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Common Questions About Design Professionalism


The design profession is full of happy folks, and understanding why so many designers enjoy their work is not hard. But not all are so happy. If you’re not careful, the joy of getting paid to pursue your passion can be tainted by the less joyous realities of the professional world.

You see, no matter how skilled you are as a designer, unless you are equally prepared in professional matters, your prospects will be limited and your circumstances compromised. This is true whether you work freelance, for an agency or in-house with a company.

Every week I hear from designers who are struggling to come to terms with these realities. Unhappy with their current circumstances, they write to ask for advice on improving their lot. Usually, they either claim not to understand how things got so bad, or they lay the blame somewhere other than at their own feet. In every case, however, the sole cause is their poor choices and lack of professional acumen. It needn’t be so.

Design is craft
Design is craft, but no matter how skilled you are as a designer, unless you are equally prepared in professional matters, your prospects will be limited and your circumstances compromised. Image source1

Professional Diagnosis Link

Here, I’ll paraphrase a few emails I’ve received from designers seeking advice. For each, I’ll diagnose the situation, explain in no uncertain terms what should have been done to avoid the situation and suggest a strategy the designer can follow to improve their circumstances.

These circumstances are not uncommon. Many of you reading this are likely experiencing similar problems… or may at some point in the future. I hope that the information, advice and strategies presented here will help you avoid these and other problems.

1. From A Freelance Designer Link

Question: “I recently graduated from design school and have started freelancing, and I’m wondering how you get clients? How do you get your name out there?”

This person may just as well have jumped out of an airplane and then asked, “Now, how do I go about finding parachute? Oh, and should I land somewhere specific? How exactly do I do that?” Even so, this lack of foresight is quite common. The immediate lesson is that you shouldn’t become an independent professional with little to no professional experience, with no prospects and knowing little to nothing about the business.

Fresh out of college or design school, you’re not a professional; you’re a technician (by definition, the opposite of professional). For the next few years you should be acquiring the skills, knowledge and understanding required of a design professional. The place to do this is in the company of peers and under the wings of mentors: at an agency or in house with a company. The successive lessons and built-in support system inherent in these environments are essential to a designer’s professional development.

The way to “get your name out there” is to establish a pattern of excellent work and a reputation for integrity over several years, while you let your agency or company carry the burden of acquiring clients and running the projects. If you are any good, in time you will earn the respect of your peers and superiors, establish a good reputation (spread by word of mouth) and acquire professional acumen. If in that time you make any effort at all to share your work and thoughts with the wider design or business community, your name will become known (through word of mouth and your portfolio or blog), and your reputation will be built on substance rather than on social marketing’s smoke and mirrors. This would be the appropriate time to embark on a freelance career.

As a freelancer, you’ll be running the whole show. So, you’ve got to be an ace at finances and budgeting; at speaking with and converting potential clients; at knowing what to discuss in order to weed out unsuitable potential clients; at preparing all manner of legal and project-specific documents, writing proposals, project management, intra-project client communications (and being the confident, unflinching pro in the face of every client request, question and distasteful situation); at dealing with dozens of types of unforeseen issues without hesitation; at maintaining tax information and constantly preparing various tax and business forms; at marketing, preparing and maintaining your own branding and identity, with its various elements; and at knowing how to begin and conclude all kinds of projects confidently. Oh, and you’ll also need a constant flow of interested potential clients.

If you’re not confident and accomplished in all of these areas, then you’re not ready to be a freelance designer.

Freelancing is only suited to seasoned professionals. Pursuing a freelance career as your first step in the profession is almost always a foolish move. Professionalism is maintained by habit. If your first step is a misstep, you’ve set a poor tone for the work ahead. Unless you immediately correct your mistakes, the habits you’ll develop will be clumsy and unprofessional.

Design is craft
The way to “get your name out there” is to establish a pattern of excellent work and a reputation for integrity over several years. You need to be good at whatever it is you are doing. Image source2

2. From An Agency Designer Link

Question: “I’m not very good at the discovery meeting with clients. I’m never really sure what to ask or how to figure out what sort of design they’re looking for. My project manager or C.D. usually ends up asking most of the design questions. What’s the best way to handle this situation?”

This is a common issue for designers at agencies, especially those with little experience. Luckily, an agency is a good place to gain experience and competence. But the question signals a few issues that require attention.

First of all, design questions are not really appropriate during the discovery process. Granted, specific branding constraints may need to be defined and understood, but the design you will craft will come not from the client’s judgment and understanding of design but from yours alone. The design will be your articulation of what they need, based mostly on their business aims, the website’s purpose, their customers’ needs and expectations, the end users’ specifics, etc. In fact, if you ask no design questions at all, you’re probably on the right track.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a physician trying to determine the best course of treatment for your patient. In that situation, you would not ask the patient what he thinks should be prescribed. Instead you would inquire about his symptoms, history, environment, physical needs (e.g. is he a pro athlete, or does he simply need to be able to get around normally?). The answers to these questions will define the constraints and indicate the appropriate course of action. Your patient’s opinion on what prescription would be appropriate is likely irrelevant; he came to you because he lacks the ability to help himself.

