Saturday, July 22, 2006

Confessions of a Freelancer

(Please Note: I wrote this article for the Western Art Directors of California (WADC) quite awhile back. But, it's funny because a lot of what I wrote here still rings true. For those who don't know me, I've worked 20-plus years as an advertising copywriter, and the last 15 years in a freelance capacity.)

They asked me to write an article about freelancing. Well, it used to be called freelancing, back in the 80’s. Now it’s called contracting. Which, in a way, shows how much things have changed.

Freelancing conjures up visuals of flip-flops and Vaurnets, back in the days when you needed a typesetter. Things were much more mellow back then. You could get away with playing the distant, quirky, creative type. It was okay if you dressed casual, and slept in your car the night before. I told my parents back home that I had hit it big in the mid-80’s and was living at the Fairmont. Actually, I was living in the back seat of a 1968 Fairmount. In the 80’s, you could be late for a brainstorming session and it was no big deal. If you couldn’t make it, you’d call and say you were somewhere you weren’t, and they couldn’t catch ya because they didn’t have Star #69 or Caller I.D. back then.

It was a time of super- soft deadlines, vague budgets, open purchase orders with “not to exceed” prices, working with totally laid-back clients who said “cool” a lot. All our ideas were brilliant. All of our designs fine art. Boy, were we full of it, or what?

Contracting is the accepted term of the 90’s , and it’s much more formal. It connotes people in suits, shaking hands a lot, videoconferencing, tons of memos and e-mails and painfully long downloads. Six people needing to approve a single data sheet design, one at each corner of the globe. Telecommuting from Starbucks with two cellulars, a laptop, a Newton, a beeper, and enough pepper spray to quell a San Quentin prison riot.

Contracting has a more ominous sound now, too. You are under contract, so you better meet the deadline and do a good job or you and your project, and possibly your fee, will be whacked, downsized or eliminated altogether. Heaven forbid your contact decides to take three months “mental health leave”. Yes, it’s more complicated being a freelancer now, there’s more competition, but it still beats the mourning commute and a boss that makes Rasputin look endearing.

Clues to Working With Artistic Types

Even though I am a copywriter and not a graphic designer, I think I have a few interesting things to share about designers that I’ve worked with, most of them contractors like myself. Most of the time, I’ve enjoyed the relationships that I’ve established with artists of all kinds. I wish I could say the same about those people on the client side. Some of them have been pure delights. Some have not, and have surely helped to age me well past my 40 years. I have enough gray in my hair to put Grecian Formula on the NASDAQ, most of it attributable to problem clients.

There are great clients or horrible clients. If you don’t get Mr. Rogers, you get Attila the Hun. There doesn’t seem to be any in between. And that’s if there’s only one client to deal with on a job, which nowadays is rare. With a two-headed client, it’s even worse. Dr. Jekyll likes your work, but why is Mr. Hyde vomiting? And heaven forbid it’s a team effort, in which case you get to deal with more personalities than Sybil.

Another thing I can’t stand is when clients adopt these stringent requirements when they are looking for a contractor to work on a particular project. “We’re looking for a designer who has experience doing annual reports for small porcelain thimble manufacturers in the Midwest. They must also know Framemaker, Pagemaker, Excel, C++, Cobol and SQL. It would also help if the person likes Viagra jokes and knows the words to “Muskrat Love”.”

These people will search and search for the right candidate, conducting interviews and viewing portfolios, making everybody jump around like circus chimps, hopping dutifully through these ridiculous hoops they’ve concocted. All the while knowing that they’ll eventually end up giving the job to somebody’s son who is taking art classes at De Anza and couldn’t operate an etch a sketch with both hands. One time a big-time creative director told me that he didn’t think I was qualified to do an ad for a homebuilder because I had never personally bought a new home. I told him I’d never been pregnant either, but that I did one helluva brochure for Planned Parenthood.

Rule #1: Let Artists Create

I learned something long ago about working with artists, and that is don’t tell them what to do. The less direction the better. Let them do their job. Why is it that everybody thinks he or she is a designer? I mean, when your plumber gets under your sink, do you get down there to advise, you and him, the sweat and Drain-O and acres of butt-crack? Of course not.

When Michaelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, did they say, “Don’t you think that cherub there should be smiling more?” Did they tell Warhol to junk the soup can and go with a milk carton? Mr. Van Gogh, we love the self-portrait. We’d just like you to add one ear, that’s all. You went to school, studied real hard to become a graphic designer, you’ve done a lot of incredible work and everyone really, really likes you. You’ve won all kinds of awards, you’ve earned respect in the industry and from your peers. So, why shouldn’t it bug you just a little when some receptionist who slept with the right CEO and is now the marcom manager tells you how to layout a brochure? We’ve all been there.

It Takes All Kinds

Many of the designers I have worked with seem to find a niche and stick with it. You see their work, do projects with them, and after awhile, you realize all of their stuff looks a lot alike.

I have been able to categorize several types over the years. First, you have the hypoglemics. They just have to bleed everything off the page. If it’s still breathing, let it bleed. They can’t work with borders, oh no. Bleed it! Bleed it onto the next page! Bleed it onto the floor! The walls. If there isn’t something like a graphic tourniquet for these poor souls, there should be! On the other end of that spectrum are what I call the “White Space Cadets”. Rather than lots of solid color running off in all directions, they promote the stark, the understated, with lots of free, loose, empty, white space. Less is more, these artists feel. Until they realize that people aren’t going to fork over the big bucks for the cover of the White Album anymore. It’s been done. Throw some type in there, or something. And put some clothes on.

Other types of artists I’ve encountered over time include font junkies and what I call crockpotters, those artists that want to use every little trick they’ve learned on every single project they do. Hey, even Houdini saved a couple for the next show.

I shouldn’t talk, really. I myself have an arsenal of copywriting tricks I implement, sometimes way too much. I guess we’re all guilty of it, but if it works, why not?

Well, those are some of my thoughts. I have more, but I know you realize that.

Freelancing. Contracting. What term they will use in the new millenium is anybody’s guess. It’s not a bad gig, though. It has allowed me to exercise a lot of free time. It has allowed me the luxury of writing this article. For all the downside I still love it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to meet with Attila for lunch. Right after I finish Mr. Rogers’ brochure.

(If you're a graphic designer, advertising copywriter, photographer or just want to network with a bunch of creative types, you might want to consider joining WADC. It is a great organization and they probably have a chapter near you. Their web site is: Also, if someone needs ad copywriting services and is looking for someone who is fast, creative and very affordable, my web site is:


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