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Freelance graphic design is often a
desirable means of employment because of schedule flexibility, the opportunity
to “own your work” and the possibility of higher income. But freelance
graphic design isn’t something I suggest jumping into without careful consideration. Before making the decision for myself, I spoke with a number of seasoned
professionals, and their overwhelming response was that designers all too often
decide to give it a go on their own before fully learning their craft. However,
if you do decide to give freelancing a go, here’s an inside look at my own path, plus
tips about a few things I've learned along the way.
Prior to receiving my Bachelor of Fine Arts
in Graphic Communications, I was involved in the design community and did an
internship in a major advertising agency. After graduation, I worked at the
studio of one of my professors. From there, I went on to work at an in-house
design department for a large corporation. However lowly it was, it taught me
how to design for e-commerce and demonstrated how the in-house design
environment worked. All of these experiences were valuable and contributed to
my overall awareness and general understanding of the industry.
After the internship and the smaller
studio and corporate design positions, I landed a permanent position at a major
player in terms of branding and design. This is where I experienced the
greatest opportunity to grow in all aspects of design: design and layout,
typography, technical skills, presentation and communication skills, and, most
importantly, the business of graphic design.
Larger studios have a collective depth of
experience and they’ve solidified client relationships that were years in the
making. They also have the client base to keep work coming in, and, to that extent, you can quickly gain momentum and learn from a variety of fields. The
professionals working in a larger studio often have 10, 15 or 20
years of experience—sometimes even more. Your ability to absorb their
collective knowledge and put that into practice is tantamount to your success
as a freelancer.
For me, deciding to go freelance was part
of the natural progression of my career path. But designers aren’t typically
thrilled with the prospect of running their own business. In this regard, I am
a huge advocate of getting the education (from a reputable design program or
university) and experience (from a larger, seasoned design studio) you need
prior to going out on your own.
One of the first things to consider is the
direction you want to go. At this point, evaluate your portfolio—strengths and
weaknesses—and decide on the types of clients you really want. Tailor your
portfolio to the types of projects and clients you desire. In some cases, you
will need to eliminate projects from your portfolio altogether or create
something pro bono to fill a niche. As a general rule of thumb, quality
You will need your own brand identity,
website and other marketing and sales presentations that speak to your
capabilities and value proposition. Keep those materials as clear and concise
as possible. Some other things to keep in mind:
There are plenty of easy-to-use systems
available like Quicken, QuickBooks, iBank, iBiz and FunctionFox, to name a few.
However, chances are you will need an accountant to manage your books.
In addition to your general ledger, look
into the tax law concerning whether or not graphic design services can be
taxed. The last thing you want to do is to not charge sales tax but then come
to the realization that you should have been charging it. In this worst-case
scenario, you will have to retroactively collect taxes on sales. Ouch.
In considering clients, you need to know
if a formal contract is warranted or if a written estimate will do. For smaller
clients and projects, a written estimate is usually sufficient. The estimate
should outline project specifics, number of concepts, categories of work and
the number of hours the project will take to complete. Always include a
disclaimer that the estimate is a “cost guideline” only.
Before you kick off your next amazing
design project, make sure you’ve discussed payment terms and have come to an
agreement. Here are some options:
My preference is progress billing. In my
opinion, it best balances the designer/client relationship.
In the case of larger clients and
projects, I strongly recommend a written contract. If you don’t know how a
written contract works or if you are completely intimidated by such contracts,
AIGA provides a number of helpful resources:
If you don’t understand these documents, you
might consider asking for assistance from a leader at your local AIGA chapter
or a business owner you trust. Many professionals are more than happy to lend
their experience to up-and-coming designers. If all else fails, hire an
attorney to review the documents and explain them to you.
One of the major investments for your
freelance business will be hardware and software—it will cost a bundle. Here
are some items you may need:
Undoubtedly, there are other things you
will come across that you will want and/or need. Consider your needs and budget,
then make purchases accordingly.
Don’t forget that pirated software, fonts and
other types of media are unethical. See AIGA Design Business and
for more information.
The concept of owning your own work from
start to finish is great, but chances are you can’t do everything. Depending on
your specialty, you’ll need to find people you can trust. This may involve
hiring a PHP specialist for programming or finding a production artist to help
with copy-fitting. Actively maintaining these relationships adds value to your
business—you’ll be able to provide additional services to your clients and/or
free up some of your own time.
One thing I have missed since I started
freelancing is the sense of camaraderie that you get in a larger setting. You
need to have people on the outside—people whom you trust—review your work. This
will help you stay sharp and serve as a reminder that, as with everything,
there is always room for improvement. Critiques can confirm that a concept is
on target or point out missed opportunities. They almost always generate new
ideas and result in a better finished product.
For freelance designers, one of the most
overlooked areas is business development. Make sure your work is accessible
through the usual online channels: an online resume; a portfolio; professional
organizations like AIGA or LinkedIn; or other online resources like the Behance
It is also a good idea to have a general
sales presentation ready to go at a moment’s notice. This might consist of a keynote
presentation with work samples, descriptions and results. Rehearse as necessary
prior to presenting.
Carry your business cards with you at all
times and always have a calendar available. Smart phones are great for this
because everything is at your fingertips. If you want to make a great first
impression, don’t hand out wrinkled business cards that you’ve kept in your
One of the best things you can do is be
100% referable. This means being upfront and honest with your clients,
maintaining professionalism, paying close attention to details and delivering
your product on time and on budget.
If these basics are applied to every
client relationship, then chances are you will be receiving calls instead of
pounding the pavement.
It’s easy to get caught in the trap of
complacency when you work from home. But with freelance graphic design, the
competition is too fierce not be judicious with time management:
It’s important to be aware of current
design trends and knowledgeable of graphic design from the past. Here are a few
ideas, by no means exhaustive, to stay inspired in difficult times:
Ultimately, a lot of what happens depends
upon your own goals and expectations. The field of graphic design is subjective
so it isn’t always easy to gauge success. In closing, here are a few points to
consider if you ever need more encouragement:
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the AIGA Houston Blog, which was awarded Best Arts Blog in 2011 by the Houston Press Web Awards.
Daren is a Design Director & Illustrator based in Houston, Texas. His work is as varied and diverse as his experience, and ranges from brand identity design, web design, illustration and consultation to occasionally writing.
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