Go into the discovery meeting prepared. Before the meeting, learn as much as you can about the company, its history and its past and current activities. Script a list of questions—some specific to this client and some appropriate for any client—to get the ball rolling. These questions will serve as a springboard to more in-depth discussion, which in turn will flesh out what you need to know.

One more thing: you’re the design professional and it’s your responsibility to conduct the project successfully. You (not the PM or CD) should be driving the discovery. Use your time at the agency to improve your discovery skills, taking on more responsibility with each successive client. Reflect on each project’s discovery process, and look for ways to improve the process and your questions. With time and effort, you should become competent in this essential part of the design process.

3. From A Freelance Designer Link

Question: “Some of my clients expect three or four (or more) comps from me. But that’s a lot of work, and I would prefer to show just a couple. Should I just charge more if they want more comps? How do some designers get away with just one or two for all of their clients?”

These are interesting questions, and they beg a couple more:

  1. Why is this designer allowing his clients, who are not designers, to set the number of design comps?
  2. Why is he letting quantitative preference rather than qualitative necessity frame his understanding of the issue?

Good design is not found by picking from a pack of arbitrary options, but is rather the result of deliberate, contextual choices. Taking a scattershot approach to design is in no way effective. Your clients may not appreciate this, but you certainly should! Your responsibility is to ensure that your clients don’t shoot themselves in the foot.

The only person who knows how many design options are appropriate is you: the designer who is engaged in the process. And in almost every case there is one best design solution. Sometimes another compelling direction is worth considering and presenting to the client, but this cannot be known until you have fully engaged in the process, conscious of the parameters specific to that project.

In most cases, you’ll explore a host of options during the design process. A thorough exploration will cull a majority of the trials, leaving only the most appropriate and compelling candidate(s)—one or two. These and only these design options should be shown to the client. Inferior designs should never be presented, even to fulfill a request for more options (options for what: mediocrity?).

As a freelance design professional, or even as an agency designer, your responsibility is to define how many design options to present in a given situation. If a potential client insists on a less effective and less professional process, do not agree to work with that client. Compromise never brings excellence and has no place in design or professionalism. If you become comfortable making this sort of compromise, other compromises will also become easy for you. Your clients deserve and are paying for more than a compromised design.

4. From An Agency Designer Link

Question: “I seldom get to meet my clients before I present design comps to them. By that point, the projects almost always become a tiresome series of re-workings of my original ideas. How can I change this?”

One wonders what these original ideas were based on if the designer has never met the clients. If so, either 1) this person is at the wrong agency, and/or 2) this person lacks the professional understanding or the backbone to insist that she decide how the agency should structure design projects and client-designer interaction.

Relationships are built on trust, and trust is born of experience and understanding. Your client cannot trust someone they have never met and whom they know nothing about. So, when designs are presented by someone the client has never met, no wonder the client is a bit reticent and inclined to second-guess the designer’s decisions. These and the ensuing problems are all a result of the designer’s failings. Yes, it’s on you. Always.

As the designer and an aspiring professional, you must insist on driving the design process. This means that you must be the one to meet with the client in the beginning. If a project brief is required, you must be the one to create it, based on your direct conversations with the client and his team.

If your agency has a process in place that prevents you from fulfilling your responsibilities, your options are either to change the process or to find a better agency. Anything less relegates you to an irresponsible practice in an unprofessional environment. Hopefully, this is not acceptable to you, because it would erode the habits you are professionally obliged to cultivate.

5. From A Freelance Designer Link

Question: “I love to design, and I think I’m pretty good at it. But I’m not comfortable talking to clients. Whenever I’m on the phone or in front of a client, I get very nervous. I think my nervousness makes me seem less capable, and I’m pretty sure I lose some of my client’s confidence. What can I do to correct this? Should someone else do the talking?”

Effective communication is one of a designer’s most important jobs. Every communication, whether by email or phone or in person, is an opportunity to demonstrate value and win confidence. And if you don’t demonstrate value, you’ll seldom win confidence. Like designer #1 above, you may simply not be prepared to be a freelance professional.

If you fail in communicating, no matter how skilled a designer you are, you won’t get the chance to ply your skills very often, and seldom for the best clients. The best clients are those who invest complete trust in their designers. That trust must be earned before any actual designing happens (see designer #4 above).

And no, someone else should not do the talking. The design professional’s job is to show confidence when dealing with clients. No one else can communicate your value or win trust for you. The reason clients distrust those who do not communicate with confidence is because this trait signals other incompetencies. This may sound harsh, but it’s a fact: if you’re not confident, it is because you lack capability (whether professional competence, design skill or perhaps vocabulary)… and you know it. Address this void, and your confidence will shine through.

