What you need to be a freelance graphic designer

different coloured crayons

I wasn’t always a freelance graphic designer. I used to teach English to Brazilian businessmen but that’s another story. I started by working for newspapers and magazines so my background is in print. By a mixture of application and good fortune I taught myself how to create usable, aesthetic, standards-compliant websites and discovered how to get visitors to them by running this blog. So I’m lucky to be able to offer a large range of services to my many amazing clients.

I’m also lucky that commuting into work for somebody else is a distant memory for me. But I distinctly remember an aura of elitism that existed around senior designers when I was starting out. Maybe it’s because I never went to design school but I passionately believe that anyone can do this (or anything) if they want. Here is what you need to have this fantastic career:
adobe creative suite

Proprietary Software

Adobe CS is the only proprietary software you’ll need. Of this suite of programs I find Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign are the ones you really need to get to grips with. Illustrator for vectors, Photoshop for photos, effects and graphics and InDesign for long documents. If you’re only interested in web design, you can scrub InDesign from the list. There are open source graphics packages such as Gimp but I would find things very difficult without Creative Suite.
cyberduck icon

Free Software

You will need software for just about everything. The good news is that most of it is available for free. I have just been featured Char Polanosky‘s blog detailing my essential tools.
imac

Hardware

I have an iMac at home and a Macbook for travel. You don’t need to go down the Mac route but it was what I started with so I’m hooked now. You will need a fairly powerful computer with a decent sized screen. You should also have external drives and a back up for when it all goes horribly wrong.
do not use comic sans written in different fonts

Fonts

All designers need a knowledge of typefaces. But take it nice and slow. Don’t rush out and buy Helvetica Neue or download a million free fonts. Continuously ask yourself when you see design work whether or not the font works with it and why. There are some fantastic new free fonts out there but you will need several weights of the classics.

camera

Imagery and graphics

We all the know the usual stock and micro-stock photo libraries but there are a lot of great free photography sites and lots of great free vector content out there too.

terminal

Web presence and host

If you want to be a freelance graphic designer, a freelance web designer or anything at all you need your own website. Do not waste your time putting your portfolio on a 3rd party site or indeed putting your details on a bidding site. You may experiment with these sites and social media later. The first thing you need to do is to decide on your web address, register it and get a shared server or VPS server to host your own personal website.

Get clients to come to you so that you don’t have to go out and find clients. Start a self hosted WordPress blog and write about what you do.
network

A network

This is an added section due to a very useful comment I got below from Jonathan. You are going to need a network of people, other designers, photographers, artists, developers, etc., to help you. Sometimes it’s just great to be able to ask for help. So, join design forums, participate in relevant LinkedIn groups, leave comments on blogs and generally interact with people both on and offline to strengthen and expand your network. Help people and they will help you.

Jonathan’s comment below is a case in point. He has made an excellent addendum to this post and now we are connected. Thanks, Jonathan!

people walking

Clients

I knew I was forgetting something… clients are more-or-less essential to your business! The one thing that I can not stress enough is the value of keeping clients. More than half the work I do is for existing clients rather than new business. And a significant amount of new business comes from recommendations. So, remember, the best clients are the ones you already have.

All the clients I have (apart from recommendations from old clients) have contacted me from this website. Which is why I think it’s so important to have an active website that appears high in Google searches for a variety of keywords. Regular readers of this blog will know I’ve written about how to market yourself in this way.

Anything else?

I’m not going to insult anyone by saying the usual: “you need a thick skin, hard work, dedication and passion” – I assume you have all these in spades as you are reading this. And, to be honest, you’re also probably going to need a little bit of luck. But, don’t we all? People will say you need talent. But I won’t. For me, hard work, dedication and passion will beat talent any day.

So, is that it? Is there anything else you need to be a freelance graphic designer?

Comments

  1. says

    It depends on which aspect of graphic design you apply. But, I find the most import thing to have as a graphic designer is a network of designers, illustrators, and photographers. This is especially important if you become a freelance art director.

  2. says

    Thank you, Jonathan, that’s actually such a glaring omission I’m going to have to add it in when I get a chance. I just didn’t see it as it was staring me in the face. Thank you!

  3. Mark Narusson says

    I notice you mention not going on the bidding sites. I’ve used one or two briefly and i must admit have got nowhere with it. Do you think it’s the fault of designers under-pricing themselves to get the work or the clients posting the projects and not really giving clear briefs and a decent budget?

    • says

      I’m not sure if I necessarily blame anyone for going on there and underselling themselves nor the clients who post the projects. But, my experience has been the same as yours, I’ve never had any luck with them. Even with Elance, which I think is one of the better ones, it’s incredibly difficult to get anything if you have no on-site reputation – a bit of a Catch 22 if ever there was one.

      I just can’t speak highly enough of putting out your own stuff on your own site regularly and making sure you have quality links to it. Much better to get people to come to you rather than vice versa. Nice to see you here again, Mark, have a great weekend!

