How to Run a Graphic Design Business

We have many dreams when we were young. Some want to be rich. Some want to create great things. Some want to make a difference and do work that they enjoy.

design

However, many of us find ourselves disillusioned by corporate structures when we start to work. If this has happened to you then, don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s happened to many designers. And more and more of them are starting their own companies.

Advice for Running a Graphic Design Business from the Experts

I sent off a quick questionnaire to a few freelance or independent graphic designers to see if there were any “rules” or common practices involved in running a graphic design business from home. The answers were fascinating, we found out, for example, that most of us charge 50% up front, only 50% of us always use contracts and that we spend on average 1.6 hours a day indulging in personal social media unrelated to work. More results here:

At the end of the questionnaire there was space for the designers to write a few more words of advice to up-and-coming designers who want to “go it alone”. When I put these all together I thought they comprised a great “how-to” for mastering the design industry. I agree with all of them 100%. Follow these words closely and you can’t go wrong.

david airey

David Airey

David Airey is a brand identity designer or the “go-to logo guy” who’s clients include the Yellow Pages (Canada), Giacom (England) and Berthier Associates (Japan). His graphic design blogs Logo Design Love, DavidAirey.com and brand identity showcase Identity Designed attract more than one million monthly page views. His successful book Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities has been translated into Chinese, Portuguese, Czech, German, Polish, Korean, and Russian.

I’ve been reading’s David’s blogs for years, in fact, I almost use David as a “yardstick” to judge my site against as he is that much of a shining example of a graphic designer in business. Interesting that David, a man who doesn’t seem to make mistakes, chose this quote as one to advise designers with:

“Don’t be afraid of mistakes. Everyone makes them. The important part is accepting responsibility and learning from your errors.”

douglas bonneville

Douglas Bonneville

Douglas Bonneville runs a “small and nimble” graphic design firm in Rhode Island and has serviced Providence, Boston and the world since 1992. Doug began his blog and moved his site over to WordPress two years ago and quickly became established as a typography expert. He has been published on Smashing Magazine and other industry blogs on the subject of font combinations and now offers The Big Book Of Font Combinations eBook as well as the Font Combinations iPhone app on his site.

This strategy of finding what you’re good at and sticking at it is reflected in this piece of advice:

“Find a niche and fill it. You may have to start broad but narrow your skill set and master some specialty niches. If you don’t, you will join the nameless ranks of generalists who were also afraid to specialize, and now pay the price of flipping burgers with most of their time. Generalists have little definable expertise and thus little definable value.”

randa clay

Randa Clay

Randa Clay is an awesome designer and WordPress expert. She seeks to help her clients become successful, utilising a complete package of services that includes custom logo design, print design and production, custom web site and blog design and customization. So like me she considers herself a marketing consultant as well as a graphic designer.

Randa came up with a couple of things. The first was a link to this rather fantastic image created by Ben Crick:

do not work for free

“Do not work for free under the guise of good exposure. It is bad exposure. If you don’t value your own work, neither will anyone else.”

I’m not going to disagree with that! As soon as a potential client asks for free work from me, they’re 5 seconds away from the end of the conversation! Her second piece of advice is just as good. This goes along with something I’ve been saying here for years: start your own blog and forge partnerships with others in your field. Read every word of it:

“If you want to get business you must have an awesome website, showing your best work and a nice, friendly picture of yourself. People prefer to hire someone who looks friendly rather than a faceless internet presence. Include a blog on the site (for the SEO value if nothing else). Find successful designers in the same niche and get to know them by commenting on their blogs, Twitter, etc. Once you’ve established a relationship, send them a nice note, complementing their work, and let them know you do similar work.Tell them if they ever have pass-along work they don’t have time for, you’d appreciate a referral.”

chris spooner

Chris Spooner

Chris Spooner doesn’t just sit in front of his shiny Apple computer all day long creating snazzy designs for cool folks from around the world, he blogs about it as well. His first blog contains beautiful tutorials for designers on Photoshop, Illustrator and the like as well as fantastic video advice for designers. And in March 2009 he launched Line25, an equally excellent blog covering all aspects of web design. He also has a labrador called Jake and goes on a lot about Black Ops which I believe is some sort of computer game.

Chris’s advice is pure Chris. Read it carefully as it basically summarises his success in the last few years in only a few words:

“I always advise up-and-coming designers to just keep practicing and experimenting. Use things that capture your interest in everyday life as material for personal projects, then share your thoughts, processes and the things you learn with others. This is essentially what I do on a daily basis and has seemed to land me some great opportunities so far!”

ryan scherf

Ryan Scherf

Ryan Scherf is an designer, developer, author, teacher and entrepreneur from Minneapolis, MN, USA. You just have to look at some of the work featured on his homepage to see that Ryan produces some of the most beautiful and creative websites you will ever see. When he’s not slaving away at night for his clients, he’s working on his healthcare startup Bloom Health. Although Ryan has only had 5 hours sleep in the last 3 weeks due to a new addition to his family, he still found time to contribute to this project. Thanks and congratulations, Ryan.

Ryan sent two, equally useful pieces of advice. The first one I agree with wholeheartedly. I’ve said many times on my blog it’s far easier to get clients to come to you rather than the other way round.

