I have worked off and on as a graphic designer through a creative staffing agency over the length of my career. While there are pros and cons, I have found that freelancing can have many benefits.
Contracting will give you a way to supplement your income with your own freelance work. You will have money coming in right away, and it will also give you the chance to work on a wide variety of projects from large corporate brands to small start-ups. If it is a good fit you can even parlay your contracting gig into a full-time job; in fact, my last two full-time jobs began as contract assignments. If you are a new designer it is an awesome way to gain experience and build a solid portfolio.
On the downside, contracting can be stressful, because you are brought in when there are deadlines looming or there is too much work for the in-house design team to handle. Recently, while I was on an assignment, two designers quit (one through a text message). The company was dealing with new management, new processes, and was already short staffed when I started. Working twelve hour days and weekends, some of the staff was clearly burnt-out. A number of the designers had asked me what it was like to work through a staffing agency, which gave me the idea to share some of my thoughts and maybe help other designers see if contracting would be a good fit for them.
One complaint I have heard from designers who were signed up at a staffing agency was that they never got any work. When I was interviewing for an in-house designer position, for example, the art director conducting the interview told me she would never use a particular agency because they never found her any work.
Because agencies are busy with many projects and designers to juggle work with, I have made it a habit, if I am between jobs, to check in with the recruiter to see what is going on. Many times this practice has resulted in a new assignment.
I would also suggest signing up at a number of agencies; they will have different clients and work.
Finally, keep in mind the more assignments you accept, and do a good job at, the more work you will get. A downtown Minneapolis ad agency requests me when they need extra help.
Keep in touch
As in any profession building up your contacts is invaluable. You will meet many people in the design field, even if it is for a short amount of time. Try to connect with them on LinkedIn. People change jobs and there may be a position down the road you are interested in and that contact may be able to help you land the job.
Thanks but no thanks
Don’t be afraid to speak up if it is not a good fit—agencies want to know how things are going at an assignment and will check-in. I only had one gig that I pulled the plug on. I was working for a large corporation and after a couple of interviews (yes some places will want to interview you first) I was hired for a six-month contract. Nowhere in the process was I told that they wanted me to clock-out and sit at my desk and not get paid when I was not working on their projects (I have never contracted anywhere that requested that). I was just told that the hours would fluctuate and that some of the other designers they had in the past would read a book or work on their own freelance assignments when it was slow. Once I realized what they were really looking for I contacted the staffing agency and told them that it was not a going to work out. I just wished they had been upfront about it in the beginning because I would have never accepted the position. They also just did not have the work they said they would have. I really liked the staff, but it was just not a good fit for me.
Know your stuff
When companies bring you in as a contractor they expect you to hit the ground running. I have been told by a number of places that I was replacing someone who just did not work out. If there is something about a job description you are not sure about, ask questions to make sure you are qualified, since it is a good idea to know every aspect of the design process from production to art direction. In my experience, a lot of the jobs available lean more toward production, though having an eye for design and layout makes you a more desirable candidate.
At the end of the day
Overall, contracting allows you to make quick money, build your network, and work on a wide range of projects. So—use creative staffing agencies to your advantage—it gives you some flexibility whether you are ultimately seeking a full-time job or you enjoy the variety of work and having extra time to pursue your own freelance projects.