As the new year approaches, many designers might be on the fence regarding a big career change. They might have spent several years at agencies and organizations of all sizes and now consider leaping to become their own boss as a freelance designer. While it’s important not to look at a freelance career with rose-tinted glasses, you need to be aware of a number of realities if you’re going to make the transition successfully. Below we’ll break down the key things you need to know to become a freelance designer.
Your Work Has to Speak for Itself
No design freelancer ever blew up with a crappy portfolio (or at least, we certainly hope not!) Being a freelancer means that your design skills fit perfectly with what’s in demand in the market. You have a balance between being deeply knowledgeable about foundational design philosophies and learning new ones that keep you at the forefront of your industry. You may have a niche specialty but can also crank out run-of-the-mill designs that a marketing or in-house design team might need at a moment’s notice. You can create all of this efficiently and take feedback in stride to help your client launch their products and campaigns on time and on budget.
Your Network is Your Net Worth
This might be a cheesy saying, but it is so true for a freelance design career. It would help if you built up clientele and people who can vouch for your design skills before becoming a freelance designer. The truth is that many freelance designers try out freelancing before they decide to do it full-time. They might start with one client and get introduced to a few others. After a while, this extra work on nights and weekends might end up feeling more fulfilling than what they do 9–5, Monday through Friday. That’s one of the tell-tale signs that it’s time to start freelancing full-time.
But first, you need to create raving fans: both clients that jump at the opportunity to work with you and references that sing your praises to anyone who will listen. Searching for clients is not something you ever want to do out of necessity. Always being on the lookout for new work that is a good fit for you will pay dividends down the road. Someone you meet at a conference, meetup, or even a new LinkedIn connection can end up making up the bulk of your income several months from now. Be open to meeting new people and taking exploratory calls to keep your options open.
Never Work Without a Contract
When you’re taking those intro calls and exploring potential new streams of income, you’ll have to be sure that you aren’t being taken advantage of. If you’ve had three calls with a possible new client, spent several hours on Zoom, and given them strategy ideas that broaden their horizons, you should already be on the payroll. Some clients will issue you a contract to sign (just be sure to review it carefully), while smaller firms will lean on you to create your own.
Just as we mentioned above, your portfolio should do the talking (learn how to build a stronger one here) instead of you having to endure a painstaking interview process at the beginning of every new contract. On the same note, be sure to clearly state what you will and will not do in your contract. If you’re a freelance graphic designer working on collateral for a marketing team and are paid a flat rate, you should not be expected to do endless revisions. A good rule of thumb is to offer one or two complimentary, as small mix-ups and changes in opinion are bound to happen. However, any edits beyond that need to be paid hourly. It simply isn’t fair if you follow the client’s specs perfectly, then are expected to tear the entire design up and start from scratch because they had a change of heart. Your time matters and is incredibly valuable. Only work with clients that think the same way.
Your contract should also layout payment terms. One of the most common is issuing an invoice on the first day of the month for work done the previous month. Then the client will pay you within two weeks to a month. Be sure to include a line in your invoice that mentions an extra charge that the client will be subject to in the event of late payment. Something as simple as “A X% monthly finance charge will be applied to late payments.” can encourage clients to pay on time and avoid costs they hadn’t included in their budgets.
Keep Your Skills up to Date
Without an employer to require certification upkeep, you’ll have to keep track of this yourself. Set reminders on your computer and phone a few weeks before any certification expires, and make time to recertify. The areas of expertise you list on your resume, website, or LinkedIn attract clients looking for the best freelance designers, so keep the inbound leads coming in by staying up to date.
You may notice that the most in-demand design skills change over time and might even come from. This is no reason to panic. Instead, listen to design podcasts, read the latest blogs, and check out what design icons are focusing on to see if there are any areas where you can improve your skillset to be more competitive in the long term. For example, WordPress was dominant in the website content management scene for a whole decade. But more recently, new players, such as unconventional sources Wix or Webflow, jumped onto the scene and gained a significant audience. Even if your current clients are all WordPress users, it’s good to know about other key players in the space so that if any client decides to switch or a potential client inquires about your skill level, you can at least be proficient enough to secure that contract and make time to become an expert.
Some of these trainings will be free online tutorials, but others might be paid online or in-person courses. They can cost serious money and differentiate you and potentially broaden your network. Depending on where you live, you might even be able to write off these courses and certifications as business expenses when tax time comes, so don’t let the price tags scare you away. It’s simply an investment in your future freelance design career.
Invest in the Right Tools
Subscriptions are another place where you can’t skimp. The best tools enable your best work, so keep them up to date and don’t rely on clients to give you access. Sketch may be a non-negotiate for graphic designers, while product designers might choose Overflow, and app designers might not be able to live without Proto.io. With seemingly endless options out there, there’s no harm in utilizing free trials to try out new softwares as they come out. If you find something that works better than what you’ve been using for years, make the switch to improve your productivity and show potential clients that you’re at the forefront of your industry.
Getting the best hardware is an equally important piece of the puzzle (especially if you want to run the latest and greatest software for designers). While a brand or make and model recommendation isn’t necessary, the best computers and other hardware simply work. They should be reliable and enable you to do your best work. You don’t necessarily need to upgrade every two years if you’re regularly updating, but when your technology’s speed and abilities are no longer keeping up with the best on the market, it might be time to consider an upgrade.
Have Fun with it
Being a freelance designer comes with the distinct perk of choosing what you work on. Choose wisely and leave contracts that don’t serve you. Over time, you’ll get access to more clients that align with your interests. And you might even need to create an agency yourself!
What else do you think new freelance designers should be aware of? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio.
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