There is a perverse karma in freelancing in that, sometimes, the most lucrative and most plentiful work can be the ugliest.
Or the work that makes your skull ache is precisely the work clients love you for.
A programmer friend of mine moans that he could spend six months a year collecting $10,000 checks for untangling hairballs of code for big enterprise applications. He’s supremely good at the work, but can’t stand the pain of doing it.
Meanwhile, he’s itching to program some kick-ass photo manipulation software for a startup. But that gig pays only in Cheetos. The small bags.
Me, I have a client who will pay me $2,400, over and over again, to write the same happy customer story, over and over again, all year long. Same word count, same format, same subheads each time. I have to duct-tape myself to the chair to get these done.
But the client loves them. And wants ever more.
It is thus for all freelancers at times. For all artists. Even for companies.
The work that pays the bills, feeds your young, and keeps you out of the cubicle ain’t always the most enchanting.
The ratio of glamor to slog work will ebb and flow with the economy and the sunspot cycles. And over time, you can finagle more and more of the assignments that get you jazzed.
But nobody escapes the skunk work entirely. Ever.
You think legendary photographer Ansel Adams supported himself taking pictures of Yosemite? Nope. He paid the rent almost his entire career with everyday client work. (More about that in a second.)
Designer Paula Scher of Pentagram designs retail packaging for arch supports and foot powders sold in chain stores, in between her work for Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic.
Nobel novelist William Faulkner made more money concocting screenplays and treatments in Hollywood (work he grew to despise) than he made from his novels.
So what hope is there for us workaday stiffs?
The trick to staying sane, and staying off the Jack Daniels, is in how you approach your skunk work.
As a freelancer, you have options.
Kiss it off
If something way too ghastly lands on your desk, you can always turn it down, which you can’t do in staff job. It is therapeutic to do this periodically, to reaffirm your independence.
Naturally, this option only applies when there is food in the fridge and the electric company is paid.
Hone, refine, explore
Or you can adopt the attitude of a potter I talked with ages ago. He ran a pottery shop in one of these touristy country villages, where he worked all day at a potter’s wheel in his front window.
Although his store was filled with imaginative and exotic work (with huge price tags), what customers bought, by the ton, were a particular set of nested bowls and one swoopy-looking vase. He had to turn out racks and racks of these same pieces week after week.
I asked him if the repetition didn’t make him goofy.
“At first,” he said. “But what I do now is focus on perfecting and honing the process. Finding a way to create that ideal arc each time, in one unbroken draw of the clay. Learning to get the surface right with the least amount of re-work. Or seeing how working to music changes my rhythm and pace.
“Sometimes I’ll work three, four, five pieces with my eyes closed, just to see how precise I can get just by feel. Or I’ll find a way to put a little flourish on the lip with my thumbnail. I’m tinkering and exploring all day. Each piece is actually slightly different. Customers never notice. But I do. I’m learning technique and attitudes I can use on my fun work.”
“And,” he said, “I remind myself I’m making a living with my hands on clay. Not talking on the phone in an insurance office. That would make me batshit crazy.”
Do it well anyway
In one of his classic books on photography, Ansel Adams describes a technique he calls “painting with light”, which involves moving a photo light around a scene during a long exposure. It’s tricky and requires a fair bit of experimentation.
What did he use as an example? A shot of a motel cocktail lounge from one of his commercial client jobs. He had used the technique to add highlights to the vinyl tufting on the bar. (A tacky-looking bar, at that.)
This passionate nature photographer is stuck shooting a throwaway brochure for some roadside motel, for a client who was probably griping about the price, and he’s still finessing the highlights on the imitation naugahyde.
Sure, maybe Adams was foolish to waste time tweaking a low-budget shot for a client who wouldn’t know the difference. Maybe he should have just buzzed through the shoot, sent his bill, and headed out to Half Dome while the light was still good.
But I’m guessing he couldn’t help himself. I suspect it was his way of using the work to learn something, to practice something, to glean a little insight from a mundane task he had to do anyway.
Or maybe it was just Adams’s way of pleasing the soul, for a moment, just for himself, whether the client gave a damn or not.
Elevate the junk
Okay. So maybe you’re stuck architecting the CMS for an online retailer of auto parts. Or doing 397 product shots for a company that makes wing nuts, stove bolts, lock washers and other fasteners.
Is there a software thing in here somewhere? Maybe a process you could develop to take the pain out of this? Maybe something you could build and sell over and over again, as a side project? A way to get this all done — brilliantly well — in 62% less time?
Or maybe a company keeps calling you to write the user instruction for cell phones, home security systems, or industrial power washers.
Is there a way to transform that shop-floor grunt work into something dramatically new and better? Something that literally changes the value of the product? Something that gives users goose bumps? Ready Kathy Sierra. Or 37 Signals. Or Jakob Nielsen.
Why not find a way to change the game entirely? Make it simpler, faster, not so sucky?
Could you be the best designer/writer on the planet for user training? And find a way to write that stuff so people actually applaud?
Could you somehow raise this crap work to high art? To something others will actually aspire too? Why the hell not, if there are clients who want it?
Who says intranet sites have to be dog-ugly? Who says corporate profiles must always be dead-lame drivel? Is writing white papers torture? Apparently not for this guy.
Subsidize your fun work
Okay. Maybe that’s all too Pollyanna.
Sometimes, skunk work is just that. There is no cinnamon-scented prize in there. Clients don’t always want new paradigms, or want you to elevate it to art, or change the game. They want the thing done. Just like last time. Don’t screw with it.
And if they’re paying well, the smart thing to do is to shut up, do it, and take the money.
Think of it as subsidizing your fun work. Or your side project.
Hold your nose and grind through a half-dozen dull-as-dirt case studies, and you can take a week off to work your book, your web project, or your animation video.
Do those 367 product shots, then buy a new camera.
This is not whoring or selling out. This is what businesses and artists have always done. The money the network makes from “The Biggest Loser” and “America Idol” pays for a whole lot of “Meet the Press” and experimenting with new pilots.
Cash cows pay for pet projects. Always have, always will.
I’m guessing that when Picasso felt the pinch of cash flow, he dashed out a spate of easy-paying stuff, just to get the bank account up enough to let him paint what he wanted.
So when clients throw money at you for ugly work, put a bag over it and just do it.
You’ll have company. And some coin to show for it.