If you lack confidence in conversation, start to address this deficiency immediately or find another calling. Otherwise, you may have a bright future as a production artist somewhere, but not much of one as a design professional. Design professionals are experts at every aspect of interacting with people.

Confidence aside, it goes without saying that excellent vocabulary is an important component of effective communication. People judge you by your words, as well they should. Knowing this, your professional responsibility is to work on your vocabulary, just as you work on your design ability: daily.

Professionalism Link

Skill in design is only part of what defines a competent professional. Professionalism is also measured by integrity, preparedness in handling and interacting with clients, and breadth of understanding in the myriad of issues that will confront you in the course of working with others (whether clients, co-workers, employees or others). Professionalism is also measured by how well you uphold ethical standards in making the difficult decisions in every area of your work.

Talent and skill can make you a technician; and a technician is, as we noted, not a professional. For context, think of traditional professions: lawyers, doctors, architects. The enormous responsibility they are entrusted with, and their ability to carry out that responsibility across the scope of their work, makes these people professionals. Thus, an able professional would not be troubled by the questions posed in this article. Rather, they would know precisely how to proceed or how to circumvent these issues. If you have any of these questions, you may not be prepared to be a design professional.

Professionalism is also measured by integrity, preparedness in handling and interacting with clients, and breadth of understanding in the myriad of issues that will confront you in the course of working with others. Image source3

All of these situations result from designers believing that being a good designer is good enough. This profession has little room for those who lack a professional’s integrity and broad understanding. Designers who are willing to compromise and simply accept the faulty decisions that are handed to them have had their profession stolen from them. These designers have no business working with clients who pay good money for professional service.

Be better than this. Your first step to success is to assume your rightful responsibility for everything that involves you. Dissatisfied with the flawed structure at your agency? You chose to work there; change your circumstances. Frustrated by your perpetual lack of prospects and stalled reputation? Sounds like you’ve got deficiencies to address. Overwhelmed by the challenges and complexities inherent in freelancing? You probably started freelancing without sufficient preparation.

Fix it. You fix it. It’s all on you.

Designers: you get paid to do what you love. How great is that!? But this fortunate and enviable situation leads to fulfillment only if you take full ownership of your profession. Otherwise, you’re carrying a time bomb. When it goes off, your career will either falter or be blown to smithereens. Don’t let this happen to you. Educate yourself. Have the courage and integrity to habitually make good choices so that you enjoy a long and happy career as a design professional.


Footnotes Link

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Andy Rutledge is a principal at Unit Interactive in Plano, Texas. When not working, road cycling, or banging on the piano, he's usually found ranting about design or professionalism on his personal site, Design Pro. You can follow Andy on Twitter.

  1. 1

    Thanks Smash.

    • 2

      Great read! The author looks like Tank Abbot and seems a bit cranky, but all in all, a really great read.

  2. 3

    Helge-Kristoffer Wang

    March 8, 2010 1:59 am

    Thanks! I enjoy this kind of articles.

  3. 4

    Alex Crooks

    March 8, 2010 2:00 am

    Professionalism is…and that’s what I want

    • 5

      First day it opened I went down there was doing a few laps and pulled over and the manager comes over to me and says “Oi, mate! No professionals.” I said I’m not a professional. He said “Well, you should be mate with moves like that you could be the best in Britain”. I said, “No thanks I’m making shit loads from computers”.

      Trust, encouragement, reward, loyalty… satisfaction. Trust people and they’ll be true to you. Treat them greatly, and they will show themselves to be great.

      – The Office

  4. 7

    Very unrealistic. A talented designer does not need “experience” in a web agency under “wings of mentors” at all. You were born to design, you feel it. Education/schools offer understanding of practicalities. Web gurus should not be followed, instead trust your instincts, keep as much as possible you originality, your way of design. A lot of communication is wrong sometimes. The aspect of money is important as well. And I have to disagree: an artist or a technician is a professional as he wants to be. Creative Art Director/Leading designer are just titles. Practice is the key, I will agree on that always.


    • 8

      This is the sort of thinking that I disagree with “you were born to design, you feel it”. No one was born to design, design is a craft and has to be worked at you have to understand the principles of design, hard fast rules that should be followed before being broken. Some people are more naturally gifted at design than others but creating a web site or experience is not about instinct it is about applying the correct rules for the correct purpose to communicate effectively.

      A business owner does not employ designers to make stuff up and create pretty graphics but to communicate their business goals—what they want from that site.

      I think professionalism is lacking from this industry because too many people do not understand the rules of design but are happy to get ‘inspiration’ from web design galleries rather than building web sties for a purpose.

