You have a powerful artistic streak. You have creativity coming out your ears. You’ve got your graphic design bona fides and a portfolio that can sing opera. And now…and now…you’re going to sit in a cubicle?

If you’ve spent most of your life thinking that you weren’t the kind of employee who would do well in a 9-5 environment, there is an alternative – freelance.

Why People Choose to do Freelance

People choose to freelance for a variety of reasons.

  • A need for variety – working on one product for a company can feel limiting for some designers
  • Being able to select clients – not all employers are created equal, and some professionals feel their creative work is better when they can pick and choose.
  • Competing in a saturated market for full-time work – in areas where there are a lot of designers competing for regular employment, freelance work can allow you to stitch a job together from several sources.
  • Creative freedom – when you’re pitching an idea, the sky’s the limit. A regular design gig can feel like you’re working in a tunnel. Freelancers can seek out people looking for the newest, most “out-there” creations.

Before you start freelancing

Step 1: Consider the downsides of freelancing

Freelance work isn’t sleeping late, long lunches and working only half the month. Far from it. Freelance work is unpredictable, you trade one boss for dozens of bosses, and you can wake up in the morning worried that you have no work then end the day working till midnight to meet a deadline you didn’t have twelve hours ago.

Some people thrive in this type of environment, some find it causes panic. Think critically about where your comfort zone lies before you decide.

Step 2: Do the Math

According the US Bureau of Labor, freelance graphic designers earned an average of $57,000 nationally, compared to staff graphic designers who earned $45,000. But don’t go spending that extra $12,000 just yet, you have to think about the following costs that a regular employee doesn’t:

Taxes-the taxes that your employer would normally pay are now your responsibility.

Health Care– this is a pricey fringe benefit of a traditional job, and if you don’t have health care through a spouse or partner, you need to price this out.

Time off- When you’re a freelancer, you don’t get paid when you don’t work, so vacations and sick time coverage come out of your earnings.

Still want to do it? Is the idea of being in charge of your own destiny still compelling? Are you asking yourself this question?

What makes a good freelancer?

There are some characteristics that help make a freelancer successful. You may have some of these skills already, others you may need to cultivate. Freelance is rewarding – but hard – work. Turning your graphic design chops into your own business means more than knowing the newest software and having an eye for edgy images. In fact, some of the qualities that make the best graphic design freelancer have nothing to do with graphic design.

Five critical traits of the successful freelancer

Enthusiasm – You need energy, drive and passion to take your design abilities and convince other people that they need them and want to pay for them! (That’s a really important part!) Finding clients is long, grueling work. You need almost unlimited energy to do it, and you have to love it to have that kind of energy.

Organization – This may seem counter to the creative ideal; artists are not always known for their ability to file and keep records. But if you’re going to be your own boss it is essential that you can bill accounts, track expenses, file taxes and meet deadlines.

Creativity – This sounds like a no-brainer for a graphic designer, but it’s critical if you’re going to sell your services to people who may not be totally sold on needing a designer yet. You must stand out and you must compel. Stay current with design trends and changing technology and offer the most exciting, most topical product.

Courageousness – You may not be fighting real dragons, but you will be fighting metaphoric dragons. Because work is unpredictable, you need to be able to tough out the lean times and fight the temptation to take work that isn’t right for you. You need to be willing to broadcast yourself and show people why you are a big deal. Those things are not for the faint of heart or the quiet of voice.

Congeniality – People are not just buying your designs, they are buying you. You are the force behind the art, and clients will want to feel comfortable communicating and interacting with you. They need to trust you to deliver what you promise and feel like they can collaborate with you to get what they want. Good customer service skills and approachability are as important as being creative.

How Do I Get Started?

Experienced freelancers will tell you there are a few things you can do to prepare:

  • Update your resume – You need to be able to sing your own praises and show that you have the experience and the know-how to do what you do
  • Promote your portfolio – Design is visual, make sure people can see your best pieces
  • Start slow– Take on gigs one at a time if you’re considering a transition from a regular job
  • Diversify – Learn some new skills so you can offer products others don’t

And you might want to get a new pair of pajamas. After all, one of the biggest perks of freelance work is being able to take calls without bothering to get dressed.


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