The foundation for any successful freelance practice is the work. We’ve been talking a lot about everything surrounding the work, the admin, the relationships, promotion, contracts, etc, but the work itself is the most important part. The quality of your work is the reason someone will hire you, and its the reason they will refer you more work. Let’s talk about why doing good work, great work, is so important. The premise is as follows:
Let’s break it down and explain why each of these are so important.
The baseline premise here is simple. A client asks you to do something, and you do it well, and then they are happy.
If we think back to our chapter on Finding Work, you’ll remember that I said around 80% of my work comes from people who know me, people who have worked with me, or people who know people who have worked with me. Happy clients are more willing to share their positive experience with their network, and pass along your name. Clients who come to you as a referral are also much easier to close because there is already some familiarity, and they have direct evidence of your success.
Just because someone inquires about working with you does not mean they will actually sign a contract. In 2022 I had 133 total inquiries. Of those inquiries, I only sent 28 proposals. And of those 28 proposals, only 18 landed. Over the last three years, 60% of the proposals I sent will land, and the others wont. Having happy clients sending you referrals for possible work increases your chances of having more work, simply due to volume. This also has a secondary benefit, as when you receive more inquiries than you can actually take on, you can choose who you want to work with based on interest and values. More referrals means more work, and usually, better work.
Straightforward here, but the more work you do, the stronger your portfolio will be. Particularly as you get to a point where you can choose the clients you work with, your portfolio will become a reflection of your skills and values and the type of work you want to take on.
As your portfolio grows and you have proof that you do great work, that others can clearly see, your reputation will grow. You can boost this by submitting great projects for awards, or simply sharing them with your network. The social capital that you build in your reputation is just as valuable as the deliverables in your portfolio. If you have a strong reputation as a reliable, high-quality designer, clients will be willing to pay more money for your services because you are a low-risk choice. They know that you are going to do great work, and that confidence warrants a higher price.
If you’re consistently doing good work as a freelancer, your reputation will inevitably be strong. A strong reputation can open all kinds of doors - new opportunities, more money, and fulfillment from being valued for your skills and expertise. At the end of the day, doing great work is really fulfilling. This is one of my favourite parts of freelancing in general, but there is a great deal of personal satisfaction to be had from doing good work. Knowing that you made a difference in someones business, or even helped a company launch, is pretty cool. When the fulfillment comes at the end of all of the other steps, it’s also a pretty solid bet that you’re making a good income as well. And as much as I wish it were different, thriving in a capitalism society depends on trading your work for money, and if that work is fulfilling, I feel like that’s the biggest win you could have in life.
So, we’ve outlined why doing good work is at the foundation to a solid career, but how do you actually put that into practice? I’ve outlined some of the frameworks I put into practice regularly that I think help me produce consistently good work.
I love to think of design work, or any work really, as a practice. You are not a good designer or a bad designer, you are simply a designer that practices every day to get better. And when you practice enough, the level of work you do gets better consistently. But the practice never ends, you are always learning and growing, because there is always room to improve. Approaching all of your work with this mindset ensures that you will constantly be improving, because you are constantly paying attention to the details of your craft and thinking of ways that you can get better. You can do this by studying the work of people you admire, producing a lot of work on your own, and being critical (but kind) on what you can improve on.
Whenever I’m working on something or get a request from a client and think to myself “that’s not possible”, I try one more time. I’ve found myself writing an email mid-sentence with something like “we’re going to have to compromise…” and I stop, and I ask myself to try one more time. I’ll go back to google, search for a solution, spend a few more minutes in Figma, whatever it is. And often I will find a solution. I think a lot of learning and humility comes from this practice. When you face a challenge and are about to give up, try one more time. Your work will be better for it.
I love advice around being a lifelong learner, and I think that being open to learning is essential for success as a freelancer and in life generally. But we’re all really busy! Sometimes you intend to learn something new, but never get around to it because of time and other commitments. So I bring you my next tip - force yourself to learn. What I mean by this, is that if you can find a way to include things in your client work that you don’t quite know how to do, you’ll inevitably force yourself to learn when you have to deliver it to the client. I don’t mean that you should promise to build your client a custom coded website when you’ve never written code before. But if you see an opportunity to include something in a project that is slightly outside of your skillset, do it. Those incremental learning opportunities will add up over time, and before you know it, you’ll have a whole new toolkit of skills because you built them one at a time.
A lot of creatives have highly-specific skillsets and perfectionist tendencies. We have discerning taste - it’s why we became designers. But I would caution you that these traits can sometimes work against us as freelancers. As a freelancer, specifically with web design or more complex work, you are managing an entire project and need to keep the big picture in mind throughout your work. I had a client once tell me about a designer they had worked with on a website project, who spent days perfecting the hero animation on the site, only to fall behind on the rest of the pages and struggle to get the project across the finish line. I know it is tempting to want everything to be perfect - but if the perfection you’re focused on isn’t aligned with the clients goals, you need to shift your focus.
To make sure you don’t fall into this trap, you need to be asking clarifying questions about the project goals and client expectations at the outset of the project. Some of my favourite questions are listed below. Most of these questions are essentially asking the same thing, but I find that phrasing them in slightly different ways can often tease out a different answer, and give you a better look at the full picture.
What is your biggest goal with this project?
Thinking about the ideal future state for your new brand/website/etc, how does it impact your business?
When we’re finished with this project, what’s the best case scenario for you?
Whats the worst case scenario?
If you’re asking these questions, make sure that you check in on the answers throughout the project to make sure you are meeting the goals that have been set out. If you’re about to spend a huge chunk of time on something that maybe doesn’t align with the client’s goals, I would recommend checking in with them first to see if its a priority. At the very least, make sure you hit all of the essential items before you add on the wow factor.
As a people-pleaser, there is nothing that is a bigger motivator for me than the desire to impress people I look up to. Whenever the opportunity arises to work with another designer or collaborator, I am keen to hear more about it. Working with someone you admire, and having them have a positive relationship working with you, is a huge confidence boost. This confidence will carry you through future projects and be another piece of evidence you can reference when you have self-doubt.
At the end of the day, you’re going to apply yourself the most to things that you’re interested in and excited by. If you can find aspects of your work that really align with what you value, you’re going to produce great work, feel good about it, and crave more. That drive is personal - no one else can provide it for you. If you want other people to be stoked about your work, you have to be stoked about your work.
The pursuit of excellent work is the foundation to a successful freelance career. It’s a daily practice that requires your effort and attention, but gives back in results many times more than what you put in.