Survival tips and other ruminations on freelancing as a graphic designer

Categories Articles

There are tons of books, manuals, articles, guides, courses, advisers, trainers (and their assistants) out there, all trying to tell what to do if you want to be a freelancer. There are those who will accidentally discourage you, with versions of failed freelancing histories and lists that will nip your enthusiasm in the bud. And there are those who will tell you to stop analyzing and go for a headfirst plunge.

I’m writing an article about this, so I must be one of those elusive advisers. But I just want to go through the common-sense reasons (and, hopefully, solutions) that could end up on a casual post-it, on your desk. All I know for sure is that every journey is different. To a certain extent, that’s the exciting part. If you’ve been dreaming about freelancing, just do it. This is not a rehearsal, this is your life. Stop procrastinating (indirectly, I just reached a very sensitive issue: procrastination).

For those who are not confident in their work, those who truly enjoy the comfort of their full-time employment, or, on the contrary, those who want to go freelance just because they hate their current employer, maybe sleep on it a bit. But if you’ve got that spring in your step and every fibre in your body says ‘do it’, make sure you’ve got a cash reserve before taking the leap. Nothing major, a decent amount, just in case things don’t pick up as fast as you hoped.

Keep in mind that everybody is clueless at some point in their life, so you shouldn’t be taken by surprise that much.

Read about tax and how to do the books, your rights and laws in freelancing. You’ll be grateful later. There’s no human resources person to brief you. This is part of your job too.

Sorry to bother you, but it’s about time I ask this: how’s your portfolio? And where? For any designer going solo (and anybody in the creative fields actually), this is your pièce de résistance. Before anything else, make it a diversified and amazing piece of work with potential to wow anybody from your mother to the toughest client on the market.

You might dislike the word, but marketing is essential in reaching potential clients. Basically, you have to blow your own horn. You’re not the only designer out there, you know? Stop wasting time on social media, and make the most of its reach and those scores of followers and friends. Focus on work. YOUR work. It’s the easiest way to network online. And networking is essential too. However, if you had to choose only one social network platform, make it LinkedIn – a place full of professionals who are waiting for you to start a ‘serious’ conversation.

Must have: business cards. There are a number of big organisations which offer a business card printing service, many incorporate a number of great templates to get started. Even better: make your own, from scratch. You never know when you’ll bump into potential clients. They won’t remember your name, but they sure will find that business card to remind them of your smiley face.

Advertise yourself – the classical approach too: local newspapers, magazines, even bigger ones (if you have the budget), in shop windows and community billboards. At this stage everything matters. Actively look for jobs and projects on special sites and job boards, like Design Jobs Board and OnSite. There are plenty out there. You can set up a profile on many, eventually you’ll stick with the ones that bring you clients and make the whole process easier.

So far, learn about taxes, do your portfolio, network (professionally). Sounds like a lot of time and work, but your effort will pay off.

Time to learn about balance. In everything. Don’t take too many projects. You’ll be excited, I know, but the day has the same number of hours: 24.

And clients. There are two categories: good and not that good. In between? Many shades of grey. They are essential to any freelancing career. In time, you’ll develop a weird sense that should help you smell the difficult ones from afar, but you’ll probably have to deal with a few before that. It might be harder in the beginning, but don’t undersell yourself. Be concise. And, I beg to differ, but the client is not always right.

Be diplomatic and professional (you know, don’t miss deadlines, go the extra mile). If you’ve never been a diplomat, those days are over, you’ll have to become one.

Never ever start a project without a contract. You’d be amazed how many stories are out there, about people who fail to pay, pay less or after months or even years of completion. That diplomacy I mentioned should help you explain the client to also pay a certain percentage of the money up-front.

Design, but don’t forget to research your client’s audience before. There’s nobody else doing this for you now either.

There comes a time when outsourcing to other designers would give you some piece of mind. If it’s a major project, why not? I know, this is quite an advanced stage. Here’s one more ‘advanced’ piece of advice: insurance. This goes in the administrative batch. For all those unexpected and unwanted events (loss of data, libel, defamation, professional negligence, unintentional breach of confidentiality or copyright), its worth considering some freelancinginsurance. Some recommended options to get your started are: (Markel, Fidelius, Kpsol)

Take long walks to clear your head and get new ideas. Finally, you can do this, and nobody is going give you a dirty look when you get back to your desk. You are now master of your time, but you have to learn to manage it properly. What if you receive multiple projects at some point? Learn to say ‘no’ too. You don’t have to take every project offered. Make those ‘to do’ lists every evening or early morning. Stick to them. By the way, have you heard of “productive procrastination”? It means you work on what’s most important and more demanding first. All in all, procrastination should be less and less part of your vocabulary.

Finally, learn from mistakes. Take breaks, move, and enjoy life. Don’t forget that nothing worth doing is easy. You’re your own boss and this is the one reason most freelancers share. That’s it. For now. Enjoy the trip!

header image courtesy of Paulius Kairevicius

Catalin is the founder of Mostash - a social marketing boutique - and he's always happy to share his passion for graphic design & social media.