How to Become a Freelance Designer
From coding to writing, photography, and well beyond, freelancing has quickly become the way of the world. Between the work-from-home revolution and its free-spirited cousin—the work-from-anywhere revolution—freelancing has crossed the mind of just about anyone who can ply their trade from behind a keyboard, a mouse, and a monitor.
Budding freelance designers seeking self-employment are uniquely positioned, as their skillset stands as a prerequisite for so many other forms of business, from multi-national corporations to Mom-and-Pop shops.
- Graphic designers are in demand. As one of the harder skills in the soft skills department, design work begs a mastery of certain computer applications (ahem, ahem), along with an eye for beauty and the language to convey it. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests only a 3% growth rate for full-time graphic design positions in the next decade or so, the freelancer market is exploding with growth, with more employers hiring by the project than ever before.
- Hundreds of projects (upon thousands more) are out there, waiting to be had. As of this writing, a simple search query for "graphic design" yields nearly 20,000 available projects on the popular freelancer marketplace Upwork. While it may be back-of-the-napkin math, it's hardly anecdotal. Traipse through any of the better-known freelancer marketplaces and you'll find thousands more.
- Freelance business is booming. Between 2019 and 2020 alone, the freelancer community on the aforementioned Upwork, grew at an 8% clip, with a projected 86.5 million freelancers working by 2027 in the United States alone.
It doesn't much examination to understand the allure of a freelancer to your average employer—no health insurance to pay, no benefits to distribute, and, in short, less overhead in the hiring process. Why pay someone long-term for short-term work?
The incentives align. The talent is there. And the marketplace is calling. Now all you have to do is put it all together. Easier said than done, but luckily we're here to help you find the corner pieces, so you can start filling in the puzzle for yourself.
Without further delay, here's our 6-step guide to turning freelance jobs into a full-time job:
Step 1: Define Your Intent
Extra income? An alternative source of income? An out-and-out freelance career? There are a number of ways to guide your approach to becoming a hired design hand.
While it's too soon to cement expectations for future projects or a genuine client base, you can set your gaze in the direction that suits you best.
For the hobbyist, breaking into the freelance market may take some elbow grease, but it's worth the squeeze. Cool side projects abound in snackable sizes—whether it's a logo design or a short presentation—on freelance platforms like Fiverr and 99designs. Simple online tutorials can help you build new aptitudes in your spare time, and the ability to work at reduced rates or on shorter timelines could make you more attractive to the average client.
For the weekend warrior, working on a contract basis can help supplement your income in a full-time design role, so long as you're not jeopardizing any NDAs, non-competes, or obligations to your 9-5. Candor is recommended in situations like these; speaking with your superiors, colleagues, or direct reports about your plans to build your freelance resume often pays dividends, providing them with a forecast for your weekend availability, and you with the space you need to make a real go.
For the careerist, the goal is filling out your schedule with freelance jobs to patch together a 40-hour work week. Ideally, you’ll have some say in how or when those jobs get completed, giving you more flexibility in your day-to-day and, depending on your going rate, expanding your earning potential.
Bottom line? Know what you want from your freelance services before you start advertising them. This will help you find your ideal clients and ideal work situation much faster than backing your way into it.
Step 2: Market Yourself
Ultimately, the best self-marketing strategy is building an amazing portfolio. Full stop.
A prospectus of your best work speaks greater volumes than any amount of SEO strategy, networking, or LinkedIn pageantry. While extracurriculars like burnishing your social media presence can help to get you bumping elbows with the right people, it won't compensate for true design ability.
Of course, we're not blind to the need for a little bit of advertising (especially for designers working in, well, advertising). But rather than wringing your hands over the right email signature, try instead focusing your efforts on a more valuable branding exercise: Your title.
"Freelance web designer" might suggest a knowledge of UX or UI design, with a particular expertise surrounding site builds and digital experiences.
"Freelance interactive designer" might suggest an acumen with animation or other moving parts, dipping into physical realms of human-computer interaction.
"Freelance illustrator" might suggest a talent with logos, typefaces, characters, or other 2D and 3D renderings a business could use to sell itself.
"Content marketing consultant" might suggest something even broader, with a general knowledge of multiple design disciplines and a specific knowledge of how to apply them to a company’s marketing strategy.
“Sole proprietor” or "Business owner" is a whole other bag of chips. Do you intend to take on enough freelance contracts someday to build your own staff, and potentially hire out your own freelancers? For some, the call to entrepreneurship is the allure itself.
Bottom line? While polishing up your digital presence might move you inches, a real-deal portfolio with a self-orienting title could move you miles.
Step 3: Identify Potential Clients
Fragmenting your prospects can help you organize your efforts while you break into the business. While the below chart is by no means an exhaustive summary of potential clients, it does outline four of the most common types of employers for a freelance designer.
Big ticket work, wide variety of industries
Well-oiled workflows, potentially larger payouts
Exciting content, modern processes
Potential referrals, building relationships
Office politics, gig instability
Resistance to adapt, order-taking from clients
Informality, financial volatility
Unfamiliarity with the freelance process
Choosing where to place your sights is all about what means most to you, your lifestyle, and your financial goals.
