Episode #101: 9 Differences Between Subcontracting and Having Your Own Clients

Some designers prefer subcontracting for design agencies or other designers, while others prefer having their own clients. One may be a better fit for you based on your personality, preferences and goals. Find out 9 differences between subcontracting and having your own clients and what to expect.


Show Notes


I decided to do an episode on this because I’ve been asked by several designers about this. I’ve also seen designers ask in Facebook groups about the differences between doing work for a creative agency or another designer versus doing work for your own clients.

These can be very different experiences from one another. If you’re used to having your own clients and then do subcontracting work for a creative agency, you need to understand some key differences before working with them, so you’re not blind sided.

It’s good to know what you’re getting into and what’s typical practice. You may or may not be comfortable with what’s expected.

Your personality and your goals will help you decide whether or not subcontracting or having your own clients will work best for you.

Personally, I’ve done both. I’ve enjoyed certain advantages from both types of work. I’ve also been frustrated by some things on both sides.

1. Ownership of Files

The first factor to consider is the ownership of files.

Working for Clients

Now, I’m not a lawyer and every agreement is different, so this is not legal advice. This is a general statement.

When you work for a client, you usually own the work. That is, unless you explicitly give away your rights or it’s a work-for-hire situation.

You dictate the rights for all of your work. You control all aspects of it.

Subcontracting for Agencies or Other Designers

When you do work for another designer or an agency, however, they usually want full ownership and rights to the work. They typically have you sign an agreement stating this or that the work you create for them is a work for hire, which means they own it. They might use wording different from that.

The ownership and rights to the files could potentially extend to include even design concepts that they or their client didn’t choose. That means you might not be allowed to use that design for another client with or without their permission.

2. Confidentiality, Nondisclosure or Noncompete Agreement

Another thing to consider is a confidentiality or nondisclosure agreement.

Working for Clients

The end client will rarely ask you to sign a confidentiality or nondisclosure agreement. If they do, it’s usually because they want to share information with you that is sensitive.

I know of several colleagues who outright refuse to sign these, which I understand.

First off, these agreements are not to be taken lightly. Don’t sign them without reading them. I’ve seen some that are overreaching and will put you on the hook.

I’ve seen some that are simple and in plain English. I’ve also seen some that are written in legalese, and even though I am pretty good with understanding that, I’ve been uncomfortable signing some.

Also, I think it’s kind of ridiculous for a client to send one written in such a way that you would have to pay for a lawyer to review the agreements before you even start working with them or know if you even want to work with them.

I had a situation where I almost said no to one for a prospect, but I was really interested in the work and they had been very transparent and pleasant to deal with. I decided to go ahead and read it and sign it. They’ve been a great client and it’s lead to a lot of work.

But I’m not saying the potential for work should be what you base your decision on. I’m just saying that there are well-intentioned clients with these agreements. It’s not necessarily a red flag.

Subcontracting for Agencies or Other Designers

When you subcontract for creative agencies and other designers, they will most likely ask you to sign a confidentiality or nondisclosure agreement.

One reason for this is because they don’t want you to share information about the client with anyone. There may be sensitive information that is shared.

Another reason is that the client may not even know the designer or design firm has subcontracted out the work. So they don’t know who you are.

Creative agencies and designers will usually ask you to also sign a noncompete agreement. This could be part of one of the other agreements, or it could be a separate agreement all together.

The reason they want you to sign a noncompete agreement is because they don’t want you approaching their clients directly. They don’t want you to try to steal their clients. They did the work of getting them, and you’re there to help with a project.

Sometimes, these agreements will have a time period associated with them, such as for the duration of the project and a period of so many years after.

These are all understandable terms for a noncompete, but there are some that are completely overreaching—as in saying you cannot do the same type of work for anyone else, for example. That could mean that you cannot work as a graphic designer for another client. Completely insane!

Others may prevent you from doing design work for another client in the same industry.

On a side note, an employer might ask you to sign a noncompete, which may prevent you from being able to do freelance work.

