Jeffrey Zeldman Shares His Advice for Aspiring Freelance Web Designers

Jeffrey Zeldman: 2016

Starting out as a freelancer in the web industry can be a daunting experience.

From finding new clients to balancing cash flow, many first-time freelancers don’t know where to start, or what to expect when embarking on their new entrepreneurial journey.

These common freelance obstacles were a central focus in our recent Shopify Partner Session webinar with web design veteran Jeffrey Zeldman.We discussed the state of the digital industry, career best practices, and strategies for finding success as a freelancer (you can watch the full recording below).

Throughout the conversation, Jeffrey shared some personal stories and anecdotal pieces of advice relevant for any aspiring web designer looking to build a successful career as a web design or development consultant.

We’ve compiled Jeffrey’s words of wisdom into a single article to help you navigate the world of web design freelancing.

1. Establish name recognition through content

Jeffrey Zeldman: Name recognition Making a name for yourself in the web industry is one of the hardest challenges facing aspiring freelance designers and developers.

Whether you’re fresh out of school, freelancing on the side, or just about to launch your own consultancy, it can be tough to establish yourself as a trusted supplier in the eyes of discerning, prospective clients. There are countless others offering similar services, so what can you do to stand out from the crowd?

When talking with Jeffrey, he stressed the importance of establishing “name recognition” within the larger industry, as a means for building credibility and finding new work. While this term was foreign to me at the time of our discussion, he was essentially referring to the potential power a strong personal brand can have on the bottom line of your business.

But name recognition doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s the product of a significant time investment towards building an online presence via content publishing, and community participation. And while at the start, this investment may seem too steep to rationalize, it can pay out dividends over the long term.

“One client I landed had discovered me through an article I wrote at,” Jeffrey explained. “The only reason I got a chance to write there was because I had been blogging on my own website for some time before that.”

The reality is that content publishing and community participation will probably not result in an immediate return on investment. Clients are most likely not going to claw at your heels for the opportunity to work with you, after you’ve published your first blog article or posted your original forum comment. To really see the impact of this approach, you need to be in it for the long term, and continuously work towards building a large, permeating presence in various online communities.

If you are thinking about entering the content publishing space, you have a few options at your disposal.

You can go the traditional route, and start blogging about your experiences on your portfolio site or a community-based publication like Medium (or if you’re eager, you can try both, like Jeffrey does). (Warning: shameless plug) You can even offer to publish with Shopify Partners on this very blog by reading our guest post guidelines, and submitting a concept to our editorial team.

If you aren’t eager to start blogging, there are tons of other ways you can create valuable content for the industry. Here are a few non-traditional spaces, where you can share your insight or projects:

  • TwitterThe micro-blogging platform allows you to share your thoughts on the industry, without having to write 1,000 word articles.
  • Dribbble Share illustrations, UI designs, and experimental concepts in this design-focused online community.
  • CodePen Similar to Dribbble, CodePen is a place where you can show off your front-end experiments, widgets, and animations.
  • Fonts In Use A contribution-based community where designers can share their favorite fonts and font pairings.
  • Github The online project hosting central for developers, Github is a great place to share public, open-source code with the larger community.
  • JSFiddle An online code editor similar to CodePen where you can test your front end projects, and share with others for feedback.

Jeffrey admits that this method is becoming more and more challenging to master in recent years, thanks to the proliferation of content across the web. But if you’re able to create insightful, actionable content to share with your prospects or other developers, you’ll be well on your way to standing out among the noise.

You might also like: How our web agency doubled revenue using content marketing.

2. Don’t get discouraged when things don’t work out

Jeffrey Zeldman: Things don't workOnce you start dealing with clients, it’s inevitable that some will simply not like the work you’ve proposed or designed. No matter how creative or effective your concept may be, there will always be those clients who have a clear vision in their mind, and will not settle for anything less or different.

Handling unhappy or “prescriptive” clients can be a challenge for all creatives, whether you’re a design veteran like Jeffrey, or brand new to the industry. It takes time to get comfortable with the notion that not everyone will like your work, and that not all projects will end happily ever after.

It’s easy to quickly dismiss negative client feedback as “misguided” or “just wrong” because in your mind, you are the design expert in this situation. But how you deal with client rejection should mirror how you would accept feedback from peers: you want to make sure you don’tto take things too personally, remember the purpose of the project, and try your best to accept insight from all angles.

In extreme cases, you might just be better off passing on the project entirely. While this can be hard to swallow for first-time freelancers fighting for their next gig, avoiding situations where you’re expected to be a simple pixel pusher can be downright liberating.

I’ve been fired more times than I’ve fired clients.

“I’ve been fired more times than I’ve fired clients,” Jeffrey explained. “Sometimes it’s just a bad fit, even when the money is good.”

And while clients will be assessing you at the start, and throughout the project, you should also be looking at them with a critical eye to determine whether the job is the right fit for your business.

