What I’ve learned so far as a freelance designer/engineer/maker: Part 1

The sign on the door

This is the first in a series of essays where I’ll try to look at some of the realities of working freelance in this field; I hope these will be interesting and possibly useful to others contemplating this kind of work. Please note, these are only my own musings and ramblings, written mostly on train journeys across North London, and I might look back on them with embarrassment and disagreement.

At the moment, I’m a freelance designer/engineer/maker. What that means is hard to define. There are no obvious boundaries: I’ve said ‘Yes’ to almost every project, mostly out of necessity but partly out of trying to determine what I’m any good at. In practice that means that in the last year-and-a-bit I’ve worked on some diverse stuff, from developing ultra-lightweight bikes to designing novelty packaging, from researching multinationals’ brand architectures to doing toothed belt calculations for gearboxes. I’ve tested radio-controlled things in the Thames looking across at Windsor Castle, and grappled with CSS while sitting in an abandoned factory in Dalston. I’ve hand-lettered sandwich shop menu blackboards and sprayed T-shirts with the logo of a new telemetry spin-out company. There’s mechanical engineering in there, some graphics, some electronics, prototype building, even copywriting.

What it’s shown me is that a jack-of-all-trades is not necessarily master of none, but unlikely to be any more than master of some, few in fact. And the main reasons for that — so far as I can tell — are time and money.

Time

If every project is different, you pretty much have to start by spending time simply finding out what you’re doing, what the precedents are in that field, what important things you need to know, even what equipment you’ll need to do the job properly. Some clients tend to assume that anyone ‘technical’ can fix (or indeed design) absolutely anything involving engineering materials, electronics, computers, etc, and while to some extent I don’t think that’s untrue, given experience, it’s probably not the best policy always to say ‘I’ll give it a go’. But you do need to test your limits before you can know them.

Back to the point: if you have to spend a significant amount of time on each project learning about the field, each project is going to take you longer than it would for someone who already knows what’s what. And you will make mistakes, of course.

Money

What the above implies is that, as it’s going to take you longer, you’re going to have to work out how to charge. Should the client pay for your learning process? How fair is that?

One point of view would say that no, you’ve created an (intangible) asset for yourself, and the client should only pay for your time once you know what you’re doing. The other point of view says that acquisition of knowledge is a prerequisite of being able to deliver what the client wants. Just as you charge for the acquisition of materials, so should you charge for the acquisition of knowledge. I think the answer probably lies somewhere in between, but it’s difficult for a freelance person — reliant on a sporadic income anyway — to ‘write off’ days as ‘knowledge acquisition’. If you have zero income (and maybe some expenditure) for those days, then you’re going to have to budget for that somehow, and that’s something that’s difficult to plan.

A second major point regarding money is that, well, the client wants to spend as little as possible. Why has he/she/it employed you, a freelance individual with (probably) few facilities other than your brain and your hands, rather than a ‘proper’ design consultancy? Unless the client genuinely thinks you are wonderful, or are likely to come up with stunning insights or innovation which someone else wouldn’t, the reason is probably because you’re cheap, or the client thinks you’ll be cheap (‘Because you’re young, and have lower overheads, right?’).

Wexelblat’s Scheduling Algorithm

But — the client also wants you to be good. So you have to be good and cheap. And on a smaller budget, and with less expertise and experience to call on than an established consultancy. How are you going to do it?

When I was working for a couple of weeks at a well-known design consultancy in London, two experienced freelance designers, David Baird and Simon May were also working on (more important aspects of) the same project. One morning, one of them (I can’t remember if it was David or Simon) drew out on his sketchpad, this diagram…

Wexelblat's scheduling algorithm: fast, cheap, good: choose two

…and said ‘You can have 2 out of 3. It’s either good and fast (and not cheap), good and cheap (and not fast) or fast and cheap (and not good). That’s what I try to tell clients.’

This stuck with me at the back of my mind; I’ve since found out it’s (sometimes) attributed as Wexelblat’s Scheduling Algorithm (presumably after Richard Wexelblat?), though also apparently an ‘old designer’s adage’ (Jason Kottke) and an ‘old Hollywood maxim‘. The impossible triangle used to illustrate it here is cleverer than what I’ve drawn above, but the principle is the same. (As with so many principles and maxims popularised through software development, it also seems to apply very well to design and physical product development.)

As we’ve seen, the client wants a project to be good and cheap. Hence, if Wexelblat is true, it’ll be slow, even if some of that slowness is accounted for by knowledge acquisition, and mistakes. But if you’re charging for that time, you’re incurring costs in the process, which tends to counter the ‘cheap’ aspect of the project. So, there’s an inherent difficulty with applying Wexelblat to jobs with a significant learning curve. If your costs are proportional to the time you spend, you can’t be cheap without also being fast, and bad (since you possibly don’t even know what you’re doing). For the inexperienced, cheap and fast and bad is possible, but good implies not fast and not so cheap unless — as we considered earlier — you’re willing/able to write off your learning time.

