How I became a self-employed graphic designer

Myeloma Matters

I’m often asked how I made the switch to self-employment. Here’s a snapshot of that time in my life in 2004/05.

I was working as “publications officer” for Myeloma UK, a cancer charity in Edinburgh. My responsibilities included all print design, print buying, and managing the website.

In 2004 I resigned so I could travel the world. I had no intention of returning to my previous role, and was actually thinking about life as an English teacher in Asia, but in 2005 after months of eye-opening experiences abroad, and when I made it back to Edinburgh, Myeloma UK hadn’t found a replacement designer. So I asked chief executive Eric Low to hire me as a part-time contractor, working three days per week and invoicing at the end of each month.

He agreed, and we worked together again for around 18 months — until the charity eventually needed someone full-time.

self-employment hierarchy
Self-employment hierarchy by Tony Clark, discussed in Are freelance designers really suckers?

Starting out with a retainer client was vital, and while those three days a week brought in just enough cash to get me by, they gave me plenty of time to work on the build of my website and blog (my main self-promotion tool).

My speciality has since changed from publications to identity design, and although it’s been a number of years since I worked with Myeloma UK, I still keep track of how the company’s doing. It’s brilliant to see the difference it makes to myeloma patients.

Don’t let the naysayers win

When I talked to friends about starting a business, a few said I wasn’t experienced enough, that I should stay in employment until later in life. If you’re considering making the switch from full-time employment, you’ll probably hear people say the same, but don’t let them stop you.

If it’s what you really want, you can make a success of anything you set your mind to.

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73 Comments

  1. Great post, David! My brother (a developer) is doing a similar thing by having retainer clients while he works on side projects to help promote himself as a developer consultant for our business (as well as some projects to create passive income).

  2. Thanks for this David. I’m about to graduate, and while I have some freelance work at present, I’m going to have to take a part-time job to support the freelancing. I don’t have a problem with this, in fact it’ll be nice to have two work environments to keep things interesting. Good to know you started a similar way.

  3. You said it, David.
    I myself started out the same way.
    Still trying to figure out certain parts.
    But we designers are used to learning as we go.
    Reading this just now gives me peace of mind, once again.
    And yes, where there is a will, there is a way.

  4. Great post David, and very inspiring! I’m currently in a very similar in-house designer role that you were in, so it’s good to see that it is possible to escape (whilst still keeping that potential client bridge unburnt!).

  5. Hi David,

    great post – it’s always interesting to see how other designers have made the leap from employment to self-employment. I’m 23 and was employed until Christmas Eve 2009. I left my previous job (as a web designer/developer for small IT firm) for a number of reasons and am now designing/developing for a number of local firms. I think the term ‘freelance’ can have negative connotations so I brand myself as ‘website and web application design and development’ – it looks a bit more corporate which is a good thing I think! I tend to think that how we (as self employed designers) deal with our clients tends to have a much greater impact on how they view us than how we market ourselves, though perhaps that’s because I live and work in the middle of nowhere and rely on word of mouth advertising for a lot of my work.

    Keep up the good work!

  6. David,
    What a great article here. Thanks for the inspiration. I did something similar and it has been the best decision I have ever made. I will most likely go back to agency work someday when I have kids, but for now, I love working as an independent contractor.

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. Nice read, David. I strongly believed that if you are determined and hardworking enough, you can overcome most obstacles and learn what you need. Needless to say to continue stepping into freelancer zone even there are wet blankets that keep on trying to cover us in the process.

  8. This is incredibly encouraging, thank you so much! I hope to make the switch within the year, I am just waiting to build my client base and get certain things secured.

  9. Love the post, David. The naysayers can really bring you down, but luckily I had more positive responses to working for myself than negative ones so that gave me the boost I need to quit my job as a marketing coordinator at a large real estate company and head out on my own. I was able to snag some long term contracted work that helps pay the bills while I build my business. It’s good to know that there are others in similar situations.

  10. Interesting article again, David. And once again I found myself tumbling through article after article that you cleverly have interlinked – good way to get people reading more old blog entries.

    It definitely does seem to make sense to have some retainer clients to begin with so you aren’t struggling to get work in the door.

  11. Aaron, I hope everything works out great for your bro.

    Ian, there was a time during at the start when I was registered with a recruitment agency, and they had me spend a couple of days working in-house for Standard Life (very corporate). The strict guidelines were hard to stand, so my advice for any part-time role you take is to work somewhere small, where there’s more flexibility with what you do.

