how to geto work as a freelancer

How to be a freelance graphic designer

I have decided to write this as I have been asked so many times in the past month how to be 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 – 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…



  1. Ian Hunter

    Thanks for sharing this. I found it encouraging, as I am trying to find my niche in the design field.

  2. Nicola Fleming

    Great bit of advice and insight there! Cheers :)

  3. Selena McIntyre

    Great Advice. I love the tip about showing your work to others to see which pieces they like best. Not only do you get their insights on your work, you are also getting the word out about what you do.

    I also love linked in. I’ve received some great advice & met really good people too.

    • admin

      LinkedIn is absolutely the best network for building valuable relationships. You may not get work, you may not get money, but you sure get a load of great advice, help and wisdom from people who have been there and done it. Thanks for the kinds words :)

  4. mick ward

    Great ideas and I am going to add another one about Networking; get yourself a good relationship with a recruiter – someone who understands what you do, how you tick, how you work, what you’re brilliant at etc. and someone who values you and will get a fair and realistic rate for you.
    All my clients ask me for freelance graphic designers, I see literally thousands in a year and cherry-pick the best ones for my clients. I have many happy freelancers getting steady and regular well paid work- how good is that?

  5. Stephen Weston

    Good blog. I’m not a graphic designer, or a draffy, but I design & invent and consult a lot. I have two businesses, one a consultancy, based around many of my designs, one a trading company, getting my invention to market.

    But your comments are absolutely valid to many roles where a one person company has to both find the work and then do the work. In particular, your points on setting rates. I thought long & hard about what rates I can charge, (IE: from ‘should charge’ to ‘what I can get away with’) and have started to get consultancy work at rates commensurate with my skills & experience. How? By marketing, networking & walking away from the tyre kickers & freebie chasers!

    Rather than taking the cut-price job for a week or so, that will invariably be a hassle, use that week to market services at the right price to the right audience.

    • admin

      Great call Stephen. Those tyre kickers are out there in their hundreds. I seem to have developed a fairly good alarm system to those!You’re right though, you are better off aiming for the right audience. There’s enough ‘designers’ out there who will work for peanuts and are actually devaluing design and themselves. It’s hard to stick to your guns, I know, but the pro’s outweigh the cons for me.

  6. Lizz B.

    This was great, I really enjoyed reading and identify with so much of what you said. I would have liked to imagine myself more in the story, however, which was hard to do because you stuck strictly to male pronouns. You wrote as if this was a monologue from a Mad Men script! 😉 I’m a woman, a designer, an entrepreneurial spirit, and I want to be a successful freelancer someday as well. Articles like this can help, if I can see myself in your shoes. :)


    • admin

      Thanks Lizz and sorry for the ‘Mad Men’ angle haha – It wasn’t intentional and I shall ensure future posts are written with you in mind!

  7. Tataji

    Thank you very much, interesting and inspiring lot.

  8. Gordon Laurens

    Great blog James, I was especially interested in your comments on rates as this is the part of my business that I struggle most with. As it is a fine balance charging an acceptable rate and getting regular work, as there seems to be an ever increasing number of sites where designers bid for low budget jobs.

    Fortunately not everyone wants to work solely through email and meeting face to face with clients is key to estbilishing a working relationship where clients trust your expertise and skills.

  9. Lisa

    Hi James,

    I have found your blog very helpful in confirming what I have discovered 😉 After 6 1/2 years in business with my feet hardly touching the ground with so much work I am now learning the things I have not done – rebuilding the website – wow – almost there (have changed tack several times on design and layout depending on who I spoke to!) Have myself a mentor from NZ Business Mentors – so starting to delve into my mind! eek And he keeps telling me to get out there and Network, Network, Network!
    I will follow your blog as like the way you ‘waffle’ 😉 Thanks very much for sharing. Regards Lisa

  10. Ajay Bansal

    Great Advice, I am also trying for good clients as now I started freelancing

  11. Terika Andrea

    Wow.. Great advice. This is a must read , to every designer out there!!

  12. Fani Nicheva

    Words of wisdom. Thank you for your generosity. Heck, I’ll hire you without blinking.

  13. Estelle Erasmus

    Hi, thank you for your article, I realize I need to do something about my website as it has been years since I’ve even looked at it, I am always too busy working on paying client’s work rather than my own stuff. My clients always take first place but it is important to realize that you have to work on the business of tomorrow.

    The time has come, thank you for reminding me!

  14. Nicole

    Thanks for this, it has been a little sliver of light in a dark passage :)

    • admin

      Never, ever, give up I say. If you know this is meant to be your career path it will happen. Keep smiling and believing!

  15. Selena McIntyre

    Great Article!

    Linkedin is very under-rated, but has helped me learn a lot. I’ve posted a few questions and received great, helpful responses but no work. How do you take Linkedin to the next level to get work? (I have a Behance portfolio linked to it, but need to ask people what they think of my work & focus on it instead of what I think is the best.)

