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Freelancing V: Learning new skills

Freelancing V: Learning new skills

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In the past weeks I’ve had some people asking me for advice about becoming a freelancer, specifically how to develop the necessary skills to become a professional in fields like web design and graphic design.

Whether you are still only contemplating freelancing or you have been walking down that path for a while now, acquiring new skills is something to consider (very seriously if you are just starting). As a newbie, you will need to be comfortable with the basics of, say, HTML and CSS at the very least before going out there and offering web design services. As an already active professional, you may one day face the dilemma of acquiring a new skill versus hiring someone else to do the work for you. And while the choice is entirely yours, I personally enjoy and take pride in being a generalist; meaning being able to help my clients in several fields, from illustration, graphic design, web design and online marketing to photography. I don’t depend on someone else and I keep all the profits. Sweet deal, isn’t it?

What skills to learn?

Here’s something obvious but that needs to be said: The skills you will want to learn will depend on what kind of job you want to do.

If you want to get into web design and development for instance, you will need to be proficient in HTML, CSS and know your way around Photoshop and JavaScript – and if you are motivated, I’d throw in on top of that PHP which is really useful for programmers. If you are not comfortable with those, you will not be able to compete. Keep in mind you are not the only freelancer out there. It would also be a mistake to oversell and under-deliver; do the things right or don’t do them at all. Your reputation depends on it.

If you want to become a graphic designer, learn how to use Photoshop and Illustrator. InDesign is also a very good software to master if you are interested in editorial design, publications or simply if you want to learn how to handle documents and books. Typography, design hierarchy and color theory, to name only three, are topics of interest you should research.

If you want to become an illustrator, learn how to use Photoshop and consider purchasing a Wacom tablet if you want to draw or color digitally. Human anatomy, landscapes, shading and perspective are the very basics and you should master them before embarking the crazy (but beautiful) world of freelancing.

Ultimately, whatever job you want to learn, investigate what skills are generally required, which knowledge you are expected to possess, and proceed to learn it all.

Where can I learn new skills?

While some people prefer to buy books, I usually browse online for resources if need be. Hundreds of websites offer free tutorials and guides on how to become proficient in all fields. Online communities whose purpose is to help people learn also exist. One only needs to google it.

If you’re interested in learning HTML and CSS, or any other programming language (PHP, SQL, ASP, JavaScript, etc.), W3Schools is the place to go. They have tutorials for everything. I can’t stress enough the importance of that resource for anyone interested in learning to code; it’s simply the best and largest web development site. But if you must look elsewhere, blogs like CSS-tricks and Tutsplus are also great for beginners and intermediary learners.

For graphic designers to be, the internet is a goldmine of free tutorials. These websites offer a wide range of free tutorials to better your Photoshop and design skills: Adobe’s official tutorials, Tutsplus for Photoshop, Photoshop Lady and Lynda.com This article on Noupe.com also offers a wide range of links to documentation on design theory and concepts. Learning Photoshop is good but you must also know what you are doing and why you are doing it; behind each action in design is a reason, and that reason must be understood.

The web is full of free resources waiting to be discovered; all you need to do is search.

Practice makes perfect

When asked “How did you learn everything you know, Tina?”, I smile and answer, simply, “practice”. Years of practice are what brought me to this level of knowledge and skill. I often add that if one wants to learn how to swim, there is no other way than jumping in the pool and moving arms and legs. It’s the same with freelancing; whatever field of work you pick, you must at some point put the books aside and try it for yourself… try until you succeed.

For the ones who lack motivation, a good way to practice without even realizing it is to work on a personal project that inspires you. For instance, if you like a particular TV show, as a rookie web designer you should code a simple website with pages, a blog and information about the series. As a graphic designer, you could design a kickass poster for that series you like. As an illustrator, you could draw the characters in different poses, styles and environments… and so on. The idea is simply to find something that motivates you and use that as a driving force to learn, practice and have fun all at once.

In the end, there is no real secret when it comes to expanding your knowledge; just do it.

Advantages of learning new skills are numerous and usually include producing quality work, getting more money (the more skills and experience you have, the more you can charge), beating the competition and, last but not least, being able to share that knowledge with others around you. There is no disadvantage to acquiring new skills when it comes to freelancing. So, what are you waiting for?

About the author

Tina Mailhot-Roberge is a graphic designer, web designer and illustrator located in Montreal, Canada. She holds a BFA in Design from Concordia University and practices her craft professionally since 2007 .

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