Break into freelance graphic design in 2023: The complete guide
Freelance graphic design is a great opportunity to earn money while having total control over your life and career. But there’s more to graphic design freelancing success than simply being a good graphic designer. You have to build a real business, whether side-hustling or working on it full-time. The way to do that is to take an end-to-end look at the process to make sure you’re building your freelance business in the way that will make you the most money with the least headache. That’s what this guide is for.
What does a freelance graphic designer do?
A freelance graphic designer is a person who develops visual concepts for websites, tech products, or even physical items like billboards. Using software, designing by hand, or both, a graphic designer’s job is to take a client’s vision and make it a visual reality. They then transpose that design over to the final product, usually working with design software tools to ensure everything looks the way it should.
A primary difference between a freelancer versus an employee is a matter of focus. An employee will produce all their work for one “client” - their employer. They will typically work across many mediums, for example designing websites, banner ads, a new company logo, or new mobile app graphics. Freelancers, on the other hand, have a bit more freedom in their work. They will typically have multiple clients and may only focus on one element of graphic design (such as only websites or only out of home advertising like billboards).
Building a freelancer business mentality
As soon as you say you want to be a freelancer, remember what you’re really saying is that you want to start a business. The key difference between freelancing and other types of businesses is that you’re less likely to build a staff in the future, instead preferring to keep things operationally small and tidy. But this doesn't mean you won’t face some of the same challenges that other entrepreneurs face.
The first thing you have to do is check what kind of business registration you’ll need. Depending on your state, a sole proprietorship is a cheap and easy way to get started. If you have other goals in mind, incorporating might be the right decision for you from a tax and legal perspective. While most freelancers start with sole proprietorships because they are easy to set up, you may want to talk to an accountant or lawyer if you think you have additional needs better served with a corporation.
Thinking of your work as an offering
When you’re an employee, you trade labor for wages. That labor is usually put to a specific task - for example, graphic design - but your employer is paying for holistic access to your time, your expertise, and your work. As a freelancer, your work is an offering. You don’t trade your labor for wages. You produce outcomes with your labor that clients pay you for. The day to day is the exact same, but the mentality shift from labor to offerings or outcomes is critical because you need to price yourself differently as a freelancer more on that below).
Get ready to be every role
As a freelancer, you have every role: CEO, COO, head of sales, head of client delivery, head of client success, head of finance, manager, and employee. That’s a tough thing to do every single day. That’s why it’s important to know what you’re walking into ahead of time. Once you’ve swallowed that reality and gotten used to it, think about order of operations and do one thing at a time. For instance, on a sales call, you’re the head of sales. On a client kickoff, you’re the head of client delivery. When working on a project, you’re an employee. And the list goes on.
Get comfortable selling
Selling as a freelancer can be very tough, since you’re not just talking about what ‘your business’ can do for a client but you’re actually talking about yourself and your labor. That can be a weird experience for new freelancers. This challenge is more easily overcome when you think about your work as an offering, since then you can talk about what your ‘offering’ can do for clients and remove yourself from the equation (which helps down the line if you get rejected or get negative feedback, since it’s easier to not take personally).
Build a Portfolio
Graphic designers need a high quality portfolio to showcase that you’re able to design what you say you design. With that in mind, portfolios need to demonstrate both tangible skills and intangible skills.
Tangible skills needed by a graphic designer:
- Use of a given platform or software (such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch, Affinity, or Canva Pro)
- Ability to create a certain type of web page or digital experience
- Overall look and feel of your work
Intangible skills in freelancing:
- Project management
- Time management
- Design eye
- Sticking to project plans or stated outcomes
You can easily demonstrate tangible skills by putting up examples of your work, both personal and professional. Intangible skills come in the descriptions you put in your portfolio and how you explain the portfolio on sales calls, or both. Things such as talking about a client’s needs and how you responded, or sharing a story about a personal passion that you created a design for will help communicate the intangibles.
