Working With A Freelance Designer – A Quick Guide For Small Businesses

I’ve worked with many companies over the course of my career and each one had issues with working with freelancers in one form or another. Whether they think they will be taken advantage of, to whether they can trust if the freelancer will stick around and deliver the final, to questioning whether they’re actually doing the work themselves and not just paying a high school kid peanuts to do it for them – freelance Designers have gotten a bad rep over the years for many companies. However, with a little preparation and a little advance knowledge on expectations, a lot of these issues could be avoided. Small businesses unable to afford full-time on-staff Designers could successfully build a long-lasting relationship with a freelancer and get the results they need, when they need.

Here are some tips to help you and your small business work with a freelancer and build a successful working relationship together.

Contracts. Although you may think that you’ll only be using them for a small project and won’t need a contract – think again. It’s important that every detail of each project be spelled out in writing in the form of a “Scope of Work”, Proposal or Contract – from what you can expect, to how they will deliver, to who owns the final product and how it can be used by you and them and how much it will ultimately cost. It will save you lots of awkward and angry discussions later on, trust me.

Outsourcing – what about international contractors? Know that each country has their own rules, regulations, and legalities when it comes to working with their citizens. Chances are everything will be just fine working with people from countries outside of the U.S. but keep in mind that if legal disputes happen, you may be on your own. Most contractors are good, honest people who are working to make a living just like you. But there are still issues to consider – first off, trust being the biggest hurdle you may have to overcome. You’ll need to trust that they will get the work done efficiently and within scope and for some, that’s a pretty big leap of faith. There is also the time difference between countries and difficulties with being able to speak via Skype or phone (expect lots of late nights or super early mornings if you like to have phone conferences, and difficulties with language barriers). Then there have been instances of people just disappearing – meaning, they stop answering your calls or emails and they haven’t delivered on the project. There are also design “mills” – companies that promote themselves as if they were a freelance Designer when in fact it’s a larger scale organization paying their workers bottom dollar to pump out generic looking stuff on the cheap. These scenarios aren’t the norm but do happen. You should be aware of these possibilities before jumping in and investing time and money, but know that more often than not, you could have a perfectly good working relationship with an international contractor just the same as a national one.

Choose the Designer and their work. Don’t just view a few pieces a prospect shows you, but really look at their entire body of work. Professional Designers will have at least one online arena for their portfolio (or more!), and each sample will have some form of explanation about what it was used for, how it was created, or the problem it solved for the client. Examine their portfolio for style, consistency, execution. Make sure their vision fits with your brand. Speak with them, get acquainted with their work style. Each Designer has their own comfortable way of working, leading to better productivity and creative outflow. Trying to make a freelance Designer fit around your style of working is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole and you may not like the results. Which leads me to:

Respect the design process. Professional Designers, as I’ve mentioned, each have their own way of working through a project. Some spend more time initially on research, some spend more on concepts, while others spend more on execution. Each Designer knows what works for them and by allowing them the space they require, you’re giving them the tools they need to deliver a final project you will both be happy with.

Keep to the timeline – and hold them to it too. The creative process can at times be a giant black hole sucking in all time and space. Its easy to lose track of time when you’re lost in the thousands of concepts going through your head and the millions of little details each concept gives birth to. So from time to time its not unreasonable to ask for a status update, see where they are, and get them back on track if you see it’s needed. At the same time, don’t let your Designer wait for deliverables from your team. That again will delay progress and lead to frustration and a whole lot of back and forth with the blame game when milestones aren’t met.

Know what you want, and what you don’t want. It’s very frustrating for a Designer to conceptualize when their clients have no idea what direction they want to go in. They can help you nail it down if you’re willing to sit with them and have creative briefings, review designs and listen to professional advice -which I always recommend – but for clients who want or need to have more control over the creative process then having a strong idea of yes or no when it comes to direction is a must. If you are vague about your needs, then you will get designs all over the spectrum and it will only delay progress and make you frustrated in the long run.

