How To Start A Successful Freelance Graphic Design Business

Do you dream of earning a living as a working artist? If so, freelance graphic design might be the perfect career for you. Unlike traditional employment, however, freelancing isn't as easy as just showing up to work every day.

Here's why:

In freelancing, there is no boss to offer direction or feedback. There is no time clock keeping you accountable to a regular schedule. For some people, these aspects of freelance graphic design are a blessing. For others, they can add stress to an already difficult career path.

“There are three responses to a piece of design – yes, no, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for.” 

- Milton Glaser

So how do you know if freelance graphic design is right for you? And if it is something you'd like to pursue, how exactly do you get started?

What Is Freelancing?

Before we dive into how to start your own freelance graphic design career, let's take a quick look at what we mean when we say freelancing. Today, the most common way to make a living is through traditional employment. In this scenario, you are an employee who works under a supervisor or manager (who probably has a boss of their own, and so on).

Freelancing is different:

In freelancing business, you work independently. You are not an employee and do not have a boss. You (most likely) don't have an office that you go to every day or a work schedule to which you are beholden. Instead, you complete projects for clients on a case-by-case basis to earn an income.

Did you know?

Over 35-percent of the U.S. workforce is made up of freelancers!


Working for yourself sounds great, right? After all, who wants to answer to a boss and work 40+ hours a week for the rest of their lives? Well, there's a reason why freelancers are the minority when it comes to the general workforce:

Freelancing is hard.

Freelancing is a business. And as a business, freelancers must play the role of worker, boss, accountant, advertiser, and more. Your work doesn't begin and end at your tablet or sketchbook. You must also find clients, balance your finances, and manage contracts. Some people do not believe the benefits of freelancing are worth the stress and uncertainty. Others, however, think freelancing is a fulfilling path to financial and creative freedom.

How To Start Freelancing?

Freelancing certainly isn't for everyone. For many, especially creative types, it is a breath of fresh air compared to working in a structured office setting. If freelance graphic design is something you dream of turning into a career, how exactly do you get started?

One of the best parts of freelancing, and most overwhelming, is that there are no real rules. Some people get into freelancing before they've even entered adulthood, others, though, don't follow this career path until decades into traditional employment. However, there are some strategies that can make the transition into freelance graphic design a little easier.

Here's what you need to know:

Education is still very important

Today, it's pretty common for employers to expect, if not require, an undergraduate degree. Prospective employees without this degree will often struggle to find worthwhile employment.

You might be surprised to learn:  Since freelancers aren't hired and employed in the normal sense, it might seem like higher education is a waste of time and money. It's not.

Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.” 

 - Anthony J. D'Angelo

On top of teaching you valuable skills that will aid in your career, having a relevant degree also looks great to potential clients. In fact, "getting hired" is more of a concern for freelancers than it is for employees. On the other hand: Most clients are looking for tangible results over a degree. If you can produce the desired results without a formal education, you'll find that most clients have no qualms about hiring you.

Your transition from employment to freelancing

If you're already employed full-time as a graphic designer, or even in an entirely different field, you might be wondering how to make the switch to freelancing for a living. Many successful freelancers spend months, or even years, working both a traditional job and freelancing on the side. If you're concerned about being able to support yourself on freelance graphic design alone, this strategy can help put your mind at ease.

Keep in mind: Working full-time and freelancing is a huge time commitment.

If you eventually want to transition to freelancing full-time, you will eventually have to take the plunge. So how do you make this transition as smooth as possible?

First, see if your employer would be willing to cut your hours. That will allow you to maintain steady employment while freeing up time for your freelance projects. However, some employers will refuse to keep you around if you can't work full-time. Others will even terminate you if they find out you're freelancing on the side. In these cases, the best option is to save up enough to cover several months of living expenses. This isn't an easy task, but it will give you a parachute while you work on building up your clientele and adjusting to freelance life.

Creating Your Brand

Once you've decided to launch your freelance graphic design career, you must craft a brand for yourself. Yes, you read that right. Just like a business needs to decide on how they will market themselves, as well as to whom, you must do the same as a freelancer.

Finding success as a freelance graphic design artist means learning where you fit into the landscape of current designers and prospective clients. While this can take some trial-and-error, learning how to differentiate yourself, what type of business to use, and how to take advantage of social media can give you a valuable head start.

