Ask A Freelancer #6: Pursuing a Freelance Career

From time to time I get emails asking for advice about freelance matters. I hope that by publishing these inquiries and my response I can do a better service to my blog readers than just responding one email at a time. Plus, those of you who may have input on the matter that I didn’t think of can chime in with a comment! If there’s a question you have or a subject you’d like to get an opinion on, please contact me!

Question

Hi Liz !

I am a 17 year old high school student who has just started my Senior Year. I think I may be interested in becoming a freelance web designer after graduation, but I’m not sure what is required. Would it be better to study computer science or programming in college or should I go to design school? Should I skip college and just learn from online tutorials? Will it be easier to start out as a freelancer or to get a job somewhere? Lastly, is your market competitive?

Sorry for so many questions! Thanks for any help you can offer!

– Future Freelancer?

Answer

Would it be better to study computer science or programming in college or should I go to design school?

There is always the option for a double-major, if you are able to bite off that cost and workload, do it. Getting an in depth education of both might reveal to you that you are more interested in one than the other (and you may be surprised at which one that is!)

Of course, a double-major is a whole lot to bite off — so if this suggestion has you nodding your head, understandable. I’m interested to hear other readers thoughts, but I think learning to design is something that is best learned in a classroom environment where you have the ability to feed off other ideas and work, collaborate, and critique. Once you get into the design world so much of the job is being able to work with others be it other designers, developer, writers, marketers, or clients – so getting used to being creative within this atmosphere is really valuable.

Should I skip college and just learn from online tutorials?

Of course, there are a lot of practicing web designers who did not go to college and are completely self taught. I double majored in Fine Art with a focus on Painting and Graphic Design. It wasn’t until after graduation that I really started to indulge my passion for web design and learning more about development.

Unlike something like becoming a lawyer or doctor there is no exact path you have to take to become qualified to charge people money or your web design services.

Now, in my eyes, I say – if you have the opportunity to do college, you should take it! It’s going the only time you will have to completely immerse yourself in focusing on learning, you’ll learn a lot about what interests you and you’ll be able to have some guidance in your academic journey that you won’t get by learning from online tutorials and books.

Will it be easier to start out as a freelancer or to get a job somewhere?

Just as I believe learning design within an academic community is valuable to prepare you for a job in the real world. I would also say that having a job at a design firm is going to prepare you to be successful at freelancing.

What will be easier? To be successful at either, you’re gonna have to work HARD. having experience in both environments I wouldn’t say that either is easy, but when getting started working for someone else is a lot simpler! Remember that freelancing is not JUST the design and development part of the job – you’re also running a business!

Is  the design field competitive?

YES. VERY.

What’s your advice?

Am I missing something? Do you have a different perspective on this matter that you would like to share? Do you disagree with any of my thoughts? Leave a comment and tell us about it!


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7 Comments

  1. My 2 cents:

    Q: Would it be better to study computer science or programming in college or should I go to design school?

    A: Are you good at math? Most computer-related majors will put you into the college of Science and Engineering, meaning your base courses will cover some tough math, and you are likely to take a lot of core-programming courses, covering computer architecture, networking and both high and low level languages, starting with Java most likely. While this education is both challenging and rewarding, it doesn’t necessarily touch on all the skills necessary to be a good web designer/developer. Although you’ll be well-learned in development, scaling, efficiency and unit testing, you might not have the exposure to design (both site and interface) and other rapid development languages (PHP, Ruby, Python, etc.) you would use more than others while creating websites.

    My advice here would be: If you’re interested in development more than design and you can actually have fun writing code, a CS major will definitely benefit you. Not only will you be able to learn and adapt to ever-evolving development methodologies easily, you’ll also have an excellent skill-set that can open a ton of doors for you career-wise should you ever decide to change paths.

    As far as design school goes, the programs are (from my very limited experience with colleagues and friends) only as good as the student’s personal motivation. If you want to be a great designer and are willing to devote you life to it, giving it 110% everyday, you can make a great career out of it. Degree or not.

    Q: Should I skip college and just learn from online tutorials?

    A: If you’re still a teenager, the college experience is something you might want to have. The connections and friends you make, as well as the experiences you’ll have are hard to replace. Nearly all the professionals I’ve met in the web industry are self-taught, simply because a degree in web design in 1998 wouldn’t really mean much today. Again, you’re going to be as good as the amount of work you put into it. I work with a guy who’s been doing web for about as long as I have (pushing 9 years) and we both still have a book in our hands when we leave the office.

    Q: Will it be easier to start out as a freelancer or to get a job somewhere?

    A: No straight answer to this. Depends on your city. It’s important to bulid a portfolio, even if it’s for your own work. Very few people will hire you on blind faith freelance or otherwise. Freelancing has the advantage of working virtually, giving the opportunity to accept clients nation/world-wide, while have a job has that nice benefit of a steady check. But again, this applies to your particular city and its economic climate/outlook.

