How to Become a Freelance Graphic Designer
Samanthability is all about making money online after college, so I like to cover as many online side hustles as possible. That’s why today I’ve got another guest post today all about how to become a freelance graphic designer!
I asked my blogger friend Sara from SaraStrives all about how she got started as a freelance graphic designer, and she kindly offered to share her freelancer strategy with my readers. She has some excellent tips, whether you’re just getting started as a freelance designer or you’re hoping to optimize your freelance graphic design business.
While you’re here, check out some of my other favorite freelancer tips:
- How to become a freelance writer in college
- 10 Freelance jobs for recent grads
- The best tools for freelancers
I’ve been a freelance graphic designer for almost three years now, and let me tell you, it’s been a learning experience. So, I’m going to share some tips and details about my experience with you so you don’t have to deal with some of the crap I did! Here’s how to become a freelance graphic designer without the stress!
1. Practice and Build Your Design Portfolio
If you’ve never designed for somebody else, I highly recommend you start by getting in some practice, not only to build a portfolio and gain experience, but also to get a feel for the process and what works for you.
I personally did this by offering low-cost services and even free services via Facebook and other platforms.
One platform I used a lot to gain experience and build my portfolio early on is called Simbi. Simbi is a platform that allows people to trade services and products without involving actual money. This was a great way to gain experience and build up a varied portfolio to use to bring in paying clients.
(Sam’s edit: Another great platform for freelancer newbies is Upwork! Learn how to land gigs on Upwork here. Just don’t undercharge for too long!)
2. Create a Strategy for Finding Design Clients
When I started my freelance graphic design business, it was sort of by accident. I had done a lot of design work for my own blog over the years, and I was only a few months away from getting married. I’ll admit that I was definitely desperate for some extra cash when I saw a post on Facebook from someone I knew looking for a graphic designer.
I knew I was pretty decent at the design aspect of blogging, plus I was studying art which included some graphic design classes. I decided to jump on it.
After that, I started looking for clients in Facebook groups, on Upwork, and on Freelancer. I found clients through all of these, but they aren’t necessarily my preference now.
I don’t recommend Freelancer because I found most of those listings were fairly sketchy and not worth my time. Upwork is a great place to find clients, although it can be competitive.
Facebook groups can be a great way to start networking with potential clients and finding hiring opportunities, particularly blogging and business-related groups. I did find quite a few clients that way when I was first starting out.
But, my best clients, in terms of both pay and just plain being kind human beings, have been through friends of people I already know or by word of mouth. This seems to be the best way to find clients that want to pay you what you’re worth and respect your graphic design business.
I have found these opportunities by just talking about what I do with friends and family. The next thing I knew, my name was passed along to someone who needed my services.
To sum it up, there are many ways to find clients! What works for me might not work as well for you. Some people thrive on Upwork, others drum up all their business through Facebook groups or Linked In. Word of mouth has been the best option for me. To summarize, here are some great ways to get started:
- Angel List – This platform is full of opportunities with startups, many of which need a freelance graphic designer.
- Upwork – As I said before, Upwork can be great if you’re careful with pitching and make sure you’re choosing high-quality clients.
- Facebook Groups – Business, blogging, and design groups on Facebook are a great place to network and find opportunities. I’d recommend being an active, helpful part of the group before trying to land gigs.
- LinkedIn – Since LinkedIn is a social network for professionals, it comes as no surprise that this is a great place to start as a freelance graphic designer. Just be sure to have a clear, niche-focused profile.
- Cold Pitching – Finally, it’s important to feel comfortable contacting businesses directly if you want to make it as a freelance graphic designer. Creating your own freelance website, online portfolio, or space to share your work will help bring clients to you!
3. How to Price Your Freelance Graphic Design Services
When it comes to pricing your freelance graphic design services, you have to be careful. One of the trickiest things a lot of new freelancers fall for is discounts. Oh goodness… I made this mistake so many times when I first started out as a freelance graphic designer. Learn from me and don’t make this mistake!
While offering free/discounted work when you’re trying to gain practice and build a portfolio can be good, you have to stop doing this at some point! Honestly, I would cut out the discounts and free work within a month or after 1-2 projects.
I had a few clients I gave a discount to when I first started. Funny enough, those discounted projects were the worst experiences I’ve had with clients. I found that offering a discount lessened the respect shown to me by the client. All the discount did was allow them to push me on what I would provide for X amount of money.
While it would start with a small discount, it would end with the project going above and beyond what I had outlined originally. It also just devalued my work and other designer’s work! So, cut yourself off! No more discounts after a month or so of building your portfolio. You’re worth way more!
How should you price yourself as a freelance designer? You have two main options:
- Hourly – The first option is to price yourself per hour. Remember that if you plan to be a full -time freelancer, you’ll need to consider your “downtime” as well. Whatever you charge will need to make up for the other time you spend finding clients, performing admin tasks, and so on. I wouldn’t recommend dropping below $20/hour and that’s for an absolute newbie!
