Many designers seek full-time staff positions, but it's also possible to build a very successful career as a freelancer. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that three out of ten designers are self-employed. Some independent designers work directly with business clients, submitting fixed-fee proposals for specific projects. Others prefer to work behind the scenes as an additional resource for established creative firms. Most design firms and agencies cope with temporary increases in their workload by bringing in outside designers on a sub-contractor basis. A freelancer with very specific skills is brought in to help with a particular phase or aspect of a project and the freelancer is usually paid a negotiated hourly rate.
When you perform freelance services for a design firm, you should negotiate and sign an independent contractor agreement. Large design firms and agencies will have one ready for you to review before any services are performed. Typically, this agreement only needs to be discussed and signed once because its purpose is to describe the underlying nature of the relationship, rather than to describe any single project.
The wording of the agreement will vary a bit from firm to firm. The essential contents will include: a commitment on your part to maintain the confidentiality of all information shared with you, a guarantee from you that the work you deliver will be original and will not infringe on the rights of any third parties, and a brief description of your status as an independent contractor—including the fact that you're responsible for your own taxes and business expenses. For more information about your legal status as an independent contractor, see publication 1779 from the Internal Revenue Service, Independent Contractor or Employee.
Standard independent contractor agreements will also include an assignment by you of intellectual property rights. An assignment means that you are granting all rights to the design firm. In a sub-contracting relationship, intellectual property rights are negotiated differently than when services are being provided directly to business clients. There's a good reason for this. Design firms need to acquire all rights from their team members—whether employees or freelancers—because they in turn will be selling some or all of those rights to their business clients. Obviously, design firms cannot sell that which they do not own.
Sample agreements can be found in the paperback >Consultant and Independent Contractor Agreements by attorney Stephen Fishman.
There's also a sample independent contractor agreement in my own book Talent Is Not Enough: Business Secrets For Designers.
Did you find this column helpful? Click here to rate it!