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How to Start a Successful Freelance Graphic Design Career

Freelance is a natural fit for graphic designers. In fact, 20 percent of people in the design industry are self-employed. But why has freelance graphic design gotten so popular? How does such a huge group of people do it successfully? And what can you do to stand out in a saturated industry? In this article, we’ll discuss everything from the pros and cons of freelancing, to building a portfolio that gets you noticed, to landing clients and dealing with them.

1. Why freelance graphic design?

A freelance career is something almost every graphic designer has considered. From students about to enter the workforce to seasoned designers ready to work for themselves, it’s an industry that has thrived on self-employment. But just because it’s a popular move doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Why should you freelance?

graphic designer working - freelance graphic design guide
Image by BarsRsind

There are many personal questions to answer when deciding whether a freelance graphic design career is the right path for you. Do you have the right temperament? A good amount of willpower and internal drive? Do you thrive on an office environment, or do you prefer a different pace? Are you a self-starter or do you need someone breathing down your neck to get work done? Unfortunately, there’s no aptitude quiz that can determine whether you’ll be successful as a freelancer, but your work habits, professional goals, and overall personality are all criteria to the consider when you make the decision.

As you make your decision, keep in mind the pros and cons of a freelance career.

You’ll have more freedom and flexibility, but also more responsibility. With the ability to set your own schedule you’ll be free to listen to your muse, which doesn’t always speak up during normal work hours. But this freedom can also be a burden, as you are the only person who can take responsibility for your work and your business as a whole.

You get to choose who you work for, but that also means managing who you work for. Instead of having clients built into your work, you’ll have the chance to select and screen them (depending on how desperate you are for work). Once you choose them, however, you also have to manage them. This means running point on all communications, keeping them happy, and eventually chasing down payment, which isn’t always a walk in the park.

You’ll learn new skills, but it’s pretty much required that you do. Freelancing is a bootstrapping endeavor.  While you have the opportunity to pick up new design skills, you’ll also have to invest time to develop less glamorous skills like bookkeeping and time management.

Your lifestyle could improve, or it could be consumed. The flexibility of freelance means you have more time for the things you truly want to do. But if you don’t work towards an appropriate work-life balance, it can easily consume your life – sometimes more than a full-time job.

Read our article to weigh even more pros and cons of freelancing.

With all these pros and cons to weigh, why does it seem like so many people in the design industry still lean towards freelance? Flexibility might be the biggest draw. People want to work how they want, where they want, and when they want. This comes with challenges, but with commitment and diligence a fruitful freelance graphic design career is possible. We talked to two graphic designers who found success in our article examining why so many designers choose to go freelance.

2. Starting your freelance graphic design career

If you’ve determined that a freelance career in graphic design is for you, it’s time to think about how to establish your business.

starting freelance graphic design career - freelance graphic design guide
Image by Faber14

First, you want to consider the logistics: How will you file your business? You can read about the difference between sole proprietorships, LLCs, and more in this guide from Freelancers Union.

But there’s also the more creative side of the business. Where will you work? How will you work? What type of work will you do?

One of the hardest things to conquer as a freelancer is time management. Without a boss sitting in close proximity or coworkers bustling around you, it can be hard to find the motivation to work. Face this challenge by setting up specific working hours that define your day. You should also set up a physical environment that’s conducive to work. Some freelancers work from cafes, others chip in extra to work from a co-working space, but many just work at home.

The key to working from home is creating separation between your office and living quarters. In our article on the pros and cons of freelancing, designer Grace Fussel describes her work-life balance ritual:

“Every evening at 6, I lock my office door and put the key in a separate room of the house. Even if I receive seemingly urgent emails after that time, it’s a handy technique to achieve absolute separation between my work time and my leisure time. In the morning when I take the key out and unlock the door, it makes me feel like the work day has officially started.”

This isn’t always possible, but you should try as hard as you can to distinguish your work life and personal life to keep you focused and sane.

Read even more tips for getting started on your freelance graphic design business.

When you’re just starting out another question to ask is whether you intend to specialize. While it always pays to be well-versed in many areas of your industry, there’s benefit to having expertise in one or a few areas.

We looked at possible graphic design specialties and the upsides and downsides to opting for a specialty in this article. Some of the pros include more professional respect, a more specific career trajectory, and the huge asset of expert knowledge. On the flip side, the cons include a potentially smaller client base, a career trajectory that’s too rigid, and the pressure of having to always be the best.

Like becoming a freelancer in the first place, developing a specialty is another big decision to make. Think carefully about the pros and cons and how your personal and professional goals might be affected by the choice.

