Studio vs. Freelance feature image

Life after art school: should I freelance or get a job at a creative agency?

October 14, 2022

There’s no shortage of articles on whether it’s better to work as a freelancer or in an office, and they tend to say the same things. That’s because it’s more of a personal lifestyle decision than anything to do with the work you’ll be doing.

Still, as someone with lots of freelance experience, I’d like to share my thoughts. This was written with graphic designers in mind, but it’s relevant to almost any creative. I wanted to dig deeper, be more honest – harsher even – than most.

So here’s what you need to consider when deciding whether you want to strike it out on your own — or just apply for a job.

Brooke Cagle Unsplash
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Should I go the freelance route?

Upside: It’s where most of us will start

Except for the lucky few artists who land a creative job right out of college, gigs are usually the first work available and are the primary means most people use to build their portfolios. So whether or not your ultimate goal is a salaried job, there’s a good chance you’ll pass through the freelance world.

Here’s the route most freelancers follow: First, they pick up a project or two in their off hours after their full-time job. Then, as their business naturally grows big enough to support them, they transition to a part-time job, then eventually to full-time freelancing.

Downside: Getting started is hard

Jumping into freelancing first is harder. Especially if you don’t have savings built up, it’s a recipe for months of panic. I know because this is how I first did it eight years ago!

The beginning is when you’ll be the most optimistic, but also struggle the most. Finding clients is hardest when you’re unproven and unsure how much your skills are worth, making it the easiest time to get taken advantage of. Most freelancers have stories of the early years, when they were consistently taken advantage of and underpaid.

But this is a warning, not an inevitability. It takes time to find the good clients, so pace yourself and don’t rush into a contract with anyone who seems suspicious.

Upside: You make your own work

While accepting gigs you’re offered is typical, learning to pitch can take your freelancing to the next level. It’s nerve-wracking at first, but it’s what opens up the majority of the real work out there. By reaching out to potential employers with proposals to fill their creative needs, you can find jobs without worrying about competition.

And gig-hunting can be fun! If it’s your thing, you can make a living off a diverse patchwork of income sources. There are some weird niches out there, and no one’s making you stick to one. You can even hire yourself out for your other skills at the same time: if you also code or write, that’s added value in the market.

Downside: You make your own work

Freelancing is a gamble. You’re betting on your own art skills, self-promotion, and hustle to consistently find and keep gigs. You’re a one-employee startup assuming the same risk as any other … and the same amount of unpaid paperwork. For starters, you have to handle all client communications, write and negotiate your own contracts, keep track of every business expense, and do your own taxes which, if you’re not finance-minded, can be tricky.

Woman Multitasking
Photo by Matthew Henry on Burst

Upside: You’re never unemployed, just “between gigs”

Just something nice to keep in mind. Freelancers can suffer huge client losses, but if you have transferable skills you’ll find new work far faster than someone being fired from an equivalent job.

Downside: Feast or famine

Finding enough freelance work to sustain you can be tough. Many art fields are oversaturated, others run on in-house work. And when you do land clients, never bet on them paying on time: you could have to bug some about an invoice for months.

But for some reason, when gigs rain, they pour. You’d be surprised how quickly your schedule can go from empty to swamped. If you resist the temptation to overspend when money’s good, you can build up enough savings to carry you through the dry periods.

Upside: Learn and practice your work style

We all know 9-to-5s aren’t for everyone. Some people’s work styles conflict with, or even run opposite to, mainstream norms. Freelancing lets you discover how you work when left to your own devices. You might find you work best in marathon sessions, or in intense sprints, or in a more traditional 9ish-to-5ish schedule. It’s up to you.

That being said, many of us need external schedules to keep us accountable and on task. If you don’t trust yourself, you might be exactly who the 40-hour workweek is designed for. Factor this into your decision.

Downside: Poor work-life balance

Freelancing can become a 24/7 job, one you never mentally clock out of. During those “feast” periods when you’re booked and busy, you might have no social life.

