Ahh, the glamour of it all... Working independently, creating transcendent, achingly beautiful web design for sophisticated clients that throw endless gobs of money at you. Such is the life of the freelance web designer... Right?
'The Times They Are A-Changin' -Bob Dylan, 1963
Well, no. In fact, the fundamental nature of the Internet has changed so much that you may now find it difficult to pursue a career as a freelance web designer. Before I tell you why, let me share something about myself.
Five Reasons Not to Become a Freelance Web Designer
I recently retired after spending nearly half of my peak earning years as a freelance web designer. I've spent nearly 20 years doing this. The early days were intoxicatingly good if you had the talent and drive to find new business and create great web design. A little more than a decade ago I would receive three to five email requests a day for my services. My web design portfolio was in the top three Google search results nationally (in the US) for the search term "web design portfolio." I never spent a penny on advertising. A steady flow of clients came from referrals and my online portfolio. I focused on working with small businesses as I preferred the creative freedom of working directly for a decision maker rather than navigating layers of management in a corporation. I would say that this is nearly impossible to do today as a full-time occupation. Here are the top four reasons why:
Most small businesses today do not need a website. They can do just fine with a Facebook page. While you can do more with a custom designed website to support small business branding, the reality is that Facebook provides all of the essentials most small businesses need or are willing to pay for. Plus, it is free and does not require the skills of a web designer to setup or maintain. As a freelance web designer in 2018 and beyond, you will be losing the majority of potential clients to Facebook, your biggest competitor.
WordPress has become the standard tool of choice for creating small business websites. Nearly 25% of all websites are powered by WordPress. In the hands of a skillful web designer this tool can serve as the ideal foundation for small business web development. However, because it is used so ubiquitously, nearly everyone has a buddy or cousin that can buy a WordPress theme for under $50 and cobble together a basic website with WordPress. Will it look great? Probably not, but it will serve the intended purpose for many small businesses while avoiding the expense of hiring a web designer. If a business owner does need more extensive design work, there are numerous online freelance agencies that will farm the work out to overseas developers in India for far less money than hiring a local designer.
Do-It-Yourself Website Builders
You see them advertised nearly every time you watch a Youtube video. Squarespace, Wix, Weebly... They all allow you to build a basic templated website with no expertise for a small monthly fee. Most webhosts, including GoDaddy include similar features for do-it-yourselfers for no more than the cost of monthly website hosting. Like WordPress, this meets the needs of most small-businesses that would normally set aside a reasonable budget for freelance web design services.
Do you really want to compete for business with a 15-year-old computer geek working out of his parents basement who advertises website design on Craigslist for $75.00? He has no overhead and his work may not be the most polished. But here's the harsh reality: Most small business clients will not care about quality web design as much as you do. As long as they have 'something up' on the Web, they are content with lower standard work. You cannot make a livable income as a freelancer trying to compete on Craigslist. Don't try.
Mobile Standards and Responsive Design
Web design has become highly standardized with the popularity of mobile devices. That's why most mobile-compatible websites look pretty much the same nowadays. With mobile-compatible websites, you are not designing much at all. You simply plug in images and text into standardized mobile-compatible layouts. Web design layouts must be simple to ensure compatibility with smartphones and tablets of every shape and size.
While you can charge more for building a website from scratch using responsive design, most small businesses are not willing to pay for it. Most often, you are taking an existing bootstrap or WordPress theme and filling in your client's text and images to keep your fees competitive. Do you yearn to create web design that is truly unique and creative? There are small businesses that want higher quality web design, but you will go broke searching for them.
The Unvarnished Truth About Freelancing
There you have it. The truth about freelance web design as a career choice in 2018. If you want to earn a livable, steady income as a web designer, you will need to work in a corporate marketing department or at a well established advertising agency. Otherwise, expect some lean times between freelance clients. Take it from someone who has been in this field since its inception. It's not so much about your abilities as a web designer or businessperson. The way the Web works now is shrinking the small-business customer market that at one time provided the 'bread and butter' clients for freelance web developers. Nevertheless, I wish you the best if you want to be a freelancer in this profession. Just do it with your eye wide open!