3. Building your portfolio

A portfolio is every graphic designer’s greatest opportunity and most crucial asset. It is a representation of your experience, your aesthetic, your skills, and often your personality.

graphic design portfolio - freelance graphic design guide
Image by Darko 1981

Building a website and online portfolio can be quite meta if you’re a graphic designer. The entire look and feel of the website will speak to your talent as a designer. Even the parts that don’t speak specifically to your work, like an ‘about me’ section, need to be impeccably designed. It should also showcase your aesthetic, acting as a litmus test for potential clients. This is one of the biggest tips we share in our article on crafting a distinctive design portfolio.

Most designers have a personal website that houses the basics: their portfolio, contact info, and ‘about me’ section. But a great way to boost your portfolio is to include a case study. This is a deep-dive into the work you’ve done for a client, showing how you took them from problem to solution with your expertise. If you’re just starting out and don’t have the experience to base a case study on, you can create a prospective case study based on a real brand or something hypothetical.

As you write your case studies, keep these tips in mind:

  • Focus on a past client that represents your ideal future client.
  • Detail the client’s perspective so new ones can easily relate.
  • Don’t be dry – tell a story about the client’s needs and your design process.
  • Show the success of your work through cold hard facts and numbers.

Learn even more in our article on graphic design case studies.

A social media presence is another must, and one that can be used to supplement your online portfolio. Several platforms offer the equivalent of a portfolio with added social features, like Behance or Dribble. These popular websites can be instrumental to getting feedback on your work, networking with other designers, and ultimately connecting with clients.

The general social media sites Twitter or Instagram can also work in the graphic designer’s favor. You can join groups, use hashtags, weigh in on conversations, and keep people updated on your work.

With all of these functions on social media, some might be asking whether a social media presence can replace an online portfolio. We dissect this issue closely in our article on social media vs. traditional profiles, and the conclusion is clear: Social media should be used to bolster your online portfolio, but don’t rely on it to replace the foundational and professional tone of a portfolio.

4. Building your network

In addition to a stellar portfolio, a freelance career is dependent on connections. Clients won’t just fall into your lap – you’re more likely to find a paying job when you have relationships to tap. These relationships might be with other designers who can ultimately recommend you, or with clients who have been following your work. Either way, there are several methods for building your network.

building a network - freelance graphic design guide
Image by Darko 1981

Marketing isn’t just for brands and big companies! As a freelancer you are your brand, and you have to get it in front of the right people. This doesn’t mean you need to have a huge budget to buy display ads or send direct mail. Our article on marketing yourself as a freelancer spells out 10 realistic and low cost ways to market yourself successfully.

The best advice? Make your website much more than a portfolio – make it a place where you develop an ethos around your brand. This will lend credibility to your name and expand the reach of your website. To do this, brands usually share content that engages, informs, and excites, and you can do the same. Try out some of the typical mediums used to do this like a blog, video tutorials, email newsletters, or social media.

Get more tips in our article on marketing yourself as a graphic designer.

Speaking of social media, this is one of the best ways to meet and communicate with other designers or clients. Make sure you maintain a presence on traditional social media sites that have broad audiences, but don’t exclude the graphic design communities where you can get feedback on your work and impress prospective clients with a body of work.

Check out our list of the best social channels to share your work and score new clients.

Want to get out and meet people in person? Professional networks are a fantastic way to branch out in your industry. These organizations typically offer many services that will help you grow as a freelancer, including:

  • Networking opportunities
  • Legal advice
  • Templates and forms
  • Client connections
  • Workshops, talks, and conferences

Learn about some of the most popular graphic design organizations and how they can help.

5. Getting clients

Finding them

Discovering clients to work with doesn’t have to be a shot in the dark. In fact, there are many sites built specifically to help you with this task. We break down the list of sites in this article.

getting clients - freelance graphic design guide
Image by Julia Tim

Some of these sites are better than others, and some may serve you better at varying points in your career. Fiverr’s micro-style commissions are a great option if you’re looking to fill in the gaps on an already busy schedule – or if you’re totally desperate for work. On the other hand, Toptal is a place for the uber talented folk who are ready to service top-tier clients and receive a fair compensation.

Beyond these dedicated websites, there are also basic methods of discovery. Cold-calls might work if you’re looking to service smaller businesses. Keeping your social media maintained and reaching out to clients through these platforms might put you top of mind for a brand’s next project. And staying in touch with peers in the industry is always a good idea, as they can pass along offers or leads that they’re not ready to pick up.

Pitching them

Often, you’ll have to convince clients to work with you because there is so much competition in the freelance graphic design space. When you want to work with someone, it’s up to you to make the sale. If you’re making your case on the phone, in an email, or in person, there are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Hook them with something memorable
  • Identify their issue and propose your solution
  • Make it easy to get in touch

Sometimes you might find yourself on the spot, sitting in a room with someone you’ve wanted to work for, or asked by a potential client what you could do for them. In this case, you’ll need a go-to elevator pitch. You can rehearse certain elements of the pitch, which should last no longer than the average elevator ride. Other elements might be harder to prepare for – like information surrounding the specific client, but you can practice your hook, your flow, and your public speaking skills at home in the mirror.

