Is there “big money” to be made as a freelance designer?

big money in freelancing graphic design blender
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Late last year a reader reached out to me with doubts about staying in the graphic design industry.

He tried researching various aspects of being a freelance graphic designer, but struggled to find the information that he wanted to hear – the information that stated how graphic designers can make “big money”.

If you were to look at some high paying professions like being a movie star, lawyer or something in the medical field – they have the potential to make this “big money” that he seemed to desire.

He had never heard of a millionaire graphic designer who “drives a Ferrari and lives in a mansion.”

So, is there any “big money” to be made as a freelance graphic designer?

Let’s try a different perspective

What is “big money”?

Is it a million dollars?

Or could it be just enough to live comfortably?

Realistically, I wouldn’t put the field of graphic design in the category of “big money”, but if you can pay the bills and be happy doing it, then why shouldn’t that mean success?

I know there are a handful of freelance graphic designers out there that make a great income, and that’s ultimately because they do the work and know how to charge what they’re worth.

For me, as long as I can happily support myself and my future family, then the actual amount of money I make doesn’t matter.

“Big Money” vs. Success

I don’t put the words “big money” and “success” together, because I see success in an entirely different way.

At the end of the day if you truly love what you’re doing and you’re able to survive, it seems to me that money and fame would be the last goal on your mind anyway.

The funny thing is, once you let those things take a backseat to your passions and your true happiness, they have a funny way of showing all by themselves.

So what about you?

What’s your definition of success?

Do you feel like success is measured by the amount of money you make or by the amount of happiness that’s generated from what you’re doing?

Leave a comment on this post and we’ll talk about it!

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About Brent Galloway

Brent Galloway is a freelance graphic designer, founder of Your Freelance Career, and author of Start Your Freelance Career. Check out his blog and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and Dribbble.

Comments

  1. My definition of success is similar to yours. If I can make enough to support myself comfortably, and not have to have a “job” (if you know what I mean), I will definitely consider myself a success. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting there, and having fun doing it. Fame is for after you’re dead. :)

  2. ‘morning!
    I am a big fan of your posts!
    Curiously, I saw this movie at my local independent movie theater in miami: http://houston.culturemap.com/newsdetail/02-22-13-avoid-this-movie-at-all-costs-charlie-sheen-stars-in-a-horrific-clunker-see-this-flicks-instead/
    It didn’t sound right, a super rich Graphic Designer played by Charlie Sheen and directed by Roman Coppola… I haven’t seen it, and probably won’t after seeing this review.
    Best to you!

  3. If you truly love what you do and are passionate about it (and do a great job too), money will come. I think it’s far more important and a sign of success to take control of your own destiny and make things happen for yourself.

  4. I friend recently reminded me of this “Big Money” concept the other day and he put is so well:
    “What is enough?” To me, this is key. We need to ask ourselves that question now and then:
    “What is enough?” Being able to pay for the needs and some of the wants. Of course, having the resources to pay for our children’s needs and future. But after we have a safe home, food on the table, a car to get us around, and some comforts, what else do we really need? By the time that’s taken care of, I consider myself very blessed. And at that time, it’s time to think about giving back. Thanks for reminding me to ask myself that question today.

  5. Success for me is being able to do what I love, live comfortably and have the flexibility to spend time with my family. Is there big money to be made in graphic design? I think it all depends on what “big money” is to you. I think in any field, even graphic design, the earning potential is really up to you and how well you market your business. As a freelancer, partnering with others who are good at other services such as web development, photography or video production can increase your earning potential. Creating passive income such as e-books, training, etc. is another way of increasing your earning potential without you having to do a lot of work on your end. Looking creatively outside the box is necessary to make “big money” in this field.

  6. I often have my friends and family say that I’m “we’ll off” when they talk about my professional freelance career.

    The truth is, I work about 40-50 hours a week and not all of that time is spent designing. Not to mention my hourly rate, it’s more than they make an hour, but who actually makes more per week or hours that they work and how regular are my clients and jobs that I undertake?

    I think people dealt overestimate or presume we live this “rock star” lifestyle. Truth is, there is a lot of hard work, a LOT!

    I don’t think people should just dive right into becoming a freelance designer or digital creative. I did, and I can tell you it’s one of the hardest things to do. I’m still very new to freelancing (full time) and speak from the heart. I have my eyes firmly set on being sucsessfull, and making my client benefit in the best way possible. Sure, my goals are to pay rent etc.., but I’m not all about trying to make riches. At least not right now.

