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Talking Point: You Are Not A Professional

Matthew Pennell

March 28, 2008 at 2:24 AM

In his latest essay, respected Texas-based designer Andy Rutledge takes a look at the full-time-plus-freelance workforce (of which I’d guess a large proportion of our audience are members), and decides that it is “ill-conceived and unprofessional” behaviour, and demonstrates a “lack of professional commitment and integrity”.

His basic point is that if you have a job as a designer and also operate a freelance design business, you and your employer are “naive” and “flaky”, behaving unprofessionally, and doing a disservice to your clients.

Speaking as one of those designers who holds down a full-time job and also freelances, I’d say the only disservice being done here is by Andy to his fellow designers. His sweeping generalization – that anyone working both a ‘proper’ job and running their own design shop is only likely to be giving 50% of their attention to any given job, can’t be trusted to stick around, and is certain to be unmotivated – is insulting to all those people working hard at evenings and weekends to expand their skills, further their understanding of the industry, and support their families with an additional income.

But what do you think? Do you agree with Andy that commitment can only be assured if you work one job only? Or are you successfully filling both roles while remaining “professional”?

Comments are open.


Marc Amos

March 28, 2008 at 4:34 AM

I was actually a bit surprised to read that as well. I’ve always agreed with Andy and have been an avid fan of everything he writes, but I truly think he has it wrong here. Not being a linguistically-blessed person, I merely wrote this as my rebuttal right after reading his article:


March 28, 2008 at 5:06 AM

Many designers, myself included find the pay of the full-time job to be barely enough to support ourselves, and therefore need to take on freelance jobs.

Others do it to keep themselves fresh. Imagine being stuck with a single large client at your day job that has one style. You’re always stuck in that style unless you take on some clients that will allow you to branch out and do something new. You’re doing yourself and your company a disservice if you don’t keep up with the changing world.

Alexander Sperl

March 28, 2008 at 5:14 AM

Well, if Andy Rutledge is serious about this, how can he be a designer, a writer, a composer, and a bonsai artist all at once? Where does he get the time to do any other things apart from design? Not employed full-time? Hmmm. I don’t know, but what I know is that not everybody can afford not working apart from their full-time job.

But the thing with generalizations is that they are very convenient because you can vent your anger about someone you know without telling him or her directly. But that’s far too shortsighted…

Matt Wilcox

March 28, 2008 at 5:18 AM

Andy’s living in a dream world if he thinks that doing extra work is somehow unprofessional. I suggest he define his idea of ‘professional’ more clearly, because he seems to be using the word in a different way than I understand it. How does he evaluate ‘professionalism’?

Jonathan Snook

March 28, 2008 at 5:36 AM

I think it’s important here to clarify the distinction that Rutledge made: it’s not the freelance on the side thing he complains about. It’s the “design company” on the side that he has a problem with. But that’s a very thin distinction.

He uses Luke’s site as an example but the “company” name is LukeW. Hardly the large design agency. Is it just because he used the royal “we”? Why not pick on Doug Bowman of Stopdesign because he works at Google?

I understand the point he’s trying to make but it just doesn’t hold weight and as Matthew said, is a sweeping generalization that is likely more wrong than right (as I’d say the case is with Luke and Doug).


March 28, 2008 at 5:49 AM

Hmm, attention seeking from someone who doesn’t really need to. I’ve always held Andy’s insights in high regard – he’s dropped the ball and insulted a whole bunch of struggling human beings to boot with this one.

@Paul: I don’t imagine – that is me. The fear of going stale and unmarketable because of my employer’s low opinion of web development – typified by poor tech choices and solutioneering compels me to go freelance lest I go mad.


March 28, 2008 at 5:51 AM

Being a proprietor of my own Design firm with ~ 6 employees now, I actually encourage my employees to partake in the freelance world if they have time or desire to. 9 times out of 10 they actually bring me business when the project is too large for them to handle alone. I think Andy’s dissertation is misinformed or maybe clouded by limited knowledge of another’s situation.

I agree if you are working for a design company and begin to compete for work while you run your “on-the-side” business that’s quite un-ethical but ultimately that’s a decision the designer and his employer need to work out.