      • 9


        March 8, 2010 5:49 am

        A designer might be born with more talent than the others, but you need to work with a team of professionals in order to develop your skills. No professional becomes professional overnight. What you take from school doesn’t compare with the knowledge and experience you get from the work field and the design community. Not to mention that you can learn a big deal in communicating and handling meetings from working in agencies.

        • 10


          March 8, 2010 11:31 am

          I agree. Knowing programs does not make you a designer or a professional. Unfortunately there are many educational programs out there that stamp out graphic design degrees and the market is completely saturated. My main issue with recent grads is they have little or no production skills.

      • 11

        @Aaron: what are those rules. who creates them, other designers? You don`t need any education from schools to create art, you need diploma from schools. Design it`s becoming day by day just an “art of copy” …those trends, you know… so many out there… how many of us create something new, there is something new? We follow the trends, we become “image users” and congratulate others for bringing us “WOW what an inspiring examples !”.

        • 12

          Eddie Wilson

          March 8, 2010 6:49 am

          Be sure to define, for yourself, the different between design and art. Might be the reason for this argument.

        • 13

          Even great artists like Picasso undertook education and learnt from mentors before being able to create masterpieces.

        • 14

          Andy Rutledge on Design and Creativity:

          Basically, design CAN be creative and creativity is a very good tool for design, but something creative is not necessarily design vice versa. Art and design do not have to be mutually exclusive, but neither are they the same thing.

        • 15

          @Robert – As Rowan says, even art has rules. There’s a saying, you need to know the rules before you break them. Balance, Gestalt, Contrast, Rhythm, Symmetry, Semiotics are all principles and rules in any creative practice, even the great artists new them, and knew how to break them to create ground-breaking and innovative work.

          Design is not art, but it is visual communication that makes use of a lot of rules of traditional art. Most designers begin as creative people, who can usually draw well, but design school teaches them how to apply their talent in a meaningful way.

          99% of the time, the best designers come out of school, and get better with experience, as they learn how to break the rules and expand their craft.

          • 16

            Justin Parra

            March 8, 2010 9:58 am

            My opinion falls somewhere in the middle. When I graduated design school in 2006, there weren’t many jobs out there. Especially for someone with no agency experience. I needed money. I was very young and started on my own. I think if you are young enough with little obligations ($$$) and start with small projects while learning from your mistakes you will be okay freelancing. Yes, many people will argue that you will make mistakes and fail. The truth is that most freelancers for a plethora of reasons fail. So yes, if you get the chance to start at an agency take it. If you don’t, make good with the cards your dealt.

        • 17


          You’re exactly the reason why our jobs become difficult. EVERYONE thinks they’re a designer. If you think you came out of the womb a perfect designer and God intended you to be the greatest out there, you’re sadly mistaken. No one designer is ever perfect. The beauty of this industry is all about learning and growing from one another. Education helps build natural skill, training helps open your eyes to new ways of thinking and doing, and a great mentor can only help you become a better industry professional.

          There were many things in this article that I didn’t agree with; however, your comment was probably the worst. Step down off the high horse sir and be more open minded.

          • 18

            I began freelancing straight from college and quickly ran into various problems, some of the same in this article. Years later I’m finally able to jump back into it after working as an in-house designer and it’s been much, much easier. Ultimately it comes down to knowing how to select the best client, something that only improves over time and experience.

            @Robert, it would be incredibly naïve to assume that all the experience of others in the field of art and design over the history of mankind cannot equal your uneducated instincts. I agree that you don’t need a diploma to necessarily be professional, but this doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be learned from others.

    • 19

      Andrew, I agree with you. Many times there are people who write articles on graphic design, confuse the artistic, professional and talented can be a person.

  5. 20

    Great Article.

  6. 21

    Not particularly helpful advice.

    “If a potential client insists on a less effective and less professional process, do not agree to work with that client.”

    Not everyone has that luxury — especially young designers who are just starting out. Better advice would hinge on how to sway your clients understanding in a tactful way. That’s the real trick!

    Simply refusing to work with someone out of protest for one’s creative fervor is by no means professional.

    • 22

      This is spot on. This can usually be nipped in the bud early on by explaining that with a thorough design brief, random X# comps will not be necessary.

      There are some clients however who A. Don’t know what they want or B. Don’t know how to articulate it. A great designer can coax the information they need out of these types of clients.

      Otherwise very good article!

      • 23

        And yet if you read it properly you’d be able to extract that from that passage.

        Obviously these answers aren’t universal, and like you said Ken, as a young designer you’d need to explain this to a client, rather than refusing work.

        At no point however did he say refuse to work with them straight away.

    • 24


      March 8, 2010 9:46 am

      I concur with Rowan and Ken, Nathan, I’m one of those “young designers who are just starting out”. I’ve never had an issue with a client’s requests or multiple comps because the first thing I do is stand my ground and maintain my authority. My job isn’t to listen to everything the client tells me. Otherwise, why would the client even need a designer? Just a couple of days ago, I turned down a couple of one of my brand new client’s requests, “I’m not going to do that… and here’s why,” then explained everything to them in an easily digestible manner. Through a little more discussion I slipped in what my job is, as their designer.

