Becoming a freelance graphic designer is a lucrative career path for many with a creative mindset – and of course creative skills. But it can be a daunting thought to take on the self-employed life. So, I’ve put together a comprehensive guide to help you understand what it takes to become a freelance graphic designer.
The 10 steps to becoming a freelance graphic designer are:
- Develop your graphic design skills
- Build a strong design portfolio
- Choose your niche
- Set up your workspace
- Legalize your freelance business
- Market yourself effectively
- Build out your network
- Price your services
- Manage your finances
- Deliver outstanding work
Below, I’ll go through these steps in more detail, providing actionable tips and advice along the way. But first, let’s outline the role of a freelance graphic designer so you can get a feel for whether it’s the right career choice for you.
What Is A Freelance Graphic Designer?
A freelance graphic designer is a creative professional who offers graphic design services on a project basis, independently, and without being tied to a single employer. Here are the key aspects that define the role:
Independence: Unlike in-house graphic designers who work for a specific company, freelance graphic designers have the freedom to choose their clients and projects. This independence allows you to diversify your portfolio and work on a variety of exciting projects.
Project-Based Work: As a freelancer, you’ll typically work on a project-to-project basis. Clients hire you to design specific materials, such as logos, websites, brochures, or social media graphics. Once you finish one project, you move on to the next one.
Creative Freedom: Freelancing gives you the creative freedom to express your unique design style. You have the flexibility to choose the projects that align with your interests and showcase your skills.
Flexible Schedule: Freelancers have the advantage of setting their own work schedules. While this flexibility allows for a better work-life balance, it also requires self-discipline and time management to meet project deadlines.
Self-Employment: As a freelance graphic designer, you are essentially running your own small business. This means you’ll be responsible for tasks like invoicing, managing finances, and marketing your services. Understanding the business side of freelancing is as important as honing your design skills.
Continuous Learning: The graphic design field is constantly evolving, with new design trends, software, and technologies emerging regularly. Freelance graphic designers must stay updated with industry changes and continuously enhance their skills to remain competitive.
Now that you have a clear understanding of what it means to be a freelance graphic designer, I’ll go through the steps to become one.
How To Start Freelance Graphic Design
1. Develop Your Graphic Design Skills
It should go without saying – to succeed as a freelance graphic designer, you must have a strong foundation in graphic design. Invest time in learning and honing your skills. This may involve formal education, online courses, freelance graphic design books, tutorials, or self-guided practice.
Familiarize yourself with industry-standard design software such as Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign). The specific tools you use will obviously depend on your own preferences, the specific services you want to offer, and what your potential clients need.
Ideally you’ll have some experience working with the tools already. But you can pick up a lot of it on the way. As long as you can deliver high-quality work while doing so and meet your clients’ needs, you don’t need to be an expert right away!
2. Build A Strong Design Portfolio
Next, create a portfolio that you can use to showcase your best work. Include a variety of projects, rather than just a bunch of the same things – this will showcase your true range of design skills. If you’re just starting, consider personal projects or pro bono work to populate your portfolio.
I don’t recommend doing a lot of this, but being honest, it’s often a must if you’re a total beginner. Most freelance clients will request some sort of samples of your work before hiring you. And if you’ve never freelanced before, you’ll need to create some experience for yourself!
There are dedicated platforms out there for building your portfolio, like Dribbble, but I recommend considering building your own website. There are lots of great website builders for freelancers, and it doesn’t require coding knowledge to get started!
3. Choose Your Niche
Deciding on a niche or specialization within graphic design will help you narrow down your target market. Examples of niches include branding, web design, print media, illustration, or packaging design.
But you could go a step further. Perhaps you plan to offer logo design for small businesses, or packaging design for clients in the fashion industry. There is a lot of scope for niching down here, but don’t be afraid to go a little broader at first as you find your true skill set.
4. Set Up Your Workspace
Create a dedicated workspace that is comfortable and conducive to creativity. Ensure you have the necessary hardware and software tools, a reliable computer, a high-quality monitor, and a graphic tablet if needed.
The specific things you need will depend once again on the specific services you offer – and of course your budget. You don’t need a top-end set of tools that cost an arm and a leg if your work isn’t going to be that graphically intensive.
5. Legalize Your Freelance Business
Register your freelance business and obtain any necessary licenses or permits in your area. Consider forming a legal structure (sole proprietorship, LLC, etc.) and open a separate business bank account for business transactions.