Andy’s example of LukeW is flawed since he does not compete with Yahoo’s business and actually in the end helps build Yahoo’s brand by showing he is a world class designer.

Sam Zaiss

March 28, 2008 at 5:58 AM

For me, my inspiration is tied to my emotion. The happier and more fulfilled I feel, the more ideas I can round it up in a shorter period of time.

I need variety to be happy. Adding that variety to any job not only improves my job satisfaction all around, but it makes me a more effective employee.

There are certainly people for whom a second commitment distracts them from their primary job. I’m sure some of them are designers. But that hardly applies to all of us.


March 28, 2008 at 6:44 AM

Let’s see, doing side work that …

1. Help you refine and sharpen your skills;
2. Give you first-hand experience in client management, process and customer service

... is unprofessional? It’s quite the opposite, I’d say. I think it’s professional development through practice. I can safely say that my freelance projects are where I have learned most of what I know. It’s made me a far more valuable employee to whichever company employs me. It’s also how I landed my current position; I work full-time for one of my earliest clients.

Plus what happens if employer goes under suddenly, or your life circumstances require a more flexible money-making situation? An established side business may be what keeps you afloat until next full-time position comes along.


March 28, 2008 at 8:33 AM

What a load of rubbish. I’ll rewrite a paragraph to demonstrate why.

“[Marriage] requires and implies dependability and trustworthiness. It requires and implies commitment and focus. It requires and implies integrity. These characteristics are compromised by the desire and will to [have a child]. This obvious conflict tears at the fabric of [marriage]...Yet so many of us are eager to make our conflicted loyalties and apparent flakiness public. I think it’s a mistake.”

To suggest that a person cannot focus with appropriate quality on more than one endeavour is foolish. It may take a certain type of person — one who is organised, who knows how to set boundaries, and who is a good communicator — to pull it off. But suggesting that it’s irresponsible to take on a personal venure — no matter what the nature of the work — outside of one’s employment is laughable. Apparently, though, that’s precisely what this diatribe intimates. Marriage, parenting, AND work?! Are you crazy?

Ben Carlson

March 28, 2008 at 8:46 AM

So, I apparently suck at being a father and a husband, am a bad musician, and was worthless in college, all because I had a full time job while doing them? Next I’m going to hear that I am using up valuable oxygen that should be reserved for full-time freelancers! :)

I’m glad I have a sense of humor (oh wait, that probably sucks too!)

Scott Nelle

March 28, 2008 at 8:49 AM

It looks like Andy has tried pretty hard to emphasize that he’s not talking about occasional sidework, but people who actively run a side company. Still, I think he’s wrong to make the assumptions he does. Sometimes your day job is not personally rewarding, or it’s rewarding in one way where your side work is rewarding in a different way. I think as long as there’s no overlap between the two (in terms of clients, markets, or hours of the day) there’s nothing to stop someone from doing dedicated work in both contexts.

Matthew Pennell

March 28, 2008 at 8:54 AM


It looks like Andy has tried pretty hard to emphasize that he’s not talking about occasional sidework, but people who actively run a side company.

Yes – I’ve edited my post now to more clearly reflect that distinction (running an actual design business, as opposed to noodling at home on pet projects).


March 28, 2008 at 9:56 AM

I think you guys use the term “designer” too liberally. Andy likes to think he’s a designer, an even good one, via his bloated over philosophizing articles. Well at least it’s a good thing that his blog doesn’t have comments enabled, or his ego may hurt. I find it humorous that he often uses the term “amatuers/beginners” in his writing, when he himself has much to learn. He really comes off as someone who’s trying too hard to prove himself, while all he can offer is fluff.

one thing i do give him credit for, is that he markets himself well.

Colin Williams

March 28, 2008 at 9:57 AM

I think the only thing Andy is guilty of is being a bit overly harsh in a few sentences, but that’s just Andy being Andy. His assumptions seem sound: As a client, knowing that a designer is spread between two maintained companies/brands could cause a level of concern. Whether or not it is unprofessional, I’m not one to say. It’s something people should examine for themselves.

