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Where do you fit on the business-art spectrum of freelance designers?

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I’ve noticed something fascinating recently on a post I wrote a couple weeks ago.

In just two weeks, “What your pricing strategy says about you as a freelance designer” has quickly become one of Millo’s most popular posts and has definitely broken blog records in comments with a staggering 114 (and growing) comments in such short time.

And as I’ve read all the comments (yes, I read all the comments on my blog), I’ve learned something very intriguing.

You'll also enjoy this episode of our new podcast...

The spectrum

There’s a wide spectrum among freelance designers.

At one end, lives art.

At the other, business.

And somewhere in the middle lives the ideal freelance designer: the one that can create beautiful works of art and find clients that are willing to pay them enough to sustain their business.

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So the big question is: where do you fit on that spectrum? (If you already know, leave a comment and let’s talk about it.)

Two extremes

Like any spectrum, there are two extremes on each end:

First, there’s the designer who, at all cost, will only create work they can proudly boast about. Work that is truly considered a work of art by anyone with any sense of beauty.

The other is a designer who is willing to sacrifice good design for extra cash or more clients. These designers dramatically underprice their services and care more about getting a check than providing great design for their clients.

So where do you fit?

So the big question is, where do you fit on the business-art spectrum of freelance designers?

My hope is that you fit in somewhere in the healthy middle area.

In my mind, the ideal freelance designer sits right in the middle of the spectrum which means:

  • You are willing to compromise when a client won’t budge on certain questionable design choices. You don’t entirely give up their position, but work to find middle ground with their client.
  • You stand up for the work of art you have created. Compromising on some requests (see point 1) means you have the right to defend other decisions you feel are much more important.
  • You never sell out for a cheap job that won’t satisfy your desire to create beautiful things.
  • You never let your passion for art kill your business. If you are over hours on a project but just want to keep playing with colors, details, etc., your business side should take over and reign in your artsy side.

Do you agree with what I’ve mentioned here? Where do you land on the spectrum? Are you more concerned with making money or making art? Or are you a perfect mix in the middle? Leave a comment and let’s talk!

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is an entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, and the founder of this blog. You can contact him via twitter at @prestondlee.

Leave a Comment



  1. I am art mostly but I am navigating through the business side….

  2. I am in the business of providing graphic design services. I can educate and I can demonstrate why their choices might not be optimal. However, if the client wants something that looks like c**p, I will give them the best looking piece of c**p I can.

  3. I would say that I’m in the middle. It can be a struggle with my artsy side to compromise but I still do. You said it best, ” never let your passion for art kill your business” and more often than not i find if I compromise is one area I usually can defend other design choices that In feel are key elements to the design and they will stick. In the end it’s all about making my customer 110% satisfied with my work while creating the best that I can for them.

  4. I agree with Michael. I think we forget that in the end we are a service business. I have actually gone through the exercise if explaining why a client’s request is not in his best interest, aesthetically and practically. And when they insisted on bad art, I told them I will give them what they want but they are not to tell anyone that it is my work! That’s happened twice in my career and I ended up not working with them again. In my area, I know of very few freelancers left. They have all gone inside due to the bad economy. So at this point design integrity has to take a backseat to survival. In NYC or other urban markets, that dynamic may not exist. But for the rest of us, it is a harsh reality. Cash strapped clients have no need for prima donnas. I speak from 35 years experience.

  5. I hate to admit it but I´m in the dark side of the business :S … I wish I could be in the art side but with the expensive world we are living in I must say that I am the business side of the spectrum :S … I´m from Nicaragua and I really enjoy your blog, very helpful. Is great!! …

  6. I’m a complete beginner, picking up the art of design and programming. I can tell I aim for the healthy middle. Easy ? Not always. Luckly there’s plenty of excelent advice and a lot of people to look up to!

  7. Steve Richards says:

    I have always differentiated fine arts from graphic arts by stating, “graphic arts is a business”.

  8. This article kind of explains why I read your blog religiously. You give great advice on how to find that balance. I currently lean more toward the art side and have a very hard time asking for money from clients, but your blog is definitely helping me learn how to do it!

  9. i think the same, the middle is the healthy one… in one hand you enjoy working and making the best design you can do for those that appreciate your design and pay for it, and in the other hand you have sometimes clients that they don’t wont to pay the price…
    I always say “you pay a “fiat” price you’ll get a “Fiat” and if you pay “Mercedes” you’ll get a “Mercedes” design … that’s life! I try to be in the middle in price and do the best I can just because I love what I do, It’s very hard to give a design that is not “finished” like you think should be and not to be proud of it 🙂

  10. I’ve been running my own design shop since 1999 and what I’ve seen in recent years, compared to years past, is that my clients aren’t hiring me for any creativity and/or design knowledge/talent that I bring to the table but instead just want me to be a photoshop monkey for their ideas. Plus I am getting a lot more micro managing from nervous/scared middle managers who fear for their jobs and want to justify their paycheck by making sure their idea (however lame or poorly thought out) is implemented into a design. Maybe I’m just getting old/jaded, since I’ve been in the business for 10+ years, but it didn’t used to be that way. Previously my clients and I worked on a basis of mutual trust/respect with an end goal of producing a great design that also fulfilled their visual communication needs. Is anyone else experiencing this?