- Per Project – Per project pay is a good idea if you’ve already nailed down exactly what the client wants, and you can avoid the dreaded scope creep (aka when a project slowly starts to grow). With this pricing, you’ll need to estimate just how many hours the project will take and what’s a fair price based on that.
To start, research the going rate in your area. It can help to look up the estimated local salary for an entry-level graphic designer and go from there. Like most things when it comes to making money online as a freelancer, you’ll need to learn as you go. If you feel like you got shorted on a project when you agreed to X rate, charge more next time!
4. Handling Criticism as a Freelance Graphic Designer
To be frank, if you can’t handle criticism, this job is not for you. I learned to take criticism of my work in my junior year of high school when I took an AP drawing/design class. I have to admit, I think I cried after the first critique we had in that class. But, that class changed me for the better.
I learned not to take criticism of my work so personally, and I learned to be ready to discuss my artistic decisions.
Taking criticism is a huge part of working with freelance clients. In the graphic design world, it’s unlikely they’re going to accept the first thing you make for them and move on happy as can be. Unfortunately, that’s just not how it works.
Your client will have feedback, and it’s not personal. However, I think it’s important to clarify if they start attacking you personally in their feedback, it’s time to cut ties. You’re the business owner, and that means you don’t have to be treated unprofessionally or without respect.
For example, I worked with a local brewery early on in my freelance graphic design career. I got some feedback from this client on a design, and this was my first experience with disrespectful treatment. Essentially, the client claimed that because I wasn’t a beer drinker and was under 21 that I couldn’t understand the market.
I made the mistake of sticking around after that incident, and it blew up in my face ultimately. It was a hard lesson to learn.
To get back on topic, taking criticism is an essential part of pretty much all client-based work, but there’s a difference between feedback on your work and being personally attacked. So just keep that in mind, and always stand up for yourself!
5. Create a Freelance Graphic Design Contract
One important aspect of any freelance job is to have a contract in place. Please do what I say and not what I do. I have definitely found myself stuck in an awkward position thanks to not having a contract in place.
I promise, having a contract in place is the best thing you can do for yourself. If the client doesn’t want to sign a contract, that’s not a client you want to work with.
There are some decisions you have to make as a freelance graphic designer when it comes to your contract and projects. Here are some of the things I didn’t think about when I first started as a new graphic design freelancer:
- File Types – The big one that I didn’t really know about when I first started was the file types you provide and what the client is allowed access to/use of. A lot of professional graphic designers do not provide their working files (aka Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.). They only provide final files like PNGs, JPGs, etc. Some designers charge a fee to provide working files, some don’t. Whatever you decide, make sure it’s in the contract!
- Refund Policy – If you include nothing else, make sure you include a refund policy. My personal policy for project packages vs. hourly work is to collect a 50% deposit before work begins. Once that work begins, the deposit is non-refundable. The rest of the money is due before the final files are sent. Asking for a deposit has been helpful in preventing people from disappearing with my work.
- Watermarking – When you provide digital files, it’s really easy for someone to take off without paying (hence the deposit listed above). Watermarking your drafts as you work with your clients on them can help protect you, but honestly, I find that to be tedious and frustrating to the clients. If you do choose to watermark your drafts, make sure that’s included in your contract as well.
(Sam’s edit: I couldn’t agree more about the importance of a contract! I’ve been burned too in my freelancing career, and that’s why I created this super easy to customize freelance contract. You can easily add in anything you need to protect yourself and your work.)
6. Take Care of Yourself
I couldn’t let you go off and start your freelance graphic design business without talking about taking care of yourself. If you’re familiar with me, I’m a lifestyle and mental health blogger and I talk about self-care A LOT.
As a freelancer, it is so important to take care of yourself. This means setting healthy boundaries and taking time off of work! I just did a podcast episode on maintaining a work-life balance and taking care of your mental health – especially as a freelancer.
To hit a few key points on taking care of yourself:
- Set boundaries – For me, this means taking time off work, not giving my phone number to clients, and setting specific working hours. I don’t say yes to every client or project.
- Respect your work – If a client isn’t treating you respectfully, break off ties with them. You don’t owe them anything.
- Be patient – Finally, becoming a freelance, especially a full-time freelancer, takes time and patience. It won’t happen overnight, so make sure you have a financial plan to keep yourself secure until you’re able to pay all your bills with your freelance graphic design business.
Make Money Online as a Freelance Graphic Designer
I hope some of these tips help you with starting your own freelance business, whether it be graphic design or something else! These are definitely some of the most important lessons I learned in the first year or so of freelancing, and hopefully, they help you too.
Feel free to reach out on Instagram or my freelancer website if you have questions about starting your own freelance graphic design business. Finally, a big thank you to Sam for letting me ramble to her audience for a little bit!
Hey! I’m Sara Miller. I’m a twenty-something blogger living in Austin, TX with my husband, Max, and my dog, Norman. I founded my blog, Sara Strives in December 2015 during my freshman year of college. On my blog, I talk about lifestyle topics and mental health in a realistic way. I discuss similar topics on my podcast, Me, Myself, and You. Besides my blog and podcast, I am a freelance graphic and web designer and occasional social media manager.
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