First off, I love what I do, and while there can be issues with cash flow, I love being a full-time freelance graphic designer as it gives me the most freedom and flexibility and keeps me home with my family.
The biggest thing to embrace or adjust to if you decide to pursue a career the field of graphic design is this: If you enjoy being creative and love art, there is a huge difference between being an artist and a graphic designer. That main thing is a client.
When you are an artist, all of your creativity is for you and you alone. There is no one else to please but yourself. When you have a paying client, your creativity is for them and them alone.
That can be a huge deal breaker for some people and I know that most new or young designers first big hurtle when then enter the industry is defensiveness and possessiveness of their designs with their clients. It’s understandable. It came from your brain. You “birthed” it into being. It can be apart of you. But you have to give that up if you want to be a graphic designer. You cannot be married to your design so that clients don’t have a good experience working with you.
Having said that, and if you are prepared for this reality OR have been a graphic designer and are considering flying solo into a career of freelancing, here is another reality check…
This can be one of the greatest fields to carve a career in but it can be one of the hardest.
Anybody with the money to buy Adobe Creative Suite can become your competition. There are tons of designers out there, but there are not TONS of good, talented designers out there. What does that mean for you? Your potential clients may not know the difference, and that is what makes it a hard industry to try to survive in. But when you have been in the industry for 20 plus years as I have, you by then have established yourself that clients come to you with trust and want your unique style and it is much easier to please them. You can be selective with what projects and clients you take on because you are in demand.
So you still want to be a freelance designer? Well, the first thing to embrace is the realities of today’s market and that there are a LOT of designers out there and it is an impacted field to enter. Unfortunately, with all of the available software (Adobe Creative Cloud) available to anyone and everyone, there are tons of “hacks” who think they can design but really don’t have the formal knowledge or more importantly, the raw talent to really make it. The end result, it makes it more competitive and harder for real designers to compete on a price level as well as on available projects.
But do not be faint at heart or be discouraged. Here are just a few pointers that I can pass on in being a freelance designer.
Have a website.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but most “in-house” graphic designers (where they are employed by someone else), that employer has a website, but do you? This is crucial. While you may have your Facebook Fan Page to show off your work, a social networking page should help supplement and support your business’s website, not be the platform. Social networking sites are a good marketing strategy to help drive traffic, but it should not be your end all focus. What if you can’t make your own site? What if you are not a guru with HTML and don’t really want to focus on web design in your career? Then at least create a free blog site somewhere, find a good free portfolio theme to use, and buy a domain for your business and point it to that site. Bottom line: Having a legit website will add credibility to your business and give people a way to easy find you and for you to point them to it so they can see your work.
Build a portfolio.
This is where the rubber will hit the road for you. Having a strong portfolio helps convey your strengths as a designer as well as showcasing a particular style. Note: It is okay to have fictional work in your portfolio. Don’t limit your portfolio to just things that were with a real client or actually got printed. The realities are that some of your real work may not be your best. Not because you didn’t go good, but with real clients can come design compromises or decisions that ultimately have to please the client and make us designers cringe. Don’t have that many pieces in your portfolio? Find some things that you love and redesign them. Maybe its a lotion package. A band’s cd artwork. A poster for a concert. A fake company logo. Sometimes it is the fun projects that help bring out best work. Here are some tips to a better portfolio.
You will need to be very professional with regards to creating estimates, invoices, and correspondence with your clients. There are plenty of good resources online to give you pointers on all of this. The end result? Confidence that current clients or potential clients will place on you.
What are my recommendations to having the right software arsenal for the business side of things for a freelancer? Intuit's free Wave website (for client databases, estimating, invoicing and managing online payments), a free account on Mint.com (for managing your business financials), Things (for staying on top of all of your projects and task-lists), and lastly, Tyme (for tracking your billable time on projects).
Service with a smile.
This will need to be a serious focus of yours if you are to survive in this industry. Talent or ninja-like skills in Illustrator won’t allow you rise to the top. It will help, but it won’t make you last if you don’t give the client the best service possible. I have seen a number of designers who have struggled because in the end, the client wasn’t completely satisfied working with them. I have built my business for almost 20 years without advertising once. It has been built on word-of-mouth referrals from satisfied clients. Your reputation is what will sustain you as a designer.
Being a freelancer has incredible amounts of freedom and independence. I can work whenever and wherever I please. The downside is, if you are like me and have a family or plan to one day have a family, it can be a challenge as you never know when your next paycheck will come. Rule of thumb? Set aside 20% of every check that comes in towards paying your taxes (yes, you need to run a legitimate business and have a business license and claim your earnings), and even more important, set an additional 20% aside into a business savings. This will serve as your piggy bank for those rainy days when bills are due but invoices are still outstanding.
Now take that leap of faith, go forth, design and prosper!