  11. I don’t feel like I have to compromise either. If you pick the right clients who value your skills and insight and bring great work to the table you can have the best of both worlds.

  12. Veronica Aramburu says:

    In my practice I have learned that the place to be is where you feel proud of your work, the client is happy because he loved it and you solved their problems of communication ON TIME! and you get paid for what you love to do. There is no way that you always get the chance to convince them with your own aesthetics or taste, otherwise if you are so stubborn you won’t get paid, and is a business and you need to pay bills, always remember that.

  13. I’d like to tell you I’m more in the middle than I truly am. I always feel nervous and anxious about how new clients will react to what I consider very reasonable quotes. Then I second-guess myself…if they’re okay, I wonder if I should’ve charged more. If they’re not, then I wonder if I’m too expensive.

    SO, my solution was to take the emotion out of pricing. I set what I feel is a fair, reasonable pricing structure on my website and follow it religiously. This way I’m just “following the rules,” even if I did make them myself. Sounds silly, but it works for me.

  14. Personally, I am completely on the art side of the spectrum and it’s of no use to stay on the business side. I do have a question everyone can ask themselves with regards to their own spectrum…one that really helps me out from time to time with work…
    Would you tolerate doing a corporate design job, that gets you really really good money “(Great Business)”, and you are somewhat of an assembly line with design, churning out brochures, ads, logos etc. day-in-day-out. Or would you tolerate getting a phone call for a job, it’s low-pay, and it’s from your dream company, the one that you’ve always wanted to work with “(Great Design)”. Which one are you going to go for? That should tell you something about yourself when both of those contrasting design environments are available for your picking…..

  15. Sharon Bunting says:

    It is a diificult balance to obtain between the profitableness financially and the artistic/creative fulfillment. Most often I can manage to meet both to a reasonable degree, but neither to the fullest degree. I guess that puts me in the middle. I can’t pursue another field without losing my mind – so I know creativity has got to be a part of my daily life. That either makes me eccentric or dedicated – not sure which. But as my husband so kindly reminds me – difficult clients challenge my ability and make me reach to do even more than I am capable of now.

    But then there are those clients who just flat out have no vision and are stuck in the mire of their own minds. After attempting to work with them a bit – I just give them exactly what they ask for – never looking back and not wanting to be credited in any way, shape or form.
    Shaking off the negative energy, I then look forward to the next positively engaging opportunity to create… and earn my keep!

  16. I definitely lean more towards the artsy side. When coupled with crippling perfectionism my jobs can drag on for far longer than they should. Then the business side glares at me for not closing the job and getting on with invoicing. I do think there is a middle ground, but it lies closer to the art end of the spectrum for me. Why would I bother freelancing if I wasn’t going to take care in my work and be proud of it. I could go do a half a** job for someone else and probably get paid more!

  17. Shabbir Joji says:

    I really enjoyed this post and replies, I am working with an advertising agency as art director and I have about 30 years of graphic design experience, I my Experience I saw many different deals and design values, I am agreed that there are so many way to sell you creativity, as LEE said for designers who are new in business this is the safest way… be in the middle bcause you cannot eat your work.

    Butt who are experienced and know the ups n down of business, they can play as they have skill of business, some are at the art end and they are getting what they want. some are on the business side and they are selling every thing in any price… it depend on you how can you sell your work, I would like to say you must have business skills with your creative skills.

    Thank you Millo ans specially Preston D. Lee, It is very helping post for designers..

  18. i would probably be in that healthy middle if i knew where to find clients! i have thoroughly enjoyed the work that i have done for friends and acquaintances, and they have been happy to pay well after seeing the results!

  19. Just the fact that you are “in” a design field says you are and must have an artistic makeup to your self, so I look at this question a little different than it reads. First of all, how good are you’re artistic talents, then how good are your design skills. They both must mesh to consider success in the field, as good as the training you absorb. With these most important elements in place, adding a “business sense” to your skills and talents is a must to freelance. Disciplined habits necessary for competing in the field include organizing financial affairs, taxes, budgets, and the whole other side of the equation of a complete freelance, which must be done on a regular basis. It’s kind of like: The left half of the brain does the artistic endeavors to complete the design end of it, while the right half does the math and/or ‘realist’ end of things. Most designers find the latter most difficult, since the more artistic one is, the less “realist” one usually is, only disciplined people, who keep the money and numbers in order will survive. Can I make it? Only if I can discipline myself to keep the books in order. I think my work will speak for itself.


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