A designer walks into a manufacturer’s office (sometimes it’s a department store) with a portfolio. The designer is given the opportunity to make a presentation of sketches to the highest-level decision-makers in the company. The managers listen very carefully, are very encouraging and ask a great many questions, leading the designer to believe they want to buy all of the designs at a good price and with generous royalties as well.

One of the managers asks to take the sketches into another room on some pretext that seems reasonable at the time and returns with the portfolio a bit later. In the end, the company decides not to buy any of the sketches and the designer leaves feeling very discouraged.

Several months later, the designer is stunned to see her original designs in a magazine spread (sometimes it’s in a department store window display). After some checking, she discovers that the manufacturer who previewed her portfolio copied every single one of her ideas and of course, they’re earning millions from the theft. In hindsight, the designer believes that the person who removed the sketches from the room had them copied. Those horrid people stole her ideas!

Have you ever heard this story?
The story is an urban myth, a story that’s been repeated so many times that everyone believes it. The story sounds realistic to the average person because it’s based on how people think manufacturers operate. The story is false, and not because manufacturers always play fairly and according to ethical rules. The story is a myth because it’s not logical. Manufacturers don’t setup, plan, or operate their businesses like this. Manufacturers have been long known to ‘borrow’ other people’s ideas and concepts, but this isn’t how they do it.

I retold the story for two reasons. First, so that you know this scenario rarely happens; so forget that nagging little fear in the back of your head. Second, in order to sell someone something, you have to know how to approach them according to the way that they do business. You have to approach them as professionals from an industry perspective, rather than an approach based on rumors and urban myth.

Starting a Career in Free-Lance Design
Free-lance design can be a difficult field to break into and not for the reasons you’d think. But still, there is always room for someone who is talented, persistent, and motivated. The first step to becoming a successful free-lancer is to simply forget just about everything you’ve learned through the rumor mill.

If you want to become a free-lance designer, the first step is an appropriate education and previous job experience working in design. If you only have a design school background and haven’t had the opportunity to work in industry, the next best thing is to read this book carefully, especially the boring parts. As you read, try to place yourself in the situation of understanding what company owners need you to do for them. Learn your responsibilities and duties very well, because designing for industry is not what people think. The key to becoming successful as a free-lancer is to know the material inside out. Other than education and experience, your most valuable asset is a positive attitude.

About attitude: judging from my avalanche of mail, many designer hopefuls believe they can simply walk into the offices of any manufacturer and be granted an audience. They believe they can sell their sketches for thousands of dollars and earn obscene royalties as well. Every designer hopeful knows they’re poised on the edge of greatness. They believe the key to success is drawing pretty pictures. Editors of leading fashion magazines will praise their brilliance and everyone will treat them like royalty.

This is exactly the kind of attitude you cannot afford to have. The first key to success is to understand that you must set yourself apart from the pack of designer-want-to-bes by being gracious, thoughtful and kind to everyone in the trade —from janitors to secretaries— because this industry runs on relationships.

Over twenty years ago, I knew a designer who’d just landed her dream job and lost it the same day. The grapevine said she lost the job because she complained to her new boss about the smelly old elevator operator because he had the nerve to speak to her as an equal. She was fired on the spot.

I don’t know if anyone told her who the old man was. As it turns out, the old man was a multi-millionaire who owned a good chunk of downtown Dallas. He was bored with retirement and wanted a job doing something at the factory he started and still owned.

What Is “Good Design?”
The most important lesson I could ever teach any designer is to understand what a “good design” is. Good design has nothing to do with opinion and ‘taste’. From a manufacturer’s perspective, a good design is a design that sells profitably. A good design generates profit for a manufacturer, because business people have to pay suppliers, rent, salaries and support their own families, and don’t always have the luxury of combining ‘taste’ with profit.

I do sympathize if you don’t like this concept of good design, but unless you don’t need the money or have another job, you’ll have to design what a client (manufacturer) wants. If you don’t like the designs your customers want, it may be helpful to see it from an industry perspective. In the industry, your required work is not considered a reflection of your real skills, talent, abilities and ‘taste’. If anything, future clients are tremendously impressed with these designs because you demonstrated impressive creativity in the worst of circumstances.

