How to be a healthy and wealthy freelancer; discussing day rates with five independent creatives
When working freelance in any industry, self-pricing can be an uncomfortable process – let alone working freelance as a creative. In an industry rife with impostor syndrome, one of our biggest hurdles is ensuring that work is compensated fairly. Any designer can fall prey to underselling themselves, not budgeting for their living expenses, or even just hoping a big client name can garner some of that (dreaded) ‘exposure.’ We don’t want that! We want to make sure freelancers are getting the pay they deserve. Whilst there is a gamut of equations required to work out the golden number, sometimes a few experienced insights and tips are exactly what we need. That is why we have reached out to five established creatives with freelance experience under their belt, and asked for some insights on how they tackle pricing their work.
It goes without saying, we can’t always tackle big decisions, such as deciding our day rate, on our own. It’s easy to get caught up in our own heads when it comes to our ‘value’ – so an alternative perspective can be grounding. Luckily, in the internet age, there is a wide network of other creatives to reach out to, which is exactly the approach Jennifer Whitworth has taken. For Whitworth, landing on a day rate occurred “through a lot of trial and error,” with years of experience navigating client prices. Having made the move to full-time freelance work in 2021, the London-based designer points out that “expectations from different studios can vary quite a lot.” She continues, “it was really beneficial for me to be in touch with other freelancers who helped me gauge what is a fair balance for my experience level and skill set.” In the beginning, she was also in touch with small, independent recruiters who were helpful in judging prices objectively.
A second opinion is something Aaron Dawkins wholeheartedly agrees with; “feedback is ever so helpful,” he tells us. Before reaching out to others, the Berlin-based designer starts by calculating his day rates and project costs by himself. “Then I ask others who work in the same fields, graphic design and architecture if my costs are fair for the service and standard of work I provide.” This helps to maintain realistic and fair amounts. “To be honest,” he adds, “I usually come in a little lower then others suggest I should charge. So I find it’s very helpful to find, discuss and be open with others about day rates and project costs.”
Feedback is ever so helpful.
With a locked-in day rate comes certainty, however, there are times when a flexible mindset can be appropriate, given the context of a project. “There are different types of designers, people that have a rate and don’t move away from it, and people that are a bit more flexible,” Dominique Panczuch explains. “I'm part of this second group, I have my rate but if the budget is lower from it I think about what’s more important to me – the money side or being a part of the project.” The London-based freelancer finds that, although deciding on a rate can be tricky, “I think that's what makes a difference at the end of the day, working on something you love and you believe in.”
Nowadays, rather than a set price, Whitworth tries to keep a “day rate bracket” and finds out the details of a project before specifying an exact figure. “This is so that you can judge the circumstances of the work,” she reveals, “and maybe charge a higher rate if you’re doing things like: using multiple skillsets, delivering a lot of work, working to tight deadlines or compromising on some of your preferred working conditions.”
Dawkins, on the other hand, tends to operate with two predefined rates. Alongside his standard day rate, he has another tailored for clients starting out with a lower budget, or who are, perhaps, facing financial difficulties. “Longer project costs are structured by time or days per item then the client is offered two or three packages,” he explains. These are normally tiered as small, medium and large, giving the client freedom to choose based on their budget.
This is a factor that Sébastien Paradis also considers, and highlights the fact that “every project has its own parameters – timeline, budget, people.” The formerly career-long freelance designer and now full-time designer at Caserne reveals that these factors all contribute to the pricing decisions. “From my full price day rate, I grant a discount for a long-term contract, a cultural or a non-profit organisation project.” From time to time, for a collaborator or client he is eager to work with, he’ll charge half the price.
When we approached Callin Mackintosh, he began by telling us “I don’t think there’s a right or wrong approach to this.” Following a decade of industry experience, the now-independent designer finds that having flexibility in his day rates works for him. Sharing the sentiment of the other designers we spoke to, Mackintosh echoes that understanding “who the client is and what the project is” is important before settling on a day rate. “There’s a difference between passion projects and projects to pay the bills and it’s important to have a balance of both.”
It’s not always possible to achieve the perfect projects or pay when first entering the freelance world. For many, it is a continuous learning process – and it can take some time to find a method that works for you. “When I first started as a freelancer, I set my rate as high as I could,” Paradis reveals. “Gradually, work experience, market knowledge, credibility and contacts helped me put together a fairer number.” As he progressed in his career, he eventually came to a point where he allowed himself to refuse jobs that didn’t pay enough.
With pricing, it’s not only about the money though. Being in control of how often you work can be precarious, often leading to burnout or the opposite – periods of struggle. Therefore, it’s important to prioritise quality of life. Here, Mackintosh sets out some points to keep in mind. “If it’s something that’s really going to drain you physically (and mentally), then make sure to charge a day rate that makes you comfortable with this.” And if it just doesn’t add up? “Don’t be afraid to say no.”
Don’t put yourself into tricky financial situations hoping that you’ll get great exposure.
If, for example, a project comes along that you’re both passionate about and have a strong connection with, then dropping your day rate to meet their budget can be acceptable, in the knowledge that you’re going to get an end result that you can be proud of. “This being said,” Mackintosh emphasises, “never undervalue your skills as a designer, they want to work with you for a reason.” Likewise, you absolutely cannot pay rent in ‘exposure’ – so Mackintosh suggests making sure that your base rate covers your cost of living at the very least. “Don’t put yourself into tricky financial situations hoping that you’ll get great exposure or more work will come from it,” he notes, “it rarely works like that.”
Above all, it bears repeating, your health comes first. “You should really think about your wellbeing and happiness before committing to a day rate on any project and always aim to find a rate that both you and the client feel happy about.”