Whilst I'm still dead set on quitting being a graphic designer, I'm still extremely grateful for having an in-demand skill set that I can fall back on when money gets tight.
I've been freelancing as a graphic designer (on and off) for over a year now, so I wanted to share a few tips which I've picked up along the way.
- When it comes to your portfolio website, focus on the essentials. You don't need an entirely bespoke all singing and dancing website to find work for yourself. A strong, thoughtfully ordered and presented body of work is much more important. For instance, my own portfolio website is a single static HTML page which I manually update from time to time. I actually knocked it up for a job interview when I moved to London and have just tweaked it slightly over the years.
- When applying for jobs: think about where you are positioned in the marketplace. I had a bad gut feeling about one job from my first 10 seconds of looking at the company's website — but still went to the interview. They even asked me to set aside the next day in case I got the job. But I didn't. And then they told me my work was too "mainstream" for them. (Which is a nice problem to have, ultimately). I should have trusted my gut and not bothered to go in for the interview though.
- Your hourly rate probably needs to be higher than you think. Ditto for your day rate. Brennan Dunn's Double Your Freelancing Rate makes for solid food for thought on this topic. Research the going rate in your locality. In London for example, experienced designers can earn £200 to £400 per day.
- If people try to talk down your rate, stand firm. Once you agree to work for a reduced rate, it will be close to impossible to talk it back up again.
- Avoid speculative meetings. Nearly all meetings are toxic. Field people out by email first wherever possible.
- Research any potential new employer. Before your interview of course, but also before you accept a job. (And remember that you don't have to accept the job at the interview. Tell them you'll give them a decision tomorrow). Ask around, maybe someone in your network has worked for these people before. What was it like? Did they enjoy it? Did they get paid on time? If you get a bad feeling about the work, trust your gut. Sometimes it's not worth it. There are other jobs out there.
- At the interview (or by email) find out what hours you will be expected to work. You might have to travel to a different part of town or start at an unfriendly time. (My last job started at 10am so I still find 9am starts a little tough). Factor that into your calculations.
- Find out your new employer's payment terms. Try to negotiate something shorter than the standard 28 days if you can — tough with larger firms that have procedures in place, but with smaller outfits you may be surprised what you'll get if you ask nicely. I always ask to be paid within 14 days.
- Allow 15 minutes extra so that you're early on the first day. First impressions still count, so you don't want to be late.
- Get prepared. Have a folder of fonts at the ready (on your hard drive, not in the cloud). And perhaps some templates ready to go in Photoshop or Illustrator, full of grids, iOS components, blank Apple products etc. etc. that you can use to get you started on jobs quickly.
- Optimise your systems. Physical and virtual. I always take my Logitech MX mouse and a mousemat with me, because it's quieter and more accurate than an Apple 'nipple' mouse, and has more buttons.
- OS X users can install an app like Steermouse to program the extra buttons on Logitech mice. I have the side buttons set to zoom in/out across all of the Adobe Creative Suite, and then use the extra button on the left side to toggle guides on or off. The microseconds that this saves you will compound over time to a few minutes every day. On which note...
- Optimise anything you do repeatedly.
- Take headphones with you. You never know how noisy your work environment is going to be.
- Even better, get noise-cancelling headphones. All those irritating background sounds will disappear. Less distraction means better work. The better your work is, the more you will get. If you look at it this way, this makes noise-cancelling headphone an investment, not an expense.
- Prefer to work from home? Ask if you can. If they say no, do your first job, make a good impression, and then ask again the next time. With some trust in the bank you will stand a good chance of them agreeing. I now have a few clients who let me work remotely on small jobs or after the first day's briefing has happened at their studio.
- If you end up working in-house and don't like someone, don't let it get to you. You'll be out of there pretty soon. That's the joy of freelancing — it's not forever. Let the loudmouth who thinks he's the digital daddy say his piece, but let the words flow straight in one ear and out the other.
- Are there other freelancers working in the studio? Make friends with them. Help them out. Get their emails. You can add these people to your network and help each other find work. Happiness goes around.
- If it's good, ask permission to include the work you've just done in your portfolio. Most studios are fine with this so long as everything is attributed. Don't take credit for work you didn't do — you may get find out.
- Leave at 6pm (or whatever the allotted finish time is) sharp. You may be a graphic design mercenary — but you don't have to lay your life on the line.
- Get a good accountant, preferably once who works with people in the creative sector. Fizz Accounting came highly recommended to me by several designers.
- Consider using an online invoicing system like Freshbooks, Xero or Freeagent to manage your accounts. I can't personally recommend any of these as I'm still using a manual system of creating invoices in InDesign and saving them to PDF, which seems to be working fine as I'm not dealing with more than 4 or 5 different clients a month at the moment.
- When it comes to finding work, controlled jobs boards like OnSite and Design Jobs Board, which filter out dodgy applicants and employers, are your best bet rather than free-for-all listing sites.
What tips would you add to the list to help fledgling graphic designers freelancers?
- David Airey's blog about graphic design, which includes several great articles on freelancing
- How I Survive as Graphic Design Freelancer
- Adrian Shaughnessy's How to be a Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul which will guide on the fine points of crafting your portfolio
- Double your freelancing rate by Brennan Dunn