wanted more info about how to work more efficiently and effectively.

Not me. I love that intersection between design and business. I built a career working with Ombudsman schemes, the Emergency Services sector and the Courts. My special power has always been an ability to use design to translate the difficult to understand or the unpalatable message.

I now use exactly the same skills with creative business owners. I translate the indigestible into bite-sized chunks of information. I share insights, introduce tools and embed processes to help others build confidence business decision-making skills. More confidence makes it easier to grasp opportunities. More confidence makes it easier to recognise a good client from the bad.

Outside DBC I have mentored with Womentor, AGDA and most recently with The Aunties.
And I’m a proud board member of Never Not Creative. Ask me about internships 😉

Always happy to chat, I can be contacted here.

For a short while, an archive of my design work at
My current work can be viewed at and

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