As a freelance designer with over 14 years in the commercial design industry I have fulfilled many roles and obtained lots of valuable commercial experience on a wide range of projects for many kinds of clients. I would describe myself as multichannel designer, as I produce design work across print, web, social and mobile channels. Generally, I’ve worked as a freelance designer with my own direct clients and for agencies/marketing companies, both externally & in-house. I’ve also worked as an employee for some fairly prestigious design & marketing agencies. ]
As you would expect, over the years I have gained quite a bit of experience in the design world, working as both a freelance designer and employee, and as time goes by you do learn more and become more effective at what you do, and any budding freelancer will improve over time too. Below are a few tips I’d like to share that have been important fro me as a freelance designer, and I have listed some that are fairly well-known and some that are maybe a little less obvious….
Get a project off to a good start – get your brief right!
I find it helpful to start any project by getting briefed in properly so that you know exactly what is required of a particular project. Different projects have different complexities and I would suggest formulating different briefing templates for different kinds of jobs. Eg. You don’t want to overwhelm your client if you provide a really detailed briefing template, when all they need is a business card designed and printed. Equally you don’t want a really simple brief for a big web-project, which could snowball and get out of hand as the requirements weren’t clearly defined. Again, you will get better with this with experience – but the key is to get all the details you need for a project – and make sure the requirements are clearly defined, so clients can’t turn around at the end of a project and say, “I wanted xx” but you haven’t done it.
When you become experienced, you can learn how to quote for jobs based on how much value you can bring to a client, but often, and especially in the early days of my freelance work, after getting a brief, I would think about how long a particular task would likely take me, then add some extra leeway to account for potential things that can crop up and take you longer. Once I had a time in mind – I would simply multiply this by my hourly rate. The hourly rate you charge is totally up to you, and will likely increase as you get more experience, your clients get bigger and more prestigious, and you gain more clients. If you get to the point where you have a lot of clients, then those unwilling to pay the going rate for a really good and talented designer may well fall off. You might also find that you can still charge the same quote for certain projects- but you may become more efficient at completing them – so in effect you are getting a higher paid rate for your time.
Track your time.
As I tend to quote for jobs based on a how long I think something will take me, then it has helped me to use time tracking software to track time I spend on certain jobs – and know exactly if my quotes have been suitable. Over time, this method helps you learn how long certain design projects can take, and helps you when formulating future quotes. Time tracking software also helps when you are juggling different tasks throughout the day – a regular occurrence for me!
Develop Good Time management
As you (hopefully) start to get busy, there will come a time when you need to get to grips with planning and prioritising your workl. Good time management is key. At the start of the week make a list of priorities for that week, and if new work comes in be realistic in saying when you can complete it. New bits of work do crop up though that need turning around fast, so everyday I find it helpful to make list of what needs doing on that particular day. I prefer to have things in black and white in front of me on desk on a piece of paper, and some how having things on a list makes me feel like I have less on my mind. It’s also good to tick things of – the satisfaction of progress!
Work smart with clients.
Although I am someone who loves working around people and in teams, and I enjoy face-to-face meetings, especially to kick big projects off, as freelancer your time is valuable and it’s important to spend it wisely. In terms of communicating with clients, it helps to try and figure out what means of communication will be best (and quickest/easiest – for you and the client, who is also a busy person). The options to communicate are face-to-face meetings (at the clients location, at your office/home, somewhere in the middle – coffee shop…), telephone (be aware of cost – mobile, landline, Skype, conference calls), emails or instant messages. There is also the option of communicating via project management tools like base-camp. For me I would say the majority of communication, once a project has kicked off is via email. If I am collaborating with a number of people, then a project management tool is great. But it is also good to kick-off larger projects, or meet new clients with a face to face meeting. Failing that a call is also a good means. I just think it’s vital to build good relationships with your clients – and putting a face to a name, or even just a voice, certainly helps to develop those relationships. But above all, just communicate in the most effective way possible.
Use time effectively
Sometimes it happens where you don’t feel creative (Monday mornings anyone?) or have some quiet time where there is no work in. But you should still look to make that time count so spend it updating websites/portfolios, marketing materials, making contacts, emailing/calling prospective clients, research whats going on in the design world, look at what other designers are doing and get inspired, write blogs, create client eNewsletters or work on SEO of your own websites. Just spend your time wisely and towards things that will help you be successful as a freelance designer, above all, don’t waste your time on things like watching Jeremy Kyle
Be a decent person to work with
Try to be a decent, friendly, fun, person to work with – everyone prefers working with someone who is just a good person to get along with and no client wants to work with big egos. You might be a brilliant designer – but if you rub clients up the wrong way – it’s unlikely they will come back. On the other hand, if people enjoy working with you, and you produce good work, they are likely to continue to want to work with you, and even recommend you to others. Quite a lot of my work comes from recommendations, so I’d like to think I’m a pretty decent guy to work with.
