Becoming a freelance graphic designer can lead to a creatively fulfilling and fast-paced career working with clients you love, but this doesn’t happen overnight. Successful graphic designers have spent a lot of energy building a solid portfolio of work that displays their range and versatility. They’ve also cultivated relationships with clients who love what they do.
It’s a lot of work, but there’s a lot of room for new graphic designers to break into the job market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, freelance graphic designers will see steady growth through at least 2030.
So if you’ve been interested in starting a freelance graphic design business, this article will walk you through the process. I’m going to cover gaining the necessary skills, all about clients, the business side of things, scaling your business, and more.
How to become a freelance graphic designer in 2023
1. Gaining experience
The old way of becoming a graphic designer was that you needed a bachelor’s degree if you wanted to get hired by an agency or art department, but that’s no longer the case.
Sure, having formal training and a degree can be an asset. You’ll gain valuable connections, work in a variety of media, and the clout that comes with a fancy degree certainly helps. Your degree also shows commitment to the industry.
However, the growing freelance industry has proven that you can be successful with an unconventional education. There are so many different avenues for gaining the skills necessary to become a freelance graphic designer, from online courses, evening classes, and even buying software and becoming self-taught.
An unconventional education still takes time and commitment, but the point is that a degree is no longer necessary. Instead, spend some time looking at online courses on platforms like Skillshare, and look for project-driven courses with lots of positive reviews.
If you’re doing the self-taught route, you’ll want to invest in PhotoShop, InDesign, and Illustrator programs. Those all come through the Adobe Creative Suite, which isn’t cheap, but it’s necessary. The Affinity suite (Designer, Photo, and Publisher) is another popular program for graphic designers.
Whatever path you choose, you need hands-on experience with tools you’ll be using in the real world.
2. Create your brand
Graphic designers are artists, and every artist has a personal style. Some designers are known for bold graphics, nostalgic vibes, minimalism, or over-the-top and intricate patterns. Your design aesthetic is your brand, and it’s what clients will come to know you for.
You don’t have to pick a style and stick with it forever — that’s a lot of unnecessary pressure. But you do need to start developing your brand aesthetic.
One idea is to start thinking about the kinds of clients you’re naturally drawn to. Or, who are your dream clients?
For example, if sneaker giant Nike is your dream client, think about how your design aesthetic will align with that company. What will your brand bring to Nike? Brand and design aesthetics become even more important if you think about how Nike compares to Vans, another massive sneaker company. Even though they’re both huge companies selling very similar products, they have a completely different vibe and client base.
Your brand is a living thing, and it’s okay for it to evolve. But you’ve got to start somewhere.
3. Get your business in order
This is one of the least exciting parts about becoming a graphic designer (or any kind of freelancer), and it’s tackling the business end of things.
When you’re self-employed as a freelancer, you are running a business. The sooner you start treating it like a business, the better. That means there’s paperwork, taxes, planning, etc. Like I said, not super exciting stuff. But it honestly helps you run your business for long-term success.
Here’s what you want to focus on:
- Business structure: Many freelancers go with an LLC because they’re easy to start and protect your personal assets from any business debts or legal issues. You’ll want to look into the requirements for your state, but this article will help you get started — How To Start An LLC in 7 Steps.
- Set money aside for taxes: The general rule is that you’ll need to set 30% of your income aside for self-employment taxes. That’s if you’re an independent contractor. Learn more in Filing Small Busines Taxes For The First Time: Tips to Get It Right.
- Look into work permits: This won’t apply to every freelancer, but some places require permits to work from home.
- Start keeping track of your finances: Bookkeeping needs to start as soon as possible. It will help you pay your taxes and keep track of your income. You can use bookkeeping software, like QuickBooks, and you may eventually want to hire an accountant. You should be tracking how much money comes in and how much goes out.
4. Develop an online presence
Your online presence — social media and website or blog — can be used when you’re finding clients, so it’s best to start developing that from the very beginning. You’ll be able to use social media to network with other graphic designers and connect with potential clients. And your website or blog can be used to display your work, like an online portfolio.
There are lots of social media platforms to choose from, and there will always be new ones, so start with one you’re comfortable with. You don’t need to use or master all of them now, or ever.
Instagram is an obvious choice for graphic designers because it’s such an image-heavy platform. Follow your favorite designers, companies, and hashtags. In addition, you can share personal projects that you’re working on in the beginning so potential clients can get to know your style and brand.
Your website or blog
It’s easier than ever to build a professional-looking website, and it can be a huge asset for freelancers. Your website will be a place for potential clients to get to know more about you, have a place to contact you, and check out your portfolio.
Your website can be super simple initially, and I highly recommend building a WordPress site hosted on Bluehost. You can start your site for as little as $2.95/month, and you’ll also have the option to add a blog, which can add some personality or eventually turn into an additional income stream.
This tutorial can help you start building your website today.
5. Build your portfolio
Depending on the path you took to become a freelance graphic designer (formal art school or the self-taught route), you may have a decent-sized portfolio to begin with. Now, if you don’t have much work to show, that’s okay, but it means it’s time for you to start making some.
Your portfolio needs to display your range of work, your versatility, and your professionalism. And here are some ideas for adding to your portfolio:
- Talk to your friends: If any of your friends run small businesses, reach out and ask if you can help with new marketing materials, a logo, a rebrand, etc. Working with friends can be difficult, but you’d both be helping each other out.
- Design mock ads, logos, or mastheads: Take existing products and services and design new materials.