This process can be challenging if you’ve never done it before. Luckily we’ve shared a model used by one Shopify Plus Partner agency that focuses on six primary aspects of a client relationship you should evaluate for fit. It includes:

    • Technical fit — The simplest way to measure if you should continue working on project comes down to whether or not you actually have the technical capabilities to meet their requirements. In a lot of cases, problems arise between clients and freelancers when they think you can deliver one thing and the reality is far different.
    • Portfolio fit — Knowing whether a project is a good portfolio fit requires you to carefully examine whether or not you foresee the work helping you land additional opportunities in the future. Will you be proud of the work you’ve done, or will the demands of your client cause you to hide your involvement from the world? If the latter, you may want to reconsider working on the project entirely.
    • Timeline fit — If a client has unrealistic expectations for the delivery timeline around a project, it can be a major pain point in your relationship. Not only will this time sensitivity hinder your creative exploration on the project, but it will also most likely impact the quality of the final product in a negative way. Before continuing further in your project, consider whether or not you can meet those deadlines, and produce a product you're proud of.
    • Budgetary fit — Not only do most project issues revolve around timelines, but they also frequently have to do with budgetary concerns. These issues can range from complaints surrounding the overarching price of the work, to deviations from your payment schedule. These issues can be avoided if you’ve gone over the budget in detail with your client before accepting the project, and have captured your financial agreement in your contract.
    • Process fit — This one is a little more obscure, and relates to a client not adhering to processes you’ve established to deliver your services. Agile freelancers are often willing to bend these processes to satisfy the client, but if the demands become too significant, you might want to reconsider the relationship.
    • Cultural fit — The final aspect to consider is cultural fit, which comes down to how you enjoy working with this individual. Every freelancer will have a subjective perspective on how much they are willing to tolerate from their clients, but sometimes personalities don’t merge well and the relationship becomes toxic — a clear sign to exit the relationship.

You might also like: The Value of Saying No to Potential Clients.

3. Always keep experimenting with side projects

Jeffrey Zeldman: Side projectsAbove all, Jeffrey stresses how experimentation and innovation are the cornerstones in every freelance web designer’s career.

“You can sometimes work yourself into a fortunate situation where clients come to you expecting innovation, and [are] willing to take the time to get it right,” Jeffrey said. “But that’s very rare and I have to tell you, you can be well known but those [still] won’t be most of your clients.”

For the average web designer, these “non-innovative” clients are often the bread and butter of the business. They know what they want from a visual design perspective, and what business results they want to see. And while these essential clients help you put food on the table, they don’t offer the freedom or growth most creative professionals crave.

That’s where side projects come in.

These non-client jobs allow you to stretch your creative muscles, and experiment with new approaches to design problems that you might not have the opportunity to do with client work. Personal projects can be a great avenue for personal growth as well, as they challenge you to explore complex or different problems, research potential solutions, and build something truly unique that you can then share with others.

Side projects can come in a variety of forms. For example, you could try pursuing one of the following ideas to really explore the depths of your creativity:

  • Challenge commonly used solutions — Use your side projects as an opportunity to explore radically different approaches to frequently used solutions. This could be in the form of a reimagining the traditional ecommerce website layout, an alternative to a common UI elements, or a new way of representing information online. Whatever direction you take, this exercise will expand your own perspective on possible solutions to common design problems.
  • Explore a new resource — Another great use of side projects is to leverage them as an opportunity to work with a new language, tool, or resource that you wouldn’t otherwise work with. This not only will help you shift gears from the status quo, but will also broaden your own skillset that could be applied to projects in the future.
  • Create something fun — Side projects don’t always have to be functional. You can spend a few hours a week working on something that is purely creative, like an out-of-the-box SVG animation or a funky illustration to share on Dribbble.

Whatever you decide to pursue, its important that you share your project with the rest of the industry online. Add it to your portfolio site, draft up a Medium post outlining the process, or just share it with your social network. This communication shows the world that you’re passionate about what you do, and could even lead to potential opportunities down the road.

Not sure where to start your side project? The answer is closer than you might think.

“You could share your experiments in communities like CodePen or,” Jeffrey said. “But above all, you should innovate on your own personal [portfolio] site and just make it as badass as you can.”

But above all, you should innovate on your own personal portfolio site and just make it as badass as you can.

Jeffrey does share a warning when pushing your designs outside of the box.

“Innovation is great, but usability is much more important,” he said.

Don’t forgo essential aspects of design — like accessibility, usability, and bottom-line impact — in your pursuit of innovation. Instead, try to tie innovation in with the business goals set out in front of you, and provide an amazing service to the users interacting with your design. That is the best way to approach design innovation.

You might also like: Why Hack Days Are Great For Designers.

What would your advice be for designers or developers going freelance for the first time? Let us know in the comments below!

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