Freelancing, Inspiration, Product/Interface Design

Q&A: Getting Started as a UX Freelancer

This is the first time I’ve attempted something like this. Let’s see how this goes.

Suddenly, I’ve been receiving at least one email a day from someone looking to get started as a UX freelancer. First off, that’s awesome! I fully support your decision to rock on and take the world by storm. But, fair warning, it’s a lot of work. It’s won’t always be easy, fun and filled with glitter bombs and funfetti cake but depending on what motivates you, it may be the perfect decision for you and your career.

Since people have been asking me these questions on a semi-regular basis I figured I might as well write some of my rambling thoughts down. Here are a few of the nuggets.

Note:  I am by no means an expert in anything (aside from possibly structured procrastination or giving the illusion of having a clean apartment by shoving everything into a closet, drawer or underneath any piece of furniture). So please proceed with caution. 

How did you get started freelancing?

I have a history of making huge life decisions impulsively with virtually no planning. My venture into self employement was no different.

Flashback to the year 2010. I had an awesome job working at a catering company planning some incredible events (the opening of the Butterfly Exhibit at the Museum of Natural History and a fundraiser featuring historically accurate menu items at Arlington National Cemetery stand out as highlights). I loved a lot about the job particularly the gourmet lunches (beef tenderloin with silton cheese and scallops were the norm) but the best part were my coworkers who over 3.5 years felt more like family than colleagues. But, the truth was, I wasn’t all that great at the job. I love parties and think eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures, but I didn’t have that “je ne sais quoi” to either spectacularly manage events or create innovative menu items. So, being somewhat smart and semi-motivated, I had to start thinking about my next step. I toyed with planning events at a company in-house or focusing on marketing elsewhere but I wasn’t thrilled with either option as a long term career.

Then came design.

Since I was itty bitty, I’ve been designing anything I could get my hands on. My handwriting was (and still is) so bad it’s been compared to a doctor who moonlights as serial killer. So to save everyone some trouble, I started typing my homework in 4th grade. My font of choice was the classic and minimalistically named, “Script.” Once I started typing my homework, my grades got better. In fact, no matter what I wrote good, bad or downright terrible, I seemed to consistently get A’s. I had just learned a very valuable lesson. Make your homework look professional and people will perceive it as such. Second lesson, people don’t really read – even if it’s their job.

So, instead of studying and working hard playing by the rules, I started designing my school work. Instead of writing reports (boring!), I would create brochures or presentations (exciting!) to communicate essentially the same things. With the help of my little sister (and child prodigy), this progressed to websites.

By the time I was 16, I had built my first professional website. Over the summer before my senior year of high school, I developed and wrote the content for a tiny site used by a department of a large organization headed up by a friend’s mom. Because of lack of seating space, I was set up in the corner office of vice president who was out for the summer. (Fun fact: this would be the first and last office I would ever have.) I was paid $10 an hour. I could walk to McDonald’s for lunch, pick up a book at Barnes & Noble and eat on the office roof overlooking the White House. I was living the dream.

That would be the last site I would design for almost 7 years.

But, I loved it. I could totally see myself doing this again.

Looking back now, I might have been a little crazy. I had decided to quit a great job planning parties with amazing people to start a design company all my my lonesome. There were countless flaws with this idea, the most obvious being I had no portfolio and more seriously, no idea what I was doing.

But I was going to make this happen, somehow. I gave myself one rule. I had to make enough revenue to afford to pay my rent, which was around $950, each month.

That’s was it. And so it began.

I wasn’t making much money in event planning, so I was used living on the cheap. Plus, I had saved a couple thousand dollars to cover expenses like food, health insurance and other startup expenses like business registration fees for a few months.

Fortunately, I had learned a lot more than I realized about running a business during my time at the catering company. In fact, those lessons I learned about sales, marketing, scheduling and execution are still things I use to this day.

Those first few months of self-employement are a bit of a blur. I started to tell people I wanted to become a designer and within a month, somehow, I was able to convince 3 different clients to take a chance on me. (Two clients were the parents of my friends. Honestly, I have no idea where I would be without my friends and their parents. ) Although I only charged a fraction of what I do now, those early jobs designing WordPress sites were enough to pay my rent for 6 months.

But, now I needed to learn to make those sites I had just sold. But good god, now the hard work began.

Looking back, I have no idea how I remained so disciplined. Every morning, I woke up at 7 am, made a cup of Yerba Mate tea (I was so healthy back then) and strolled to my computer to try and figure out how the hell to code a WordPress site. With the occasional break to eat, I would work until midnight, watch an episode of Law and Order, fall asleep and do it all over again.

I’m not even exaggerating when I say that was basically my life for 6 months. It was isolating, frustrating, and mentally draining. But, I can say without a doubt, the single greatest decision I have ever made.

How do I know if freelancing is for me?

Everyone has lessons they learned very early on that shape them for the rest of their lives. Through some introspection (mostly just trying to cough up an answer this question), I’ve become a bit more aware of some reasons. My parents, most certainly without realizing it, shaped me into someone who craves the chaos of a freelancing lifestyle.

Both are too smart for their own good (if that’s possible) and, although they would never admit it, were totally punk rock before punk rock was a thing. My dad, a petroleum engineer, is the analytical one. My mom, a comedy writer who can’t type, is the creative one. Take those two brains, squish them together and you’ve got yourself a UX designer. Here, I’ve taken some of the lessons drilled into me since I was a child and toned down the colorful language.

Freelancing might be for you if you believe at least one of following:

Question everything. + Think for yourself.

Freedom = Happiness.

Being in debt sucks. Be smart with your money.

If you don’t like the rules, change the rules.

Don’t expect anyone to hand you anything.

Work hard, but not too hard.

Do whatever you want, just don’t be boring.

Lastly, don’t take yourself too seriously.

If a few of the above is important to you, I think freelancing could be a really good fit.

What is it like to be UX designer in Washington, DC? How does it compare to other cities?

Honestly, I can’t compare design in DC to design in New York or design in San Francisco because I’ve worked with many more businesses in DC then anywhere else.

I can say this though, the design community in DC, particularly in UX feels small but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in heart. Cheesy, I know. But I’ve found all the designers I’ve met in DC are wonderful, warm and welcoming. I feel incredibly lucky to call these people colleagues and friends.

As for how DC businesses view UX internally— again —I don’t have a lot to compare it to. Plus to date, I don’t have any clients that are in very DC-centric industries like politics or government contracting. In the past few years, I’ve definitely felt a shift from UX design being a “nice-to-have” to being a “must-have”. So, I see a huge opportunity to grow and really make a difference with design.

Personally, I’ve never had an issue finding work in DC. In fact, I usually have many more inquiries to work on interesting projects than I could possibly handle. I can’t precisely pinpoint the reason but based on what I’ve heard, it’s a simple supply and demand issue. There are fewer quality and experienced UX talent in DC than there are companies who need their help. Honestly, don’t know. I’d love to hear other’s opinions. Or maybe, I’m just that awesome.

That’s all I got. I’m outta here.
mic drop

Filed under: Freelancing, Inspiration, Product/Interface Design

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Drew Lepp is a UX/UI designer and founder of TimeKat, who aims to create online experiences that help make people happier and more productive.

She lives in Washington, DC and enjoys inventing terrible dance moves, never cooking and taking videos of her forever kitten, Tiny Taco.