Working as a Freelance Designer

{ 🎙 } – Interview with Erwan Compes

Working in a creative industry allows us, designers, to work however we want – for a company, remotely, or freelance. Being a freelancer is great, but it also means dealing with a lot of things that would generally taken care of by an employer. The question is, are those tasks really that hard?

We interviewed Erwan Compes – a freelance designer currently based in Australia. He gave us some insights on becoming a freelancer and all of the pros and cons that came with the transition.

You can also listen to the interview as a podcast. It’s available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and SoundCloud:

Daniel: Hello Erwan! Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

Erwan: My name is Erwan. Currently I’m in Australia, but I’m originally from France. I work as a Brand & Interaction Designer, and now I’m focusing on interaction and motion design for apps, websites, and moving towards design in code.

I recently left Berlin after working there for two years and I transitioned all my client work to be 100% remote.

What made you want to become a freelancer?

I’ve worked in an agency and directly with many clients. The first time I worked as a freelancer was a happy coincidence. I was a Product Manager in France at a creative agency, where I had a chance to work with an exciting client – a luxury watch brand from Switzerland. Large budgets, and huge attention to detail and quality. When I left the agency, I wanted to move somewhere warmer, to the tropics.

I looked at different agencies that were in Tahiti and French Polynesia, and I actually found one that was looking for a designer. Not only for digital product design, but also print, and graphic design. I hadn’t been working professionally as a designer. It was more of a skill that developed as a hobby, beginning with photography, photo editing, and photo manipulation. Later, that led me to designing and coding.

I took the challenge, and it turned out to be a freelance position. When I moved there, I started my freelance business. That’s the first time I worked as a freelancer. I enjoyed the freedom and feeling of personal agency, of being 100% responsible for both successes and failures, and for not having to answer to constraints from the person giving me work.

How do you compare working as a freelancer to a full-time job?

After a couple of years in Tahiti I did the whole Digital Nomad thing in Southeast Asia, and then I came back to Europe. I was up for a position at an agency in Berlin. I missed working in a team, because I was working mostly on my own with one of the projects. After joining the agency, I was thrilled that I found the synergy that you find while working with a team locally. I learned a lot, but after a year of working there, I discovered it wasn’t something I wanted.

I didn’t want to work in someone else’s company. I missed the freedom and the independence of working as a freelancer.

Erwan Compes

When comparing working as a freelancer to a full-time position, a lot of people think that working full-time is safe because you’re employed by a company, and you’re not entirely responsible for every project. In my experience, I find this to be somewhat of an illusion. You’re not really the master of your own fate – I was working in a more passive way. Coming back to freelancing showed me how much I like selecting projects on my own, being able to take time when I’m working on personal projects and just generally being able to organize my time and life better.

What are the pros and cons of working as a freelancer?

The big pro of working freelance is the ability to generate more income. I’ve found that that way I make 3-4x more than I would working for an agency. If you want to work more or work better, you can do it. You can also adjust your rates, and negotiate it whenever you start working with a new client. That’s not easy in a full-time job.

I really like being able to be in control of pretty much everything about your business. I like the feeling of the entrepreneurship because it’s basically a first step to starting a proper company. You’re first working alone and managing yourself, but at any point, you can start employing other people.

Of course, you have more responsibilities. You have to take care of your business’ development, attracting new clients and projects, finances, accounting, taxes, and so on. That’s something not everyone wants to be taking care of. You can always outsource it, but it is just like running a company. I can understand that’s not for everyone, but for me, there are definitely more pros than cons.

How do you look for job opportunities?

I don’t really have to. As soon as I went freelance and Iupdated my LinkedIn profile, I got a lot of requests for work. Mainly just because of how the industry works, especially in Berlin – a lot of HR companies have recruiters actively looking for talents, to match them with clients’ needs. I’m getting a couple requests per day to work on new projects. Because of that, I got into a very comfortable position, where I could negotiate my rates and choose the projects I want to work on.

If you have to be more active when you’re just starting, I’d start by gathering contacts on meetups and events. Just create a network of people who work around you in the industry. You can also actively look for recruiters on LinkedIn, so you can build relationships with them, and have a reliable flow of projects and new leads.

A more traditional way is to look at all agencies in your city, send a lot of emails, signalling your availability, and just meeting up with people.

Since I moved away from Berlin and I switched to working completely remotely, I’ve created accounts and added my portfolios on platforms that allow you to work on remote projects, like Toptal, crème de la crème, and A line. All of those recruiters from LinkedIn are also on those platforms.

Later on, you just get recommended by one client to the others, and the process of looking for projects becomes more passive.

Do you have clients with long-term contracts? How did you find them and made them stay?

There are fewer clients that I work with on a regular basis, especially some companies that have several products. I work with them to develop a product, and once it’s done, I just move to another one. I have more one-time projects that require me a few weeks of work to develop an MVP.

How do you put a fair price on your work as a freelancer?

You can gradually move towards a price tag that feels good for you and your clients within the market you’re in. When I got into freelance, I already knew the rates in the design industry in Berlin. I could also ask my friends. I adjusted the price to feel comfortable working with projects.

I’d recommend putting a price that you would really like to earn, and eventually, you will attract clients that are ready to pay it.

Erwan Compes

What I factor into the price is all of the frustration in terms of organization, the terms that allow you to adjust, and a rate that emotionally prepares you to handle any possible scope changes.

How do you deal with taxes and all of the other legal stuff? Was getting it right hard in the beginning?

All of that really depends on the country you live in. When I was starting work as a freelancer, I was based in Berlin. It’s not really easy to set up all of those things on your own, especially if you don’t know German. The local bureaucracy is quite complicated. You can hire tax advisors who can help you smooth out the process and do the cumbersome tasks of tax declaration and tax optimization for you. Starting the freelance business itself is the easiest part, at least in Germany.

The company I’m using right now I’ve started in Paris, and it’s way simpler there than in Germany. That’s the part of the job that I quite enjoy if it’s not too complex. Self-reliance is a really nice thing at the end.

Regarding the working environment, do you prefer to have an office, work from home, coworking space, or a coffee place?

I work best at home. I like to have a nice home office. In Berlin, I built myself a wooden standing desk with plants around. Working home means for me having access to the comfort of my home, kitchen, and all of that.

Otherwise, I really enjoyed working in the offices of companies I worked with in Berlin. The balance is what I prefer.

You recently moved to Australia from Berlin. How did it affect your job as a freelancer?

I’m still getting requests for work in Germany, but not that many clients want me to work fully remotely. Although I’m still working with some clients from Berlin remotely. As I’ve mentioned before, to get more remote-friendly offers I’ve set my profiles and freelance platforms, that allow me to work with remote projects.

Thank you for the interview, Erwan! Where can people find you to send you more questions?

You can find me on Twitter: @erwancompes. I also have a YouTube channel if you want to check some tutorials on building your own bike or desks.

If you want to contribute to next the issue of Phase Magazine, just drop us a line:

Nick Budden Avatar

Nick Budden / CEO @ Phase

Designer, and sometimes-writer. Canadian in Taiwan ✈ Berlin. Trying to help people enjoy being creative.