“Always be promoting yourself. The best way to find new leads is let them come to you.”

And secondly, he echoes the advice we found from our survey results about how designers get paid:

“Require 50% upfront, and don’t accept payment on monthly plans. It never works out how you intended.”

mike smith

Mike Smith

Mike Smith runs Made By Guerrilla a WordPress design studio from Knoxville, Tennessee, USA as well as a hugely interesting freelance design blog. Since he started working online in 2007, he has worked with over 200 clients, built hundreds of websites and wrote and published over 200 articles on various blogs, with topics ranging from freelance tips, design resources, showcase, tutorials and to “Guerrilla Marketing”. Mike describes guerilla marketing as “any of a number of unconventional methods of marketing with minimal resources for maximum results; any marketing campaign that uses non-mainstream tactics and locations”.

“Advice for other designers looking to start a freelance business – it’s not always going to be fun (invoicing, accounting, etc) but at the end of the day, it beats the hell out of going to someone else’s building and working to make someone else rich while we receive a small pay check :)”

karen mcdade

Karen McDade

Karen McDade is a South African freelance graphic designer currently working in Ireland. She has a blog where she writes about graphic design, mac stuff, software, games, books, etc., and displays her portfolio at OmegaRed.

Karen’s advice is right on the money for me where she stresses the importance of distinguishing between clients and time wasters:

“I would advise people to not take on just any client – if they hassle you about your price, or give you a lot of uphill then don’t bother with them. Nurture the relationships you have with your good clients, they are hard to find. Be prompt when corresponding with them and always give them your best work.”

john o'nolan

John O’Nolan

John o’Nolan is a designer, entrepreneur, speaker, author, photographer but has taken to using the phrase “creative professional” to describe himself. He is the Deputy Head of the UI group for WordPress, founder and owner of Lyrical Media and avid twitterer.

It’s a little surprise then that this man of many words chose comparatively few to advise people in the business of graphic design:

“Under-promise, over-deliver, over-charge. If you fail to do any of these, you will make a loss.”

Now it’s your turn

Did we leave anything out? Is there anything you’d like to add to these words of wisdom? Which was your favorite?

I’ll leave you with this limerick from Douglas Bonneville:

There once was a graphic designer
Who could not draw a straight liner
Fresh out of school
She thought she was cool
And soon was a cook in a diner!

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Comments

  1. says

    Some interesting pointers and useful networking links. I’ll certainly be following a couple of the guys on your list. Thanks again Rob.

  2. says

    Rob, I dipped my toes into the your website, blog and subscribed to your twitter feed a while back and am constantly inspired both creatively and technically to better myself as someone who works in the design industry through what you are doing. Articulate, current, funny and innovative. Keep up the good work and keep on making the waves! Ranj

    • says

      Ranj, I’m very glad you dipped your toes because comments like yours really keep me going. More good stuff to follow on the blog, the Twitter feed and in the newsletters!

  3. says

    Rob,

    Excellent Blog! I love how you pulled in all these experts into one blog post! It’s been great connecting with you on Twitter also. Keep up the great work!

    Joe Shaw

  4. says

    Some great tips on here for freelancers in the creative industry. Thanks for doing the groundwork pulling them all together, Rob! I particularly agree with the advice given by Douglas Bonneville about the importance of specialising in something rather than trying to cover too many areas of work. As a freelance writer I’ve learnt that it’s better to focus on one type of customer and deliver to a niche market, rather than provide any kind of writing service to ‘everyone’.

  5. says

    Rob,

    Thanks so much for the great free download; so clear and straightforward!

    I was missold a huge CIW course encompasing CompTIA A+ the latter of which has little relevance to Web Design (my intended career choice) but as I have now realized more an IT technician’s path. However I am close to competing the first exam, so having put so much work in, I guess I must complete it now.

    I am therefore hoping your simple advice on wordpress and site creation etc., will enable me to fast-track a bit of Web learning and get an on-line presence for some of my creative work at last!

    At 61, I know I’m crazy to embark on such a career change, but having some prior knowledge of Point-of-Sale Design, and a degree of experience in screen print, and page design (Adobe InDesign, Freehand and Photoshop) and journalism, I’m itching to get on line. -I also need the money!

    Please tell me the CompTIA A+ isn’t all wasted effort!

    Many thanks again Rob for sharing your expertise.

