How to Get into Freelance Graphic Design with No Risk

August 4, 2015
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This is an article I originally wrote back in 2012, but I recently had a Design Range subscriber contact me asking for some advice that I think this article covers brilliantly, so I’m sharing it here again in the hope some of you who missed it the first time might find it useful – Alex.

So here’s the scenario; you’re sat at your desk at your dull, dead-end job, answering pointless phone calls from automaton customers day in day out. Occasionally you may have enough free time to scribble a cute little doodle onto your work pad and half hear colleagues complimenting your sketches as they pass by your desk. “That’s really cool” you might catch through the haze, or perhaps a “wow, I’d love to be able to draw like that”. But every now and again you hear that remark, that call to action that is as taunting as it is complimentary; “what are you doing working here with a talent like that?”.

“That’s really cool” you might catch through the haze, or perhaps a “wow, I’d love to be able to draw like that”

It’s a throwaway comment sure, but they stack up, building and building until one day they break through that mist of billing reports and conversion rates and you genuinely ask yourself,

what am I doing working here with a talent like this?

A light shines down on you from the heavens above as you march over to your boss and hand in your notice declaring that “from this day forth, I shall be a Graphic Designer!” (click to Tweet this!).

Sound familiar? Well it does to me, because that’s exactly what I did. I was fresh out of university and had leapt straight into the job with the highest salary I could find. After almost two long years and a mountain of (vastly improving) sketches I threw in the towel for a brighter future in graphic design.

Big mistake.

What little savings I had soon got swallowed up by rent, tax and food as I quickly scrambled to find enough clients to keep the lights on. I could do the work sure, but I had no idea how to find the work, how to deliver the work and how to get paid for doing it, let alone what I should actually be charging!

With the Benefit of Hindsight

Looking back now it seems painfully clear what I should have done and what I’ll recommend that you do if you find yourself in that same position.

Ease into it.

That’s all there is to it really. If you think you can seriously earn a full time living from graphic design then get started by trying to earn a little pocket money in your spare time. I know you already have a full time job, but your evenings and weekends are free to try and build up your client base, learn about the industry and get a portfolio together. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, you’ll be working pretty much every waking hour, but if your passionate about graphic design then that should be no problem for you, and believe me – if you really want to make it as a graphic designer you’re going to need every last ounce of that passion.

There’s no need to brand yourself up as an evenings and weekends designer, it’s a bad idea to talk about how you work in a call centre from 9 to 5 in your ‘about me’ section. You may feel like a charlatan calling yourself a designer and spending a comparatively small amount of time actually doing it, but you need to lock that down! There’s absolutely no reason why you can’t come off appearing like a seasoned pro to your potential clients.

Your Advantage

There are actually several pro’s to having a full time job when you first start out that can make you seem much more established than you might actually be.

First of all it’s easy to get booked up. When I first started out it was really difficult to fill up all of my time with paid work. When a job did come in I dived on it and had it wrapped up and sent out within the week. Now that’s a good thing, no doubt about it. The client was very happy and would certainly use me again, but did they think I was in demand? Did they think I had business lining up down the street? Did they think I was worth paying through the nose for? Probably not.

When you have a full time job, your time to spend on graphic design is very limited and it may well be the case that you have a weeks worth, or even two weeks worth of work backed up to finish off. Now a client comes to you with a job and you say “that sounds great, but I’m really busy at the moment so it’ll be a week before I get started, is that ok?”. They may say ok or they may take the work elsewhere but what they’ll definitely know is that you’re in demand. If it is the case that the client walks away, not getting that job isn’t the end of the world, you still have your pay from the full time job and your lights will say on.

Turning down work has another advantage to the new designer too. Turning down work is a skill that I have only recently acquired and I wish it was something I’d learned a lot sooner. I’ve worked on countless projects for little or no money, simply because I didn’t know how to or didn’t have the confidence to say “no”. If you’re turning down work before you even really step into the life of a graphic designer then you’ll have a much better understanding of what you’re worth, and when the day comes that those little money projects do come calling, you’ll be able to shoot them down without a second thought.

The other great advantage of staying in work before you commit is quite simply, experience. You’ll have experience finding work, dealing with clients and delivering projects. You’ll have the beginnings of a client list and blossoming portfolio. All of these things are absolute gold dust and will catapult you ahead of people like me who just dived straight into things.

So When Do I Take the Leap?

So you’ve got jobs booked up to kingdom come and you’re turning down clients left, right and centre like a big shot. Well then maybe it’s time you started thinking about going pro. You may well have a nice little routine worked out and be earning a cosy little sum from your graphic design work, but if you really want to turn it into a career then now’s the time to make the call.

If you really want to turn it into a career then now’s the time to make the call.

Hopefully by now you’ve got a boat load of experience and have a good understanding of what the industry is like. It may be everything you ever dreamed of, or in some cases be not quite what you imagined. You really need to be honest with yourself here and ask yourself if this is something you could be happy doing every single day? If not then you’ll just eventually end up right back where you started.

If you do decide to go for it, then make sure you have some cash put away for the down days (that WILL come at some point), a set of targets you want to achieve and a well thought out business plan of how you’re going to make progress.

Hopefully this has been useful to anyone hoping to start out as a designer, and I hope I haven’t put too many of you off the idea! If you have any questions you’d like to ask me, or you have some advice that you think a newbie would find useful please let me know in the comments below!

Photo Credit to Michael Lokner

is owner of Hunting Town Design, a small design house based in Manchester UK specialising in Graphic Design and Illustration. Alex is also the founder and editor of The Design Range. Find out more about Alex on his website or follow him on twitter.
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