    Q: Is the design field competitive?

    A: Depends on all of the above. Web-only design is a strange job environment. It doesn’t particularly matter how good you are as much as the type of clients you have to cater to and the existing studios in your area. Cooler clients are (again, in my experience) more willing to do telecommute and work with clients anywhere in the country, which is a good thing except that it opens up a lot more competition from people like yourself. Local companies are going to have other firms/lancers competing for their work depending almost solely on their proposed budget (or lack thereof).

    I’m a developer, so I might have an untrustworthy outlook on design jobs. However, I’ve worked with a ton of designers and do a lot of freelance myself. Set a goal for where you want to be in a few years and the risks you’re willing to take (college or not?, etc.). If you want to be an independent freelancer, take whichever route gets you there fastest and in the best competitive shape. You’re going to need a great portfolio, and a good way to start that is by contacting local agencies for “locally-freelanced” work so that you get an opportunity to work ‘with’ bigger clients while skipping a few rungs in the design-career ladder. In my experience, potential clients will react to a mediocre piece for a well-known brand the same as a stellar piece for a no-name company. Also immerse yourself in any design-related association around your city, such as the AIGA (http://aiga.org) and AAF (http://aaf.org). These groups are good about having meetups and events that can allow you to meet others in your field and learn from their experiences, and, who knows, even land you a few gigs.

    Also, please remember that by being a freelancer, you kind of put yourself in a position where you do what you love for work. While this sounds awesome, and certainly is at times, you’ll hate the job at some points with as much passion as you love it. But, because it’s your business, you’re not always going to be able to walk away from it and “come back when you feel like designing again”. Work hard, bust your ass and it’ll pay off. Most self-employed careers really are that reciprocating.

  2. @Wuori

    You make some great points here! So true about how design school is “only as good as the student’s personal motivation.” Too too many kids I went to school with saw design as a easy degree and went thru the whole program half-assed (some no-assed) then bitched when they failed courses and/or couldn’t get hired after graduation. Most all college endeavours are demanding — but (and i know i am bias on this one) getting a good art/design education is especially difficult! While I had only about 20 hours a week in the classroom, I spent another 40+ hours a week on projects and research – not only my classwork, but personal projects to advance my skills.

    This same thing trickles down to what you point out in your last paragraph about being freelance and the love/hate relationship with it.

    Design &/or Development and Freelancing take a lot of time and dedication if you want to be successful at them.

  3. Hi there, I’m a fairly new subscriber to your blog :)

    Just wanted to add my two cents about the whole Programming / Design School bit, in response to the suggestion to get a double major.
    You can always go for a minor too!

    I majored in Telecommunications (with a concentration in Interactive Media) and got a minor in Fine Arts. I got to spend time focused on both the development end AND the artistic end of design without burning myself out with TOO much work. I would often incorporate many things I learned in my art classes with the projects I was creating in my web design classes. I also discovered that I was one of a minority who chose to go that path, and as a result I got a little extra attention from the interactive media profs for having such developed art skills :)

    1. Thanks for getting in on the discussion Stephanie! Thanks for reading the blog, I dig you web sites design — good work!

  4. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

  5. I finished high school two years ago and I had to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I was going to choose art at first, then decided computers/programming would be a safer bet. I’m now in a community college transfer program for Computer Science and I have to say I love it. The friends I make, the knowledge I attain (both earthly and academically alike) amaze me and I have contacts that help me get work if I need it! Regardless of any developers who may put education down, it does take time and education is always worth it. You learn so much more than technical skills, and I have to say technical skills may be the smallest part of the core college experience. I myself am doing freelance web development projects now and afterward will build my portfolio and start blogging of things of interest. I do so much research that starting will be easy for me, but for now I prefer to be a part-time freelancer.

    I would say for CS, math is not the ideal skill. I would say problem solving is the ideal skill, you’ll do programming, math, science, and a lot more. While math is simply a feature of problem solving, as is engineering or programming. It’s going to take me longer to get my degree due to circumstances but I will say I’m taking my time and doing my research on my own field. Finally I’ve decided that I want to be an in-house programming for a company but do web development and user experience design freelance wise.

    I remember the days when my grandpa would tell me there is no money working with technology and to be a nurse. It’s just…not my thing. I want to pursue something that I like doing, naturally it has to be marketable and I already know that it is. It’s just the right combination of networking, experience building, and learning the ropes to project completion.

    I also have to say each of my classes teaches me something different. I’m taking a sociology class right now where we have to network with each other and get each others’ numbers and e-mails. Might sound weird, but that is what networking is all about! College is a grand experience in my opinion, that coupled with self-taught knowledge will be a great asset in the future.

    I just want to keep learning, growing, and eventually start blogging for others.

  6. hi Liz.
    I am readiong your blog and i found it very interenting. i am a web programmer and i am thinking to start my own one-person studio. your advises are very helpfull for me, thank you.

    ps: i am from argentina, south america….sorry for my english.

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