      My client told me they were delighted to see my confidence in my skills. They said they felt like they were in good hands and that I was very knowledgeable. Every conversation after that, typically went from requests sounding like, “Can you do this… but don’t make it look bad. Use this color and put this to the left.” to “Can you do this? Either way, I’m sure whatever you choose, it’ll be great.” my single draft left them, “blown away.”

      I believe I read an article once that said, “When you learn to say, ‘no’, your ‘yes’ has more value.” I stand my ground, make decisions and teach my clients, every single one, and they all come out very happy and satisfied with my work, with high confidence in my skill. If you’re bending over backwards to be a proxy Photoshop for your clients than you’re just being paid to *not* do your job. I’ve only lost 1 client who refused to validate what my job was, and refused anything that wasn’t his way, he also refused to pay me my normal rates and tried to negotiate me down. I’m not starving on the streets because I lost 1 pain in the rear.

      The other thing that’s effective is when I have a mouthy bossy client who wants me to be a proxy photoshop, I charge them a “full licensing fee” — or internally, an “a**hole fee”. I talk about how it’s becoming something I don’t want to see my name on nor want in my portfolio, explain it’s more their own work than mine. I tell them they need to pay extra for this to be completely licensed as their own work, as normally I retain ‘some’ rights to my designs. They usually don’t want to pay the “a**hole fee” and go back to letting me do my job. That’s only happened twice also, both clients came out happy with my work in the end.

  7. 26

    Michiel Ebberink

    March 8, 2010 3:13 am

    A very good written article Andy! I don’t agree on everything but still a interesting read.

  8. 27

    Paul Murray

    March 8, 2010 3:14 am

    This post was a great read, some very interesting and invaluable information for a student such as myself. This will definitely be going in my saved folder.

  9. 28

    Good article, it is just what i need now. Thanks.

  10. 29

    David Travis

    March 8, 2010 3:16 am

    @Robert: “Web gurus should not be followed, instead trust your instincts.” This sounds like a recipe for indulgent ‘designer-centred design’. Why not ask users what they think of your efforts?

    • 30

      Create the design, express you idea in it and follow as much as possible “web trends”.
      Information and the way we as designers show it through design elements is our own ideas. We don`t create designs for our clients but for the users of their site. The user (majority of them) doesn`t have the education to recognize web trends. The user wants to use the site and appreciates it`s functionality in general.

      • 31

        “We don`t create designs for our clients but for the users of their site…. ”

        Although I agree… don’t forget who pays the bill.

        • 32

          As a “seasoned designer”, I couldn’t agree more with most of the work in this article.

          And as to who pays the bills? You’re hired to connect users with client brands, not clients with their own brands. When you have a hard time selling this to your client, a little user testing can go a long way.

  11. 33

    nino Bennett

    March 8, 2010 3:21 am

    great article, bu t i agree that refusing to work with certain “difficult” clients is not always a choice and that better psicology must be uses in order to manage the expectation of those particlular clients.

  12. 34

    Smashing Share

    March 8, 2010 3:30 am

    Very nice read. Working with right agency/company and with right people, it can benefit a lot

  13. 35

    I Half agree with Number 1.

    If you don’t have any experience, then doing small freelance jobs can be a good way to gain that experience. Of course your not going to be getting paid well and will be struggling to get better clients, but getting that experience is vital.

  14. 36

    I have read the article a couple of times and I still don’t get why does it exist. It does not gives us new information and there is nothing to learn from it. I know what it means to be professional as I am sure all of your readers know.

    Last time I’ve checked you were design oriented online magazine… not school for newbie designers.

  15. 38

    oh,well done

  16. 39

    I don’t get this paragraph:

    «…this person lacks the professional understanding or the backbone to insist that she decide how the agency should structure design projects and client-designer interaction.»

    Who is she?

  17. 40

    This has got to be the most pretentious article I’ve ever read on Smashing. Such negativity. Here’s the formula:

    Question: I have a specific problem

    Answer: Clearly you’re not very smart or ready for this. Let me show you how to be an asshole and always get your way. You’ll be much more “professional”.

    • 41

      Completely agree that this is a terrible article. Telling people that they are incapable of being freelancers because they don’t yet have as much knowledge as you is an awful way to give advise. If that were the case no one would ever be ‘qualified’ to go into business for themselves.

      Very very negative.

      • 42

        And, of course, most people who do go into business for themselves are not qualified to do so. An agency can offer a safe environment to grow and be mentored, sometimes. It can also be stifling and demoralizing. Freelance work is a big commitment, and many people who try it don’t foresee the risks they are taking.

