Freelance Considerations: Lessons Learned

By Daren Guillory

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.

My Career Path

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.

Experience at a Leading Design Firm

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.

Absorb From Your Mentors

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.

Before You Break Out

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.

Branding and Client Selection

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 outweighs quantity.

Presentation is Everything

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:

  • Adjust your portfolio to display the most successful projects
  • Leverage data to show project success (increased web traffic, etc.)
  • Maintain professional standards: spelling and typographic errors matter
  • Be honest: take care not to fall short of your brand promise
  • Don’t over-promise: if project specifications are outside of your capabilities, be up front
  • Articulate the concept of the piece in one or two succinct sentences
  • Establish in yourself the thinking that graphic design is primarily a business of problem-solving: how does your solution solve the client’s problem?


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.

Know the Tax Laws

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.

Contracts and Estimates

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.

Payment Terms

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:

  • 50/50 split: half of the estimate is due at the beginning of the project, balance is due at project completion
  • Payment in thirds: one-third of the estimate is due at the start of the project, the second third is billed halfway through and the final balance is due upon completion
  • Progress billing: Bill at the end of the month for work completed to date

My preference is progress billing. In my opinion, it best balances the designer/client relationship.

The Written Contract

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:

  • AIGA Center for Practice Management
  • AIGA Standard Form of Agreement

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.

Equipment and Software

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:

  • Desktop or laptop Mac or PC
  • Applications such as Adobe Creative Suite
  • Font browser for font management
  • FTP application for transferring files
  • General office applications for word processing and email
  • Storage devices, including an external hard drive for backups and a network area storage (NAS) device. Note: you should have a local copy of all data and an additional copy on a cloud-based automated back-up service. Consider your business and your client here: you want to have multiple levels of redundancy with sensitive information and files.
  • A wired or wireless network. Note: a wireless router works well, but pair that with a wired gigabit ethernet to your NAS and you’re on your way.
  • A quality color printer to make design comps

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 Ethics 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.

Business Development

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 Network.

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.

Contact Information and Schedule

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 wallet.

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.

Time Management

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:

  • Block out hours of time to work and stick with them
  • Touch information once: don’t create two tasks for yourself with the same information
  • Email is a drug: don’t let it interrupt your work flow
  • Be conservative with social networks and following the news: prioritize and focus on work first
  • Save your weekends and schedule time away: downtime is a necessity

Design and Inspiration

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:

  • Go to a library or museum
  • Search through the AIGA Design Archives
  • Find an inspiring designer and plunder their Delicious bookmarks
  • Go on a photo shoot or ask to be an assistant
  • Take an art history class
  • Take a look at AIGA’s Design Envy
  • Subscribe to UnderConsideration
  • Get involved in your local AIGA chapter and find out what other designers are doing

Other Considerations

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:

  • Keep educating yourself and pushing yourself
  • Always make your type look good for print and web: see The Elements of Typographic Style
  • Good photography will make your job easier
  • Keep up-to-date with technology and other areas where design can influence user experience
  • Be inspired, but don’t copy
  • Give and receive constructive criticism
  • Always show up, on time, ready to go
  • Research your client and know their business if you want to work with them
  • Be consistent and organized
  • Update your portfolio
  • Write an article about a passion or insight you’d like to share with others

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.

This post was submitted by an individual AIGA member and may have been published without review. It does not necessarily reflect the views of AIGA as an organization. Please notify an editor if you notice information that is incorrect or in violation of any copyright or trademark.