Self-employment advice for designers

This month brought with it my five-year anniversary as a self-employed graphic designer, so I’m taking the opportunity to offer fifteen pieces of advice to those thinking of “going it alone.”

wood type
Wood type photo credit

1. Look at the big picture

Creating a modern business plan will help you think through the hard issues.

2. Tell your friends and family about your self-employment

You never know what contacts they might have. Those close to you will want to help.

3. You will lose potential clients because your pricing is too high

But also because it’s too low. Whether you like it or not, the rates you set will immediately give others a perception about the quality of your design work.

4. Don’t stress about pricing

Design pricing is something independent graphic designers struggle with at some point. The best way to learn is through experience, and remember, you can always negotiate your price down from your initial quote, but never up, so if in doubt aim high.

5. You will make mistakes

We all do. Learn from them, and move on.

6. When wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically

Along similar lines, if you receive a complaint, allow the other person to do most of the talking. People want to be acknowledged, and the more you learn about a grievance, the more you can do to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

7. Compose your pitch

Your pitch is a very brief description about how you will help your design clients, and is useful when describing your job to new acquaintances (without the risk of boring them into submission). The length should be somewhere between an elevator pitch and a dumbwaiter pitch.

8. Never stop learning

Realise that in order to reach (and stay at) the top, you must never stop learning, whether it’s through recognised design courses, mentors, books, or other options. You’ll find a number of recommended reads here in my Amazon-powered design bookstore.

9. Publish a blog

The readers you attract will prove to be an invaluable source of knowledge and help. My two blogs (this and that) are powered by the free-to-use WordPress. Here are some blog mistakes worth avoiding, and the WordPress plugins I use. An alternative to WordPress is MovableType. This website has been hosted by ICDSoft since 2005.

10. Consider a partnership

You and your clients can benefit when you work alongside those with differing skills — a web specialist or brand strategist, for instance. Just because you’re “going it alone” doesn’t mean you need to be the only person involved. When approaching a potential partner — be it for your entire business or for a one-off project — talk in terms of the other person’s interests. Would you say yes?

11. Encourage clients to talk about themselves

A key element in all design projects lies in the information-gathering stage. Everything you learn can be used for the advantage of the project.

12. “A man without a smiling face must not open a shop.”

A wise Chinese man once said that.

13. You will work with clients you don’t like

Especially towards the start of your self-employment. With experience, you can learn how to spot troublesome clients before a project starts, and equally, how to spot the excellent ones.

14. Designing for committees isn’t a bad thing

You can still create amazing design if you know how to keep the process running smoothly. Chapter 8 of Logo Design Love gives advice on dealing with committees.

15. Put the wheels in motion

It’s time. People will tell you it’s not, but it is. The only thing stopping you?

You.

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55 comments

  1. Thanks for the great insight David. Your advice is spot on.
    Expanding on #5 I would add that not only will you make mistakes, making mistakes (and learning from them) early on is absolutely vital to your growth and potential for future success. The fastest way to become good at something is too make as many mistakes as possible, as quickly as possible. As you said, learn from them and move on.

    Congratulations on your 5th anniversary of self-employment. That is an awesome achievement!

  2. Congratulations on your 5th Anniversary, David! I honestly had thought you had been freelancing much longer than that. You very much are an inspiration :)

    Point #3 is well-taken, but would you have a link for those needing help in setting their prices? I have taken my cues from other professionals in my backyard and such as yourselves, but sometimes a little more information may be helpful. I purchased a book called “Marketing Mentor” by Ilise Benun and Peleg Top; the formula listed in that book did help make it easier to set pricing.

    Point #13, spot on! If someone isn’t familiar with working with clients they don’t like, picture the client that drives your boss nuts – that’s the client you potentially will run into. How we turn that adversity around into an advantage and a possible win/win marks our ability to negotiate and listen. Thoughts?

