Freelance Career Advice from Designer Jean-Sébastien Monzani

Jean-Sébastien Monzani is a professional graphic designer based in Switzerland with a focus on web design, branding, graphic design, photography, video, and illustration. His versatility enables him to provide the same services to a wide variety of clients as a full-service agency by handling everything from logo design to website creation.

On the side, he creates striking and evocative photographs and videos, but does not work much as a professional photographer.

I enjoyed a long Skype chat with Jean-Sébastien in which he shared a wide variety of career tips, which are summarized below. Aspiring artists (and online professionals of any sort), take heed! Utilizing Jean-Sébastien's advice may make a huge difference as you launch your new venture.

The Benefits of Entering the Design World from Another Field

Jean-Sebastien MonzaniOn paper, Jean-Sébastien is a computer scientist (he has both an undergrad degree and a PhD in the field). His artistic skills are completely self taught.

Jean-Sébastien's computer programming background has helped him in three ways:

  1. He is able to build the websites he designs, giving him the ability to provide even more value to clients, which gives him a competitive edge over off-the-shelf solutions
  2. He built up a sizable network of people outside the art world before becoming a designer; this network helped him acquire clients with greater ease once he transitioned to the life of a freelancer
  3. Because he started out in a different field, Jean-Sébastien did not begin seeking clients for his design services until he was around 30 years old- this worked to his advantage as businesses are more likely to take mature clients seriously and feel comfortable working with them

The Value of a Social Media Presence

Though Jean-Sébastien does not see any direct relation between his presence on DeviantART, Behance, Facebook, and Vimeo and the acquisition of new clients, he does see value in maintaining a presence on these sites as:

  • Each channel drives traffic to his website
  • Each channel provides a new opportunity for clients to discover his work
  • His presence across social media sites amplifies his work and personal brand

Of all the social media sites Jean-Sébastien uses, he finds Behance to be particularly useful, especially because it syncs with one's LinkedIn profile and those looking to hire someone (who do not go straight to Google Search) are more likely to use Behance than other social networks.

Posting content to other social media sites serves more to boost an artist's personal brand than anything else. Through his Facebook profile, Jean-Sébastien posts a wide variety of work that inspires him- not just work that he created. The work he does post, though, sparks conversation amongst colleagues and friends and most definitely strengthens his reputation as an artist.

Vimeo vs. YouTube

When asked about a preference for YouTube or Vimeo as a video hosting platform, Jean-Sébastien responded that he preferred Vimeo for the following reasons:

  • Work on the site is generally of higher quality
  • There is a stronger, more focused artist community on the site (YouTube's audience is far more broad)
  • Uploaders on Vimeo are more likely to stand behind their work; one can more safely assume that whoever uploaded a video also created it

Getting the Website Just Right

Jean-Sébastien points out that, no matter how one finds your website, one should encounter truly striking work when one gets there. Clients are biased toward artists that create dramatic work. Experience has taught Jean-Sébastien that clients seem more interested in an artist's ability to create strong designs or images than an artist's practical skills and expertise. Even if they want an entirely different style or format, many clients will choose an artist just because they have faith that the artist in question can make commissioned work just as provocative as the examples showcased in his or her portfolio.

Obviously, this may not be the case, but it nevertheless helps to showcase work that is powerful. It catches others' attentions and leaves potential clients confident in your ability to generate impactful designs.

Photo from INTENTIONS, ©Jean-Sébastien Monzani

Photo from INTENTIONS, © Jean-Sébastien Monzani

The Importance of Strong People Skills as an Artist

One of the biggest struggles Jean-Sébastien sees artists undergo involves difficulty of working with clients.

It is very common for a client to not know what he or she wants. Many designers interpret this to be their problem, but what really matters is how a designer responds to clients' ambiguity and vagueness. Instead of complaining about clients who suggest bad designs or do not know what they want, Jean-Sébastien recommends:

  • Establishing specific goals and priorities first thing
  • Letting those goals drive design choices
  • Using those goals to fend off bad design requests (e.g. "How important do you think using mustard yellow in your logo type will be when it comes to driving sales? Not very much, you say? Then perhaps we can consider these alternatives that might work better.")
  • Proposing better solutions instead of deriding or shooting down clients' questionable requests and suggestions
  • Not being snarky or sarcastic about clients' design ignorance or lack of good taste
  • Creating work that meets clients' needs- NOT work that you just think is "cool"

Jean-Sébastien MonzaniOnly Working with Good Clients

That said, it is sometimes not worth it to work with clients who are floundering in creative ambiguity. Jean-Sébastien recommends only working with clients you can get along with, and only taking on projects if you feel passionate about them.

Obviously, selectiveness with regard to clients is a luxury not all designers can enjoy, but if you take on a project in which you have absolutely no interest, you run the risk of:

  • Not creating particularly good work for your client (which might damage your reputation)
  • Setting a bad precedent that encourages similar clients with similar projects to reach out to you

Jean-Sébastien points out that one typically becomes a freelance designer or artist because one truly loves one's work. If you want to do work that you find uninspiring, you might as well get a more steady, high-paying job.

