Design Domination Podcast Episode #109: 9 Ways to Be a Successful Subcontractor

Other designers and creative agencies are often looking for freelancers. There is no shortage of graphic designers or web developers out there. But you can stand out and get hired over and over—and charge more—by proving to be a reliable, trustworthy subcontractor. Here are 9 ways to be a successful subcontractor.

In this episode of Design Domination, I’m getting into 9 ways for you to be a successful subcontractor. Stick around to get lots of tips to help you be a successful subcontractor, so you get hired over and over again.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence when it comes to subcontracting—hiring one and working as one. I’ve hired many subcontractors over my career. Some have been good and some I decided to never work with again.

I’ve also been hired and praised for my work ethic and attention to detail when hired as a subcontractor. Clients are often willing to pay more for that.

So I’ve experienced the good and bad.

I want to help you make the most of your experience when you’re working as a subcontractor, so that you make a good impression. That will help you get hired again and again and even charge more!

Trust me, there are a gazillion graphic designers and web developers out there. Just doing great work doesn’t mean someone will want to work with you again.

If you’re reliable and trustworthy, those designers and creative agencies and other types of clients will want to work with you again.

If you’re not though, they will remember that.

1. Take the work as seriously as other client work.

A lot of designers, when they’re hired as subcontractors, don’t seem to take the work as seriously as when they do work for their own clients.

I don’t know. I guess that’s the reasoning.

I’ve had this experience with a lot of designers and developers. I’d give them the details of what needed to be done and wouldn’t hear back for days or weeks. When I’d check in, I’d often be told they hadn’t started the work yet.

I mean, what’s up with that? I guess they think other people’s clients don’t have deadlines or that those deadlines don’t matter, like it’s time to lollygag.

But, hey, I’ve got a business to run. I need things to get done—and on time.

I’d be absolutely furious! I couldn’t understand how they could drop the ball like that. They didn’t have to answer to the client. I did!

So it was a pain. Not only that, I could have gotten the work done by then myself.

I think some subcontractors think that because they don’t have to answer to the end client, they don’t take the project as seriously.

So treat the designer or agency you’re doing the work for as if they are the end client.

2. Abide by the requirements.

When I work with subcontractors, I ask that they do certain things.

I have specific requirements in place for a reason—either because someone else I know had an issue and needed to address it in their process or because I’ve personally had to endure the pain of that myself.

One such time I asked a really nice and talented developer to help me out with certain functionality of a website for a client. I needed his expertise to get this one particular part done.

After I was done building the site, I gave him access to the development site and asked him to do the work there. He told me he would prefer to copy the site to his own server, work on it there, then upload it back to my server. He also said he’d prefer to change the setup of the CSS, and I was like, um no.

I said I wasn’t comfortable with any of that because I wanted to have access to the site at all times in case something happened, and it wasn’t necessary to make those other changes. So I asked him not to do it. He did it anyway.

Guess what happened next? He got sick and was unavailable for two weeks. The work I had actually asked him to do got delayed because he decided to redo something I specifically said not to do. Because he got sick, he didn’t get around to what he was supposed to do.

Not only that but because he had taken it upon himself to do the work on a copy of the site I didn’t have access to, I couldn’t even see what had been done—or not—at that point.

That put me in a really bad spot with the design agency who had subcontracted this to me, who was looking to see the site. I was so embarrassed and I was really pissed.

3. Communicate often.

This brings me to another point, which is to communicate often. Don’t go MIA.

Subcontractors in our industry (and any industry for that matter) often get a bad rap for disappearing once they get the work. They don’t communicate.

Few things make the designer or business more nervous, and that’s something they won’t forget.

I hate being put in that position. If something comes up—a personal issue or a project-related problem—it’s best to know about that right away. It makes the situation much easier to handle.

For instance, if a subcontractor tells me about an issue up front and doesn’t wait to say something because they’re afraid to—I would have more time to find someone else, or I would do the work myself. I could try to negotiate an extended deadline with the client.

Otherwise, I have to be the one to clean up the mess. The entire point of hiring a subcontractor to do the work is so I don’t have to do it myself, to make my life easier. So I don’t like it when that doesn’t happen and then, oh, it’s on me to figure out what to do next.

4. Ask questions.

I think a lot of designers are afraid to ask questions. They might think it will make them appear as if they don’t know what they’re doing even if they do.

But asking certain questions can actually demonstrate how much you do know and that you are interested in doing the job well.

For example, I’ve done tons of book layout in my career. Even so, I will always ask if it’s OK for me to change certain things for consistency or proper formatting, or ask if there’s a preference for sections to start on a righthand page.

Also, the designer or agency who’s hired you usually knows their client well. Clients often have different preferences that they may forget to mention to you.