Learning to differentiate yourself from other freelancers


The first step to finding freelance success is discovering your niche. That will allow you to hone specific skills and better target your services to relevant clients. Niches come in all forms, so don't be afraid to flex your creativity when deciding on your target audience.

Some real-life niche examples include:

HAND LETTERING

CHILDREN'S BOOK ILLUSTRATION

SPORTS BRANDING

LIQUOR BRANDING AND DESIGN

INFOGRAPHICS

Once you've found a niche that you excel in, and that has a steady flow of potential work, you can start to tailor your portfolio and personal branding to appeal to clients within this niche.

Finding the business type that is right for you

Perhaps the most significant part of branding yourself as a freelancer is choosing a name to work under. Here's what you need to know: Before we get into using your personal name versus a business name, let's look at some of the different ways you can legally define your freelance business:

Sole Proprietorship

What is it?

 A one-person business that has not legally registered as a corporation.

PROS

  • Does not require legal registration
  • All profits go directly to the owner
  • Simplified tax filing

CONS

  • Sole proprietors are personally responsible for business losses and liabilities
  • Sole proprietorships are attached to the originator — you cannot sell or transfer your business to anyone else

Limited Liability Company

What is it?

A limited liability company (or LLC) is a corporation that keeps your personal assets separate from your business assets.

PROS

  • You are not personally responsible for business losses and liabilities
  • Taxed the same way as a sole proprietorship (if there is only one member)
  • Easy and affordable registration process

CONS

  • Some states require LLC's to pay a Capital Values Tax

Doing Business As

What is it?

The term Doing Business As (often shortened to DBA) refers to operating under a different name than your business is registered under. This includes using a business name instead of your legal name as a sole proprietor.

PROS

  • Quick and affordable registration process
  • Can easily be transformed into an LLC

CONS

  • Does not offer any legal protections

Most freelance graphic design artists start as a sole proprietorship under their personal name.

If you would prefer to work under a pen name or brand yourself as a larger business, then you have the choice of registering as an LLC or for a DBA.

But wait -- there's more:

If the name you operate under is your primary concern, then a DBA is all you will need. If you'd like to take advantage of the legal protections offered by an LLC, this is also a great option.

Opting to use your personal name or create an independent business name can be used strategically.

Some clients prefer to work with individual freelancers that do everything under their personal name. Others, however, feel more comfortable working with a graphic designer that uses a formal business name.

Here's what we think:

We recommend researching your chosen niche to discover which of these branding routes are the best choice for you.

Finding The Business Type That Is Right For You

Once you've decided to launch your freelance graphic design career, you must craft a brand for yourself. Yes, you read that right. Just like a business needs to decide on how they will market themselves, as well as to whom, you must do the same as a freelancer.

Finding success as a freelance graphic design artist means learning where you fit into the landscape of current designers and prospective clients. While this can take some trial-and-error, learning how to differentiate yourself, what type of business to use, and how to take advantage of social media can give you a valuable head start.

Use social media for your business

Woman adding images to social media to promote her freelance graphic design business

Social media lets you spotlight your design skills. Image via Pexels.

Some freelancers work solely within their geographical location.

That means:

More often than not, artists and clients connect online.

One of the most important marketing tools you can use is...

Social Media

If a career in freelance graphic design is your goal, developing an Instagram following should be one of your top priorities.

While your social media posts should revolve around your chosen niche, don't be afraid to post personal projects if you feel they reflect your talent and skills.

While your social media accounts should definitely promote your work, you shouldn't feel like you're trying to sell your services. Instead, focus on sharing genuine content that you care about.

In case a potential client sees something they like, make sure you offer a convenient and professional means for them to contact you through your social media accounts.

In short, treat your Instagram profile, and other social media, like a miniature portfolio with a more personable touch.

Watch this video to learn more:

Building Your Freelance Graphic Design Portfolio

Getting your work in front of potential clients is obviously essential.

That is the job of your portfolio.

Your portfolio is your first, and usually only, chance to convince a potential client that your artistic talent is what they need.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”  

 – Andrew Grant

It's important to note:

You need to have examples of work to put in your portfolio first.

An effective portfolio will appeal to your ideal client. Unfortunately, when you're just getting started in freelance graphic design, you might not know what to include in your portfolio.

