Freelance Considerations & Lessons Learned

Freelance graphic design is often a desirable position because of schedule flexibility, the opportunity to “own your work” and the possibility of higher income. But freelance graphic design isn’t something I suggest jumping into. Before making the decision for myself, I spoke with a number of seasoned professionals – their overwhelming response was that designers all too often decide to give it a go on their own before fully learning their craft. But if you do decide to give it a go, take an inside look at my own path and discover a few things I’ve learned along the way.

My Career Path

Before receiving my Bachelors of Fine Arts in Graphic Communications, I was involved in the design community and was able to do an internship in a major advertising agency. After graduation, I worked at the studio of one of my professors. From there, I worked at an in-house design department for a large corporation, and however lowly it was, it taught me how to design for e-commerce and demonstrated how the in-house design environment worked. All of these experiences were valuable and contributed to my overall awareness and general understanding of the industry.


Experience at a Leading Design Firm
After the internship, smaller studio and corporate design positions, I landed a permanent position at a major player in terms of branding and design.This is where I experienced the greatest opportunity to grow in every aspect of design: from design and layout, typography, technical skill, presentation and communication skill and most importantly the business of graphic design.


Absorb From Your Mentors
Larger studios have a collective depth of experience and have solidified client relationships that are years in the making. They also have the client base to keep work coming in to the extent that you can quickly gain momentum and learn from a variety of fields. The professionals working in a larger studio often have 10, 15 or 20 years of experience or more. Your ability to absorb their collective knowledge and put that into practice is tantamount to your success as a freelancer.


Before You Break Out
For me, deciding to go freelance was part of my natural progression and career path.But designers aren’t typically thrilled with the prospect of running their own business. In this regard, I am a huge advocate of getting the education (from a reputable design program or university) and experience (from a larger, seasoned design studio) you need prior to going on your own.


Branding & Client Selection
One of the first things to consider is the direction you want to go. At this point evaluate your portfolio, strengths and weaknesses, and decide on the types of clients you really want. Tailor your portfolio to the types of projects and clients you desire. In some cases, you will need to eliminate projects from your portfolio all together or create something pro-bono to fill a niche. As a general rule of thumb, quality outweighs quantity.


Presentation is Everything
You will need your own brand identity, website and other marketing and sales presentations that speak to your capabilities and value proposition. Keep those materials as clear and concise as possible.

  • Adjust your portfolio to display the most successful projects
  • Leverage data to show project success: increased web traffic, etc.
  • Maintain professionalism: spelling and typographic errors matter
  • Be honest: take care not to fall short of your brand promise
  • Don’t over-promise: if project specifications are outside your capabilities, be up front
  • Articulate the concept of the piece in one or two succinct sentences
  • Establish yourself in the thinking that graphic design is primarily the business of problem solving: how does your solution solve the client’s problem


There are plenty of easy-to-use systems available like Quicken, QuickBooks, iBank, iBiz and FunctionFox to name a few. However, chances are you will need an accountant to manage your books.


Know the Tax Laws
In addition to your general ledger, look into the tax law concerning whether or not graphic design services can be taxed. The last thing you want to do is to not charge sales tax but then come to the realization that you should have been. In this worst case scenario, you will have to retro-actively collect taxes on sales. Ouch.


Contracts & Estimates
In considering clients, you need to know if a formal contract is warranted or if a written estimate will do. For smaller clients and projects a written estimate works. This should outline project specifics, number of concepts, categories of work and the number of hours it will take. Include a disclaimer that says the estimate is a “cost guideline” only.


Payment Terms
Before you kick-off your next amazing design project, make sure you’ve discussed payment terms and have come to an agreement:

  • 50/50 Split: half of the estimate is due to begin, balance due at project completion
  • Payment in Thirds: 1/3 of the estimate is due to begin; the second third is billed half-way through; the final balance is due upon completion
  • Progress Biling: bill at the end of the month for work completed to date

My preference is progress billing – it balances the designer/client relationship best in my opinion.


The Written & Signed Contract
In the case of larger clients and projects, I strongly recommend a written contract. In case you have no idea how a written contract works or you are completely intimidated by it, AIGA provides a number of resources to that end:

If you don’t understand these documents, ask a leader at your local AIGA chapter or a business owner you trust. Many professionals are more than happy to lend their experience to up-and-coming designers. If all else fails, hire an attorney to review and explain the documents for you.