  3. Stephen Sanders

    This post was very helpful and I thank you for it. I am just starting out and my first client was a bad one. I gave him all the revisions he could ever want and then he wanted to purchase 40 Vinyl decals from me which i had ready for him within a day. When he was supposed to pay me he said that he would not pay and then for some reason went and lied to my family about a lot of the deal. I told him that was not an option so he then threatens to cancel the corporate contract (over 100,000) that was a whole 2 other companies. I am at a loss and it has really made me lose faith in people. Does anyone have any suggestions on what to do? I really want this business to work but this really puts me down.

  4. Some really good tips there David, as always.

    Have you ever been in a situation where you were getting second hand information? For example, you are getting work outsourced from an agency and you have no direct contact with that client. How would you deal with that if you felt you didn’t have enough information?

  5. Loads of great advice and encouragement there! Thanks for being so generous, and congratulations on your fifth anniversary!

  6. Thanks for your great advice, you gave me the inspiration to set up my own website. I’m stuck in the corporate world at the moment but it never hurts to have a back up plan.

  7. “A man without a smiling face must not open a shop.”
    I like this the most :)

  8. Some wise words there, especially liked no.12. Congratulations on your fifth anniversary David, have you set any goals to achieve over your next five years?

  9. Duane, I’ve certainly made a lot of cock-ups during my stint in self-employment. That might make for a decent post — “Mistakes I’ve made.” I’m unsure if coming unstuck is absolutely vital, but I reckon you’d need to be incredibly lucky to be a success without making mistakes.

    Lisa, if you haven’t seen it, this short series of posts should be of interest:

    How 20 designers charge their clients

    You’ll also find a few resources listed at the foot of this post:

    First steps to graphic design pricing

    I hope they’re of benefit.

    Stephen, I wonder, did you receive a downpayment from your client before starting work? Try not to let it get to you, and consider it one of the more difficult clients we all come across at some point.

    Mark, the “second-hand info” situation is one I’ve been in a few times, back when I readily accepted outsourced work from design agencies. There are two main reasons why I now tend to avoid those projects:

    1/ The agency usually requested that I not show the work in my own portfolio, keeping the project under wraps.
    2/ I was dealing with a “middle-person,” and it’s always best to have access to the decision-makers.

    Put simply, I avoid projects where I cannot communicate with the decision-maker(s).

    Aaron, that’s probably my favourite tip, too. Here’s a good Chinese proverb relating to my point about mistakes:

    “A fall into a ditch makes you wiser.”

    Kate, Paul, thanks a lot for the congrats. My main goal during the next five years is less business-focused and more life-focused, and that’s to start a little family of my own. We’ll see how that works out.

    David, all the best with your back-up plan, and good on you for getting it started.

  10. Hiya David, not commented on here in a while. Great points there. Almost makes me want to get back out and do it again, but I’m not ready yet.

    What’s your opinion on where you work from? I think I’d struggle to go freelance again working from home, there are just too many distractions. After working in the city centre in Manchester I’d find it hard to miss out on the action. A lot of nice offices, especially digital sector oriented companies, rent out desks but there’s another £150-£300 a month overhead which can be hard to stomach when starting off again.

    Also, what’s your take on handling your finances? Self employed accounting seems very daunting. Would you recommend biting the bullet and hiring an accountant?

    Cheers for the insight,

    Nathan

  11. Wild Animal

    I’ll add one, stay on schedule. Try to manage your time so you don’t over commit and are unable to deliver.

  12. This was a really interesting read and I’ve guilty of more than one point you raised!

    I think its particularly helpful when an established artist/designer shares what they have learned from years in the industry I want to make my living from.

    I’ll be keeping this list in mind for every project I undertake from now on! Thanks for writing and sharing!

    Tom

  13. It’s great you took the time to post such an insightfull yet to the point article. Those are some of the issues I’m about to face for I’m starting my own business. In the comments I read about the schedule and I second that as well.

    I’m currently having some problems with the blogging deal… More specific the hosting part because I’ve dedicated my carreer to branding, advertising and marketing. I’ve never been much of a web designer so when I try to dig into it I find myself stuck in a whole lot of codes I understand a very small portion of it.

    Thanks for the great articles. I’m currently reading the Logo Design Love book. As soon as I’ve finished it I’ll be more than happy to let you know my thoughts. Really great so far. Take care.

