There’s nothing like the feeling of steady work when you’re a full-time freelancer. When every month is marked by a healthy list of clients, plenty of assignments, and checks arriving regularly in the mail, freelancing can feel like the greatest job in the world.
Until your work dries up.

Every freelancer will experience a time when clients and assignments drop off all at the same time. Suddenly, feast becomes famine, and there’s no incoming work or money anywhere in sight. Those periods can be one of the scariest times for a freelancer, but it doesn’t need to be permanent. There are steps you can take to steer yourself back towards work. Here’s a few things you can do.

Use the time for self-improvement

“A lot of freelancers in that famine cycle will often either panic and then try to find that new project, or take anything on,” says Jacob Cass, who specializes in logo and web designs, as well as branding. It’s a natural instinct to keep busy and scrounge around for money, but Cass suggests instead looking at that downtime as an opportunity. The daily grind of busy freelancing can leave little time to take stock: How have your skills evolved? What kind of work do you love doing and want to do more of? What training could you use more of?

Use famine periods to answer those questions and let them guide your self-improvement. Take on pro-bono work, or tinker on personal projects, so you can further lean into being the graphic designer you want to become. None of this will immediately earn you money, but it will evolve your skills (which will earn you money), as well as recharge your creative spirit and professional drive. “It’s a persona- satisfaction thing that you need to make time for,” says Chloe Cushman, an illustrator and visual journalist. “It’s also invaluable in terms of growing your career and sustaining it.”

Refresh your portfolio

If you want to find work, you need to show work — which is why, when assignments dry up, it’s important to update your portfolio. Chances are you’ve changed as a graphic designer since the last time you did. “The rule of the game is to show what work you want to do,” says Cass.
Cushman adds: “Don’t include something on your portfolio that doesn’t include what you want to do, because that’s what people are going to ask you to create for them.”

Be sure to also select work that tells a cohesive story about your style and skills. It’s what new clients want to see, says Cushman. “The thing that comes up again and again is showing a consistent style, because that’s what makes you most hireable to art directors.”

Embrace networking (especially with past clients)

Few freelance graphic designers enter the trade to network. But when you need more work, attending industry conferences, panels, and mixers is something you need to consider to meet new people. That being said, your best shot at getting more assignments may actually be networking with those you’ve worked with before. “When people are looking for designers they’ll go to the people they know and ask them if they know someone,” says Lars Baek, who specializes in product, user experience, and interaction design.

You want to be that someone. Keep yourself at the top of past clients’ minds by sending a “thank you” note for past work, or checking in periodically by email. If you want to speed up the process, you can also ask them if they know of any opportunities, or request an introduction to someone you’d like to work with. “At the end of the day your work can be fabulous, but if you can’t build those strong relationships and get your work out there as well, then you’re not going have return clients… or get new ones,” says Cushman.

Don’t underestimate the power of Twitter

If you’re embedded in the design community on Twitter, sending out a tweet saying you’re looking for work can go a long way. But there’s other ways to use the social media platform to your advantage. If you share your work and new portfolio entries, you increase the odds potential clients can find you through retweets. Using certain keywords in tweets and your Twitter bio — e.g. “freelance designer for hire” — can also help boost your search profile.

You can also employ a tactic that Cass uses: Turn your feed into a useful resource by sharing helpful articles. “By doing that, people either retweet you or re-share, and your name gets out there,” he says. “Soon you become a trusted resource for news.” You should also be ready to engage with the community to help familiarize yourself to others.

Baek says that asking other designers questions, or commenting on their tweets, had professional benefits: “More than three people who employed me said they noticed that.”

Seek out simple ways to make money

If you’re really stressed about cash, there are a few useful ways to generate some income to tide you over. For example, you can create illustrations or design pieces to post on Shutterstock and let them generate some passive income for you. Another option freelancers turn to for more active income are sites like Fiverr and Upwork. Now, because services on those sites can skew towards rock-bottom rates, you have to decide whether it’s worth your time and effort. If you do decide to proceed, be sure to pick a fee that is fair to your expertise, skill, and financial needs. You may not make a lot, but in a pinch it can help provide a little financial security to ease your nerves.

Never stop working

If there’s one principle at the root of all of the tips above, it’s this: Never stop working. Freelancing, for better and worse, is a constant hustle, and that’s no different when work has stopped coming in. Invest the same energy into finding new work as you would whittling away on a contract assignment. The more effort you put in, the more likely you are to find your way back into boom times.

Remember: A famine cycle happens to all freelancers. It’s not a defeat, nor is it the end of your career. You can do this. Approach the task with the same determination, ambition, and skill you do with your work, and those checks will be arriving in the mail again in no time.

Top image by art4all. All other images Darko 1981