17 May 2017

How to go freelance: need-to-know advice from creatives who made it


17 May 2017


Once you’re free from the bubble of uni, the “real world” of the creative industry can seem daunting, and going it alone can be even more so. For many creatives, however, it’s the freedom they’ve been craving, a chance to finally show the world what they’re made of, and many establish a solid career having never stepped into a “normal” job.

Take these four successful freelance creatives: Owen Gildersleeve, Emily Stein, Sister Arrow and Jack Sachs. They’ve made it, and they have some great advice for how you can too, from practical tips to ideas for getting your creative momentum rolling.

Sister Arrow

Be yourself

Make the stuff you really want to make and put it out into the world. ‘Self promo’ in the social media sense can be a bit soulless in my opinion. Who cares? Everyone’s promoting something. Spend your time and energy making the work, then think of where you can get people to see in its most appropriate setting. Whether that’s in print publishing, an online platform, film screening, exhibition, a workshop… the format should relate to the content. Then talk to the people there about it. In person. Don’t ever be afraid to talk about yourself and your work. As long as you are asking questions too, then you will have great conversation and people will be interested in what you do and are passionate about.

Be knowledgable. Learn as much as you can, all of the time, forever. The more you read, watch, see, observe, listen to, the more you will understand the world and what your role is in it. Context is everything.

Practice drawing lines. Over and over. Understand the control you are capable of, and work with that.

Manage your Money

Be upfront with yourself about your finances. Don’t hide from your bank account. Initially, expenditure needs to be as low as possible on all non-allowable expenses items (see this government guide). However, you should be able to assess when it is a good time to invest in yourself and your studio practice. Working on rubbish equipment that slows you down is sometimes necessary but not economically sustainable in the end. Better to get in (manageable) debt and and have a fast computer that doesn’t beachball or crash every five seconds.

Buy people stationery and books for presents because then you can put it on expenses. Make sure your holidays are work-related, like, you are doing essential research or going to a meeting when you’re there (aren’t you??!)

Get friends and family to buy you non-allowable items like clothes and toiletries for your presents. Spend your own money on equipment and materials and subscriptions. Or save it. You will need a back-up fund for if you get sick or injured or out of work.

File all of your receipts weekly. I never do this because I’m stupid and don’t listen to my own advice. 

Don’t ever stop.

Art, illustration, design, animation – it’s a long game. Focus on the horizon.

Find out what your ‘thing’ is; what do you most care about in the world? What makes your heart beat fast and get you excited? Your work should be centred around this thing. Then you will always be motivated to do it.

Be brave.

Take risks and believe in yourself.

If opportunities arise, even if you aren’t completely certain you have all of the requirements for the job, go for it. Anything technical you don’t know can probably be learnt via online videos in your evenings, while on the job. Ring the most reliable person you know and ask them for help or advice if you’re feeling unsure.

Tell yourself how great you are, and how great you are going to be. Even if the evidence doesn’t quite match up yet. It will ;-)

Owen Gildersleeve

There are a few bits of advice that I give to any students who I meet during university visits and talks, mainly based on things I stumbled across over the years and mistakes I made. The first is the importance of having a website and getting your work out there: nobody will know who you are or what you’re capable of unless you have something to show them. Sometimes people feel their work isn’t worthy enough to be shown to people, but it’s always surprising the good things that people are able to see in your work from a fresh perspective.

It also came as a surprise to me the types of people that can stumble across your work. My first commission came in from the New York Times during my second year of university off the back of a personal project I’d put on my site. I would never have thought that those guys would be looking at my work at that stage! 

The second thing I really recommend is to get out there and meet people face-to-face. It’s such an important thing to make personal connections, not just with potential clients but with other people in your field. This then helps you to build a community and support network who you can call upon when you need help, or if you are just looking to bounce around ideas or let off some steam. This is extremely important when you leave university as it’ll help you transition from student life, where you are constantly surrounded by your peers, and in turn will hopefully allow you to feel part of wherever you settle.

Jack Sachs

It sounds obvious but getting in touch with people you want to work with is really important when you’re starting to freelance. It’s never that hard to find an art director’s email to introduce yourself and show them what you do. Avoid emailing their personal accounts or turning up at their homes. I’ve watched film/art directors find people to work on jobs just by going through their inbox and looking at emails like this so it definitely works, and even if you don’t get a response you’re still in their inbox and they’ve looked at your work. 

In terms of your work I think it’s really good to maintain a personal practice alongside your professional one. They end up informing each other and help to keep the other fresh and fun. Also I think art directors are more interested in work you’ve done for yourself and not another client as it’s easier for them to imagine it working for their job without another client’s stamp on it.

Emily Stein

Money vs. Creativity

After I finished college I worked part-time in a photo studio and assisting various photographers to make enough money. I think it’s really important that whatever work you get to support you, it will benefit or inspire your own work in some way. It is really easy to take on too much other work to make money, but this can end up taking up so much time that our own practice drops further and further into the background. So, I guess it’s about finding a balance between making money and making your own work so you can build a portfolio and start getting it out there.

Collaboration with people you admire is a brilliant thing to do too. Get together with an art director or graphic designer whose work you love and make something together.


When it comes to making a website, keep it clean and simple, something that you can update easily rather than having to pay someone or wait for someone else to do for you. I use Cargo Collective and it’s really easy.

Getting a studio

I got a studio as soon as I could, as there is nothing more depressing than working at home. Even if it’s a desk share and you have 2-3 days a week in the studio, at least you can get in somewhere with other creatives who you can bounce ideas off and you don’t feel like you are alone in the world, sitting at a desk by your bed in your PJs at 1pm.


When I first went freelance I expected to get somewhere quickly and if I didn’t, I felt I was a failure. I wish I could go back and tell myself the truth. It has taken me years to survive from doing my “work work”, and it is a real privilege to be able to do this, but it’s not something just to expect will happen. It may take years, a lot of heartache, and constant self doubt, but if you are your work and are passionate about what you do there is no other option and making a living from doing that is an amazing thing that most people don’t get to do and will take time.

Also, be prepared to chase and chase people. Don’t expect anyone to get back to you! They are busy, it isn’t personal. Expect disappointment after disappointment on the way, this way when it happens it won’t get you down. Don’t be discouraged, never give up!

Supported by A/D/O

Founded by MINI, A/D/O is a creative space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn dedicated to exploring new boundaries in design. At its heart is the Design Academy, which offers a range of programming to professional designers, intended to provoke and invigorate their creative practice.

If you’re after more advice and insight into the creative industries, sign up to Lecture in Progress – It’s Nice That’s new sister company, which was launched to inspire, inform and empower emerging talent with information on the workings of the creative world.

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