Design agencies can be great choices for your next project, but they can also cost you money and time when the right tool for the job should be a design freelancer. If you’re about to put out an RFP, then you are looking to save money and create value. So how do you know when you should be looking at a freelancer instead of an agency? Here are some reasons (and a few personal anecdotes) about why you should be considering a design freelancer for your upcoming projects.
1: When you want to work with a person, a design freelancer is a better choice
Agencies usually range from 3 to 10 people on the small end, to dozens at larger companies. Teams like this are often set up to have a client manager or sales rep, who will translate your needs to the design team whose requests to you are filtered back through the manager. I’ve seen that disconnect cause problems within projects. Managers are also often sales people, and not technically proficient with the software or product line being created, so there can be mistranslations.
Teams can have turnover, and your project can get shifted to a new person who needs to be brought up to speed. I’ve had to do that when I worked for an agency and it was very confusing for the client (who thought I was the previous guy) and for me because I wasn’t at all familiar with the way the project had been managed up to that point.
A design freelancer is someone you can work with directly and get honest opinions. There’s no middle man, and they answer their own phone. Checking out their social media pages gives you a pretty good unfiltered assessment of who you’re dealing with. You can build a relationship with one person and get into your project groove. Few people say they love their agency, but everyone has at least one design freelancer they love working with.
2: The Budget is tight
Bills. Am I right? Agencies are typically going to charge a lot more than a freelancer because they have to support the salaries of team of designer who run on very fancy craft beers and MacBook pros. Design freelancers work solo, so rates and overall costs tend to be lower because your payments are just supporting one family, so your dollar can go a lot further.
3: Skip to the front of the line with a design freelancer
Agencies often have a very specific process. You may have to meet with an agent, start the process, cut a check, get design approvals, get a work order to the development team, which then must get into their schedule. Ain’t nobody got time for that. I deal with many clients who need deliverables with a fast turnaround, sometimes the same day. For fast projects, I’m usually able to shuffle my schedule around to quickly get a project to the top of my to do list.
4: Avoid Lock-In
Here’s an open secret: agencies and freelancers, both want to hook a client for the long term because it’s stable income. An agency can do that with an exclusivity contract or a year-to-year contract. Design freelancers usually contract on a per-project basis, so there’s no need to overpay just to make sure you always have an off-site marketing department. We’re in the gig economy now; you should only pay for a service when you need it.
When building a website, many agency contracts state that the agency owns the site that they build, not the client! That’s not how Attic Light Studio operates. I believe that work for hire means that your site belongs to you. In our contract, if you decide to, you can take your site and all your files with you to another host or another designer. I don’t lock anyone into anything because no one wants to be controlled like that, but I’m pretty sure you’re going to like the way I build your site.
5: When the project is small to medium
Small projects like a single postcard can be a drop in the bucket at an agency. If they aren’t tackled quickly, they can get lost in the rush of larger projects. Small deliverables can be done cheaper and faster by a design freelancer when that is all they are working on.
For bigger projects, you might be amazed at what an individual freelancer can do. For example, I’m just one person, but I can create a custom catalog database for your website. Homes for sale, a job board, or a list of thousands of locations with a custom, user-friendly back-end; these kinds of projects used to take a team of programmers, even just a few years ago. But the software has matured a great deal and that kind of project can now be completed quickly.
At a certain point, I would have to bow to a team of programmers with access to resources and licenses I don’t have and couldn’t afford. However, a 1000 page website (which I’ve done) is not beyond my means, so the definition of ‘medium sized’ is still pretty bi
6: Design Freelancers with in a Niche
I find design freelancers fall into two categories, generalists and specialists. Many specialize in a very particular area of design and hang their hat on it; like a certain style of photography, a clientele, or a singular type of web design.
In my experience, agencies tend to be staffed with generalists. They can do a lot and are probably able to figure out many of the things they don’t know off the top of their head with enough Googling and asking the right questions on StackOverflow. The mantra is “when the client asks, we say yes, then we go figure out how to do it.” When those generalists hit their wall and need something that they can’t produce in house, they are going to contract out to a specialist.
A specialists contracted by an agency will probably not have a seat at the planning table. They will create their particular piece, without being filled in on the entire project. This limited view is going to create problems when they can’t see how their element is going to be used in ways they hadn’t anticipated.
You can go right to the specialist and save on the mark up. Working directly with the specialist means you can probably use them to their full extent, and let them in on the full project so they can see how their portion is going to fit in. Then your freelancer can anticipate obstacles and plan for them upfront.
One of my clients loved that I could work on a weekend if needed (not all design freelancers do this). This client even worked at a design agency, but a rush job came in on a Friday afternoon, and the internal team couldn’t take it on and be ready for Monday. After a hectic weekend, I was able to deliver a presentation deck for a seven-figure contract. Even charging my rush rate for working on a weekend, the client felt it was worth the time and money well spent.
Sometimes needs arise that are immediate and necessary. An urgent project might not fit in the schedule or scope of an agency team, but a design freelancer is probably going to be happy that they can be counted on in a crunch. Agencies are often set up to run projects a specific way to deliver a good value to the client and to their bottom line, but fast turn around on something that’s out of an agency’s core offerings is going to be costly.
8: Easy to Try On
Break ups are hard. Agencies want a lot of commitment, but when you’re shopping for a designer, sometimes the best way to get a second date is to go on a lot of first dates. It’s ok to send a single small project to a design freelance to try them on and see if your styles and expectations match up. If things work out, build up to the next project. With no long-term contract, if a project doesn’t live up to expectations then everyone can still walk away without needing to go to counseling.
9: Specialists Know their Limits
Occasionally someone asks me to start a project, only to find in the planning stages that I’m not the right designer to finish the job. That’s OK. I know when something is over my head and I’ll let you know when we need to bring in someone else. I’ll even help you find that other specialist.
I was once contracted by an agency to create a small site for one of their clients. The agency plan called for a single page to be a catalog of items, for which they supplied the content. It was just supposed to be a table of a few items with descriptions and prices. Unfortunately, this agency didn’t have any ecommerce experience, so they didn’t read the client’s intentions to sell online. So the client thought they were getting a shopping cart, while the agency couldn’t see beyond their own recommendations and what they knew how to build. It also took me about 2 months to figure out why the agency was telling me the client was so unhappy and confused about their site when I had delivered everything to their specifications; it was because the poor client couldn’t enter in new items for sale or take payments!
That project turned out to be a major sticking point with the client; they didn’t trust the agency after that and never got the site they really wanted. I’m sure they held a grudge and must have hated paying their hosting bill. I do remember that eventually, years later, their site was replaced by one created by another agency. All that time and effort was wasted by an agency that desperately wanted a new client to conform to their way of doing things. If I had been able to contact the client, or been involved in the initial client meetings, we could have avoided this problem.
I love my clients. They keep me and my doggies fed, help me pay for my mortgage and bills, and let me do what I love to do. I couldn’t be the professional I am without my amazing clients. Thank you!
None of this is to say there aren’t downsides to freelancers. For every success story of freelancing, I have stories of working with bad ones, and great stories about reliable agencies. Most of the time, I find it comes down to compatible personalities. When good client rapport is built up, it’s wonderful to be able to tell management that you know a guy you can count on to do the job.
What about you; what made you decide to use a design freelancer instead of an agency? What’s your criteria for deciding? Let us know in the comments below.