///Five Point Form: Mastering Professionalism as a Freelance Designer

Five Point Form: Mastering Professionalism as a Freelance Designer

One thing many of my young designer friends tend to forget is that being self-taught, fast learning and full of raw talent is no guarantee for steady work. I should know because I consider myself many of those things yet for a while when I began freelancing I couldn’t get clients to save my life.

How did I turn things around? Well for one I had to force myself to adopt a five point system for improving my own work habits as a designer. I explain the five points that I mastered (Fundamentals, Versatility, Humility, Efficiency and Audacity) below:

1) Fundamentals: Learning Your Quick Keys

A great Photoshopper knows how to make amazing work. A better Photoshopper knows how to make amazing work while also knowing the fundamentals. I learned this when applying for work at a creative staffing agency called Aquent. At Aquent you can get some great work, make great contacts and make great money. The problem is Aquent only tends to work with talent that take and pass their assessment test. Does the assessment test measure talent? No, like most tests, it just wants to see you get the job done in a way that proves you know fundamentals, standards and how to work quickly. Aquent is corporate and they can’t risk hiring people who run the risk of embarrassing them. That isn’t to say most of my work for comes from them but being able to count on work from there and other corporate clients when I need it isn’t a bad thing.

Now, I like you, don’t agree with this method. Give me a job, tell me to do it, and I’ll do my best to get it done quickly and to the client’s liking. Well, the world doesn’t seem to agree with me because there are quite a few jobs that are more concerned with your history than your actual ability.

Aside from the fact that you’ll be able to quantify your knowledge to people who have no clue how to quantify the knowledge of a designer, you’ll work faster. You can’t tell me that using a mouse to jump around different layers changing fonts is faster than using quick keys to do the same task if you know them well. It’ll save you time, make you faster and thus increase your output.

2) Versatility: Learning to Work With Standards

I once heard a guy complaining about failing Aquent’s assessment test because they asked him to work only with em measurements. His argument was that it was absurd, that no one uses em because the real standard is pixels. Really? Clagnut makes a brilliant argument:

If the world were an ideal place, we’d all use pixels. But it’s not, we have the broken browser to contend with. IE/Win will not allow readers to resize text that has been sized in pixels. Like it or not, your readers will want to resize text at some point. Perhaps they are short-sighted, doing a presentation, using a ridiculously high resolution laptop or simply have tired eyes. So unless you know (not think) your audience won’t be using IE/Win or will never wish to resize their text then pixels are not yet a viable solution…..Using ems, however, allows all browsers to resize text and also provides pixel-level precision and so they tend to be my unit of choice.

So this is why companies like Aquent err on the side of IE compliant standards. As much as we hate to admit it, most of the world is surfing the web through Internet Explorer on a PC, a fact that isn’t going to change any time soon. The point is most website owners want to reach as wide an audience as possible so for your own sake, you should learn to be versatile. Work with measurements that will translate universally regardless of the platform the end user is viewing them on. It’s a pain, it’s time consuming and annoying to have to rework an entire site or design because you didn’t use universal measurements. If none of this matters to your client then it’s entirely your choice but as long as you can work in whatever they’re asking for you’ll never have to turn down a project for lack of ability in this area.

em, en, px (Pixels), pt (Points), pc (Picas), mm, cm, in, %. Find out what all of them mean, when and why you should use them. Start here and continue here.

3) Humility: Letting the Client Be an Ass

Another thing I had to learn was how to respectfully disagree or, (in some cases, silently disagree) with a client. The person who pays you, or contracts you or hires you will sometimes end up being a real jerk. They want what they want now and you’re the person in their way. In my experience, the more money they make, the less patience they have for your input whether you’re the voice of reason or not.

Hopefully the majority of your clients won’t be like this but when they are, you just have to learn to take it in stride. I once worked for a guy just would not let me leave a job. I tried to tell him I’d be more effective the next day, that we weren’t making any progress, that his expectations were unrealistic but he insisted. Sure, he paid me more for my time, but at some point it’s not about money, it’s abut not wasting time the clients or yours. I would have rather left and come back the next day well-rested to complete the task then stay all night beating my head against the wall. Despite my feelings, I did my part, we didn’t make much progress and after I realized he wasn’t going to listen to me I just tried to keep a positive attitude about the situation. The client realized he wasn’t helping and backed off.

If you let an unreasonable person remain unreasonable long enough they’ll end up in a corner where their choices end up making things worse at which point they’/// either a) blame you anyways or b) appreciate your tenacity for putting up with them. Stressing yourself out will only make the situation that much more unpleasant.

4) Efficiency: Working on a Schedule

I’m a naturally bad procrastinator so the only way I can get a job done is if follow a strict schedule of milestones and goals. To force myself to stick to that schedule I give allow my clients to subscribe to a calendar or rss feed like gCal, 30boxes or Basecamp. This will do two things, it will force you to recognize when you’ve slacked off during a particular period of the project, and it will let your client know when you’ve done so.

Project management tools are a big part of my workflow and have helped me become a more productive individual.