Equipment & Software
One of the major investments in your freelance business will be your hardware and software – it will cost a bundle. But remember, pirated software, fonts or other types of media is unethical: see AIGA Design Business and Ethics.

  • Purchase a Desktop or Laptop Mac or PC
  • Purchase applications you need like Adobe Creative Suite
  • Purchase a Font Browser for font management
  • Purchase an FTP application for transferring files
  • Purchase general office applications for word processing and email
  • Purchase storage devices: you will likely need an attached external hard drive for back-ups and a network area storage (NAS) device. You should have a local copy of everything and an additional copy on a cloud-based automated back-up service. Consider your business and your client here: you want to have multiple levels of redundancy with sensitive information and files.
  • Set up a wired or wireless network: a wireless router works well, but pair that with a wired gigabit ethernet to your NAS and you’re on your way
  • Purchase a good color printer to present design comps

Undoubtedly, there are other things you will come across that you will want and/or need. Consider your needs and budget and purchase accordingly.


The concept of owning your own work from start to finish is great, but chances are you can’t do everything. Depending on your specialty, you will need to find people you can trust. This may involve hiring a PHP specialist for programming or finding a production artist to help with copy-fitting. Actively maintaining these relationships adds value to your business by providing additional services or by freeing up some of your own time.


One thing I have missed since I started freelancing is the sense of camaraderie you have in a larger setting. You need to have people you can trust on the outside to review your work, to stay sharp and remind yourself that with everything there is always room for improvement. Critiques can confirm that a concept is on target or point out missed opportunities. Almost always, they generate new ideas and result in a better finished product.


Business Development
For freelance designers, one of the most overlooked areas is business development. Make sure your work is accessible through the usual online channels: an online resume, portfolio, professional organizations like AIGA or LinkedIn or other online resources like the Behance Network.

It is also a good idea to have a general sales presentation ready to go at a moments notice. This could consist of a Keynote presentation with work samples, descriptions and results. Rehearse as necessary prior to presenting.


Contact Information & Schedule
Carry your business cards with you at all time and have a calendar available. Smart phones are great for this because everything is at your fingertips. If you want to make a great first impression, don’t hand out wrinkled business cards that you’ve kept in your wallet.

One of the the best things you can do as well is to be 100% referable. This means being up front and honest with your clients, maintaining professionalism, paying close attention to details and delivering your product on time and on budget.

If some of these basics are applied to every client relationship, then chances are you will be getting calls instead of pounding the pavement.


Time Management
It’s easy to get caught in the trap of complacency when you work from home. But with freelance graphic design, the competition is too fierce not be judicious with time management. A few quick points when your environment is too comfortable:

  • Block out hours of time and stick to it
  • Touch information once – don’t create two tasks for yourself with the same information
  • Email is a drug: don’t let it interrupt your work flow
  • Be judicious with social networks and news: prioritize and focus on work first
  • Save your weekends and schedule time away: downtime is a necessity


Design & Inspiration
It’s important to stay inspired by being aware of current design trends and being knowledgeable of graphic design from the past. A few ideas, but by no means exhaustive, to stay inspired in time of need:

  • Go to the library or museum: there are endless references here
  • Search through the AIGA Design Archives
  • Find a inspiring designer and plunder their Delicious bookmarks
  • Go on a photo shoot or ask to be an assistant
  • Review Design Envy
  • Take an art history class
  • Subscribe to UnderConsideration
  • Get involved in your local AIGA chapter; find out what other designers are doing.
  • Read Profile: Pentagram Design ISBN 0-7148-4377-6


Other Considerations
Ultimately a lot of what could happen depends on your own goals and expectations. The field of graphic design is subjective so it isn’t always easy to gauge success. A few points in closing if you ever need a little encouragement:

  • Keep educating and pushing yourself
  • Always make your type look good for print and web: see The Elements of Typographic Style
  • Good photography will make your job easier
  • Keep up to date with technology and areas where design can influence user experience
  • Be inspired, but don’t copy
  • Give and receive constructive criticism
  • Always show up, on time, ready to go
  • Research your client and know their business if you want to work with them
  • Be consistent and organized
  • Update your portfolio
  • Write an article about a passion or insight you have


Daren Guillory is currently Design Director at Tangelo Ideas in Houston, Texas. He spent the past three years prior running his own successful freelance practice and is an active AIGA member and contributing author.

By Daren Guillory
Published July 31, 2012
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