    Daniel, glad to offer what inspiration I can, and you never know when previous employers can help, so keep things amicable. If you do become self-employed feel free to get in touch with any questions.

    Jack, I also think you’re on the right lines. Nice type on your website, too.

    Preston, with a kid or two on my horizon the situation might change, but the plan is to keep doing what I’m doing. I’ll not rule out some form of partnership.

    Laura, here’s to plenty of continued success for you. Great to know business is good.

    Mark, and there’s the use of the ‘related posts’ plugin for WordPress. Good of you to browse the archives.

    Cheers folks.

  12. Interesting article, which took me back to the moment I decided to start a company. It actually happened 5 years before I left my job as Creative Director.

    A client offered to give me all the work they were giving the company I was working for if I started on my own. They offered me a studio and support but I felt I wasn’t ready so I told my boss and declined the offer. My boss said that he thought I didn’t have it in me to do it anyway and from that point onwards I decided I will one day run my own agency. Those negative words were actually a positive driving force for me.

  13. Hi David,

    Many thanks for this reassuring article – after trawling Belfast (and Bangor) for ages looking a salary without avail, I’ve decided to pursue a heavy freelance career until jobs are plentiful in our industry again.

    Whilst initially I was a little discouraged and even considered another career after graduating, I’ve since turned things around and I am now enthusiastic and positive after cold-calling various business with my cards and discussing my services as a designer – every single person I spoke to was friendly and seemed interested in what I do for a living.

    Now I still believe that I have the coolest job in the world!

  14. “With passion and commitment, you can make a success of anything you set your mind to” It also helps to have a Scrooge McDuck size bank vault full of cash to help get things started.

    I made the decision to go freelance just over 2 years ago when I was a permanent member of staff at a publishing agency, we were working on a particularly large job at the time, in fact we were about to run over our strict deadline, so the freelancers were called in to save the day. These freelancers soon became hated amongst us perm staff, they were doing the same job we were (without our experience on the specific job), working less hours and getting paid much much more.

    2 years later I am one of those ‘hated freelancers’. It didn’t take long to realise the extra burdens of being a freelancer warrants that extra pay.

    I would say though, I learned more about the design industry during the first few months as a freelancer than I had during my previous 6 years experience.

  15. Isn’t it funny the way things work out? I was lucky enough to set up a similar situation for myself — only I was teaching instead of working on retainer. Teaching at a training center (no grading required!) allowed me to continue to refine and improve my skills, and stay connected to the design community — but on a schedule of my choice. When I had a lot of freelance work, I would turn classes down, and when things were slow, I would pick up more teaching hours. It was an ideal situation.

  16. Great post David,

    Being self employed myself I can’t agree with you more. Anyone who ventures into self employment has to set goals, stay focus and be diligent. Many doors will shut in your face but don’t get discouraged. Keep your mind open for advice and constructive criticism.

  17. @Matt Rogers – I hear you about the “hated freelancers”. When I first graduated a couple of years ago I worked for a well known NI Advertising agency called Lyle Bailie that very first summer, and they had a Freelancer doing the same thing I was doing and I know for a fact he was getting paid something shocking, compared to my humble wage in there!

    I am still working full-time for another agency at the minute, but I still envy a lot of Freelancers!

  18. I rode the initial wave of the big .com boom that started in 98 or so. I had just got hired as an Art Director for an international firm, but resigned 3 months later. I walked into the VP’s office and said “I quit and you are my first client.” He said “OK, but you have to hire your replacement”, which I did and ended up hiring my “boss” for the next 2 years I worked with them. I then picked up clients in that next year I still have to this day!

  19. Great post David! If only I could make enough to quit my job but at the same time, I like having steady income along side my designing. It’s a little tougher to find time but peace of mind and medical insurance are hard to live without here in the states. But like you said, it’s not impossible to do it, and you’ve pretty much proved it.

  20. Thanks for the article and the confidence boost I got from it. Really appropriate for my current situation. Looks like I am to be let go from my design job, been employed for many years. I have been thinking of going self-employed for a while now, and been preparing as much as you can. I haven’t got my head around doing a blog though!

  21. David, I’m glad you wrote about this. It’s always been my career goal to be self-employed, to not work for the same company, same client, same kinds of stuff day in and day out. I do wish you would go into more details about your transition though, just because I’d like to know.