Freelancing guides tell you to set on and off hours, but the minute you need to pull an all-nighter to make a deadline, they go out the window. Overwork can also lead to conveniences becoming necessities, costing you a lot in the long term. Ordering food delivery, for example, will save you time when you’ve got a deadline coming up, but if you do it too much, you’ll seriously eat into your earnings.

Unsplash People In Office Working
Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Should I work for an agency or studio?

Note: Studio vs. agency

What’s the difference between a studio and an agency? Not much – agencies usually hire out a variety of creatives to other clients for projects, while studios usually focus on providing a particular kind of service. Both will hire you full- or part-time to work on creative projects for their clients, agencies are just usually bigger and do a wider variety of projects. Either way, you’ll have a job doing creative work.

Upside: Security

This is the big one. It’s much easier to focus on making your art as good as it can be when you’re not distracted worrying about rent and bills. This usually includes benefits, too: especially if you’re in the United States, health insurance, a retirement plan, and/or sick leave are nothing to sneeze at.

Although freelancing “gurus” hype up the potential for freelancers to make more money from fewer hours, that’s not how things pan out for most of us. The creative world is unpredictable; if you need security and stability, a steady source of work might be your best shot at it.

Downside: Pressure & Flexibility

This is one place where there can be the most variety. While freelancers are typically paid by the project, and can spend as much time as they feel is necessary before the deadline to perfect it, working for an agency or studio can mean meticulous management of your hours. Some agencies are infamous for their tight deadlines; you might have a set number of hours to turn around a project. And, as at any job, there’s the risk of ending up with a micromanaging boss.

Also, at agencies in particular, you might have no choice in projects you work on. You can’t turn down a “client from Hell” if their contract is with the company, not with you. Given all of this, there can be high turnover rates at some agency and studio jobs because of the pressure – meaning that sense of security and stability could turn out to be false.

Women talking in modern office
Photo by Zest Tea on Unsplash

Upside: Coworkers

Your coworkers and managers are often what makes or breaks any work experience. Supportive ones will help keep you on-task and make the job go by easier, and the value of having other creatives to collaborate with and learn from is underestimated. Working as part of a collective will give you access to a pool of resources much bigger than you’d find on your own.

And if your coworkers aren’t beneficial to you, some agencies let you work from home.

Downside: Finding one

The biggest problem with a nice, reliable creative job … is getting it.

They tend to be clustered in high-cost areas like Southern California, the Pacific Northwest, and the urban Northeast. Even when applying for jobs with remote potential, a local address opens up a lot more opportunities. And if you’re less experienced or specialize in a particular creative endeavor, you’re much more likely to get hired for a single gig than to be brought on full-time at a studio or agency.

Competition is tight and requirements are strict. You’ll likely see “BA/BS/BFA or equivalent” in many job postings. Although it’s less important in creative fields than most, some algorithms use whether you have a degree for screening, so your resume might not even be seen by a human without it. And if you’re thinking about starting your job search without knowing your field’s Adobe Suite programs and other relevant software, stop what you’re doing and study up. If you’re not familiar with the tools professionals use – like Wacom tablets and displays, for example – training you will be a burden they might not want to undertake.

And the last hurdle might be the biggest: the interview. These can be especially difficult for neurodivergent and otherwise marginalized people. In freelancing, meanwhile, it’s possible to go your whole career without ever meeting anyone face to face.

Busy modern office
Photo by Sajjad Hussain M on Burst


No matter which path you pick, it usually won’t be perfect. If you pick an agency job, you’ll long for the freelancer’s flexibility. If you freelance, you’ll gaze wistfully through your home office’s windows at the employees with their regular paychecks enjoying their free weekends. But one will likely fit your needs better than the other.

And there are middle grounds, too: You can narrow your search to work-from-home jobs, which can offer some of the best of both worlds — or you might be able to find an agency that offers part-time work or a studio that gives you a freelancer’s flexibility.

Good luck!