As mentioned earlier, Andy went at lengths to focus on more established extra-businesses and not the freelancer expanding his knowledge, passion or income. He encouraged those motives, to a point.

So, Andy’s point, which I think was missed by most here (some who probably didn’t even go read the whole enchilada), is that if you work for an established agency and wish to do side work, be careful about how far you take that—to where it appears that you’re spreading yourself thin and devaluing your service.

Matt Beck

March 28, 2008 at 10:49 AM

To be fair he did absolutely nail this one sentence.

“It may not in fact be flatly unprofessional behavior I’m witnessing, but rather something everyone else (including all of our potential clients) understands, while I do not.”


March 28, 2008 at 11:56 AM

@Colin Williams: You said,“As a client, knowing that a designer is spread between two maintained companies/brands could cause a level of concern.”

So, as a client, does knowing that a designer has other clients, besides you, cause concern? Because that’s the same issue. Which is, frankly, a non-issue, unless you have super-secret competitive stuff and you forget to have your designer sign a non-compete or NDA. Or something. Sigh.


March 28, 2008 at 12:33 PM

I’m 80 percent opposed to the author’s black & white view of a complex topic

I think professionalism should be judged on an individual bases. A person can run a side business and remain loyal and dedicated to their employer, without having their ethics brought into question. They can work long hours and have a positive attitude. If they’re competing with you for a client or failing at their tasks then take action.

An employer doesn’t OWN the employees. A business has contracts that outline the employment relationship. If a person has fulfilled their obligations, let them work, and encourage them to do extra work. The experience is valuable, and will make them a better employee. You can take this to corporate level; employees that are dedicated and do contractual work versus employees that train on the side. The employees that do contractual work will be better equipped to provide innovative experiences. We are all professionals brought together to achieve great things. I could go on, but other issues exist that cloud the topic.

Agencies could introduce profit sharing. It’s hard for me to argue on the side of a corporation versus an individual. Not only does a large financial gap exist, but shouldn’t we be asking how these large companies can be more dedicated to the employee? Instead we’re questioning people that are working until their eyes bleed. It’s easy to see what side of the fence the author’s on. The yahoo example he provide, is a creative executive, which composes one percent of the community. Typical designers are expected to work long days and sacrifice relationships, a healthy lifestyle, and for minimal financial gain.

How many hours should a designer work?
How much is your long-term dedication worth?
What makes you more valuable then the next person/company?

Capitalism does drive innovation, but how far can we push it? Personally, I have no problem with designers doing contract work. However, I do have a problem with the North American work-first mentality.

J. Jeffryes

March 28, 2008 at 12:53 PM

I think he’s right.

I’ve run my own side company while working for others, seen coworkers do the same, and had my employees do it when I ran my own company. At the time I thought it was a good thing, for all the reasons others have listed above.

Now that I have the benefit of more experience on both sides of the desk, I realize that in most cases running a side business is a detriment to your day job. You have a fixed amount of passion and energy, and if some of that is going to side work, then it’s not going to your “real” job. You can’t divide 100% into 100% and 100%. Someone is going to get the 80% and someone else is going to get the 20%.

When you have side work, you always think about it during your regular work, especially if it’s more interesting or challenging than what you do 9 to 5. You start to save your best ideas for it. You run a very real risk of resenting your employer for keeping you from your sexier side jobs.

Would I fire someone that did side work? Not unless it had an impact on their work for me. And of course the reality is that it will always have an eventual impact.

ty (tzmedia)

March 28, 2008 at 1:27 PM

It’s nice to see a place for Andy’s ideas to be discussed. I suppose the popularity of one’s reputation could make it such that having a side business gives you the chance to create work for others. That would be one case where it would benefit many.
So the guy(Luke) has got a great paid gig with Yahoo, Yahoo isn’t a design shop is it?
Working towards the end that you get to deal directly with client projects and have a hand in the design and coding is what it’s all about.
Lighten up Andy, although I’ve told him this before. :) He is gracious to concede any well made points. Nice post AR.

Allen W.

March 28, 2008 at 1:30 PM

Andy is a pundit, less of a designer. He’s not even a great pundit, since his writing style is often long winded, contrived, and narrow minded. I don’t take what he says too seriously.

