How to create a career for yourself in the design world – become a successful freelance graphic designer and gain clients

I occasionally get other designers and students asking me questions like how I managed to make a career in the graphic/web design world, or how I managed to become a freelance designer and get freelance work etc, so I thought I would share some of my experience and insights in this article, in the hope that others can learn from my experiences and implement things which gives them a greater chance of working in an area they want to get involved in and are passionate about.

 

As a 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. 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. Experience is key – and fortunately I’ve got quite a bit now, and I would even go as far to say that to describe myself as purely just a graphic or web designer is a little limiting now – I guess a multi-channel designer & marketeer is a more apt term as I work across many channels including print, web, email, mobile & social, and sometimes on certain projects/campaigns I don’t even design anything – it’s all about the planning, strategy & marketing. I think the fact I’ve added quite a few strings to my ‘design bow’ is because I’m someone who is always trying to learn and expand my knowledge & skill set, and I guess this is an essential attribute to have in the fast paced, ever evolving design & digital industries.

 

To those readers aspiring to forge a career in creative/design/web industries, I think it would be useful to briefly share my journey from where I started to where I am now. As someone who has always been quite creative from an early age, I was fortunate to be able to follow my passions after school [side note: for me following your passions is what you should always do in your career – being successful for me is about loving what you do – not how much you earn. And it’s those who love what they do that end up producing the best work], anyway, after school I progressed directly to Art College to study an Advanced GNVQ in Art & Design. This general introduction to the Arts was important in giving me a great foundation, and at that time I wasn’t sure exactly which creative route I wanted to go down, so it let me taste quite a lot of avenues, and although photography, architecture and product design did appeal to me, graphic design was the area that really excited me. [I’m still interested in all forms of design and photography though and it does inspire my graphic/web designs work]. After college, the most logical step for me was moving onto university, where I gained a BA (Hons) in Graphic Design from Teesside University in 2001. Although some designers manage to skip the university bit, I think the college/university route is still the most popular way into the industry, and it does give you a great foundation in which to learn and launch your design career.

 

Upon graduating it wasn’t an easy transition into the commercial design industry for me, I guess because I didn’t have a great deal of focus whilst studying of how I would make the transition into the working, commercial world. Consequently, whilst graduating with a good 2:1, including top marks in my dissertation & final project, I had little commercial experience and my portfolio was quite experimental and more related to personal graphic art projects, rather than commercial design projects. So my first big lesson to share is, whilst it is important to focus on passing university projects, experimenting with your work and developing your individual style (and enjoy university life!), always keep an eye on what you will do when you graduate. If you want to make the transition from university into the working world quite quickly, try and develop contacts in the design industry whilst at university, do work experience if possible, and even do your own projects outside of university work for your own clients (even if only for mates and a few beers) – as that is where you will learn some valuable industry lessons.

After graduating, I found personally found it difficult to get an instant job at a design business, with the usual ‘lack of experience’ quip being something that seemed to hold me back. I guess I thought it would be easier than it was to get a start somewhere than it was. Now I know from my own experiences and friends who also graduated at the same time as me, that it is easy to get discouraged from following your ideal design career in the time after graduating, and like it or not, not every graduate actually goes on to forge a career out of what they studied at at university. Those first 1 or 2 years after graduating are key, and it’s vital not to miss the boat, and a lot of my university friends are doing things unrelated to the design industry now – will that be you? It doesn’t have to be, and what I found is that, if determined enough, if your willing to stick at it and not got discouraged, and if you have the talent – you can get the breaks you need – you just need to work at it. But it definitely helps a lot if you start thinking about, and making plans for, life after university, whilst at university.

 

My solution, after not being able to get the actual ‘design job’ within the first year f graduating, was to take matters into my own hands, and go freelance. Again, it wasn’t as easy as that sounds, and it took time to make my way. I had a part-time job, and although it was doing something that I didn’t want to do all my life, it enabled me to save up some money to purchase hardware & software. [side note: sometimes it is valuable experience to do jobs early in your life that you really don’t like – as that makes you ever more determined to make sure you work towards creating a career that you will enjoy working in]. After I had the mac & software – I then started putting myself out there and making contacts as someone looking for design work, initially I even done a few jobs for mates for hardly any financial reward, but through these first forays into freelance design, I learned a lot about planning projects, working to briefs, working with printers, setting up websites, and more importantly delivering great design work that clients loved. I even made a few mistakes, such as under estimating the time it took for certain jobs, messing up 1 or 2 print jobs, and even leaving myself open for 1 client not to pay for work done. I’m a great believer though that there really is no such thing as mistakes if you learn from them, and often we learn most when things don’t go smoothly. So take heart that it will be a learning curve initially, but you will learn valuable lessons.

 

As time went on, I kept building my design portfolio and showcasing it online [absolutely vital], promoting myself to potential clients and making contacts. Gradually, bit by bit I was pulling in more and more design work, and making more and more income that could support me. When I look back, this initial period of freelancing taught me an invaluable amount about the design industry and delivering end-to-end projects, and above all it made me a self-learner and self-motivated – a very valuable character trait to have to progress well, in any industry really.

 

 

I know for any freelance designer starting out, it can be challenging to gain work despite having a small portfolio and being less experienced than your competitors, so below are my top 4 tips on getting freelance work:

 

 

  1. BUILD YOUR PORTFOLIO

To get any sort of work, you need to be able to convince them of your ability through your design portfolio. So initially focus on building your portfolio and showcasing it in it’s best possible light. You will probably have college/university work you can showcase. Do commercial design projects for people you know, and do it only for a few beers if needs be. Initiate your own ‘mock’ design projects, maybe redesign things that you feel can be done better. The key is just building your portfolio, and building variety. Potential clients (and employees) need to be convinced that you can do a good job for them.

 

  1. SHOWCASE YOUR WORK

It’s vital to showcase your work so as many people as possible can see it. Web-sites are the most accessible way, and for those who lack technical skills, there are plenty of sites out there that are more template based so you can just drop your content in. Every budding designer these days should have their work featured online somewhere where a potential client (or employee) can see their work, and remember to continually update it on regular basis.

 

  1. PROMOTE YOURSELF & MAKE CONTACTS

Everywhere you look there are things that have been designed by someone. The world of design is booming and it’s a great opportunity for designers, and the work is there if you go looking. That is why it’s absolutely essential to get your self out there, make contacts and try and grab a slice of that design work. So make a list of potential clients in the areas and sectors you want to get involved in, email, call and even pop in to businesses in person. Go along to business networking events and chat to people – every company needs something designing at some point. As well as approaching clients who may work direct with you, also approach design agencies, printers and marketing companies, as these will have a lot of their own clients, and may well have work that they can’t handle themselves. Working freelance for these kind of agencies often means you could have a regular stream of work.

 

  1. REPEAT ABOVE, BUT DO IT BETTER.

To be self-sustaining, the world of freelance must become a constant round of producing work, updating your portfolio/promo web-sites, and making contacts. The key is to always strive to improve, and that will help you become successful. So produce great work, and your portfolio/promo-websites will improve, which may lead you to getting better clients/projects, and producing better work, and so on. And what i’ve found in time is that clients will want to work with you again, and as long as you are producing good work it will (hopefully) come to a point where you have regular clients and new clients and there may be too much to work to handle, so it will leave you in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose the best clients, best projects and more well-paid work.