Money, Freelance, and Jobs: The Business side of Design

May 14, 2010 - By 

Just incase you missed it, here is the GSG Live cast from Wednesday where I answered questions about working in a creative industry and how to get paid. In this cast, I wanted to stop talking about the tools and the technique for a moment, and instead have a conversation about how to get a job doing what you love, charge for your time, and how to be a freelancer.

If you want to join the next GSG Live Cast, please stop by GSG LIVE at 2pm CST on most Wednesdays. Also, if you use twitter, be sure to follow me since I always try to tweet out when I am on live. Thanks for watching!

Questions and topics include:
Thoughts about the NOSPEC! movement.
CrowdSpring and staying valuable.
How to get Freelance work
Contracts and getting paid.
Should you charge per project or per day?
Billing for changes and overtime.
Do you charge for render time?
Why Resumes Suck!
How to negotiate your salary.
How to be more productive.
Should you freelance or get a full time job?
Getting a Job when your new in town.

Mentioned in the cast:
Linchpin by Seth Godin <---- Incredible Book about being an indispensable artist. ReelRoulette <---- A place for motion designers to be discovered and get paid. PS: Drinking from a straw never looks cool. UPDATE: There was quite a discussion on twitter about the first few minutes of this video where I talked a bit about Spec work and why I think yelling at the organizers is a waste of time. To be clear, I don't think that spec work is great or that everyone should do spec work. However, I do think that artists and designers should have the choice to participate in whatever competition they want. If they derive value from participating in these contests, then who are you to tell them not to? Anyway, I will try to organize my spec thoughts into a blog post soon. In the mean time, I would love to hear your thoughts about spec work. Have you entered any contests or submited your work to crowdsourcing sites like Crowdspring? If so, why? Did you like the process? Did you think that it was worth it? Would you do it again? Drop your story in the comments and let’s start a discussion.

Posted In:  GSG Live
  • That was a fun live show! Very successful!! 300 viewers you go man!! Oh and thanks for sending over the 30 to 60 viewers I got consistently.. Couldn’t have gotten such a huge audience without you man! Thanks!

  • YES!

    Thanks for talking about this. I was trying to tune in that day but the feed kept on freezing. I needed to ask these questions. Thanks for the talk and insight Nick.

  • “These things prepare me to make SHIT!” classic.

  • Thanks for the show, very helpful.

    Would anyone be willing to share any contracts the frequently use? just a thought.

  • My views are that, I am in this for fun. It does matter that I make money, but if I am not doing stuff to have fun, then what the hell am I doing as a graphic designer? I enjoy spec work, it takes your mind off the daily grind and gives you something FUN to do.

  • I think you were very clear in your live-stream about your position on spec work and I agree with you. I can’t understand how some got your point wrong…
    Btw, great to hear you mentioning Linchpin. It really is a fantastic and inspiring book and I think many of the concepts discussed apply to our field.

  • I found the discussion very interesting especially since I just had an interview at Plum wednesday. I found out today I didn’t get the position. May need to change up my approach and use suggestions done in here. As far as specwork, I agree with the gorilla 100%. You can only control your outcome on your side and should spend time worrying about that. Not worrying about changing changing constraints outside of yourself. I tried out crowdspring for about 5 projects and decided to not participate with it anymore. I have my reasons but the main point is that I’m not trying to change crowdspring I made a decision that is in my own power and moved on. Just thought I’d participate in this discussion cause it was definitely an insightful Ustream cast. Thanks Nick.

  • Great broadcast with some nice quotes! Looking forward to your blogpost about specwork. In my opinion there’s nothing wrong doing specwork but, you should be aware of the fact that there will be some point in your carreer where you need to earn money. It’s nice and all to build a portfolio but you need to eat!

  • Excellent talk. I worked in studios for 6 years before going full freelance and the knowledge that I was able to sponge from those experiences would have taken me years to figure out on my own. It is always good to hear other peoples perspectives on the money side and also reinforce current practices.

  • Synopsis: Why Resumes Suck!

    Work your ass off to be better than of all of the people you are competing against for a job! If you are not in that top 10% where clients fall all over you for your work… you will work a job you hate, you are mediocre and you should shit or get off the pot.
    I have worked with people who think they are the best… they usually are egotistical, self-centered narcissists who don’t give one iota about others; or they are completed introverted & are too good to associate with the little people.