Or perhaps you do have some sample work you'd like to show off to prospective clients.

In that case, where do you host this work to reach the most viewers?

What You Can Include In Your Portfolio

Freelance graphic designer builds a portfolio site online.

Plan your portfolio carefully to entice new clients. Image via Pixabay

For those just starting out, personal projects or school assignments (if you completed a graphic design degree) are an excellent starting point.

These first portfolio pieces might not fit your target niche 100 percent. But that's okay.

Remember:

As you complete client projects, though, you can start to filter these pieces into your portfolio.

“Nobody raves about average.” 

 – Bill Quiseng

As your collection of past work grows, you can begin to weed out pieces that you feel aren't a great fit for your niche or that don't display your best work.

However, you might run into problems if you try to place past paid work in your portfolio.

When a graphic designer creates a piece of paid work, they rarely hold onto the copyright themselves. Instead, the copyright goes to their employer (if they are a part of an agency or design house) or to the client.

You must know this:

Legally speaking, using copyrighted work in a portfolio falls into somewhat of a grey area.

Including work for which you do not hold the copyright in your portfolio is best handled on a case-by-case basis.

Generally, though, clients expect you to request permission before placing work you've done for them in your public portfolio.

Typically, this permission is addressed in the project contract. You can handle this by including a promotions clause.

If a client refuses this permission, then your best option is to grant their request and exclude the project in question from your portfolio.

Where To Host Your Portfolio

First and foremost, you should consider launching your own portfolio website.

While this can be a daunting task for those with little to no web design experience, it is essential to presenting a professional image to potential clients.

Plus, this is the only space on the Internet where you will have 100 percent, guaranteed control over your branding and displayed work.

Make a note of this:

Purchasing a domain and hosting space is extremely affordable. Most services offer budget packages for less than $10 per month.

We always recommend building and maintaining a portfolio website of your own. But there are also several design communities that offer space to upload your portfolio:

  • Behance
  • Coroflot
  • deviantART
  • Dribbble

While these websites offer a space to post your portfolio, we suggest treating them more like freelance graphic design social media than your official portfolio.

Designing and printing a physical portfolio

Professionally printed freelance graphic design portfolios are an excellent asset for designers who meet with clients in person.

But for those who do all or most of their client communication online, this might be a wasted expense.

Another downside of a printed portfolio is the hassle of updating its contents.

You're in a neverending battle:

Unlike a portfolio website, which can be updated in real time, a printed portfolio book must be reprinted entirely or at least have new pages printed.

Once you have a substantial portfolio built up, you might decide it's worth investing in a portfolio book. For those just starting out, though, there's really no need to worry about it!

How To Find Freelance Graphic Design Clients

Business name? Check.

Portfolio? Check.

Now it's time to find some paying clients!

Unfortunately, this is where many new freelance graphic design prospects spin their wheels.

The problem is this:

Yes, freelance graphic design involves countless hours at your tablet or sketchbook working on projects. But it also involves networking, selling yourself, and advertising.

“Customers will want to talk to you if they believe you can solve their problems.” 

 – Jeffery Gitomer

Some people are completely unfazed by the process of hunting down clients.

Others, however, find that they would rather work a full-time job than deal with constantly chasing new projects.

How Often Should You Search For New Clients?

When you're first starting out, the answer will likely be: always.

If you want to guarantee a steady, reliable flow of income, you need to be continually adding new projects to your schedule. That often means pursuing new clients as you're actively working on an existing project.

Don't worry, though.

With a little bit of time and effort, this hustle will eventually slow down.

As you gain recognition, you'll start to find that prospective clients start to approach you.

No matter where you are in your freelance graphic design career, the general rule is that you should actively search for clients until your schedule is 100 percent full.

After all, it's better to turn down projects than to not have enough!

Finding new clients takes determination

There are countless strategies for finding new clients for your freelance graphic design business.

For some people, the gift of networking might come easily.

You feel like you're banging your head against a wall:

For others, though, advertisements and cold calls are the best strategies.

The most important thing is that you find the strategy that works best for you and your niche industry.

Cold calls are critical

Most veteran freelancers are intimately familiar with the cold call.