Trust your professional. You’ve met them, you’ve reviewed their work, you’ve checked their reviews and/or social media buzz, you were impressed, and you ultimately contracted them for a reason. Now it’s time to trust their advice and trust that they are going to give you the best options for your business. Ultimately what is good and bad in design is just an opinion to the layman. A big mistake most small companies do is running concepts past everyone they personally know to get their opinion. Unfortunately as is human nature, more often than not you will get a negative reaction when asked for feedback. Its something all people do, is a common reaction, and anything can affect their opinion – how they feel at that moment, how they feel about you, how they feel about your Designer, how they feel about the color red… but true Designers don’t just design on a whim or their current emotional state. They are trained professionals who take everything into consideration when designing for a business such as how the piece will be used or viewed, environmental concerns, social commentary, competitiveness, marketability, and so on and so on. They create concepts that will best initiate the strongest positive emotional reaction from your customer base in whatever media they view it, and will design different approaches for different scenarios to elicit the best response. They design pieces that work on many levels to give you the best visual face for your business.

Good enough isn’t good enough. You’re paying a professional to do a job. Make sure you sign off on every single aspect of the project from initial concepts through completion. Take the time to review everything, and make notes and edits if you’re not comfortable or happy with any aspect of it. If not, you’ll be left with something that you’ll just look at, sigh, and say “well, it’s good enough” always. Is that what you really want?

Money. Yes, as professionals, Designers expect to be paid. Freelance doesn’t mean free, and there is the holy trinity of design to consider. It goes like this: Fast, Cheap, Good. You can only choose two at a time. You can get Fast and Cheap but it won’t be Good, you can choose Fast and Good but it won’t be Cheap, you can get Cheap and Good but it won’t be Fast. You get the idea. Don’t expect to get free concepts and endless rounds of changes just to try out different looks. Professionals also do not design on “spec” – meaning, they are not going to give you designs for you to review and if you like them THEN you will contract them. Honestly, you wouldn’t expect your surgeon to operate and then if you feel better afterward you’ll decide if you’ll pay them. Try to negotiate with your Designer but expect to pay their fee if you want their quality. At the same time there are Designers who expect a small fortune for every little thing and that could add up fast. Put everything in writing, get everyone on the same wavelength when it comes to fees and expectations. Again, save your headaches and wallet from future clashes.

Deliverables and ownership rights. There are lots of grey areas when it comes to this subject, and you have to do your research. The basic gist of it is that ultimately Designers own their creations and you are basically purchasing the rights to use them in specific ways and if you want to use them outside of these then you need to pay for the rights for them too. But that doesn’t mean the Designer can resell these same designs to just anyone, (especially when it comes to branding), but each project holds their own certain specifications and must be reviewed individually. Logos should be trademarked and you will own the rights to use it and no one else, but the Designer holds the design rights so you can’t just turn around and sell your logo to someone else to use. Like I said, it’s a grey area and can get confusing. There are attorneys who specialize in copyright law that you could speak to, and organizations like The Graphic Artists Guild are great resources to find out what is expected from all parties and how things can be spelled out in contracts so that everyone is ok with the outcome.

Speaking of deliverables… make sure when a project is finished, you get everything – each element – from your Designer. For stock photography you need to have a stand-alone version and copy of the license for your legal records. For any design, make sure you’re not just getting a jpg of it – you need whatever source format they made it in… you also need to know what fonts were used and what pms or cmyk colors. Know the difference between .jpg, .gif, .png (web formats not suitable for print), .ai or .eps (vector formats that can be enlarged without loss of quality) and .psd or .tiff (raster formats that can be high or low resolution and cannot be enlarged without losing quality). Keep in mind that you need to be able to send your projects to other contractors – like printers. Even if your Designer is handling all your printing, make sure you get everything yourself for your files. You don’t want to have to hire someone else later on to re-create the logo just because you don’t have the original source file, do you?

These are just some of the more basic things to consider when thinking about working with a freelance Designer. Keep in mind however, every Designer is their own person and have their own individual way of working and the same rules don’t apply to everyone all the time. But having this small bit of information in your head when contemplating using a freelancer can save you time, effort, and frustration in the long run.

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