    Sucsess isn’t an overnight product of skill and experience. It’s something we constantly have to strive for. I think determining your own goals and targets will help you sucsess, and this is the first step to planning out the 1,000,001 other aspects of your freelance career.

    • I can relate to what you said, and for some reason many do seem to overlook the fact that becoming a successful freelancer doesn’t just happen overnight. It definitely takes a lot of hard work and self motivation to meet your goals.

      Thanks for taking the time to share! :)

  7. I think my view on this is slightly different. My motivation to succeed isn’t measured by how much money I am making (even if I was making none), I measure it by how much impact I make on the public community. Ultimately I am motivated by the pleasure people get from my work. If I believed for one second that no one liked my work, I would quit design without hesitation – self-satisfaction can only take you so far! The more people that appreciate my work, the more successful I view myself. As long as I earn enough money to live (which is a small success in itself), the amount I earn doesn’t define the level of my success. In my eyes, ultimate success is immortality; to be remembered even when I am gone, for people to still be seeing my work and my name to be widely known. I trade under Diamond Eye Design in case you wanted to start! :P

  8. Soll Chantem says:

    I would have to agree that you will never be a millionaire from being a freelancer. What you can achieve though is a very comfortable life style with a lot of personal freedom. I have made any where from 30K to 130K per year, depending on the state of the economy and my desire to work. When I make 30K I get by, and when I make 130K, I save like crazy. What this has allowed me to do, is to live very securely and comfortable by evening out my income over many years, and by keeping it simple. I have the freedom to do things during the day that I want to do, like doing sports, playing music, and spending time with my family, plus some traveling. To me doing something I love work wise, having copious amounts of free time to pursue my personal interest, all while having money in the bank, it the ultimate definition of success.

  9. Happiness = success for me. Look at so many rich and famous people who turn to stealing, overdoses, and outlandish escapades because they realize they have all that money can buy and still have nothing that matters.

    “Stuff” is okay, but people and experiences are what matter to me more. If I can support myself such that my family is happy and we can live a comfortable (yet modest) life, all is well with me.

  10. I think success is controlling your worth. I see so many freelancers who are “victim” to whatever the client wants to pay them because the freelancer does not really know how to set a reasonable rate, or sometimes we don’t have the confidence to say NO to jobs that don’t meet our worth. It’s not about being a millionaire. I think it’s about enjoying your work and feeling that your work is truly valued. For some people, that means $25 an hour, for others it means $150 an hour, and for others it means volunteering their work for an organization that truly makes a difference. I think success is feeling that you are valued, not a victim.

  11. For me success is fullfillment of deep inner part of our heart that feels incomplete without it.

  12. That keep’s us alive while being a human being

  13. I agree with you as far as the definition of success goes, but that doesn’t address the question of this post.

    Can you make “big money” as a designer? Possibly, but tough to get to that position. Most designers would need to evolve to creative directors or some other position of greater influence than that of the designer. As a designer, you can definitely make a comfortable living, but if you want that ferrari, you better be willing to evolve and hope for some luck!

  14. I agree that doing what you love is what makes for success. I do not find chasing after money to be worth while. I have performed all kinds of work in my life. Most of the jobs that I performed were as a self-employed person, yet although I did not like the work I performed, I liked the freedom from laboring 40 hrs. per week. Now that I am older, I realize that the material things that we are trained to seek for are not necessary for life or happiness. Really the less you have the more time you have for meaningful activities and friendships. I only need enough to pay the few bills that I have, but most important, I really love being self-employed, doing the kind of work that I love. I have always loved design, so I entered college in 2000 and have started my design firm in 2010. Although, being in a small town has not allowed me to grow as fast as I would have liked, I maintain an evening part-time job to pay the bills, and I am working with the Small Business Association to help me grow the business.

    Working in the evening at a retail store allows me the opportunity to network. When I meet someone who is self-employed I tell them about my business and I ask for advice. One of the best advice that I received was this, “Start small and grow slowly.” The reason why they suggested this is because too many start-up businesses try to grow too quickly. I have made a few costly mistakes the past two years, which has caused me to examine my determination, but I tell you the truth. Money has nothing to do with my drive, I just needed to grow my confidence. Design is an industry that is very valuable, but under appreciated, but it is still an art form. And an artist is what I am.

