Freelancing Advice from 6 Very Successful Designers

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A while back, I was talking with fellow designers from my college while working on a freelance project.

Knowing about my freelance business, they began to ask questions about freelancing – what to expect, how to get clients, and how they could make money with their design skills? They all expressed interest in freelancing, but were scared to make the jump.

Only three years ago, I was asking the same questions.

I wanted to freelance, but I had no prior experience in the design business, which made me scared of freelancing. What if I would be making little to no money? What if I am hired by a bad client? What if I’m ripped off? Those “what ifs” popped in my mind every time I thought about freelancing.

Remembering all those feelings of fear, I knew exactly how to answer my designer friends. I drew all of the knowledge I learned from more successful designers, and answered their questions. Today, I want to help you ease your freelancing fears with advice from successful, established designers.

(If you have any advice you’d like to share, I’d love love for you to post it in the comments.)

Paul Scrivens

Paul Scrivens is a professional Product Designer at Media Temple and has been loving design since 2002. He helps facilitate intelligent conversation with Drawar, a forum exclusively for designers who want to discuss fundamentals of design and the industry.

“Know your value. Too often people start off under pricing everything because they feel they have to do so because they don’t have the experience or it is the only way to get clients. If you aren’t uncomfortable with the price you are asking for then you are underbidding yourself. Don’t be afraid to lose some business because someone wasn’t willing to pay what you want.  Being a design means having some sort of freedom, but it is up to you to make it happen.”

Jacob Cass

Jacob Cass is a strategic, multidisciplinary designer, and art director who lives, and works in NYC, while also running three popular blogs; Just Creative Design, Logo of the Day and Logo Designer Blog.

“The biggest piece of advice that I would give an upcoming designer comes in a package based from the little things that I have learned over my short career as a designer. These would be perfect for someone just starting out: Don’t undervalue your work. Seek criticism, not praise. Always keep learning & don’t be a static learner: do this by reading books, magazines, blogs and by practicing. Collect & share things. Teach others. Never give up. Keep practicing. Again, keep practicing.”

Veerle Pieters

Veerle Pieters is a graphic/web designer living in Belgium. Her personal journal reflects her journeys through design, the web, and life to help fellow designers.

“The very first question I would ask myself is: Am I motivated to work long days and to go all the way to get jobs done, seek new clients and work? Am I willing to go the extra mile to achieve what I want? If this answer is yes, than this is a start and it also means that you’re probably passionate in what you do. This is very important, if not maybe the most important question at all. A doubtful answer is not allowed here, you would make the wrong decision already.”

Grace Smith

Grace Smith is a seasoned designer and writer running a small, boutique web design studio — Postscript5, based in Northern Ireland.

“To any freelance newcomer I would say first and foremost you need to think realistically about costs, such as equipment, software, insurance, premises, tax, the list goes on. You also need to think about your potential earnings and ask yourself ‘what do I need to survive on?’ Being honest and realistic about your financial requirements is important.

I’ve found that financial planning is key, as you need to have the budgeting skills to set aside enough money to pay taxes (and other expenses) each year and live comfortably as well. Find a great accountant as they are worth their weight in gold and their advice is invaluable!

It’s essential to approach the business side of being a freelancer from a professional perspective, if you want it to flourish and be taken seriously.”

Brad Colbow

Brad Colbow is an independent web designer, best known for his comics that are published monthly in .Net magazine and “The Brads” a weekly strip found on his personal website. His work has appeared on the New York Time’s website, CNET, Smashing Magazine and elsewhere. You can find out more about him on his website colbowdesign.com

“Always work on projects that you’re really interested in, even if they are just personal projects. My work didn’t start to get notice outside of my circle of friends until I started to follow my interests. I’ve always wanted to draw comics so I just started drawing them one day, mostly to make my friends laugh. I only continued to do it because I found that I really looked forward to writing and drawing the things. It turned out that the comics brought in a lot of visitors and in return more projects. With more projects I could be pickier and take on work that had the time and budget to do higher quality work. None of that wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t working on things I loved, and that came from doing what I was most interested in.”

Tyler Galpin

Tyler Galpin is a web and UI designer based out of Toronto, Canada. He has worked with a variety of clients, from startups to Fortune 500 companies. His portfolio can be found at http://galp.in. Tyler also co-founded the Lost Type Co-op .

“There are a million things I wish I knew before setting out working for clients and managing my business. I’ve whittled them down to a couple that I think are really important, and will steer you in the right direction.

