When it comes to freedom and flexibility, you won’t find many work situations better than going freelance. Being a freelancer allows you to choose your own hours and to work from wherever you want—whether that’s from a home office or traveling across the world. Plus, as a freelancer, you have the option to work in your pajamas which—let’s be real—is a serious bonus.
The freelance life can be a great career move—particularly for graphic designers. But how, exactly, do you get started? How do you make the transition from design school or working in-house to enjoying the freedom and flexibility of freelancing?
If you’re thinking about making the transition to freelance graphic design work, we’ve got you covered. Let’s take a deep dive into exactly how to become a freelance graphic designer:
What is a graphic designer—and why is it such a great role for freelance?
First things first. Before we jump into how to become a freelance graphic designer, let’s talk about what a graphic designer actually is—and why the position is such a perfect candidate for freelance work.
According to Wikipedia, a graphic designer is “a professional within the graphic design and graphic arts industry who assembles together images, typography, or motion graphics to create a piece of design.” In other words, a graphic designer combines different design elements to create all-new, original designs. So, when you see a corporate logo or a print advertisement or a book cover? That’s all the work of a graphic designer.
A freelance graphic designer is someone who works on a project basis for a variety of clients. So, instead of working in-house for a single brand or publication, a freelance graphic designer partners with multiple brands, publications, and individual clients to fulfill any of their design needs.
What kinds of projects can a freelance graphic designer work on?
Alright, so now that you know what a freelance designer is, let’s talk about what they do.
One of the best things about being a freelance graphic designer is that, when it comes to projects and design work, the sky’s the limit. If you can dream up a design project, chances are, there’s someone out there who’s working on that project—and needs a freelance graphic designer to get the job done.
Freelance graphic designers can work on everything from:
- Branding assets
- Digital and print advertisements
- Social media graphics
- Marketing brochures
- Book covers
- Magazine covers
Seriously, there’s no limit to the kinds of projects—or kinds of clients—you can work with as a freelance graphic designer.
What skills do you need to become a freelance graphic designer?
Clearly, there’s a lot of opportunity to flex your creative muscles as a freelance graphic designer. But what skills do you need to get started?
- Design. Obviously, if you want to become a freelance graphic designer, you need design skills. Now, that being said—you don’t need to be an expert designer in order to go freelance! Having a baseline understanding of the principles of design—as well as a working knowledge of design programs—is really enough to get the ball rolling.
- Business Development. Launching a career in freelance graphic design requires finding clients. So, you’ll need to brush up on your business development skills if you want to build a profitable book of business.
- Intrinsic Motivation. One of the best aspects of freelancing is that you don’t have someone telling you what to do all the time. But that means that you have to be the one to hold yourself accountable and motivate yourself to get things done.
- Time Management. The freelance life doesn’t have your typical 9 to 5 structure—so freelancers need to have excellent time management skills to make sure they get their work done (and still leave time to enjoy their personal life!).
- Organizational Skills. There are a lot of moving parts to running a successful freelance graphic design business, from researching leads and reaching out to potential clients to invoicing and managing tax issues (and, of course, the actual design part!). It’s a lot to keep track of—and in order to succeed, staying organized is a must.
Getting started as a freelance graphic designer
Ok, now let’s get to the good stuff—how to get started as a freelance graphic designer.
Get your business structure in place
The first step to starting any successful freelance venture—including becoming a freelance graphic designer—is to get your business structure in place.
As a freelance graphic designer, you are the owner and operator of your own independent business. You need to figure out which business structure makes the most sense for you and your goals. So, for example, if you’re the only person who is going to be working in your business, a sole proprietorship might make the most sense. While if you have a business partner or plan to hire other contractors to help with assignments, you might look into forming an LLC.
The best business structure is going to depend on a number of factors. That includes your ultimate goals for your freelance graphic design business, your projected income, and where you live. Make sure to do your research to figure out which structure is the best fit for you.
Another important aspect of setting up your business structure is getting your finances in order. Depending on where you live and how much income you expect to make, you may need to make estimated tax payments throughout the year. Talk to a tax professional to figure out if you need to be making estimated tax payments—and, if so, how much you should plan to pay to your federal and state government every quarter.
In addition to taxes, there are other financial areas you need to set up before your business gets up and running. Before you start taking on client work, make sure you:
- Have an invoicing and bookkeeping system in place. As a freelancer, it’s important for you to keep track of invoicing clients—as well as any cash that’s coming into or going out of your business. Before you start taking on client work, make sure you have an invoicing and bookkeeping system (like Quickbooks) in place to track all of your transactions. You’ll need it come tax time!
- Have a business bank account. As a freelance graphic designer, it’s important to keep your business and personal expenses separate. Set up a business checking account—and make sure all of your business expenses get paid exclusively from that account.