    • Bobbi,

      Sounds like you have a pretty good understanding on what you’re looking for in success, and that’s great! Thanks for sharing your story with us all!

      • LIONSMANIAC says:

        One monumental thing has changed over the past year, and that is “OVERSEAS Dirt-Cheap” Graphics / Animation / Web Design accessible on line. The “overseas” part hasn’t changed, nor has the internet; however, what HAS changed is the clients’ understanding of how easily and inexpensively accessible this feature is.
        I’m sorry, but I’ve seen an immense shift concerning this; rates which once were touted at $150/hr are down as low $3/hr.
        Go look at “Fiver.com” “Cheaplogos.com” Google “$5 Vector Logos” or look at the $3 bids on “E-LANCE”
        I love my field, been a player / director for 30+ years’ schooled in AI, PSD, and AE to the hilt…and almost means nothing now. Wouldn’t recommend this field now days to anyone new.

  15. Very well written post. I’m a freelancer (as of October last year) and I measure my success by the fact my wife has been able to give up work and take up the much more rewarding career of raising our children. Freelancing has it’s ups and downs but nothing beats being able to earn more from my bed on a Saturday morning than I used to commuting 2 days into London. Also I get to work my business around my young family. I agree that success and big money don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

  16. Growing up very poor has changed my perspective of this. I’m a professional designer and you better believe I want to make a really nice paycheck. It improves the quality of life for me and my family as I’m able to reduce needs and struggling by helping financially and in other ways.

    I’ve learned though, not to think too hard about the money. When you do, it’s easy to loose sight of what’s more important… having a balance between being happy, being realistic, and living comfortably. Instead it’s better to concentrate on producing your best work, and become a valued opinion, by giving advise that improves clients communications. Those are some basics that will surely increase the numbers on your check. Gradually, but surely.

  17. Brent,

    Thats a very good question because many people have their perspective on success. Many think success is having millions and living that fancy life with Ferraris but I believe success is entirely different. I have a similar perspective as you, if you have enough to live comfortably and be happy for doing what you love to do as a living then you have reached a different level of success. I think you’re not just reaching financial success but also successful in life itself because our goal in life is to be happy and as they say some aren’t happy with millions in the end. I hope to reach that level of success someday through freelancing.

  18. If I can enjoy my work AND be able to eat properly (what can I say, I love and appreciate good food), AND be able to take time off without freaking, “OMG OMG, I SHOULD BE WORKING RIGHT NOW!!!”, then I’ll consider myself successful.

  19. If your in design for the money you’ll probably be quite disappointed. Design, in my experience, is perceived as a much better payed industry than it actually is.

    My theory is that most of us are so happy about what we do for a job that people assume we must be paid incredibly well :)

    On a related note; my Dad always says “Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day of your life.” He was a dairy farmer for nearly 50 years and I don’t know anyone who worked harder – but he loved every second of it.

  20. I never became a designer for the money. Freedom is my success. To be able to work on my own terms, to not have to worry how the next bill is going to be paid, to be able to spend more time with my kids and to be able to do it all doing something that I love to do is my ultimate goal. I’m not quite there yet but I can see it on the horizon!

  21. Interesting post. Something I always try to remember is no matter what you do in life, you are still going to “pay for it” one way or the other. Those who make “big money” tend to pay for it by having “big stress” just like somebody who has lots of free time at a low stress job pays for it by not being able to afford as many material luxuries. Bottom line is, who doesn’t want at least a little personal fulfillment from what they do all day?

  22. “So, is there any “big money” to be made as a freelance graphic designer?”

    Just because he couldn’t find a concrete example of such a successful designer, doesn’t mean it A) it isn’t possible and B) it doesn’t exist. Maybe it’s something he needs to aim for and be the one, in fact, to set the example and give other young designers something to work towards.

    As far as not finding an example, I would ask, “How’s David Airey doing?” Do y’all know who I’m talking about? Sure you do. He seems to have made a name for himself as a “successful” designer. I bet he commands top dollar for his work. I don’t know what kind of car he drives, but I’m willing to bet his lifestyle is more than just ‘comfortable.’

    I say, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

    • Anna,

      I bet you’re right – David Airey has to do at least decently.

      Thanks for reminding all of us that we don’t have to resign ourselves to ‘getting by’ or ‘doing okay.’ Even if we don’t aspire to be billionaires, we can still aspire to get compensated fairly for our work and be well off.

