Six Ways to Make the Most of your Contract Design Gig

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You just landed your first contract gig.

After months of networking, coffee dates, LinkedIn stalking, revamping your resume, and taking on “pro bono” work to fill your portfolio — you did it! Congratulations. 

After all your hard work, it’s paid off! You can now look forward to a new and exciting world of networking, coffee dates, LinkedIn stalking, revamping your resume, and taking on any and all projects to fill your portfolio. 

Okay, okay. I’m kidding, sort of! From my experience in the design industry, it’s pretty common to get started through some form of contract work. A contract job is time-based and can range from a temporary fill-in to specific project-based work. Most large companies will hire contract workers through recruiting companies. Many contract workers are seeking full-time employment, and use these gigs as a way to gain experience or get a foot in the door at a particular company.

A major perk of contract positions is the chance to test drive a particular role/job title/company with a built-in time limit. If it goes well, maybe you will have opportunity to be hired on full time. At the very least, you refine what you are looking for and can speak to specifics in terms of team dynamics and responsibilities. If it turns out the job doesn’t align with your expectations or priorities, that’s okay too, because it’s only a short-term commitment, and now you will be better informed going into your next position.  Either way, contract work provides designers with solid experience that translates to both your resume and transferable skills.

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As a designer who has worked in a variety of freelance and contract roles, I wanted to share six tips based on my experience to help you make the most of this experience:

1. Set up 1:1 Meetings

Set up individual 30-minute coffee dates with your immediate teammates and supervisor(s). Use this time to learn more about the other folks on your team and what their responsibilities are. Specifically ask them about their expectations of you and how you can best work together. This will set common ground right off the bat and start things off on a positive note.

2. Be a sponge

Seriously. Learn as much as you can, even if it's not directly related to your role or responsibilities. This is your chance to better understand the company and figure out if it's a place you want to be long-term. Attend meetings and info sessions, participate in trainings, and learn more about what others on your team are working on.

3. Offer assistance to your teammates 

Help out! Show your value. Even if this particular role is time-based, you are looking to make a good impression and yes, you are still networking. Offer help to your teammates where you can and as it's appropriate. This displays a willingness to collaborate while building your skills in a wider range of projects.

4. Get to know people outside of your immediate team

Talk to people outside your immediate group. Learn about how other positions function within the company. If you're a designer, try spending some time with developers or PMs. Get to know designers in other areas of the organization. These people all have valuable and diverse perspectives for you to soak up.

5. Have a list of your own personal goals

Write a list of at least 3-5 personal goals at the start of the contract. Have an understanding of what YOU hope to gain from this experience. Share these goals with your supervisor and recruiters!

6. Keep a journal of the work you are doing

Keeping a journal for each project has been one of the most helpful tools I learned from design mentors. I use a simple word doc template for each project and keep it in a folder on my computer. I aim to update my docs at least once a week. I detail the design brief, my intended process, and timeline. As the project progresses, I fill the journal with photos, process updates, iterations, meeting notes, and test results. At the end, I do a short write up of my key learnings and takeaways. While it may seem tedious at the time, this will go a long way when it comes time to update your portfolio or chat with your supervisor about your contributions to the team.

Bonus: Work hard and always be on top of things

Show up early to meetings. Always be prepared. Take notes. Ask questions. Be as "on top of it" as you possibly can. These little things go a long way in making a good impression and showcasing the value you could bring to a company long term, so put in the extra effort to make it happen.


My hope is that these tips will aid fellow (and future) contractors with some tools to make the most of the experience. I’d love to hear your own tips and ideas – put them in the comments!