So if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. They’ll actually probably appreciate it. I know I do.

I’d rather get asked a lot of questions than none at all or too few.

5. Check your work.

When another designer or agency hires you to help with creative work, they don’t want to have to babysit. They want the job done on time, and they want it done well.

The reason a designer or agency looks for a subcontractor is either because they don’t have expertise in that specific area or they don’t have time to do the work themselves.

I’ve been hired by agencies over and over as a subcontractor because they know they don’t have to babysit me. That’s been a huge issue for them in the past with other designers, so that is a pain point to them that they want to avoid.

When I say “babysit,” I mean that they don’t want to have to point out things you should have already checked yourself.

I’ve had several subcontractors who were so giddy about getting the work—which I appreciate—but then they didn’t pay attention to the instructions or job requirements and didn’t ask questions. They focused on getting it done fast rather than done well.

It’s vital that you check your work and really take ownership of the quality.

Check the creative brief, pay attention to special requirements and check that your work meets them all before you submit a draft.

6. Be open to art direction.

When you’re hired by another designer or creative agency, being open to art direction is important. Some designers just aren’t.

Oftentimes, the hiring designer or agency has worked with their client in the past and knows their tastes and preferences pretty well. So they might offer some art direction throughout the process.

My advice to you is don’t let your ego get in the way. Take it constructively.

Remember, it’s them—not you—who has to answer to the client.

7. Offer your expertise.

Don’t be afraid to offer your expertise. You and the client may have different experiences or backgrounds. They may not understand why something might be a good or bad idea.

So if you have suggestions for a better way to accomplish their objectives, say so. They can then decide to take it or leave it.

They will likely appreciate you for speaking up. Plus, it will show that you care about their needs.

8. Invoice promptly.

Untimely invoicing can be problematic. I’ve run into this many times, and I can’t understand it. Are designers not interested in getting paid?

When you’re a subcontractor and you don’t invoice when asked to, it really mucks up the designer or agency’s invoicing process, especially if you’re being paid by the hour.

They are often dependent upon you to send an invoice, so they can bill their client.

When you don’t invoice promptly, you may be delaying them getting paid, and that can delay you getting paid.

9. Get permission.

Another potential problem is showing the work without permission or taking credit for the work where it’s not necessarily due.

Oftentimes, the client of the designer or agency who’s subcontracted the work to you isn’t aware of you. In that case, it could be an unpleasant surprise if they happened upon your website or a social media post talking about the work you did for them.

It’s always best to make sure you have written permission from the designer or agency allowing you to display the work. If you are, a lot of times, they will just ask you for a credit for art direction or whatever role they played in the work and maybe a link back to their site.

I’ve done a lot of work with designer colleagues where we’ve had this arrangement. For instance, one designer had created the branding for their client and then I built the website and designed other brand elements. With that designer’s permission, I showed the work in my portfolio and gave them credit for their part and a link back to their website.


Now, having said, all this, sometimes the issues I encountered were the fault of the subcontractor. You just can’t make someone care about their work ethic. You can’t make them pay attention to details.

But in other cases, there were things I could have done to prevent some of these situations from happening in the first place.

In another episode, I’ll get into how you can make the process smoother when you’re working with a subcontractor.

If this episode was helpful to you, please take a moment to help me by leaving a review below.


  • Hi Colleen! Do you have any advice on how to be a subcontractor?

    I’m a Squarespace web designer and would love to fill the time between clients with subcontracting work because I just love designing.

    I’ve asked in some networking works but nobody haven’t really gotten much of a response.

  • Super useful, thank you Colleen. May I know how did you deal with the no. 2 the intelligence developer in the end? Did you hired him again? And how did you deal with the agency that the results of what caused by the developer? Thank you.

    1. Hi, Leaw. I did not work with that developer again. I let him know I was upset and it was unacceptable what he had done. I think I explained to the agency that the work took longer than I had expected but that it was getting done. They were, fortunately, very understanding. It was a complicated project.

      1. Thank you Colleen. I’ve learned a lot from you, this one, and many of your podcasts. Recommended for other designers too. Thank you.

  • Good stuff – seemingly common sense tips yet, as you say, they’re frequently missed in practice. The “communicate often” one is the biggie for me, it’s so easy to get head-down and on with the work and not realise that as far as the client is concerned it’s just radio silence = nothing being done. The more touch points the better (without being a pest of course 😀). Looking forward to the podcast about dealing with subcontractors.

    1. Hi, Tony! Thanks so much for the feedback. Yes, I totally understand about putting your head down and just getting into the work. Early in my career, I would do that and not say much to clients, and I’d get asked questions, which frustrated me. So I started being more proactive about communicating and setting a schedule, so they knew when to expect to hear back from me.

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