Related posts:

Fostering Success Together: Seven Ways to Engage Parents and Students in Digital Arts Career and Technical Education 

Fostering Success Together: Seven Ways to Engage Parents and Students in Digital Arts Career and Technical Education 

Connected Ink Recap: The PAR Lab’s innovative climate change animation project

Connected Ink Recap: The PAR Lab’s innovative climate change animation project

Artist and animator Joshua Leonard on his career, why diversity matters, and advice for young artists

Artist and animator Joshua Leonard on his career, why diversity matters, and advice for young artists

Educators: the information you need to get started using Wacom pen tablets in the classroom

Educators: the information you need to get started using Wacom pen tablets in the classroom

Connect with Wacom on social media

Ever dreamed of starting your carreer as an artist but don’t know where to start? @janwischermann  professional photo retoucher, shares a pearl of wisdom for all you emerging artists out there. ✨

Take that first step with the Wacom One and see where it takes you. Discover more in the link in bio!

#CreativeInspiration #Photoretouching #Artistsinsights
185 4
🎉 A heartfelt THANK YOU to everyone who made Connected Ink event 2023 an unforgettable celebration of creativity! 🚀✨

Let’s keep the creative sparks alive and enjoy this awesome after-event movie! 🔥✨

See you next year!

#ConnectedInk #CreativeChaos
359 14
Many artists start with traditional tools before they switch to digital, and transitioning can feel daunting and even scary - making them delay it. ⁣
But is it ever too late to start? ⁣
Our friend @apolloscelticswan has some words of wisdom for those starting "late" in digital art. ⁣
When did you make the transition to digital? Was it scary? What helped you?⁣
Let us know in the comments 👇⁣
#DigitalArt #DigitalArtist #WacomTablet #MadeWithWacom #ArtistLife
2647 26
A little piece of the creative process of @amanda.ninji_illustration 💫

We love to see the work behind the final piece ❤️ 

Share yours with the hashtag #MadewithWacom so we can feature you next!

#Cintiq16 #conceptartist #digitalpainting
626 5
You spend hours picking unique and special gifts for your loved ones, but then settle with generic holiday wrapping paper? 🤯⁣
Why not print your own? Our friends at @thequeerstoreuk have created a fun little tutorial to help you make your very own holiday wrapping paper! ⁣
Find the full tutorial and walk-through on the #WacomBlog through the link in the bio! ⁣

#WacomTutorial #DesignTutorial #GiftWrapping #DesignTips #MadeWithWacom ⁣
238 4
Exclusively tailored for your Wacom Cintiq Pro 17, the Cintiq Pro 17 Stand boasts a design that perfectly complements your graphic display. 🤩

Elevate your creative experience with the Cintiq Pro 17 Stand, offering additional flexibility and versatility for your workspace. 🚀 

What’s more, it features VESA 75 mount compatibility, ensuring you have even more options for setting up your work environment.

#CintiqPro17 #CreativeProfessionals #CreativeWorkspace
1594 41
#WacomSale alert! ⁣
Get the tablet of your dreams. ✨🌟🪄⁣
Digital drawing, painting or photo editing? Whatever you dream of creating, Wacom Intuos has everything you need to make it happen. It’s easy to setup and use, and comes bundled with free creative applications so you can start bringing your ideas to life right away. ⁣
Visit our estores through the links in our bio! ⁣
#WacomIntuos #Intuos #WacomTablet #WacomNews
177 4
Ready for some shopping? 🛒 🛍

We are really enjoying the quiet and moody environment at the end of the shift 💫

 #MadewithWacom by the amazing @milicamastelica 

#Cintiq16 #conceptartist #digitalpainting
797 8
Dreaming of a Wacom?⁣
Shop early Black Friday deals on Wacom refurbished products. 😍❗🎁⁣
Head over to the Wacom USA estore through the link in our bio to find out more!⁣
#WacomSale #BlackFriday #WacomOne #OnebyWacom #WacomIntuos #WacomIntuosPro #WacomCintiq #WacomCintiqPro #WacomNews
346 3
Hey there, creative night owls! 🦉

Deadlines are part of the process too, even though is not the funniest part 😅

Who else is feeling related? 💫

#Artistlife #Creativity #Creativeinspiration #Artistsinsight
237 4
This error message is only visible to WordPress admins
Error: Invalid Feed ID.