How to become a freelance graphic designer

Graphic design is a rapidly growing field. Check out this ultimate guide on how to become a freelance graphic designer and get paid for doing what you love!
How to become a freelance graphic designer

Hero image by Neosha Gardner

Proper graphic design is one of the most important attributes of a successful brand. After all, humans are a highly visual species and don't typically want to interact with something they find unattractive.

So, it should come as no surprise that graphic design is a rapidly growing field with plenty of demand.

In fact, it's even possible to become a freelance graphic designer — but you'll have to follow the necessary steps to give yourself the best chance of success. 

Not quite sure how to begin? Let's explore everything you should keep in mind.

1. Focus on building your client base

Before you decide to venture out on your own and start your graphic design business, it's essential that you build up a solid list of clients.

All too often, graphic designers quit their day job in favor of working for themselves only to find that they are unable to secure a sufficient amount of work to pay the bills. Fortunately, talented designers will encounter little difficulty when it comes to building the foundation of their client base.

In most scenarios, graphic designers will contact clients they've previously worked with to inform them about their business venture. This is a particularly streamlined process for those who have worked with clients independently in the past as opposed to through an agency.

In fact, it may be a breach of your contract with your employer if you attempt to poach clients from the agency you work at before you begin work as a freelance graphic designer. So, keep this in mind while developing your list of clients so that you don't encounter any legal issues in the future.

2. Create a professional portfolio

Unfortunately, people aren't going to just take your word for it when you tell them you're capable of professional graphic design work.

Instead, you'll need to create a comprehensive portfolio to showcase all of your best projects. Not only should your portfolio contain high-quality pieces, but it should also convey that you have a diverse set of skills.

For example, a well-rounded graphic designer will be able to showcase projects relating to digital art, ad creation, logo design, etc. Put simply, the more diverse you're able to make your portfolio, the easier it will be for you to secure clients later on.

It's worth noting that many graphic designers choose to use an Instagram account as their professional portfolio. While this is often a viable option (especially for smaller freelancers), having a professional website is often the better choice. 

3. Brand yourself appropriately

Many freelancers become discouraged when they discover their local industry is full of talented graphic designers. Unfortunately, this often means that they have plenty of competition standing in between them and the clients they want.

However, there is a solution you can implement — proper branding.

This factor alone is often what helps your target demographic differentiate between you and a competitor. This becomes particularly true at higher skill levels, where the work between two particular designers may be more or less the same level of quality.

Branding yourself as a designer will help you express and integrate your personality into who you are as a professional. For example, some graphic designers market themselves as creatives in their purest form who live for the thrill of making art.

Others may choose to brand themselves as graphic designers who specialize in working with companies that require sleek, corporate designs.

As long as your branding comes off as authentic, you'll have a much easier time resonating with your potential clients. This will also ensure that everyone you interact with has a similar mindset as you. 

4. Be flexible with your early projects

In the early days of your freelance graphic design business, you won't have the luxury of turning down projects you don't want. This is, of course, if you want to be able to pay the bills.

As a result, you'll need to be flexible when it comes to that type of project you're willing to work on.

This will often result in a situation where you're completing work that you're not enthusiastic about. But, it's imperative that you do all you can to produce high-quality results.

Over time, you will develop a significant amount of experience in working with clients, optimizing your workflow and turnaround time, and also develop a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses.

After you complete a large handful of projects, you'll even have additions that you can make to your portfolio that will allow you to secure better clients in the future. From here, you can slowly fill your portfolio with the type of projects you'd like to work on.

This will show your audience what you specialize in and showcase the quality that you're able to produce. 

5. Don't neglect the nuances of running your own business 

In an ideal world, becoming a freelance graphic designer would involve nothing but finishing design projects and exporting them to the appropriate location. In reality, working as a freelance designer is notably similar to working as a business owner.

You're responsible for invoicing your clients, keeping track of your expenses and income for tax purposes, etc. You also need to get into the habit of responding to emails or messages as promptly as possible in order to not miss out on potential projects.

On top of all of this, you'll need to establish a schedule that's conducive to both your efficiency and creativity. It's not uncommon for new freelancers to spend 12 or 13 hours per day in front of the computer simply due to not having an established schedule. 