    • 43

      I would not have been so blunt but you are correct.
      Pretentious indeed.
      Many of the responses are assuming the best case scenarios. I worked at several big corporate agencies where the account manager was the one gathering the info for the creative and we designers hardly ever had client contact – I am not saying that it is beneficial to the process – but that is how they did it. You can’t always put your foot down.

      As far as the freelance comments go, the author is assuming that a recent college grad is able to find a great job out of school, in a nurturing and mentored environment – while that would be swell, it is the exception to the rule. Many entry level jobs (if you are lucky to land one) are not like that. Also the writer assumes that freelancing means running a business, and taking on one’s own clients. One can be an independent contractor and work as a freelancer, for outside agencies. This may be a more practical way of learning the ropes and being exposed to many environments.

      Also wouldn’t it be swell if being talented, working at a great agency, getting mentored, doing great projects, being recognized for them and being known in the industry and then striking out on your own, getting great clients and being successful was a automatic given, linear path – but there are so many other variables. This is the best case scenario – but not a guarantee.

      As far as talking to potential clients, some talented designers are not great sales people and this is no reflection on how well they are able to communicate on the whole. I think it is easier to have a buffer if you can partner with someone who can sell your services and talents, I do agree it is critical for an independent designer to garner respect and confidence from their client and be able to communicate effectively – but as it relates to the creative process. Sometimes closing the “deal” is easier for a well heeled partner.

      The author also assumes that after years in the industry, success and skills will be naturally acquired if you play your cards right and choose wisely. Oh if only I had a crystal career ball – I believed at the time the choices I had made in my career would have me at the top of my game. But the economy is unfortunately way more unpredictable than we would ever imagined and the true measure for creativity and success right now, is mere survival.

      There were a few other comments I want to address- but I am running out of steam.

      • 44

        I learned one thing for sure. Never, ever ask the article’s author for advice.

  18. 45

    Nichole Trobare

    March 8, 2010 4:56 am

    Would have liked to see some questions from in-house designers too.

    Overall good article. I don’t think it was all that negative as the other posters did.

  19. 46

    Shivek Khurana

    March 8, 2010 5:15 am

    cool article :)

  20. 47

    I agree with some of the more critical comments… while this author sounds very determined, artistic, and engaging – I think the advice is more idealistic than practical, in context of guiding beginning artists. This philosophy seems much more akin to Ayn Rands’ determinist philosophy (exampled in the book The Fountainhead). And while this can make great novels and movies, it can also wreak havoc on a artists’/designers developing career. I think readers must keep in mind this article is an “opinion” piece…

    • 48

      John Hancock

      April 8, 2010 12:07 am

      This is the first time I’ve ever completely disagreed with something Andy Rutledge has written. Synopsis is:

      Q) I have some Strengths but I also have Weakness X, what should I do?
      A) Weakness isn’t right for a Freelancer. You must use the Force and be Strong. Otherwise, keep working for Faceless Agency Z until you are all Strengths.

      The fact of the matter is that those fresh out of design school are best in specific niches, and will expand their niches with time, energy and opportunity. These can come either freelancing (with barcamps, blog reading, practice, conferences) or at an agency (from the same sources).

      Possibly the point Andy makes through repetition here is that if you can’t do something at an adequate level to wear the “professional” instead of the “technician” tag, you shouldn’t learn it on the job as a freelancer. Whilst I agree with that, as an agency director of sorts, I’d argue that it shouldn’t be learnt in a waged position without the agreement and backing of your boss.


  21. 49

    Doug Barned

    March 8, 2010 5:47 am

    Excellent read, thanks.

    This outlines a problem not only experienced by designers, but something that seems to be (becoming?) common among people everywhere… Take responsibility for your own actions! If you don’t like something, don’t put up with it, if you’re wrong, correct yourself:

    “Have the courage and integrity to habitually make good choices”

    …its the people who have the ability to see what the good choices are that are the most successful.

    And remember, traditional professionals (lawyers, doctors, architects etc) have many more years training than some designers – see your first few years in the industry as the last couple of years of training. Don’t stop wanting to learn. Accept that you’re not the best, and you don’t know everything. Be open to advice (even from clients) and new ways of approaching problems, and one day you may be the best, or close.

    • 50

      “Have the courage and integrity to habitually make good choices”

      There is not such a thing, too many automated things. Learn from your mistakes, do them, don`t assume if you think positive everything is`t going to be ok.
      Let books and gurus alone, try to see things from your own perspective, it can be wrong sometimes but …
      We don`t make good choices naturally and the courage is just a temporary step

  22. 51

    Joshua Schoenaker

    March 8, 2010 5:54 am


  23. 52

    :( I’m inclined to agree with Daniel, that this was a very negative article. I agree to some extent that you cannot be a successful full-time freelancer without some strong business expertise and high professional standards, but I don’t think all of these points are hard fast rules for success. I guess if you (the professional freelancer) wish only to target corporate-level clients, then this is a very useful article indeed (even though it feels like a virtual smack in the face).

