Within two minutes of talking with graphic designer Zsuzsanna Papp, you feel as if you’re chatting with a long-time friend. Zsuzsi (pronounced zhoo-zhee) as her friends and clients call her, immediately warms people with her radiant smile, genuine curiosity, and welcoming nature. She’s also full of grit.
“The most useful thing I learned in university is independence,” she says. That is, taking charge to figure things out and knowing she can do it. Her fortitude was tested soon after graduation when she moved from Budapest to Montreal, launched a career, and started a family.
Any one of those milestones would fill someone with anxiety. Zsuzsi tackled all three at the same time. What enabled her to make a living while managing massive life changes was freelancing.
“I didn’t know anyone in Montreal, so I joined Upwork to find clients. That was more than 10 years ago when it was Elance—and some of those first clients I still work with today.”
Balancing drive with self-reflection
Zsuzsi wasn’t new to freelancing, as she took on side projects while attending university. But turning a few side projects into a thriving career takes commitment.
She explains, “You have to work hard and do things to grow your business when no one is asking you to. I think I have to improve on everything all of the time. I used to think I had to specialize in something to stand out, but now I think I stand out by being the best I can be.”
To that end, she doesn’t shy away from doing the tough inner work too. She admits her weaknesses and learns from her mistakes. She’s open to criticism and not afraid to be vulnerable. “I am grateful that my clients are collaborative. They teach me humility and how I can continue to improve my work.”
Never taking her success for granted, Zsuzsi regularly considers how she can offer her clients more. She thinks of ways to improve her customer service and provide greater value to her clients.
As important, she’s self-aware enough to keep her drive in balance. “[As a freelancer], you wear so many hats and have to keep pushing yourself. But you can’t be too hard on yourself because there’s always more to learn and you still have to take care of your personal life.”
“You have to keep pushing yourself. But you can’t be too hard on yourself because there’s always more to learn and you still have to take care of your personal life.”
What it’s like to work with her
Zsuzsi asks a lot of questions, especially of clients who aren’t used to contracting independent designers. “They appreciate the guidance and time I take to help them think through projects and determine what they really need. I’m able to do it because of my years of experience. They don’t expect me to take them by the hand, but they appreciate it. I spend time educating them so that they have a good experience, and so they know how to hire for future projects.”
Most of her clients have in-house marketing teams who are savvy at working with independent talent. They work with Zsuzsi to gain an advantage. “I work with so many companies in different industries that I see things with fresh eyes,” she says. “Many times, clients come to me because they know their work is missing something, but they can’t see what it is or they don’t have time to figure it out. Most of my clients have very talented in-house designers, but they’re also expected to wear a lot of different hats. If working with me takes some of the pressure off their shoulders and they get a few new ideas out of it too, it works out better for them.”
One project, for example, required building a 50-slide exploratory brief for Lexi Reese’s Senate campaign in California. “Building the visuals and finding the right tone for the presentation design was an absolute blast,” recalls Zsuzsi. “I particularly enjoyed the creative challenge of applying a consistent aesthetic to visually complex information, such as tables and statistics.”
Advice for new graphic design freelancers
Zsuzsi is a top-rated plus talent on Upwork, which represents the top 3% of talent on the platform. She shares these tips for building your business and reputation as an independent graphic designer—whether you’re taking on a few side projects or freelancing full time.
Learn to learn fast
You have to understand the client’s business and industry to create impactful graphics. For one project, Zsuzsi spent three intense weeks learning about specific algorithms to create visuals for a presentation deck. “It’s not enough to make something look pretty. You need to understand what you're reading to make the information flow the right way.”
Brush up on soft skills
Don’t underestimate the importance of soft skills because you have to quickly build a trusting and collaborative relationship with someone whom you’ll probably never meet face-to-face. Follow up with clients timely, learn to explain ideas clearly, practice active listening, and be open-minded. Seek ways to improve your client communication skills. Strong communication skills are especially critical with new clients because they can’t see you working. And they’re worried if you’ll do a good job and will deliver on time.
Dare to fail
Go after things that you might not be comfortable doing. Accept that, sometimes, you must learn on the job. You’ll go into projects that you're uncomfortable with because you’ve never done that type of work before or the subject matter is new to you. Be honest telling your client that you might not know everything and ask for clarification or additional resources early in the project. Educate yourself by talking to specialists and learning new technologies and tools. Be willing to learn as much as you can as quickly as you can. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. “At some point, you have to stop worrying and just go for it because you can fix things as you learn.”
Keep up with new trends and don’t see them as a threat, but an opportunity to widen your skills and be of greater service to clients. Set aside time every week for learning to make sure it gets done. Zsuzsi believes, “There’s always room for improvement. You need to ask yourself how you can be better and know it’s not personal. I can think back at a time when a project didn’t go as well as I hoped because I insisted on my point of view and the client didn’t agree. Later, I asked why I had to be so proud of my opinion. You have to reflect on these things to improve your business. It’s how you improve in your personal life too.”
“You need to ask yourself how you can be better and know it’s not personal.”
Get ahead of burnout
“Work isn’t everything. Work is a big part of your life, but it’s a cycle and you must know how to prioritize,” she cautions. “Sometimes personal needs come first and I think that's why I love freelancing. I can take half a day to be with my family or friends, or take a couple of days to recharge then jump into a new project the next week. I don’t have to live my life to serve a company, and that freedom helps me stay sane and motivated.”
Nourish your soul
Do what it takes to support yourself, whether that’s a walk in the woods or spending an evening with friends. “I can be the best for my clients and family because I make time to get outside, breathe in clean air, and move,” she says. Zsuzsi also blocks off quiet time for introspection.
Living a good life
The through line for Zsuzsi is balance. Work hard, but don’t be afraid to take breaks. Dare to challenge yourself and be willing to be vulnerable. Know the value of your work, yet seek areas for improvement. Invest time nurturing the people you value—starting with yourself. This sounds like solid life advice, no matter what your profession.
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