  1. Don’t be afraid of raising your hourly rate.
    This was a revelation for me when I began doing it. I was charging clients a measly rate because I was afraid I wasn’t worth anything more. Raising my rate improved my business on all fronts – I was getting more time to focus on just a few projects instead of several at a time, my clients were better and appreciated the value we provide as professionals, and I was getting work I actually wanted to do. A good rule I use is to raise your rate after each project until people start telling you “no.”
  2. Karma is everything.
    Try your best to be nice and professional to everyone as often as you can. Now, you don’t need to go and kiss arse but you should keep in mind that what goes around, comes around. That kid who emailed you looking for a few tips on design might be the next huge thing in our industry – be careful you don’t dismiss anyone.
  3. No clients? Create passive income for yourself.
    If work in coming in slow, don’t spend all your time seeking new clients. The best thing to do in slow times is create sources of passive income for yourself – income you don’t have to manage much beyond the initial investment of time/money. Whether that means creating Tumblr/Wordpress themes, or creating a design print – be creative, and hustle.”

What other advice can you offer to aspiring freelancers?

I know a lot of you have been freelancing for a long time. What other tips can you add to this awesome list? Share with us in the comments.

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About Nicole Foster

Nicole Foster is a professional website designer from New York that loves meeting new people. At Nicole Foster Designs, she offers website, wordpress, and ecommerce services to unique businesses. In her free time, she enjoys meditating and chatting with other designers.

Comments

  1. Know when to say no! Even when work is slow, some customers are just a drain on your time and nerves. Usually I can spot high-maintenance clients from the way they initially approach me, the amount of hand-holding they require for tasks that have nothing to do with web design and the amount of unrelated work they want to cram into the design fee.

    Good customers appreciate your expertise and the amount of work you put in and you can build an ongoing relationship with them.

    • @Robyn Safarian,
      Some great advice, Robyn. What would be the first sign you think new designers should keep an eye out for in order to avoid problematic clients?

      • @Preston D Lee,

        Some of it is really a gut feeling, after a while you just know. But a few warning signals for me come from potential clients who:

        ** want a quote before providing details of their requirements

        ** say ‘it’s really easy…it should only take you an hour’

        ** diss their previous designer

        ** don’t want to sign a contract

        ** aren’t willing to pay a deposit

        • Hi Robyn

          Just wanted to say that you’ve hit the nail right on the head there! Apart from a gut feeling those are definitely signs that you will have some hiccups with that client. I also think our gut feeling gets better with experience!

  2. Great article and some of the great tips provided by the professionals in this industry. The basic thing is know your importance and your work and charge accordingly. If you do not value your time and work then nobody will. I fully agree to wait for meaningful work to arrive than to accept a mediocre project which neither gives you satisfaction nor money. Better to utilize such lean days to learn something new :)

    • @Jay Kaushal,
      Jay, I completely agree. Thanks for sharing your input. It’s great to see you around the comment sections here at GDB again!

      Welcome back. I hope you stick around for a while!

  3. Mr. Cass mentioned the importance of continuing to learn. I’ll second that.

    I find I learn best by studying how someone else achieves certain effects, and then trying to incorporate some of the techniques into a new illustration of my own. To that end, I’m always browsing Photoshop tutorials, looking for new ideas and cool effects. It’s not enough to read thru them, you have to apply the techniques to your own work, and get your hands dirty. I’d highly recommend it as a way to learn and boost your professional skill set.

    Great post, thanks!

    • @Mark Armstrong,
      I totally agree! It’s all about getting in there and getting your hands dirty with the tutorials.

      Where do you recommend we all visit for great tutorials?

      Thanks in advance for sharing!

  4. First, let me say while I’m very pleased with my freelancing, I would by no means classify myself as a “very successful designer.” Yet!

    My advice is to write up a design brief/contract template and use it EVERY TIME. EVERY PROJECT needs a contract, no matter how big or small. Get in the habit of it; the one time you think it’s too big of a hassle is the one time you’re going to regret it and 1) lose money, 2) waste time, and 3) stress out far more than you should.

    I recently read an excellent post on LinkedIn: “You can’t say a good brief generates excellent results, but you can say it generates the EXPECTED results.”

    • @April,
      Great to chat again!

      “YET” is the key word here, right. ;)

      You are a designer after my own heart. I preach the importance of contracts almost more than anything here at GDB so I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels that way.

      A design brief is super-important too!

      At what point do you usually present these two items to your clients? First meeting? Second Meeting? Before you ever meet? I’m interested to know…

      • @Preston D Lee,

        I kind of combine the two – I’d be interested to hear how you create your design briefs/contracts.

        I like to get a grip on the client, their needs and expectations, their “adjectives”, etc. in the first meeting/email/phone call. I ask as many questions as I can to understand and develop my quote and timeline. I then send it to the client and ask for their response.

