How to become a freelance graphic designer: a guide to starting your own business

If you’re wondering how to become a freelance graphic designer here’s our step-by-step guide – from the qualifications you need to actually starting your own business.

Have you always had a creative side? A graphic design career is your chance to use those muscles. And as a freelancer you’ll have the opportunity to work with a varied bunch of clients, meaning no two days will be the same.

What does a graphic designer do?

Graphic designers develop visual ideas and concepts. You could work on large projects, like an advertising campaign or rebrand for a large organisation, right down to product packaging, brochures and magazines.

When working on projects, graphic designers use imagery, illustration and typography (among other things) and arrange these elements using computer programs like Adobe PhotoShop, InDesign and Illustrator.

You’ll find graphic designers working in-house at organisations. Or they might work at a creative agency, which organisations often hire to do much of their marketing and advertising.

But lots of graphic designers work as freelancers. Being a freelancer means you get to be your own boss, choosing the clients you work for and setting your own daily rates.

What graphic designer qualifications do you need?

There are different routes into graphic design – you could choose to go to university, college, or work as an apprentice before going self-employed.

Each of these routes requires good GCSEs, and in the case of university and college, A levels.

Many clients will look for experience, too, so during (and after) studying you should build up a portfolio that shows your design skills. You could even build your own website, to host all your work.

You may be able to find work experience, internships or a junior design position before you go self-employed – letting you build your skills (and a list of contacts).

How much do graphic designers earn?

As with any job, a graphic designer salary varies based on experience, location and the type of role or contract.

The National Careers Service give a range from £16,000 a year for someone who’s starting out to £50,000 a year for someone who’s experienced. But being self-employed, you’ll set your own rates.

Prospects.ac.uk say that freelancers can earn between £200 and £400 a day with experience, but add that with a good track record and recommendations, you could command more.

When setting your rates, you could do some competitor research to find out how much graphic designers are charging in your area.

How to start a graphic design business – 5-step guide to going freelance

So you’ve developed your skills and want to go freelance. You might even want to set up your own creative agency. Why not read our step-by-step guide to help you on your way?

1. Choose a specialism

Specialising is especially useful in a heavily populated industry like design. Any differentiation and expertise you can offer will help you attract work and allow you to excel at the projects you take on.

You might’ve naturally discovered your specialism during the experience you’ve already gained. But if you haven’t, is there an aspect of design you’ve particularly enjoyed? Here are some niches you could focus on:

  • visual identity – think branding, including logos, imagery, colour palettes and typography
  • packaging – product packaging can be beautiful even for simple products like bars of soap or juice cartons – and organisations need talented people to create the designs
  • content marketing – designers working in a traditional marketing space can work across a range of projects, from digital guides and brochures, social media assets, to email marketing templates

There are many more projects graphic designers might work on, so have a look at what’s out there and choose your focus. And when you know your specialism be sure to use it to stand out from the crowd.

2. Start your business

Lots of freelance graphic designers work alone. But many want to start their own design agency too. Whatever direction you choose you need to treat what you’re doing as a business, setting goals and having a plan for how you’re going to get there.

3. Develop the right business skills

While you may be experienced in the practical elements of design, running a business calls on different skills. Think about the following:

  • winning clients – you need great communication skills to network with potential clients and win work. Building great relationships doesn’t just help you find projects, it also helps you understand your client’s aims and nail briefs. Happy clients are more likely to shout about you to other potential clients

  • pricing your work – this is tricky for freelancers to get right. There’s no definitive answer to how much you should charge, but keep perceived value in mind – going too low, even when you’re just starting out, risks minimising your expertise. Costs will vary hugely depending on the particulars of the project – and on the designer. Read more about how to set a freelance hourly rate

  • building a team – having the skills to spot great talent is a must, especially if you’re starting a design agency. You might be an expert in your specialism, but the truth is that everyone has limits to their abilities. If you have some gaps in your skillset, could you start hiring employees to help out? Bringing people in with fresh perspectives and different mindsets could help your business grow

  • building a great culture – even if you’re working on your own you can build a great culture around your business. Think about what you want to be known for. Clients will value reliability, consistency and transparency. As your business grows, it can scale around values like these that you’ve already set in place

  • getting help – be sure to lean on support in the form of mentors – The Guardian say that industry bodies like the Design Business Association can help with information and advice

4. Get the right insurance

It’s a good idea to think about designers’ insurance when you’re starting out.

  • professional indemnity insurance – this is one of the most important covers for freelancers as it protects you if you make an error in your work, or you give faulty advice, which leads to a loss for your client

  • public liability insurance – a key cover for businesses, this protects you if a member of the public gets ill, injured or suffers a loss and blames your business

  • employers’ liability insurance – this is a legal requirement if you have staff, even temporary or part-time workers. It protects you if an employee gets ill or injured and blames your business

5. Grow your business

As a designer, knowing how to market your client’s services and products might come more naturally than knowing how to market yourself.

While lots of tips mentioned above, like being consistent, reliable and transparent, will help you deliver projects successfully, you should also shout about those successes.

So be sure to maintain your business website, update it with the latest projects you’ve delivered and think about writing a blog to show your expertise.

And don’t underestimate the importance of effective PR. Are there industry awards you can enter to help get your name out there? Could you push for speaking invitations to events and conferences?

Growing your business needs passion, drive and an entrepreneurial spirit – good luck!

Looking for designers’ insurance?

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