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Freelance Gigs vs. Studio Jobs: Which One Works Best For You?

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For web designers, there's pretty much just two types of us: those who work for a studio with others and those who go solo as a freelancer. Each have their perks and downsides - and today we'll be examining the pros and cons of each to help find which one is the right fit for you!


Studio vs. Freelance: Is the Grass Any Greener?

"there aren't many fields like web design that allow an individual the ability to take on projects of their own without a full team to support him/her"

It's worth noting that this is a highly personalized choice for any web designer. Lots of designers and developers specifically picked this as their career because of the freedom it allows them... but they quickly realize that there are huge benefits to working as part of a structured team. This can often complicate a career decision that most of us never really thought we'd have to make. To make matters worse, web design is an industry that's getting more complicated by the week. Some studios have entire legal, financial, and marketing teams to help keep them afloat... which can make it hard for some individual designers to compete with.

If you've been working in the web design field for any length of time, you might have a "the grass is greener on the other side" mentality. Lots of studio designers often dream about having more freedom and the ability to negotiate their own project rates. Likewise, lots of freelancers envy the consistent paychecks and job security that a studio position can bring. Today, I'm here to help clarify these issues for you. In this article, we'll pit the pros and cons of each method of work for you to make an informed choice.

Let's face it: most of us got our start in the field of web design working on projects for friends, family, or ourselves. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the vast majority of studio designers out there have also have picked up side projects at some time during their "studio" careers. Whether or not you considered these side projects as a "freelance" career, the fact is that it's an experience that most of us can relate with.

The reason is simple: becoming a web designer, unlike becoming a doctor or lawyer, is a process that allows you to work on side projects before you ever take a full position in a studio or design agency. Quite a few college students taking classes also opt to start taking on freelance projects during their coursework. This is something that's more or less unheard of in other industries... consider a medical student trying to perform "pro bono" surgical operations while he was still in med school! The same goes for lots of specialized industries. The simple fact is that there aren't many fields like web design that allow an individual the ability to take on projects of their own without a full team to support him.


Freelancers Have No Boss (Besides Themselves)

The appeal of taking on freelance projects is obvious; The freedom of working on your own time, with no boss limiting or directing your creative workflow, can be a huge attraction to some web designers who aren't interested in being saddled with anything that resembles an office job. Being your own boss means you naturally still have to work, but you can do so on your on your own terms and take an hour off if you need it. Want to go out for that long lunch? You can if you're a freelancer!

You might even perform better as a freelance designer because you'll be taking on more responsibility and making the big decisions yourself. Working purely in the direction you want can drive your motivation for the product, which can often lead to better final results.

However, the freedom of being your own boss does not come with only advantages. There are some cons to the situation. Freelancing as an individual means you have a slightly less stable income than if you were working on regular salary work with a studio and it could become harder to plan financially if you use project-by-project pricing.

Being self employed in general has obvious disadvantages such as company-provided health benefits and you will be required to pay out from your fees for these types of incidents. Sure, you have the option to take some time off when you feel like it, but there's no sick or holiday pay should you not work for a day.

Overall, it's a lot more difficult to be a freelancer full-time and there's a ton more stuff to think about. However, while having no boss means you have more work to do on the business side of things, you have more overall freedom over your work.


Freelancers Can Choose Their Work

Building on the idea of having no boss, freelancers get more freedom and choice in their work. If you're a one man show, you can choose specifically what jobs you take on with varying effort, time and general work needed.

This means that you can look for projects that are suited specifically to your talents. It means that if you only feel like doing a few newsletter templates, you can choose to only take that much on. If you're motivated and ready for a big challenge, you can go ahead take that on if you want. This means you're workflow correlates to your free time and hopefully reducing (and contradicting) one of my later points. It also allows you to spice up your workflow and do different jobs instead of sticking with a single, monotonous task.

If you feel like going international and have a copy of Skype installed, the freedom to move across the borders is one generally appreciated more by freelancers. You can work for a Hong Kong restaurant or for an Australian store. It really doesn't matter because the limits of the web don't exist. Of course, studios can enjoy this same benefit but it's a lot easier to rack up an international job as an individual.


Studio Workers Have a Consistent Paycheck

Perhaps the biggest argument for working collaboratively at a studio is that one will receive a regular paycheck no matter what happens. This means your financial house is a little more regular and consistent which might be a preference over the potential lack of financial stability of a freelancer.

Working on a consistent paycheck means studio work is pretty much like being employed by any company. You work on an hourly rate on a specific, constant number of days a week. This results in being able to financially plan ahead which can be important in the current economic climate.

Unfortunately, you're more likely to be limited in your ability to work additional hours than if you were a freelancer. If you're working hourly as a freelancer, you can just stay in your office for a little longer and still charge for those hours whereas your studio counterpart might be limited in their overtime.


Studios Take Care of the Business For You

If you start out as a freelance, your tax, your client relationships, your expenses and pretty much everything else are managed by you, which can add some additional strain on your life. Luckily, studios are just employers and they act in the same way as if you were working in most other professions. They provide your hardware in most cases and your benefits, hours and pay are maintained by the business. Therefore, you can just concentrate on your work and potentially do a better job.

Aside from the legal and business-oriented advantages, the idea of having someone next to you to collaborate on and talk over ideas can be seen as a big pro. Discussing your ideas and brainstorming as part of a group can result in a better quality output and guide your thinking into a superior end product. Having someone to absorb and build on your creative juices can be a great opportunity for a new learning experience, especially if you're working as a junior alongside people with more experience in the field.