I’m not offering financial or legal advice here, and a lot of this will depend on the specific tax requirements in your country and whether or not you’ll need a business license. If you’re going to operate as a sole trader/sole proprietor without a physical business location, you typically don’t need to go through as much of the processes as you might if you operate as an LLC.
6. Market Yourself Effectively
You also need to create a professional website showcasing your services. This can be a very simple thing, created on a platform like Wix or Squarespace, or you can go the WordPress route. As I mentioned above, you definitely don’t need to be a programmer here. But I do recommend having your own website as it’ll look more professional and it can boost your overall online visibility.
Also use social media platforms like Instagram and LinkedIn to showcase your work and connect with potential clients. Instagram and TikTok can be great for freelance graphic designers because they’re so visual-focused.
7. Build Out Your Network
Consider attending industry events, workshops, and meetups to network with other professionals in your field. Building a network can lead to valuable collaborations and client referrals.
It can definitely be daunting, and it’s not always going to be worth it. When choosing events to attend, make sure you pick ones that actually have the potential to benefit you as a freelancer.
8. Price Your Services
Determining your pricing can be tough as a beginner freelancer. You need to research industry standard rates and consider factors like your experience, expertise, and the complexity of each project. Be transparent about your pricing with clients and provide clear quotes.
Browse forums to see what people in your space charge, and consider looking at online freelance marketplaces for examples. But be sure to match up the rates with the experience of the freelancer – don’t go into this expecting to charge top dollar right away!
Pro Tip: If you’re looking in forums and other communities for pricing examples, make sure they’re up to date. Rates can change a lot in a matter of years due to things like inflation.
9. Manage Your Finances
Make sure you keep accurate financial records, including income and expenses. Consider hiring an accountant or using accounting software to help with tax filings – but this is definitely not a must.
You can keep on top of things by yourself with a little bit of determination and spreadsheet savvy. Or you can use a tool like Bonsai, which can take care of your expenses, taxes, and much more.
10. Deliver Outstanding Work
Finally, strive for excellence in every project. While this is a bit of a general tip, it can definitely be thought of as a step in the process to becoming a freelance graphic designer. If you don’t deliver high-quality results, you will struggle to keep and get new clients.
Meeting deadlines, communicating effectively with clients, and delivering high-quality work can help you build your reputation and lead to repeat business. Over time, as you build your client base and reputation, you’ll find that the freelance life can be both creatively fulfilling and financially rewarding. But how do you get those first few clients?
How To Find Freelance Graphic Design Jobs
You can find freelance graphic design jobs in many different ways. Some are better for beginners, while others are a little more advanced. I outline some of the best ways below.
Online Job Platforms
- Freelance Websites: You can use freelance job platforms like Upwork, Freelancer, Fiverr (how I got started as a freelancer), and Guru. Create a compelling profile on each, showcase your portfolio, and bid on relevant projects. Note that these are more ‘general’ freelance marketplaces – see below for more design-focused ones.
- Job Boards: Visit job boards such as Indeed and Glassdoor. You can filter search results by freelance or remote positions.
- Specialized Design Websites: Explore websites like Behance, Dribbble, and 99designs, where you can showcase your work and connect with potential clients.
- Social Media: Follow and engage with companies and individuals in your niche on social media platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter (now X), and Instagram. Share your work and participate in design-related discussions to increase your visibility.
- Local Design Events: Attend design-related events, workshops, and conferences in your area. Networking with fellow designers and professionals can lead to freelance opportunities – and you will likely just meet a lot of great people!
- Online Design Communities: Join online design forums, groups, and communities where you can share your expertise, seek advice, and possibly find job referrals. Just don’t be too self-promotional in these spaces – that’s not what they’re for.
- Personal Contacts: Reach out to your personal and professional contacts. Let friends and family know that you’re offering freelance design services. You never know who might be able to point you in the direction of a new client!
- Email Marketing: Create a professional email signature and send personalized emails to potential clients, local businesses, or startups that may need graphic design services. Note that this one is going to result in a lot of rejection, and it requires perseverance.
- Direct Mail: This one might immediately seem a little outdated, but it can actually work well for freelance graphic design. Consider sending physical postcards or portfolios to local businesses or prospects who may appreciate tangible samples of your work.
Portfolio / Website
- Build & Optimize Your Website: I’ve said it a few times now, but definitely consider creating a website to showcase your work and offer your services. Ensure your website is search engine optimized (SEO) to increase its visibility on search engines like Google. Appearing in search results can drive significant traffic – and potential clients – to your website.