Contact clients and get clients contacting you
Promoting yourself is vitally important, and although i consider identifying and then getting in touch with potential clients via email, calling, and meeting them face-to-face to be really valuable, it’s also worth paying attention to incoming contacts and how people can find you. Getting listed in directories is one avenue to explore, and optimising your websites for search engine traffic through certain keywords can be a really useful way of getting clients and is something that has greatly helped me. A really successful part of my website is a web-page dedicated purely to leaflet design & print. I wanted to learn about SEO, and so decided, as a personal project for time wen I was quiet, to create a web-page specific to leaflet design and print (an already popular area of work for me) and so I learned about optimising this page for SEO purposes. (see http://www.stuart-hodgson.com/leaflets.html to view the page in question). In time my efforts payed off, and when searching for keywords such as, ‘leaflet design’ – I ranked quite highly. Consequently I now get quite a few enquiries for this kind of leaflet design work – which then leads me to working on all sorts of design projects for clients who initially came to me for only the design of leaflets.
Creating the best working environment
As a freelancer, you have a few option as to where you can work, generally they are, work in-house for an agency, work from home, or in your own office away from home. I certainly enjoy working in-house (within agencies and businesses), surrounded by others, and working in teams – I value the ideas that spark off from others, and do enjoy the workplace banter. I have also worked from home, more so in the early days and the most beneficial part of this is that you can reduce over-heads – no office rental costs, reduce petrol costs, and you can even claim expenses on your self-assessment on house bills and rent and the like. For me, when working from home I learned the importance of the need to separate work & home-life. Rolling out of bed and straight to your computer meant that soon the boundary between home & work blurs and you can feel like you are working all the time and unable to switch off, which can lead to work induced fatigue and in the extreme, burn-out. Working from home means you can also have distractions from family/friends and the TV! You can also end up working all hours and not taking many breaks – so I found it was important to have set breaks and working hours and try to stick to them, leaving the rest of the time at home for normal stuff. I also felt that it was important to have that ability to switch off and recharge your batteries, so the solution for me in this case was to have a room in the house (or it can be an area in a room) dedicated to your working environment. When you enter that environment it symbolises work time, and when you leave it’s time to stop thinking about work and focus on other things (such as family and just relaxing). I also liked to get up in the morning – get breakfast, washed, dressed etc with the mind-set of going to work. Even though I wouldn’t be going far to work, unless I had meetings somewhere. The dream for me when working from home is to have an out-building in the garden that is separated from the house, which is purely reserved for work (I’m saving up for that one!). Finally the other option is to rent an office somewhere. Although this will give you extra over-heads, if you find the right place, surrounded by like minded professionals and creatives, it can greatly motivate and inspire you when you see other professionals on a daily basis on a similar career path, and it can lead to making some great contacts. There are some very well-run creative/digital hubs out there in the larger towns and cities and are worth looking into. I guess the final decision of where to work from will be a subjective choice around what works for you, from a work/life balance point of view and also a cash-flow point of view.
Market yourself as what you are – a freelancer
Even though some freelancers are just that, freelancers, they choose to promote themselves and give the impression that they are a design company, (I did that in the early days – I guess it felt good for my design ego However, it’s not really a level playing field competing against the services that an actual design agency, with lots of employees, can offer, versus you on your own. I found it more useful to compete for work on my own terms, simply promoting myself as me, a freelance (multi-channel) designer, a down-to-earth individual, with low-overheads, who is skilled, experienced, personable, efficient and contactable. Don’t pretend to be a design company if your not, despite what your freelance ego wants!
Always keep learning
I graduated from university as a graphic designer, who mainly created work for print. But the design world and digital industries are constantly evolving, and I’m always trying to learn and stay up to date with developments, and I really encourage you to develop the mentality of always learning and developing. If we don’t, I guess we will be left behind… Consequently as well as my traditional background of graphic design, I now also feel equally at home in the areas of: brand development, printing, multi-channel design and marketing, web design, web-development/coding, responsive html email design & build, SEO, social media campaigns, photography, copyrighting, marketing strategy…..the list goes on, you get the picture Always try and learn and keep adding strings to your bow.