A portfolio can also come in a variety of structures:
- Keep a list of private links and share them out as people ask
- Make a personal website to showcase your best work (recommended!)
- Use a portfolio management tool like Adobe Portfolio or Google Sites
One note about portfolios: sometimes, your best work is ghost work done for a client. If you can, add a clause in your contract that you can share work samples privately (more on that below). If that’s not an option, then make sure you have permission from clients before sharing work samples or putting things up in a public portfolio.
Cultivating a brand
While a portfolio is helpful in sales calls, it may not bring potential clients from across the United States to your door. That’s where cultivating a brand comes in. The more well known you are in your space, the easier it becomes for people to find you and for others in your network to refer business your way.
If you’re totally new to freelancing, you only need to worry about three core elements of building a personal brand:
- Your personal website
- Social media
- Forums and platforms
Building a website
Your website is meant to do three things: introduce who you are, clearly explain your industry experience (and the type of clients you work with), and make it easy for people to get in touch with you. That’s it. In the case of being a freelance graphic designer, your website design is also the first image that potential clients will have of you. With that in mind, make sure it’s well-designed in your signature style.
You can treat your website almost like your own personal graphic design resume. List out the accomplishments you've achieved in your career so far, what skills you've developed, and the types of projects you've worked on.
Being active on the internet - social media being the most common place - is usually a good thing for your brand. But even if you don’t want to engage on social media from a business perspective, then at least make sure your personal social media accounts won’t deter clients from you. This doesn’t mean you can’t share personal opinions, but make sure you’re comfortable with potential clients reading those opinions. It may not be fair sometimes, but people can make quick decisions about someone based on their social media profiles. If you’re just starting out in freelancing, make sure you’re putting out an image you’re comfortable with online.
If you do want to leverage social media to build your business network, think about key ways that people engage on major platforms:
- LinkedIn: Responding or comments on popular status updates plus natively blogging on the platform
- Twitter: Twitter chats, threads, and sharing your (sometimes controversial) opinions or experiences
- Facebook: Private, niche interest groups see a lot of engagement
Forums and other platforms
Aside from the major social networks, there are a bunch of forums and platforms built just for graphic designers to meet, network, and in many cases share freelance project opportunities.
Here are a few of the big forums made just for freelance designers:
- Graphic Design Forum (GDF)
- Designer Hangout
- Graphic Designers (Facebook Group)
- WebDesignerForum (A UK-based community)
- How Design Live
- Stack Overflow
The key to success in these communities is to figure out what they are for and engage appropriately. Some are for website accessibility, others for making friends, etc. - if you poke around a bit, read the rules, and follow along, you’ll be much more successful in building community and learning from peers. You also don’t have to engage in every community all the time. For example, you may only pop into Stack Overflow when you have coding problems (cause that’s what it’s primarily for). Since a graphic designer won't code much, if at all, that means you likely won’t spend too much time in Stack Overflow - and that’s totally fine. Instead, you might collaborate with web designers (either from a client or your employer) to handle any code issues.
Setting your prices
Knowing what to charge as a freelancer can sometimes feel like an experiment. Ideally, your rates will provide you with a comfortable, profitable business without burning you out. Further, these rates have to be enough in line with client outcomes that you don’t have angry clients at your door wondering why they paid so much.
With that in mind, a freelance graphic designer has three primary pricing strategies:
- Project-based (also called outcome-based or deliverable-based)
This is the ideal option for freelance work because it’s the best balance of client incentives and freelancer incentives. To get to project-based pricing, you have to scope a project with a clear beginning and end. Further, that end is usually defined as a specific outcome that the client wants. Then you put a single price on it.
The client benefits because they pay one price and get a predetermined outcome that they want. You benefit as a freelancer because your earning potential is not harmed if you become more efficient. You can also outsource work more efficiently with a project-based model because you didn’t sell your labor, you sold an outcome.