    Daniel

  14. David,

    Congratulations on your five year anniversary, that’s a wonderful achievement. It appears we run on similar tracks, it will be five years for me working on my own as of June 1. It has had its ups and downs, but I’d be a liar if I said it was anything other than enormously rewarding. I’m a huge fan of both your blogs. If you ever feel like reading design bits from a Chicago perspective, feel free to do so here: http://www.isubstance.com/blog.php

    (I hope it’s not tacky of me to post a link.)

    Warm regards and keep up the great work.

    Matthew Brett

  15. Some great tips here for someone just starting to take on the world of freelance web design.

  16. Even though we have different professions, this post provides some meaning for me as an entrepreneur. Thanks for writing and sharing.

  17. Hey David,

    Really good post here. All the points you made are right on, I’ve only been self employed for two years but I have almost come across all the tips you mentioned.

  18. Nathan, that’s a common question — about motivation levels when working from home — but I’m so used to it I don’t mind, and if anything, I work too much. One important tip about having a home office/studio is to frequently take yourself outside. It can be all too easy to spend all day without touching the front door, and that’s not healthy for the mind, or body.

    As for accountancy, I’ve been filing my own tax returns these past years. I don’t mind that so much either, but I reckon it’s best to hire an accountant.

    Daniel, it’d be great if you can offer a few thoughts once you’ve read my book, and I’m very glad you’re enjoying it so far. If you have any questions about web hosting, feel free to ask. I’m far from an expert, but I know a little.

    Matthew, congratulations in advance for your upcoming milestone, too. I second your comment about how rewarding self-employment is in comparison to employment. It’d take an excellent offer to have me revert. There are some nice, clean marks in your identity portfolio. All the best with your current and future projects.

    Thanks for reading, folks, and for the comments.

  19. Thanks for mentioning our book as a resource for pricing, and I wanted to correct the title in case anyone’s looking for it.

    Marketing Mentor is the name of the consulting practice and the book is called, “The Designer’s Guide to Marketing and Pricing.”

    You can find a sample chapter and a series of 13 podcasts here: http://www.marketing-pricing-guide.com

  20. Congratulations on your five year. That is a monumental threshold for sure, you’re getting close to that point where you would never even consider a job again…perhaps you’re already there.

    I would add one more to the list if I could. “16. Don’t go it alone.”

    Maybe it’s the introverted nature of a lot of designers or perhaps ego, but I don’t believe we need to do this thing called business alone. I’ve been self employed for 13 years now and my best years have been the past few because I implemented an ‘advisor’ board. We meet every other month and look at my finances, clients, sales, and how I’m doing personally. It’s uncomfortable being that transparent for sure but in the end I have seen amazing growth in my business and person.

    Having a place where you can get some accountability and also be encouraged is irreplaceable. On my board I have a CFO friend, a salesperson, a personal friend and another designer (important to get a mix of eyeballs on your business).

    I would encourage anyone getting started to find some accountability and put together an advisor board for their business. They will keep you on track, it has for me. Minimally, they should meet with some peers since most people struggle with the same stuff. You don’t have to go it alone!

    Thanks for your blog Mr Airey. Great advice as always. Congrats!

  21. Great article David.

    Though, maybe you should talk about setting up a safety net first. I know that is one of the reasons I can’t dive into freelance. I have a family to support and I am not going to be walking into a wealth of clients right away. I need to save up a few months worth of bill money before I can make a leap like this.

    Also, what advice (if any) do you have for those of us who aren’t freelance. Such as dealing with a boss that tampers with your work? What to do when looking for a new job? Maybe, how to weed out the potential employers that care more about making a buck than good design? That kind of thing. I’d love to see more designer’s input on these kind of situation. Everywhere seems a bit saturated with freelance advice. (not that it isn’t good advice though)

  22. Luke, certainly we don’t need to work on our own. As well as your reasons, it could also be a matter of preference — having no partnership or hired-help worries, and being in sole charge of the design outcome (bar the client, of course). Very well done making it through 13 years in self-employment. I like your idea of the “advisor board,” and am glad it’s working for you. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Brad, if you read through the page linked to above, describing how I started in self-employment, you’ll find I had that safety net in the form of a retainer client. I definitely didn’t walk into a wealth of clients, so you’re right not to expect that, but the one regular source of income gave me a little time elsewhere to work on my marketing. Thanks for the extra post ideas.

