Choosing A Freelancer

Graphic Design

Pick A Winner

Recently I received an email from a potential client that expressed some… soreness with a previous graphic designer. She is now in the market for a new designer, but feels frustrated from the let-down she experienced. Some freelancers are jerks, but anyone who has been left with a awful taste in the mouth has some options.

In my article Two Things to Consider For The Perfect Match I talked about how dating and finding a freelancer are very similar. For one thing, when you are going in blind it can be a crap shoot, but the more you learn about a person the better you be will be able to decide whether or not you are a good match. Yet even on a blind date you try to get some intel by asking around right?

Most freelancers get work by word-of-mouth so asking your friends or coworkers if they know anyone is a great place to start. You can ask questions from people you trust and learn more about prospective freelancers. However, if you are going in cold it helps to know a couple of things.


When looking for a freelance graphic designer it all begins with the portfolio. Any freelancer worth his weight will have best works online and with a quick search you can find some amazing stuff. With so much good stuff, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

One thing you can tell right away is the difference between veteran and novice freelancers and it’s not necessarily in the flashy-ness of their website, because it’s pretty easy to look professional online these days. Veteran designers tend to have a specialized field that dominates their body of work. Some might focus on gig posters or album covers. Some could be dedicated to books covers while others are interested in only covering one type of genre like sports or movies. So as you peruse portfolios and you notice that a designer has a run of similar work, it’s probably a good sign that they are a veteran with a specialty. It also helps to narrow your search for designers by looking for creatives that specialize in your type of project.

This kind-of begs the question: what about the less experienced? Well, working with a novice is a mixed bag and the place where people tend to run into the most issues. There is a lot of talent out there and some people who are really good at creative work may not be so great at the other stuff. As my wife likes to point out you can’t expect an artist’s mind to be analytical or vice versa – those are two different mental galaxies. So while creatives who are just starting may be really great at what they do and offer cut-rate prices, they often lack the experience to handle business questions or technical details that they haven’t been exposed to yet. One giveaway is how diverse the portfolio is. If a freelancer has a wide variety of projects, but doesn’t seem to have one style or genre that they follow, chances are that they are just starting out and taking whatever comes their way.

Big name clients, high quality images, or broad and complicated projects are a dead giveaway for veteran designers too. The more work they do, the higher the demand and price tag, so if you find a freelancer who makes ornate or highly stylized images you might find that they are better equiped, but often busy or expensive. If this is the case you may have to find someone who can come close to their style, but believe me there are a lot of people mimicking each other so it shouldn’t be too difficult. Just watch out for copyright issues.


The next stop on our cold-call adventure is the murky realm of contracts, or “Agreements” as some may call it to downplay the frightening sound of the term “contract”. For the most part people are pretty trustworthy, but for those who have been burned you already know that setting your terms in writing is absolutely essential before any work begins. Never, ever, work without something in writing.

Some things to consider in an agreement are revisions, concepts, copyrights, payment terms and deadlines. Typically clients I’ve worked with come in two versions: knowing exactly what they want or not at all. For those who know what they are after conceptual work and revisions are not very necessary which reduces work load and therefore lowers costs. That’s why I always encourage clients to provide a clear, comprehensive description of what they want before starting.

For those who “will know it when they see it” it is advisable to make sure that there is a process of pre-design and finalization. Be sure to request comps, drafts or concept work. This may add to the cost of the designer’s services, after all time is money, but will help you see what images may look like before committing to a final version as well as guide the overall project. Then be sure to ask about revisions. Most freelancers will work with you to make a couple of small changes after the project has moved into final stages for those times when you forgot to add something or need to adjust for other missed items, but it’s always good to leave room for edits. This is also likely to come with a charge.

By default the designer owns her original works. Even under a contract. So if you are interested in owning all the art, drafts, or other derivatives, then you will need to negotiate with the designer some transfer of copyrights. Depending on the standing of the artist you may expect to see royalties come up or a large upfront payment for exclusive rights over a period of time. Either way having an assurance that the designer will not use your project for other money making activities will help protect your branding efforts.

Inevitably payment will come up and negotiating the finer points of costs are an art in of itself, but as a designer I can say that I really appreciate a couple of things. First, if you come to me with a budget I will make recommendations that will give you the best bang for you buck. This is something people shy away from. I think it’s because we feel like we are in a giant game of poker where we are sizing each other up to see where we can gain advantage, but honestly we designers are not doing this work to be rich. We’d be bankers if that’s what we wanted, but even if you don’t feel comfortable sharing that information it’s good business to know how far you are willing to go and get it in writing so that if something goes awry you can point to your agreed upon costs.

The next thing is the typical half upfront, half upon delivery payment. Even thought you may see some variations on this theme most freelancers ask for 50 percent to start a project and 50 percent due upon completion. From my standpoint the final payment really incentivizes me to finish the project. The few times that clients have offered to pay the whole estimate up front I find that I’m just not as motivated to work on the project. The incentive to work hard is already in hand. Plus the additional benefit is that if you find that things aren’t working out you can turn to a termination clause without having to owe more on your project (more on that below).

Don’t Get Any On Ya

When the proverbial crap hits the fan – and it will sooner or later – having everything in writing will help sort out the mess. Nothing’s worse than duking it out with someone because things aren’t going as planned or worse, ending up in court. The agreement doesn’t just keep people honest, it informs everyone involved what expectations there are. So if there is anything you are concerned about before starting work, get it in writing. If something comes up halfway through you can refer to the agreement or try to renegotiate the terms. Although renegotiation may mean resetting other clauses you will ultimately keep everyone going in the same direction without much pain.

Also deadlines are a must to prevent two common problems: run-on projects and indecisiveness. One of the most difficult things for both clients and designers to avoid is the pursuit of perfection. Left to our own devices we would never finish a project because we want to have the absolute best. This natural desire leads to endless tweaking and fussing over small details that would normally cost us time and money. However, by setting deadlines we are forcing each other to produce results, take decisive actions, and keep costs to minimum.

Finally, including a clause about ending the relationship may be helpful. While awkward to talk about typical termination clauses will attempt to make ending a relationship fair for everyone. Some freelancers may want to make sure that they are paid for their time so a termination fee maybe added if the freelancer has accumulated costs beyond the initial installment, but make sure that they aren’t excessive. If you are worried about something going wrong the termination clause will help you break up peacefully. Like a prenup.

Happily Ever After

For those of you who have been burned don’t loose hope. This is the New World where there are more choices than make sense and with an ever growing population of freelancers you are bound to run into a professional out there somewhere. While not everyone is going to work well together some vigilance in your selection process will help prevent future raging tears of death and murder. If you are still uncertain, get it in writing.

Looking for more advice? Hit me up on Facebook or Twitter, or leave a comment. I’m always happy to help.

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