      • Hi Anna, April,

        I’ve found that it comes down to passion, because if you don’t have a love for your job, there’ll be thousands of others who do, and they’ll be the ones getting those higher paying projects. Every time.

        Like Brent and other commentators have said, success is relative.

        Great quote, by the way, Anna.

  23. Travis Smith says:

    Success is simply what you are happy with in life. Now the big money in graphic design is basically acquired by those who may work in the Hollywood scene or behind the Hollywood scene. However, I used to admire Patrick Nagel’s work that he did for Playboy. I can imagine that Playboy payed him well.

    Nevertheless, from my experience it seems that one must be born with the ‘silver spoon’ and just happens to have a passion for graphic. Or one must be taken under the wing of a wealthy person who admires his or her works.

    Basically, I just love doing what I do. I’m not successful yet because I have been trying to leave a noticable mark of my work. But I’m happy.

  24. Patcharee Wilkins says:

    I believe that a person chooses to become a graphic designer, not for the money, but for the love of design. I’m sure you can make big money at it, but if that is something you want is just money, then choose another profession, like finance or business. At the end of the day I want to wake up and enjoy what I do everyday. We do spend most of our lives at work so why not make it what you love to do!

  25. Interesting topic. Last Monday i had a phone interview for a job and the lady interviewing me asked “what drives you money or passion”? With an instant reply i said passion, simply because if you love what you are doing (in terms of job prospect) money would be the penultimate thing you worry about and how you’re percieved by an audience would be something more ideal to focus on because that is who you are creating/working for, ultiamtely you’re just getting paid for that service you offer to them.

    Of course you would need an income to survive and carry on business, but the oppurtunity and ability to express your worth through what you create drives me to why i want to be successful in this field, it’s your own voice! Success for me is about being happy with what you have achieved or even your influence on others and not what or how much you earn!

  26. Success to me is spending my work time doing something I can be proud of, while at the same time having the time and money to have fun with my family & friends! I don’t need to be a millionaire to achieve those goals.

  27. My view on success? You have to count the cost before you place your sign on the door, you have to know what your yearly salary will be (and make it realistic) how much you will charge per hour or project to meet that goal and of course know what you are good at doing within graphic design e.g. business cards, posters, brochures etc. Meet those metrics with excellence and no doubt more people will be beating down your door! Also there is something else…. be nice and professional no one wants to work with a nasty designer.

  28. Hi Everyone-

    I’ve been reading the comments and I have to say, while I am happy to see that design creatives are choosing happiness over material success – there’s nothing wrong with making money. The photo of the guy looking like a modern day “robber baron” with loads of cash in his hands on a design blog, although effective – felt a bit “off” to me and that is why I stopped to reply.

    I come from a small town in the Deep South and I went to school for design at F.I.T (class of ’98) – so I have been around the block a few times and I would like to share a little bit of my own experience here, that I hope someone will find helpful.

    I once worked as an Operations Manager for a boutique agency in SoHo in NYC, several years ago. We were a small company of less than a dozen people. I wrote the contracts, saw the billing and the payroll. To put this in perspective I am going to talk dollars – I know we are supposed to, but somebody’s got to do it.

    We never took a client on for a project for less than $40,000. We were a small no name agency and we did this on a regular basis. We would get clients coming in who had a budget of around $5,000 for a website and we could not take them. Why did we turn them down? Because no one on the staff made less than $65,000 a year and the rent for our office alone was $11,000/month. This was in NYC around 2005 – 2006. You can’t run a boutique agency with those kinds of salaries and that kind of rent on $5,000 projects – it just doesn’t work.

    My point is that some of you may be thinking you would kill to have a $5000 project and to be quite honest we often referred those clients to freelance designers like most of the people commenting here. But just as sure as I am writing my reply to this post, I can tell you right now MOST designers regardless of where they live, are NOT charging enough for their work.

    Now don’t get me wrong you don’t have to be Bruce Mao or Yves Behar – but you don’t have to “just get by” out of sheer principle. I really wish the design community could get pass this myth that if you make a profit you are selling your creative soul to the devil and I am glad to see people like Preston and others – stepping up. We have a bad habit of devaluing our own services.