  23. David, I’ve done the employer thing as well as explored the partnership idea. That is a different animal altogether. I hated having people work for me and I don’t think I would go back to it…not on any formal basis. I’m more suggesting the advisor board because I think it can be frustrating and lonely to feel like we are in business alone. Having outside perspective is always a great encouragement.

    You mean your clients don’t just let you do whatever you want? ;)

  24. You’re spot on, Luke. There were times when I missed the company of colleagues, and thought about moving back into employment because of it. That’s another advantage of publishing a blog — it’s a great way to build your own network of design contacts who can help, advise, and encourage.

  25. Alphonse

    @ Stephen

    What I’d suggest you do is threaten to take legal action if he doesn’t pay. Even if he didn’t sign a contract, the emails you exchanged are all the proof you need. That should scare him into paying.

    @ David

    I agree with you on pricing, although I’d add that you should try and stick to an hourly rate. That way you can take on small budgets, without losing money. Its a good way of keeping things in control too.

  26. David,

    Congratulations on five hard fought, well deserved years. I’ve come across your blog today after reading a comment you wrote on Brand New, I look forward to reading your prior insights and those you have going forward.

    I started freelancing fresh from school a handful of years ago, sometimes I think I was / continue to be utterly mad in this pursuit, and other times I realize how much joy and satisfaction doing it this way has brought me. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. For good or ill, this road leads you down one hell of a ride.

  27. Designer Monk

    Hi! David, its always been a pleasure reading your posts. This is my first ever comment in the entire world wide web though I have been following your blog – I could not remember the date but it was then, when your site had a sky header panel and the earth (grass) footer panel, may be 2007. I regret not being getting active then but I believe it’s never too late to do right things. Let me not go in to details of how, when, where, why etc but I like reading your post and they are really good. Keep writing more designs David, keep doing the good work. I have subscribed to your posts, so will be notified. And, even if you don’t write any someday, there’s so much to dig and learn from your blogs. I am a Graphic Designer too aspiring to go freelancing very soon. I have approached one of my favorites LaurenMarie for help & suggestions informally, need to get in touch with her too before my wife tag me as a synonym of procrastination. May be it’s the risk factor that I wanted to avoid or may be my old habit of getting regular pay. You will see me again David perhaps a little above in the comments list and yes, sorry not to mention my original name. Nothing secret about it but it’s just my mental state of being a good graphic designer first. God bless you and be happy David.

  28. Designer Monk

    Sorry, I forgot to congratulate you on your FIFTH anniversary. Keep it up and all the best for many more years to come.

  29. #6, fantastic words from Dale Carnegie. These have helped me quite a lot in my adventures.

  30. Fantastic post. Yip, bit by bit… through the teething processes and all. Will bookmark this for sure. Exciting times as I am tending to see more and more of a trend towards “self-employment” in a lot of different sectors. It is the time of the entrepreneur! Cheers

  31. Alphonse, I recommend using a set project price as opposed to an hourly fee. The following situation comes to mind:

    ——

    A woman spotted Picasso sketching outside a café in Paris.

    The woman asked Picasso if he might sketch her, and charge accordingly. Picasso kindly obliged. In a few minutes he handed her an original Picasso.

    “And how much do I owe you?” she asked.

    “Five thousand francs,” Picasso answered.

    “But it only took you three minutes,” she said.

    “No,” Picasso said, “It took me all my life.”

    ——

    Kevin, thanks for telling me where you arrived from. I’m a long-time Brand New reader, but don’t comment too often. Very glad you’ve found so much joy and satisfaction. Great to read.

    Monk, no worries about the name, and it’s always nice to have someone leave their first comment here. The sky and grass images served me well back then, but I’m much happier now with the current setup. Lauren of Creative Curio is a great person. Very helpful.

    Marty, no doubt. I really liked Carnegie’s most popular book.