6. Constantly search for new work

The amount of work that you're able to secure will constantly ebb and flow. You'll have periods of time where you may begin to feel like you have too many projects to manage your own.

There will also be weeks or months where you're barely able to find enough work to make ends meet.

But, you can overcome this difficulty by constantly searching for new work. This means that it's in your best interest to frequently reach out to brands or individuals who could benefit from your services.

It's also essential to maintain an ongoing marketing strategy for your business.

This practice also comes with a particularly noteworthy benefit — you'll get your brand in front of a much larger number of people, which is something that will directly facilitate the growth of your freelance business.

A great way to go about this is to use your downtime during the day to reach out to potential clients, post on your social media accounts, or handle a similar task that will help get your name out there. 

7. Improve your skills in your spare time

There will come a point where you will have mastered certain graphic design skills. After you reach this level, accepting certain projects will become a situation where you are trading your time for money.

In most scenarios, avoiding this situation is why people want to become freelancers in the first place. A common issue that designers also have in this scenario is that they aren't quite skilled enough in certain areas to take on professional-level work.

By improving your skills in your spare time, you can slowly gain experience in certain aspects of graphic design that will allow you to produce high-quality results for your clients. If this skill happens to be something different than what you're used to, you can even find yourself tapping into a brand new market.

For example, graphic designers who specialize in vector art could gain experience in photo editing. Although the extra time that you spend refining your skills might not earn you money at the beginning, this investment of your time could exponentially increase your revenue in the future. 

8. Anticipate slow seasons

As previously mentioned, you'll have periods of time where you don't get quite as much work as you like to. If you haven't prepared for this situation, it could be difficult for you to continue working as a freelance graphic designer.

For instance, let's assume you're used to making approximately $6000 per month from your graphic design work.

Since your workload has been steady for an extended period of time, you don't make it a high-priority to save a lot of your money. Out of that $6000, you typically spend $5000 per month.

But, it's not impossible for your overall workload to change in a short period of time. If you're unable to secure enough work to meet your monthly expenses, you may have to pick up a second job.

This will leave you with less time to focus on graphic design and cause your freelance progress to stagnate. For this reason alone, it's crucial for you to anticipate times where projects aren't readily available.

You can help accommodate this situation by saving as much money as possible throughout the year.

In general, it's recommended to have at least six months' worth of living expenses to prepare for this type of scenario. 

9. Consider reaching out for guidance 

Working with a mentor could be one of the most beneficial endeavors that you pursue. Not only will it allow you to improve areas of your graphic design skills, but you can also get advice on how to properly operate as a freelancer.

Most independent graphic designers aren't sure how to handle certain scenarios, such as if a client refuses to pay for work that has been completed. They also might not know what to do if somebody steals their original work.

An experienced mentor will be able to walk you through this situation and ensure that you make the best decision possible. While these issues are something that you can resolve on your own, it's often better to work with someone who's been in your position before.

You can often find a mentor simply by asking — there are plenty of designers who have an abundance of free time and would be more than happy to offer advice and guidance to someone in need. 

10. Be patient

Above all else, you'll need to be patient when it comes to growing your freelance business.

You won't immediately reach the level of performance you want, and it will often take you years to get there. For those who are impatient, this can easily lead to getting burned out and giving up to go back to a traditional 9-to-5 job.

While this isn't always a bad thing, it's a scenario that's worth preventing if you're able to.

Something that can help you be patient is looking back on all the progress that you've made as a professional. While you may not be growing at the rate you anticipated, realizing how far you've come is often a humbling experience.

As designers slowly transition into full-time freelancers, they tend to forget how difficult it was at the very beginning when they were searching for clients, developing a website, etc.

Keep all this information in mind and keep working — you're guaranteed to make progress towards your goals if you do so. 

Becoming a freelance graphic designer can seem difficult

But the above information will make the process far smoother. From here, you’ll be able to ensure that you take all the necessary steps to facilitate your success as a graphic designer in the future.

Want to learn more about taking your freelance graphic design business to the next level? See how Moxie, an all-in-one business management platform built specifically for freelancers can help. 

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Our team of career freelancers writes about best invoice practices, what makes a great client, and repeats the mantra, "never work without a contract." We're opinionated about the future of work and will always be on the side of freelancers.
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