  4. Mary M says

    I’m just starting to get requests from prospective clients (friends who have seen my work on facebook that I’ve put up and also, by word of mouth). I take classes and work during the day so my time is precious, but like a lot of other artists, I could use the money. My problem has been clients who try to describe what they want online, but they simply can’t communicate clearly. They can’t reference correctly what they want changed, they don’t realize that they’re talking in gibberish, incomplete sentences and giving very vague descriptions of what they want done differently. I’ve even had one lady take my design that took me hours upon hours to do, and then passed it around to her elderly friends who have no design background to make further suggestions on my design. I’ve had to make edit after edit, after edit for these people. How do I put an end to it, nicely. Also, how do I politely refuse people who just ask me, “Can you do this or that for me?” as if I have time to do work for them for free?! Why do people not understand, this is work that takes time, that I need to get paid for.

  5. says

    Hello Mary, I hear you. We’ve all been there! All clients are not created equal. Some are nothing but a joy to work with; others you will be better off not having anything to do with.

    These things improve with experience. First of all, I always have in writing exactly the nature of the job plus the amount of design stages (this is very important – so there’s a clear end in sight). As for your question, how do you put an end to it all, I have no great ideas. Just tell them to go away. And if anyone asks you to do something for free tell them “no”.

    I hope this helps but, if not, I’ll be writing more about this here soon. So, stay tuned!

  6. Jamil says

    I’m about to embark on my graphic design journey and I have so many questions that you are answering by your blog alone. I was wondering if there was any way to NOT pay the price of a Mac plus a mini Mac for the Adobe software. I’ve been looking everywhere for months. In the end, of course I’ll invest in it but if there is a way I can get it without paying so much that would be great.

  7. says

    Hello Jamil, you don’t have to use a Mac and if you want a Mac you don’t have to have two. As far as Adobe is concerned, there are limited online versions of Photoshop, etc. Good luck on your journey.

    Thanks, Nick, it’s good, indeed, to be a freelancer.

  8. Jamil says

    Thank you for responding. I think you’re confusing my words LOL I was saying that the Adobe software costs as much as two Macs…I already have a computer…:-P but you answered my question anyway. Thanks Rob!

  9. joanne maguire says

    hi, i am still a student this is my final year and i have been looking for jobs and internships, but nothing is coming up or i haven’t enough experience, so iv been thinking about becoming a freelancer to see if it will help. your site has been really helpful but im wondering do you think it would be good for me to do this as i haven’t got the experience in graphics or even being my own boss. i have a mac and all the software i need but i dont have the printing services i would need to keep the quality of work. there is so many questions i have and i have no idea where to start. i am very nervous about becoming a freelancer.

  10. Mark Narusson says

    Re: Jo’s comments. I would advise you to get as much commercial experience as possible first – work for free if you have to. This will give you valuable experience in taking briefs, working with the various software packages and also coming to grips with artworking/supplying print files. I’m sure that for a lot of students, they lack the knowledge to produce work in a commercial situation. Going freelance is a scary prospect even for a seasoned professional. I hope that helps and good luck. :)

  11. says

    Hello, Joanne, I would echo Mark‘s comments there and to say that you should give it a go. If you have the computer equipment and software then the printing services, if you need them, can be done by the local printer. Experience is what you need and it will teach you a lot about being your own boss, etc. But there’s no time like the present to start.

    Oh, and I’ve just written this blog post: http://robcubbon.com/how-to-get-freelance-graphic-design-jobs

  12. Timbo says

    Yeah ! i thought that was some pretty good information. To be honest I am a little scared of making this move but on the other hand its the one thing i have always wanted to do. Thank you for your honesty and clear direction of getting your self established as a freelancer. Hope you dont mind if i keep you posted on the progress that am making or rather the steps am taking to make all this come to pass.

  13. says

    Hello Timbo, I would love you to keep me posted as to what works and what doesn’t work in getting freelance work. I hope you find plenty on this site to help you. Get work in your free time first – it’s the best way. Best of luck!

  14. John Johnston says

    HI there rubbon well im thinking of buying meself a good latop with a gd external memory and exellent graphics and teaching myself garphic design and ive found that your webpage is very helpful indeed. I guess you could say im starting at the bottom of da food chain and working my to the top..when I get there you can send me a bacon sandwhich.. no wait a minute steak.. cause thats what they have for lunh at the top.

    • says

      Well, whatever I buy you, thinking of it is making me hungry. Keep at it, my friend, you can do it. It doesn’t matter where you start or where you finish – the journey is the most important thing – and fun too! Here’s an article about buying a laptop for web design a friend of mine wrote recently. All the best, John.

  15. Mike says

    Really enjoyed this article Rob, very helpful for Graphic Designers looking to improve their chances of seeking Freelance work. Jonathon’s suggestion of a network was spot on.

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