5. Partnering, Apprenticeships and Outsourcing

You can never have too many smart people in your life. Knowing when to call on them for advice, when to defer to their better judgment, and when to send business their way is a skill worth cultivating. But we want to do everything ourselves, don’t we? Freelancers, by nature, are very independent people.

As I have said before, you can’t know everything, and you certainly can’t wait until you do to start freelancing. I have always subscribed to the guided missile theory in life and in my freelance career, which says: “Launch the damn thing; you know what the target is; you can make course corrections in route.”

You don’t need to do everything by yourself
Because I am so fiercely independent, this was one of the toughest workshops for me to write. Partners? Me? Not likely. I generally credit myself with “doing it all,” but a dissection of typical projects reveal that there is almost always several key people involved. My responsibilities range from graphic designer to creative director to project manager. Naturally, I want to control as much of the creative arc as possible and, indeed, one of the uppermost criteria I use in selecting clients is “how much creative control will I have?” To me, this means concept, design, layout, copywriting and presentation. Production, frankly, just becomes “work,” but I still want to control every aspect of it. At this point my outside associates become critical.

On print assignments, great pre-press people are worth their weight in gold. The same goes for printing reps; when I find a good one I will follow them from printer to printer. They make both me and my clients look good, and they don’t screw up my commission checks. They keep me abreast of the latest technology and always have good suggestions. They are solution-oriented, not excuse-oriented.

Unless you work totally through email, find yourself a good courier service and build generous amounts of courier charges into every job. The practical aspects of this should be obvious: A short, 20-minute cross-town pick-up or delivery never is, is it? Once you factor in mental ramp-up, complete a few other errands “as long as I’m out,” chat with whoever you’re going to see, change your clothes and allow time to shift gears back to whatever it is you were doing, well, you’ve blown half a day. Not good. The other reason you should have couriers (and this is much bigger than the timesaving aspect) is because, presumably, you are a highly skilled, highly paid graphic designer. You are not an errand boy. Do not underestimate the damage you do to your credibility and professional image when you deliver a box of business cards to your client.

On web assignments, my M.O. is pretty much the same as print. I’m most happy and most valuable on the front end. I create all of the initial graphics, site architecture and HTML templates. If the project is large enough to require special tricks and lots of back-end programming, I farm those parts out.

Your Money: Outsourcing and Markups
My general rule on markups is simple: If I buy something on the client’s behalf, I mark it up. If the client buys it, or if I arrange to have it billed to the client (i.e. printing), there is no markup.

However, whenever you place a substantial project with any vendor (printers, exhibit houses, programmers) remember to ask about their commission policy. They almost always have one, but if you don’t mention it, neither will they!

Best, Dan

Help is generally right around the corner
Get to know other freelance graphic designers in your community. Ask them how they do things, particularly things you’re having trouble with. You can exchange ideas and industry contacts. You will discover, depending on which designers you ask, that there are many, many “right” answers to your questions; this is a very versatile business. I sporadically attend the large, formal gatherings of art directors and agency people. You can make many contacts at these events. I find it much more fun and valuable, however, to meet with local designers in small, informal groups (generally 3-5 people). We meet for lunch on a regular basis or gather at someone’s home after work to address specific designer-related issues, explore new technology or reconnect with traditional art techniques.

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