Watch out for these types of terms.

3. Rates

Rates are another point to consider.

Working for Clients

When you work for clients, you’re in charge. You set the rate. You decide what that includes too—how many designs, how many revisions, how much they need to pay up front, etc.

That rate should take into account not only the actual work but the fact that you have to find new clients and new work. You also have to manage the project. Not only that, but you’re not doing actual client work 40 hours per week, so your rate needs to compensate for that—literally.

Subcontracting for Agencies or Other Designers

When you subcontract for a creative firm or another designer, though, they may try to negotiate your rate—pay you less—especially if you’re being paid by the hour. They don’t all do it, but some do. The more niched your expertise is, this is less often the case.

The reason for this is because they need to make a profit off the work you’re doing for them. They need to mark up your fees to the client. If your fees are at a certain threshold, they may have a hard time doing that. But that really should be their problem, not yours.

One thing to understand though is that they have done the work of finding and getting the client. They are managing the project and communicating with the client. That also entails keeping the project within scope and curating any feedback and edits. So their fee includes all of that.

It is acceptable to reduce your fee because you’re not having to do that. But it is up to you to decide whether or not to do that.

4. Contact

Having direct contact with the client or not is another point you want to consider.

Working for Clients

When you work for clients, you are the one communicating with them directly. Dealing with the end client directly is often easier than playing telephone with a middleman. It can result in clearer communication and less back and forth.

Also, if you have a certain type of expertise that the designer or agency does not have, then you are able to explain things better to the client than they can.

Subcontracting for Agencies or Other Designers

With designers and agencies, you may or may not have any contact with the end client.

Some designers shy away from dealing with clients, especially when it comes to enforcing boundaries, contractual terms or deadlines, or dealing with when the project goes out of scope. I get it. That all used to make my stomach turn.

Or maybe you don’t like that you feel like you’re nagging them when reminding them to send you content or reminding them to pay an invoice.

Depending on your personality or comfort zone, you might prefer not to have to do this.

5. Work Process

The work process is an important consideration. What you normally do for your clients might be substantially different from what another designer or agency does for theirs.

Working for Clients

When you have your own clients, you dictate the process. You’re in charge. The terms are your terms, and if things get out of hand, you can address them.

Subcontracting for Agencies or Other Designers

When you subcontract for another designer or creative business, you have to follow their process, which may not align totally with how you do business.

For instance, maybe they include more designs or more rounds of revisions than you normally would.

It’s good to inquire about their process before you provide a price for your work, so you understand what’s expected.

6. Creative Process/Art Direction

Art direction is another thing to consider.

Working for Clients

Clients will often art direct, and sometimes that’s a symptom of a different issue—that that person feels the need to put their stamp on things, that they don’t trust you or they see you as an order taker, that you didn’t ask the right questions up front or that you missed the mark with your design.

But, still, clients are not designers.

Subcontracting for Agencies or Other Designers

When you do work for other designers and agencies, they will art direct before something gets to their clients.

When you send them a proof, they will have their own feedback. There could be several rounds of proofs between you and the designer or agency before the client ever sees a first proof.

Designers and agencies do this because they might know their clients’ tastes and preferences well. They might do this because they have more experience in the industry or with this particular niche. They might just want some things done a certain way.

If you want to learn from a designer or agency who may have more experience than you, this could be a great learning opportunity to enhance your skills.

They don’t necessarily have more experience than you in a certain area, but they might.

If you don’t want to potentially get a more micro-level of art direction, then you may not be comfortable with this kind of situation.

7. Payments

Getting paid is an important consideration.

Working for Clients

When you do work for clients, the agreement is between you and them for payment. If something happens, you can enforce your terms. You can reach out to them directly.

Maybe you expect to get 50% up front and 50% at the end of the job, and maybe the agency doesn’t work that way.

Subcontracting for Agencies or Other Designers

When you do work for other designers and agencies, the agreement is between you and them for payment. However, some of them will wait until they get paid by their client to pay you, despite what your contract with them states. That’s not right.

