Why some freelance designers become rich while others don't

13,807 designers received our email newsletter last week. Click here to sign up for free.

Take a moment and scan the web for successful freelance designers. I mean financially successful freelance designers. I’m not talking about designers who have a great following on their blog, I’m not even talking about designers who crank out phenomenal work on Dribbble. I’m talking about designers who make more-than-enough money to get them by.

Freelance designers who are rich.

So why is it that some freelance designers get rich while others barely get by (all under the guise that there’s no problem because they are doing what they love, so it’s okay)? Why can’t you be happy at work and be rich at the same time?

You can. This article will cover tips on how to turn your passion for design into a steady profit. I can’t guarantee you’ll be making a professional athlete’s salary, but at least you won’t be begging for food and hoping for a solid design job to come around.

If you have more tips, don’t be greedy, share them with the rest of us.

Pay attention to your numbers

And your numbers will reward you.

Do you know how much you make an hour? A lot of designers charge clients per project (which is absolutely fine) and fail to keep track of how many hours they work on a project. Inspiration comes at 2:00 am, so you wake up and work on a project for a few hours. By the time you’re finished, a $250 business card project has taken you 50 hours and you haven’t made very good money at all.

After all, no one is more rich in time than anyone else.

And if you waste your time doing something that pays little, there’s no time to do things that pay more. You’ll never get rich that way. Therein lies the first secret that rich freelance designers won’t tell you: Pay attention to your numbers (hours spent, costs incurred, etc) and your numbers will reward you.

Stop treating design like a hobby

For most freelance designers, what is now your career started as just a hobby. After you gained the experience you needed, you began to realize that people would pay money (and in some cases really good money) for your services. The problem is, while you may have made all the exterior changes needed to start a freelance design business, you still treat design like a hobby instead of a business.

So how can you treat design more like a business?

We’ve already mentioned one point: pay attention to numbers. Other tips include not feeling obligated to take every job you’re offered, not wasting potentially lucrative hours arguing with clients, and finding steady work (read on).

Once you realize you’re in the business of design to make money (admittedly, you can and should still enjoy it), your decision-making process will change. Instead of asking “which projects are the most fun?” or “Which project will look best in my portfolio?”, you’ll ask “Which projects will give me a great return on my investment?” and the like.

Freelance designers who get rich, treat design like a business, not a hobby.

Find steady work

The last secret that rich freelance designers will never tell you is to find steady work. Most freelancers who make a lot of money have a lot of steady jobs. This usually means they have paired with a local design agency, ad agency, etc. who passes the smaller, “less-important” jobs off to them.

I did this for a while and it worked excellently:

I had worked for around a year at a design agency when it came time to go back to school. Instead of dealing with a long commute and/or night classes to accommodate my work schedule, I offered to work as a freelancer from home. They paid me the same rate, and it was steady work.

Finding steady work is a key to getting rich as a freelance designer.

What other secrets have I left out?

Now it’s your turn to share money-making tips with the rest of us. Don’t be selfish now, leave a comment!

About Preston D Lee

Preston is a web designer, entrepreneur, and the founder of this blog. @prestondlee

Comments

  1. Hi Preston, interesting points.
    I agree with you about paying attention to numbers and I will add my two cents. Trying to sell themes or designs you did for a project and didn’t fit to stock agencies can be a good source of extra money: you actually did work for that money, so why don’t give it a try?

    Another point is: don’t start the “real work” before the client has signed the contract, it’s true that if they sign it than you’d be at a good point, but if they don’t you’ve wasted time and energies (and money).

    • @Federica Sibella,

      So true, don’t start unless you’ve been awarded the project. I don’t even do spec work anymore. After all, that’s what a portfolio is for. If they can’t tell they like your work/style by looking at your portfolio then it’s probably not in your best interest to work with them.

  2. Great article. All of these are valid points. I know many designers who treat their design as a hobby rather than a career. Getting steady work can be difficult if you don’t know where and how to begin. You have to have a small amount of business sense.

    Try identifying local (or even non local) businesses for whom you could become a primary vendor, you should be able to list between 20-50. Try emailing or calling these people and set up to meet with them and give a presentation. Presentations and telling people how you can help their business and give them better service have a higher success rate than simply emailing them your portfolio, though you should do this also!

  3. 1. Get an accountant.
    2. Don’t dress like you’re in high school.
    3. Work in some kind of office, not at the coffee shop.
    4. Use professional tools for billing, conferencing, etc.
    5. Insist on using a creative brief with clients.
    6. Don’t have a style. Do the client’s style.
    7. Join professional organizations.
    8. Work normal hours.
    9. Don’t be distracted by whatever is “cool.”

  4. I want to reiterate what it says in the main post… once you are able to manage your time well the only other way to increase the money you make is to work on projects that pay more. I’m always busy with projects but now I am selective of what I work on.