    Mike Burns

    • says

      Hello Mike, I’m not familiar with the CompTIA A+ but if you learned something from it then I’m sure it served a purpose. If I were you I would go ahead and set up a WordPress site using my tutorials How to set up a website and How to install WordPress. Your experience with Photoshop will definitely stand you in good stead. Other than that web publishing is just a learning curve that you have to go through but nothing you can’t do. If you have any problems you can just google them or ask here – I’d be happy to help. :)

      • says

        Thanks for the advice Rob. Really kind of you!
        I must admit, a career change at my age is unnerving, but though I am keeping an eye out for jobs relevent to my Comptia course, I really feel at my age, my best option is probably to continue in freelance / self employment of which I am familiar.
        The CompTIA course is permitting me to feel more comfortable with I.T. in general and the Networking modules in the course, should prove particularly useful for Web Design (I would think).
        My previous experience is in 24 years of running a business designing and manufacturing acrylic Point of Sale, but with Chinese erroding all manufacturing profit, and now wanting something a little less ‘physical’ computer graphics or journalism does seem one of the few avenues open to me for which I feel a degree of aptitude and a modest level of experience.
        As a first step into this potential new venture, I have recently designed some brochures for print in InDesign for an entertainment agency ( sadly almost no real money involved) but for which I have received some praise from several impartial quarters.
        Rob, for someone just feeling their way by uploading a new creative online presence, do you have any advice on content with a view to generating some business?
        I was considering using my new brochure designs along with some Freehand vector Point of Sale drawings and even some of my film reviews and the odd captioned comic photos, as a starting point on a WordPress site following your guidelines
        I am reminded of another creative artist on your you Blog advising specialization rather than trying to be all things to all people, but as a newcomer trying to find his ‘creating feet’ in a new media can you advise me Rob, as to general content I could put on the site to generate a bit of interest and perhaps even the odd commision or two?

        Many apologies for the ramble, but your advice is always welcome. I guess I need all the advice I can get!

        Thank you again for the help. I will definately be trying my hand with WordPress!

  6. says

    (Reply to Mike)

    Familiarity with computers is very important and, along with the ability to type quickly and the ability to string a sentence together, are things we don’t mention enough but are of fundamental importance. But the thing is, the best way to improve these skills, as with everything, is to use them. The more you do; the more you’ll learn how to do.

    Another important thing is that everyone has fantastic unique set of skills. You certainly prove this rule with your skillset.

    As for content, at first write about the subjects you are most comfortable with. I agree the Point of Sale niche may not be as lucrative as it once was but you may like to write about how to prepare the digital artwork for it. Or about the products and materials involved. Or how to design a brochure using InDesign.

    The creative artist that recommends specialisation, Doug, also once compared his blog writing to an hour glass. He started broad and wrote about everything, then narrowed down to his specialisation and then widened out again after he had exhausted that niche and found a new one.

    I think starting to write is very important. You see what works and what doesn’t by viewing your Google Analytics stats and by observing the feedback.

    Hope this helps.

    • says

      Thanks again Rob.

      I think these kind of forums are invaluable. Self-study learning can be a lonely experience, and no one can live in a vacuum, however self sufficient the think they are. Your fellow creative Doug’s hourglass is a good metaphor; one I will certainly take on board for the time being. If I may be so pertinent, I shall let you have a link to my website when I get it up and running (note the when not if – my attempt at positive thinking!) As your download instruction is most likely to be the initial impetus behind my efforts, it will be the least I can do!

      Thanks again for the advice.

      Mike

  7. says

    Iv been in the print industry for around 3 years now, and becoming really unhappy with my working enviroments and would really love to go freelance. As i have well, never done anything like this before I have absolutely no idea where to begin and what to expect. Is there any advice or guidelines you can offer a new freelance graphic designer on starting out?

  8. says

    This is so valuable! I will totally take the tips previously listed into deep consideration. I believe I found my niche. I love print. Everything about it. I understand the importance of linking friends with more experienced professionals. Often, I believed it was for social status. Talking and making relationships with more experienced professionals will be great career busters.

  9. says

    Hello Rob,

    Quite a spot on article. The comments and the tips are absolutely consistent with my experience. I’ve been a Designer/Illustrator/Art Director for 30 years and somehow survived the transition from physical media to the digital world. I’m in the third phase of my career that I might call “Freelance II.” I started as a freelancer, back in the days when a handshake was a contract. Transitioned into “Desktop Publishing” and went through a period as a Staff Art Director, till I was relieved from corporate servitude in the post-9/11 recession – along with about 30% of the Design and Publishing industry in the NYC region.

    Now freelancing full time again, and making a modest living serving the Small Business community. I have definitely found religion concerning niche, contracts, deposits and NO spec work. But the biggest change for me was the value of strategic alliances with related pros. In the current age, Web Design has crept up to a bit over half my total volume, and being able to call on technical pros for skill past my “tech level”, especially back end programming, has been the difference between finishing and turning down or dropping projects.

    Thanks for this. Nice!

    • says

      Hello Kurt, I’m glad you liked the article. All the advice was 100% consistent with my experience as well. I have a similar background to you although I would say web work is more like 80-90% of what I do.

  10. says

    Hey Rob,

    I have to say this has been a very ‘enlightening’ article to say the least. I’m just starting out in freelance myself while I’m holding down other work and like a lot of people just finding their way into this, I found myself a bit lost trying to start out. Its really good to be able to see a few ‘words of wisdom’ from a few experts in the industry all in the one place.

    Thanks!

  11. Ben says

    This is the great. you are right about 50% upfront payment. It is the way of running business. I am very excited for reading about popular designer.

  12. Simi says

    Thanks for sharing Rob, really appreciate your keenness in sharing all these, keep up the good work.

  13. Mark Hallam says

    Lots of comments about getting paid the right amount ….must be an issue ;-)

    Great post as always Rob.