The power of being an external expert
Why freelance outsiders become critical design saviours.
One of my clients is the largest telecommunications provider in New Zealand. They command hundreds of employees and run multiple internal product design teams. Yet they’ve chosen to hire me — an independent freelance UX/UI designer — to lead a critical redesign of their entire digital design system (across websites and apps). Why trust a project that complex and important to a lone outsider?
Many of my other clients are fast-growing, well-funded tech startups with innovative digital products or data services. I’ve led them through design processes — sometimes lasting over a year — to discover and create their apps, products, and marketing websites. Why bring in a freelancer for this, when they have the culture and funding to recruit a top-class employee for the job?
These are questions I frequently reflect on to better understand why people choose to engage me vs. a design agency or hiring an employee. While I’m often pleasantly surprised at the size of projects I land, I’m beginning to understand more about why clients decide to hire experienced outsiders to handle their most mission-critical design work.
It comes down to four important principles:
- Time + Resources
- Quality + Experience
- Price + Risk
What was the Gig Economy is now becoming the Expert Economy. A freelance design career is not about becoming a global commodity and chasing gigs that go to the lowest bidder. It’s about establishing yourself as an expert and then selling that experience to the highest bidder. Experts are always hard to come by and therefore, in demand.
Here’s why even well-equipped companies often turn to external experts (like you and me) for their most important design work.
They don’t have the time or resources
You fill a hole in availability or attention.
Their employees are too busy. They may have designers capable of the job, but they can’t afford to pull them away from their other tasks without disrupting the good flow they’ve got going.
So why don’t they hire a new designer to take the lead?
The job isn’t large enough to justify a new hire. Even if the initial project has a demanding workload, once it ends, there’s nowhere near enough ongoing work to keep a full-time designer busy. A one-off burst of work and then an ongoing relationship of support from a freelancer is the perfect match for the project’s workload.
Or, on a more subtle level, they simply don’t have the mental capacity to worry about the details. They need someone trusted to take the reins, so they can focus their attention on the big ideas with the confidence that an expert can look after running the project’s details autonomously when required.
They don’t trust their skills to produce quality
You fill a need for more expertise and experience.
Their designers don’t have the right kind of experience. They’re trained to follow an existing design system (and they do that exceptionally well), but they may not have the vision to create an entirely new one. They need a leader, but most of their designers are followers.
Or, their people don’t have the right mix of UX/UI design skills. Assembling an internal team to do the same job would require a number of narrow specialists, which is too costly. Your t-shaped strengths, project management nouse, and “product design” skills are a big leg-up here. Corporate life tends to breed specialists. In contrast, most freelancers are forced to develop a broad spectrum of general skills to complement their core strengths. That “specialized generalist” perspective is your superpower.
It may even be that you’re simply better than anyone they could get, even if they could justify a new hire for the project. Or you’re more qualified than any of the designers they already have. It can be very difficult and time-consuming to find a world-class designer looking for employment in the right place and time. A freelancer might be the best person they can possibly find for the job, regardless of employment status.
But why a freelance designer over an agency?
Agencies aren’t often as specialised in UX/UI work. The “one-stop-shop” strength of many design/advertising/branding agencies turns to a weakness here. They want someone experienced in exactly what they need, without the fluff. And they want it from a single person, not a whole new team.
They also see you as a more integrated part of their team. The 1:1 attention you can give them as a freelancer forms a more intimate working relationship than they get from agency hierarchy. Nothing lost in communication or translation. Nobody else trying to over-control or own the process/project. You become an extension of their team rather than something that forever remains an external enterprise.
They can’t find a better price/risk ratio
You’re the perfect balance of cost, quality, trust, and expendability.
They see you as low-risk. If things don’t go well, they can walk away and find someone else without the hassle and justification of firing an employee. You’re more easily expendable. It might be a one-off project and then they cut ties (but if you deliver at or above expectations, they’ll realise your value and do just the opposite — they’ll never want to let you go).
Ironically, it’s a freelancer’s expendability that often wins them jobs that eventually turn into long-term, career-shaping partnerships.
But again, why a freelancer over an agency?
You’re usually less expensive. Even a high-priced freelancer is generally cheaper than an agency (because you’ve got far less overhead). You’re a lower financial risk.
You may also be more experienced than your agency counterparts, where often the directors and managers do the talking, but the juniors do the grunt work. Your personal reputation is more assuring than the unknown relationship an agency offers. You’re a known quantity — a lower risk.
They don’t have the perspective so see a new solution
You provide a valuable viewpoint that those inside cannot see.
They need an external viewpoint. Those close to the company who are entrenched in their way of thinking can get too narrow-minded to come up with fresh ideas or new ways of solving problems. It’s difficult to be objective when you get too familiar. They need an outside perspective to help shake things up and look and challenges from a new angle.
They realise that they need to stop designing the same old stuff, but need an external spark to help them stretch for it.
Big change can also come with friction and disruption. There may be some within the organisation that can’t or shouldn’t know what’s developing until the time is right. Trusting an expert outsider can be a more discrete way to handle sensitive projects on the side until they’re mature enough to bring everyone into the fold. It offers a safer space to experiment without creating waves.
External experts balance the strengths of both worlds
Expert freelance designers, if you’re wondering whether your career choices will attract the clients you want, remember what makes your unique position appealing:
- You offer a new design perspective, but you function as an integrated part of their team.
- You’re a trusted, experienced, “low-risk” choice, yet you cost less and provide more specialised expertise than other “safe” external design options.
- You’re a flexible injection of time and attention that can balance the needs of an internal team with discretion and without disruption.
When you see it that way, it’s no wonder that the largest and savviest clients — from startups to corporates — choose expert freelance designers to lead their most meaningful projects. Gain the reputation of a trusted expert, and there’s no limit to your design opportunities.
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Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.
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