  5. Another point to add: Quit giving away your talent for next to nothing. I know people who sell logos for $50 because they don’t feel like they can charge more. If you raise your prices to a level that says “I’m a professional”, people will treat you like a professional. I know it’s a ‘chicken or the egg’ situation, but trust me, it works.

    And yes, find a steady client to feed you work. Agencies or big companies with lots of projects work best. That’s been the biggest key to my success.

  6. Excellent points. Another way to get rich as a designer is to charge real money. I see you touched on that here but to elaborate, clients with real budgets aren’t looking for the cheapest option (which most often produces the cheapest results.) There is a perceived value. If you charge a premium, and have the portfolio to back it up, you will be perceived as valuable!

  7. Yes, as a freelancer you can get to live very decently. Saving money is also important.
    Maybe not all of us need that IMAC 27″ with SSD drive..

  8. Gosh, where do I start?

    1) Have talent. Show it off! Send old or prospective clients work that you are working on now…

    2) Get out there. All. The. Time. Networking off line is far more profitable than being on line all the time.

    3)Have principles. Don’t lower your price just because a client wants you to do the job for less. Be strong. If you are talented enough, they will stay with you.

    4)Set time limits. You time is literally worth $. If a client is paying you based on an hourly rate, don’t work 100% over budget even if you don’t have alot of work on… spend that extra time getting out there and developing more work.

  9. I have to agree with most of your points, except maybe the ‘steady work’ one. In my experience I’ve always been more profitable servicing my own clients than from working as a subcontractor. I also prefer it because I get to set the terms of the relationship. There are a lot of x factors when subcontracting, and most of the time you only work for an hourly rate—which is hare to make a profit on.

    I would also agree with Lucudgal: Be professional. This is key to charging higher fees and gaining the trust of the people who have bigger projects and budgets. Creating a positive, trust-building experience for your clients should be a top priority. This takes the mystery out of what we do and gives the client a clear view of what they can expect when working with you.

    • @Joseph Malleck,
      I sort of second that.
      I regularly take on fixed-price work as a subcontractor, but have a great working relationship with the primary contractor. This allows me to set a budget I’m comfortable with.

  10. More tips:

    1. Treat every project like it’s your last, so make it ALWAYS the best. Keep in mind that every work you do is your “public portfolio”

    2. Never underprice your value, but back it up with excellent portfolio. Charge within professional standards, or even higher if you feel like it. This practice will motivate you to render your job within high standards as well. Don’t worry if you don’t win the bid, the project is not always meant for you.

    3. Never burn bridges with your clients, nurture your relationship with them. Make extra efforts to make them remember you by extending some (but not all) of your personality, not just a professional relationship.

  11. More tips:

    1. Treat every project like it’s your last, so make it ALWAYS the best. Keep in mind that every work you do is your “public portfolio”

    2. Never underprice your value, but back it up with excellent portfolio. Charge within professional standards, or even higher if you feel like it. This practice will motivate you to render your job within high standards as well. Don’t worry if you don’t win the bid, the project is not always meant for you.

    3. Never burn bridges with your clients, nurture your relationship with them. Make extra efforts to make them remember you by extending some (but not all) of your personality, not just a professional relationship.

  12. some good advice here.
    Here’s mine;

    1. Use your time wisely. There are only 8 hours in a work day, and you should stick to that except *maybe* for critical deadlines.
    2. Home/work separation. Set up a home office if you don’t have a brick-and-mortar one.
    3. Track your time obsessively. It will offer good insights into which projects and clients are the most profitable.
    4. Try to set up some customers with maintenance retainer contracts. This will bring in some steady, reliable income in addition to only taking on one-off projects.
    5. Think about how your services/portfolio are perceived by the outside world. Be selective about what you show.
    6. Consider focusing efforts on specific industries. Clients will appreciate your knowledge of their business processes.
    7. Take care of yourself. Burn-out must be avoided. Go shoot clay pigeons if that works for you.

  13. I have only one piece of advice: Do not wait for the world to come to you; go to them. Do not ask for permission.

  14. Well, the main issue of treating design like a business and only look at the money instead of the nature of the project itself is a simply question. Why are you designer? or maybe … Why did you become a designer?

    Of course we all want to be rich making whatever we want and there is point at the path where you realize than design is not art, because we have clients but in this walk it’s very easy to lose the perspective of what you want to be in design because come one guys! This is not an “office job”…it’s about creative.

  15. Another important factor is knowing who to target. A lot of us as designers still don’t know who our target audience is and market ourselves blindly. Having a niche is essential for success.

  16. It’s been stated in a number of ways but I look at it like this. Virtually all a designers does, in some fashion, markets something: a product, a service, an event; an idea… The agencies or clients we do work for constantly promote themselves, so beyond treating your service as a business you should sell it, consistently, and constantly. Clients will not come to you unless they know about you.