If you're not, here's what you should know:

Cold calling refers to contacting a potential client with no prior communication. At this point, they probably don't even know you exist.

With cold calls, the goal is to get your name and portfolio in front of them. In case, just by chance, they are looking for freelance graphic design services.

Cold calls also don't need to take place over the phone.

Business owners, who will usually be your main clients, are busy people. So sending out a professional email is an excellent alternative.

Advertising is essential to success

If you want to familiarize as many people as possible with your freelance graphic design business, purchasing advertisements can be a great strategy.

Online advertisements are surprisingly affordable. And you can place advertisements in a variety of high-traffic locations online, including:

  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Google search results

Tailoring effective online ads might take some trial-and-error. But it is a great strategy for directing potential clients to your website and online portfolio.

Watch the video below to learn how to market yourself without money:

Networking is key

Ask anyone how to get ahead in their career field, and they'll probably mention networking. That is also true for freelance graphic design.

“Do what you do so well that they will want to see it again and bring their friends.” 

 – Walt Disney

When it comes to networking, you have two options:

Network with other Designers

Network with your Niche Industry

Networking with other graphic designers will help keep you up-to-date with current trends and prospective clients.

That's not all:

It can also get you hired for design work. Popular freelancers often subcontract their work out to other trusted designers. Connecting with the major graphic designers in your area will mean they're more likely to contact you when they have extra work!

If you've established yourself in a niche, the best thing you can do is network within that industry.

For instance, if you offer freelance graphic design for wedding vendors, attend your local bridal shows.

Or if you offer design services to bars and restaurants, check out local food industry expos.


Word-of-mouth is a great way to support your freelance graphic design business

Freelance graphic design artist

You'll build your reputation by networking and building relationships. Image via Pexels.

It's true, here's how:

As you gain recognition within your niche or the local graphic design community, clients will become easier to come by.

“If you do build a great experience, customers tell each other about that. Word of mouth is very powerful.” 

 – Jeff Bezos

If you provide quality work to a client, they'll likely recommend your services to other clients who are searching for freelance graphic design.

It might seem like there's nothing you can do to impact your word-of-mouth advertising directly.

However, you should always keep in mind that the quality of work and customer service you provide to past clients will affect your client searches in the future.

How To Create An Effective Contract

So, you have your first client, but you can't jump into working just yet!

As it turns out:

All freelancers need a contract before starting a project.

Without a proper contract, you have little legal protection if your client decides not to pay or changes the terms of the project.

The contract doesn't just protect you, it also protects the client in case something happens with the project.

So what should an effective freelance graphic design contract include? How do you create one of your own?

Remember this:

Each contract will vary slightly depending on your client's needs and the project itself.

But there are several items that every proper freelance graphic design contract should include:

Chart showing what a freelance contract should include:

Points of Contact

Who will grant project approval, Who will receive and pay invoices

Project Scope

What is included in the project

Payment

Deposit, Final Amount Due, Invoice schedule, Payment schedule, Payment method

Deadlines

Client deadlines (draft approval, feedback, etc.), Freelancer deadlines (project submissions)

Revisions

How many are allowed? When must they be requested?

Fees

Missed client deadlines, Late payments

Termination

"Kill fee", Required termination notice, refund policy

When they first start out, many freelance graphic design artists choose to create their own contract.

You can find premade templates online that you can edit appropriately.

In my experience:

While this will suffice for smaller clients, you are leaving yourself at risk if the client violates your contract and you wanted to pursue damages. Or if a client were to pursue legal action against you for any reason.

As soon as you can afford to have one professionally drafted, we recommend investing in a lawyer-reviewed contract.

This service can cost up to $1,000, but once you have the draft, you can edit it for all of your future projects.

The Financial Side Of Freelancing

Of course, freelance graphic design doesn't just involve sitting at your desk and doodling as you please. As a freelancer, you are first and foremost a business owner.

As a business owner, your finances are key to staying afloat and continuing to grow as a designer.

We know:

The financial aspect of freelancing can be intimidating.

But with a little research, understanding how to navigate your business finances will open up countless new opportunities and professional freedom.

Setting your rates

One of the biggest mistakes new freelance graphic design artists make is underselling their work.

If you remember nothing else, remember this:

Do not undervalue yourself.

While it can be tempting to accept lower rates at the start — this is definitely an effective way to get some of your first clients — it is not sustainable.

