Freelancing 101 for Graphic Designers

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Photo by stickathing

Often, I receive questions from my readers resembling the one below:

I am a graphic designer that recently graduated and I just got a design job a few weeks ago. Eventually, I hope to be able to freelance. I was wondering how one should go about freelancing. What was your transition like going from working for a company to becoming a freelancer?

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

Freelancing can be a hugely rewarding experience but it also takes a strong sense of knowing who you are as a designer and where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Looking back, my transition from working full-time to freelancing was about a six month long process. Though I already had my own clients including Virgin Records and Forever 21, it took some serious time to rework my portfolio, resumé and blog. Once these components were updated, I moved on to making appointments with placement agencies and potential clients.

When starting any new business, the first year is usually the hardest. It has the potential to make or break you. You have to be extremely focused and driven; working around the clock should be expected. This is your future, after all!

Below, I’ve compiled a list of tips to help you navigate the often murky waters of freelancing.

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

My home office space where I work on freelance projects

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

Before you jump into the world of freelancing, remember the golden rule: NEVER put all of your eggs in one basket. As a freelancer, do not depend on one source for all of your income. At some point in your career, you’re bound to hit a snag and lose a client; don’t let your business crumble because of it! I am incredibly lucky that I have never had to do a pitch to gain potential clients. I’ve always made it a point to diversify my clients into three areas and because of this, the work has been very consistent. The three areas are as follows:

01. Personal Clients. My personal clients find me via word of mouth or through my blog and contact me directly.

02. Ad Agencies. A few local agencies are familiar with my work and if they are in need of help in the studio, they give me a call. Sometimes, it’s just for a day while other engagements can stretch on for weeks at a time.

03. Placement Agencies. It is always helpful to have your portfolio on file at as many placement agencies as possible. The agencies are a fantastic resource because they WANT to help you to find work. I work closely with three agencies in Portland and New York. All of my agents are super friendly and call or meet with me on a regular basis. Agents are also a great resource for a recommendation if you land an interview since they tend to be on a first-name basis with many of the best firms and ad agencies in your city.

There are other ways of branching out to find work as well including searching freelance job boards and Craigslist, but I don’t have direct experience in either to vouch for the results. Use at your own risk!

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

There are probably a million other freelancers out there. What makes you stand apart from the competition? Look and act like you mean business and have a clean, well executed portfolio. A solid web presence helps, too. Make sure you have a print and PDF version of your resumé and portfolio readily available. Need some tips? Seven Tips for Creating a Print-Based Portfolio can help!

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

Though most of my freelance work is generated through working at local ad agencies and taking on my own clients, I also keep my portfolio on file with a few placement agencies. The bottom line is this: if your portfolio is solid and you have a non-abrasive personality, you will get called. Remember to keep your agent in the loop by letting them know when you’ve updated your work.

Placement agencies are noticeably different in every city. In Portland, the agents really want to get to know you. They slowly flip through your book and ask questions about your background, what your strengths are and where you’ve worked. It’s a very intimate, one-on-one meeting. The goal of these longer meetings is to make sure that they find the right fit for you work-wise. The agents know that if you’re happy, you will more than likely make their clients happy and they will want to keep you around.

On the other hand, in New York, it took me longer to fill out an application than my entire meeting. I walked into a well-known placement agency this August and after a quick handshake, the agent flipped through my book so fast that I had to stop her repeatedly to point out various accomplishments. I secretly wondered if she’d even noticed half of it. But, those New Yorkers have a sharp eye. They really are all-knowing. After closing my book, she got up, raced across the office and within five minutes, I had agents offering to pitch me to Showtime, The Food Network, and perhaps best of all, for an art director position at a rap mogul’s ad agency. My mind was boggled. New York, I love you!

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

If you get offered a fantastic paying job that happens to not be part of your core skill set, it is better to pass versus taking it on, disappointing a client and never getting called again. If the client is looking for a retoucher and you usually spend your days designing logos, ask yourself if it is a good fit not only for you, but for them. I’ve turned down a job to create iPhone icons and days later, picked up another that involved a type-based project for the Wall Street Journal. Never feel bad for saying no; there is always more work lurking around the corner.

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

This is all common sense but is worth repeating. If you’re freelancing at an agency, show up at the predetermined time. If you’re running late (this happens to everyone at some point), call ahead and let them know when they can expect you. Bring the necessities; some things that I always carry with me are pens, snacks, headphones and a notebook full of tutorials and key commands.

In a way, as a freelancer, you are the equivalent of a guest staying at someone’s house. You are welcome, but don’t overstep your boundaries. Leave your space in the same condition that it was in when you arrived.

First impressions are everything. Though talent is important, personality plays a huge part in getting call-backs. You may be the most amazing freelancer ever, but if you don’t work well with others and are argumentative, people will notice. Remember that you’re getting paid to complete a job, not to change the world!

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

I always carry a notebook of tips and tutorials with me when freelancing.

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

When I am freelancing, I am never afraid to ask a question. It is ALWAYS better to ask and get clarification than to jump in, accidentally overwrite important documents, screw up someone’s files or waste valuable time in general. Asking a question doesn’t make you look like an idiot. On the contrary, it should be viewed as an affirmation that you are committed to getting the job done right the first time.

If you’re freelancing at an agency, always check in and thank them at the end of the day. Once you’re finished, let your contact know where your finished work is located and thank them for calling you in. It’s okay to reach out and ask if they need any further help at that time as well.

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

Once your work is complete, as a freelancer, it is usually your responsibility to bill the client. If you don’t invoice them, you don’t get paid. Your rate is based on a multitude of factors including your level of experience, your skill set and how desperate you are for work (let’s be honest!).

Remember to ask who is in charge of payments and forward them a copy of your invoice. Items that you may want to include on your invoice are the number of hours you worked, the dates you worked, your rate, the client or job description, an invoice number, the total and perhaps most importantly, your contact information along with a mailing address.

week in pictures

freelancing graphic design nubby twiglet

For more freelancing information, I highly recommend reading Freelance Switch, Freelance Feed and Guerrilla Freelancing. And, How To Be A Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessey is full of timeless advice, much of which can be directly related to freelancing.

week in pictures

Readers: Are any of you freelancers? How long have you been freelancing? What do you enjoy about it? What have been your best, most rewarding experiences? What have been your worst?

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