The pros and cons of freelance vs. employed staff in the design industry

The pros and cons of freelance vs. employed staff in the design industry

The design industry typically has a lot of freelancers.  There are many benefits to working as a freelancer if you are a graphic designer, including the ability to set your own hours, the ability to select which industry, style and design category you work in, and the ability to achieve a good work/life balance.

But what about the pros and cons from an employer’s point of view?  Is it better to employ freelance or full-time designers?  Many small businesses start by using the services of a freelance web designer so when is it better to take the plunge and employ one full-time? Here we look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Why hire a freelance web designer?

Pros

It will save you money

If you are just starting out or only run a small business there may not be enough work for a full-time web designer so there is no point in having one as a member of staff.  A freelancer will just charge for the work done, which if there isn’t a huge amount, will not be as much as employing a full-time staff member.  Although the hourly rate may be quite high the work should be completed quickly and efficiently.  You will not be paying for downtime, holidays, pensions, PAYE or office equipment.  

Freelancers are specialists

Freelancers typically specialise in one area.  You may want a UX designer or one who is good at the technical side, either way you can use the services of a niche designer to fulfil the needs of a particular project.

Many freelancers have experience working with a huge number of clients.  Each client will add to their knowledge and expertise.  You can benefit from this experience in advice about the direction your project should take.  

With remote working now being the norm for freelancers, the talent pool you have access to is much larger.  You could employ a designer from another country if needed.

Short term commitment

One big advantage to hiring a freelancer is the ability to bring in an expert for each project.  You may need a designer with a specific skill set for one project, and another with a different skill set for future projects.  Using a freelancer means that there is no long-term commitment, you can use them as and when required.  Why go to the hassle of employing someone full-time if you only need a designer for a short space of time.  The process of getting rid of a full-time member of staff is quite long winded, but it is quick and straight-forward to end a freelancer’s contract.

Cons

They may disappear without warning

A full-time member of staff has a commitment to you, whereas a freelancer does not.  They may suddenly disappear mid-project and stop returning calls and emails, leaving work unfinished.  It’s not very likely but it can happen.  You will then be left in the lurch and need a plan B.  

They may still need training

It’s not only full-time employees that need training, you may need to train a freelance designer too in order for them to get up to speed with your company and products.  Having to do this multiple times for each project can be time-consuming.  A full-time employee only needs training once.  So if the training is long and complex it may be worth hiring an in-house designer for all projects.

They may exaggerate their skills

You may find a freelance designer that is so keen for work they exaggerate their expertise.  Always ask to see examples of their work and client testimonials.  Try to speak to a previous client who can tell you about them.

Why hire a full-time employee?

Pros

They are committed to the company

If you hire a permanent designer they become part of the business.  They have a vested interest in the business succeeding and will be working with you towards a common goal.  They know that your success is also their success so will be more committed to a project’s outcome than a freelancer.

They are always available

If you have a full-time designer they will be available for last-minute jobs or changes at short-notice.  A freelancer may be busy but you can ask a full-time employee to drop everything else for something important.  You also don’t need to schedule lengthy meetings to discuss projects – they will be up to speed with the business and able to work quickly.

They are reliable

A full-time member of staff is always on-hand for work that comes up.  The same may not be the case with a freelancer, they may be busy with other clients.  You can rely on a permanent employee to always be able to do the work.

Cons

They can be more expensive

Hiring a permanent employee brings extra costs.  There is national insurance to pay, plus a pension, holiday pay and sick pay.  If the market is competitive you may have to offer a higher salary or additional benefits like health and dental insurance and bonuses.  Then there are the overhead costs.  Providing office space, decent computers and specialist design software isn’t cheap.

Sourcing the best talent can be a challenge

With so many graphic designers choosing to be freelance, finding decent staff to work for you permanently can be challenging.  Depending on where you are located, the talent pool may be quite small.  Advertising and interviewing take time and if you are in an area with a lot of big employers you may have to offer a higher salary to compete.

They need to be paid regardless of workload

When times are slow it is difficult to have to pay all your staff as a small business.  But if you let them go you have to go through the time-consuming process of re-hiring when things pick up.  You may not always have sufficient work for a full-time graphic designer, you need to carefully consider this.

Employment rights

Full-time employees have certain rights by law which freelancers don’t have.  If you neglect these you may find yourself in trouble.

So should you hire a freelancer or a full-time designer?  It really depends on:

  • The amount of design work you have to do
  • Your budget
  • Whether the work is short-term or long-term

Exhibition stand contractor Quadrant2Design started off by using freelancers, but has moved to having in-house designers.  MD Alan Jenkins said ‘When we first started we didn’t know how much work we’d have for a designer, so it made sense to keep costs down and use a freelancer.  But as we’ve grown and the workload has increased we have now employed permanent designers, they know the business, can work quickly and are reliable.’

John Norwood
John Norwood is best known as a technology journalist, currently at Ziddu where he focuses on tech startups, companies, and products.