If you only want to free-lance design items that you like personally, you can still be successful but it may be harder to establish a reputation. In industry, the perception will be that you have a limited range of ability, creativity, and flexibility. Most importantly, you need to create emotional distance from your work and forget trying to impose your idea of good taste on everyone else, because many people have lousy taste and will never change. Always remember that your goal is to be successful. To win the game, you have to be a player first. If you’re not a player, you’ll never win.

How Free-Lance Jobs Work
A designer needs a portfolio of professional sketches that represent the range and scope of his/her ability and skills. A professional designer needs a portfolio that reflects the various types of design that are popular, and can’t limit designs to a style they personally prefer. They need many kinds of designs based on how designs are purchased.

Some companies will buy sketches directly from the portfolio. In other words, they’ll buy designs that the designer sketched independent of the manufacturers’ requirements.

Other companies will hire a designer to develop sketches based on a concept or idea that they have. Once the sketches are done, the client will purchase the sketches they like best and the designer will keep the ones that weren’t selected.

The difference between the two purchasing methods is very important because you may have more fee options down the road once you become very successful (but if you’re just starting out, don’t push it). The options are selling exclusive economic (manufacturing) rights to the client, or settling for less money but having the right to sell the same design to another party who may want it at a later date.

Clients will assume they are buying complete rights, as this is the most customary practice. If you sell a design, don’t even think of re-selling the design to someone else. It’s more than dishonest, it’s illegal. Please disregard the popular rumor/urban myth of copyright ownership. I’d recommend legal advice from an attorney before you make any decisions that could adversely affect your career.

If your design was based on the client’s concept or idea and they buy a sketch, they have automatic ownership of the design and hold all economic rights to use it if they pay for it. No, you don’t own it because the work was rendered under “work for hire”. They own the work and copyright because you were hired to follow their instructions and they bought the product based on their instructions. Again, confer with an attorney because you’ll need one anyway for basic contract advice and counsel.

Very important: If you completed design work based on a client’s preferences and choices as above, the client is not required to purchase all of the design concepts you developed. The client is only entitled to own and use the sketches they pay for. Be careful, because some clients will insist that they own all of your sketches although they’re only willing to pay for a few. A smart designer would explain this to a client before starting the work because whichever sketches remain, you own.

Be prepared in these cases because some clients can be heavy-handed and claim their attorney says such-and-such. In these cases, get something in writing legal-wise before initiating the project. If it’s an engineered product and the client has a patent pending or a trademark, they may have legal grounds. Be advised that patents are extremely rare. You’ll notice this over time, since nearly all new product designers claim a patent or a pending approval (speaking from personal experience).

About those leftover sketches, you have two choices. Since you legally own them, you can sell them or dispose of them, as you like. However, it’s important that you understand that each industry has its own unwritten code of appropriate business practices.

Selling those leftover sketches to another party is perceived to be ‘not-nice’ in our line of work. Legally, the law is on your side, but industry’s prevailing view is that you should respect the client’s wishes and retain those designs for demonstration purposes only, and not sell them to a second party. A good strategy may be to sell all of them for a package price, which a client may go for since many of them have “inventor’s syndrome”.

Who Wants to Hire You?
You’d be surprised at who may be interested in hiring a free-lance designer. Most potential clients have one thing in common: they want to hire someone on a temporary or on an as needed basis.

  • Potential clients are other designers, particularly DEs who may be too busy managing their companies to design effectively anymore, or maybe they want some fresh perspective.
  • Fiber artists like silk painters and weavers are also productive leads.
  • Specialty product development engineers, who’ve designed a utility type item, are often looking to hire a free-lance designer.
  • Manufacturers who want to develop another product line and need a new type of styling are good prospects.

Perhaps the most surprising party interested in hiring a free-lance designer, is a sewing contractor. Sewing contractors have been hit hard by the industry’s recent import crisis and are looking for ways to stay in business, even if it means becoming a manufacturer too.

How to Find Work
Finding prospects is no different than any other business; you need to sell yourself and be persistent. A good place to start is by looking through the want ads of DNR, WWD, and other trade papers. If a company has already hired someone, call back in two weeks (designers get canned a lot and two weeks is a cut-off in the hiring/weeding process). I’d recommend placing a work wanted ad too.

