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A blog about branding, marketing, and design, mostly through the lens of practical psychology, intended to be a resource to small businesses and entrepreneurs. Unless otherwise noted, all articles are written by Nyla Smith, owner of n-Vision Designs. {Subscribe to the RSS feed here: RSS}

Why I dislike the term "freelancer"

Nyla Smith | Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Let me clarify — I dislike the term freelancer only as applied to myself. I harbor no ill will against the actual word, or others who identify as freelancers, I just personally don't like being called a freelancer. Here's why.

  1. "Freelancer" is too ambiguous. The term holds many connotations, but for some, it insinuates "not a real job"... that it's a hobby, something done on the side, as in, "Yeah man, I freelance on weekends." And therefore...
  2. It can weaken the perception of your professionalism, expertise, legitimacy, or commitment / longevity. It could also imply a limit of resources.

(Also, I've become convinced that subconsciously, some people hear "freelancer" and get stuck after the first syllable. "Freelancer" does not mean "free" [or even "cheap"]!)

Freelancer vs Business Owner

By contrast, what qualifies as a business? I would say there are three criteria people (either knowingly or subconsciously) measure a business against: 

  1. Size of company (i.e. how many employees there are)
  2. Establishment of a physical brick-and-mortar location
  3. Rigid business hours

And in general, this equates to "more legitimate."

By definition, I very well may be a freelancer. But, by another definition, I'm also a business owner — and that is how I prefer to see myself. I am an independent business owner, but a business owner nonetheless. I do not have employees (I contract out when needed) and I work in a home office (low overhead), and yet, somehow(!) I still run a business, nonetheless. Try telling the City of Hampton, commonwealth of Virginia, or the Internal Revenue Service I'm not a business owner — Homey(s) don't play dat.

I hope I don't sound like I have a bone to pick — I don't, this is just something I've given reflective thought to. It may seem like a small thing, but all the small things are what make up the big picture. Consider: What if someone introduced themselves to you as a "freelance doctor"? What would that mean to you?  Would that make you think he wasn't a "real" doctor? That he wasn't serious about the work he did? Would it cause you to question his knowledge, authority, legitimacy, or availability? Would you go to him if you needed medical attention? ...Or would you prefer a more "established" medical facility? Just food for thought. There's no right or wrong answer, but your answer is based on your perceptions of what you understand a freelance doctor vs. emergency room to be.

So what does that mean for me?

So essentially, this is a "branding" issue for me. How do I present n-Vision Designs? How do I want to be perceived? What values and capabilities do I want n-Vision Designs to be known for? Who do I want to cater to? These are all questions that a business should be able to thoughtfully answer.

Ultimately, for now at least, I've decided my dislike of the "freelancer" moniker is not enough for me to change my existing brand positioning. I could very easily make myself sound bigger. The simple change of using the word "we" instead of "I" when referring to n-Vision Designs would do 90% of the work alone. But I value transparency, and "we" just generally feels a bit deceptive. The reality is, larger projects do become a "we" effort — I often will build a team of other experts outside of the immediate realm of graphic design or web development (like photography or social media marketing) to work on a particular project with me (And, FYI, that's exactly what many "large agencies" do as well). However, that is not always the case; and I stick with "I" for the very reason that I intentionally want to be received as approachable and friendly... To reinforce the notion that clients can expect personalized and individualized service... To reflect that when you call me, you don't get a call center... To emphasize that when you get a website from n-Vision Designs, you know who is working on it. Those are the values and the personality that the people I want to work with respond to. Is that set in stone? We shall see. So far it's worked for me because I've learned people like doing business with people, not with faceless corporate machines. Does it present challenges? Of course, which means I have to work harder to overcome the perceived negatives of working with a sole proprietor or "freelancer". But I'll stick with it until it stops working for me, until I see a need to position myself differently in order to obtain different types of clients, or need to reflect a change in how I do business.

Whenever I meet with a new client, this is the type of information I gather from them. It is important that I understand how they want to be positioned in the market because it affects everything about their branding and marketing pieces — for the logo: what colors communicate best?...For website copy: what voice should they speak in?... For print pieces: what type of imagery is appropriate? For some businesses, this may be difficult to pin down initially. Yes, they may have to make some tough decisions, because you can't please everybody, and you can't be all things to all people. But ultimately, knowing who you are is the most important thing you can do. 

Nyla Smith is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 13 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.
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