Hourly pricing can be great for ad-hoc additions and other work that requires flexibility. For instance, if you start with project-based pricing but there’s a small additional thing that’s hard to scope, you can add a couple hours onto the project with an hourly rate. Further, you can use hourly rates when the ‘outcome’ is time, for example sitting in a client meeting.
The problem with hourly pricing is it pits client incentives against you as a freelancer. If they are paying hourly, they want you to finish as quickly as possible so they pay less. On the other side, you technically benefit when you work slowly. Many freelancers who work with hourly rates will pre-scope projects (for instance, signing a contract that one deliverable will take X hours), but then you open yourself up to a client who nitpicks on how long you’ve scoped, arguing that you may have said 10 hours but they think it should only take 8, so they don’t want to pay for 10. It’s a back and forth no freelancer wants to be in.
Retainers - daily, weekly, or monthly - are great for highly complex or widely varying work that is ongoing but difficult to scope. In this model, you get paid a flat fee to show up much like an employee would and work through a list of tasks. There’s some incentive alignment here because clients know their flat rate (like project pricing) and you get a known amount of revenue for your work.
The key here is pricing retainer rates high enough that you are making money without being so expensive that your client may as well just hire someone in-house. A good rule of thumb is to see what an employee would earn for the same basket of tasks and double it. That accounts for the fact that you often have to provide your own technology as a freelancer and you have to manage your own expenses and business admin, things that employees don’t have to worry about.
Mixing pricing strategies
You can always mix pricing strategies, whether using multiple with one client or changing it up client to client. The key is to make sure you’re comfortable with the rates and they work for you - otherwise you risk burning out trying to make a sustainable living. Remember to review industry benchmarks for illustrator salaries and rates before setting your own price.
Also, don’t be afraid to experiment with raising your prices. Just because you started at X doesn’t mean you can’t go to 2X once you gain more experience. The trick is to only raise prices on new clients, giving existing and ongoing clients a bit more time before you circle back and raise rates on them. And when you do, only do it for future work - never go back on a signed contract.
Where to find freelance graphic design jobs
There are three main ways to find freelance graphic design jobs:
- Job boards
- Freelancer marketplaces and niche design job communities
- Your network
A lot of companies are posting freelance graphic design jobs (often ongoing work) on job boards just like they post full-time employment. Here are a few to check out:
Marketplaces and niche design job communities
Major freelance marketplaces can be a solid way to find graphic design jobs. They are similar to job boards, but focus only on freelance work.
You never know who is looking to hire for freelance graphic design jobs - or knows someone who is. Make sure all your social pages are updated (which you did above in the branding section) and don’t be afraid to let people know you’re looking for work.
The key to telling people you’re open to referrals is to make it about them solving someone else’s problem. So instead of saying “Hey can you refer clients to me?” say, “If you know someone looking for graphic design work, I’d be happy to chat with them.”
If you want to make your ask for freelancer referrals even stronger, be more specific about what kind of client you want to work with. Instead of just saying you’ll chat with anyone looking for graphic design work, be explicit: “If you know any startups looking for freelance graphic design work, I’d be happy to chat with them.”
The easier you make it for people to refer you - both by having professional, public-facing pages like your website or LinkedIn and being clear on what type of client you help - the more likely it is that your network will send work your way.
Closing clients efficiently (4 tips to implement)
Once you’ve got a call booked - from a job posting, marketplace, or network referral - here are the four things you need to think of:
- The right sales call agenda
- How to talk about the value you offer
- Sending a proposal
- Dealing with pushback
The right sales call agenda
A sales call needs to accomplish three things (in this order): introductions, help you learn about your prospect’s challenges, and give you an opportunity to explain how your services might solve those challenges or honestly admit you aren’t a fit to help them and move on. The problem is that many freelancers focus on talking about themselves or their offerings before understanding a prospect’s problems - this is when you inevitably get a high fail rate in sales calls.
Talking about the value you offer
Cultivating a good freelancer mindset means knowing your work has value regardless of the client. As a freelance graphic designer, your beautiful creations stand on their own. In sales, however, you have to talk about your value in context. A rule of thumb to remember is people don’t care about what you do, they care about their problems. So the more you understand their problems, the more you can position your work not as “what you do” but as the solution they’ve been waiting for.
