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How to become a Successful Freelance Graphic Designer

The road to being any type of freelancer can sometimes be a rough, winding path, but those who have the drive and determination to walk it often love the autonomy it affords them. The demand for freelance graphic designers has increased over the years as having an online presence becomes more and more essential to business success.

How to become a Freelance Graphic Designer
Take some time to research the market and find out things like how much the average freelance graphic designer makes for different projects. (© Pexels)

If you are a creative person who loves digital design, but feel baffled as to how to begin trying to make it work for you, here is a step-by-step guide to becoming a successful freelance graphic designer.

1. Make sure you have the right skills

As a freelance graphic designer, there are a few core skills you’ll be expected to have. Whether you pursue learning them on your own or in a classroom setting is up to you, but here are the basic ones it’s advisable to have:

  • Design Fundamentals: Beginner designers often make mistakes like using too many fonts in a small space, resizing typography in a way that warps it and makes it less legible, or using too many visual effects at once. Learning some design fundamentals will help you avoid these things and make designs that help your clients represent themselves in the best possible way. Design fundamentals are taught in most design programs, but you can also search for free courses online that will help you understand these principles.
  • Adobe Creative Suite: You’ll need to know how to use three core programs in the Adobe Creative Suite: Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. Although there are other tools out there, these programs are so ubiquitous in the design world that a graphic designer unfamiliar with them would be at a major professional disadvantage. Most design courses offer training in these programs and Adobe also has several tutorial videos you can watch to get accustomed to using them.
  • Coding: You probably won’t need to have an extensive understanding of coding as a graphic designer, but a basic understanding of HTML, JavaScript, and CSS will help you immensely and make your skill set more marketable. Understanding coding fundamentals will help you understand how your designs are embedded into webpages, and therefore how to make them as functional as possible for the end-user. If you’re learning on your own, there are a lot of free courses to choose from – sites like Code Academy, Khan Academy, and Udemy all offer basic training in these languages.
  • Social Media Branding: Social media is a common marketing tool these days, and as such, graphic designers need to have an understanding of the best ways to help their clients on social media. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all have different aspect ratios for visual media, and different formats for presenting profiles – so to make the most of them, it’s important to know a bit about their functionality and formatting guidelines.

2. Create a Business Plan

Once you have the skills you need to be a graphic designer, it’s wise to write a business plan to help you gauge the success of your efforts once you start looking for work. A business plan is essential if you need to borrow money, but even if you are investing your own money, your plan will be a barometer to measure the outcome you get by the outcome you had expected. As such, it’s important to keep your expectations realistic – many freelancers lose money to marketing efforts and setting up their business before they start making money, so it’s wise to include a period of initial financial loss in your estimate. Here are a few other things to take into consideration when creating a business plan:

  • Market Research: Take some time to research the market and find out things like how much the average freelance graphic designer makes for different projects, what market demands are like for different design specialities, and what skills you have that could make you stand out. Your research might lead you to some important discoveries that you’ll be glad you didn’t learn the hard way! 
  • Market Niche: Graphic design can encompass a wide variety of specializations, such as logo design, web design, and designing print media such as flyers and book covers. It’s worthwhile to take a moment to ask yourself what niche you’d like to specialize in, since you’ll be able to gain expertise quickly if you narrow your focus. If you aren’t sure where to start, ask yourself what types of design projects you gravitated towards when you were learning design skills, and what types of design you’re best at.
  • Financial Plan: Now that you have a general idea of what the larger market is and where you fit into it, take a look at what it will cost you to set up. In addition to a computer with a good display, a freelance graphic designer will need a subscription to the Adobe Creative Suite. You may decide to spring for subscriptions to other programs or hardware such as a tablet and stylus; your niche will determine which of these tools you need. Your financial plan should also include marketing costs and anticipated profits over the first year.

3. Organize your Finances

If you’re a creative type, you may not look forward to financial management – however, the more you take care of your finances upfront, the less work they will be down the road. Here are a few key financial tasks to take care of when you set up your business:

  • Registering your Business: As of 2019 in the UK, you will need to register your business for tax purposes if you make more than £1,000 in earnings in a taxable year. Most freelancers set up as sole traders since this business structure is the simplest to manage – you are responsible for registering online, keeping track of your income and expenses, and then submitting this information online when it’s time to pay your taxes. If you set up as a limited company, you’ll be responsible for keeping your personal and business financials separate, and will need to register your company with Companies House. You’ll be issued a Unique Taxpayer Reference (UTR) number when you register online, which you will use to file your taxes. If you register as a sole trader, you don’t need to register your business name, but it must be different from existing trademarks, inoffensive, and not include “ltd.”
  • Organizing Bookkeeping: Whether you’re a sole trader or a limited company, organizing your finances is essential so that you know how much you’re earning and how much you’re spending on your business. Even though sole traders don’t legally have to keep business and personal finances separate, it’s advisable to do so to give you a clear picture of how well your business is doing. Accounting software makes it easy to keep track of your income and expenses, as well as giving you a standardized format for billing clients and a way of keeping track of client payments you’ve received and outstanding invoices you have yet to collect payment for.
  • Paying Taxes: When you’re an employee, your taxes are paid for you – but as a freelancer, it’s your job to save up to pay your taxes. When it’s time to file your taxes online, you submit your income and expenses, and your net profit will determine your taxable income. This means that your expenses will offset your taxable income, which is one reason why it’s important to keep track of them throughout the year. If your tax return is over £1,000, you’ll need to pay taxes twice a year – you can also choose to pay them in smaller increments more frequently if that is more manageable for you. If you earn over £85,000 in a taxable year, you’ll need to register for VAT, but will also be able to reclaim the cost of VAT on business expenses.

4. Find Your Clients

Once you have the skills and plan and your finances are organized, it’s time to find your clients. Usually, freelancers use a combination of in-person and online methods to market themselves – although as a graphic designer, your priority should be creating and managing your online presence. Here are a few basic ways to start marketing yourself:

  • Website: Your website should represent not only your skills as a designer, but should reflect a sensitivity to what your clients are after. It should be easy for your clients to find examples of what they’re looking for from you and should specify what other types of work you’re available for.
  • Social Media: Create a social media account for your business on Facebook and Instagram, as well as design-related websites like Behance and DeviantArt. Although it’s not a good idea to promote your business on your social media all the time, posting information once in a while will let people in your social circle know you have a website and are looking for design work. 
  • Conferences: Graphic design conferences are a great way to meet other industry professionals and start building your network. Introduce yourself to others and ask questions about their projects. Even if you’re feeling shy and don’t meet anyone, you’ll walk away with new knowledge about innovative work in your field.

5. Project Management

Once you have clients and a few projects going, you’ll likely want to find ways to manage your projects efficiently. If you’re billing hourly, you’ll want to have a system to keep track of how many hours you work on your projects – and even if you aren’t, it’s still important to know how long projects take versus how much you’re charging for them so you know how much you’re making per hour. Additionally, Basecamp project management software is compatible with Billomat, so you can look at your due invoices in your project management software. Keeping track of your to-do lists, hours, and project details will help you keep records of what different projects take to complete, and will help you create more accurate estimates.

Although success doesn’t happen overnight, a little bit of foresight and planning can help you make the transition to a freelance graphic designer career faster and less stressful. It might be a long, hard road, but planning will help pave the way.

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