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Tips & Stories For Aspiring Graphic Design Freelancers

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For aspiring graphic designers, this piece is a compilation of some fantastic tips, advice & stories that different successful graphic designers have sent to us, which I believe is of real value (see also our piece on how to get your first freelancing job). To put this together I reached out to dozens of different graphic designers, as well as used some of the journalist sites I belong to, with the goal of getting as many different graphic designers (and graphic designers doing different types of graphic design) to comment on things like how they get clients, how they can charge a good rate, how to do great work, hidden opportunities in this field and so on.

My requirement for this piece is established graphic designers ONLY (no people just guessing and writing generic tips). If that’s you, and you’d like to share what you’ve learned, you’re very welcome to make a contribution here.

I have listed the best comments graphic designers submitted to me below, and I strongly recommend reading through each one of them if you’re getting started (or just thinking about) selling graphic design services online. Here are the main points, summarized:

  • Freelance platforms like Upwork are OK, but you can often find vastly better clients who are willing to pay much higher outside of these platforms
  • Keep putting stuff out there and working on building a portfolio
  • Add professionalism by using your own domain, Google My Business listing, a LinkedIn profile and so on
  • Joining Facebook groups can help you find great clients (link)
  • Work and partner with other freelancers (link)
  • Avoid clients fleecing you for free work by setting a max number of revisions (link)
  • Look at the best, highest-paid graphic designers in your field on sites like Behance and Dribbble, learn from them, and use these sites to show off your skills (link)
  • Consider diversifying income streams, once you have some money coming in (link)
  • Give each job everything you’ve got, and pay attention to the details (link)

My biggest piece of advice would be that freelance platforms are not the be-all and end-all. Yes, you can make money from Upwork and other platforms, but a vast % of clients on those platforms are looking for price. Making connections with people who value design will yield far more valuable contracts.

Back in 2015, I went to MozCon in Seattle, one of the world’s biggest digital marketing conferences. It was with a marketer, so to me most of it was over my head. But I proactively used my design skills to share notes from the speakers on Twitter, which were well received.

Then, two days in, I wrote an article about being a non-marketer at one of the world’s biggest marketing conferences. I posted this in the official Facebook group, very nervously, and it got hundreds of likes and shares. So much so, a director at a large SEO agency reached out to me. He’d seen my post, loved my portfolio, and commissioned me to do a series of infographics, resulting in several $1000 of work.

You have to look for clients in the right places. I’m not saying you can’t make good money on freelance platforms, but unless you carve out a very specific niche, you will often be competing on price, which is a situation you don’t want to be in. Try to make connections with people in other ways, and then you can talk about how you can help them, without the top factor being price.

--Dale Johnson, Nomad Paradise

PERMALINK: https://outwittrade.com/graphic-design-freelancing-tips#dale

I have a lot of experience as a freelancer and have sold a lot of my work mainly through GraphicRiver where I'm in the top 20 sellers.

My advices to aspiring graphic designers are:

- create, create, create: don't be afraid that you are not good enough, listen to criticism, but don't let it stop you.

- sell your art both by yourself and on big marketplaces

- try to stay ahead of the pack: use alternative ways to sell your services. Recently I started using Mockofun (https://www.mockofun.com/) because it's online and it's such a great design tool and easy to use. Also, it allows me to share my work with my clients and I can easily sell my design service this way.

--John Negoita, PSDDude

PERMALINK: https://outwittrade.com/graphic-design-freelancing-tips#john

Here are my top tips for freelance designers

1) Open the playing field. It's not bad to be an expert in a specific design discipline be it print or digital but the more well rounded and versatile you are the easier it is to bring on new clients. It's also a great way to keep challenging yourself and enhancing your skills.

2) Portfolio, portfolio, portfolio. When you are not prospecting for new clients, enhance your portfolio, add new portfolio items in areas where your portfolio is lacking or weak. Organize and present your portfolio online as well as a PDF version.

3) Stay organized and streamline communication. Utilize project management tools with clients to help reduce waste, stay organized, and streamline communication when possible. This will give you more time on design, less time managing client management.