    Your article gives the impression (though it isn’t expressly stated) that working at an agency is a strict requirement for success. An alternative is working as a part-time freelancer while you develop your skills and build your reputation/client base, even if your full time job is unrelated. Is it easy? No. But you learn along the way. Professional experience gained in many other jobs can be applied to running your own freelance design business.

    I understand the intent of your article, but the attitude that comes across is condescending. It wasn’t a pleasant read.

    • 53

      Yes I agree with Leisha. Working as a part-time freelancer while you develop your skills and build your reputation/client base is an excellent way to get started. You take on jobs you can manage and build slowly as you learn.

      There are plenty of other sites and articles, and a vibrant online community of people who are willing to share all the information required for people starting off, instead of telling them that they are not able for it.

    • 54


  24. 55

    Moysés Costa

    March 8, 2010 6:01 am

    cool pos!

  25. 56

    In regards to questions number 5. If some of you out there are having confidence issues with clients I would recommend that you also work on those skills in other ways. My wife when I first met here was very shy. By nature she is an intravert. While I am an extravert. I have the ablity to talk with anyone. What she did to fix this was to join a public speaking group called Toastemasters. Her public speaking skills improved greatly. They helped her become a much better communitcator. These skills showed up in everything she did. Weather it was her job or in social situations. Sometimes other activites out side of design will help you improve your design overall. As the author points out our jobs are to be effective communicators. This includes being able to talk with confidence to a client.

    • 57

      Totally agree with #5. Sure your design would speak for you but it would be more effective if you speak for your design.

  26. 58

    Great article.

    I don’t agree with your analogy; comparing a designer with client to a doctor with patient. It isn’t really the same situation at all. A doctor is an expert in the established science of medicine, there isn’t much wiggle room for opinions from non-experts.

    A more appropriate comparison, I think, can be made with a plastic surgeon. Because plastic surgery involves aesthetics, and let’s face it, when it comes to aesthetics everyone has an opinion. Would a patient be expected to not have an opinion on the kind of nose job they were going to get? Or how their new chin will look? Should they just put their trust in the doctors to make all of these aesthetic decisions for them? Perhaps they should. After all, the doctors are paid professionals with years of experience and expertise…but they still won’t.

    The same holds true with design. Sure, ideally the client would sit back, trust in our judgment, take our professional advice, and let us do the job that they paid us to do. But this, I have found, is seldom the case. The client almost always has a few preconceived ideas lingering about in their brains, just waiting to rear their ugly heads and derail your creative genius. This is because design is pretty and design is ubiquitous, and as a result everyone seems to think they can do it.

    These ideas must be addressed(no matter how bad and off-base they are) because sooner or later they will come up. Personally, I’d rather address them at the beginning, shoot down bad ideas, salvage or modify good ones, and move on to yours.

    And let’s face it, the hard truth is that the client writes the checks, so what they say does matter. You’re going to have some stubborn client’s that want it their way, can’t see that it’s a bad idea (despite your objections), and will insist on it. Sometimes it’s better to concede, sometimes there are no other options.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the client’s aesthetic opinions do matter (for better or for worse) and that design-related questions should be discussed with the client if appropriate.

    • 59

      I completely agree with you Victor. This article is completely unrealistic!

  27. 60

    —”Fresh out of college or design school, you’re not a professional; you’re a technician (by definition, the opposite of professional)”

    I find this statement very, very simplistic, and even borderline offensive towards people who do work that is technically oriented, like for example artworkers (whose technical skills are invaluable).

  28. 61

    Matthew DeFede

    March 8, 2010 6:54 am

    Excellent Article, Learn the Business of Design Before you Start Promoting Yourself as A Designer.

  29. 62

    Great, great article. Perhaps, I am one of the few who really took heart to this…then again I have been a designer for some time now and can appreciate the words written here and how true many are. I may find a few of the items noted a bit hard to follow but these are very good words to follow I can fully appreciate most. The Newbie Freelancer, the idea of Quantity vs. Quality. Too many “designers” create art more than design, we have the idea that a good idea is better than a well crafted communication. A good designer communicates emotion and ideals rather than a fancy/pretty picture.

    I feel the real message behind the article is that of strengthening the design profession. We cannot be accepted if we continue to follow the path of allowing ourselves to be bullied by the client AND allowing ourselves to take on more than we can chew and thus making the design field look bad in general.

  30. 63

    Andy, what a blessing to see a post of you on SmashingMagazine.

    I didn’t started out my design carreer by going freelancer, I started out my design carreer by reading your beautiful websites such as DesignView.

    You tought me about standards and professionalism, for free. For that I am ever gratefull!

  31. 64

    Eddie Wilson

    March 8, 2010 7:04 am

    I agree with the author through most of this piece but I wonder if most of the readers need some clarification on the professional/technician labels? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the author meant that:

    Professional: Beyond all that is mentioned in the article, a professional is someone who can not only work on, but manage a project based on their skills, knowledge and experience (above all).

