Hi my name is Sean Dowey and I’m a freelance broadcast designer from Los Angeles, California. My clients include FX networks, Lifetime, CBS, ABC, NBC, as well post houses in Los Angeles, Hollywood, and the surrounding area, and I’ve taught broadcast design for five years at California State University Channel Islands. If you’re considering becoming a freelance broadcast designer, here are 10 key things I’ve learned that may give you a head start:
1. Create a website
The first thing any freelancer needs is an easy-to-update website. As your business and skills grow your design portfolio will be constantly changing. So having a website you can update without spending additional hours in front of your computer is highly beneficial. If you have no idea where to start check out the Behance Network. The service allows users to publish a complete portfolio in a matter of hours. It’s easy-to-use, customisable and free. The service makes money by hosting a jobs board in which employers pay for job listings. Regardless of what you use make sure you get that website up.
2. Create a demo reel
Every freelance broadcast designer needs a demo reel and my advice is to make it under two minutes. If you’re straight out of design school I can’t stress this enough. Unless you are freaking amazing, two minutes may be way too long. My personal reel is about a minute thirty and still needs a little fat trimming!
Put your best work at the beginning of the reel. A prospective client will know after 20-30 seconds whether you are the right person for the job and I have firsthand experience with this. Oh and as a personal request please find something other than techno, trance, house, or whatever other ambient beat sounds good for supporting audio. It’s been done to death!
3. Hit up the job boards
When I was teaching broadcast design my students would ask me all the time how I find work. Firstly I suggest keeping a close eye on job boards. Most design sites have them and I check them daily as they make up a good 70 percent of the gigs I get. Try Motionographer, Mograph, 2Pop, Creative Cow, and Krop. If you know more please leave a comment, I’m always on the lookout for more.
Secondly I suggest networking. Some of the most artistically rewarding and fun gigs I have had have been a result of networking. I love meeting people who share a love of broadcast design and I’m constantly keeping in touch with them. I keep in touch not just for job information but to share tips, jokes, ask for artistic advise, and shoot the breeze. Get those AOL and iChat screen names. Just make a note of who that person with the handle luvbuttons23 is because you may forget! Also, when you network, reciprocate those job leads by passing on a job or two yourself. That goes a long way with people, trust me, it will come in handy some day when one of your connections refers you for a job. More than once this has happened to me just as I was wondering how I was going to pay some of my bills. You can never have too much good karma.
4. Be tenacious but not annoying
Many of my friends who have regular 9-5 jobs think I have it made as a freelancer. In many cases I do and love the freedom and flexibility freelancing gives me but it’s also an incredibly stressful lifestyle. As a freelancer you’re always on the clock. If I’m not employed I’m looking for the next gig. It takes tenacious dedication to your craft and you need to be constantly looking for ways to improve yourself and get that next job. As a freelancer you should be actively introducing yourself to potential employers but be careful. Don’t be the person who emails that design firm once a week looking for a gig. If they have something and they think you are a good fit chances are they will contact you. The only reason to send a follow up email within a short period of time is if a good chunk of content in your portfolio has changed.
5. Knowing your competition is knowing your worth
One of the number one questions students have asked me is how much to charge as a freelancer. When I was first starting out years ago I was no different. I began, like many I’m sure before me have, by blindly applying some figure of what I thought I should charge for my services. I got some jobs doing this but I was still shooting in the dark. After deferring my student loans for the second time in 6 months I chose a more daring approach. I decided for the next job that I would double my rate. I was certain I would be laughed at and not get the gig but I did it anyway. To my great surprise the client didn’t even skip a beat, I was offered the job without hesitation. It crossed my mind at that moment that I had been severely undervaluing my own worth. I did this technique on and off for a while. Eventually, when nearing what I thought was a reasonable rate I increased my rate by fourths. Ultimately, after a while of doing this, I saw resistance in the form of the laughter I was sure would have happened the first time I did this.
After losing that gig I knew I was nearing the threshold of my monetary value as an artist. I felt pretty confident I was pricing myself correctly for prospective employers but wanted to be sure. Was it just a fluke? After several unsuccessful attempts inquiring to my peers what I should charge as a broadcast designer (the answers were always vague and ambiguous) I decided to place an advertisement looking for a designer and listed my skills as a requirement. I was amazed at the response I got. Within an hour I had over 40 responses. People from all over the U.S. shared a lot of valuable information with me. The responses taught me much more than how much I should charge. They provided examples of excellent (and many poor) introductory letters, paired up rates with demo reels, and showed me who was charging too much and who too little. A lot of you are charging way too little! Am I a dirty low-down scoundrel for doing this? Maybe, but I needed to know where I stood. Broadcast design is a business and it pays to know where you stand.
6. Be willing to turn down work
Yep, be willing to turn down work. In my experience I have found that taking a job that’s well beneath the threshold of what you know to be fair rate wise is never a good thing, it can put you in a bitter mood right from the start. I’ve made the mistake on a few occasions taking jobs that didn’t agree with me and always for the same reason “” I needed money. Most of these were flat rate gigs that promised to be short and sweet but none of them were. Each and every one of them was a nightmare with the clients wanting the sun and the moon but not willing to pay for it. And the jobs always stretched out way past the proposed deadline. On several occasions I actually lost opportunities to work on decent paying and far more enjoyable jobs because I was committed to a succubus of a project. Now if it’s slow I tighten the belt and focus on my reel, website, network of peers, etc. It’s far more rewarding both mentally and financially.
7. Help others
A lot of times getting your next job is all about getting noticed and what better way to get noticed than to help others. Offering your expertise in design forums, design group meetings or schools is a great way to build your network and reputation as a knowledgeable professional. You never know who’s reading those posts. They could be the VP of a major network. Oh, and if you are reading this and you are the VP of a major network, contact me!
8. Get your books in order
For as long as I can remember all I ever wanted was to be an artist and designer . I couldn’t stand the thought of taking an economics class or sitting in a boring trigonometry class. Unfortunately, being a freelance designer requires me to have an appreciation for math and economics. Art is a business and if you don’t treat it as one you’ll soon be looking for a job working for the man again. I suggest keeping a record of your business activities. Record your purchases throughout the year, save those receipts and for Pete’s sake get Quickbooks! Quickbooks is one of the single best investments I have made as a freelancer. It keeps me organized financially. Which is critical come tax time.
9. Set aside some money for the tax man
As a freelancer you’re going to get a lot of untaxed checks coming your way. Don’t make the mistake of spending it all on that new flat screen TV and entertainment center. You’ll wish you hadn’t when tax season approaches and you don’t have the money in the bank to pay up. Penalties suck. Oh, and if you do buy that TV and entertainment center, save the receipt it’s tax deductible and you’re in the business of making motion graphics!
10. Have a sense of humour
Most of the time freelancers are hired when the proverbial shit is hitting the fan and people can be stressed out in those situations. Having a sense of humour and a can-do attitude is contagious. It’ll go far towards getting the next gig and makes your current climate far better to work in.
Please leave a comment with your own experiences and suggestions. See you out there.