5. Audacity: Presenting Yourself Like You’re Ansel Adams

Another thing I’ve learned is that most people are completely incapable from recognizing real talent from anything else that might be put in front of them. If they aren’t designers, they don’t think like designers and they don’t really know what makes one designer better than another. Thus, they need to be convinced. I’ve seen people who choose horrible color palettes and layouts make upwards of $10K while people making photoshop designs that are nothing short of brilliant make pennies. The average client is waiting on you to tell them that you’re great, that you know your stuff and to prove it to the best of their understanding. This is why presenting yourself with confidence (not arrogance) is key to getting class “A” projects.

Of course once you actually are proficient and you’ve mastered all the previous steps, you’ll more than believe in yourself, you’ll know that you’re the right person for the job and if a potential client can’t recognize it then it’s completely their loss…

2008-04-24T18:29:58+00:00 April 24th, 2008|Photoshop|4 Comments

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  1. Max Railson April 25, 2008 at 6:55 AM

    Efficiency is essential. I do agree. I feel been able to duble my productivity since I strated to use project management software. It’s nice to have everything in one place and neatly organized. basecamp didn’t click with me though. I’m using Wrike

  2. Ron Frank April 25, 2008 at 12:58 PM

    Hi JonGos,
    First off, I’d like to mention that I liked what you had to say about versatility. I definitely agree that being a versatile employee will really help you go further when you’re working in the world of freelance — hopping from client to client and project to project.

    Regarding what you’ve said about our skill assessments, I would just like to clarify a few points. First off, we don’t work only with people who “pass” or do well on our skill assessments. There are many roles for which we represent talent that may not require expertise in software. Certainly at the c-level positions but also in some of the Art Director or Creative Director positions. Some markets, some clients, care more about other skills for those roles than someone’s proficiency in InDesign, for example. Also, if someone only does okay on an assessment, there may very well be clients who need someone to come in and do some not-so-complex work on a website or magazine layout. The company may have no need for a high-end developer, nor might they have the budget for someone like that.

    When you say the assessment does not measure “talent,” I hope you are referring to design skills and not software skills. Certainly, we do not assess design skills with tests — while there are some objective measures for that (like ROI) — it can really become subjective and that would not be fair to the talent especially. We prefer to review a talent’s design work through her portfolio pieces.

    As for measuring software skills, most people seem to think we do an awfully good job at that. (Though we are always trying to improve.) One thing we’ve mastered on that front is the fact that our assessments require the talent to work in the actual software — it’s not multiple choice. This actually goes a long way towards measuring someone’s skills in Dreamweaver or Photoshop. Someone might be able to tell me that using Color Range or Extract are good ways to silhouette a furry animal from it’s background, but having them actually use the tool, or combination of tools, is so much more informative.

    Lastly, I’d like to clarify that the impetus for our assessments is making the best match between a talent and a client. It is not at all that we are “corporate” and concerned with being “embarrassed.” We simply want to find the best paying and most interesting jobs we can for our talent. And we want the companies to which we send our talent to have a wonderful experience, meet their deadline, and feel they paid a fair price. To do this, along with the portfolio review, reference checking, and one-on-one interview, we develop assessments in order to see how well talent know the software they say they know. Without that major variable, how could we know which talent to send out on a job requiring a Photoshopper who knows spot-colors vs. another one who knows collaging techniques?

    Just because someone’s resume says they’re an expert in Photoshop, I’m sure you’ll agree, that doesn’t mean they really are one. And that’s not because they trying to lie. It’s often because so many people simply don’t know what they don’t know. If I didn’t know as much as I do about Photoshop, I might think that just because I’ve been using it since 1990 that I’m an expert in it. But I do know what I don’t know — and that’s about 97% of the program. So I’d never say I’m an expert. But a lot of people don’t know what they don’t know and that causes a lot of confusion.

    And you can’t tell someone’s software skills from his portfolio either. I’ve seen plenty of amazing designers use InDesign or QuarkXPress (or PageMaker) to create documents that are disastrous to edit later on. With multiple tabs in a row or spaces to get text to align, or 10s of text frames when only one or two are needed. Yet the portfolio looks wonderful.

    So we develop hands-on skill assessments. And we’ve been improving them since we started when we were MacTemps and only had offices in about eight cities. We were small back then, but realized that multiple choice testing was not good enough. But like I said earlier, we are always trying to improve the way we do things here at Aquent and if you, or other readers of this blog, have suggestions, I’m all ears and would truly love to hear some feedback.

    Ron Frank
    Skill Assessment Developer

  3. JonGos April 25, 2008 at 1:50 PM

    @Max Wrike, looks very interesting indeed but I’ll stick to Basecamp.

    @Ron Frank, Thanks for joining the discussion! Hopefully you realize I wasn’t attacking Aquent, I enjoy working with your company. I think your tests are fair and well rounded but I know people who are great at what they do, yet don’t do so well when tested. Thats not exactly Aquent’s fault at all. My point was that young freelancers need to prepare themselves for these scenarios…where they should be able to fall back on basic skills to get them by in structured environments where they can’t Google all the answers.

  4. Ron Frank April 25, 2008 at 2:00 PM

    Thanks JonGos. I didn’t think you were attacking Aquent, but I did want to clarify a few things. I too know people who don’t test well and hopefully we can accommodate them and work around that.

    And I totally agree with you about the need for basic skills. It’s crucial and will take people much further than they could go without them.

    Keep up the great blogging!

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