Sending a proposal
Many prospects will ask you for prices on a sales call. That’s fine, since they are just trying to understand the project’s potential cost. However, be careful about providing exact pricing on a phone call. Since freelance work is often custom-scoped, it’s usually better to avoid pricing (or just provide a typical price range), then follow up with a proposal email after the fact. This gives you room to consider all options and provide an honest scope, which avoids problems later of needing multiple add-ons so the final price is way above the initial proposal. If a prospect pushes for pricing on a call, give a general range and explain what levers affect price. From there, say you will provide a written proposal after the call. That way the prospect leaves the call with some information to share with their finance team but you get time to think things through.
Dealing with pushback
When you focus on outcomes, it’s easy to deal with pushback on prices. When a prospect says that they want a discount, you can respond with “this is the price for this outcome. If budget is a concern, let’s talk about what we can reduce from this outcome to lower the overall price.” It helps here if you have multiple offerings as well, since you can easily point to a lower tier offering.
Ensuring you set up business admin tools
Business admin is perhaps the most annoying part of freelancing. Even if you enjoy admin work, it’s time that doesn’t produce revenue. The best thing you can do is optimize three areas where business admin can take a huge amount of time:
- Business banking and bookkeeping
- Creating and sending invoices
- Accepting payments
Business banking and bookkeeping
Always open a business account for your freelancing business. Even if you transfer 100% of the profit over to your personal account, having a separate account will save you hours during tax season when it comes to tracking expenses and other tax deductions. There are many free business bank account options available on the market, so make sure you have one.
Creating and sending invoices
If you don’t send invoices, you can’t get paid. But designing them from scratch is a huge waste of time. Instead, use a free invoicing tool so you can quickly spin up an invoice template that matches your branding and easily make invoices for all clients. For ongoing clients, you also want to make sure you can schedule invoices for even more admin automation.
You have to make it easy for clients to pay you. Whether that’s accepting credit card, bank transfers, or opening up other payment gateways, it’s critical. Ideally, you should work with a system that lets you accept payments directly from your invoices, providing the ultimate convenience for clients.
Including the right contract clauses
Here are some typical clauses to include in your contracts:
- Payment terms: When a customer must pay you by. A common clause is Net-30, meaning the customer has to pay you within 30 days of the invoice date.
- Deliverables: Clearly stating what you will do for a client or produce for them.
- Late fees: If you charge late fees, make sure they are clearly stated.
- Permission to share: This clause gives you the right to privately share any ghost work you do, so you can still have a portfolio to share with potential clients.
- IP ownership: This clause explains that you own the intellectual property (IP) from the project until the client pays their invoice.
All of these clauses are common amongst freelancers, but may or may not apply in your circumstances. Always be sure to check with your lawyer to see what you may need for your context and projects.
Handling clients is a function of setting expectations, communicating, managing bad clients, and accepting feedback.
Expectations start in your sales calls. When you’re explaining the value you create, you also briefly explain how you work and what you need from a client to make the project successful. You can also explain any project-specific things such as access to client files, regular meetings, and timelines.
You can elaborate on all this during a kickoff call or email, in particular explaining any dependencies and how they may affect deliverables.
In general, the more you communicate the better. But there are two caveats to this: 1) if your client asked you for a specific communications timeline or cadence, and 2) not all communication has to be manual.
If a client asks for a specific cadence, follow it unless there’s an emergency. But ‘communication’ does not always mean booking a call or writing an email. For example, you can set up a client dashboard where they can click a link to see the status of your project at any time (you can do this for free in tools like Airtable).
Dealing with bad clients
Often clients aren’t ‘bad’ so much as communicating poorly or not following expectations. If you hit a snag with a client, first make sure you’ve set the expectation they are breaking. For instance, you can’t be mad at a client for not sending you something you never asked for. If the expectation has been set, professional follow ups usually solve the problem. This is also where having good contract clauses helps, since you can lean on them to remind everyone of their obligations.
