I have decided to write this as I have been asked so many times in the past month how I became a Freelance Graphic Designer that I started to analyse ‘How the hell am I working?’
I have spoken to a lot of budding freelancers recently, and many factors seem to repeat themselves as to why it is not working for them. So I decided to write this in the hope that someone out there can take some information, and help themselves to achieving their dream of being a freelance designer. It is the best job in the world but how do you make it work for you?
The truth probably lies somewhere between luck and hard work, and looking deeper into it can either make you stronger – or more paranoid! So I thought I would take a look at what I do, what effects it has, and is there anything I can learn to improve my chances of survival in these difficult times. Starting as a freelance designer is notoriously difficult but there are many of us out there so it can be done. But you have to be prepared for difficulties, to spend, and to fail and succeed. Nothing worth doing is easy and never has that applied more than by going alone.
Having an interest in all things Design
What do I mean by this? Well, I illustrate, I design logos, I create websites, I produce the total range of printed collateral that most businesses need. Some would say a Jack of all trades, a master of none. I would argue I can offer a full range of services to a client who approaches me. If they ask for a logo, I can then offer business stationery, flyers, a website, email marketing and even a bit of SEO advice (We will come to this later). Having a full skill set, means I never have to send a client away to get another job done and invariably become sort of useful to them.
Never stopping learning
Over the last two years I have learned many things. A lot of stuff I probably wont use more than once, and some I will use day after day. But one of the most valuable lessons I learned, albeit by accident, is how to build a website properly. By properly, I mean with correct H1, H2, H3 tags, titles, descriptions, internal linking and where to promote it. And the best way I could practice was on my own website, well one of them – See here. So I rebuilt it from the bottom up. As most designers know, creating something for yourself is THE hardest job you will ever take on, but I think I helped myself but not focusing just on the design – but also the build. In having the distraction of making sure each page had good content with copy, proper internal linking, and fully optimising it I managed to propel my site high up the search engine rankings, purely using on-site techniques. It was good for me as a website builder, but even better when I popped up a few pages onto page one and suddenly the phones started ringing a whole lot more.
What am I trying to say? Essentially, I didn’t sit back and think, I’m a good designer, I don’t need to know about SEO, or how to market myself because being good, people will find me. Reality check here. They wont. Get yourself interested in what it takes to make a website work. It will be beneficial for your clients when you build theirs, and it is invaluable for yourself in building a presence.
I work in Manchester. It is a big, and creative city. There are many, many designers, who don’t look at their website and think ‘What do I need to do FOR ME?’. Take a week off, read, read and read some more. Talk to people. Examine successful sites and look what you can take from them in how they promote themselves. Analyse the code. The structure and what they do well, and what don’t do quite as well. If your site isn’t ranking highly, spend money on it. Get a copywriter in to write your content, your calls to action, your mission statements. Get PPC to get higher up, yes it costs money but you know yourself how annoying it is when a client wants everything, but wont spend to achieve it. So apply this to yourself. There is a nasty old cliche – ‘You have to speculate to accumulate’ – and as cringable as it is, it is true.
When I look back, my old site was very self indulgent, light on words and wasn’t performing for clients, or in the rankings. I put up my favourite pieces of work. Ones I was proud of. With no descriptions. Ones I had nearly shed tears over but I found out that they were the ones that clients weren’t interested in. Not my fault, I valued them, I thought they were my best work, but they weren’t the ones that clients were looking for. So I needed to change that. Nor was Google interested, as it was just a page of pictures. It was a bit like walking into a meeting, putting pictures on the table and not saying a word – then leaving. It was never going to work so I ripped it up and started again.
Getting outside help
This proved to be the best move I made. I asked people what they thought were the best pieces. What pieces they liked and why. And not one of these people was a designer. The results were interesting and proved to be a bit of an epiphany. Some of the designs that were unanimously chosen were ones that I hadn’t thought were ‘my’ best. But you cannot argue with consistency so on their judgement I uploaded them to my website. It totally changed the feel of my website and coupled with a very good copywriter, the message changed, the tone changed and the results changed. Almost overnight.
It was a new beginning, and I reminded myself that this was the beauty of being able to do this myself. There are no cost implications, there is nothing that you can’t change, nothing has to be permanent but I owed it to myself to listen to people. So I set to work getting out there – you know, outside your room, outside your comfort zone – and showed people, spoke to them. And it worked.
Talk. Talk. And talk some more.