A quick word on outreach
How do I gain a foothold with any of these potential employers? You might ask. Much is made in the freelance space about “outreach”—the act of spreading awareness of your freelance services. Done right, it could lead to some serendipitous connections. Done wrong, cold outreach could come across as misplaced and impersonal.
The heyday of the business card has come and gone, and your ultimate goal of outreach shouldn't be to put your name in front of your ideal client, but instead to put your work in front of your ideal client.
Instead of trying to shove a card with your email address on it into the hands of anything that moves, try this instead:
- Make a list of five people or business owners you know who could potentially benefit from your design services.
- Thoroughly examine their branding, website, marketing collateral, and any other elements where you feel they could improve.
- Cross-reference that list of instances with samples from your portfolio that demonstrate translatable design solutions.
- Draft a brief, cordial email suggesting as much, with citable resolutions that track back to your skill set alone. Be careful not to suggest where your target client is lacking, so much as where they can improve.
When you’re starting out, lobbing up your portfolio in every direction can feel fruitless. Traditional job postings—albeit with the term “freelance”—in the title are often a better bet, unspectacular as they may seem.
Bottom line? Gently approach your foray into your client search, be mindful in your outreach and remember there’s still value in gig searching the old-fashioned way.
Step 4: Expand Your Network
For lots of aspiring freelance designers (and anyone inclined to spend hours at a computer, alone, lost in their work), the term "networking" alone is enough to perish the thought. Seeking out potential customers at conferences, meet-ups, or happy hours can almost feel a little bit icky and self-serving.
So instead of thinking like a salesperson, think like a person person. There's no need to lead career-first when you're making connections. Instead, keep your ears and eyes open to opportunities that sit outside the realm of a typical client-contractor relationship.
For example, you might bump into a fellow freelancer with more work than they can handle. The freelance community is a warm, welcoming one, with almost every successful freelancer keenly aware of what it takes to cut your teeth. Accept a leg-up when you find one extended, and remember when it's your time to pay it forward.
For another example, you might find a freelancer from another walk of life that could help push you both to the head of the class. Teaming up with a freelance writer could improve your writing, and their visuals, whether it's trading favors between each other's portfolios or reformatting each other's resumes.
Bottom line? Building your network isn’t just about finding clients, it's about finding people. People you want to work with, people you'd like to grow with, and people you can see yourself referring to when the moment comes along.
Step 5: Get Your Finances in Order
Three things to consider for your personal P&L sheet before you head out on the freelance journey:
1. What's your market rate? It may seem strange at first to set your own rates, especially if you're transitioning from a salaried position, but think of yourself as plying a trade like any other. That said, not all services command the same pay scale, and not all tradespeople command the same hourly rate. Novices, in any field, may need to charge less for their work in order to build a reputation and a book of work. Sites like Indeed and Glassdoor can help you get a sense of a base rate, but speaking with friends or colleagues in similar positions is the best way to know what's viable.
A designer in New York City, for example, can typically set their rates higher than a designer in Detroit. Going rates vary depending on things like local living expenses, economic health, and demand for design work.
2. What's your income goal? And how often, and at what rate, will you have to work to achieve it? If it comes down to it, are you prepared to sacrifice high-quality work for high-paying work? How might your career switch impact your maintain your rent payments, mortgage, or even extracurriculars like a gym membership?
These are big questions, but they're ones worth pondering. While we'd never claim to be financial experts, we'd happily testify to the importance of one. Which begs the question...
3. What's your plan for tax time? The impact of self-employment taxes runs the gamut depending on where in the world you are, and how you plan to pay them. While a typical salaried employee may have most of the heavy lifting done by their company's regular deductions from their paycheck, freelance designers will often have to figure out how to make nice with their local, state, and federal governments on their own.
We suggest you speak with a financial advisor before you take your first project. An hour of time with an accountant (yep, there's a freelance market for accountants, too) won't cost you much, and in fact, could save you quite a bit of money down the road.
Bottom line? Talk to someone who knows more than you about the financial implications of a freelance career, and do some real research before you start negotiating rates.
Step 6: Get Going
The best way to start a freelancing career?
Start a freelancing career.
Simple, yes. Blunt, most definitely. Redundant? Perhaps. But there's a certain wisdom to just going for it. The pursuit of self-employment can feel daunting—but we all know what they say about the journey of a thousand steps.
In our experience, a freelance career doesn't just happen; it blooms. And the most importance gig of all is that first one. In fact, feel welcome to call yourself a certified freelancer the moment you lock down that #1 gig. Definitionally, you are!
It may not pay much. It may not transform your portfolio. But as with all freelance jobs, it's the key to the next one. Whether it leads to a referral or simply a renewed sense of confidence, it's one job closer to your ultimate goal.
So get out there and get freelancing. We'll be rooting for you. And we're always here with the tools, support, and design software to help you keep the wheels turning.
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And hey, if you're interested in full-time work after all, don't forget to take a look at our Careers page and see if there are any open positions that catch your eye!