Design has arguably never been more important, but are the days of the freelance designer numbered?

According to one former freelance designer, many independents are struggling and the future might not be very bright.

In a blog post, Sarah Parmenter described what she’s seeing in the market:

There’s very few freelancers that I know of, making the same living that they were making 3+ years ago. Conferences that were once a staple part of every web designers calendar have disappeared and no one from “the old days” can quite put their finger on why the web industry feels different.

Work has dried up.

‘How can that be?’ I hear you ask. 
’We have more devices than ever that need to be designed for – we’ve got more jobs than ever to do.’ 
Or maybe you’re one of the lucky ones saying ‘I’m busier than ever!’ – judging by what I’m hearing at conferences, and what I’m seeing come in on my inbox. You’re lucky. You’re in the minority.

Lots (and I mean lots) of people are struggling.

Parmenter points to companies recruiting full-time staff, and even corralling non-design staffers into design roles. 

“What I’m hearing when I go out to speak at conferences, is that a large chunk of people at web design conferences haven’t been in the industry very long at all,” she explained.

“They actually never even chose the web industry as their profession. They’ve been sidelined into the web job from another non-web-position within the company.” 

While this may be a part of the story, there are other factors that may be making life more difficult for freelance designers going forward…

1. Design is too important to outsource

More and more companies recognize that a great customer experience is crucial to their success online.

User experience is a part of customer experience, and a big one at that.

From strategy all the way down to pixel pushing, many businesses are uncomfortable outsourcing design functions related to user experience because they are seen as being too critical to entrust to outside talent.

2. Specialization & commoditization

Many freelance designers lack the specialized skills a growing number of companies demand in design roles.

For example, many companies expect designers to come with a multitude of skills, such as the ability to implement functional prototypes. 

At the same time, traditional “web designers” who seek to earn a living creating Photoshop Design Files (PSD) and handing them off for implementation may find that there is less demand for their services.

In short, designers without specialist skills will have to contend with the fact that they are often going to be seen as providers of a commodity service.

3. Cheap website templates

Thanks in part to the emergence of popular front-end frameworks like Bootstrap, there are thousands upon thousands of high-quality website templates that businesses can use to develop respectable websites and even web application front-ends on a budget. 

While many argue that such templates can’t compete with a custom, handcrafted design, the reality is that cheap website templates have thrived because most consumers don’t particularly care if the website they are using was based on a template or not.

In most cases, they don’t even know.

4. Competition from agencies and firms

When companies are willing to outsource design work, freelancers must contend with agencies and design shops that are frequently much more adept at playing the business development game.

This is especially important on larger, more complex projects that may involve multiple design functions that companies are skeptical they’ll be able to find in a single designer.

So is the freelance designer soon to be a thing of the past?

It’s unlikely that the freelance designer will go away completely, and there are certainly freelance designers that continue to thrive despite the trends described above.

But the design landscape has clearly changed and those looking to participate in a freelance capacity will likely need to adapt if they want to ensure there’s a place for them in it. 

For more on this topic read our new Career and Salary Survey Report 2016