In the UK at least, working under a company means you pay PAYE (or Pay As You Earn) tax that is deducted right out of your salary. This means you won't have to fill out an annoying Self Assessment tax return at the end of the tax year or pay for an accountant to keep your finances organized.


Working Collaboratively Offers More Direction

As I touched on before, working as part of a team can offer a new learning experience, especially for those new to the field. Working alongside and cooperatively with others helps both of you bounce ideas off each other and gain critical feedback that can contribute to a project's visual and functional success. If you're at home and an error strikes you, Google might be your only option. If you're working in a studio, there's probably someone else there that can troubleshoot it for you, if your efforts are fruitless.

Plus, studios can contain a diverse bunch of people with a selection of skills that work together, normally specialized by one individual. Collaborative working means the wider skill set of your studio's community can be applied and their co-operation creates a better design in the long term.

Naturally, freelancers can still bounce their problems and ideas off others thanks to the various communication platforms of the internet. It just seems a lot easier to shout over to Paul on the other desk than ring him up on Skype.


Freelancers Run the Risk of Work Overload and Stress

This is something I can relate too. As a freelancer, one might feel obliged to take on more work they can handle when demand for your services is high. Sure, the payout at the end of it's nice, but constantly working can leave little time for anything else. It can also result in poor end products as you battle through endless tasks to get them over and done with. In a studio, though, you probably have someone to deal with all that for you as you are only handling one job delegated to you.

Taking on too much can lead to some stress and the action will most likely affect other areas of your life. The strain of impending deadlines and the amount of work involved can be extremely daunting for some who have other important things going on. It's not the same 9 to 5 job and if you decide to take an afternoon off, you might have to recap one night or at a weekend.


Freelancers Can Network More Often

If you're a freelancer, your more likely to be out networking and making contacts in the real world and online. You're not limited to the confides of four walls with the same people every day. By freelancing, you can go out and meet people, both clients and peers. You can build up some awesome working relationships with subcontractors and your fellow freelancers which is always great when you're in a community such as this.

You never know where networking might end you up. You could be offered a job, bigger and better projects or just find someone to talk to and bounce ideas of each other. If it weren't for getting out there and communicating with different people, I, quite frankly, wouldn't be talking to you now!

Networking with people doesn't necessarily mean that you are visiting conferences and physically meeting new people. Just by following someone on Twitter or getting engaged in the comments of a blog or forum post can help find you future friends, clients or coworkers. The internet has changed things and, with your whole life online, you are no longer bound by country, time zone or even language!

That's not to say that those who work on a studio are monotonous drones (1984-style). In fact, you'll probably do a fair share of networking there but you may find you're working with (and, in some cases, for) the same people over and over again.


There's No Such Thing As Job Security

We are still living in tough economic times and there's not really anything to say that your job is secure. That is, unless you're the boss. As a freelancer, as long as you can tap into the supply of potential clients, you will have a nice enough income and, as mentioned before, have the power to control that. Being a freelancer allows you to have some job security, as long as the flow of work is still there. If you can't find clients, there's numerous ways to continue work, like creating and selling mass-market themes on a marketplace like ThemeForest instead.

However, if a web design agency is running out of work, your neck might be on the block. As with all companies who have financial problems, your studio might decide to lay off people, resulting in the potential for you to be kicked out. It's the same for pretty much any profession, web design or otherwise.


A Third Option: Remote Teams

There's a third choice that many designers have made over the past couple years. More and more, teams of designers and developers are grouping up in "remote teams" that group up to tackle big projects without ever leaving their locations. For instance, Brandon (the editor here at Webdesigntuts) worked with a remote team for several years that included people from the US to Canada to Australia. The benefit of these remote teams is simple: you get the perks of working with a big, talented team without ever giving up your freedom. The team itself benefits from not having to pay for a brick and mortar set of offices.

There are downsides for these kinds of remote teams though. First, it's much harder to sell the services of your team if you don't have an established office because you'll lack credibility until you have a big portfolio. Naturally, it's much harder to organize projects and run effective time management when everyone is in different timezones. Using tools like Basecamp, Copper, or Redmine can help mitigate these problems and make remote teams just as effective (if not moreso!) than other single location-based teams.

You also lack the "culture" of working in an office with other designers... is a problem that many freelancers deal with. Using local cooperative working spaces (or even just working at coffee shops) can help eliminate this feeling of working in isolation, but there isn't much that can really replace the water cooler. Still, if you can create your own work culture on an online environment, this is an option that lots of web designers may want to consider. We do work on the web, don't we? Why not make that your office?!


So, Which is Better?

This is much more of a personal question than it may seem. The answer depends on your current personal and financial state. For example, if you're willing to take on some added pressure and stress, freelancing might not be so bad. But if you're a student freelancer in the middle of studying, that might not be the best thing to add to your schedule.

Similarly, getting experience through studio work might be advantageous for those who are new to the field and who may find it hard to grab client's attention. A constant salary means they can safely step into the industry without the fear that they'll find little or no work. There are obviously hybrid approaches as well - ie: designers who have part-time agreements with larger studios who also pick up freelance projects on the side.

Are you a freelancer? Do you work for a studio? Let us know your thoughts on the pros and cons in the comments!

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