The Calculated Creative

How to Start a Freelance Graphic Design Business

An exceptional portfolio paired with solid branding and marketing makes for a thriving freelance design business.

Starting a freelance graphic design business can be an exciting and rewarding way to make money doing something you're passionate about.

With some planning and preparation, you can get your design business up and running.

Develop and Improve Your Design Skills

Having strong, versatile graphic design skills is crucial when starting a freelance design business. Here are some tips for making sure your skills are portfolio-ready:

  • Take online courses, read blogs, watch tutorial videos, and find other ways to expand your skills in areas like logo design, branding, packaging design, typography, color theory, and more. Having a wide range of design capabilities will make you more appealing to potential clients.
  • Master all the applications in Adobe Creative Cloud, since these are the standard design programs used by most freelance graphic designers. Become an expert user of Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and other Adobe programs.
  • If there are any design skills you are weak in, focus on improving them. For example, if you struggle with typography, spend time studying typography principles and practice designing with custom fonts.
  • Consider taking in-person design classes or mentorship programs to get personalized instruction and feedback that can help take your skills to the next level.
  • Practice mock design projects, like rebranding a company or designing an imaginary product line. This will expand your portfolio.

Having top-notch design skills will give you the confidence and ability to take on a wide range of client work and charge competitive rates. Never stop learning and improving your skills.

Build an Impressive Design Portfolio

An impressive online portfolio is absolutely essential for attracting graphic design clients. Here are some tips for showcasing your skills:

  • Have a professionally designed personal website that displays your graphic design portfolio in an easy-to-navigate, visually pleasing way. Showcase 8-12 carefully curated projects.
  • Only display your strongest, most polished design work that represents your style and abilities. For each project, include information about the client, project parameters, and your specific role.
  • Hire a photographer to take high-quality photographs of any physical design work like packaging or publications. For digital projects, take nice screenshots.
  • Write detailed descriptions that provide context and tell the story behind each project. Explain your creative process and contribution.
  • Showcase the range and diversity of your design capabilities through your portfolio pieces. For example, include both print and digital design projects, as well as brand identity, marketing, UI/UX, illustration work, etc.
  • Update your portfolio regularly by adding new projects and removing outdated ones. A portfolio should evolve as your skills improve.

A knockout online portfolio will get potential clients excited to work with you!

Choose the Right Business Structure

Choosing the right business structure is important for tax, liability, and other implications. Here are some popular options for freelance designers:

  • Sole proprietorship - This is the simplest option. Just register your business name and report income on your personal tax return. You have unlimited personal liability though.
  • LLC (Limited Liability Company) - Forming an LLC helps protect your personal assets from liability, but taxes are still passed through to you personally. There are more legal formalities with an LLC as well.
  • S-Corp - This gives you liability protection like an LLC but company profits are only taxed once. This can provide tax savings for higher earning freelancers.
  • Partnership - If you decide to team up with another designer, you can form an official design partnership. You'll need a partnership agreement.

When choosing a business structure, talk to an accountant or lawyer to understand the legal and tax implications. Make sure you properly register your chosen business structure. Having an official registered business can make you appear more credible to clients.

Brand and Market Your New Design Business

Creating a strong brand is critical - this will allow you to stand out and get your new freelance design business noticed. Consider these branding musts:

  • Pick a unique, memorable business name and have a logo designed to represent your brand visually. Your name and logo will be the face of your business.
  • Create branded assets like business cards, letterhead, email signature, and social media graphics to strengthen your brand identity. Make sure your brand looks cohesive.
  • Have an "About" section on your portfolio website that tells your brand story and design philosophy. Let your personality shine through!
  • Leverage social media platforms like Instagram and LinkedIn to create profiles that represent your brand. Post regularly.
  • Come up with a concise elevator pitch that explains what you do, and practice delivering it naturally. This can help with networking.

Getting the word out about your new design business takes persistence and creativity. Tell friends and family to help spread the word. Attend local networking events and introduce yourself to potential clients. Run Facebook ads targeted to your ideal audience. Leverage your network and don't be afraid to self-promote. Consistent marketing efforts can really pay off.

Set Your Rates and Charges

One of the most important yet challenging aspects of launching a freelance design business is deciding what to charge clients. When determining your rates, take into account several factors:

  • Research the typical rates other freelance designers in your area charge per hour or per project. Survey listings and job boards to get a sense of current rate ranges.
  • Consider your level of design experience. Your rates can increase as you gain exposure and build an impressive portfolio. Don't undervalue your skills.
  • Factor in how much overhead you'll have in expenses. Charging $30/hour sounds nice until you calculate expenses.
  • Decide if you'll charge by the hour or per project. Hourly billing accommodates scope creep. Flat project rates incentive efficiency. You can offer clients either option.
  • Know your worth but also be open to negotiating prices within reason if a potential project seems particularly appealing. Never devalue your skills.
  • Revisit your rates every 6-12 months. As you gain experience and expertise, incrementally raise your prices.

Determining what to charge is an ongoing process as you grow your design business. Be confident in pricing your skills fairly.

Find and Sign Clients

Once you've set up your design business, it's time to find clients! Here are strategies for connecting with potential clients:

  • Ask friends, family, and prior colleagues to recommend your services or help make introductions. Personal referrals can be very effective. Offer referrals incentives.
  • Utilize LinkedIn to connect with past coworkers, clients, and other professionals who may need design work. Keep your profile updated.
  • Join relevant online groups like the Graphic Design Forum and AIGA and become an active member. Participate in discussions and build connections.
  • Attend in-person networking events and conferences related to marketing, business, and design. Be prepared to casually pitch your services.
  • Consider running social media ads targeted to your region and ideal client demographics. Facebook/Instagram ads can generate leads.
  • Market your services consistently through your portfolio website and social media. Provide helpful design content to attract potential clients.

When you've found a promising prospect, set up a consultation to discuss their design needs and your proposed solution. Have the new client sign a design services contract that protects both of you legally before starting paid work. Building up your client roster takes diligence and time.

Handle Contracts, Finances and Taxes

The business side of running a freelance design operation takes some research and preparation.

  • Have an attorney help you create a standard design contract template that lays out your services, rates, timeline, right to your work, and other terms/conditions. Require new clients to sign this.
  • Open a business bank account separate from your personal finances. Only use this account for receiving client payments and paying business expenses.
  • Use accounting software like Quickbooks or Freshbooks to handle invoicing, track income/expenses, manage projects, and process payments. Stay very organized.
  • Learn what business license and taxes are required in your area and maintain proper documentation. Expect to pay estimated quarterly income taxes on your freelance earnings.
  • Set aside 30% from each payment to cover taxes. Consider hiring an accountant, at least initially, to ensure you have the right financial processes in place. Handling the finances properly will save headaches down the road!

Continue Growing Your Skills and Portfolio

To sustain a successful freelance graphic design business long-term, you must never stop learning and improving your craft.

  • Set aside time each week for design research and learning. Study other top designers' work and stay on top of industry trends.
  • Expand and refine your skills by taking on new types of projects that push you creatively. Treat each client project as a chance to add to your portfolio.
  • Attend design conventions and workshops. Take a class on a new technique. Learn 3D modeling or motion graphics programs. Offer new services.
  • Ask clients for referrals, testimonials and reviews that you can display on your website and profiles to help win new business. Satisfied clients can become great promoters.

The Takeaway

By continually improving your technical skills, creative thinking and design knowledge, you'll elevate your work and have a more valuable service to offer.

An exceptional portfolio paired with solid branding and marketing makes for a thriving freelance design business.

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