Many students start off by working freelance after graphic design school. They're attracted to the idea of being their own boss, having control over their own work schedule, and pocketing profits directly.
But it's crucial for new grads to understand some of the drawbacks and challenges that come along with these (legitimately awesome) benefits. And how to set themselves up for freelancing success right from day one.
So, let's walk through some of the typical pros and cons of freelance design work—plus a few important tips for students considering this career path after graphic design school.
Freelance graphic designers work much harder than you might think
One of the biggest misconceptions about freelancing is that it's "easier" than full-time salaried work. The truth is, if you want consistent and well-paid jobs, you'll probably work much harder as a freelancer than you would as a full-time employee.
Why, you ask?
Because you'll need to hunt down jobs, compete for them, negotiate your own deals, do the work, collect payment—and then start the process all over again, just to make ends meet!
Independence comes at a price. It gets easier once you've attracted a few regular, recurring clients, but getting the ball rolling straight out of graphic design school can be really challenging.
You'll set your own hours (but LOSE job security/benefits)
"No nine to five, Monday to Friday. No generating someone else’s profits. If I need to go somewhere one afternoon, or if I just fancy a walk along the coast, I don’t need permission."
Freelance designer David Airey sums up what is perhaps most enticing about freelancing—setting your own hours and answering to no one but your clients.
But it's important to note that you've traded a certain degree of job security (and health benefits, pension, etc.) for that freedom. Freelancers need to make alternative arrangements for medical and dental coverage, deduct their own taxes, and set aside enough money for dry spells.
There's much more financial organization and planning involved than most people realize, just starting out.
You can work from home or wherever you want
For many designers, getting to work from home is a massive benefit of freelancing. No daily commute, no office politics, no cramped cubicle or uncomfortable chair/desk setup.
You can cook up a homemade lunch, do a round of yoga, or fit in a run, without losing much work time. You can use your own design kit, style your workspace as you like it, and hang out with your pets.
Or, you can join a co-working community and rent a desk at a shared workspace. These days, the options are virtually limitless for freelancers. You don't have to be isolated at home if you don't want to.
You'll invest serious time marketing/selling your graphic design skills
We touched on this point earlier—being a freelancer means much more than simply completing contract design jobs when you feel like it. You'll need to market yourself skillfully to get jobs in the first place.
That means networking, both in person and online, polishing a truly stellar portfolio, and ensuring it's visible online.
It means learning how to set payment rates for everything you do, and becoming a solid negotiator when clients try to push down those rates.
It means selling yourself during initial client calls to make sure you end up winning the contract.
Freelancers wear many hats. You'll definitely need to work on your business skills.
You can focus on design jobs that interest you most
If you're freelancing just out of graphic design school, you'll probably have to start by taking whatever jobs come your way.
However, once you've built up your reputation, earned some referrals, and expanded your portfolio, you'll see opportunities to pick and choose work that interests you most.
You may begin to focus on a particular industry, or type of design work—and become an expert in those areas.
In time, you may earn the option to turn down jobs that you don't feel passionate about and focus on work that truly excites you. This is an advantage most salaried designers do not enjoy.
you need to protect yourself
Being a freelancer in the digital age means venturing into the wild west of the internet to find jobs. Your clients could be based anywhere and be anyone, and you may never even meet in person.
It can be really difficult to determine the character of the people you'll work with, so it is absolutely crucial to be cautious when seeking out and accepting freelance contracts.
Some degree of self-protection is simply common sense—but you'd be amazed at how many freelancers (across all disciplines) work without a safety net. Here are two very important ways you should protect yourself.
1) Don't be tricked by requests for "free sample" graphic design work.
Some (unscrupulous) people will ask designers to create sample designs as "proof" of competence or to compete for a freelance gig. And then they'll simply keep the work and never get back to the designer.
There's nothing wrong with holding an initial consultation with a prospective client to share a few ideas and prove that you're the best fit for the job. And of course, you'll submit your portfolio to highlight your abilities, experience, specialties, etc.
But this should be the only "proof" a client needs that your skills are up to par. Be wary of further requests for free design ideas or mock-ups. This work should be paid.
2) It's worth paying a lawyer to draw up a standard freelance contract.
Don't agree to do any graphic design work without a contract. It will be up to you to provide a legal document and ensure the client signs it before starting the job.
There are many sample freelance design contracts available online, but it's much smarter to pay a relatively small fee to a business lawyer and get the most professional and self-protecting contract possible.
Clients will respect you more when you present a proper contract, and will be less likely to skip out on payments, change the terms of your agreement, or otherwise treat you as an amateur. And if they do? That same lawyer will send the appropriate legal "nudge" to get them back on track!
There's a lot more to say about building a successful freelance graphic design career, but these considerations and tips will definitely give students a good place to start—and a few things to think about before leaping into the freelancing fray!
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