Being relatively new to the design business, he tries to hard to establish himself as an authoritative figure and unfortunately, a lot of people do buy into his “bullsh*t sandwich.” No amount of self-clamied title or egofest articles can save him from being a good designer, until he realizes what a novice he really is.

If anything of value coming out of his writing, is a constant reminder that design lies in practice not fluff, otherwise you lose touch with reality like he did.

Tiff Fehr

March 28, 2008 at 2:09 PM

The fundamental problem is the ongoing debate about what kind of industry web careers best mimic. If you’re following the mindset that web careers are similar to classic professional careers (doctors, lawyers, bankers, etc.), then it is easier to draw generalizations about the professionalism/loyalty as Mr. Rutledge has done, as well as think a workplace would provide all the one-stop career training you need over time. But if you think of web work as a craft, then “on the side” work is part of that ethos. Traditional craftspeople worked on specific commissions, but part of their reputation and ability was built out of side work, and it was essential to staying on top of new skills. From a craftsperson perspective, I see no issues with running side businesses—it is part of the nature of a craft. From a profession (meritocratic?) perspective, it is easier to frame the argument that side work is against your employer’s interests.

But Mr. Rutledge really didn’t do himself much of a service with his generalizations. I hope we’re learning to tie rants back to root ideas (like craft v. profession), and downplay their vitriol. That would be an interesting maturity point in our industry.

Eric Meyer

March 28, 2008 at 7:13 PM

Actually, Tiff, I’d say he did himself quite a service— you’re all talking about what he said and linking to him, are you not? Some may recall he did the same thing a while back with religion. I hadn’t realized that intentional provocation was just his MO; if I had, I wouldn’t have bothered responding back then.

So, anyone want to start a pool on the next topic he’ll wildly overstate in a bid for link traffic?

David Martin

March 28, 2008 at 8:43 PM

I unsubscribed from Andy’s RSS feed when he attacked the very un-attackable Anton Peck. One of many posts indicating to me that he was more interested in attention than contribution. It is unfortunate that he went down this path, with this topic. I believe there is a valid point made at the beginning of his post, that being a great designer with a reputation as such certainly does not mean you are a great professional. Beyond that, his argument just plunges into oblivion with no hope of return. To make sure he gets the attention he wants he made sure to offend a prominent designer.

Matthew Pennell

March 29, 2008 at 12:12 AM

Can we try to debate the issue and not the person, please? Any more ad hominem attacks, or discussion of Andy’s motives or character, and I’ll close comments on this article.

Eric Meyer

March 29, 2008 at 8:08 AM

My deepest apologies to you, Matthew. You’re absolutely right, and I should have known better than to cross that line, especially after working so hard not to do so before. If you wish to delete my inappropriate comment and thereby raise the tone of the conversation, I’ll accept that without question.

Ro Shabar

March 29, 2008 at 8:20 AM

i found this blog via the link “Digital Web Magazine mischaracterizes my latest article in an attempt to garner comment traffic.” from andy’s site.

i find it rather ironic. i wonder if lukeW will create a link on his site titled “Andy Rutledge mischaracterizes my work in an attempt to garner comment traffic.”

regarding the topic, i believe one needs to stay true to his/her main focus. whether that be your own business or your employer. however, it’s very possible to juggle both. it really comes down to the work load and designer’s creative stamina and time management. when my side job becomes overwhelming, i stop taking side jobs.

this doesn’t just apply to the web design field though, i have friends in other professions that moonlight quite often. i don’t think it makes them any less professional.

now regarding AR(i’ll try to make this constructive):

over generalization and dichotomization is something many bloggers do after a while, and eventually turn off their readers. I blame this on e-fame, or perceived accomplishment. In this day ‘n age of google ‘n wiki, we have way too many instant bloggers/experts on various subject matters. The type of blogs i still read are those either entertaining(quirky writing style/personality) or informative(no bs fluffs/philosophizing, just pure good useful content). unfortunately, AR is lacking on both.