    Personally I love working with others and feeding off of one another and creating the best work we can with the time and resources at hand.

    Nick – I feel you are being a bit-narrow minded and quite short sighted on this topic. At least suggest linkedin as a place to record employment history and other important resume type information so that if one of your followers does take what you say as gospel, at least they can throw one together quick if an employer asks for one.

    I would love to discuss this further with you.
    Mostly I would love to have you speak to the After Effects User Group I manage here in Minneapolis and/or to my Alma Matter Siggraph group.

    But I can honestly say not at least having linkedin updated regularly if not a resume ready to go, is a bad move for someone looking for a job. Freelancing is a whole other story.

    Best Regards Nick
    Love what you do!
    Keep up the great work!

    • Linked in is a great resource. great idea! As far as “gospel” I can only talk about my experience. A resume or a DVD demo reel never got me anywhere. Nor anyone that I have worked with. These tools may have worked for a few people, but overall, they seem like a waste.

      As for speaking, drop me an email will ya? It would be fun to speak at your group.

      Thanks again for watching. Hope to see you at the next show.

  • Specwork might not be a problem for you now but after you’ve grown your portfolio and your skills can demand a higher price, you don’t get it because “Hey, I can get a high school kid of of craigslist to do the same thing for $20.” When a bootlegged photoshop takes money out of your pocket, you’ll view specwork a little differently.
    But really to me specwork devalues real talent.
    I am not against sites like crowdspring or 99 designs(I actually made $400 from it designing a flyer) because I can decide which payouts I want to try for and do it on my time.

  • I like your opinions.

  • Thanks Nick for your work/freelance insight, very generous.

  • About the business of being: Jim Whitaker, who climbed Mt. Everest, once said “You never conquer the mountain, you only conquer yourself.”

    That’s the way I see what I do. I am a TV producer, in charge of commercial production for a network affiliated station. I try my best to be the best, but as good as I think I am I will never be as good as Nick, John Dickinson, or any of the other great artists.

    I enjoy what I do very much. Most days I like what I produce, sometimes I think I suck. But at the end of this journey, I can say – like Jim Whitaker – I have only conquered myself.

    I am enjoying the ride!

    Jim Wicks

  • I feel like ustream = a vhs player that doesn’t work. The whole thing locks up when I try and skip ahead or go back.

    Looking forward to watching this though, thanks for putting it up.

  • HAHA so baller, I such a heterosexual man crush on Nick

  • DUDEEEE thats was an awesome livecast, great topics, damn i wish i was there any way ill be sure to catch your next live cast, by the way you should email your next live cast with ur gsg mail that way im sure everyone would be there. well thanks.

  • Great show.

    I agree – you should never start with a work for free offer up front, but there are at least 6 great reasons to work for free.

  • You do not know just how much entranced I am by your work! I found you just a couple days ago and I love everything you have done so far. Keep up the work man, I’m working myself to get better at this business. Thanks for being a resource for an aspiring artist like myself <3 I'll try to see if I can pop into your next live chat just to chill with you guys.

  • So i missed the live cast, but i do have a question . what about companies that ask you to take an AE test?…They have seen your reel, and yes, have seen your resume, but ask you to take an AE test. And it has been my experience that the tests are so remedial that it almost offends one to take it. So my question is, if asked to take one in the future should i just say no..i don’t do tests, my reel speaks for itself? What would you do?

  • I like your twit from lastnight:

    These are the right reasons to do free work. I think the biggest problem is #4. Where a client from a big network or studio asks for a “free pitch” or calls and says we don’t have a budget but it is a cool project. You are right in that schools need to also train students in the ethics of being a designer. There are more people out there looking to get cheap design work and if more people said No the stronger the industry will be. Because what happens is a client will get 3 studios to do boards then take the boards and have some recent college grad do the production on the job. I think this is what people mean by ruining our industry. I have heard client say that we are charging too much and that they can go get a college kid to do the same work. No all motion graphics shop attract the same clientele as digital kitchen. I am sure DK has the management in place to actual pass on those clients and jobs. But most MG shops don’t have that clout.

