All posts filed under “Freelance

Freelancing Part 3: The Ben Wilson Interview

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series I looked at some aspects of what it’s like being a freelance designer / engineer / maker, and some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Lots of freelancers have blogs, and sites such as Freelance Switch and Sologig News draw together some very interesting (and diverse) people and advice. I did an interview for Sologig News a few months ago.

One of the things that I’m often asked, mainly by design students intrigued by the idea of working for themselves once they graduate, is just how to go about doing it: how to raise your profile, and find the right projects to take on. Having really only been marginally successful in this area, I decided to interview Ben Wilson, with whom I’ve worked on a couple of projects, and who’s achieved a great deal working for himself in this field. Ben’s blog, along with his brothers, is a great photostream-style travelogue of interesting products, vehicles, graphic design, places and influences.

Tilting Trike by Ben WilsonDownlow Lowrider by Ben Wilson
Left: The Tilting Trike in arm-propelled mode. Right: The Downlow Lowrider
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Getting around

The TAXI Design network has syndicated* my post on the Nicostopper for its very interesting ‘The Driver Speaks’ strand of articles – perhaps not the most obvious choice of articles to choose, but I suppose it was relatively short and to-the-point compared with much on this blog. I should probably consider actually submitting some articles to TAXI directly rather than being entirely passive about it all.

Jeremy Schnitker of SoloGig News has also interviewed me about freelance work – bless him, he makes me sound a lot more successful than I really am! SoloGig News is a great site with some fascinating interviews and other information for independent practitioners – as described on the site, “news you can use for the ever-growing freelance set.”

Jordans, Bucks, April 2007

A note about the future

For the last couple of months, alongside some hectic work for clients, I’ve been putting together a proposal for postgraduate (i.e. PhD) research which involves both environmentally sensitive design and architectures of control. Nothing is certain at this stage but as soon as there’s something to report, I will of course blog the details. This could be a very exciting direction in which to head; there may be, indeed, a major road ahead.

*Note that the blockquotes in the original post have been removed without being replaced by any other formatting, so some of the quotes appear as if they’re part of my prose. Also, I’m not Steffen Jahn (if only I were…), nor in fact, Dan Stockton, but those are minor quibbles!

What I’ve learned so far as a freelance designer/engineer/maker: Part 2

Office and workshop door plaques

In part 1 of ‘What I’ve learned so far…’ I looked mostly at being a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ and the idea of ‘Wexelblat’s scheduling algorithm’ (or the ‘good, fast, cheap: pick two’ theory) as it applies to a young freelancer starting out. There were some very insightful comments which are also well worth reading.

Before starting on Part 2, I feel I should apologise for the relative dearth of posts recently. This seems to be a recurring pattern, although this time it’s actually resulting in some people unsubscribing in Bloglines… The reason is primarily that I’ve had a series of projects which have taken a lot out of me, time-, sanity- and confidence-wise. I can’t really explain too much at this point, but referring to Client Breeds 6, 7, 8 and 11 as explained at the excellent FreelanceSwitch should give some hints! Suffice to say, I hope never to make the same series of mistakes again. A later part of this series will be my own take on the ‘Client Breeds’ idea and managing different clients’ expectations, but for the moment, on with Part 2:

The Portfolio Dip

When you’re at university, college, or working on design in your spare time, the rate at which you add new work to your portfolio can be equal to the rate you do the work. If you do three projects in the final year of your degree, you can add three projects. But when you start doing ‘real’ projects for companies, they’re likely to be confidential, at least until they reach production (if they even go this far), so you can’t show anyone. This applies, of course, to designers working full-time for a company as well as freelancers, but is more importnat for freelancers. (Incidentally, a friend of mine whom I’d classify as an extremely successful freelancer, suggests that only 1 out 10 potential products developed for clients are ever likely to reach mass production, and he makes that clear to the clients as he goes, which is something I’ve been far too reticent about doing.)

Back to the point: the confidentiality requirements mean that – superficially at least – your portfolio starts to look a bit stale (e.g. this). The rate of new work added drops sharply, and this can certainly have an effect on your own confidence quite apart from – we might expect – not being so persuasive to potential clients. (If you’re also, sensibly, weeding out some of the older projects of which you’re not quite so proud – too studenty, too weak – then as well as the size of the portfolio decreasing, the period it covers may also decrease to a narrow focus around, say, the final two years of your degree. And the rate of work added actually goes negative.) Roughly, you might end up with something like this:

The Portfolio Dip

If the most recent stuff you can show them is a student project, or even a speculative competition entry hacked together in your spare time (if any), then they may well treat you like a student or a speculative chancer rather than a professional designer. What they expect to pay you could also be in accordance with this.

Equally, even if the early freelance jobs you take on do reach production quickly, or can be shown without a confidentiality worry, they’re not necessarily going to be especially impressive. For example, I’m grateful for getting the job of making new signage (below) for a local sandwich shop, to the client’s design, but putting this into a portfolio primarily focusing on more technically innovative work may well dilute its appeal to certain prospective clients.

Nibbles signage, Datchet, BucksNibbles signage, Datchet, Bucks

All of the above reinforces something very important. Industrial experience during a degree – ideally a summer internship or an actual sandwich year placement – can be extremely valuable, especially if some of what you worked on has reached production by the time you graduate or start your freelance career. In effect, this work can help ‘plug’ the portfolio gap, with real-life, commercially viable products which may even be familiar to potential clients already. While choosing a sandwich course makes your degree longer – and that year’s wages may be very low – with the right choice of company and some hard work, you may have an asset which makes your portfolio work stand out above others’.

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.


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.


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.


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.