Finding freelance graphic design jobs can take time and persistence. But once you get those first few clients, it can be so motivating! I’ve alluded to the question of needing experience already – but let’s now answer the big question directly.
Can You Become A Freelance Graphic Designer With No Experience?
You can become a freelance graphic designer with no prior professional experience, but it does come with some challenges. You’ll also obviously need graphic design experience and skills, even if you have no experience selling them.
When you’re just starting, focus on building a strong foundation in graphic design. Invest time in learning essential design principles, mastering design software, and practicing your skills. You can create your own pet projects for fun – and they can serve as portfolio pieces too!
These can be anything from redesigning a logo for a local business, creating marketing materials for a nonprofit organization, or designing a personal branding project. These self-initiated projects will demonstrate your creativity and skills to potential clients, even if you might not have thought of them as traditional experience.
The Importance Of Networking
Networking becomes especially important when you’re starting with no experience. Building relationships with others in the space can lead to mentorship opportunities, collaborations, or referrals for freelance work.
Offering Work With Limited Experience
Consider offering your services at a lower rate initially to gain practical experience and build your portfolio. Look for small projects or local businesses that may be more willing to take a chance on a new designer. As you gain experience and positive client feedback, you can gradually increase your rates.
On that note – how much do freelance graphic designers make?
How Much Do Freelance Graphic Designers Make?
The income of freelance graphic designers can vary widely depending on several factors, making it difficult to provide an exact figure. However, I can offer a general range to give you an idea of what you can expect to make:
- Entry-level freelance graphic designers might earn around $15 to $30 per hour. Keep in mind that beginners often charge lower rates as they build their portfolios and gain experience. These rates are also common on freelance marketplaces.
- Freelancers with a few years of experience and a solid portfolio can typically command rates ranging from $30 to $50 per hour.
- Experienced freelance graphic designers, especially those with specialized skills or niches, can earn $50 to $100 or more per hour. Some highly skilled and well-established freelancers charge even higher rates.
Different Ways To Charge
There are also different ways you can charge clients as a freelance graphic designer. When charging on a project basis, freelance graphic designers often set flat fees that can range from a few hundred dollars for simple projects to several thousand dollars or more for complex, comprehensive design work. Some clients may prefer this to hourly rates.
It’s important to note that factors such as location, market demand, specialization, and your negotiation skills can all influence the rates a freelance graphic designer can charge. You must also consider expenses, such as software subscriptions and other overhead costs, when determining your potential income.
Is It Hard To Be A Freelance Graphic Designer?
Becoming a freelance graphic designer can definitely be hard, but some will find it easier than others. There are also different aspects of freelancing that present their own unique challenges, but the number one challenge will be finding clients.
Client Acquisition: Getting clients, especially when you’re just starting, can be a big hurdle. Building a sustainable client base takes time, effort, and effective marketing strategies. I set out some of the best ways to find freelance graphic design clients earlier in this article.
Skill Development: Another one of the initial challenges is developing a strong graphic design skill set. Learning design principles, mastering design software, and staying updated with industry trends require time and dedication. Building and refining your design skills is essential for success – and it’s a continuous process.
Competition: The graphic design industry is also highly competitive. There are plenty of talented designers vying for freelance opportunities. Standing out in this crowded field can be challenging. You’ll need to find your unique selling points, whether it’s a distinctive style, niche expertise, or innovative approach.
Managing Finances: Freelancers are responsible for their own financial management, including tracking income, expenses, and taxes. This aspect can be challenging, particularly if you’re new to self-employment. Consider seeking financial advice or using accounting software (like Bonsai mentioned above) to stay organized – and within the law!
Variable Income: Freelance income can fluctuate a lot. Some months may be financially rewarding, while others might be lean (to say the least!). Creating a stable financial plan and budgeting for irregular income can help alleviate this challenge, but there is always the possibility of dry spells as a freelancer.
Is Freelance Graphic Design The Right Career For You?
If you love design, and have self-discipline, the challenges I’ve listed above may be easy enough to overcome – or to at least deal with in the long term. It never gets ‘easy’ as you’ll always be looking for clients and delivering high-quality work.
But just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable and very rewarding – in fact it’s typically the opposite. If you’re interested in going down this career path and want more guidance, check out my article all about how to become a freelancer.