How to Become a Freelance Graphic Designer

Posted on June 29, 2022 | Updated on April 21, 2023

Whether you’re just getting ready to graduate from college or you’ve worked in graphic design and think it’s time to strike out on your own, figuring out how to become a freelance graphic designer is beneficial. Perhaps you plan to keep your day job and just want to pick up a few contracted positions on the side. 

The idea of starting your own freelance graphic design business might seem daunting at first. Fortunately, you can start slow and add to what you’re doing. Without tens of thousands of freelancers already knowing how to become a freelance graphic designer, your task is made a lot easier. 

Tips for How to Become a Freelance Graphic Designer

If you’ve made the decision to become a freelancer, you’ll want to make sure you’re prepared so you don’t make any catastrophic mistakes. Now matter where you live, you can figure out how to become a freelance graphic designer with a few tips from those who’ve gone before you.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, around 19% of the 265,000 graphic designers are freelancers. Some started at agencies or for companies and learned the ropes before striking out on their own. Others graduated college and jumped right into owning their own business. No matter where you are on the scale, a few insights will help you navigate the unique and exciting world of entrepreneurism.

1. Save an Emergency Fund

Having a sound financial plan to get you through the first year as a new freelancer is vital. You’ll either need to move back in with your parents for a bit or have enough money to pay rent and basic needs until you’re earning enough to do so out of your salary. 

An emergency fund also prepares for the unexpected. While you might project a certain level of earnings, you never know what might happen. That big client you landed your first day in business might declare bankruptcy and leave you hanging with unpaid invoices. Your car might break down and need costly repairs.

Experts vary on how much of an emergency fund you should have. Dave Ramsey says $1,000 to start but most would agree it’s best to have at least a few months of basic expenses saved up on top of a buffer for unexpected things.

2. Know Your Worth

The average graphic designer makes $50,710 per year. However, if you’re inexperienced or highly experienced, you may fall slightly below or above that range. Know what you’re worth for your area and compared to others in your field. The highest 10% make close to six figures.

How much you make also depends on where you live. The average graphic designer salary in Maryland is going to be different than annual wages for designers in Hawaii.

If you aren’t sure how to become a freelance graphic designer making decent money, punch the job description into job search sites for your area and see what companies pay. You should make more to cover expenses. You may have to get creative and do a bit of spying on your competition. Join online groups and befriend others in the industry so you can have on-point conversations.

3. Define Your Niche

Know how to become a freelance graphic designer that stands out from the competition. What areas do you wish to specialize in? A good place to start is with the things that interest you and where you already have well-defined skills. 

For example, if you’re excellent at creating logos, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Offer logo design packages. You can always add to your list as you gain more experience or bring in other designers to help you. 

Consider what is most in demand at the moment and strategically work to develop those skills. Understanding user experience (UX) design or current search engine optimization (SEO) trends can mean higher paying gigs than designs without consideration for UX or SEO.

Keep in mind you’ll likely develop a client base around the niche, so make sure it is something you’re comfortable doing for the long term.

4. Set Goals

Before you worry about how to become a freelance graphic designer, you should first create some S.M.A.R.T. goals for your business. Your goals should be clear and measurable. You should also be certain you can obtain the objective with a bit of hard work and determination. 

Try to stick to just a couple of goals at a time. You already will wear many hats as a freelance designer. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself with too many things to tick off the list. Remember that your goals don’t always have to be numbers or financial statements. It’s fine to have a goal to learn a new skill, for example. 

Find people to keep you accountable so you work stringently on those goals. For example, finding a mentor can keep you on track. Look for someone with experience in the industry and the boldness to call you out if you aren’t doing what you promised yourself. The best mentors encourage and push at the same time, stretching you and helping you grow without tearing you down.

5. Secure Financing

The biggest issue most companies face is cash flow problems. Traditionally, around 20% of small businesses failed in their first year. If you enter your freelance career knowing money issues could cause you to have to shutter your doors and get a nine to five job, then you should have a plan in place to overcome cash flow hurdles.

