What makes a good freelance digital designer?

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With Free-Work readers now up to speed on what makes a good freelance web developer, it’s only proper we turn to consider what makes a good freelance web developer, too, writes Joe Bannister, contract consultant at Computer Futures.

A lot of what is outlined below in answer to what makes a good freelance or contract digital designer is the fruit of ideas, scenarios and experiences shared with me from conversations with actual designers -- and design managers -- in my recruitment career to date.

What is UX/UI Design?

Fundamentally, a UX/UI designer works on both the user experience and the user interface. 

And ‘UX/UI design’ is an umbrella term which describes digital design, so you'll see a plethora of terms for similar roles and titles that confuse and embroil people in topical debates of etymology and nomenclature!

There are; UX Designers, UI Designers, Product Designers, Service Designers, User Researchers, and the list goes on! These titles can be interchangeable, though there are key differences to each -- at their core.

 What makes a good freelance web designer?

A good freelance web designer will likely do well in both permanent and contract assignments, but there are some key distinctions that might set you down one path or the other.

For example, personality and temperament will determine if freelance/contract work is the right fit.

Below are some insights and quotes directly from real-world IT freelancers, genuine contract designers and web design managers working right now, that shed some light on the specifics.

“Experience is key”

Experience in multiple companies with a number of years under the belt brings the inherent know-how that is expected of a contractor or freelancer.

Working with different companies and industries allows you to accrue broad knowledge and expertise. Most contract designers were once permanent designers, and it’s less common to see the reverse of this.

It is this breadth of knowledge of different methods and processes that managers and teams seek to benefit from when working with a freelancer/contractor.

“Specialist experience is key too”

Domain expertise is something that most managers want when hiring a digital designer on a temporary basis.

It’s not possible to be ‘everything to everyone’ (so don’t try), but industry expertise may be the differential in the hiring process -- something which gives you the edge.

Interestingly, design managers frequently cite that domain knowledge, plus industry experience, enable some freelancers to hit the ground running faster than others.

“Soft skills are underrated”

Soft skills are hugely important for contract designers, and the industry’s decision-makers are increasingly recognising this.

The role of a contract/freelance designer is to embed yourself within a team or project; get up to speed quickly with the moving parts (including the stakeholders, team members and users), and produce output and impact from an early point.

This medley of requirements will be less applicable if you're a permanent web designer, as you'll likely have time to suss out the company and its structure well before you're thrust into a project with a completion date.

Soft skills are hugely important at the User Experience (UX) part of a UX/UI role. Such non-technical, soft skills can be equally important in a permanent role too – of course. But UX designers are particular vocal about how soft skills help them succeed.

‘It’s massively about the user-journey’

For instance you’ll need to; monitor how people go through user-journeys, identify their pain points, and have empathy for the user, as you strive to create a ‘good’ user experience.

Tailoring user-journeys to reflect the customer-base and specific types of users is essential, and differences between industries must be accounted for. Every step should be validated with the users, collaborating, refining and iterating. The final design should be a result of a user centric, careful, and methodical approach.

‘Technical skills are a must’

The ability to produce quality UI design work is of unparalleled importance whether you are a permanent or contract designer. Some of the most commonly used tools and processes for digital design at the moment are:

  • Prototyping tools e.g. Figma, Invision, Adobe XD

  • Wireframing tools e.g. Balsamiq, Sketch, Adobe XD

  • Whiteboarding tools: e.g. Miro and Whimsical

  • Adobe Photoshop

  • Adobe Illustrator

What constitutes ‘hot’ tools and processes will of course change over time, but as a contractor or freelancer, you’ll be expected to be at the forefront of technological change.

The idea is, if you’re freelancing as a digital designer, that you take your tools and ideas from one contract to the next.

How’s your attitude?

If all this sounds a bit daunting, fear not!

When speaking to an IT freelancer in preparation for this article, he told me that skills can be learned -- with the right attitude. And that’s a prerequisite for all learning. Fundamentally, this is why softer skills are so important for a designer, especially those that lean more to UX, where communication and consultation is at the centre of what you’ll do.

If you’re more interested in UI output, technical ability might take precedent.

Yet in essence, the crux of successful design, whether UX or UI, lies not just in technical proficiency, but in the ability to communicate, understand and apply learning with an open mind.

Finally, top freelance web designers in 2023 be like this…

In 2023, the best freelance web designers know that it's not about defining oneself within a specific skill set, but rather, embracing the dynamic nature of the role, and continuously striving for adaptability and growth. This is what truly sets apart great designers from the good designers. Now the only question left to ask is; which will you be?!

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