4) Proposals and payment. You will learn a lot over time on what terms work best for your clients but better proposals and automated payment systems will make a major difference in winning more business and getting paid easier. Invest in the right tools early on so you can keep yourself protected and not end up spending as much time collecting money.

5) You don't get what you don't ask for. Set up a Google My Business listing, Clutch, or other profile for your freelance agency, create a Google Form or simply enhance your LinkedIn profile. Then, when you complete a project for a client, follow-up by asking for reviews. If you did a great job, I would also ask for introductions/referrals to their network.

--Jeremy Lessaris, designed.co

PERMALINK: https://outwittrade.com/graphic-design-freelancing-tips#jeremy

I have spent a year of my life doing graphic design and I can share a huge tip on how to get the target the perfect graphic design clients:

The ideal place you want to be is:

1) Where people are launching loads of websites/brands

2) Where there are not many other graphic designers

There are a large number of Facebook groups dedicated to people trying to make money by launching websites, they are usually focused around SEO or Facebook ads but that's not what's important here. It's the large volume of ideal targets you can get in front of in a short space of time. These people are perfect because:

1) They are usually launching multiple projects

2) They usually are returning clients over the following months

3) They usually have friends doing similar things so they refer you to their marketing friends.

This can be a gold mind for graphic designers starting out and there are a lot of these groups being made all the time.

--Sidney Alexander, Digitizd

PERMALINK: https://outwittrade.com/graphic-design-freelancing-tips#sidney

Here’s one golden temp that I have for graphic designers out there.. If you want to get consistent work, especially if you’re freelancer, align yourself with freelance web designers and freelance copywriters. Web designers always need graphics to spice up a website. They may specialize in the layout and design, but they are probably not a master at logos. Copywriters need graphic designers because they are experts at writing out landing pages and pamphlets, and other marketing collateral. They need a graphic designer to add the finishing touch.

Freelancers think alike, but very few of them are jacks of all trades. Be a master of your craft and work with web designers and copywriters. Below is have an influx of work coming in, and the more you build those relationships, the more you’ll get business off of referrals, and that’s where the real sweet spot is!

--Jack Choros, Little Dragon Media

PERMALINK: https://outwittrade.com/graphic-design-freelancing-tips#jack

I've been selling graphic design and UX services online for years. Here are some of my tips:

1. Don't be a commodity. What I mean by that is, don't spend time on creating assets that everyone else can get for a couple of dollars from a marketplace (e.g. generic templates, icons and UI kits). Instead, focus on solving real business problems that truly move the needle for the companies you work with.

2. Set your prices based on value. Try to get away from hourly rates and cheap clients. If the clients invest more in your work, they are likely to value your work more as well.

3. Make sure you have a fixed set of revisions specified in your contract. If the customer wants additional revisions / iterations, charge them for it. This will save A LOT of frustration and stress, and you also avoid having to go back and forth between the same revisions over and over.

--Andreas Johansson, andreasjohanssonux.se

PERMALINK: https://outwittrade.com/graphic-design-freelancing-tips#andreas

Do what a designer does best, observe, visualise and then communicate clearly

My advice would be to avoid sites like Fiverr and Upwork etc as they tend to depreciate the value of design in general, plus you tend to compete Far more on price than skill.

Instead take a look at designers you aspire to be like in your field on design show and tell websites such as Behance or Dribbble. Note the level of skill and style in which they promote their work.

Now with this in mind develop a great looking website with case studies to promote your most recent work. If you don’t have any projects under your belt yet, you could consider redesigning something you like but feel could be given a makeover. Make sure the case studies you design show how you developed the project from concept to finished product. Include relevant information so anyone visiting the page can understand immediately the project.

Then take the visuals you have developed for your website and upload them to a Behance account and / or Dribbble / ArtStation linking back to your site. You can also use the visuals to promote on social media, again linking back to your site.

Now repeat the process, refining your skills as you go.

Remember, you can be the best designer in the world but unless you make a lot of noise, no one will know about you. So it’s time to bring the noise!

