Over time, which is better for your bank account? For your freelance career? For your soul?
Should you aim to produce truly distinctive and authentic and imaginative and impeccably crafted work?
Or . . .
Deliver what clients like?
I’ll spare you the suspense.
The fun, the fame, and the money in freelancing comes from building things that clients really like.
It is one of those Irritating-but-Irrefutable Laws of Freelancing.™
(I figured this cost me about a half-year’s lost income to learn. Actually, way more than that. So listen up, even if you’ve heard this.)
We get paid for placing something delightful and appealing on the client’s desk, something that gets them to say “Holy crap, I love that.”*
That is where money comes from.
Sure, cultivating a distinctive style is important. So is having a viewpoint, taking a stand, honing your craft, being authentic, using sound principles, owning a niche, breaking the rules, and doing all those things 37 Signals and Seth Godin tell you to do.
That is all swell and necessary. But it’s not the crux of it.
In the end, you have to lay something down in front of the client that they really like.
The finer you hone your knack for serving up work that gets a client’s head nodding and heart beating, the more clients you win, the more money you make. And the more fun you have.
It’s the same pain-in-the-ass reality that bedevils every business, whether you’re making chicken soup or iPhone apps or selling wrought iron weather vanes on etsy.com.
Designer Paul Rand got to be a legend because he was masterful at creating identities that appealed to high-profile clients. Same with Saul Bass, indie video maker Adam Lisagor, cartooner Hugh MacLeod. Or the Shake Shack in NYC, where the line is a quarter mile long. They make what their customers really freakin’ like.
You and me, we need to be uncannily and devilishly good at this. Unfairly skilled at it, even.
When you sit down to work tomorrow morning, this is what you should be shooting for.
Because we are not playing here. This is our living. There is the baby. And the car needs brakes.
* Just so we’re clear. I’m using like in the broadest sweep of the word. Of course, there’s like in the aesthetic sense: To give one goosebumps, takes one’s breath away. To make one want to hold it, touch it, play around with it, and keep looking at it. It’s pleasing, appealing, endearing, charming.
I also mean “Yes, hooray, this damn shopping cart actually works now. . . Yes, my boss will drool over this. Yes, I can get this past the lawywers, no problem. Ho, you make our product sound actually good . . . Yes, I’ll look like a genius with this.”