  17. I went to school at the Ai of Miami. One of the most common things I noticed is that out of the few that walked away with their degrees, even fewer of them had any business sense what-so-ever. If not hired by an agency or corp, they would never succeed in freelancing.

    One must treat design and clients as a business; because it is one! It is your livelihood.

    Thanks for the article!

  18. I think a way to get rich, which I am not as of yet, is to create your own lane. Graphic Design is something we see every day and we need to know how to captialize on it. When I dont have a client or working on a project I enter competitions or try to create t-shirts or postcards to sell to local shops. Selling a t-shirt design can get you a nice check but creating the design and selling multiple shirts can bring you better return.

  19. I’m still getting my diploma but found interest in graphic design since I’ve been trained in Photoshop at a very young age by my mother who was a computer teacher and graphic designer for a printing company back when you had to use real rulers and mac was just starting. She told me that architects are the worst clients of all time, but that’s another story. I’m not too sure if I should go a graphic design route or film, or video game design, or even forensics but I have a tip, practice with a sales job. If you try out being a car salesman or Vector (Cutco knifes) or simply selling whey protein to jocks… it could help build a sense of what clients need to boost sales from the designs you created; you’ll get to see what strikes interest in a customer on already furnished products. Is it the shine? or the matte finish? the triple rivet handle? it can get you to blurt out your own excitement or exaggerated excitement of certain details and really sell the product/portfolio to the client. Also look at your environment and try and find what looks “cool” and where the “cool” came from, but as a previous poster mentioned don’t get wrapped around it. You want to have a million cool things about it, not just one.
    Philosophy is also very, very helpful. You want to look into your clients heart and research things that could make the client and the product appear as one to where even it’s being presented. Like for example how Led zeppelin uses eye candy imagery AND backs it up with a deeper meaning, it makes people think and once they figure it out they become hooked because it’s so “brilliant!”.

  20. nice

  21. Well If you have no passion and fun in working, you will not be able to get the best result. Especially in designing works . That’s my own opinion, how about u guys ?

  22. It’s tough but you have to keep marketing yourself, get your brand out there, be consistent with logos, letterheads, business cards, website, email addresses & social media marketing

  23. Richard Coda says:

    Just found this thread. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. Started out as a typesetter a long time ago, and was always looking for a better job. Picked up a few freelance clients along the way. I was lucky… they were very large international companies. Up until the past 5 years (do the math) I never had to market myself… everything was word of mouth. I have to add a few things to the discussion and disagree with some. One being the 8 hour day. I work between 12 and 16 hours a day… EVERY day. Took my first vacation in 5 years in 2013 to meet up with our daughter on her first spring break. Went to Disney World. On that two week vacation I worked over 80 hours… enjoying the family during the day and working til early in the AM. When you are self-employed you have to be available 24/7/365… if you’re not… someone else will do the work for and you will lose the client.

    I would add… learn your skills so they are second nature. I don’t work hourly but I am very good at estimating how much time something will take, including revisions. I can get a 4 page brochure done in an hour or two. Add another hour or two for revisions along the way (revisions really don’t take long) and you’re making (assuming a very small client) at least $50/hr. My clients are very large so they pay a lot more. The key to making a very nice living is getting things done fast. I have averaged well over $200k a year for the past 20 years. Live in a very nice home in a beautiful area and am putting my daughter through one of the most prestigious schools in the country with no loans.

    One other thing… you will never get rich designing t-shirts. :)

    • Richard,

      Thanks for sharing! You’re right about not getting rich on t-shirts…or at least VERY VERY unlikely. It’s nice to hear from someone who “has made it” and continues to do so comfortably.

      April

      • Richard Coda says:

        You’re welcome, April. I have friends that I used to work with long ago who are struggling… either because they let technology pass them by, or because really don’t have the drive. Drive is everything. Think about it… graphic design… you can do it from your home (as I do)… you have no overhead (to speak of) and all your investment is time… if you can maximize the time you can write your own ticket. My nephew actually went to school for advertising… bailed on his Master’s half way through because he realized it wasn’t worth the money. He asked me about my experience and I told him… I said “learn your craft and you can write your own ticket”. He replied “I’m scared… I’d rather work for the man”. I told him, “then you will never BE the man.”

Trackbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liam Swift, Carlos Estrada. Carlos Estrada said: Why some freelance designers become rich while others don’t: Take a moment and scan the web for successful freel… http://bit.ly/hWxr1v [...]

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Studio RPM and sergio santana, soshableweb. soshableweb said: Why some freelance designers become rich while others don’t http://bit.ly/gmYWGn #webdesign #design [...]

  3. [...] Why some freelance designers become rich while others don’t [...]

Join the conversation

*