Freelance vs in-house: fight!
What sort of design employment is right for you?
As a design leader, I used to pride myself on treating all my freelancers identically to my FTEs. I hold 121s, I ask them about their career goals, I include them in team activities… I support them professionally and personally so that our time working together is as conducive to their broader life goals as it can be.
(my definition of good management, btw.)
It was only meeting some amazing career freelancers like Shay Hulbert (3D character artist) and Avalon Portolan (ecommerce product designer) (hire them) that I realised this approach might not actually be the best for everyone. Not every freelancer wants this level of business involvement! And this got me thinking on what this difference, between a freelance and inhouse designer, really is.
I’ve always been a FTE (full-time employee; I blame Microsoft for my many TLAs [three letter acronyms]), apart from a brief stint in 2015/16 where I freelanced to support myself while going back to university. And I kinda always expected that full-time, in-house employment was everyone’s eventual goal. Oh how wrong I was…
It can be hard to see why you’d ever want the other life, if you’ve only worked on one side or the other. I’m here to pull back the curtain!
Freelancers earn more
The unpredictability of freelance work means that, generally, you can charge more for your services. According to the YunoJuno freelancer rate survey (which you should absolutely go read!), the average rate for a UX design freelancer in 2023 is £497 per day, equating to £89,612 as an FTE (according to this freelance-to-perm calculator.)
Meanwhile according to Glassdoor, the average salary for a UX designer in London is £53,682. Massive difference!
Take both these numbers with liberal handfuls of salt (particularly side-eyeing the Glassdoor number). But unless you’re in big tech or really excellent at negotiating, it’s hard to argue the financials. Freelancers, if working consistently, generally earn more.
Another common benefit I hear from my freelancer friends (Allie Oldfield, special edition book designer and Rosie Jarvis, environment artist, to name but two) is “the harder you work, the more you earn”. Work 3 days a week or 6- it’s your choice. You set your rates- you hustle for clients. This can be very appealing, especially if you’ve been an FTE stuck without a pay rise for years because the business’ profits haven’t been strong enough.
However, it’s not all milk and honey. Freelancers aren’t generally given access to employee stock purchase plans, or many bonuses and benefits. Things like private healthcare, mat cover and paid holiday might not matter to you now- come back to me when you’re trying for a family.
It’s very hard to quantify all the benefits of being an employee. They are often intangible- such as…
Employees are the company
They build the culture, and reap the rewards when it flourishes.
This can be represented in employe stock purchase plans (ESPPs), company trips and events- even entry to business-critical meetings and projects. If the term ‘blue badges only‘ gives you shivers, you get a veterans’ discount.
As an employee, you shape what the company and team is. If the company wins, so do you! Doubly so in design. If you have any interest in design process, efficiency and advocating for it being better, it is hard to do this as a contractor, as you’re just not there for long enough, or with enough influence, to see these changes happen.
This flows in reverse, too. Employees feel the brunt when a business struggles- when a bad hire is made and drags down team morale, or your project is dragging on in a direction you disagree with, it’s much harder to bounce.
Employees are the company. For better, and for worse.
Freelance is task-oriented; in-house is process-oriented
Companies bring in freelancers/contractors for a few reasons
Flexibility. You’re a small team who need creative support to get something off the ground? You get a freelancer. Bringing someone on FT is so much higher cost and risk- and you might not need them beyond the length of a project.
Sickness and parental cover. This is particularly prevalent in big tech companies (there are whole agencies dedicated to it!)
Financials. Shareholder/senior leadership manipulation. “Look how small our employee overhead is!” See also-tax
As one recruiter put it to me, “tech companies do layoffs to appease their shareholders, then realise ‘shit! we still need to ship these features!’”
In my time as Head of UX at Drest, I was able to set the hiring parameters for my team (lucky me!). I hired in a variety of ways (and learned a lot doing it!)
I hired full-time employees when I knew there was work for that headcount for at least six months to a year, and I had the resources to onboard and train them.
I hired longer-term contractors when I needed someone (generally more senior) to own part of a process or project, but didn’t know if I had the work for them 6mo down the line.
I hired shorter-term contractors when I needed something done yesterday, and I needed boots on the ground I knew could do it.
As a freelancer, you’re generally brought in to solve a specific problem and your work will be evaluated against your outcome of solving that problem. Much more difficult to rest on your laurels if you want a slow week. Your work is task-oriented.
Meanwhile, an in-house employee is an investment. The hiring manager should be bringing you on to grow you and make you an integral part of the team for the coming years. Your work becomes process-oriented. You go from building individual designs to building the company culture that allows great design to be made.
Some of the most joyous achievements in design, especially as you grown in seniority, are building design culture in an organisation and improving its UX maturity. This is important to consider if you’re thinking of going from perm to contract, as the scope of your work and influence may need to change.
Freelance isn’t for everyone. But neither is being in-house!
These days, I don’t treat freelancers the same as my employees (not only because I’m funemployed), but because I’ve recognised that what I want in my career and work life is not necessarily a given! Wow so humble.
I believe all creatives should try both sides of the freelance/in-house coin, as it gives more perspective about what truly matters, both in design and your approach to it. In-house teaches discipline, critical eye and consistency over time. Freelance teaches self-advocacy and speed. All things needed for a strong design sensibility.
Who knows, maybe I’ll even give freelance a go myself!
Letter from the editor
Thanks for reading! I start my courses at the Royal Drawing School this week! 2 days/week working on life drawing, printmaking and the imagination, through until the end of May. So I think I’ll talk about the benefit of creative practice for designers next week. Wish me luck!