Sunday, January 1, 2012

Notes from my head

A year or so ago I decided that I wanted to get back into writing. It was my favorite part of school and I did well with it. I worked with my friend and old Creative Director Alison Fairbanks, who is one heck of a writer and writing coach. When I wrote this essay, I was new to Portland which meant I was constantly introducing myself. It was exhausting. And that exhaustion was compounded when people assumed I was struggling to find a job because I presented myself as a freelance designer. I needed to figure out how to start those conversations with an accurate perception instead of retracing my initial explanation. So I wrote about it, sent it off to to some design publications on a whim, and got a "snippet" of it published within an article by Ilise Benun on the same topic in the January issue of HOW. It's my first published piece, I'm pretty excited about it!


At the time, leaving the familiar world of life on a payroll seemed like the hard part. And it certainly was half the battle. But living the ebb and flow of design life on my own is now my daily challenge. The triumph I feel when I land my own clients or freelance with a studio of caliber is equally matched with the doubt that a few slow weeks can bring. Contributing to this confidence is a shift in the definition of freelance design. A career choice once reserved for those talented (or blissfully naïve) enough to go it alone, being a freelancer today is perceived as a role taken when there is no better option.

When introducing myself as freelance designer, I’m often met with a response that errs on the side of condolence. This is usually paired with suggestions of companies I should apply to for full-time employment. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the helpful disposition of others and acknowledge that the best opportunities often arise from word of mouth. But these well-intentioned summonses imply career strife and leave me feeling misunderstood with an uneasy outlook on my future.

I struggle with how to correct people’s negative perception of my job, trying to find a balance of confidence that describes my success without sounding arrogant. The best opportunities I’ve had, I’ve had as a freelancer and I get paid more to do them, with the bonus of a flexible schedule. I also deal with my own health insurance and quarterly taxes, which are about as enjoyable as reading a restaurant menu set in Papyrus, but it’s worth it to me. I work hard to be able to call myself a freelancer, and I’ve turned down job offers to remain independently employed. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. But saying this to someone inquiring about my career is awkward.

I started thinking about why the word freelance leaves people thinking I’m unemployed, why that matters to me, and what I need to do about it.

1. Why is freelance mistaken as unemployment?

It’s more appealing to describe yourself as a freelancer than to say you are out of work, an insight easily recognized by laid-off designers. While I believe in the power of positive thinking, it’s unfortunate this nomenclature has altered the connotation so decidedly. It’s presumed that if you freelance, you do so temporarily as a result of a termination rather than a conscious choice to seek career satisfaction on your own terms. This assumed loss of control means that you freelance because you have to, not because you want to, positioning freelancers as a struggling designers.

2. Why does the negative association matter to me?

I wish it didn’t. But it does. In a career where I spend my days communicating the essence of the brands I work with, it’s impossible to ignore how positive and accurate perception leads to success. Is it possible this is an esteem issue within my own head? Yes. But I’m willing to bet I’m not the only young professional who cares what the world thinks of them.

3. What I need to do about it.

The term "freelance" needs an upgrade and it’s my responsibility to articulate this correctly. Positioning myself as a business partner rather than a temporary vendor gives legitimacy. Expecting people to understand my job when described as "freelance designer" leaves them with too little information and too many quick conclusions. In short, "I work for myself as a designer" or “I’m a small-business owner” is a better way to start the conversation. It's a simple rephrase, but the difference, when measured in others’ reactions, is noticeable. The conversation moves from pity for my lack of a proper job, to an interest in hearing about my client list and current project.

I arrived at a career of self-employment when I made the choice to do so, but it doesn’t matter how you get there–just that you love it. It’s a desirable way to make a living, but explaining that to those who think otherwise is a constant reality. Reflection and well-chosen words have helped to clarify my job, because yes, I actually have one. And it’s pretty awesome.


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