Become a Freelance Graphic Designer in 2021: The Complete Checklist
When becoming your own boss, you have the freedom to set your own rules. Here's everything you need to know on the journey to become a freelance graphic designer.
This post was last updated on October 6, 2020.
Starting a freelance career can unleash a wide range of emotions, from the terrifying to the empowering. While it might not be the easiest of professional paths, running your own graphic design business does guarantee a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, knowing your every cent was earned through your own hard work and skills.
To help you on your journey to self-employment, we’ve compiled a list of the most important things to keep in mind when becoming your own boss. Say hello to the complete checklist on how to become a freelance graphic designer, covering everything from creating a website and setting up a productive working station, to demanding compensation from clients (on time, please!):
How to become a freelance graphic designer
Make bureaucracy your friend (or at least try)
Personal branding is key
Eyes on the prize
Client better have my money
Juggling the perfect work-life balance
Spread the word
1. Make bureaucracy your friend (or at least try)
Becoming self-employed means, first and foremost, starting a business on your own. This requires a lot of hands-down, hardcore finances on your part. While it’s the job itself that you love most, know that freelancing is just as much about business and numbers as it is about design. Here is what you need to look out for in order to remain on top of your paperwork at all times:
– Open a business: Research the basic laws of owning a business in your location. Consult with your local authorities about the process, then register as a small business.
– Tax payments: Consult with a tax accountant and read up on tax laws for independent contractors – it’s important to know what fraction of your payout per assignment must be paid to the government.
– Work permits: Look into all relevant permits and permissions you might need to obtain. For example, some local authorities require specific permits for working from home.
– Bookkeeping: Set up a financial bookkeeping system that works for you and complies with the local filing laws. Note that there are many affordable online platforms that can benefit you with this. Get folders (physical, virtual or both) to file all invoices and payments.
Be as organized as you can with this – we recommend arranging all paperwork by month and year. Some freelancers choose (or are entitled by law) to hire an accountant to help them file paperwork. If you’re thinking of hiring an accountant, make sure the decision is financially plausible for you.
– Plan ahead: Even if you’re just starting your career, it’s not too early to plan ahead. In fact, when it comes to saving for your retirement, the earlier the better. Take the time to decide on your savings, whether it’s a pension fund or any other form of long-term savings, and make sure to contribute regularly.
2. Self-branding is key
Some newly-freelance graphic designers feel that their portfolio doesn’t align with the kind of jobs that they’re interested in getting. In those cases, it might be tempting to work on free personal projects before even looking for the first job.
But if you’re as well-trained and professional as we know you to be, remember that your portfolio will grow with time and experience, and that’s fine. When starting out, it’s better to work on your personal branding rather than create new projects – and the job offers are sure to follow.
As with most branding projects, concentrate on a great website, strong logo and branded merchandize:
– Web portfolio: A sharp online presence is a must for getting the clients and projects you want. Portfolio websites serve as the foundation for your branding efforts, and are a useful way to introduce yourself to potential clients. Approach making your online design portfolio just as you would any other design project. For some inspiration, check out these graphic design magazines to see what other designers are doing online.
Go for a website design that creates an experience and is also beautiful in its own right, showcasing you at your very best. Curating only your best and most representative work (around six to eight projects) is recommended. You can also use your portfolio website as an online store, enabling you to sell art online as an additional source of income.
Make sure to add an updated version of your graphic design resume, your contact information and social media links, so that clients can reach you easily. Also include a written summary explaining who you are and what it is that you do. Last but not least, remember to make your website mobile friendly.
– Personal logo: While a logo is not a must for graphic designers, it’s also best not to type your name in Arial font at the top of your paperwork or website. Whether it’s an actual logo, an icon or any other creative interpretation, make your skills stand out across all platforms. You can use a logo maker to create your own, or check out logo ideas to get inspired.
– Branded merch: The visual language and brand identity you’ve crafted for your business should be carried across to your stationery as well. Sprinkle some of your creative stardust on your official papers, helping you stay on brand every time you generate an invoice or write a check.
3. Eyes on the prize
Freelance work is much more fluid and dynamic than a nine-to-five job. You could be overloaded with work for several months on end, then scratching for any gig you can find soon after. One way to acknowledge that it’s common for work to come and go in cycles, and it’s nothing to worry about. If you need some inspiration to keep looking forward, check out these design quotes to remind yourself why you start.
Some other ways to prepare for this include:
– Save for a rainy day: Keep track of your expenses and income. As self-explanatory as it may sound, make sure that your expenses don’t go over your earnings. When starting your own business, try to have a few months worth of living expenses saved up on the side, which could come in handy during the quieter periods.
– Make a yearly plan: Work out a personal annual budget, and be as realistic as you can with your forecast. Write down all major expenses that you anticipate to help you prepare in advance (Are you going on a holiday? Is your best friend getting married?). Making an annual business plan, rather than a monthly one, will enable you to navigate your finances knowledgeably and efficiently.
4. Client better have my money
Working with clients is a tricky art form of its own. Going into it, remember that your work is valuable. Your clients have a need, and you provide them with a solution – a service business that deserves compensation, with actual money. Follow these guidelines to ensure that you get what you deserve:
– Never work for free: No matter what credit they may promise, the crazy exposure you might receive or the esteem and prestige, design is your profession and you deserve to be paid for what you do. Unless you work for a nonprofit or an important cause that you’re truly passionate about, it really is as simple as that.
