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The ultimate guide to freelance graphic design (2021)

Everything you need to build a profitable freelance graphic design business today. A step-by-step guide for new and aspiring freelance graphic designers.

10 min read

August 06, 2021

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Illustration of a freelance graphic designer working on her laptop.

Are you considering a career as a freelance graphic designer? Whether you dream of being your own boss or want to know exactly what it takes to run a successful creative business, we’re here to offer some guidance. 

Over the last few years, we’ve spoken with hundreds of successful freelance graphic designers to gather insight into how they run their business, what steps they took to get there, and ultimately how they keep operations running smoothly and efficiently. 

With the help of these insights, we’re going to show you exactly how you can build a thriving freelance career that not only pays the bills but also keeps you creatively fulfilled—and we’re about to break it down step-by-step for you. 

Ready? Let’s get straight into it. 

What does a freelance graphic designer do? 

Freelancing isn’t for everyone. So before you take the plunge, you need to know exactly what the job of a freelance graphic designer entails. 

Contrary to popular belief, freelance graphic designers are more than just designers. They’re also entrepreneurs who wear many hats and usually manage every aspect of the business from day-to-day operations, finances, project management, client relations, marketing, and everything in between. 

"As a freelancer, you’ll be on your own for everything—literally everything: from design work, to marketing, and issuing invoices. You’ll get all the freedom you want in setting up your business, but with more freedom comes more responsibility." — Olia Gozha, Freelance Designer

Illustration of a freelancer multitasking

How to know if freelancing is for you

To help you figure out whether freelancing is for you, veteran freelancer of Olia Gozha recommends asking yourself the following questions: 

  • Are you comfortable wearing many hats?
  • Do you have great time management skills?
  • Are you financially responsible?
  • How well do you handle uncertainty? 
  • Do you consider yourself to be a good communicator?
  • Can you identify your perfect environment for productivity?
  • Do you constantly seek self-development?

Think about your answers carefully and thoughtfully. Did you answer most of them with a confident “Yes”? If so, there’s a good chance you’ll thrive as a freelancer.

How much do freelance graphic designers charge?

How much graphic designers earn in the freelance world varies greatly based on a few important factors:

  • Geographical location
  • Design industry
  • Years of experience

Use our Freelance Graphic Design Rate Calculator to find out how much graphic designers make in your industry and locale.

Illustration of a woman watering a plant growing coins and money.

Step 1: How to start freelance graphic designing

Figuring out how to start freelancing is by far the most challenging aspect for any designer who hasn’t run their own business before. Many new freelancers will jump straight into finding clients without having any real plan in place. Don’t make this mistake. 

If you want to become a successful (and happy) freelancer, you need to have a firm understanding of your goals and strategically build out your business around them. Start by doing these three things: 

1. Define your goals

Will you be a generalist or specialize in one type of design? Do you want to work within a particular industry? Would you rather take on large projects or only small ones? These are all important questions to consider that will help you build a freelance career that feels right to you. 

Not sure what kind of design services you want to offer? Check out the 8 types of graphic design to help you narrow it down based on what aligns with your goals. 

2. Strategically build a body of work 

Once you’ve zeroed in on your freelancing goals, it’s time to build a body of work that strategically targets your ideal clients and projects. Don’t have any professional experience yet? Not a problem. Personal projects are a great way to build up your portfolio while honing in on your design style

3. Target your design portfolio 

Finally, you’ll need to create a client-facing graphic design portfolio that showcases the design projects you’ve strategically curated. Your portfolio should target your ideal client by speaking directly to them, and ultimately get them excited about the prospect of working with you.

"Personal projects played a key role in the success of our business. Our passion projects helped showcase our style and the type of work we wanted to do. I wouldn’t recommend displaying work that you don’t enjoy creating." — Paul Zappia, Co-Founder of Down The Street Designs

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Step 2: Understand your finances

In order to build a profitable freelance business, you must get a sense of where your personal finances are and what your business finances will look like. 

1. Establish your personal budget 

Know what your expenses are and where your money goes each month (i.e. rent, car payments, insurance, food, etc.). Don’t forget to take into account expenses that a full-time employer would usually cover such as health insurance, office equipment, etc. As a freelancer, you’ll be covering all of these new expenses. 

2. Create an emergency fund

Next, figure out how much of a safety net you need before going full-time freelance. In other words, start an emergency fund. The general rule of thumb is to put away six months to a year’s worth in savings, but that may vary depending on your exact situation. You can always consult a financial advisor to help figure that out if you’re uncertain. 

3. Keep track of your business expenses

Finally, you’ll need to figure out how to track and how to write off business expenses. The first step to that is understanding what your business expenses will likely be. 

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 software, domain names, subscriptions to various professional services, design tools, etc. The good news is that as a freelancer, many of these expenses are tax deductible! 

Pro Tip: To help you track business expenses, we recommend signing up for Bonsai. When you manage your contracts and invoices with them, they also make it easy to manage your taxes with their freelance tax software. 

