It’s often a long road to becoming a Freelance Designer, or being able to make a proper living from your design work. You need a fair number of regular clients to keep you busy, the odd one-off jobs are an added bonus, but often they then become new regular clients… if they are pleased with your work!
And I guess you need to be a bit lucky with the job experience you have before becoming a Freelance Designer – you need a wide range of professional experiences to offer a lot of different services to a high level. I was lucky to have worked in a few creative & technical roles with various companies, where I learned how things are done in the real world.
Looking back at what I learned at college, studying Graphic Design then Design Technology – it gave me an all-round general knowledge of the different aspects of a design career. But the main things I would say were vital were to be introduced to software like Adobe Photoshop & Illustrator, or Quark Express. Learning how to use this software opened up lots of possibilities.
Learning how to build websites using HTML and CSS was also a major eye opener, my first lesson showed me how you can build a website with just a simple text editor, a method that I still use to this day for quick code updates. Read more abut my education & career
No matter how well you did at college, your first job can shape the rest of your career. And it is fairly likely that you will start out in a print production role – rather than a creative role – as printing is still one of the biggest industries in the UK. But this can lead to more creative roles.
I was lucky to get a great job with my local newspaper, The Evening Post in Swansea. I was a part of the Pre-Press team, where we prepared newspaper pages for printing using a variety of software. The job didn’t have any creative aspects, but it was a good introduction into print production – many of the techniques or tricks we used then are still applicable to a lot of my work today. Read more about my time at The Evening Post
A Print Artworker prepares graphics for printing, using software to ensure images are CMYK, the resolution is high enough, the text is the correct colour/ fonts are outlined and the page layout is correct – using the correct bleed & margin areas.
I worked for a couple of different printing companies as an Artworker, the first was a label printing company in Cardiff that used a variety of flat-bed & screen printing machines. The latter was at a very busy commercial printing company in Gloucester. They had a range of litho & digital printing equipment, along with any finishing equipment you could possible need. My job was to prepare artwork for print using Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop – and mainly InDesign. The turn-over of jobs was manic, so I had to learn how to use InDesign to a high level… quickly!
Web Design & E-Commerce
In my spare time I was building experimental websites – this website was one of them – and always wanted to get into web design. So I was lucky to get a great job with an on-line greeting card company in Bristol which became Funky Pigeon. This job had a mixture of print-production responsibilities, but also some creative input – I was asked to create greeting cards & calendars which would go straight onto the website & into production.
This job also gave me an opportunity to start working on a large e-commerce website. I was given the chance to create the front-end HTML and graphics for the home page & landing pages – but worked alongside the main programmer, which gave me a great insight into building & managing a large website. Read more about my time at Funky Pigeon
Going Freelance – the beginning
With the belief that I had a good, all-round knowledge of the technical aspects of design – how the end point production worked in most industries – I felt I could offer a range of valuable services to any company. So I decided to move home & work for myself as a freelance designer. All I needed was a computer, Adobe Creative Suite… and an internet connection.
It wasn’t easy to get a regular income straight away. So I took on a few part-time jobs, one or two days per week I would work with other companies. And again… I was lucky to get part-time jobs with some great companies that gave me all kinds of creative roles & responsibilities.
One of my early part-time jobs was with a glitter tattoo company where I got to draw their stencil designs using Adobe Illustrator, and I also built their e-commerce website which was extremely busy, this gave me a massive amount of real-world / hands-on experience.
Large format print work
Another part-time job I had was in a large format printing company. This gave me first-hand experience on creating print graphics for exhibitions, banners & posters – where I could see the results of any design techniques as it was printed & perfect my technical knowledge.
This experience has been extremely important for a lot of my work today, as I am confident that I can supply high quality print artwork without needing to see it being printed – I know it will print correctly.
Marketing & advertising work
My last part-time job was with Chromogenex, a company that sold medical & cosmetic Laser technology. This role gave me lots of responsibilities & creative input. I was brought in to update their websites, making them more modern & responsive. But I took on all kinds of marketing jobs, such as email marketing, PPC management, exhibition design, advertising design. I also completely overhauled the SEO on their websites, and gained a great insight into managing a global website.
When you are starting out as a freelance designer, you need to take any job you can get & slowly build up a portfolio of work. You may have a certain philosophy or design style, but you need to be very flexible. You will need to take on some smaller projects for any client – and often they will ask you to do something that maybe goes against your design taste… but you need to just design what they ask for.
During my time at Funky Pigeon, the outright best-selling greeting card design they sold was (in our opinion) the most tacky, badly designed card we had. So you need to accept that, sometimes, the cheap & cheerful design style is actually better for the customer.
How much should you charge?
It can be difficult to work out a fair cost for some jobs, like a logo design or a website design – where it is unknown how long it will actually take. So when you get a new customer asking for a quote, it can be a bit of a dilemma… and you will often be competing against another design company, so you need to get the price right.
My philosophy has always been to give a very reasonable quote, even if it will be a lot more work than you expect – because if you impress the client & produce a logo or a website, it’s pretty likely that they will return to you for future work. And for regular clients, you can charge an hourly rate – which is often the most cost effective solution for a company. And if you can get enough regular clients on your books, it eventually becomes like a regular, guaranteed income.
Getting & Keeping Clients
I’m quite lucky, as I have never needed to advertise my services. Early on, I had a fairly good understanding of building websites & how SEO worked, so a lot of clients found me. But the best way to get clients is always ‘word of mouth’ – when you are recommended to someone, this is the silver bullet.
You will see some of my regular clients above, but I now work with a wide range of different businesses with different marketing styles like Welsh Brew Tea who have a great, vibrant style, or Cosmeditech who have a more clean / clinical style.
And even when you get a number of regular clients, you always need to keep learning & improving your range of services. You will need to move into digital marketing areas like SEO and Social Media – PPC advertising & email marketing – website hosting & security – in order to keep your clients happy. So you need to learn everything you can at every opportunity.