Going freelance is an act of independence. It allows for the liberty of working from your living room couch, lounging in your finest dinosaur pajamas with an ice-cream bowl at hand. It is the freedom of working on a huge project while singing along to your favorite songs really, really loud. Going freelance is also an act of empowerment that gives you the satisfaction of knowing that every cent you made is the direct result of your own hard work and sharp skills. In other words, going freelance means being your own boss, which is both liberating and empowering, but also not the easiest path to take.

There is no reason to fret just yet because we’ve compiled a list of the most important things to keep in mind when embarking on the journey to self-employment. Say hello to the complete freelance manual for graphic designers and creatives of all kinds, covering everything from setting up a productive working station to demanding payment from clients (on time, please!).

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Illustration by Wix user Jennifer Xiao

1. Make bureaucracy your friend (or at least try)

Becoming self-employed means, first and foremost, starting your own business. 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 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 the 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 – 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 – 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 on the brink of your career, it’s not too early to start planning 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.

Freelance designers at work

2. Self-branding is key 

Some newly-freelance graphic designers feel that their portfolio is unsatisfactory for the kind of jobs they want and that they are compelled to add work on personal projects before even looking for their first jobs. But if you’re as well-trained and professional as we know you to be, remember that your portfolio grows with experience, and that’s fine. When starting out, it’s better to work on your self-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 stationery.

Web portfolio: a sharp online presence is a must for getting the clients and projects you want. Create a personal website that has more to offer than just your work uploaded by category. A good portfolio should be the foundation of your branding efforts and the way you introduce yourself to potential clients. Approach building your online design portfolio just as you would any other design project. Go for a website that both creates an experience and is beautiful in its own right so that it showcases you at your very best. Don’t try to cram in all of your past projects, rather curate only your best and most representative work (around six to eight projects). Make sure to add an updated version of your CV, your contact information and social links (so that clients can reach you easily), and a written summary explaining who you are and what it is that you do. Lastly, it’s crucial to make your website mobile friendly – it’s 2018.
Personal logo: a logo for a graphic designer is not mandatory, but don’t type your name in Arial font at the top of your paperwork or business card. Whether it’s an actual logo, an icon or some other creative interpretation, make your skills stand out across all platforms.
Branded stationary: the same look and feel you’ve crafted for your website and personal logo should be carried out through your stationary as well, including the usually not-so-appealing looks of receipts, invoices and even cheques. Sprinkle some of your creative stardust on these official papers to make them your own.

Brand your freelance business with a cohesive visual language.

3. Eyes on the prize

Freelance work is by definition much more fluid and dynamic than a nine-to-five job. You could be overloaded with work for several months and then scratching for any gig you can find for the following months. It’s common for work to come and go in cycles and it’s nothing to worry about. But, there are several ways to prepare for this:

Save for a rainy day: keep track of your expenses and income. As self-explanatory as it may sound, make sure your expenses don’t go over your earnings. Try to have a few months worth of living expenses saved up on the side – this could come in handy on months that are much quieter.
Make a yearly plan: work out a personal annual budget. Be as realistic as you can with your forecast. List 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?). Planning annually, rather than just monthly, will enable you to navigate your finances more knowledgeably and efficiently than ever before.

Freelance designers at work

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 and that your skills are worth paying for. Your clients have a need, and you provide them with a solution – a service that deserves compensation, with real 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. It’s as simple as that.
Sign a contract: a design job is a business transaction and as such it should have a contract that clearly details each side’s obligations. A contract is an important method of protecting your rights and preventing major surprises or secrets from popping up later (such as, an animated GIF version of the logo that you were never aware of until the day of the deadline).
A contract should also detail the work process, so that both sides know what to expect. Specify the number of optional designs that you’ll be presenting the client in the first stage (we recommend creating around three initial designs) as well as the amount of modifications and stages you plan on doing from there. This should prevent you from being dragged down the rabbit hole of never ending comments (“my nephew doesn’t like purple, please change”) and endless back and forth conversations (“he doesn’t like 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 the end of 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 meet your deadlines, the client should also meet payment deadlines.
Payment stages: on 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 step mid-way and finally the majority of the total to be paid at the end of the project. Define clear dates for each of the stages.
Pricing done right: deciding what to charge on a project is never an easy call. Always base your pricing on market research. Establish your minimum wage amount so you know whether or not to take on a particular project. We recommend estimating the price not by the time you’ll be spending, but by the scope of each project. Charge the amount of assets included and add about a 30% margin for modifications (because how many projects really end when we designers want them too end?).

Freelance designers at work

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 to go home. But when home is also your office, and the success of your new business is solely in your hands, it’s harder to tell the two apart. This is why it’s important to set your limits early on so that you know when it’s okay to see a friend for a two-hour lunch in the middle of the day versus the instances where your work might overflow into the weekend.

Working hours: when a client is paying you for your service, 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 hours can be 8-9 hours, but no more. Decide on a regular start time and end time for your day and take regular breaks (a few quick 5-10 minute breaks and one that’s a little longer), and stick to those as much as you can.
A room of one’s own: some freelancers prefer working from coffee shops, others enjoy the inspiration of sharing a studio space with peers. 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. One golden rule 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 meet up with friends to work together every now and then. Creativity and inspiration often happen when people come together.
Just say no (sometimes): being self-employed doesn’t mean that you need 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 your schedule so that you’re unavailable for better offers that might come your way. 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.

Freelance designers at work

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: to ensure that your design portfolio shows up on Google search results, work on your SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Add relevant keywords for your field and specialty to improve your chances of showing up in said keyword searches on Google. Consider adding your title or speciality as part of your domain (such as, ‘yournamedesign.com’). Add metadata and alt-text to your visuals, and include social links and Pinterest buttons so people can easily share (and distribute) your work.
Social media: make the best out of social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Reach out to your friends and followers online and announce your recent shift into freelance. 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 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, hanging out with peers and getting to know people from your industry can help you form genuine connections that might prove themselves valuable. That being said, don’t shy away from design events and similar social gatherings, these opportunities are gold.
Focus on the client: as a designer, your talent and skills are your most treasured assets. But as a freelancer, a slightly different mindset is required. Remember that freelance work is about providing service to a client, which has more to do with the dreaded realms of sales and marketing. Your number one goal should change from creating gorgeous designs to solving your clients problems. When communicating with a client, try to focus the conversation on their needs and their vision and less on your skill set.
Online job boards: job boards such as Fiverr, Freelancer, Authentic Jobs and others are a good opportunity to jumpstart your freelancing career. It’s also okay to accept some lower wage jobs to get you started – you just need to get on the right path.

Freelance designers at work