    CrowdSpring is a good example. If you look at all the small design shops that hire the same hot freelancers to design boards to win a pitch then use the recent college grad team to do the production it is basically a crowdspring. The thing that we have to work toward and you can see this in the VFX industry is a union of sorts. Where if this is the way in which out industry operates we need an organization to provide medical, dental and vision to freelancers at rates that you would be charged with a large company. I know individual insurance is cheap like $100 bucks a month. But if something serious happens they will drop you and if you have a family. The motion graphics industry can’t be so short sighted and only carter to the single, young, designer willing to work for free (we all get old). We need to have a mature organized group of professionals.

    Keep the ustreams coming. These topics need to be talked about and covered.

  • is reelroulette working in france?

  • Nick, I think you make some good points and the NOSPEC movement can seem a bit draconian and one-sided at times, but on a whole I agree with it.

    Entering contests is one thing. More often, freelance designers, particularly beginning ones, run into this scenario:

    “Hey. we’re interested in hiring you as a designer. We’d like to see how you would handle our project, so could you do some mockups so we can get a feel for how you work and whether or not your style fits?”

    This is a complete no-no as far as I’m concerned, and I won’t even return a potential client’s phone call if I get this. If I do work (for someone else), I get paid. It’s a simple mantra I stick to and has saved me much misery.

    I think the reason so many of us cringe at the idea of spec because we’re very sensitive to anything that treats the creative arts as somehow less of a “job” and more of a “hobby”. Yes, I love designing and animating and consider it my life, but work is work, and even the coolest of projects can become quite painstaking and tedious. If someone else is benefiting from that labor, then they owe you compensation.

    I also have to disagree with your point that companies and clients are absolved of responsibility in this issue. I do believe they have an obligation to treat you and your business fairly. Clients are not your employers, they’re your customers. And just as customers of any other establishment, be it supermarket, auto body shop, Wal-Mart, etc., are not entitled to steal, avoid payment, or try to haggle them down, so to is it with a freelancer-client relationship.

    A company that crowd-sources and tries to get good work for free is probably a company I wouldn’t want to deal with anyway, so I consider it no harm no foul. And if a young artist is able to get some exposure and has a good experience with it, I say good job.

    But I do think it’s important that entire creative arts community remain united behind the assertion that this is our livelihood, there IS monetary value behind what we do, and we expect to be paid same as any other professional. Fellow artists who don’t respect that are, to me, akin to strikebreakers, and the companies who use them are wholly disreputable.

  • Hey nick, yah I’m working on stuff through Fiverr right now.. I have 4 gigs to do in the next 2 weeks.. I’ll get a total of 20 bucks from it.. At 17 that’s still money.. and I like having it! I’ll put that into my site so I can be more professional… Sooner or later I’ll start charging more.. You know, after I’m getting a little noticed or talked about, and after I get some good reviews.. then I’ll stop spec work and require better payment.. I will be working in this industry so I’ll have to find a way in.. This seems like its working so far 🙂

    • “I will make a 3D/CGI (pixar like) video for you for $5”

      Seriously? Do you think this helps our industry? At the rate this industry is going, five bucks will be the norm.

      Shame really.

      • Of course this “hurts” the industry. But it won’t be stopped. More knowledge and cheaper/easier tools mean more people can make cool shit. This makes prices go DOWN overall. There is something you can do though. Be Great. Be Different. Be extraordinary. True artists will always be valuable.

    • Sounds great. You are a good example, Sam. This is a path that a lot of artists take to become great and learn more while trying to be noticed. Keep doing work on your terms for whatever money you want. Don’t let all this spec talk stop you from learning. Keep rocking!

  • So $5 per job is a good rate for you then?

    When potential clients show disgust at a quote I give, this quote from oil well firefighting specialist Red Adair often puts things in perspective for them –

    “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.”

  • This was great. In the future though, it’d be great if this was a two 30 minute episodes…

    just a thought! and thanks for talking about spec work…totally agree.

  • Hey guys – I’m just now getting into the “business heavy” side of motion graphics – and working more for individuals (as of late) than corporations.

    How do you all handle the actual contract distribution – do you send it as an attached document with an email, have them print and sign it and mail it back or what?

    Also, does anyone know of a place I can find a template motionography/editing contract??

  • Hey Nick,
    I was wondering if you know when the the plugin for cinema 4D to after effects CS5 will be coming out.

  • I did the Sesame contest and here are my thoughts…

    I did a couple 5 Sec projects and realized I needed to build up a reel. I got an honorable mention from Nick and decided to continue because I feel I’m doing pretty well for only a few months C4D experience. I stopped 3D in 2003 or so and didn’t really keep up with it because I was doing 2D motion and editing.