--David Robinson, DRobinson Design

PERMALINK: https://outwittrade.com/graphic-design-freelancing-tips#david

My graphic design business, Lettering Works, grossed over $120,000 last year and is predominantly an online business. I offer a mix of custom design services and design products.

I started Lettering Works four years ago after receiving startup funding from a student entrepreneurship competition at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. I spent three years running my business in Peoria and relocated to Chicago this past June.

My top tip for other graphic designers who are working to make a decent living from freelancing online is to develop self-initiated passion projects to showcase their skills and attract their ideal clients. I've personally completed a handful of passion projects including 100 Days of Peoria , Cool Beans, and Steph's Stickers, which have attracted new clients, increased my website traffic, helped me to feel creatively fulfilled, and served as my strongest portfolio pieces.

My second tip is to diversify income streams. Graphic designers have a unique ability to offer both services and original products. When developed strategically, they can go hand-in-hand to both increase overall sales, as well as serve as two unique areas to focus on. Another potential revenue stream for graphic designers is educational workshops.

--Chelsie Tamms, Lettering Works

PERMALINK: https://outwittrade.com/graphic-design-freelancing-tips#chelsie

Looking back it all seems easy, back then though looking ahead I remember feeling lost and unsure. When I first quit my job to pursue the dream I had one thousand dollars in the bank and only a few clients to keep me afloat. Fast forward a few years and debt payments after debt payments I managed to make 60K in profit last year alone. No boss, no loans, just hustle and some luck. If I knew then what I know now I would have done a few things different to get me to where I am now sooner. Money mismanagement, offloading work incorrectly, unorganized systems, all that would have been dealt with in the first few months rather than the first few years. Some of my best and favorite lessons were given to me by professionals who knew what they were talking about. Here are some of the best lessons I have for you and the hard hitting facts:

.. Save Money, Cut Costs - You and I are in this for Profit and that is lesson #1. Figure out now while your system might be small and simple on how to make more money, saving it in a separate account so you can't touch it and not spending any more of it all while getting rid of those subscription based purchases you don't need or use and regular grub hub dinners. The belief that having the best tools and best quality of life won't do you any good when you've had a slow month or two or six. A great resource on this topic in depth for anyone starting out and even those of you who are leading professionals is a book called Profit First by Mike Michalowics. Read it, it will save your butt.

.. Grow Your Inspiration Well - Keeping up to date with the latest trends will increase your value, and knowing how to look for inspiration will help you in the long run. Think of inspiration as hidden treasure. It's yours free if you can find it. Keep in mind that like currency, inspiration does run out though so a constant stream of cool new ideas will help you come up with some great designs for projects that really click with you. Not all projects will be awesome new concepts, that's just the gig, so when you have a great paying client who asks for something a little edgy and new you will be ready with some ideas from your library of inspirational concepts. This will help you close that deal and then add to your portfolio to show off for the next opportunity. I'm keen on web design so a great resource for that would be www.awwwards.com . I'm sure you can find many more like this to keep your fire going.

.. Network = Net worth - If you have money that's great and if you can grab clients off of advertising even better. Though many of you like me, when I first started out had zero, zilch, nada to invest. What I learned over the course of the first year was the importance of making friends. After 3 years I got better and better at networking, I started going to events, calling people, sharing services and building not a network but what I would call a friend group of people that share the same interest, client services. In this freelance world you will learn that word of mouth is still the most powerful form of marketing, so growing a network can really make you! A book that helped push me even further on understanding that importance was Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. It's a great read for those of you who are just starting and professionals alike.

.. Zero Ego (Customer Service) - Let's admit it, we are all human, we all want to be the best, and sometimes feel like we are better than others, and that's ok. Here is a wakeup call though, in the freelance world best does not mean successful. You are here to serve, and no pedigree or amazing artistic skills will save you from the pitfalls you are about to face. Clients want work that's worth the value, but not only that, they demand on time deliverables, proactive solutions and respect from freelancers. That is not to say don't respect yourself, your work and your sleep. This just means that no matter how great your art and skills are, if you aren't there to answer the emails, pick up the phone, are late with your work deadlines and dishonest with your clients you won't have clients to work for much longer. That means no money. Ego is not self-worth, keep your self-worth, lose the ego. You might be top cat today, but in a market like this there are hundreds if not thousands of other local freelancers who your clients could be eyeing down because they heard form so and so how well organized and how expert they are at customer service.