Robin Ragle-Davis

March 30, 2008 at 6:41 AM

For years I did exactly that – held a full time position and operated a freelance business. In truth I found that the freelance work benefited my regular job tremendously and more than once. For instance, I worked out the initial e-commerce learning curve while working with several freelance clients. That knowledge was of direct benefit to my employer when we needed to develop an e-commerce project.

The thing I’ve found about design and development is that every new thing you do or learn means less time spent on another project later when you need to do it again. (and you will have to do it again)

I’ve also found that the job description in most full time gigs is too narrow to really develop and flex your skill set and that if you do your employer will generally benefit.


March 30, 2008 at 4:05 PM

Andy seems to be good at stirring up some controversy. Whether it’s defining what it means to be a “professional” or criticizing Google’s interface, it stirs people up, gets people talking, and drives traffic to his site.

Tiff Fehr

March 30, 2008 at 6:44 PM

I’m going to admit to being a bad Digital Web staff member; I forgot about this thread for a few days. But given the provocative turn it has taken, I cool with being late to the drama. But as I returned to the debate and read comments and response posts, I’d like to disagree with the use of the word “mischaracterized” in Mr. Rutledge’s two-sentence rebuttal on his site. I don’t think “mischaracterized” is correct to use, though I’d love to hear thoughts on the matter.

Here’s how I see it: Mr. Rutledge posted his own critique of on-the-side freelancing. Matthew, in response, brought the debate to our readers with a short summary and link, as well his own firmly called-out personal reaction. Our readers posted their reactions; I posted mine, too. Where does intentional mischaracterization come in for a series of reactions? Using “mischaracterized” just makes this debate more personally focused, rather than (ahem) professional.

To be as forthcoming as possible, our news posts on Digital Web have little strategy behind them other than staff-member interest in the topic. The question wasn’t meant to strictly to “garner comment traffic“—in fact, given the lack of comment availability on Mr. Rutledge’s own article, I think Matthew just wanted to continue the discussion while it had attention. (Matthew, please correct me if I’m wrong and you meant to be uncharacteristically evil-minded; we haven’t personally talked about the article or this thread at all, so I’m going on norms.)

...As you might surmise from my parenthetical, Digital Web’s news posts don’t follow any particular timely journalistic effort. We’re a bunch of volunteers posting news items when they strike us. To say we would intentionally mischaracterize someone else’s post smacks a bit of flaming for flaming’s sake, rather than continuing a discussion.


March 30, 2008 at 7:22 PM

I think that situation has the ability to be unprofessional if handled unprofessionally.

My full-time job has my full-time attention during hours that it’s expected.

Running a freelance business on the side gives me the ability to step outside of my normal job duties and gain some more experience and diversity. That experience and the business skills I pick up on the side allow me to contribute more than just design and technical know-how to my full-time job.


March 30, 2008 at 8:52 PM

Where I work, I find myself mostly filling the role of developer. Though I see working side jobs as an opportunity to use my design skills, the 7:00 phone calls from my employer and working weekends are a gross disservice to my clients who find their projects back-burnered by my day job. I found this unprofessional, and stopped taking side-jobs. This is a choice everyone has to make for themselves, but you have to ask: “If, due to this bad customer experience, my clients won’t hire me for their future projects, what is this doing to my reputation?” This isn’t about work quality, it’s about what happens to timelines due to other responsibilities, not to mention whether your kids remember who you are when you put the machine to sleep at 11pm every day.

Matthew Pennell

March 31, 2008 at 1:30 AM


The question wasn’t meant to strictly to “garner comment traffic“

Well, technically it was – it is a “Talking Point” post, after all – but you’re right that the intention was to continue the discussion (as Andy doesn’t have commenting on his site).

Andy’s site was also featured on Typesites today. :)


April 1, 2008 at 12:40 PM

I get what Andy’s saying here… there could be a conflict of interest and focus. However, I don’t actually agree that it’s necessarily in true in practice for all people that do it, for all the reasons mentioned in the comments above. I think proper prioritization is a skill some people can handle and others cannot, and it’s more a reflection of the INDIVIDUAL rather than the CIRCUMSTANCE of having a full-time day job and doing something else part-time at night.

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