Illustration of different forms of money: Cash, credit card, coins, and gold.

Step 3: Figure out how much you’ll charge

Figuring out how much to charge your freelance clients (especially when starting out) can be confusing. How much do graphic designers make anyways? This is where the budgeting and math you did above will come in handy. 

Using this information, figure out how much you need to earn in a month (or year) to make your freelancing business profitable. Once you determine the minimum amount of money you need to earn, you’ll have a basis for setting your rates.

Keep in mind that while some freelancers prefer to charge by the hour, others will create set prices for their services or provide a custom quote for each project. There’s no right or wrong way!

Just keep in mind that regardless of the pricing structure you choose to go with, figuring out your hourly rate is the first step in knowing how much you should be charging clients for fixed-rate projects as well. 

Need help figuring your hourly rate? Check Freelance Graphic Design Rates for some guidance. 

Step 4: Learn how to craft an effective design proposal

Before you start taking on any clients, you need to know how to create a design proposal that helps you win the job.

A design proposal is a document that freelance graphic designers create and present to clients typically after an initial kickoff meeting discussing the project goals.

The purpose of a design proposal is to outline the core details and deliverables of the project along with your vision for how to accomplish the client’s goals. It’s ultimately used to set project expectations and emphasize your value (should this client decide to hire you). 

Design proposals typically include important information such as: 

  • Scope of the work
  • The client’s main goals
  • Your vision for the project
  • Project timeline
  • Design deliverables 
  • Pricing 

Other great design proposals might include things like testimonials, past notable clients, similar work examples you’ve done, etc. At the end of the day, you really want to showcase why you’re the right designer for the job and how you’ll help the client accomplish their goals.

You can start creating high-quality design proposals, contracts, and invoices in seconds by signing up for Bonsai—the all-in-one freelancing tool that we highly recommend to freelancers. You can also download our free Design Proposal Template for additional guidance. 

Illustration of design proposals.

Step 5: Create a freelance design contract 

A great design proposal might land you the job, but without a signed contract, there’s no guarantee you’re actually getting paid. That’s why you should always sign a contract before starting to work on any freelance design project. 

A freelance graphic design contract not only protects your own interests should a dispute arise during a project, but it also helps you earn credibility, strengthen your reputation as a freelance designer, and ultimately ensure that you and your client are on the same page prior to working together. 

Here’s a list of the most important elements your freelance design contract should include: 

  • Project overview
  • What, how, and when you get paid
  • Final deliverables
  • Revisions & additional work
  • Copyright & IP protections
  • Legal protections
  • Termination clauses

Once you’ve got a contract in place, we highly recommend consulting a lawyer to make sure it’s clear and covers everything you need! 

Step 6: Invoice your clients for freelance work 

Wondering how to get paid as a freelancer? As mentioned above, your freelance design contract should specify how and when you will get paid. But in order to collect these payments and actually get paid as a freelancer, you need to know how to make an invoice.

An invoice is an itemized list of services and/or deliverables detailing the freelance work you have completed, the price for each item, along with the total cost.

Your freelance graphic design invoices should also include important information such as when the payment is due, how it should be sent, and any acceptable payment methods. 

Illustration of someone tracking finances on a piece of paper next to a calendar and calculator.

Step 7: Market yourself as a freelance graphic designer

Landing a single client isn’t enough to build a sustainable freelance business. Every freelance graphic designer needs to know how to generate leads and get clients on a consistent basis. You’ll need to invest time in the right marketing strategies that are going to bring in your ideal clients and keep a steady stream of incoming work. 

"Don’t sit around and wait for clients to come to you. Sure, you can get a few inquiries here and there, but if you want consistent work, sometimes you need to make it happen." —Danielle Podeszek, Freelance Graphic Designer

While it’s true that networking is one of the most powerful strategies for getting your name in front of prospective clients, investing time in other marketing techniques like cold emailing or content marketing can go a long way in landing more freelance graphic design jobs. Here are a few avenues to explore:

  • Design a strong personal brand
  • Create and share valuable content (blog posts, podcasts, email newsletters, etc.) 
  • Ask for referrals
  • Follow-up with past clients
  • Use social proof 

Keep in mind that effective marketing takes time. Don’t expect instant results from your first ad, cold email, or your brand new social media account. Look at marketing as a long-term investment and keep trying new things until you find a strategy that works for you.

Illustration of a freelance web designer working on a laptop

Step 8: Find freelance graphic design jobs 

If you’ve made it this far, congrats! At this point, you should be ready to take on your very first freelance graphic design client. To help you get started, we've compiled a list of best freelance websites to find work as a graphic designer.

Remember that without new clients, your freelance graphic design business will stall out. So spending the time and resources to generate leads and turn them into paying clients is an important investment in your business.

How to become a successful freelance graphic designer

Remember, starting your freelance graphic design business should be a fun and exciting process. By taking the time to evaluate whether a freelance career is for you and setting systems and processes up from the start, you’ll have a smoother time running your business. Good luck!

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