Starting a freelance graphic design business is an exciting prospect. You get to be your own boss, set your own schedule, and work on all kinds of exciting creative projects.
However, figuring out how to start is by far the most challenging part for any designer who hasn’t run their own business before, let alone taken on any freelance graphic design jobs yet. To help set you up for success, we’re sharing a complete checklist of all the things you need to do and consider when starting your freelance design business from the ground up.
Art by Ksu Angeltseva
1. Define your business
Before you can start your freelance graphic design business, you need to define what that business will look like. Will you be a generalist or specialist? Work with a particular industry or type of client? Take on big projects or only small ones? Work alone or with other freelancers?
There’s a lot to consider before you start looking for freelance graphic design jobs. But without a clear definition of what your business will be, you may get bogged down by all of the other decisions you need to make to get started. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
What's your niche?
Picking a niche is an important part of defining your freelance design business. Not every freelancer picks a niche, but you’ll find that narrowing your focus, especially when you’re starting out, can make it easier to find the right clients.
There are a few ways you can define your niche. It could be the type of designs you do—logos, websites, social media graphics, etc. Or you could decide to only work with certain kinds of businesses—startups, coaches, online retailers, etc. You might also pick a niche based on the kinds of brands you want to work with—fun, youthful, serious, or similar.
Who is your ideal client?
Choosing your niche may give you a sense of who your ideal clients are, but it’s a good idea to narrow it down even further. Do you want to work with established businesses or startups? Do you want to work with bigger or smaller organizations? Maybe you want to specialize in working with nonprofits or businesses with a social mission.
"Narrowing your focus, especially when you’re starting out, can make it easier to find the right clients"
Take some time to think through the kinds of businesses you want to work with. Ideally, you should have some knowledge of the industries in which they operate. This gives you a leg up on competitors who might not have any specialized knowledge. The knowledge you bring to the table doesn’t have to come from direct experience, though—it can also come from simply being interested in and researching the industry.
What does your brand look like?
Once you know the kinds of brands you want to work with, it’s time to define your brand. Think about the image you want to portray to the world and your prospective clients.
Your brand should include things like a logo and your design aesthetic, as well as guidelines for the way you communicate in marketing and promotional materials. It’s a good idea at this point to make sure all of your business materials reflect your brand, from your social media accounts to the way your proposals and invoices are written.
- ✅ Pick a niche
- ✅ Define your ideal client
- ✅ Define your brand
- ✅ Create your brand materials
Art by Bulma illustrates
2. Consult with experts
You’re an expert designer. But it’s unlikely that you’re also a business, legal, or accounting expert. Many regions have free or low-cost business development centers that can connect you with expert advice for things like how to set up your business structure or legal considerations.
You’ll want to make sure that the way you’re conducting business is legal, that your bookkeeping is set up properly, and that you have any necessary permits, licenses, and insurance. Since these things all vary by location, you’ll want to talk to local experts who know the requirements for your area.
Regardless of where you’re doing business, there are two big considerations you’ll want to consult with experts on. The first is making sure you have a graphic design contract. While there are boilerplate contracts available for free, you’ll want to consult with a lawyer to make sure it suits your needs.
The other thing you’ll want to make sure you’re familiar with is how taxes work in your location: how much will you need to pay and when do you need to make those payments. An accountant can help you figure that out.
- ✅ Consult a lawyer
- ✅ Consult an accountant or financial advisor
- ✅ Learn about legal requirements for your business
- ✅ Learn about insurance, permits, and other requirements
Pro Tip: There’s also software like Bonsai that helps freelancers manage their business—from proposals and contracts to payments and taxes. They also have free boilerplate contracts that you can use and redesign to fit your brand.
Art by Christine Soules
3. Figure out your finances
If you’re starting your freelance graphic design business as a side hustle, you may not need to dive into this step as deeply as if you’re embarking full-time. But you still need to get a sense of where your personal finances are and what your business finances will look like.
Make sure you have a personal budget. Know what your expenses are and where your money goes each month. This is a good time to look at where you can cut expenses, too. When you’re embarking on a new business venture, minimizing your expenses can put you on more solid financial footing.
Figure out how much of a safety net you need before starting a full-time freelance business. How many months of expenses do you need to have in savings? The general rule of thumb is six months to a year, but that may vary depending on your exact situation. A financial advisor can help you figure out what you need.
Finally, you’ll need to figure out your likely business expenses. There are fees associated with things like setting up a business and any experts you’ve consulted. You’ll also need to pay for things like website hosting, advertising, and subscriptions to various software and professional services. Fortunately, you can sign up for free to Bonsai who offer freelancers a platform to manage all their tasks, projects, invoices, expenses, and taxes. You can keep other expenses low in a lot of cases, but some are unavoidable.
- ✅ Create a personal budget
- ✅ Create a business budget
- ✅ Make sure you understand where your finances are
Art by Anton Kakhidze
4. Set clear goals
Goals can serve as guideposts for your business. Set goals around things like how many clients you want to land in your first few months, how much revenue you want to generate, and even things like how you’ll spend your time on things like marketing or admin work.
I recommend having a goal around the number of clients you want to land, a goal around the revenue you want to generate, and a goal around how you’ll market yourself (whether that’s how many social media followers you’ll gain or how many guest blog articles you’ll publish, or some other metric).
As you get established, you can revisit your goals and revise them as necessary.
- ✅ Create goals around how many clients you want
- ✅ Create goals around how much revenue you need to generate
- ✅ Create goals around marketing efforts
Art by Ally Jaye Reeves
5. Build your online presence
Any graphic designer needs to have some kind of online presence. At the very least, you’ll need a graphic design portfolio where potential clients can see your work. Most designers, though, will want to have a personal website, design portfolio, and social media presence.
A design portfolio
Your design portfolio should include a few basic things: information about you and your background, images of work you’ve done, and a way for clients to get in touch with you.
You may also want to consider including pricing information on your website, though this move is controversial (at the very least, I recommend giving clients an idea of the budget ranges you work with).
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A social media presence is an important marketing tool for a lot of freelance graphic designers. But try not to spread yourself too thin on social media. Pick a couple of sites that you want to focus on. Think about where your target audience spends their time online. It might be LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Tik Tok, Instagram, or elsewhere.
When creating your social media content, be sure you keep your images and messaging on brand. Create a schedule for posting content and stick to it. Consistency is key in growing a social media following. Be sure that your bio indicates that you’re available for hire and has contact information.
- ✅ Create your website and online portfolio
- ✅ Set up your social media accounts
- ✅ Figure out your social media strategy and branding
Art by Olga Davydova
6. Set Up Basic Systems
Before you get your first client, it’s a good idea to have some basic systems in place for how you’ll onboard clients and work with them on projects. By signing up to Bonsai, you’ll be able to create proposals, contracts, and invoices to send to your new clients. This will allow you time to think through things like how you’ll gather information about a project, how you’ll submit proposals, and how payments will work.
You’ll also want to think through client communication, how many hours you’re willing to work in a given week, and what kinds of deadlines you’re comfortable with. Bonsai can help you here as well. With their project management feature, you’ll be able to manage all these tasks efficiently and meet client deadlines on time.
You may need to refine these systems as you continue on your freelance journey, so keep them flexible.
- ✅ Create an onboarding and discovery system for new clients
- ✅ Create proposal and invoice templates
- ✅ Set up your payment systems
- ✅ Set up systems for managing communications
- ✅ Set up your time management systems
Art by Ksu Angeltseva
Start the freelance graphic design career of your dreams
Starting your freelance design business should be a fun and exciting process. By taking the time to set things up properly from the start, you’ll have a smoother time running your business.
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