Read more about the perfect elevator pitch for your freelance business.

Agreeing with them

Once you’ve found, pitched, and landed a client, you’ll begin the process of agreeing with them. This can be a breeze or a somewhat belabored process.

To protect themselves and their work, many freelance designers will develop a contract for their clients. This can be as long or as detailed as you want, though keep in mind that most clients don’t want to trudge through pages of legalese. The typical contract, agreement, or brief as some may call it, contains key information like the scope of the project, pertinent deadlines, and payment information. For additional layers of protection you can add parameters for revisions, cancellation clauses, etc. that clearly delineate the agreement between you and client.

As you gain more experience as a freelance graphic designer you’ll be able to template your own unique contract to fit your working style.

Read our article about what to include in your graphic design contract.

Of course, sometimes you just can’t accept a job. Maybe you have too much on your plate, or the design work just isn’t up your alley. How do you turn it down without shutting the client out forever? It can be difficult navigating a “no”, but there are a few tools to use when you need to make this tough call. In our guide to declining a job offer, we outline a few steps:

  • Help the client see your perspective. If you’re declining because your work and the client’s mission are unaligned, don’t be afraid to discuss these challenges.
  • If you think someone is better suited to the job, let the client know! This helps all parties involved: Your friend or peer gets a job and your client doesn’t have to dive back into the freelancer search.
  • Think hard before you say no to a project you love because you’re just too busy. If it’s the perfect offer it might be worth reshuffling other lower priority projects. Certain offers are not built to be turned down!

Read more in our guide to declining an offer without hurting client relationships.

6. Doing the work

The design process

The creative process is unique to every graphic designer. But once you’ve gotten the brief for the job, it can be hard to figure out where to start. Expert freelancer Grace Fussel has outlined a detailed work process to use when you’re getting started on your next job:

graphic design workflow - freelance graphic design guide
Image by PureSolution

Stage 1: The brief

No designer is a mind-reader, so it’s important at this early stage of the graphic design process to assess exactly what the client is hoping for, and for you to communicate what they can expect from you.

  1. Client meeting and brief analysis
    Talk to your client about the brief. Ask if they are able to provide information about their brand ethos and competitors within their sector. Get access to brand guidelines, if available. Even simple brand elements, like a color palette or fonts, can be a fantastic starting point for developing your ideas.
  2. Market research
    Do some online research into your client’s industry and their competitors. You’ll find that companies in some industries will share design traits in common — you don’t have to mimic these, but it helps to have an understanding of the landscape. You can also avoid any unfortunate duplicate logo scenarios (these happen more often than you think).
  3. Mood boarding
    Designers have their own preferred ways of sourcing and compiling inspiration. Some prefer a physical board using clippings, print-outs, sketches, and color samples. Some use Photoshop or InDesign as a convenient way to drop in images sourced from online. Still others use online tools like Pinterest.
  4. Sketching
    Step away from the computer, pick up a pencil and paper, and start sketching. Don’t worry about refining your sketches or making them look good; at this stage your focus should simply be on generating lots of rough ideas.
  5. Concept refinement
    Take a pen and circle the three ideas that you feel have the most potential for development. Once you have a trio of refined sketches, you can digitize them. At this stage, you don’t want to spend undue time refining the three designs digitally. After all, two of your designs will end up on the drawing room floor after presenting to the client.

Stage 2: Presentation

When you’ve got your trio of refined designs, it’s time to touch base with the client. Designers are often hesitant to reveal their ideas to clients before they have been perfected, but checking in with the client at this stage will actually save you a lot of heartache and time down the line.

  1. Three-concept presentation to the client
    If you find presentations a little nerve-wracking, your best approach is to simply be prepared. Present your three design concepts in A4 or Letter-sized pages, making it easy for a client to print in-house, and keep the pages simple and free of clutter, allowing your designs to take center-stage.
  2. Client review and further refinement
    While clients may not know what is best in terms of design for their brand, they will have a fine-tuned sense of what has worked for them in the past. If you’re open to suggestions, there’s always opportunity for a lukewarm idea to develop into something fantastic. With the client’s backing you can make headway on refining the approved design. Review your drafts at various stages and seek outside opinion from collaborators.
  3. Final review and edits
    It’s wise to periodically print out your drafts, take a break from them, and review them with a fresh eye. Suddenly it seems completely obvious that a piece of text needs some kerning improvement, or your choice of colors is a little too brash.

When you’ve produced a near-perfect draft of your design, it’s once again time to touch base with the client. They may have lots to suggest, or very little, and it’s up to you to decide if the amount of edits required is covered comfortably by your original quote. If not, you should consider asking for the client to pay for extra hours.