Reality

If the above sounds negative, I don’t mean it to. It’s exciting working on new things and building up expertise, but when clients’ primary reason for choosing you in the first place may be cheapness, you’re going to have something of a difficult compromise and balancing act on your hands, just in terms of scheduling your work and budget, let alone the specific challenges of the project in question. It might mean that your definition of ‘1 day’s work’ slowly seeps into becoming ‘7.30 am to 2 am’ just in order to get everything done in the same number of days you promised, and for the same cost. That’s fun for a while, but gets pretty tiring for those around you even before you get fed up.

An implication of all that is that to be competing on price alone can be a stressful game, especially when having to do so simply to get enough work means that you have a lot of learning to do for every project. It’s something of a positive feedback loop, a vicious circle. But, if you can build up enough experience in a particular field, and are able to use knowledge acquired (or problems solved) on a previous project, you have the start of something more edifying. You may still be able to compete on price, but you can now be cheap, faster and better, since you know what you’re doing. And, slowly, gradually, you might even be able to specialise in a certain field, no longer jack-of-all-trades, but actually mastering something.

18 Comments

  1. Hi Dan,

    I’m in very much the same boat. I started my design company about a year ago, and the things you’ve listed are pretty much spot on.

    What you probably haven’t mentioned is that to go with the challenges of being a designer and engineer, you (and I) are now also business owners, and that comes with a whole new ball of challenges.

    When working for someone else it was easy to excel at the job because there were fewer balls being juggled – basically you can focus on getting the job done. Now that we’re business owners, it is more a matter of being Chief Accountant, Chief Engineer, Chief of Sales, Chief Secretary, Chief Etc. etc. etc. (well, you get the point), AND with all of those roles there is a whole new learning curve too (the sales is the one that constantly challenges me).

    This leads to the whole issue of doing the work, vs. growing the business, and there is a constant tension between the two. I know that I’m constantly asking myself, “Is this moving me in the direction that I want to go?” It is a challenging question, and one that gets harder to answer the more pressure there is from the cash flow…..

    What I think, is that often as small business owners, we tend to neglect our Network, especially growing our Network. (for more limiters read a really good article on http://www.theforumsa.co.za, about the Big 5 Business Limiters, http://www.theforumsa.co.za/index.php?page=5-biz-limiters).

    Here is why I think the network can play a huge role….

    As you’ve said, we tend to be jack-of-all trades, and a master of some – now for me that is a key issue when deciding HOW I go about approaching a project. I’ve got a reasonable idea of where my strengths lie, so I try to see how I can play things to my strengths. The other side of that is making sure that I know other people, with other strengths, and utilise those strengths to the best of my abilities.

    My experience is that we as engineers like to do everything ourselves (I know I sway that way), even though that is often a bit inefficient. Again, there is always this tension – where is the balance between doing it myself, and getting someone else to?

    I think I’ve rambled on a bit too much… This blog is a great way of building strong relationships (the quality is excellent). I’m also blogging (http://blog.engineersimplicity.com), and I’m part of a small business owners forum (http://www.theforumsa.co.za).

    The internet is a great way to build our network, and due to the nature of engineering, there is so much that can be achieved without ever even seeing each other face-to-face – it is just a question of whether we are able to leverage what we have.

    Rgds, duncan

  2. Dan

    Thanks Duncan, much appreciated. Your points about taking on so many roles ring very true, and having to do all that stuff (and learn how to do it first) certainly detracts from the amount of time (and enthusiasm) available for actual design work. Hopefully I’ll look at some of the issues around ‘selling yourself’ in a later post.

    Your blog’s very interesting – I think the ‘engineers solve problems‘ definition is a great way of explaining what you can do (again, it leaves us constantly open to pushing the boundaries of our expertise!).

    My experience is that we as engineers like to do everything ourselves (I know I sway that way), even though that is often a bit inefficient. Again, there is always this tension – where is the balance between doing it myself, and getting someone else to?

    This also strongly hits home. I’m pretty bad about trying to do everything myself, and I know there are occasions when I really should have got someone else involved. But then it’s very difficult to tell some clients that you need to get someone else involved; thinking of one particular example where I know I was hired for cheapness, I could almost see the alarm in the client’s eyes when I said “I’ll need to get someone else to do these aspects of the project.” Developing a network should be very important, as you say, and perhaps ideally one where everyone can look out for each other and direct appropriate jobs to the person with the best skills.

    (P.S. apologies for the delay in your comment appearing – the spam filter didn’t like the multiple URLs in the post, and your comments came one after the other… I’ve removed the duplicate stuff!)

  3. Excellent read, and this is crucially relevant to me. Freelance is possibly the only place where one tends to “bite more than one can chew” and adding a little perspective generally helps.

  4. Sorry about those multiple comments! There was just some internal php error message being displayed, which confused the issue.