    I think, for me, the biggest naysayer is… myself. Transitioning to freelancing always seemed like a plunge to me, but I see it is important to have some stability first (like your part time job). I’m always afraid that I won’t be able to at least match my current salary. How will I pay rent and bills? for health insurance, etc. What if no one hires me?

    I find that, for me, confidence wise, it is easier to work for a small studio first. They work the same way a self-employed designers do (except I was way underpaid). And in a small enough company, you are involved in every step of the way. That is like a crash course to self-employment. I work in an in-house design dept now, but I do plan on going back to a studio environment before I “take the plunge” and become self employed.

    @Matt Rogers & Mark McCorkell – when I was working for the small studio, my entry level salary in dollars per hour terms was around $16/hr and I had to manage and direct freelance developers we were paying $90-$100/hr for. We pay more for them in 1 hour than I make in 1 day =(. Worse part was, when the talent agency rep said they are “php gurus”, I didn’t expect to be the one to finish their work after 3 weeks of slow unproductive coding and a HUGE bill. I don’t even know how to code… I googled everything…

  22. Alphonse

    Thanks for this David.

    I second the idea of working somewhere while you start gathering clients. That way you won’t have to be eating instant noodles to survive when you make the switch.

  23. Piero, your previous boss was a fool. Maybe he just didn’t want you to leave, but firing negative comments your way isn’t how to keep a team happy.

    Paul, great to know you turned things around back in the homeland. It’s uplifting when you stick through hard times to come out the other side.

    Matt, there’s no doubt a Scrooge McDuck account would be helpful. I didn’t have one, but I did manage to keep a couple of grand from my travel funds (it was either start my business, or blow the lot on a 20-jump skydive course in Brisbane — I’d still love to do that course).

    Update:
    I managed a tandem at Wild Geese Skydive Centre. Brilliant!

    Manda, that does seem like an ideal situation. Good on you for making it work.

    Doug, “I quit and you are my first client.” Love it.

  24. Wow, you hit it on the head in the “Naysayers” section. That’s enough motivation to carry me into the next phrase in my life. So glad I read this post. I’m not the best and I am still learning design but I have the passions and the willingness that will CARRY ME. When you continue to do the thing you love, you can ONLY get better.

  25. Thank you for sharing your history. It can be daunting to reveal the initial activities that set you on path of independence (from corporate).

    I have never referred to myself as a ‘freelancer’ although technically I probably am. Since I realized within the first 30-45 days of leaving my cushy corporate job, I incorporated. Now ten years later, through thick and thin times, I feel stronger now then I did back then.

    Good luck…. everyone!

  26. It’s great to see a little background on your career, David.

    I bet you would never had guessed that just 5 or 6 years after travelling the world, you’d be a published author! I’m sure that with the continued determination and professionalism you’ve shown so far, one day you’ll be as highly regarded as Saul Bass and Paul Rand were.

    In regards to naysayers, both Bill Gates and Lord Alan Sugar both did their own thing in their early careers- and look how they turned out…

  27. Thanks for this inspiring post, David. I’m about to graduate from university and am trying to get established as a freelancer. It can be challenging to not know for sure when your next paycheck will come in!

    Having a retainer client is a great way to get started. I’ve been thinking about developing relationships with other design agencies, where I would work for them part-time on a contract basis. Do you have any suggestions for initiating this type of relationship?

  28. I appreciate you writing this article. I started my business last year and can relate to what you said. I am happy to have come across this article. It is great to see that your hard work and determination really payed off. So thanks for a lovely and encouraging article.

  29. David, thank you for sharing this. I’ve been inspired by your work and have learned a lot from your example. It’s been 2 1/2 years since I’ve become a self-employed graphic designer and my path has been similar to yours. Easing into full-time design is definitely a more stable route to go. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and encouragement.

  30. David, thanks for the advice. I know what you’re saying, and I’d much rather work for a small company relevant to my interests anyway, so assuming I can find the work, that would be ideal for me!

  31. David, it’s interesting to hear how different designers get their self-employed start. For me, I’ve now been self-employed for more years than I was a full-timer. Although I won’t say never, it would be hard going back to working for someone else.

    I would say that starting out as a freelancer straight out of design school was a very, very difficult time. Without many connections, it was near impossible to get my feet in the door, let alone be self-supporting. It took a few years of establishing myself in the business to get better. The art of networking was difficult to learn and am still trying to master.

