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The Five Phases of Freelancing

Unathi with open arms

Freelancing - the option considered by most designers and creatives in our industry. But what's it really like?

Freelancing, in my case Graphic Design freelancing, is a noble pursuit; meeting new clients, working for yourself, and exercising your creative freedom – who wouldn’t want that? However, my journey of the career path has been more of a struggle than a blissful hustle. Over my 5 year journey as a young, struggling freelancer, I have managed to identify five phases of freelancing.

In the beginning, all was good and well. There was no struggle, no hustle, just a young Visual Communications student trying to balance her first year and figure out how she would fit in the world. Then, one day, her lecturer introduced her to the phenomenal idea and career opportunity that was called freelancing. Well, it was more of a lecture about the do’s and don’ts around freelancing, but nevertheless, I was feeling inspired.

Phase 1

This first phase was called inspiration. I felt inspired to conquer my dream of financial stability, being a boss, and gaining much anticipated independence. As soon as I got my first client request - designing the corporate identity for my aunts restaurant - I felt as though if I freelanced all through my undergrad, I would have a strong foundation to go out on my own and perhaps, start my own business - a dream. But reality had other plans.

In the middle of my third year at Vega, we were asked what we would like to do after graduating. That question was not fun to answer. I mean where do you even begin? Well, “freelancing” was an acceptable answer, I thought. The hard part was the “and what?” that followed.

Phase 2

The and what? phase was emotionally draining. Were my freelancing plans not enough? Yes, I was going to continue studying, not for a leg up in my career but because I genuinely loved learning. You don’t need a degree to start freelancing or to be successful, but it was not a measurable point of success for many influences in my life. Even though the ‘and what?’ felt like a fly that would not fly away through an open window. I didn't let it stop me. I knew what my success would look like.

Phase 3

The next phase was anything short of awkward. That is why it is called the awkward phase. Being a postgraduate student who is working part-time or rather part-part-time because I was not getting as many freelancing gigs as I would have liked. It was not easy, plus COVID-19 fell on my plans like a ton of bricks. The COVID-19 chaos dawned on my life, and I did not know what to do. Feeling stagnant would be an understatement. But I got out of it. Well, I felt as though I did, for the most part. But the reality is that I could not find any gigs on my own. I was receiving referrals from family, friends, and my then-boyfriend. I should’ve been happy, but nothing felt as though I worked hard for it. To be fair, I was happy to be working during what felt like the end times, but it never felt earned, normal or, successful.

Phase 4

After a very awkward and chaotic year, I felt as though I had reached a dead end. It was a phase, though. I graduated with my honours, and I realised I was a working-unemployed graduate. However, in a country, where unemployment is at an all-time high, I felt stuck. Yes, I was freelancing. Yes, I had gigs, but I did not feel like I was living the dream I had conjured up for myself in my first year of studies. A dead-end for sure.

Then...I had an epiphany. The only way to get out of this dead-end phase was to change my perspective. I freelanced, so that meant I already had design experience. I also knew how to communicate with clients, and since I was independent, I could adapt. I had more than enough soft skills to apply for a full-time job. An entry-level junior position of course – not CEO...yet.

Phase 5

And that’s how my acceptance phase began. It was filled with a lot of acceptance from myself. Accepting the highs and lows of job searching. Accepting that I am located very far from my industry epicentre. Accepting that I must endure long interview processes only to be rejected again and again. Accepting that I am also young, qualified and I will make it no matter what.


Written By: Unathi Shongwe

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