Understanding the Difference Between Working in Applied Arts vs. Being a Dedicated Artist

Over the years, Jean-Sébastien has noticed several distinguishing factors between professional artists (whose income comes from the sale of original works) and those who work in applied arts (whose work is created to help a client meet a specific goal).

Elements of a professional artist's success include:

  • A distinct personal brand
  • A striking personality
  • Very unique work that actually often relies more on concept than intrinsic value

Whereas elements of an applied artist's success revolve around:

  • A professional demeanor
  • Strong communication skills
  • The ability to adapt to a client's needs

Generally speaking, people have a higher tolerance for professional artists' eccentricities and lackluster people skills, but expect those working in applied arts to be top notch communicators, very good at interpreting needs, and very flexible in adapting to different needs and styles.

How to Set Rates as a Designer

Jean-Sébastien typically provides clients with the total cost of a project instead of billing them by the hour. He does this because:

  • Clients generally want to know how much the final product will cost and do not know how many hours a project will take
  • The hourly rate of a freelance designer is typically 5-7 times higher than that of a full-time, salaried employee (which might make a potential client think that the designer is unaffordable, when, in fact, they typically just work very efficiently)

Jean-Sébastien establishes the total cost of a project by:

  • Starting with his base hourly rate
  • Breaking the project into specific pieces for which he can accurately estimate required time allotments (e.g. three website mockups, one review session, a revised mockup, another review session, another revised mockup, etc.)
  • Multiplying the number of hours from the collective mini-projects by his rate

Because Jean-Sébastien breaks projects into very structured, discrete tasks, his price estimates are quite accurate. There are, however, instances in which clients are more demanding than expected and ask for additional revisions or supplementary work. In such cases, Jean-Sébastien may charge additional fees, pointing out that the above-and-beyond services were not included in the original estimate.

The Danger of Discounts

Though it can be tempting to give clients a discount, especially when one has little experience and needs to build a client base, Jean-Sébastien recommends avoiding the practice entirely.

Doing work for clients at a discounted rate is risky because:

  • The client will still expect your top notch work and may be quite demanding- despite your discount
  • You will want to put minimal effort into your work for this client as you are not being paid what you deserve
  • Your desire to expend minimal effort may result in lackluster work, which could contribute toward your loss of a client and reflect poorly upon your personal portfolio of work (not to mention your professional reputation)
  • You run the risk of finding resistance when you later choose to charge higher rates

Jean-Sébastien proposes two alternatives to providing lower rates:

  • Do the work for free: the client will not be so demanding and they're just happy to get free work, plus you can be experimental with pro bono work in ways that would not be possible with professional clients
  • Offer a lower price for a project, but also provide fewer services (e.g. providing a logo and website design, but cutting out the actual website development and design of business cards and custom letterhead): this enables you to maintain your present rates while also offering to the client the basic components of his or her request

It takes a significant amount of self confidence to demand the rates you deserve as a designer, and sometimes potential clients experience sticker shock, but should you want to build a sustainable career, you must not undercut your value.

When to Request Payment as an Artist

Jean-Sébastien typically requests 50% of a project's total cost up front. If a client is not willing to pay a certain amount of a project's cost from the get-go, they are not worth working with. When your income depends on clients' willingness and ability to pay, you cannot afford to risk a client not coming through with a check at the end of a time-consuming project.

Surviving as a Freelancer

Jean-Sébastien sees an emergency fund as a crucial aspect of a freelancer's viability. If you do not have a certain amount of money saved up to pay the bills during months in which clients are few and far between, you cannot make it as a freelancer. It is also difficult to be a freelancer if you have a family to support that absolutely depends on a steady and very predictable income.

Jean-Sébastien acknowledges that he could earn more as a pure computer scientist, and that he had a more steady income as a university teacher, but his true passion lies in art and design. In other words, he is not in this line of work for the money, and he would not encourage anyone whose top priority involves high earnings to take up the pursuit.

That said, his versatility as an artist enables him to earn more than many other freelance designers. Furthermore, he is able to earn more now as an artist (with more experience and work under his belt) than he did when he first started out (in his earliest days, his rates were around 66% of what they are now).

Helpful Resources for Designers

When not doing actual design work, Jean-Sébastien spends most of his time sharpening his skills and looking for new inspiration through a wide variety of online resources, most of which he consumes through RSS feeds. Some of his favorite sites include:

Finding out more on Jean-Sébastien Monzani

For a quick look at Jean-Sébastien’s work, check out his portfolio. For more details, his other website provides a complete list of artworks, together with introductory texts, tutorials, and interviews.


Top-of-post photo from INTENTIONS, ©Jean-Sébastien Monzani