    We had a baby and I had a couple months off with not much to do but watch the baby. I had this idea years ago to recreate the Sesame Pinball Number Count. At the time I didn’t have the skills to pull it off. I figured I would try it again with C4D. I saw the article in Motionographer bashing Sesame and realized there was a contest going on looking for exactly what I had been planning on doing. I figured it would be a massive project, but a great test in technical ability. I learned soooo much about C4D over the next 16 days. I wasn’t sure if I would win, but at least I would have an awesome short to put on the ‘ol reel. I was initially in 9th place, but at the last second people used proxies to push themselves up and me to 69th place. I was bummed, but I got so much experience and a great demo.

    As far as Sesame goes… if I won, there was a prize, so it wasn’t really for free. Also, even if there wasn’t a prize I would have received recognition, so I don’t see the big deal. It would have been a high profile award. So, maybe in some cases NOSPEC makes sense, but not in the Sesame case.

    I posted it at (shameless plug)

    • Great story. I personally think it’s great that you did the contest. I think that artists should be able to do what they want. You sound like you learned a lot and it was worth it. I think that your case is the norm. you knew the rules going in and it was OK that you didn’t win because you still got a lot out of it.

      I think that this is my point about spec. People will do it or they won’t. Most people that do, know the tradeoff between getting paid and getting experience. My argument isn’t against, NOspec really. It’s for the artists choice.

      NOSPEC assumes that they are protecting the poor artist against “big mean corporations” and that just isn’t the case. You were smart enough to know that even though you didn’t win, you still got something out of it. Thats YOUR choice and that is great. In fact you learned about the contest FROM the motionographer article that was protesting it!

      Anyway, thanks for sharing your story. It’s great to hear from people that use these types of contests to be motivated and inspired to learn their craft. Cheers!

  • Great post. I missed the live feed, but I did have a question about finding work. I’d like to move to a bigger market, but don’t want to move before securing a job. Do you have any advice on making connections in an outside city? Going to design meet-ups is a great idea, but that can be near impossible if I’d like to work in a city that’s a few hundred miles out.

    • I would do everything you can to be connected in any way to someone in the city. Twitter and social tools make this easier. Even if not, try going in to a place an talking about THEM the whole time. Let them know how much you love their work and give them a card on your way out. Hopefully, you can make a connection and then next time they are lookinf for someone, they call you.

      It’s tough, but put your face out there, be awesome, and things will come. Goood Luck!!!!

  • Mate, you’re a passionate dude, but I fucking love it.

    I emailed you a few weeks about speaking at my college in Billy Blue, I sent an email to appropriate teachers and waiting to hear back from them.

    I’ll keep you posted!

  • Hey Nick. I love it what you are doing here. This defiantly helps me.

    However I live in Europe and I wonder what 2pm CST is in GMT? I defenatly want to join in a session, even if it is middle in the night for me.

    I could write a whole story about how I got my first little “job” just recently and how I am getting into the market at this very moment, but I don’t simply have the time now hahah. I’m back off to working.


  • just totally agree with you. over and out

  • I enjoyed the show! ha you answered on of my questions about charging for rendering…i’m somewhat new to freelancing….most of my freelance work has come through old places i was employed at previously that still needed work, so there wasn’t any kind of real negotiating on prices and whatnot….

    I wasn’t trying to pull a sleazy or douchey move charging for rendering….i just wanted to know how you dealt with it.

    Q. Since “resume’s don’t matter”, which I agree with. How do you go about dealing with getting your information to a company that uses online forms and “paste your resume” here as opposed to sending a pdf?


    • Thanks for the question anthony. No harm. I was just being snarky as always.

      With regards to resumes. You gotta do what you gotta do. But just remember, if a computer and not a human picks you out of a stack of resumes, be vary careful that you don’t end up in a place you don’t want to be.

    • I had the same question on rendering time when I started freelancing. I started out by getting associated with a creative agency that found clients and sent the jobs to me that fit my reel. This was nice because they knew a lot more clients that needed work than I did, but was bad because they set the price and then hired an artist at a reduced rate to skim their 10% or more off the top. They pay a certain price per hour and want estimates/bids going in a lot of times.