- Understand the difference between business and personal expenses—and spend accordingly. As mentioned, it’s important to keep your business and personal expenses separate—but it’s also important to understand the difference between business and personal expenses. Talk to an accountant to get clear on what you can expense to the business (like design tools or industry conferences) and what doesn’t qualify as a business expense (like food while you’re at the industry conference).
Design your branding assets
Once your business structure is all set up, it’s time to move onto branding.
The most successful freelance graphic designers are the ones who build a distinctive brand. Your branding should give potential clients an idea of who you are, what you’re about, and what kind of designs they can expect from you.
Your branding is composed of a few key assets, including your:
- Business card
- Email signature
When you’re designing your brand assets, think about what you want them to say about you. And what kind of clients you’re targeting! Are you going after more traditional corporate clients? If so, a neon pink logo is probably not your best bet—and instead, you should stick to a more conservative color palette. On the flip side, if you’re going after more creative clients (like branding agencies or cutting-edge fashion companies), a neutral color palette might fall flat.
The point is, your branding assets are going to be your potential clients’ first impression of you and your freelance graphic design business—so design accordingly.
Assemble your digital portfolio
Your branding assets will give your clients an idea of who you are. But they’ll also need to see samples to get an idea of what you can do.
Adding a digital portfolio to your website is a great way to organize all of your design work in one place. Just make sure it’s organized; the key to a successful digital portfolio is to make it as easy to navigate as possible for potential clients. So, if you have different kinds of samples (for example, you have a variety of samples across web, flyer, and logo design), make sure you organize those samples in a way that’s easy for potential clients to see only the samples they want (so, you might have a separate page for flyer design, web design, and logo design samples—and then point potential clients to the portfolio page that matches what kind of design work they’re looking for).
Invest in the right tools
There’s an old saying that says “a man is only as good as his tools.” Which is true. And, in this case, a freelance graphic designs is only as good as his/her tools as well.
Obviously, you need basic graphic design tools (like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator) to run a graphic design business. But by no means are they the only tools you need! There are a variety of tools you should consider adding to your tool belt if you want to run a successful, lucrative, and productive freelance graphic design business, including:
- An email management tool. As a freelance graphic designer, your inbox is probably going to get a little crazy. That’s why an email management tool (like SaneBox) is so important; it helps you clean up your inbox, sort through the clutter, and make sure no important client communications slip through the cracks.
- A project management tool. Being a freelance graphic designer means, more often than not, you’re going to be juggling multiple projects and multiple clients. A project management tool, like Trello or Asana, will help you stay on top of every project—and make sure all of your design work is completed and delivered right on schedule.
- A design template tool. As a designer, you want to create original designs. But that doesn’t mean you have to reinvent the wheel with every single design! A design template tool like FlyerHeroes (which has over 1600 flyer templates) is a great way to get a head start on design projects—and save a ton of time and energy in the process.
- An accounting software. As we mentioned earlier, an invoicing and accounting software, like Freshbooks or Quickbooks, is a non-negotiable in running any kind of business—including the business of being a freelance graphic designer.
Research and reach out to clients
You’ve designed your branding assets and pulled together your portfolio. You’ve assembled the best possible tools for your freelance graphic designer tool belt. Now comes the hard part—getting out there and finding clients. Because no clients means no freelance design business.
When it comes to finding clients, you have three main avenues to pursue:
- Job boards. If someone posts a job ad for a graphic designer, you know they’re in need of design support. Even if the job ad calls for a full-time or in-house graphic designer, it’s still worth reaching out; often times, people are willing to hire a freelance graphic designer to help hold them over until they find someone full-time (and, if you do a good job, you just might convince them that partnering with a freelancer is the way to go!).
- Referrals. One of the best ways to get new clients is through referrals. Tap your network for anyone who might be able to refer you business. That includes former bosses and colleagues, professional connections, and your personal network. (Who knows—your Mom might just have a client or two to send your way!).
- Cold pitching. Hitting the job boards and tapping your network for referrals are both great ways to get new clients. But if you’re really serious about building a thriving freelance graphic design business, you’re going to want to leverage cold pitching. Cold pitching is the practice of reaching out to brands, publications, or individuals you’re interested in working for, introducing yourself and your business, and letting them know why they should work with you. Not sure where to start? Research potential clients on LinkedIn. Then, either send them a message or email them an LOI directly. (Tools like Hunter are great for tracking down email addresses!)
Follow this basic framework—and continually improve your processes to build a thriving freelance graphic design career
In this guide, we’ve covered the basic framework for how to become a freelance graphic designer. But building a freelance graphic design business isn’t a “one and done” kind of endeavor; if you want to be successful, you need to continually look for opportunities to improve your processes, go after bigger clients, and land the kind of design projects that can take you and your business to the next level.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and start building your business. And then continue building it until you have more design work than you can handle!