A List Apart

Laura Kalbag on Freelance Design

The Silent Subcontractor

For the last four years I’ve had this daft rule: I don’t work with agencies.

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It wasn’t one of those opinions I’d always share with people, I’d just find excuses to turn down any agency work that came up. A few weeks ago I blurted out my agency-phobia on Twitter:

And then I realized how foolish it sounded. Why was I doing this? I was really just attributing a few dodgy practices to all agencies—and minimizing my potential to work with great people. By a basic definition, an agency is just a collective that produces work for clients. If I worked with one more person, I could be an agency. Now I’m feeling a bit silly for discriminating for so long.

So I took the time to understand what it was about some agencies that made me feel I couldn’t work with them. There may be a few processes and practices that some agencies use that would make me feel uncomfortable, but looking at the real reason I dreaded working with agencies, I realized I just don’t want to be a silent subcontractor.

The silent treatment

When a freelancer working for an agency (or even another individual) can’t pitch the project, communicate with the client, or get any recognition, they become a silent subcontractor.

They don’t pitch the project

As designers, we need to have a say in how long it should take to do a good job on the project. In order to do this, we need to be able to discuss how much budget is available. And when we understand the time and budgetary needs, then we can make a reasonable estimate about how the project could be executed.

When a freelance designer is brought into a project after the brief has been written and the budget and deadline set, there is little room for movement. The architecture of the project has already been designed by another party, so the designer is expected to just sit down and execute.

They don’t communicate with the client

For the duration of a project, designers need open and direct communication with their clients. The ability to communicate and justify our design decisions is a significant part of our jobs. If we have no contact with our clients, then we can’t field feedback effectively or explain our reasons for creating work in a particular way.

If design feedback is filtered through another party, such as an account or project manager, then this intermediary is expected to impart feedback truthfully and accurately. But even if they do, the intermediary still breaks the flow of a conversation as they stand between the designer and the client.

Even if the feedback from the client has been reported back to the designer word-for-word, there’s a significant part of the communication missing. What was the client’s tone of voice when they said, “I’m not sure about the navigation…”? What was their facial expression? What were they looking at when they said this? What was the discussion that came before and after it?

Inevitably, these scenarios result in the intermediary saying, “I’ll go back and ask the designer,” or, “I’ll go back and ask the client.” As either a client or a designer on the receiving end of this type of feedback, it’s frustrating hearing a summary like “they say it’s not possible because they tried it already and it didn’t work,” without any further explanation.

The more separation that is put between the processes of the client and the designer, the harder it is to understand each other’s decisions and motivations. These removed forms of communication can make the client and designer appear to each other as a distant, egotistical enemy: someone out of your reach who is saying no without giving you the chance to explain yourself. The ideal process is one that unites the client and designer, allowing them to share the reasoning and responsibility for design decisions.

They don’t get any recognition

In a recent article on 24ways, Geri Coady pointed out how unusual it is for each contributor to be properly attributed on a web project. A designer’s portfolio is one of the few places they can promote the projects they worked on to potential clients. If our right to claim credit as creators isn’t enforced in the contract, designers often feel they should comply with agency requests to stay quiet about their role in a project.

When an agency is giving the client the impression that the designer is in-house, or puts the freelancer under an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), the designer is unlikely to be able to display their work publicly. If a designer isn’t allowed to share their involvement in a project, it’s a noticeable gap in recent work. It isn’t about our egos, but designers do need recognition. Without a good portfolio that backs up their skills and experience, a designer will find it harder to get work.

Breaking the silence

In 2014, I’m going to have a better chance of collaborating with great agencies. I’m updating my website, but it’s not going to say that I don’t work with agencies. It’s going to say that I don’t work as a silent subcontractor—and I recommend that other freelancers also think twice before allowing themselves to be used in this way.

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