- Redesign book covers: Create new visuals for your favorite books, movies, or magazines.
- Create faux press kits: Press kits (sometimes known as media kits) are used by brands and influencers for product launches, special event, acquisitions, etc. They should include information about the company, branding, FAQs, press photos, and more. You can create a press kit for yourself or do mock-ups for other brands.
Building your portfolio is really getting to the heart of what you’ll do as a freelance graphic designer, so it’s going to be fun. But don’t have a “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” attitude. You need to design with intention — find holes in your portfolio and fill them.
6. Find clients
Your trajectory may not be as linear as this guide suggests, and I know freelancers who start before they’ve officially established their business or a portfolio. Sometimes jobs fall into your lap or you see an opportunity and go after it — that’s okay! I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to think that a step-by-step path is the only way forward, especially if you have a chance to pick up clients early on in your career.
Now that I’ve said that, let’s talk about finding clients.
Use your network
Your network is your circle of friends, family, neighbors, work colleagues, old classmates, past roommates, social media contacts, etc. There’s a lot of potential in your network, so leverage it.
Reach out and announce that you’re starting a freelance graphic design business. Never be pushy, but just let them know what you’re up to and that you’d be happy to gain any leads.
Try freelance job sites
There are some legitimate freelance job platforms where you can create a profile, list your services, and connect with potential clients. They all work a little differently as some require you to pay for a membership, while others don’t. Upwork is a really popular choice and this article on Upwork alternatives can help you find other options.
Pitch potential clients
Never be afraid to reach out to clients directly. It can be a little nerve-wracking to send a cold email, but sometimes it works. Of course, you should only pitch clients you know something about, so do your research.
You’re ideally going with a solution to a problem. Think about how you can differentiate yourself and what you’re offering them. You want to be direct, succinct, and do not beg them for work. If you don’t hear something back in a week, you can send a follow-up email.
7. Stay business-minded
As you start growing your client roster, you’ll need to stay focused on the business end of things. You spent time, in the beginning, setting your business up, but it’s something you need to check in on and nurture over time.
One of the best tips someone gave me when I started my digital marketing business was to dedicate time every week towards maintaining and growing my business. You’ll quickly get busy, and it will become difficult to find the time or energy to take care of this stuff unless you schedule it.
So what are some things you should focus on as you start your freelance graphic design business? Here’s what you’ll want to spend time doing and learning more about:
- Get paid on time: Never be shy about asking for payments. Some clients will need reminders that you’ve sent an invoice, and others will always pay on time.
- Paying clients: I shouldn’t have to say this, but there are some people who will suggest you work for free in return for exposure. You are performing a service for them and deserve to be paid for it.
- Bookkeeping: Keep track of invoices, payments, expenses, etc.
- Set money aside for taxes: I mentioned it earlier, but taxes need to be a priority. Self-employed people should save around 30% of their income for taxes.
- Think about retirement: No matter how much you enjoy being a graphic designer, one day you’ll want to retire. Start thinking about your options for retirement so you can make a savings plan.
- Set business goals: What are your short and long-term business goals? Even if it’s something like take a week-long vacation next summer, you’ll need to plan for that.
- Get it in writing: Signing a contract is an important way to protect your rights and your business. Contracts should outline the scope of your work, payment, number of revisions, and payment terms. You can typically negotiate contracts to make sure they work for both you and the client.
- Continued education: Prioritize time for developing your skill, learning new design trends, and mastering new programs. This will help you stay fresh and relevant in a fast-paced industry.
- Ask for feedback and get referrals: Start asking for feedback when you finish and project, and this will help you understand if you’re meeting all of your clients’ needs. Happy clients may be willing to pass your information along to other business owners.
- Start an email list: You may never do much with your email list, but trust me when I say that starting one is important. You can use this list to check in with past clients, let everyone know about new offerings or even awards, and you can use your list if you ever decide to take your business in a different direction.
8. Start scaling your business
You’re to the point where your business is thriving. You’ve got a steady stream of clients. You’re making good money. But now is the time to think bigger. You need to start thinking about where your business is headed and how to get there.
Go for higher-paying gigs
You’ll want to raise your rates over time (not too much at once, and not too quickly). But the reality is that if you want to make more money, you’ll need to find clients who can pay more. Now that you have the experience, you can pitch and go after clients who have more lucrative opportunities.
Focus on your dream client
Who is your dream client? I’m not saying you need to pitch them now, but you should be thinking about what you want the pinnacle of your career to look like. Thinking this way helps you scale your business in that direction.
When you start guiding your business in the direction of your dream client, you’ll start picking of skills they will require. You’ll be able to show them that you have exactly what it takes to get hired by them one day. You may even find a new dream client along the way.
Consider a new direction
One thing I’ve seen several successful freelancers do is to pivot towards teaching, coaching, or consulting. These are people who have a proven record and clearly know what they’re doing. There are online course platforms you can use to teach others how to become a freelance graphic designer. You can also coach those who are growing their business.
This path is something you can start while you’re freelancing, and it’s one reason why having a website and email list is so beneficial.
The final word on starting a freelancing graphic design business
Whether you want to become a freelance designer as a way to make extra money or it’s something you’re going into right after school, now is the time to get started. More and more companies are hiring freelancers, so the work is out there.
Focus on learning the software and tools you need to build a solid body of work, and then start looking for clients. You’ll need to keep yourself focused on things like paying taxes and learning new programs, but eventually, you’ll be ready to scale your business.
Creating a plan for the future can help you and your business thrive for years to come.