    Thanks for the post.

  32. Did you make more or less money?

  33. Rob, if you have any questions on the blog-front, feel free to ask.

    Andy, what extra details were you hoping I shared? Likewise, ask away.

    Andrew, you’re right. Back then I never contemplated writing a book. But back then, I didn’t know what a blog was, so I suppose there was a transition there, too.

    Leighton (Taylor), when contacting those studios and agencies, ask if there are any particularly busy periods during the year when extra help is needed, or offer to help when team members are taking annual leave. During the initial contact, ask who’s responsible for the hiring — make sure you’re talking to the right person.

    Mario, yes, I made money, more or less. :)

    Thanks everyone.

  34. Hi David, I always find personal success stories fascinating. Though most people’s stories follow a similar path (school/full time transition to self-employed), each person’s path have anecdotes that fascinates me.

    How did you get your first few clients?
    Did you use temp agencies?
    Did you take jobs that require you to work in their office?
    Do you work with any charities now?
    Is there a particular charity you support?
    Are there slow times for your business? If so, how do you reach out for more work?
    What do you think about sites like elance.com where you bid for projects?

  35. Graeme

    This is great David,

    I’m only very, very amateur at this. I have designed a couple of web sites and stuff for friends and family but was wondering what you would need to do to get qualified? I have a degreee in IT am 48 years old and love graphics. I’m also partially disabled, so use the computer when I feel up to it. It’s very theraputic.

    Please keep your newsletters coming, I look forward to seeing thein my inbox. I would love to hear from the other contibuters to this brilliant blog.

    Best wishes
    Graeme

  36. sean geyer

    Thanks David. Appreciate the article.. i was laid off in may 2009 after 9 years as an art director and have been doing contract work ever since. I’m in the process of putting together my own design shop but i get raised eyebrows from friends when i tell them my plans… its tricky to strike out into self employment with kids to support but in the long run it’ll be for the best… thanks for the pep talk.

    love the blog.
    Sean

  37. sampath

    HI David

    The Post was encouraging, i am too in similar lines.

    sampath

  38. A great post, and some cracking comments to I love reading how people reach similar places through many different paths.

    Taking the step into Freelance is a major one that I have considered but never been brave enough to take the step.

  39. Love the attitude. I am going through the experience of launching a business and website development to put my writing in Ebook formats. It will take awhile, but I hope to become the guru you are.

    Great posts! (I do read them via mail – just don’t comment often.)

  40. Dear David,

    Just passed by your blog and find it very interesting and inspiring, thank you. I am a graphic designer, danish, 27 years and with 5 years work experience. I have been working 4 different places, mostly at advertising agencies. Its been great and good learning but I haven’t really been doing what I like the most: logos, visual identities, fashion design etc. Ive just got offer a new job, also at a adverting agency, but my feeling is, that I again, will work with clients and stuff I don’t find really interesting and inspiring and that I will get a bit bored. My big question is, if I should take the job for the money sake, and work on my own stuff in my spare time until I get a cool portfolio with private work, and then apply for a job on a design agency, where I know that I will get challenged? Or should I say no to the job, and then not get paid (!!) and just use all the time I have on making a perfect portfolio and then go after a job I really want? Sorry for all my questions but I am so confused, and could really use a good advice from one like you.

  41. Great post – I love hearing about others’ hard work and success in the graphic design self-employment world. I freelance and get by and am always looking to do more than that. . . But I love the freedom of this lifestyle and the promise that there are amazing projects to be done and great clients to be connected with.

  42. Andy, I’ll answer your questions here:

    As far as I can remember, my first few clients found me through my blog (except for the retainer client I mention in this post).

    I did use temping agencies, and it was a requirement that I visit other offices, but the more accustomed I became to carrying out the entire design process with clients, the less I enjoyed only working on a very small part, so I quickly grew tired.

    I still work with charities, but with so many good causes, it’s hard to choose just one or two.

    When my business is going through slower times I work on my websites and portfolio. Sometimes I think it’d be useful to have more quieter periods, but that’s definitely a good situation to be in.

    By “bidding for projects” do you mean offering the lowest price in order to secure the job?

    Graeme, in order to become qualified, you should study as well as gain experience with clients who aren’t friends or family. My thanks goes to you, and to the other commentators, for the contributions and kind words.

