I am a Graphic Designer working in the Video Games Industry. I am focused on User Interface, Motion Graphics and Concept Development. Although I had the chance to work in different departments through my career, one factor remained the same: I always worked inside a company… until recently.
Fig. 1 Electronic Arts (2015) Need for Speed.
GHOST EA, my previous studio, was one of my first clients and I was fortunate to finish Need for Speed with them. Check out the project here.
Last year I decided to go independent and today I want to share with you my experience as a freelancer. Before I start I just want to comment that this is not a guide of how to become a freelancer, I am still learning that myself, but rather the experience of someone that used to work in a studio environment and very recently became an independent contractor.
Freelance vs Permanent
Working independently vs working inside a studio has its own advantages and disadvantages. I don’t think one is better than the other. Working for a studio offers a steady paycheque every month and the satisfaction of being part of a bigger project; but at the same time you can only work on projects that the studio allows you to, which makes you dependent.
On the other hand, working freelance gives you a lot more freedom because you are the master of your own time and you can work on whatever you want (for the most part) but since you are dependent on yourself, it is up to you to find your next project. This means that income can fluctuate and you don’t know what job you might be coming next.
Most of us hate doing legal paperwork, artists probably hate it even more, but this is one of the most important things to be familiar with when working independent. It’s important to find out what are the legal requirements to run your business in the country you live in and also how to declare tax. I had a lot of help from my family with this and I even hired an accountant. Being legal is key.
Then there is the issue with contracts. You need them, there is no other way to put it. You have to do your research and find out what are contracts, how are they written and what they mean. You have to be your own legal department, unfortunately. Contracts are not only written to protect your clients but also to protect you, sometimes even from yourself. Imagine that your computer burns down or your laptop gets stolen; who is going to pay for the equipment? Nevermind the equipment, who is going to pay for the sensitive information that was stolen? Your client is not going to be happy about that. So before any of this happens make sure you have insurance. Better to be safe than sorry.
I learned that it’s important to carefully manage your working schedule, no one else is going to do it for you. I was so excited on having my time for myself that I took too many projects at the same time and as a result I was working all day with no time to relax. I was burned after three months and my motivation was floored. I was very fortunate to have jobs coming my way but if I was going to deliver good quality I had to work normal hours. Find out how many hours you want to work every day and stick to that. Don’t take more work than you are capable of handling. This means that you will have to find out how much time each job will take. It’s not easy to break down your work into hours but it’s the only way to plan your time. Which brings us to the next point: payment.
Don’t take more work than you can handle. If you do, the quality of your work will suffer and so will you.
Fig. 2 Electronic Arts (2015) Need for Speed – Map.
Having a clear brief agreement with your client is essential in order to provide exact working hours and budget. This realistic 16x16K map was carefully planned and delivered on time.
I understand that it’s difficult to put a time-price-tag on creativity, but it’s not impossible either. Every job that comes through the door needs to be broken down into small chunks, as small as possible, and assign hours to each one of them. I think this is the easiest way to find out how long a job will take and how much will it cost. I have a specific price range for how much I want to earn (depending on the job and the client) and once I know the hours it’s easy to provide the client with a price for the entire job. The big risk here of course is that there is an error gap: if something takes longer than expected you still get payed the same. I learned that you get better at this with time.
One misconception about freelancers that I had is that they make more money. This is not exactly accurate. As a freelance artist I do make more money by the hour but considering all the expenses I have now (which I didn’t used to have when working in a studio) it’s not that much more. Additionally, as a freelancer you work shorter periods of time with wide gaps of inactivity, so you need to think of the months that you will not be working as well. In the end, I believe you end up making more or less the same.
At the beginning I was working from home: big mistake. Working from home is not a good idea. Distractions are a minor problem, the big issue for me was that work was always present in my life. I felt like I never left the office, ever, it was with me even on the weekends. There is a certain psychological toll from having the office at home that it’s hard to explain, but it’s not good. And it’s not good on your family either. So getting an office space was the right choice for me. Now, my personal time is separated from my professional one and I even get more fresh air. Plus, I get to interact with more people through the day since I rent a desk in a shared office space. So don’t underestimate the importance of a dedicated office space.
Don’t underestimate the importance of separating your personal life from work, even if you can work from home.
Fig. 3 Carlos Villarreal Kwasek (2015) Office.
Networking and marketing your business is important to get new clients but I have to confess that I still don’t know how to attract new clients. When I find out I’ll let you know. But right now it feels like pure luck. So far, I have been fortunate to get jobs through my existing network circle: ex-colleagues, friends, past jobs, LinkedIn etc. I believe this is the most challenging part of the business and I am learning it as I am writing this today, but what I can say is that having many years of experience in the industry and having worked on good projects in the past certainly doesn’t hurt when looking for the next job. For that I feel lucky.
Working independent and working for a studio are both great experiences. I am fortunate to be able to try both. With the flexibility I have as a freelancer I can work on some personal projects. I do miss the studio vibe and I’m sure I will be working inside one in the future. But right now being a freelancer is really fun.
Fig. 4 Carlos Villarreal Kwasek (2016) The Winged Madonna of Quito.
Being independent allows me to work on personal projects. This year I am working on an interactive web-comic.
I hope that by sharing my experience I have contributed to your own practice in some way and if you are a freelancer or thinking on becoming one, feel free to join the discussion.