--Roberto DaCosta, Vibe Branding

PERMALINK: https://outwittrade.com/graphic-design-freelancing-tips#roberto

After a career as a dancer, then as a celebrity nanny in LA, graphic design was my ticket to fulfilling myself creatively while maximizing my freedom. Being able to work from home (bye bye, LA traffic!) and raise my income gave me so much more choices in life. From picking exactly were I wanted to live (hello, Colorado mountains!), being able to travel for weeks at a time while working from my laptop, to working a job that allowed me to stay creative, I was sold.

My biggest tip for beginner designers is to give every job you commit to everything you've got. Go the extra mile and pay attention to the details! Clients will appreciate your dedication to their project, give you amazing testimonials, and return to you with more projects or even new clients referred from their own networks!

Here are some of my tried and true methods to give my clients a red carpet experience from end to end that keeps them coming back for more (or referring friends!):

1) Send them a client welcome guide when they pay the initial deposit and a goodbye guide when the project is complete. Make sure that the client knows what to expect at onboarding and post-delivery--it helps keep both of you organized and excited for the work to come!

2) Send free resources that are relevant to their projects and potential--this is also a great way to pique interest and help lay some groundwork for an eventual up-sell on your own add-on services, especially if you think the project may evolve into something greater...

3) Send them a coffee gift card or other small gift when their project is completed and when they refer you to a new client. A nurtured partnership is a valued partnership that clients will remember fondly--and who doesn't like presents?

4) Always stay on top of communications! Respond within 24 hours and always be kind and professional. Avoid making the client feel negative emotions. Showing them they are wrong is a big no, no even if you are right! Instead, take accountability gracefully and come up with solutions that clearly illustrate how goals are being met.

For designers really looking to scale their business, my piece of advice that would enable you to charge more, sooner is to specialize. Choose a certain niche that you enjoy (mine is female entrepreneurs with service-based businesses) or a certain type of project (like ebooks or social media graphics). Although it might be counter-intuitive to think that narrowing your scope can lead to more clients and higher rates per job, people will pay a lot more to work with an expert in their given field than a designer who is taking on any and every type of project.

Lastly, commit to your vision and stay consistent! From your workflow to your offerings, look at each communication and project deliverable as a representation of your voice as a graphic design professional or business owner. So put your best self forward and start making waves out there!

--Louise Everarts De Velp, Ledv Studio

PERMALINK: https://outwittrade.com/graphic-design-freelancing-tips#louise

Selling something is not so easy nowadays due to high competition and it is more difficult for newcomers. The same is for graphic designers. So for graphic designers who want to start doing graphic design for online clients, they can use the following tips.

-Novice graphic designers can sign up for different design job sites.

-Sell your ideas or designs by making customers comfortable and explaining your idea to customers. Make sure it is simple so that customers can easily understand it and have a clear idea of the design.

-Convince customers with numbers and examples because things explained with numbers may be better to understand.

-Use professional-looking proposals. As the new and good proposals will have, they will attract more customers and will be easily convinced.

-Show your work through their profiles. Sharing your work on social media can help them sell their designs.

--Oliver Andrews, OA Design Services

PERMALINK: https://outwittrade.com/graphic-design-freelancing-tips#oliver

Katie Holmes

I am the lead editor of OutwitTrade and an accomplished data analyst, writer and internet marketer. I was motivated to help to build up this publication after being frustrated with most review websites being obviously biased, wrong, or which didn't seem to even test the products they were reviewing. Now, I spend 20+ hours every week reviewing products, conversing with our contributors, and reaching out to different companies.

Before joining OutwitTrade.com I had several years of experience in online marketing, advertising and SEO before also working as an analyst at Hertz for over 2 years.

In my spare time I like drawing, creating music and reading. 🙂

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/katie-holmes-sydney
Twitter: https://twitter.com/outwit_trade
Katie Holmes
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