Something I am constantly striving to do is to work on projects and for clients that are more in tune with my interests, hobbies and values. Sure we have to work to pay the bills, but it’s much more enjoyable and exciting I feel when you are working on projects and for clients that are more in-tune with what you are about. And the more you enjoy and are passionate about projects – the more enjoyable your working day will be and the better your work will be. This generally relates to what I consider success to be, which is loving what you do every day. So while it’s important to try and bring in any sort of work that will pay the bills, always try and seek out those design projects and clients that operate in areas that interest you, because you may find that you enjoy your work a lot more!
Diversifying income streams and get paid for doing things you enjoy.
In addition to generating income from your design work, and following on from the passion project idea above, I also recommend to try and look for ideas on how you can generate extra income from your talents, interests and passions. This may well be easier if you have some web-skills, but can also be achieved if you don’t. For example, I run a number of blogs on various subjects that interest me. I enjoy writing and bookmarking certain articles and imagery that inspire me – so it made sense to have various blogs on the go for a little extra effort. I have then tried to generate income from these blogs through affiliate marketing and ads. Another example is a web-site I have set up which features inspirational quotes about life. I’m a sucker for a good quote, and I used to file my favourite quotes away anyway – so again – for a little extra effort I documented them on a website. I also have a passion for typography and posters, and as a personal project I would create posters featuring my favourite quotes, mainly to display around my office & home, but then I thought why not feature these on my quotes website to sell as poster prints, that whole idea of making a little income from things you love doing anyway just seems to appealing to me, and I guess is the ideal income generator. Finally, I decided to collate all this work into a book format – and then again sell that on my quotes website. So you see, if you just think outside the freelance design box just a little, you can begin to find ways of making a little more income in other ways, which also use your skills and talents.
Money money money.
At the end of the day, we need to make some income of our design work. And while we all love doing the design work, we are probably not a fan of the more admin kind of roles we have to fullfill and especially those things which relate to billing & invoicing. I suggest you get your systems in place early so as to make this side of the business as least hassle as possible. My tips here are;
– first formulate your hourly rate and do your research so it’s competitive
– complete briefs for every project and then after agreeing the brief – supply quotes to clients from the outset and get them to approve them
– quoting for jobs is a skill in itself which again you will become better at. Developing your own rate card for certain projects is a useful resource to have to hand, but I only use mine as a guide, as every project can have slight differences
– depending on the size of the jobs – you may want to ask for half of the payment half-way through the project, or something to that effect
– I tend to only bill on completion of a project for regular clients, for new clients related to print I bill for full-amounts before printing.
– learning to be able to evaluate a clients trustworthiness (to complete a project and pay up) is a skill that you will develop. To be fair most clients I have had have been good, but 1 or 2 clients from further a field have managed to avoid paying for projects, which is why I now ask for full payment upfront on print jobs for new clients, although
– in terms of invoicing, I have a template set-up, which I usually send out on project completion. Key details to include on it are date, project breakdown costs, and details of paying you – bank transfers are ideal! I also ask for all payments within 30 days.
– it’s also vital to save all your invoices and recipients in one place – so when you come to do your tax return – it’s as easy and painless as possible
Strategies to attain new clients
A constant stream of new clients really helps any freelance designer progress, and to summarise here are my best tips:
– as mentioned above making contacts is key – put yourself out there and don’t get discouraged from knock-backs, we all get them, but for every few dead-ends – you may well get a lead for new work
– develop good relationships with existing clients. A good proportion of my work is through repeat customers – and when you get good clients where the projects are great, regular, interesting and well-paid – then make sure you do all you can to keep these client relationships going!
– a lot of my work is through word of mouth, and recently I have even started offering small referrer discounts to existing clients who bring in new clients for me. As well as the obvious benefit of new work, it also rewards your most loyal clients.
– the 80/20 rule seems to ring true for many in businesses, including my own, in that roughly 80% of your income comes from 20% of your clients. You can use this to identify your best clients, and then perhaps analyse why they choose you and why you are both a good fit – and then set about trying to get clients of a similar nature – as they will probably also like your services!
– learning the art of SEO (or calling on someone who operates in that field) can also be very useful for you in promoting your website, as there are many potential clients who need something fast, and may even just google ‘freelance designer’ – if your website shows up – bingo – you are likely to get quite a few enquiries!
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I hope you have found the above tips very useful, and it helps you become a successful designer, and in a quicker, more straightforward way than me, as a lot of the above tips where learned through sheer personal experience. If you personally keep working hard, work smart, keep learning, and have the talent – you will become a successful designer – but only you can make it happen. They say the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary, and it’s true. You can have the talent, but you also need the work ethic. Good luck!
To get a feel for the many art & design avenues I operate in visit http://www.stuart-hodgson.com
To view my website dedicated to purely my freelance graphic design work visit, http://www.stuart-freelance-designer.co.uk/