    Thanks for the compliment on the blog 😉

  5. Moz

    One variable you haven’t mentioned is risk – when choosing fast/good/cheap you’re holding a few other things constant, one of which is risk. By choosing a young, inexperienced designer your clients are choosing higher risk as a tradeoff for the chance of getting a fast, cheaper, better design. Of course, much of the time they will get a slower, more expensive and worse design, but that is their choice, not yours. That’s not to excuse you doing bad work, but it does to some extent license you to take somewhat risky shortcuts.

  6. Dan

    Thanks Moz and Aayush for the comments. Risk is certainly something else to take into account – I’ll have some thoughts on that, and what clients’ expectations might be, in one of the later parts in this series of posts.

    Allied to risk in many cases also might be the equipment/facilities available: there are things which will take me an age to make by hand, badly, which could be made in a few minutes on a CNC mill, say, saving time, effort and the risk of the prototype not working optimally. But unless you know someone with the equipment, who is willing/able to charge low rates, this can be a major hurdle.

  7. Pingback: designswarm thoughts » Blog Archive » links for 2007-03-12

  8. Pingback: What I’ve learned so far as a freelance designer/engineer/maker: Part 2 at fulminate // Architectures of Control

  9. Hello Dan,

    I am a custom clothier who frequently is asked to help with designs for which there is no pattern. I love that about my business, and because of that, I am an engineer of sorts and I do well at what I do.

    Thanks so much for the triangle illustration — dead on. And as a fellow perfectionist, I plunge headlong into the learning curve. I think of it as a tool I acquire each time I take on something new. I may never use it again, but I would not charge anyone for that tool any more than I would expect them to pay for any of the physical tools I have in my shop.

    Recently I was approached by a client who wants a prototype made up for a garment she plans to have patented. The design is a welcome challenge, but establishing my price has been difficult.

    Thoughts of royalties come and go, but royalties will only happen if my client is successful in acquiring her patent, and then later with her marketing. Not appealing, either, from the standpoint that receipt of royalties would be ongoing, rather than a one-time entry in the books.

    This garment could easily sell for $250 if all goes well, and I am wondering if I should make that a one-time charge for the prototype and close the file. My client has also mentioned that she may want me to reproduce these once she receives her patent.

    I’ve printed out some material from your site and plan to study before I go any further with this project, however I am wondering if you know of anything that will help in my “engineering” situation?

    Thanks so much, Dan –

    Nancy

  10. Dan

    Hi Nancy,

    Apologies for the delay in replying. I think the situation probably comes down to what level of royalties you could get from the garment sales. How long would it be / how many would have to sell before you could get back the amount you would otherwise charge as a one-off fee?

    Royalties are a sore issue for many freelancers (and inventors, too – see also this article I wrote for InventorResource), since companies/clients will often offer royalties as a way of reducing the up-front amount they pay. This only makes sense for the freelancer if the chances of the product succeeding are high; if they’re not, then it’s probably best to charge the fee upfront and decline the royalty deal.

    I’ve met two people who’ve made significant money from royalties on products they’ve designed for others. Both have made much more than they would have by doing all the work for a flat fee upfront. But then I also know of a number of others whose royalty income on products they designed is very low, and who would have been much happier to have got a lump sum for their work.

    Maybe ask your question of the guys at Freelance Switch – a great website, and there may well be other readers who’ve had a similar situation to yours and can offer better advice!

    Best wishes

    Dan

  11. li

    Hello Dan and all freelance designer:
    Dont think too nagative for being an freelance designer, ur customers will understand you.

    Why not come to our website http://www.peopleperhour.com, its the online marketplace for freelance designer, you will find more customers there! Register now for free and bid for your project!

    Happy Bidding!!

  12. li

    Hello Dan and all freelance designer:
    Dont think too nagative for being an freelance designer, ur customers will understand you.

    Why not come to our website http://www.peopleperhour.com, its the online marketplace for freelance designer, you will find more customers there! Register now for free and bid for your project!

    Happy Bidding!!

  13. li

    Hello Dan and all freelance designer:
    Dont think too nagative for being an freelance designer, ur customers will understand you.

    Why not come to our website http://www.peopleperhour.com, its the online marketplace for freelance designer, you will find more customers there! Register now for free and bid for your project!

    Happy Bidding!!

  14. li

    sorry i didnt mean to spam ur website, just accidentally click submit three times which i found i couldn’t delete 2 of them now…..So sorry
    have a nice day

  15. li

    sorry i didnt mean to spam your blog, just accidentally click your website three times, and found i cant delete them right now…
    sorry and have a nice day

  16. Mark

    Good Debate Topic, well done for starting it off. One standpoint would be that the client really needs a designer and should pay per hour for however long it takes to complete the job working 9 to 5 within the working time directive so not as to put either the designer or others at risk of accident. Clients need designers, fact, otherwise they would walk into a store or factory and buy what the require off the shelf. Designers are a little like bespoke tailors, we can cut, sew, mend and be a little inventive to the clients wishes, which may alter just like the waistline!.

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