If you’ve got a client that’s making personal accusations or insults, you do not have to stand for that. You can kindly remind them to be professional and focus on the work - if they don’t change, fire them.
Not all clients will love your work. Or sometimes you will mess up. That’s ok. The key with feedback is to find the useful bits and throw out the rest. If getting feedback tenses you up at the start, don’t respond immediately (waiting a day is a good rule of thumb to let your emotions cool).
If you’re in a situation where the client is mad about a deliverable, get confirmation on what they want to see before rushing to work again. For requests that are way out of scope, you have a right to remind the client. For requests that are in scope but seem really odd, take a mental note to ask future clients about the request so there’s no confusion going forward.
Scaling and growth
Once you’ve got a stable roster of clients, you can grow in a wide variety of ways. Here are some of the most common:
- Partnerships: Work with other freelancers in different niches to take on larger projects together.
- Raising your rates: If you’ve got a lot of client demand, raise your rates. You’ll either see some client demand drop off but you’ll make up the revenue with higher prices, or everyone will pay you more.
- Implementing project minimums: Instead of taking any client on, force clients to commit to a bigger project size to start. This will help you focus your resources and minimize mentally jumping from client to client.
- Press and interviews: If you’ve done some cool work, you may be able to get featured in niche blogs or even mainstream media, which could help with more demand for your services.
- Products and courses: If you’ve built up a good base of knowledge, consider teaching people with paid courses or masterclasses. Similarly, you can create and sell ‘design kits’ to help other people fast-track their design with your style.
Dealing with taxes as a freelance graphic designer
Even with great business admin set up, taxes can be a nuisance. If you don’t have the budget to hire an accountant, here’s what you need to think about:
- Receipt management: Use a digital receipt management tool so you don’t have to worry about keeping receipts in a shoebox or overflowing envelope.
- Setting aside money for taxes: A rule of thumb is to set aside 25% of your income immediately for taxes. However, depending on your earnings you may want to set aside more or less.
- Tax deductions and expenses: Keep track of all expenses you have for your business (software, meals, etc.) because you might be able to use them to reduce your tax bill.
Personal money management
Even though freelancing is an individual business, you still need to separate your personal finances from the business:
- Don’t forget about retirement: Just because freelancing isn’t traditional employment doesn’t mean you’ll want to do it forever. Think about tax-advantaged retirement accounts like a 401k or Roth-IRA to help you grow a nest-egg while freelancing.
- Paying yourself a ‘salary’: If your business is earning a good amount of money, consider paying yourself a regular salary. This can help you keep a consistent personal financial plan and help with tax planning.
- Creating a rainy day / emergency fund: Freelancing can ebb and flow. Make sure you have some cash set aside for life’s emergencies if you hit a low income month.
- Not forgetting about other financial goals: If you want to buy a car, house, or have other financial goals, keep contributing to them!
Mentorship and ongoing learning
Learning never stops, even after you start making a lot of money. Thankfully there are a lot of opportunities to learn. Embrace every method you can (and that works for you), including: taking UX design courses, reading blogs, sharing your journey online and asking for feedback, paying for a coach to help with a specific problem, or finding a mentor that can help you in higher level ways.
The key to learning is to chase a few different types:
- Learning for your passions
- Learning for its own sake
- Learning for specific skills
As you gain more experience freelancing, you might find learning specific skills slows down a bit. While you keep up with new developments in your field, you will also have more time to explore your passions and curiosities.
A final word
In freelance graphic design, like any freelance business, there will be ups and downs. Unfortunately, even following all the best advice perfectly is not a guarantee of success. But one common trait amongst all successful freelancers is that they kept working through difficulty and were open to trying new things. So as you embark on your journey, remember that you’re likely to hit rough patches here and there. However, it does not mean you won’t succeed. Just keeping working and be flexible in your approach until you find something that works for you.