    Technician: Someone who is as talented (maybe even more so) as the professional, but does not have the skills or knowledge to manage the project on their own. They require support in the form of PMs and CDs/ADs.

    This is the difference, I believe, that the author is trying to explain here and it’s perfect in relation to whether you should be a freelance contractor or work for an agency.

  32. 65

    I love it! Most articles focus on how you can do ’10 magic tricks that make you a pro-designer’, but I love the stance you’ve taken. It is spot-on. Though I can imagine some people here being offended by it, I commend your skills in sparking a lively discussion!

    Great stuff!

  33. 66

    If you look at the bios of many web leaders, its largely self taught, trial and error. Not surprising when we consider its such a young field; many design principles don’t translate well due to browser limitations etc. If you want to be a great designer, just build and build and build websites, the experience and the mistakes will teach you. Working under others benefits one only if those mentoring are not themselves biased in some form or another. Not all teachers are good.

  34. 67

    Graphic Design for a hobby, let the middle school mySpacing population read smashing magazine and every blog out there on the subject and surpass all of you. Pursue something that you can be passionate about while contributing to the society you live in… such as medicine or engineering.

    • 68


      • 69


        Then go contribute something to Medicine or Engineering, and when you want to successfully communicate those advances to your society – let us know. That’s why we’re here David. You need us whether you like it or not.

        Typically successful professionals in the field of Medicine or Engineering don’t have spare time to sit around reading and commenting on articles in professional fields they deem useless. Get a life.

    • 70

      Then go contribute something to Medicine or Engineering, and when you want to successfully communicate those advances to your society – let us know. That’s why we’re here David. You need us whether you like it or not.

      Typically successful professionals in the field of Medicine or Engineering don’t have spare time to sit around reading and commenting on articles in professional fields they deem useless. Get a life.

    • 71

      Then go contribute something to Medicine or Engineering, and when you want to successfully communicate those advances to your society – let us know. That’s why we’re here David. You need us whether you like it or not.

      Typically successful professionals in the field of Medicine or Engineering don’t have spare time to sit around reading and commenting on articles in professional fields they deem useless. Get a life.

  35. 72

    nice to see that there are articles which are discussed in the comments :p

  36. 73

    Hey, even though I don’t agree with everything here, there are some good solid points here for us to go on.

    Of course, I’ve followed essentially none of the advice that he offers. :)

  37. 74

    This article contains a heaping helping of tough love, and a lot of people want none of that. Not saying everything is 100% correct in the article, but nothing really ever is. I think I can see “GROW A PAIR” underlying half of the answers! Very thought-provoking, thank you.

  38. 75

    Matthew Sharpe

    March 8, 2010 9:01 am

    An enjoyable article, I think its worth is exemplified by the spirited discussion it set off.

    While I don’t agree with every point outlined, I do feel there’s highly-relevant experience and instruction resonating through the content; in particular, an interesting primer for anyone entering the freelance community.

    Thanks for sharing, Andy!

  39. 76

    Look. Web design is not magic. And yes, you can be a freelancing web designer if you’re good at it – without working for another company first. You will need to know the economics that come with being self-employed, yes.

    I think that this article raises the profession to some kind of elevated position – Where it really doesn’t belong.

    Give me a break.

    To the starting freelancing designer: You know graphics? You can code? You have imagination and can create themes that are usable to your client’s needs (that is business)? You can do budgeting and negotiation? You are trustworthy?

    Go for it. It’s all work.

  40. 77

    I’ve been following your writing for years. What I take away from this article is this great advice: “… your professional responsibility is to work on your vocabulary, just as you work on your design ability: daily” – I find so many designers unable to present themselves well due to their lack of vocabulary skills, and in extension, communication skills despite passion or technical knowledge. Thanks for these great advice.

    • 78

      Nguyet, I took away the exact same advice: “… your professional responsibility is to work on your vocabulary, just as you work on your design ability: daily”

      I graduated from design school in 2007 and started working at an agency that same year. I wasn’t reluctant to communicate to clients as I have had some freelance and sales experience before, but my confidence in that area wasn’t great at first. My Creative Director definitely played an integral part in my growth – and still does.

      This relates more to being an effective communicator, but sometimes my CD would act as the client to help me realize what areas I still needed to work on. That was one example where I learned how to articulate my thoughts better. As my technical skills improved, I was also given several opportunities to take the lead in written and verbal communications with clients. I’ve had my trials and errors, but after I was given consistent positive feedback from my CD as well as clients, I realized I was getting better at this and it all made sense to me.

      What I like about the advice is the part about “responsibility”. You can learn so much from mentors (and clients), but ultimately it’s up to you put in the effort. I know that I have a long way to go, but I think I’m off to a good start.


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