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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

Patricio Robles

Published 2 March, 2016 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2406 more posts from this author

Comments (7)

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Morgan Jones

Morgan Jones, Digital Manager at Freestone Creative

Apologies for my rather wordy contribution but there is an ebb and flow about this that I have witnessed personally in organisations. Typically a company does not have qualified staff to perform a function so they outsource. Over time the project managers in the organisation get a better idea of what is required to perform that particular function. They then put together a specification document outlining what is required of the role. The organisation recruits against that spec and you have your first in-house staffer. This continues until a full team is completed and everyone is high-fiving because they've saved money.

Naturally the organisation sees this as a positive and this continues until a saturation point (two - three years down the line) is reached i.e. there aren't enough in-house projects, and the in-house staff start to become a drain. At this point the organisation considers that they don't need to pay people full time to do a job that no longer has enough work so they start letting people go. The team diminishes and the skill-set is no longer there to complete future projects. Further down the line a new critical project is required (new technology is being utilised) but, rather than go out and recruit again and waste time on gambling and/or training, the organisation resorts to outsourcing again and the circle continues.

Freelancers will never go away, but you are right to suggest that they adapt. Personally I'd suggest they become 'design consultants'.

7 months ago

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Vincenzo Parente, digital designer at freelance

20 years in digital design... now switching to driving for Uber. Better pay, more flexibility.

7 months ago

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lawrence shaw, Marketing at Sitemorse Ltd

Interesting piece, thanks

Freelancers would benefit from a collective resource to assist with business development....using the likes of FREELANCER.com, poeplebythehour etc are to recruit we find can be very time consuming, and the quality is so varied.

We have a ongoing role open for a freelancer creative / designer - email a quick introduction and examples of corporate level work hr25 (a) Sitemorse.com

7 months ago

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Andy Pimlett, Director at EVODESIGN

This debate is largely dependent on your definition of 'web designer'. The traditional definition, of a person who crafts user experience, design and coding into a single, atomic business proposition harks back to an area in which companies and their marketing departments lacked understanding of digital and indeed the value of the digital marketplace was not a strategic priority.

The landscape has obviously changed dramatically, with not only digital marketing carving out a complex and high priority place in the business world, but also the technologies becoming complex and specialised; requiring larger teams to integrate to leverage the true benefits.

An appropriate analogy might be the distinction between a builder capable undertaking a garage conversion, compared with the complex interplay of architects, engineers, developers, contractors and sub-contractors needed to build a skyscraper.

To continue the analogy, there is now greater demand for skyscrapers than garage conversions.

7 months ago

Vel Forrester

Vel Forrester, Owner/Lead Developer at Forrester Web Services

A great article. I also agree with Morgan and Andy's comments. In most cases large development firms beat out freelancers and even smaller firms on these "skyscraper" jobs because large firms can manage the entire project in house which saves a lot of headaches for the business. Being a "design consultant" may be a solution to this in some cases if you like managing other people. Great idea Morgan.

I also think the economy has had some effect on smaller projects. Recently I have had customers balk at websites that were well under priced where a few years ago they probably wouldn't have batted an eye. It's some what ironic that the templates and frameworks we have created over the years have turned around to take our jobs.

Vincenzo... Uber is sounding pretty good to me too!

Best,
Vel

7 months ago

Alasdair Graham

Alasdair Graham, Head of Online Marketing at Shout Digital

Perhaps things are being looked at from the wrong angle here, the issue in my eyes is one of supply and demand rather than web work drying up.

There’s exponentially more freelancers than there was compared to even 5 years ago due to the barrier to entry being fairly low to set up shop (extremely low overheads and risk compared to most businesses).

All these freelancers are competing for the same pool of work, which I’d argue hasn’t grown as fast as the number of freelancers causing people to slash prices to compete, driving other freelancers out of work, rendering them unable to “make the same living they were making 3+ years ago”.

TL;DR: The amount of work hasn’t changed much, there’s just more freelancers than there is work now.

6 months ago

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James Skinner, Digital IT Operations Manager at Dyson

I think increasingly businesses need consistency across projects, devices, media, teams. The days of a "creative" handing over a PSD to some "developers" are long gone; these skill sets need to work together. It's achievable with freelancers but in my experience more difficult.

6 months ago

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