Design Domination Podcast Episode #81: “Freelancer”—The Other F Word

Many designers call themselves freelancers when they really aren't. They're doing much more than what a freelancer does. In many cases, the word can actually hold you back. Find out why I think “freelancer” is the other F word.

I want to start off by making it clear that what I am going to get into. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being a freelancer. No, no, no. What I don’t like is how many designers call themselves freelancers when they really aren’t. They’re doing much more than what a freelancer does. Also, though, I don’t think they understand how that word can hold you back.

Freelancer vs Business Owner

A freelancer is typically someone who is filling a temporary spot. For instance, a company might hire a freelancer while their graphic designer is on maternity leave.

A company might hire a freelancer to handle overflow work here and there, because they’ve reduced staff, their staff is just too busy at that time, or they are in the process of interviewing to fill that position with a full-time employee.

A freelancer usually has little say or control over certain aspects of a project, and that often includes the design. They must answer to the hiring company.

The freelancer is in a receptive, order-taking position.

Freelancer as Business Owner

The reality is that most freelancers are actually business owners.

Maybe calling yourself a business owner feels too stiff. Maybe it doesn’t feel right because you don’t have anyone else working with you.

But a business doesn’t need to have employees to be considered a real business. Heck! If you’re paying taxes, the government sees you as a business. If you’re making over a certain amount of money, it’s a business, not a hobby.

A business owner sets their business hours (I hope you do, at least!). A business owner works when they want to.

A business owner sets their own rates. A business owner has to think about getting new work and so forth.

A business owner has to send estimates and contracts.

A business owner is also responsible for their own medical benefits and retirement contributions.

Most freelancers are indeed doing all of these things.

A business owner makes the rules, no one else. The business owner puts themselves in a proactive position.

Even if you’re a designer who prefers to be a subcontractor to creative agencies and not have to go find the end clients, you’re still a business. You’ve just got a specific niche, a specific audience.

But you are a business, and you have to act like one.

And when you think like a business, you think about how you can get the work done profitably—and that’s something that a lot of freelancers aren’t thinking about.

You also become more objective in your decisions. You’re a business owner. You can charge whatever you want to. You can do whatever you want to. You could take on whatever work you’d want to, or don’t want to.

When you don’t see yourself as a business, you don’t necessarily get treated as a business owner either. You let the client lead, and you put yourself in a receptive, order-taking position.

How Freelancers Are Perceived

When you call yourself a freelancer, it can affect how clients perceive you—and that doesn’t always work to your advantage.

Freelancers, as I described them earlier, are usually paid an hourly rate. Unfortunately, it’s also usually one that’s dictated by the company that hires them. They might also say they will only pay up to such and such an hour. They’re typically mostly concerned with an hourly rate and paying for your time rather than your expertise.

Not only that, but clients may feel they can negotiate pricing with a “freelancer” as opposed to a “business.” After all, you don’t have anyone else working with you, so you must have low overhead costs. That may or may not be the case, but it’s none of their business.

If the client is a company as opposed to a solo business owner, they know they’re bigger and might think they have more power or influence over a freelancer, like you need them more than they need you, for instance. That’s not a good position to be in. It should be 50/50.

Clients may think freelancers aren’t capable of taking on multiple projects at a time or larger jobs. In the early days of working for myself, a client didn’t hire me for a freaking media kit job because I didn’t have anyone else working with me. As if that’s a multi-person job! So ridiculous.

Clients might expect freelancers to respond to calls, e-mails and texts outside of normal working hours.

They might think a freelancer is unreliable or not really serious, that this is kind of a side gig and you could quit or just not finish the job at any time.

The Mindset of a Freelancer

The word “freelancer” doesn’t describe what you do, your expertise, the results you get for your clients. It’s a diminutive term when used in that sense.

Maybe you’re more comfortable with “freelancer” because it’s less formal. You’re a creative, after all. But maybe you’re afraid to call yourself a “real” business, especially if you aren’t doing it full time.

If you call yourself a business, will that mean clients have higher expectations? Will that mean you have to create a formal legal business structure? Maybe that all intimidates you.

A lot of solo designers (and I used to do this too) will try to do everything themselves instead of thinking about what’s actually profitable. They stay in “freelancer” mode. They take on work they aren’t necessarily good at instead of subcontracting that work or referring it.

Also, how you describe yourself to others reflects your own thoughts about yourself and your business. It reminds me of when life coach Tanya Geisler years ago asked me why I was calling myself just a “graphic designer,” when I had been in business for myself for like 12 years at the time and had more than 20 years of experience in the industry. (She also came on the podcast to talk about imposter syndrome, episode 10.)

That was the start of realizing I had a ton of self-limiting beliefs to be addressed and needed to find out where they were coming from. There’s much more to all of this, but it was no coincidence that I had been bullied as a kid and then, later in life, let clients bully me too. Some paid late constantly, some jerked around deadlines all the time, and some of them were just jerks.

But notice I used the word “let.” That’s because you have to set the tone for how clients will treat you and then take action when it’s not OK.

Remember, you’re in charge. It’s your business and you are in charge. You enforce the rules of how to work with you.

If you have any self-limiting beliefs, you need to address, they will affect your business. Everything trickles down from your mindset.

Designers need to start asserting themselves more and changing the conversation. If you want to be perceived differently, it starts with you.

It all starts with what you call yourself and how you put yourself out there because that starts painting the picture for them right there.


So if you don’t call yourself a freelancer, what do you call yourself instead? How about—and it could be a combo of these:

  • “business owner,”
  • “solopreneur,”
  • “self-employed,”
  • “independent,”
  • “branding expert,”
  • “web design expert,”
  • “brand specialist”?

Please, just anything but the F word, unless it actually applies.

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