        Once we’re settled on the details, the expectations, and the timeline, we both sign the brief that outlines the project.

        Some key points I make sure to include (I’d love to hear any pieces you suggest): a specific point(s) at which the project will incur extra fees and how and when payment(s) will be made – I always get some up front.

  5. “be creative, and hustle.” Great quote! Gotta live by this.

  6. Be sure to spend time off the computer and meet people face to face. It’s very easy to send emails or texts to discuss work, but in order to really understand your client and their needs, it’s best to make an effort to meet with them in person, or call them.

    Also, get out and network as much as possible. In the artist community, many people are willing to help and can help you make connections. Take the relationships you’ve made with people online and meet them for coffee. You can also bounce ideas off each other and further develop your communication and professional skills.

    • @Amy Willis, I agree with everything you said.

      Meeting a client face-to-face is the best way you can communicate with them. It’s easy to misunderstand a client’s needs in an email, but talking to them in person helps you and your client to understand each other easier.

      It’s also very good to network with the design community. Chat on forums, chat in the comments section of a blog, or on places like Linkedin. It’s always good to have connections.

  7. I love the awesome tips you wrote here and if I were to add one, that would be: Follow Your Passion. I believe that successful freelancers have done just that, where they look forward to working on their freelance careers each day – no matter what the odds are. Then, everything follows… like confidence to market your skills for the rate that you truly deserve and continuously improving yourself to achieve near perfection.

  8. I Have been wanting to Jump in the freelancing bandwagon from a very long time but couldn’t get the required push…Thanks blogger for putting up details of so many succesful Freelancers. I wanted to go into the freelancing of Webpage designing. Thankx a lot Tyler for sharing your Experience and advice , will definetely keep it in Mind !!

  9. This is all good advice. I’ve been freelancing for 25 years, and learned a lot the hard way. For anyone serious about getting started as a freelancer, I wrote a book with a simple and solid plan for getting a home-based freelance business off the ground: GraphicDesignHomeOffice.com. It takes more than talent to be successful.

  10. A freelancer, freelance worker, or freelance is somebody who is self-employed and is not committed to a particular employer long term. These workers are usually represented by a company or agency that assist them in finding contracts or work. Freelancers are “declared” public contractors who specialize in many different fields.Freelance practice varies greatly. Some require clients to sign written contracts, while others may perform work based on verbal agreements, perhaps enforceable through the very nature of the work. Some freelancers may provide written estimates of work and request deposits from clients.Payment for freelance work also varies greatly. Freelancers may charge by the day, hour, or page or on a per-project basis. Instead of a flat rate or fee, some freelancers have adopted a value-based pricing method based on the perceived value of the results to the client. By custom, payment arrangements may be upfront, percentage upfront, or upon completion. For more complex projects, a contract may set a payment schedule based on milestones or outcomes.

  11. You guys should all get together and publish an e-book. Great advice for freelance designers!

  12. Mike Clingenpeel says:

    I am still just starting out,(mind you) but once I hooked up with a marketing consultant my work flow and clients just keep going. So market your self. Social media, news papers, craigs list, get your name out there. Plus working with small business owners helps beef up your portfolio.

    Your articles are awesome keep up the great work!

  13. I really enjoyed reading about these designers and their advice. A lot of this I knew already but it was great just reminding myself about dealing with “Knowing Your Value.” One thing that really helped me out was a point that Tyler Galpin mention about Karma, I actually had someone email me about some advice and I haven’t responded back to him, then I read this and realized I was dismissing him. So yea I emailed him back today. So thanks for the advice.

  14. Sir,
    Im working as a graphics designer in an offset press at Kerala, India. The last few years I heared about Freelance Graphics Designing works. But I have no idea how I get clients, how can make money and how can submit project and more…. Sir plelase help me. I have no Twitter account, have an account in Google Plus.

    With Regards
    Bijoy

  15. Hey Guys,

    Nice post! I wanted to bring some attention to a subject that may or may not be so related to this post, but I feel like it is in some way.. What about advice for the “permalancer”? I have not found any articles on GDB tackling the world of “permalancing” and I am interested in seeing this subject more talked about.

    In my experience, I am a freelance designer aka “permalancer” and I basically take on full-time freelance roles in house minus the benefits of a ft employee, and minus a bit of the freedom I would normally have (taking off when I need to, focusing on work/clients other than the in house 9-5 client).

    I would love to hear from someone with this experience, how do you like it? what can be done to break away from it? My main reason was the financial stability of having a weekly check..but I feel stripped away of everything else.

  16. I lllllllllllllllike it

  17. Love it!!! I need all the help I can get

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