If their client doesn’t pay for whatever reason, the agency still owes you money because you have a contract with them. It’s not contingent on them getting paid unless it says otherwise. I’ve never seen an agreement like that.

But, still, some of them will do this anyway, and I don’t like it. I’ve always paid my contractors quickly. You did the work. You get paid. End of story.

If the client doesn’t pay them, it’s on them to collect it.

8. Displaying Work in Your Portfolio

Being allowed to display work in your portfolio or not is also important.

We often pour everything we have into our work. We’re proud of it and we want to show it off. That can help us get new clients and new work.

So to not be able to do that can be a huge disappointment.

Working for Clients

When working with clients directly, it’s a good idea to always include in your work agreement about showing your work.

Most of the time, clients have no problem with you showing the work in your portfolio.

But it’s always good to confirm. You never know if something is confidential, and you certainly don’t want to publish the work in your portfolio before the project has actually been launched or published.

Subcontracting for Agencies or Other Designers

When working with designers and agencies, they may not want you to show your work. This goes back to the confidentiality agreement you signed.

Oftentimes, the client of the designer or agency who’s subcontracted the work to you isn’t aware of you at all.

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 get permission in writing from the designer or agency allowing you to display the work.

If they allow that, a lot of times, they will simply ask you for a credit for art direction or some other role they played, and maybe a link back to their site.

I’ve done a lot of work with colleagues who are designers where we’ve had this arrangement. In one situation, they created the branding and then I designed and built the website and designed other brand elements for their client. I gave the designer credit for their part of the work and a link back to their site in my portfolio.

9. Testimonials

Like I mentioned with displaying work in your portfolio, if you’re proud of the work, you want to display it and also have a good testimonial to go along with it, so prospective clients will know what it’s like to work with you.

It’s important to get good testimonials because they help you get new clients.

Working for Clients

When you do work for your own clients, they can describe the experience and provide their name and organization or business along with the testimonial. This adds credibility.

Subcontracting for Agencies or Other Designers

When you subcontract for creative agencies and other designers, they may not give you a testimonial. If they do, it will be from them, not the name of their client.

If it was a big-name client you did the work for through them, you may not be allowed to shout that from the rooftops. You will have to ask their permission and ask what they are willing to do in the form of a testimonial.

Find out about it up front, or you might later feel like someone popped your balloon.

Should you subcontract for a creative agency or other designer or have your own clients?

So, considering all of these points, should you subcontract for a creative agency or other designer, or should you work with your own clients?

If you’re a designer who has a hard time finding clients, selling and interfacing with clients and you’d rather just sit back and do the work, and if you don’t mind being art directed (which subsequently may enhance your skills), then doing work for another designer or creative firm might be a great fit.

Let them handle the selling, client communication and project management, billing and any issues that may arise.

Another thing you might consider, since they already have a steady stream of clients, is offering a recurring service to them that they don’t really necessarily have to touch. You offer it, bill them, and they mark it up and bill their clients.

If you’re a designer who prefers to do your own selling (which you can talk about better than anyone else), and if you want to have complete control over the entire project and creative process, then working with the end clients would be a better fit.

But it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation.

Just know that whichever route you choose—one or the other or even both—you’re still a business either way. Whether it’s a creative agency or another designer or the end client, they are all still clients. You still have to create relationships and get the work done. It’s just that some things may be easier or harder. You have to decide which situations those are.

If you need help being seen as an expert by clients and leading the process, get my Brand Identity Builder. You’ll learn how to start off the relationship with a new client the right way, so they will trust you and be happy to pay more. You’ll also find out:

  • what to include in a proposal, so you stand out from other designers and have a better chance of winning the work;
  • what information you need from the client, so you have an objective point of reference and a smoother relationship;
  • what to do in the design process, so you get less pushback on your design work; and
  • how to show your work, so that you can impress and attract new clients in the future.

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