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 outweighs quantity.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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