  43. Great post, I’ve often found myself discouraged about the freelancer route and if I can handle it, but I always remember to tell myself that if I want it bad enough, I can have it. All it takes is work and commitment. :)

  44. Hey David, Thanks for answering my questions.

    by bidding sites, yes i do mean the ones where you bid the lowest price. I am going to guess the answer is a “no” only because of the way you said it. When i see those sites, I guess I don’t see it as a bidding war, but instead placing 1 bid and seeing if clients will bite.

    The reason I asked is to see where can a beginner freelancer look for work. Someone who doesn’t have a book and popular web blog where clients come to you. Since you said you started out getting work from a temp agency in addition to a retainer client, maybe that’s the answer.

    Thanks again.

  45. No worries, Andy.

    I advise against using websites that allow bidding against other designers. You’ll find that most of the clients there expect something for nothing, and see design as a commodity (lowest price winning). These are not the people you’ll enjoy working with.

    Instead try being pro-active, perhaps looking through local newspapers, picking out poorly designed ads, creating a quick mock-up of how you’d improve it, then sending it to the company being advertised (along with the poor design). I know of others who found that approach of great use.

  46. David,

    This is awesome. Its very nice to hear all these words of designers doing the same thing as me. My situation was that I was trying to save a small agency from going bankrupt and it just got to the point where I didn’t think I could help save it anymore and decided to leave. Instead of the Owner letting people go as things got worse he decided to just not pay them in hopes that it would recover and it never did.

    I work from home and have been what I call an “Independent Designer/Developer” for 6 months now. It’s been rough and money has been very tight but I’m figuring it out. I’ve had a handful of job offers but for some reason I’m picker now. Being on my own, I feel like I have more control over my life. Instead of wishing that I would get paid at the end of the month I have a better idea of when I’ll get paid and I can plan for it.

    I have 3 kids under 5 years old and a dog too which makes it difficult to work so I go work at the public library 2 days a week so that can focus in. It definitely makes it difficult to start up a company when you have no money really to put into it.

    I’ve found that I have to build companies and being on my own I get to do that for myself and its very rewarding.

    Thanks for the sharing this and thanks to everybody that commented. This almost feel like a support group to me encouraging all those solo designers/entrepreneurs out there that it really is possible.

    Ben Peck

  47. Thanks for the article. I have just taken the plunge into freelancing and am currently working 10 days a month for my previous employer which has really provided the financial security to make this possible (and a less scary prospect)!

    I was very glad I had the experience of working for other people before going freelance as it allowed me to pick up many tips on how to run, market and sell a business. It also gave me more drive and incentive to go it alone and be my own boss!

  48. Great Post David,

    I am in similar situation. I work as an in-house web developer for a cinema chain and also i have a freelance company on the side. I have a number of my own clients but not near enough consistent work to go full-time.

    I have set plans in place to move to Spain for a number of reasons but mainly because my girlfriend has secured a unique job opportunity.

    i would like to take my in-house work as contract but to be honest i am unsure of how to approach the company about this. All my work can be completed remotely but i am not sure what is the best way .. as a subcontractor invoicing monthly or part-time employed etc?

  49. Hi David,

    Thanks for answer my questions.. again!

    This seems like the thread that never ends… quick question popped into my head when reading your reply. I know your position on spec work, but what do you consider the difference is between spec work and a mock-up. I always viewed the 2 as the same.

    I can see, in this situation, spec work as a request from the client and mock-up being a pro-active proposal from the designer. But can companies as for a mock-up? Is that the same?

    Thanks again.

  50. Kylie Thévenau

    Hi David,
    I haven’t ever commented on your posts before but, often refer to them for support so thankyou very much for sharing and to everyone commenting. I have been freelancing for almost two years with a slow and steady increase in work. I decided to work for myself to actually gain more experience in handling all aspects of projects and boy has it been a learning curve! Not that there have been any really major mistakes, but I have definately had to wear many hats and become a much better designer and project manager as a result. I would never say to anyone that it is easy but, what is the worst that can happen? You sink or you swim and that means you swim for your life if you want it to work. Making sure your first clients are in love with the outcome of a project goes a very long way with word of mouth. I am only now experiencing my first quieter moments and finally spending time on my own identity and promotion and it feels like I am about to give up a secret! I guess what I am trying to say is make yourself available and you will be surprised at the projects coming out of the woodwork, that and goodluck if you decide to do so! (oh, and it can be isolating if you work from home sometimes – hence I am writing a comment here:)
    Thanks again David…

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