Stage 3: Technical production

Sometimes, you’ve been contracted to complete an entire production from ideation to launch. This often requires a few extra hands, especially if you’re required to print work or develop something online. Read more about the technical production stage here.

Read the entire in-depth article on the freelance graphic design process.

Time Management

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Much of the freelance life is spent shuffling between jobs. Sometimes you’re too busy to sleep and other times you’re so free that you drive yourself insane. While it comes with great freedom, achieving a work-life balance in the freelance world might require even more work than the typical full time office job.

One of the greatest challenges of freelance life is figuring out how to schedule your time – how do you complete work for clients while remaining compassionate to yourself and your down time? We discussed a few methods above, like setting specific hours, working from a dedicated location, and declining job offers when your plate is full.

You can also invest in tools that help you organize your work and schedule your time appropriately. We have an entire list of free and cost effective tools that will help you keep your business on track. From productivity tools to hourly time trackers, you’ll find something to assist your freelance career.

Sometimes a deadline is so close that no tool can help you manage it. Maybe you procrastinated or misjudged the scale of the project. Regardless, dealing with a looming deadline can be incredibly stressful. We listed five ways to deal with deadlines, even when they seem impossible. Some strategies should be employed at the outset of a project to manage unrealistic deadlines, while others can be used in crunch-time to just get the work done on time.

Managing clients

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As a freelance graphic designer, you should give as much weight to developing your designs as you do to communicating with your clients. A clear and open line of communication will keep everyone updated on the status of the project, and putting in the effort to communicate as you design could prevent a lot of issues that arise once the final design is revealed.

Managing expectations will grow to be a big part of your job. When you agree on a brief with your client, you are agreeing to a specific scope of work and deliverables to go along with it. Clients will push this scope, often without realizing that they’re also pushing the boundaries of your agreement. And a handful of clients might ask for more knowing that it’s out of bounds, just to get more “bang for their buck.”

Neither of these situations is appropriate, and there are a few ways to deal with this scope creep. The first step: Set expectations up front, and reinforce them every step of the way.

Even your best efforts to regulate scope creep can be derailed by a bad client. Almost every freelance designer has one ‘client from hell’ story to tell. There are so many in the industry that there’s an entire website dedicated to the cause. We spoke to the founder of the Clients From Hell, Bryce Bladon, for tips on dealing with bad clients. The best advice is to be on the lookout from the outset. If alarm bells go off during initial communication with a client, trust your gut and move on.

The hunt for clients is so intense that once you have them, it’s worth keeping them around. To do so, you need to build strong relationships. This includes keeping lines of communication open, but also following up and checking in often to keep your name top of mind. Find even more tips in our article on building strong client relationships.

No work?

Almost every freelancer has weathered a work drought, regardless of their industry. This can be a scary time, especially if freelance work is your only source of income. While there’s no trick to begin the flow of work again, there are a few things you can do to make the down time valuable for your career and to earn a few bucks here and there. Read our article on what to do when the freelance work dries up to learn more.

7. Getting paid

The first step of getting paid comes before you even do the work: Create an ironclad contract with explicit payment details. Include clauses on revisions, or at least discuss payment for revisions before you get started on them.

payment - freelance graphic design guide
Image by Darko 1981

Try as you might, a contract doesn’t guarantee payment. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the Freelancers Union, seven out of 10 freelancers working in New York have been “cheated out of payments that they’ve earned.” After submitting an invoice, days turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months and the money doesn’t come. When you finally manage to get the client on the phone, you find out the bad news. After all of the time and energy you poured into the project, they’re refusing to pay your invoice. Unfortunately, getting clients to pay on time – or at all – can be difficult.

You can discourage late payments and no payments with a few proactive steps:

  • Set out expectations in a statement of work, and consider protective measures like a kill fee and milestone payments
  • Incentivize on-time payment in the contract by offering discounts or other benefits
  • Keep communication open and remind clients of upcoming invoices.
  • Exercise your right to withhold deliverables if you sense hesitation to pay

Read more in our article on avoiding late payments for design work.

8. Tools and additional information

If you’re starting out as a designer or illustrator, arming yourself with the best graphic design tools and technology available will transform your workspace and your creative process. You’ll obviously need the basics – a powerful computer, a reliable broadband connection, a space to work, and an artist’s eye.

tools and resources - freelance graphic design guide
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Beyond the bare necessities, however, there are plenty of crucial tools that you can invest in for long-term success. We’ve compiled a list of 10 indispensable creative tools for graphic designers and illustrators that includes the software, hardware, and miscellaneous items you might need. We also have a more exhaustive list of tools in our essential guide to professional graphic design tools.

Looking for even more content to inform your freelance graphic design career? Get inspired by the industry’s best in our guide to the top design blogs to follow in 2017.

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