You’ll need connections and resources in industry circles since the best opportunities are rarely advertised. Many manufacturers are so secretive, they don’t want their competition to know they’re shorthanded so they don’t advertise, and go through channels instead. Anyone from a fabric salesman to a sales rep is most likely to know of opportunities since they work directly with designers and manufacturers.

Don’t forget your college professor either. When headhunters are looking for talent in a new area, their first calls are usually to education facilities. Even if you didn’t go to the closest local school, you can still build relationships by offering free seminars to their students. Always stay in touch with educators since they hear of many opportunities from previous students who are now looking to hire people themselves.

Join professional associations within the industry. Many areas of the country have local manufacturers associations in place precisely for networking opportunities. You can also call manufacturers and sewing contractors in your area to see what they may know. Lastly, don’t overlook a competitor. Other designers are willing to help out, provided you understand that you will be expected to return the courtesy if needed.

Cold calling can be surprisingly effective as well. You’d be very surprised at the response you may get. You can just show up with a portfolio but just as likely, they may not see you. At worst, try to make an appointment to present your portfolio. Making an appointment with the designer there isn’t a bad idea; they get calls from headhunters too.

Lastly, with the explosion of the Internet, you could put up a page or get listed on a website. I don’t know how effective this is for designers, though. Still a last option is to develop a mailing list and send marketing materials with a resume and samples of your work. In closing, locating work in the industry is just like any other. The trick is getting someone to interview and hire you.

What Free-Lancers Earn
Designers are usually paid by the sketch. The value of the sketch is like anything else; it’s worth exactly what someone is willing to pay for it. The pay scale varies and depends on the type of product that the client wants to buy. In general, anything that is engineered or technical is more lucrative because it requires more skill to generate a ‘good design’.

Sketch fees depend on the area of the country too. Surprisingly, sketch fees may be higher outside of the usual competitive industry circles of New York and Los Angeles.

Basic fashion sketches cost between $100 to $750. The free-lancer is expected to place a value on each and it’s best to have a varied price range. Don’t worry that a client may not buy a design with the highest price tag. They’ll buy it if they like it enough and of course, if they think the concept will sell.

Established professional free-lancers usually have a clientele who regularly use their services and they can earn $1,500 or more per design. The designers offer additional services to the buyer, such as attending fit and styling meetings on site, as well as offering constructive criticisms of other designs the company is currently developing. These designers have varying business relationships; usually the style meeting of their design is done at no additional charge. Other services may be billed on retainer or hourly rates.

Another thing to be aware of is that a client can return a sketch for just cause. The client will ask the designer to rework the sketch until it is corrected, using the same design concept. Usually it’s a simple correction because the designer sketched a garment that cannot possibly be manufactured. A past example I had was receiving a fitted skirt design without closures. Without zippers or buttons, there was no way to put it on.

Growing Professionally
A key to success is always being fresh and innovative. Many designers buy books for color and inspiration, or attend museums and special events for new insight. If you didn’t attend design school, you may have not learned the traditional method of teaching design. This method is tried and true and I’ll share it with you now.

In college, we were assigned to design a product that met strict guidelines. We had to design an item for a particular area of manufacturing. The themes ranged from lingerie to cocktail gowns. The killer of the project was that we were also forced to select from a supply of fabrics that were provided. You don’t know how ugly those fabrics were. Since every sample fabric seemed to be equally horrid, I was always surprised by how creative the results were. Sometimes the final design even approached the range of being…pleasant.

This technique was one of the most valuable skills I learned, although I hated it at the time. I still do it now; it’s a great stress reliever and loads of fun. I start by promising myself to buy the ugliest fabric I can find in the store and use it to make something nicer than the fabric deserves. My best project to date was a screaming hot pink olefin drapery fabric that I used to make a to-die-for, line for line knock-off of a Chanel suit worn by Mrs. Kennedy when her husband was President (I figure knock-offs are okay if they’re generated for your own amusement).

In closing, the key to a successful career in freelancing is self-education, growth, attitude, persistence, and understanding the elements of ‘good design’. Remember that it doesn’t matter how great an idea is. People in this business have seen so many great ideas that were true examples of excellence in design, and yet those were dropped in the process because they didn’t sell at market. Just as often, some very raunchy designs become extremely popular and sell well. The lesson is; it doesn’t matter how great your concept is, don’t get attached to your own great ideas, because the marketplace determines what is successful.

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