An emergency fund is a good start, but how do you handle a sudden influx of business when you don’t have the funds to hire help? Who do you turn to for financing and how will you pay investors back? Have a plan in place for securing cash when you need it to improve your business and you’re less likely to suffer from cash flow concerns. 

Familiarize yourself with crowdsourcing platforms and which ones might be willing to help a new business owner get past a growth spurt. Look for creative solutions. Can you take on a design intern from the local college to do some of the work and train them at the same time for their future career? Know all the help-for-hire platforms like Fiverr so you can grab help here and there as needed.

6. Find New Clients

One of the most significant factors to how successful a new freelance graphic designer might be is both finding new clients and the quality of those leads. Start with your inner circle. Do you know any business owners who need just the services you offer? Make sure the business is stable and bringing in enough revenue to pay you what you’re worth.

Pound the pavement to find new leads. Go into stores and manufacturing facilities. Introduce yourself and ask to talk to the decision maker for all marketing matters. For smaller brands, this will be the company owner. For larger ones, it might be the head of marketing. Let them know what you do and that you’re available for assignments. 

Put yourself online and use third-party freelance sites such as Fiverr and Upwork to fill the gap until you have a steady stream of clients. When you finish a task for a client, ask them to tell others in their field about you and that they’re happy with the work you did. As your business grows, most of your work will come from referrals.

7. Learn to Manage Money

If you’re researching how to become a freelance graphic designer, you’re probably ready to jump in with both feet. Before you take the leap, make sure you understand how to keep good books for your business. Spend time on how to automate invoicing, learning what to do when a client refuses to pay and talk to an attorney about a solid contract to ensure you get paid for your time and effort.

Cloud-based accounting software allows you to input information as you go, send invoices and track payments. Remember the taxes you’ll need to pay in as a self-employed person. The self-employment tax rate varies, depending on how much you make and the current figures. For now, expect to pay 15.3% to federal taxes on your net. The figure includes Social Security tax and a Medicare payment. When you work for a company, they pay a portion of those fees, so you will see your burden rise a bit as an entrepreneur.

In the beginning, you should work with a tax professional to figure out what deductions you can take and the percentage you need to pay in estimated taxes each quarter to avoid underpayment penalties. Remember you have to pay state and federal taxes. In some localities, there is an additional tax.

When you make $40,000, it isn’t nearly that much once you finish paying everything you owe. Be prepared. No one wants to do their taxes and realize they owe thousands of dollars they don’t have.

8. Be Productive

One of the biggest hurdles new freelancers face is focusing on their work and setting a schedule. They either tend to work way too many hours or way too few with tons of distractions. Fortunately, setting good habits early in your career will help you along the way.

Create hours just as you would have if you went into the office. While you don’t have to work a traditional nine to five, consistency is key. If you work at night once your kids go to bed, you should work a set number of hours. Don’t turn on the television, get distracted with social media or call your best friend to catch up on the latest tea.

Let family and friends know you will be working during those hours and will not answer the door or telephone during that time frame. Training those in your life to respect your work may be one of the most difficult hurdles you face.

Have a dedicated space where you work and do nothing else. Even if you live in a small apartment or rent a room, you can find a corner for a small desk and use it only for your design work.

Freelance Graphic Design Is Rewarding and Ever-Changing

Launching a business in this industry may seem a bit overwhelming. Take things one step at a time. The methods that work today may not work tomorrow, especially with all the technological changes happening, such as people using DALL-E and other bots to design some images.

Know what the popular trends and tech shifts are so you can stay ahead of the competition. Develop excellent work ethic and your reputation will proceed you in the industry.

With a bit of work, your freelance graphic design career will take off and stay hot for as long as you want to do it. You’ll enjoy working for yourself and seeing how far your creativity and your clients can take you.

About The Author

Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.

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