I was very comfortable and happy in my role, and I was part of a great team of inspiring and talented professionals in the design/tech industry. I’d never had a reason to change this… and I realised this was exactly why I had to.

Having spent my career developing a methodology and skillset based on experience as a digital product designer, I wanted to be put to the test outside of my comfort zone.

From experience I knew that only under real pressure had I ever properly stepped up and become better. So, after years of steep learning, it became clear to me that if I wanted to continue really improving it wouldn’t be through reading a book or attending a training workshop (both perfectly valuable learning routes), but rather diving out of my comfort zone and having to sink or swim.

My first freelance experience

I now find myself at the end of my first encounter with the big scary world of contracting, the route that I decided upon in the end. I’ve spent the last 6 months at Adaptive Lab designing across several projects and exercising a lot of different muscles. I worked on motion design and animation for brand pieces, narrative construction for new service concepts, UX design and testing for a growing online mentoring platform, and product design of a major new React web application for a Beta Business.

I’ve also been able to work with some dazzlingly talented people here and learn a lot about areas I’d never had much exposure to, such as service design and proposition development. These experiences have all been hugely fun and interesting, but from here I’ll aim to distill my biggest insights I’ve gained as a contractor at Adaptive Lab for anyone thinking of making a similar move.

Expectation vs. reality

When I left the camaraderie of my permanent role, I was expecting to have quite a disconnected experience as a contractor. The term “gun for hire” sums up pretty well what I thought was in store. What I actually found was that I was treated just like any other member of the team. The culture here is such that there is no clear line between who is a contractor and who is permanent, everybody is part of the team that is Adaptive Lab at any point in time. True to the moniker this can adapt and change based on the projects at hand, but everyone feels fully connected at a social level and is welcome to contribute to the culture of the studio as much as they want… Something I hadn’t expected.

Why this is important

As I mentioned I was expecting to mainly be a professional resource on projects for an agency. But instead it felt like I was being brought into a family that are building this amazing thing… and are inviting you to contribute. Faced with that it’s very hard to not become attached and feel a much stronger obligation to push the envelope because of the impact it will have. I found myself striving to do the best work of my career and push myself, not because it’s the “professional” thing or because that’s why I’m being paid, but because of the personal connection I felt to everyone on the team. What wouldn’t you do for friends?

The other side of the coin

The following are some considerations for anyone thinking of going freelance and finds themselves attracted to contracting for a place because of the culture and team:

  • The same personal obligation I felt to push myself also meant I put in several cheeky (undeclared) late nights of work to overdeliver. If you are expecting to clock off and stop thinking about the project, look elsewhere, avoid close knit teams because you’ll find it hard to say “that’s good enough”.

  • I feel like I’ve been a little spoilt by landing this as my first experience of contracting. I’m fairly sure future engagements won’t be nearly so enjoyable, and it will be hard to not compare them by these standards.

  • Moving on is very hard: I’ve found it a tough decision to stick to my guns and remain freelance, having become attached to the people and culture at Adaptive Lab. That said this is my first “gig”, and you might well be thinking “this idiot should realise a good thing when he finds it and stay put”.

And after a late summer break to work on a passion project of producing chilli sauce, I might just find myself back in the Alabber fam.