This is something I wondered myself! Early in my career, I thought freelancing might better suit my lifestyle goals, so I switched a few times between working full-time and experimenting with freelance work.
As I’ve met designers over the years, my general observation is pretty simple: Design careers can take all sorts of paths. We all have different experiences, and freelancing is a viable path, depending on your goals.
First, I would ask myself: What do I want to learn? What do I think I want to do in the future? The answers to these questions may change over time, but what we think now helps guide our decisions.
Next, ask: What experiences will I be getting if I go down this path, and what experiences will I be missing out on? Will these experiences align to what I want to learn or do in the future?
Below are learning experiences I considered when switching between freelance and full-time. It’s not an exhaustive list, so I encourage you to add what matters most to you.
If you freelance, you’d get experience in:
Managing a small business. Being a freelancer isn’t just practicing design on your own terms; you have to learn how to run a business. You’ll need to market and sell your work to clients. Then you’ll have to learn how to work with clients, building relationships and negotiating contracts, setting clear agreements on deliverables and revisions. You’ll need to manage the financial end:, fairly pricing your work, invoicing your clients, following up on payments, and managing quarterly taxes.
More freedom to choose what you want to specialize in. As a freelancer you have more freedom to laser focus on a smaller design skillset, whether it be in graphic design, illustration, or UX and establish yourself as an expert in a specific field. As a full-time designer you’re less likely to be afforded the option of focusing very deeply in just one and be expected to master a wider range of skills.
Exposure to a wider breadth of industries through various gigs. You can explore far more than working for a company on one product in one industry, from healthcare to enterprise to entertainment and more.
Defining your own work environment and schedule. You’d have more flexibility setting your own hours, and be responsible for establishing timelines for projects, meetings, and check-ins with clients. This can be great to break out of the confines of a 9-to-5.
If you take a full-time job, you’d get experience in:
Working in a larger team of designers. You can learn a lot early in your career from working with peers and especially under the mentorship and support of a manager and more experienced designers.
Using and contributing to an established design system. You can grow your systems thinking by deeply understanding a large design system and even contributing new components or edits.
Working closely with cross-functional partners. Developing longer working relationships with partners like engineers, product managers, sales reps, and customer service reps can broaden your understanding of more than design and build your stakeholder management skills – not to mention help you build a network of people who could become clients later. This is important for individual work and especially if you’re hoping to go into management one day.
Seeing projects through release and iterating. In freelancing, you often don’t see the project to the end – you are only engaging with a client for a specific task and period of time. As a full-time designer, you get to see designs through development to release, and learn from customer feedback to iterate, redesign, and release improvements.
More time spent designing. With freelancing, a portion of your mental energy and work hours will be spent on things like finding steady clients and covering your own benefits like health insurance, rather than actual project work. Full-time work lets you focus more on learning design skills without worrying about inconsistent income.
You don’t necessarily have to choose!
The choice doesn’t have to be between one or the other. Between 100% freelancing and 100% in-house work, there’s a whole gradient of opportunities for designers. For example, if you want:
- The benefits of being on a team and exposure to more variety: You could work at an agency, where you work with others but get to switch more often between clients.
- Both independence and stability: You could consider doing longer-term contracting work at established companies, rather than short/small gigs. You get the feeling of being in-house, but retain your independence.
- More than what your day job can offer: There may be activities and opportunities beyond your main job where you can get those experiences.
Lastly, this is also a great exercise to try when you’ve been doing the same thing for a while. Reevaluate at a regular cadence: Am I still learning or getting the experience that I want? There may be valuable learnings you’re missing out on, and new paths to take to get them.
The best way to learn is to do, so you may not know exactly what works best for you until you try something. But I hope that some of the ways I thought about this question in my own career will help you as you consider your next steps in your career!
Caroline Shen is a Senior Product Designer at Slack. When she’s not doing that, she’s out hiking, singing, painting, or dancing at a concert in town.