Idiom: Wear many hats. If someone wears many hats, they have different roles or tasks to perform. As a freelancer, this is not an option. It’s a requirement. When you launch out alone you MUST assume many roles that were once distributed to other people in your work space. You’ve become the account manager, the head of finances, the art director, the creative director, the production designer, the graphic designer, and whatever else needs to be accounted for. That requires some learning on your part to ensure invoices are billed out, clients are tended to, emails are read and replied within a reasonable time span, all the things.
After almost a year working for myself full time, I’ve adopted all the roles and now I’ve acquired a paragraph worth of titles that won’t fit on a business card. So which one do I present to new clients? Well recently I’ve been assigned the role as a production designer and another as a creative director. Of course creative director sounds much more important, but I’m flexible. I try to mention in less than a breath or two that I can go from brainstorming to production all on my own. Working from client input, I have had to do all the roles in between the starting line and the finished product. But I don’t worry about wearing all my hats simultaneously, that would be exhausting. I’ve learned to switch gears mid stream and change hats to get multiple projects done. While waiting on feedback for a printed magazine, I change over to icon development, then to presentation boards. All with different audiences, goals, and outputs. Something of a Swiss army knife but in human form.
Does it get stressful? Yes. No point in sugar coating it, it isn’t easy sometimes to halt working in one mindset to work on something completely different. But once you do it long enough it gets a little easier, or less noticeable that you’re doing it. Like with any skill, expertise comes with consistent practice and patience. It took me just around a solid year of working to feel like I’m not tripping over my own feet.
This career path isn’t for those that can’t hold out, and I wouldn’t assume that everyone that tries succeeds even then. If you’re against the idea of adopting different skills and don a few new hats to get work done, then you might be out of luck in the freelancing field. If you work better doing only one thing and letting others wear their singular hats around you, then I hope you find that office or cooperative work space that suits your needs. As for me, I’ll keep adding to my hat rack.
Focus is what makes skills sharp, talent shine, and projects complete. The ability to know what to focus on and when is imperative to getting things done efficiently, thoroughly, and with a strong force behind it. But when you're the only member of the team doing all the work, it becomes overwhelming. There are aspects that you can do amazingly and other things you can't do at all. So what do you do when you're flying solo on a huge project with lots of parts that you're not comfortable with? Well, before you get to that point you should look at yourself (and your skills) and ask:
Answering these questions will help a great deal when presenting yourself to clients and selecting projects. In the years I've worked in both office environments with other team members and working for myself, I've discovered a few things. First off, everyone does something different in regards to a single project. A few people might be good designers but one is better at making logos, so they got that job. Only one person can code, so they got that job. A few can brainstorm and present well, so those jobs were divided among them. There is some overlap and people can float, but it is a group effort with many hands working together. When you freelance, there might only be your two hands.
After working for a while as a freelancer, there were projects that came up that I could do but I wasn't very excited about them. They involved companies that were too corporate for my flavor of design. But that's the name of the game sometimes. Doing work to pay the bills is going to happen but it isn't satisfying. When the fun projects come along they are often rare and very quick to wrap up. Much like watching fireworks for five minutes. As the skill list grew, I noticed those firework projects were coming in even less than before.
I recently attended an AIGA event at a local branding/screen printing company and art gallery BLDG. They have a flavor for urban street art and present themselves as more of a boutique of branding and design. They don't offer anything web related, do wall murals around town, and they aren't a one-stop-shop for work because they don't want to be one. Their concept blew my mind! With a staff of less than a dozen people, they had a successful shop with amazing work that you could see the love behind. I decided to take their approach and apply it to my company. I've decided to narrow down what I offer so I can find a better niche for myself and the strengths of my skills and be able to do more of what I love.
First I had to figure out what those where. So I decided to make some lists. I love lists. My first list was all the skills I had, things I have done, things I was confident doing, things that were easy to do for me. This is my list of Can Do's:
It's a pretty long list of things. Aside from all under the blanket of design, there is no focus to anything. The amount of items surprised me after I wrote everything down.
Next was the list of things I loved to do. Using the first list as a starting point, I picked out the items that I loved to do. These were the elements that I get excited about and I know I excel at. Here is my list of Love to Do's:
A much shorter list for sure. I started to see a pattern here of things I enjoyed doing the most. There is a lot of visual items, such as cartoons, logos, icons, and illustration. These are at the core of my passions. It was great to see that and allow me to focus on presenting myself more in this direction rather than with everything else I could do.
Now that I covered the love part, time for the hate part. This list includes items from my Can Do section and also includes things clients have asked me to do in the past. These also include skills that I can do but not well enough to say I can. I don't offer some of these items openly, as I don't feel confident in my abilities. Here are my Hate to Do's:
A much shorter list this time. It also displays for me what I want to avoid doing. In my case, anything related to code. I know enough X/HTML to get by, but it's a skill set that I never mastered. More importantly, after I tried to learn it I never wanted to be a master in. It just isn't my cup of tea.
Finally was my dream list. This list has items that I can do but I'm out of practice in. It also has items I want to learn and focus on as new skills to present to my clients. Here are my Want to Do's:
This list supports my Love to Do's list with things related to playful things, like toys and greeting cards.
Writing these lists provided so much clarity to where my passions are and what areas I want to step away from. It won't happen overnight, but I now have better focus on where to put my force.