10 Habits of Successful Freelance Designers

Learn what it takes to be a successful freelance designer. Get inspired by ten habits the most successful freelancers have in common.

8 min read

November 23, 2021

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Have you ever wondered what the difference is between those freelancers who are super successful, are booked out for months, and never seem to have to do any marketing vs. those who are constantly hustling for the next project? Turns out, the most successful freelancers have a few things in common that set them apart from the rest. In this article, we'll explore the most important habits to develop if you want to be successful at freelancing.

1. They have a growth mindset

The most successful freelancers are always learning new things. They adopt a growth mindset and realize there are always ways to improve, new things to learn (both in terms of design or development techniques and ways to grow their business), and never assume they know everything there is to know.

2. They set up systems

Establishing systems is one of the best ways to keep your freelance business running smoothly. Systems can be used for everything from client onboarding to invoicing to marketing.

Systems can be built from your current workflow, and often work best when you can at least partially automate them. Think about things like invoicing. You might need to send your invoice manually, but you can automate reminders being sent if it isn’t paid on time.

"Having systems in place frees you up to concentrate on other money-generating business activities."

That frees you up to concentrate on other money-generating business activities. Instead of having to frequently check whether invoices have been paid and sending out reminders to any clients who haven’t paid, you can just check in weekly or biweekly to see the status of outstanding invoices.

Software like Bonsai can make all these tasks simple and even automated with certain subscriptions. From proposals and contracts to invoices and taxes, their simple platform keeps you doing what you’re passionate about, instead of the paperwork.

3. They follow-up

Following up with both clients and prospective clients is an integral part of any successful freelancer’s business. Follow-up generally happens at a few key points in the process.

The first time to follow up is before you land the client. This could be after having a discovery call, right after a client has made an inquiry, or following up on a proposal you’ve sent if you don’t hear back within a few days.

You should also plan to follow up with clients after you’ve sent any materials for feedback. Unless you’ve established a timeline for when feedback should be sent, following up after a few days is good practice. If there’s a set timeline, it’s a good idea to follow up the day after whatever their deadline was if you haven’t received feedback.

It’s also a good idea to sign up to Bonsai, where you can set reminders for yourself to follow-up with clients, and even automate a few other tasks like proposals, contracts, and invoices.

"Following up with a client a month or two after a project is good business and can result in more work."

One thing many designers overlook is following up after a project is completed and all the invoices have been paid. “No news is good news” seems to be the accepted strategy. But following up with a client a month or two after a project is complete is good business and can result in more projects. Making sure that they’re happy with the work you’ve done and that everything is running smoothly goes a long way toward getting repeat business or referrals.

In the event that something isn’t going right, following up gives you a chance to fix any problems and strengthen the relationship. That can actually result in an even more favorable view of your business by the client, as it shows you stand by your work and value their satisfaction.

4. They create a focused environment

A focused work environment looks different for everyone. Some freelancers work best in a coworking space or coffee shop, with a fair amount of “distraction” around them. Others need a solo space where they can really tune the whole world out. Some listen to music while they work or have other background noise, while some need total silence.

The key is to eliminate things that actually distract you from working. That could be turning off notifications on your devices while you’re working. It could mean having an office where you can close the door so no one disturbs you. Or it could mean putting on particular music to really get you into work mode. Whatever it is, creating the kind of environment where they can focus is key to the success of the best freelancers.

5. They market themselves every day

While some successful freelancers don’t have to market themselves in the traditional sense and get new clients purely by word of mouth, that doesn’t mean they’re not actually doing any marketing.

Writing articles, posting your work on sites like Dribbble, and engaging with the kinds of people you want to work for are all effective marketing strategies for freelance designers. In fact, all marketing is at its core is making sure that the right clients find you. So post on social media, write articles, share your work, share useful resources, and otherwise engage both online and off.

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6. They reflect on their process and progress

This is related to adopting a growth mindset, but the most successful freelance designers also reflect on what’s working and what isn’t in their work. They want to make sure they’re growing and improving, and that nothing in the way that they work is holding them back.

This kind of constant evaluation of what’s working and what isn’t, allows them to develop better systems, workflows, and techniques on an ongoing basis. Take time during and after each project you work on to really dive into what’s going well and what needs improvement.

7. They surround themselves with like-minded people

Like attracts like. There are plenty of freelance designers out there who are just in it for the money, who don’t really care about leveling-up their skills as long as they keep getting paid. Those are not the designers you want to hang out with or work with if you want to find true success.

Instead, seek out the designers who are better than you are, who are constantly learning new things or developing new skills, and who want to be the best designers they can possibly be. Those are the people to build professional relationships with.

8. They under-promise and over-deliver

Under-promising and over-delivering is one of my favorite business tactics. Under-promising also protects you as a freelance designer in case something goes wrong. Let’s face it, life happens. Sometimes that deadline you were 100% confident you could meet gets sidelined and you end up having to make excuses and apologies to your client.

By under-promising what you can do, you build in protection for yourself if things go wrong. But in the case that nothing goes wrong and the project is smooth sailing, you’ll over-deliver to your client and they’ll be ecstatic with your work. Having their new website or logo design ready for launch a week ahead of schedule will earn you repeat business and more referrals.

9. They know how to say ‘No’

The most successful freelancers are picky in the work they choose to take on. They don’t work with every client who emails them. They pick the projects that are going to be fun, challenging, and advance their skills and career.

In the beginning, you might need to take on every project that comes your way so you can pay your bills. But as your reputation and skills improve, you should become more selective about who you work with. Only choosing to take on projects that you’re excited about results in better work and happier clients.

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10. They know what they’re good at

There are very, very few designers out there who are good at everything. The best designers recognize where their strengths lie and where they come up short. And while they may take steps to improve in areas where they’re lacking, they also recognize that it can be better to double-down on the things they’re good at and become truly exceptional at those areas.

Don’t try to be the designer who does absolutely everything. If e-commerce sites are your jam and what you really excel at, then take on more e-commerce projects. If logos are what you’re best at, why are you wasting time trying to design apps? That doesn’t mean you need to pick just one thing to specialize in, but don’t stress if certain types of design just aren’t things you’ve mastered. Accept your shortcomings and excel at the things you’re already good at and passionate about. And if there’s a project you really want to work on that requires one key skill you’re not so great at, you can always partner up with another designer or outsource that piece of the project.

Build better habits for freelance success

Implementing just a few of these ideas can improve your freelance business and start you on a path to more success. Pay attention to what the designers you admire are doing, and take inspiration from their habits, workflows, and business practices.

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