There was a time, during the blissful ignorance of my youth that I dreamed of being a freelance artist. Superficially, it looks like a fascinating world where you’ll never get bored: myriad clients from around the world, a variety of projects which are both educational and unique, and at the end of it all, your portfolio can launch you into doing any job you feel like. You earn the right to turn down clients, people seek you out and respect your creative decisions, you make beautiful things, and you are the master of your own domain.
As the innocent perspectives of youth painfully shed away, and four years of art school continues to hang around my neck like a goiter, useless and expensive, freelancing takes on its true form. Like Dracula, it seems quite sexy at first, but once you get into it, it’s pretty fuckin’ ugly and will do anything it can to suck out your soul. Each new project is a new hell, but no matter what your output is, they all end up feeling the same.
Circle One: Limbo. This is where you exist in between clients. You play Rock Band, or maybe actually embrace this time to read a book, but the guilt of leisure nags your every moment. Shouldn’t you be earning money? Can’t you look harder? You put down Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and turn to a random page of How To Freelance Better, You Lazy Tool. The problem with working from home is that you can never actually leave work, and the oppressive hum of the overhead lighting becomes your entire world. You end up fiddling with your portfolio, or you might even actively seek out a new client, but you dread the moment you actually land one, because you know that you’re just stumbling into the same infernal cycle again.
And then, the e-mail arrives.
Circle Two: Lust. Your own desire to eat, and maybe get that new Batman action figure, overwhelms you. Didn’t the latest season of Dexter just come out on DVD? For a moment, you are completely convinced that this project won’t be like the last one, and that the client won’t be a violently ignorant moron, and that the money is worth it. Maybe your work won’t be homogenized until it becomes an unrecognizable slush. This moment lasts just long enough for you to orgasmically click “OKAY!”, drop a saccharine and enthusiastic reply about how excited you are to work with the client, and subsequently curl up under your covers, wracked with shame.
Circle Three: Gluttony. The client consumes. The terms of the contract become far more complex than originally indicated, but not out of malice. Clients generally have the verbal skills of a Speak ‘n’ Spell, and are limited in their ability to communicate ideas. “Draw me a hand holding a flower” actually means “draw me a hand in the style of Charles Schultz (geriatric style, please) delicately grasping a peony between its forefingers.” This description won’t arrive until you’ve drawn 15 variations of other hands and a virtual botanical garden of other flora, but you won’t stop letting your client consume you. You’ll give more and more, because there’s a crisp $20 bill at the end of it for you. And you are a whore.
Circle Four: Greed. And that beautiful $20 bill is all you need. No amount of effort is too great, as long as you can pocket that cash at the end of the deal. The basic principles of high school economics class are, at this moment, bullshit. Supply? Demand? Work versus profit? You might as well be talking about ghosts versus oranges. Money is everything. Words have lost all meaning. Artichoke pants green.
Circle Five: Anger. There will be a moment of clarity during the perpetual tug-of-war with your client when reality sets in, and you start to let your burgeoning impatience slip, and you’ll be completely justified. Sure, they’re paying you to do a job, and that certainly warrants some degree of flexibility on your part, but a client never fails to press well beyond the bounds of acceptability. “I want a logo design” becomes “I don’t want a logo design, but let’s salvage this by having you create a completely different product for me. And by the way, the new product is an artistic depiction of a butthole.” (And yes, this is a completely true story). When you’re asked to scrap an entire project because your client has simply changed their mind, you become angry. You can fire off a few ambiguous comments about what you might have done to their mother last night, or comment on the minuscule scope of their brain or genitals, but leave enough lexical ambiguity in there to permit yourself a way out of looking like a jerk. I promise that this is the catharsis you need to get through the rest of the project, which has now somehow mutated into redesigning the client’s kitchen so that it looks more like The Muppet Show, as if it were designed by Damien Hirst.
Circle Six: Heresy. This has been happening throughout, but it comes to a head here. Everything you learned in your expensive art school is worthless when it comes to interacting with clients. Your color theory is no match for something they saw on a Geocities site once. You might begin to include very sound, intelligent descriptions about why your designs are actually very effective, but once again, words become meaningless in the face of something that reminds your client of their kitten. Art school never offered a course in diplomacy, or pretending that your client is some kind of secret creative messiah here to save you from yourself, but it’s probably a more important skill than knowing how to use Adobe Illustrator.
Circle Seven: Violence. Since most freelance clients exist in the ether of the Internet, violence isn’t always possible, but Googling the hell out of someone to find out their secrets, and possibly their address, is entirely possible. As a freelancer, you won’t have the funds to hop on a bus to Tukwila (thereby bypassing any tell-tale passages through tollbooths on your murder spree) and shove some positive space into your client’s negative spaces, so the only recourse you have is silence. You let the project drop for a few days as your client pulls out their own hair, deadlines fast approaching. It’s not illegal to remotely allow someone to destroy himself, right? Indigestion goes both ways, pal.
Circles Eight and Nine: Fraud and Treachery. While the first seven circles are almost guaranteed, these last two are optional. If you’re not going through an escrow service like eLance or Guru (both of which will rape you in their own unique ways), it can feel shady to work with non-local clients. Occasionally, they’ll disappear right after a semi-final draft is offered up, but more often, you’ll be dragged along with mysterious payment issues. Clients have an amazing ability to completely forget their PayPal passwords, or become mysteriously locked out of their accounts, or have their banks closed for weeks at a time due to mysterious foreign holidays that Wikipedia has never heard of, or be abducted by pirates. I can also understand a client’s unwillingness to put up a down payment, as there are definitely fake freelancers out there who will disappear after they get a few bucks, so the game of trust is a treacherous one.
Don’t let your client build up a $2000 debt. I learned this the hard way. Set a limit on your goodwill.
As you emerge from the end of your project, fresh hells will always await you. You’ll learn a little, you’ll be a little closer to death, but at least you’ll be buying yourself a slightly better coffin.