    Do you think your clients go around undermining the value of their services the way we do? If you go to an attorney or an accountant – do you go in thinking. “Well I can probably barter with them?” No! So why are you letting them barter with you?

    I honestly think that most creatives are afraid to charge more out of fear. A fear that their businesses will grow too big and they will be chained to yet another desk and they will burn out or feel trapped because they aren’t happy but they can’t afford to close up shop. For most designers the issue isn’t the ability to do the work it’s learning how to have a life AND business that they love.

    For some strange reason most freelancers feel “better” about the whole “work/life thing” if they THINK there isn’t a lot at stake. Usually that means if there isn’t a lot of money involved, so what do you do? You don’t charge enough. Because – hey if I don’t charge too much, I’ve got nothing to lose and I won’t feel guilty if it goes bust.

    I know it sounds crazy, but let’s be honest here. I been running my own freelance web design & consulting business, for the last 3 1/2 years and I write a blog too. When I first started out I didn’t feel comfortable charging what I knew I should because I was afraid it would scare people off – but I got over that real quick!So what do you do?

    Well reading a blog like Preston’s is a good start, but if I could offer one piece of advice to any freelancer or start-up it would be this: Don’t forget you are running a business just like everyone else and you deserve to be PAID for the services you offer.

    Yes you must keep your market, your competition and your integrity in mind but I have seen people make tens of thousands of dollars in places far and wide and other designers in cities like New York “just getting by”. You do NOT have to be in NYC or LA or Chicago to make good money – you just have to be GOOD!

    Well there’s my two cents! I normally don’t go on and on like this but I keep seeing comments like this on design blogs and I rarely see anyone from the managerial side chime in. Sorry for the long comment – but I would love to hear what everyone else has to say.

    (Sidebar: If you want to get a sense of what other people are charging for their work I just stumbled upon this site: http://sortfolio.com/)

  29. Sorry for the typo! I was saying we aren’t suppose to talk about money but I feel more of us should.

  30. Success in my view it’s a bit different.
    As an artist, you are subject to the market as well as any other human being or product on this earth and why not even beyond.
    Free markets dictate your success. If you are good by what you create, then the market you’re working on will show you that, your ideeas will spread and your product will become more and more famous… and wealth it’s coming along as well.
    After all, we have to pursue the profitability otherwise, it means that we’re doing it wrong, it means we’re not doing what society needs.
    Being successful means to amount a lot to the society.
    Here’s a very good video about that: https://vimeo.com/16430345

    And here are nother few words from me that can be related to success: https://www.facebook.com/notes/peter-bogdan-istrate/break-the-boundaries/514104861987100

    Cheers!

  31. LIONSMANIAC says:

    One monumental thing has changed over the past year, and that is “OVERSEAS Dirt-Cheap” Graphics / Animation / Web Design accessible on line. The “overseas” part hasn’t changed, nor has the internet; however, what HAS changed is the clients’ understanding of how easily and inexpensively accessible this feature is.
    I’m sorry, but I’ve seen an immense shift concerning this; rates which once were touted at $150/hr are down as low $3/hr.
    Go look at “Fiver.com” “Cheaplogos.com” Google “$5 Vector Logos” or look at the $3 bids on “E-LANCE”
    I love my field, been a player / director for 30+ years’ schooled in AI, PSD, and AE to the hilt…and almost means nothing now. Wouldn’t recommend this field now days to anyone new.

  32. Hi.

    Im a graphic designer graduated before about 5 years. At first I tried to get in industry with no much success. After lots of attends, finally I got into a office, which at least I will be graphic designer. This office closed after 3 months and I was with no job, again. After that I was working as a delivery cause I couldn’t find a job as a designer. After 5 whole years, and after doing some research at web seeing design contests websites and staff like that with extremely low rates, low quality etc.

    I was wondering if I was and idiot all these years, studying and more trying be a good designer and bring out good designs to clients that don’t appreciate good design.Also, I was wondering if you can still make a good living in graphic design. I think in this field is getting harder a harder.

  33. My personal definition of success is financial freedom with the ability to do what I love.

    Sure I want to be able to pay bills, control my time, provide for my family and etc., but I want to make money with the intent of giving back to the world.

    Achieving Wealth is definitely a goal of mine. If The Arnell group can charge Pepsi, $1 million for rebranding their logo, this lets me know that there is money to be made in this market. It may take an enterprising mind to not only focus on design, but to also involving related industries as well to make a profit.

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