As a breed, your average Freelance Designer is a pretty insular character – not one for chatting to people, going to networking events, just talking to people. You will normally find a designer is neck deep in his own thoughts, their design processes, and his own habits. I urge you to stop. Who is going to come and knock on your door and ask you to help if you aren’t out there selling yourself. Its good practice as you are in the selling business. You are helping people sell their businesses so why do you not do it for yourself? You have knowledge in making something look good, now get out there and make it sound good too. Plus, all that time alone is not good for the soul. Believe me. I know.
Network. Till your feet hurt and your head pops.
Sounds like hell doesn’t it. But it needn’t be. A lot of my clients are referrals – recommendations from clients I have worked for who told their friends that I was good and good value. But I had to get out there to meet these people at first. I didn’t just get out on my feet. I used LinkedIn, Twitter, Delicious and Pinterest – please use LinkedIn, it is the most under-rated social network of our ‘Facebook’ age group. No there are no pictures of people getting drunk, nor stupid phrases that are meant to be life changing, but there are people. Lots of them. With businesses. And if you speak to them, they will speak back. I know…. its crazy huh. It’s a lot of work, a lot of time, but it is worth it. Especially if you want to be a freelancer and be your own boss. We all had bosses that we didn’t get, like, or understand and the best thing you can do is learn from them – As in not what to do. I did. And the biggest lesson I took was that old cliche “Treat people how you would like to be treated.”
It works for me. If something doesn’t happen, a lead doesn’t materialise, a job doesn’t come off, then don’t kill yourself over it or become negative. Move on. A cup of tea, a cigarette and then its onwards and upwards. Ignore it, learn from it and take something from the negative. Crikey. I sound like one of those ‘life changing phrases’.
Surround yourself with the right people. I now have a black book of some of the North Wests best creatives. From illustrators, to developers to copywriters and beyond. If I am to busy, I can recommend someone to a client who calls, or if i need advice I can speak to them. Or I can commission them myself. It works in reverse too – I get calls that have been forwarded to me by other designers who cannot take them on but have been pointed in my direction. Without getting out there and meeting many people none of this would have happened.
Get your rates right
Your average design agency charges anything from £75 per hour. Some designers on People-per-hour can charge a pittance. So pitch yourself in between. Do not undercut yourself. Going in cheap devalues your skills, your appearance and perception from clients. You need to earn a living, they need a service. You have studied design, digested it, had success and also mistakes and this is what makes you the designer you are today. So charge accordingly and you will get work. I made plenty of mistakes starting out where I was so desperate for work I almost ended up doing ridiculous amounts of work for a very small fee. Its a learning curve and I do not do this any more. I have a rate card, sat on my desk that I can refer to in a flash when the phone rings and I stick to it. I also have a sheet I ask clients to fill in that really enables me to work out the correct costing – A creative brief - I lose as many as I get commissioned for but the people who commission me invariably value my skills and are happy to pay for them. Rightly so as i take a personal interest in every project I undertake.
A new business start-up is an exciting project. It is the opportunity to enable someone else to live the dream of being their own boss and I love putting myself in their shoes. It excites me and I want to give them the best available platform to succeed. I offer advice, not just design – I have seen many businesses start up and some fly and some take a while to get going. Some fail too. But you have to remember you are just giving them the tools to succeed, what they do after that is their own choice but the ones who are going to do better are the ones who are happy to spend, on advertising, on setting up PPC (pay-per-click) in their sites infancy.
And here we come full circle. Everything you do for a new business, you need to do for yourself. And a whole lot more. Be professional. Promote yourself. Meet people. Pay for Google AdWords if your site is not ranking highly. Knock on doors. Do not give up. And it will come. It wont be easy, there are sleepless nights through worry, and also through hard work. But it WILL happen if you believe in it, and on speaking to people your enthusiasm shines through. People want a designer who can show them that you are the best choice, the designer to help them succeed.
And you have the perfect platform to do this for yourself.
UPDATE – May 21st 2013
Well, now I am in your shoes, I have gone limited, so now have to set up a new website, with no history, or traffic and promote it up the rankings to gain clients from it. I could just 301 Redirect my old site, but I thought this could be the perfect opportunity to show you what I do to get a new site ranking well, in a relatively short space of time. If you fancy seeing this at work, let me know and I can write a fresh post, detailing all I am doing for my new site. Which incidentally is http://www.designersupnorth.com – Weeks old, and already on the rise. See if you can spot a few tricks that are making that happen already
UPDATE – March 6th 2014
I can now confirm that in under one year, my company’s new website has accrued a PageRank of 4, resides happily on pages 1 and 2 of Googles results for my chosen keywords and all done with pure unique content generation and page optimisation techniques. There are no hidden secrets, nothing but pure hard work and original content, building relationships in social media and also using traditional promotion techniques such as flyers, posters and brochures. Hop on over to the blog today and you can see how…37