Instead, you need to calculate rates that account for your skill level, work hours, project expenses, and taxes.

I'm a freelance person, and I've always been able to support myself. 

  Gloria Steinem

You have two options when it comes to setting your freelance graphic design rates: hourly or per project.

Some freelancers stick with one of these pricing structures for all of their projects. Others change it up depending on the client.

Getting paid from your clients

On top of negotiating fair rates for yourself, you are also responsible for invoicing your clients.

Without invoices, you won't get paid for your work.

Drill this into your head:

Creating an invoice is pretty quick and easy. Most digital payment or bookkeeping software, like Paypal or Quickbooks, includes a built-in invoicing feature.

Or, if you'd rather create your own invoices, you can find countless document templates to follow online.

Watch this video to learn how to create an invoice:

Planning for expenses

When it comes to freelance graphic design, or any other freelance business for that matter, you are almost always responsible for your expenses.

Remember:

You are not just an employee minus the boss.

You are both the employer and employee, and must take on the responsibilities of each.

One of these responsibilities is paying for routine business expenses. Things like internet access, graphic design software, and a suitable computer aren't really optional if you want to run a successful freelance design business.

These costs are one of the big reasons that freelance artists often charge more than those working for an agency or design house.

And when you are setting your own rates, you need to consider what expenses will be paid on your end.

Common freelance graphic design costs can include:

  • Licensing
  • Travel
  • Software and tools
  • Health insurance
  • Internet

Fortunately, though, freelance artists do get a break when it comes to these otherwise out-of-pocket expenses. As an independent contractor or small business owner, you can claim most (if not all) of your freelance expenses on your taxes.

Understanding your taxes

In the past, handling your freelance taxes would have been a nightmare.

Here's what we found:

With modern tax management software, this process is much easier.


However, there are still some unique tax situations that freelancers need to account for:

1

Self-Employment Tax

2

Estimated Payments

3

Expense Deductions

As an employee, you receive regular paychecks with estimated taxes taken out according to your income and allowances. But as a freelancer, all of your business' income goes straight into your pocket.

As a freelancer, your tax rates will be slightly higher than those of a typical employee. Instead of just paying income tax on your business income, you must also pay self-employment tax.

The general rule is to set aside around 30-percent of your gross income for tax payments. However, you'll be able to better estimate this number once you've spent some time freelancing and have previous years' taxes to look back on.

And you don't just get to hold onto this prospective tax money until the end of the year.

The IRS requires businesses (including freelancers) to pay quarterly estimated payments in April, June, September, and January if they expect to owe $1,000 or more when they file.

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. 

  Benjamin Franklin

The best is yet to come:

Now that we've looked at the downsides of freelance taxes, let's look at a positive: business deductions.

Remember those expenses we mentioned in the previous section? Well now is when you get to take advantage of them and save some money on your income taxes.

Freelancers, just like any business, can claim their business-related expenses on their year-end tax filing.

In short, the income you spent on these expenses won't be taxed.

This might not seem like much, but if you keep an honest, accurate record of your expenses you'll be surprised by how much you can save!

Is A Career In Freelance Graphic Design Right For You?

Now that you understand the ins-and-outs of freelance graphic design, is it the right career path for you?

"Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."  

 - Unknown?

Freelancing offers personal and professional freedom to a surprisingly large number of U.S. workers. But the lack of structure and potential inconsistency can scare prospective freelancers away.

That's just part of the story:

If freelancing is your dream, though, turning it into a successful career is 100 percent possible. Many new freelancers slowly transition from full-time employment into this career path, allowing them to remain financially secure while chasing their creative goals.

By creating a brand and differentiating yourself from other graphic designers, you can build a business that offers a steady, reliable income.

However, freelance graphic design doesn't just involve art.

You must also manage your business' finances, client communication, legal contracts, advertising, and much more.

With all of these factors, who is the ideal freelance graphic design candidate?

"A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.? 

 - Ayn Rand

If you're self-motivated, creative, and willing to hustle to achieve your goals, then this career might just be the perfect fit!

If you dream of being able to create your own schedule and work for yourself, freelance graphic design offers the opportunity to do so.

So is it time to pursue your dreams?

?

Featured Image: CC0 via Pixabay