    • admin

      Hi Selena,

      Thanks for the feedback, really is much appreciated – LinkedIn is a great resource for opinions and making relationships that will come to fruition for work. What I found i spending time building friendships with no ulterior motive has been the main plus. Instead of offering up your services, I find just offering opinions to people who are searching for designers with no charge, no sell and no offer of ‘I could help you out on this’ works. Just tell them what to do. They inevitably appreciate it and some come back to you with the offer of money. Then they are happy to recommend you without you asking for it. It is hard, dont get me wrong, alot of time, effort and information that you would normally charge for but I have gained one long term client off of Linkedin who now more than pays my rent every month, and that was purely becuase I didnt fish for the work. I just chatted. I told him places to go where he could get information, resources, told him acceptable rates, work practices, things to look out for and gave guidance on his project that I would have normally charged for. The funny thing is, someone said to me ‘What goes around comes around’ and there were days I thought I should be charging, but hey, guess what – Doing a good deed eventually came back to me and now I get paid handsomely for it.

      The main issue I find with Linkedin is people go straight for the kill on it – always pushing services, always offering to do work. i say just relax, put the kettle on and treat it more as a bar where like minded people congregate. Speak, laugh, argue and be yourself. That is the best way forward for me :)

      • Selena McIntyre

        Thanks. :) I can build relationships much easier than I can push myself & my design services. I guess that’s the key that people tend to forget/miss all together.

  16. Kemar

    Great piece of advice. Experience is the key as it will force you to constantly reevaluate yourself.

  17. Laura

    Thank you for writing this. I am toying with the idea of freelancing as a ‘full time’ gig, and wondering where to start. These are great tips. My biggest challenge is in figuring out my rate. I have found formulas, but where I run in to trouble is correctly figuring out how long it might take me to do a project. Do you have any tips on that subject?

    • admin

      Hi Laura, rates are a difficult one for every single freelancer – I still get it wrong occasionally but I have managed over time to pretty much be able to guess how long things will take. There are some great resources out there for helping you to work out a rate but I always think if you are trained, have knowledge and enthusiasm you are more than entitled to a miinimum of £25 per hour – although saying that most jobs now are calculated on a ‘job rate’, not hourly.

      Always ensure you build in time for emailing, phone calls, ‘fiddy’ bits that clients will do at the end and always ad up to another 20 minutes, plus the time it takes to source images and file everything correctly. I work at a lowest rate of £35 per hour and in my book everything, and I mean everything, takes a minimum hour and a half when everything is added up so even small jobs are charged at £50.

      I also found having a creative brief I can email to clients really helps – its amazing what extra information you find out when they have to answer a few questions. I will post mine up in the near future in case it is any help.

      Hope this helps :)

    • admin

      You’re more than welcome to contact me via email and I will try to help you. The main piece of advice i would offer is do not undervalue your skills and time. It may take you 20 miutes to fulfill a brief, but only because you have years of experience and that has a price all of its own.

  18. Leora Wenger

    You write well on the woes of freelancing and how to stand out when there is a big pack. I should take some of your advice myself.

    I’m wondering how you found Bloggers Helping Bloggers – did you just stumble upon the group or did someone recommend it? You have a lot of great comments and connections already.

    And now that I’ve read your post, I should go look at your work.

    • admin

      Thanks Leora, I was recommended to come to Bloggers helping Bloogers and it really is a great resource for advice and getting a wide variety of views. I only do this as a way of letting of steam, chattering and just mixing up the inane with serious views I have. It’s fun and needn’t take more than half an hour every day and I have made some great online friends from it. Plus learnt a hell of a lot even after nearly 20 years of doing ‘Freelance’.

      I always remember something my old grandad used to say – You have 2 ears and one mouth for a reason – Listen twice as much as you talk and you’ll learn a lot more.

      Cheers Grandad. best advice ever :)

  19. Kelly Wade

    I know a lot of people who graduated with degrees in graphic design and are still struggling finding a full time position. This is great advice and information. Basically you have to work hard and put yourself out there because there are so many talented graphic designers with portfolios full of good work. I think this is useful information for a lot of people.

    • admin

      Thanks Kelly, appreciate it. You’re right, I know many far more talented designers who are working in shops and desk jobs because they thought it would automatically happen for them and waited for the world to land in their lap. It’s frustrating to see but your own work ethic makes the difference a lot of the time. Plus I love to talk haha (as you can probably tell). Another thing a lot of freelancers don’t do. You can learn something off of everyone you meet or talk to I reckon, even if it’s not a positive. Thanks for taking the time to comment and hope to hear from you again :)

  20. Jeri

    I’m just getting started in doing freelance editing and writing, so what you write about applies to other t