      Long story short, if I put all my hours of rendering in my bid as “billable”, I’d price myself right out of a paying job. What I’ve found that works is to allow for (and price) about 4:1 on the render time. That’s to say that for every 4 hours or so my computer is rendering, I’ll be logging on, making sure nothing crashed, making sure the lights and shadows all look right, opening sequences in AE to check that there is no flickering in the renders, etc. About 1 hour of actual “work” for every 4 or so hours of rendering. If you have a really long render, you can usually let it ride for longer once you make sure its looking good.

      Nothing is worse than setting a render at 2am and waking up at 8am to see that your render crashed at 2:30! You just lost 6hrs of precious time.

      A watched pot never boils, but a pot left unwatched will burn your house down!

  • Great comments on spec work, Nick, and I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Frankly, if I were a budding motion designer or a student fresh out of school, I would have loved opportunities like Sesame Street’s spec proposal.

    Let’s be honest, if you’re currently employed full time as a designer, or are a successful freelance designer, you’re just not going to have the free time to work on spec work (or at least I never can find the time!).

    So, basically, I’m in your boat. If you have the time to create a fun project for spec, hey, go for it. Chances are, if you have the time, you’re not as busy as you could be.

    If you don’t have the time for spec work, congratulations, you’re obviously busy and already getting paid!

  • Thank you Nick for another great broadcast!

    Also, another way to find gigs is by being a demo artist, I did it for a few years and the amount of people I met was amazing, you can do it for either the software companies or hardware companies that utilize the software you know.
    I got to travel a lot, got learn a lot and made great friends in the industry by being a demo artist.

    Keep Rocking Nick!

    Deyson Ortiz

  • This is great stuff man, very informative, I’m really grateful.

    Hope to see more videos like this one in the future

  • Hey nick, loved the broadcast, got a lot of good info out of it. I have a burning question, and I’m not sure if this is the right place to ask it, but here it goes anyways. I’m in the middle of college right now studying interactive multimedia. When I first got into college I wanted to do publication design, then I wanted to do web design, and now I just got really into motion design and 3D. I cannot, for the life of me, decide what I REALLY want to do. I just want to focus on one thing and go with it. How did you figure out exactly what you wanted to do?

    • To be honest, I didn’t have to choose. I just found myself playing with After Effects all day and decided to take it further. If you really REALLY have EQUAL passion for many things, then stop wasting precious time and just pick one. Flip a coin.

  • I just have to stir the pot just for fun. Is it possible to get your start as an artist on PBS? Maybe…
    Check out Morgan Freeman on Electric Company!!!

  • You should seriously consider doing one of these in a structured and recorded fashion…you have a lot of experience and know-how and I think that although the live version is kick-ass, it’s hard to take a lot away when you’re being bombarded with questions all rapid-fire and whatnot…

  • That was a wicked broadcast. Very informative and some great points and tips. Good stuff

  • Yeah, I totaly agree with you.
    I got many times scrowed by making some jobs with a 0% in, and from I gotte, I just got ass ache 😀 (sorry for the terme). we agreed with all things, when the final day, I don’t like that and this on the prints who pay the prints? me.
    And I don’t get any.
    But, now the things are changed, if they don’t give 50% first, they get nothing.

  • Nick, I think you look at spec work the right way. It can be a great way to build a young portfolio. You see a contest, you like the brand, you want to have another piece for your reel so you work hard as if it was just a personal project. You win either way if you make a kickass piece. It starts to become a problem when a bunch of middleweight designers enter the pool because theyre bored or have little to no work to do so they really are just competing for the prize. In that sense it devalues the work and the perception of our worth as creatives. That’s when companies get some decent work out from X amount of entrants and only paid 400 bucks for all us “starving artists” to produce.

    I’m neither for nor against crowdsourcing. In fact, I owe the start of my career to a few contests. It just creates a fine line between doing work for passion and cannibalizing your own industry.

  • thanks for sharing .. I like your post.. I learned great things,.. about freelance and jobs online..

  • Freelance writing is getting more popular among the class of people who have craze for writing. Just writing for clients for your pleasure definitely be not your aim, you have to earn your living through your writing. You have to be paid for your work. There always a middle point between your writing and making living, i.e. financial intersection. As a freelance writer you should have clear idea about this financial intersection and how to approach it.


  • Dear Nick,

    If you knew that what I have heard from you tonight, and everything you have developed made me feel good!

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Best regards,

    Franck, France

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