– Sign a contract: A design job is a business transaction. As such, it requires a contract to clearly detail each side’s obligations. A contract is an important method of protecting your rights and preventing major surprises from popping up down the line (such as the client suddenly asking for an animated GIF version of the logo on the day of the deadline).
The contract should also detail the work process, so that both sides know what to expect. Use mood boards to help you plan your work and make sure to specify how many optional designs you’ll be presenting to the client in the first stage (we recommend around three initial designs). You'll also want to specify the number of revisions you plan on doing from there.
This should prevent you from being dragged down the rabbit hole of never ending comments (“My cousin doesn’t like purple, please change”) and endless back and forth conversations (“Not too fond of orange, either”). Also, make sure that your contract protects your intellectual property rights.
– Payment terms: Before going into a project, agree on its payment terms and include those on your invoice. The standard is usually 30 days since terminating the project. In case a client is late on payment, enforce your right to be paid on time. You can also charge interest on late payments (look into legislation on this one, too). Just as you’re expected to meet your deadlines, the client should also meet payment deadlines.
– Payment stages: In long-term projects, you don’t have to wait until the very end to get the cash flowing. Before accepting the project, set payment stages so that you get paid as you go.
You can determine a schedule that includes a deposit to be paid upfront (before you begin working), followed by an extra payment stage midway, and finally the majority of the total to be paid at the end of the project. Define clear dates for each of the stages, and include those in your contract.
– Pricing done right: Deciding what to charge for a project is never an easy call. Therefore, always base your pricing on market research. Establish a minimum rate, so you know not to take on projects below that number.
Estimating how much you’ll charge per project can be done either according to an hourly rate, or according to the scope of the project. If you go for the latter, we recommend charging by the amount of assets included, with an added margin for modifications (usually about 30%).
5. Juggling the perfect work-life balance
Differentiating work from personal life is much easier when you leave the office at the end of a work day. But when home is also your office, and the success of your new business lies solely in your hands, it’s harder to tell the two apart.
Set your limits early on, so that you know when it’s okay for you to indulge in an extended late brunch, versus the instances in which work might overflow into the weekend.
– Working hours: When a client hires your services, it’s easy to feel like you owe them the world. But luckily, you don’t. Leave room for your personal life by setting daily work shifts and not going overtime.
Work for a total of eight to nine hours per day, but no more. Create a routine by sticking to regular start and end times for your day, with regular breaks (a few quick five to ten minute breaks and one that’s significantly longer).
– A room of one’s own: Freelance design work can be done almost anywhere, or more specifically wherever there’s WiFi, but productivity is a completely different matter. Create a working environment that puts you in the right mood, and be sure to keep distractions to a minimum in order to better manage your time. One rule of thumb we can vouch for: working in bed is never a good idea.
– What friends are for: Freelance life can sometimes get very lonely. Find people you trust and make a point of asking their professional opinion from time to time, or hop on a video chat. Creativity and inspiration often happen when people collaborate, so reach out when you’ve hit a creative block or could simply use someone to talk to.
– Just say no (sometimes): Being self-employed doesn’t mean that you have to accept all projects that come your way. Knowing when to say no to a job offer is part of the game, too.
Taking the wrong job can often lead to frustration, or clog up your schedule so that you’re unavailable for better offers that might be right around the corner. As you learn what’s right for you, don’t be afraid to turn down projects that you’re not excited about and that won’t take you in the right professional path.
6. Spread the word
Now that you’re ready to go, it’s time to land your first clients as a freelance graphic designer. Remember that finding clients will get easier with time. Once you have a few happy customers, they’ll do most of the word-of-mouth for you, so that things will eventually gain their own momentum and traction. But until you hustle your way to the top, here are a proactive few steps to get you started:
– Bring traffic to your site: Ensure that your portfolio website is optimized to be found on search engines like Google by upping your SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Add relevant keywords for your field and specialty to improve your chances of showing up in Google search results. Consider including your title or speciality as part of your domain name (for example, ‘yournamedesign.com’). Add metadata and alt text to your visuals, and include social links and buttons to your Pinterest design so people can easily share your work.
– Social media: Make the best out of social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Being knowledgeable on tips for Instagram design is also crucial, as Instagram is one of the best social platforms for designers to display their work. Reach out to your friends and followers online to announce your recent shift into freelancing. Referrals and work offers often come from people who already know and appreciate you. Be sure to also utilize more niche, professional social platforms like Behance, Dribbble and Vimeo.
– Network: Even if terms like ‘networking’ cause you to cringe, don’t worry. You needn’t be a pushy salesperson, shaking hands and passing out business cards. Just being yourself, keeping in touch with peers and getting to know people from the industry can help you form genuine connections that might prove themselves valuable. That being said, don’t shy away from networking opportunities like online classes and communities, design contests, and more, and if you decide you want them, you can always create business cards that really highlight your design identity.
– Focus on the client: When communicating with a client, try to focus the conversation around their needs and vision, and less on your skillset. Remember that freelance work is about providing service to a client. As a result, your work won’t be measured by how gorgeous your designs are, but by how well you’re able to solve your clients’ problems.
– Online job boards: Job boards such as the Wix Marketplace and Fiverr and others are a good opportunity to jumpstart your freelancing career. It’s also okay to accept some lower wage jobs when getting started – you just need to get on the right path.
Text Eden Spivak
Illustration Anat Warshavsky