    Martin, I hope Scotland’s still treating you well. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  32. Lots of sound advice there, David. I especially like the last piece of encouragement – people will try to put you off and you will be your own worst enemy but you can do it. It’s been almost 5 years for me as well and I’ve made a few mistakes and had some hard times but it’s all been worth it.

    The only point I differ with you is about working with clients you don’t like at the beginning. I’ve not done that. Maybe I’ve been lucky. Anyway, I’m sure you’re working with excellent and likable clients now!

  33. Alphonse

    @ David

    To each his own. I used to do set prices, but found things were often getting out of hand. Probably because I’m nicer than I should be.

    I should note that I do technically work with a set project price. My hourly rate is just there so I know when to stop, or in case a client decides he wants to see every colour and typeface possibility.

  34. Great to know it’s been worth it for you, too, Rob. Perhaps “working with clients you don’t like” was too strong, and I would’ve been better saying “working with clients who cause undue anxiety” — with this having more to do with a previous lack of experience on my behalf (when starting out) than the fault of someone I supposedly didn’t get along with (if that makes sense).

  35. “Undue anxiety” – that’s something I can relate to! As you say, these things get better with experience.

  36. Okay I can’t keep reading these without chiming in…

    I’ve always said, if you don’t like a client, find a replacement. That should be motivation to get out there and market yourself. At some point you have to work for someone, young designers especially have this dreamy idea about how romantic this business will be but it’s called WORK for a reason. You have to decide if you want a job or a hobby, both are great but you have to decide. So if the client is hard to work with, replace them…or suck it up.

    Regarding hourly, I think it’s important to know how long things take and know what you need to make for your company to be profitable. However I don’t charge hourly since I price based on value. I start with my base hourly rate which includes: Overhead + Wages + Profit / Number of hours I can realistically bill. That gives me my effective hourly rate and lets me know the “minimum” I can charge for something without loosing money. Then I add whatever on top of that based on the value of what I’m doing. So if my effective hourly were $100 lets say, and a logo ID is 10 hours, my base is $1000 but I’ll charge more because of the value of what I’m doing…then the key is to be clear on what they get, number of ideas, meetings, revisions etc.

    Just my dos pesos. David you really started something with this post :)

  37. This is a brilliant post David. My many thanks for putting your thoughts together in one comprehensive post. I know a lot of non-design freelancers that your advice would be perfect for as well. I will make sure that they read your blog. Rock on and much love from Chicago.

  38. I work alone on a daily basis and #10 is a must. I have certain people I turn to for tasks that I don’t have time for or if the other person would be better suited for the job. Great post.

  39. David, becoming a father is probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done and I highly recommend it! My son is nearly two and he’s wonderful. We’re thinking of adding another in the not-too-distant future, all being well.

    One thing I would add to the list is ‘don’t be afraid to say no’. It’s tempting to accept anything and everything, but it might not always be the best thing for either you or the client.

  40. Andy Lam

    Hey David, congrats on 5 years. the last tip imo is the best one. Kinda applies to almost everything in life, not just design or being self employed.

    I’m gona have to tack this up somewhere I can see everyday.

    “It is time. The only thing stopping you.. is you”

    Thanks

  41. Thanks for the dos pesos, Luke. Additionally, if a designer doesn’t already have the motivation to market self-skills, I think he/she is better suited to employment — not self-employment. Although ideally, all designers should want to sell themselves, selling their ideas to a creative director, for instance.

    Thanks, Otto. I hope you’re enjoying the great Chicago weather. Would love to visit there one summer.

    The recommendation is much appreciated, Richard. Glad things seem to be going so well for you and your family. Superb additional tip, too:

    “Don’t be afraid to say no.”

    Cheers, Andy. They’ve gone fast (those years). Some great times.

  42. Well number 15 is the most pertinent for me, after weeks and weeks of messing around, I finally left my employer yesterday through redundancy and June 1st is the beginning of my self-employment. I am very excited, something I’ve wanted to do for many years….well here goes. I have a young family and hope I can create a good work/life balance. Thanks for this article David and congratulations on the 5 years. The advice and inspiration from you is much appreciated.

  43. Was a business owner for 12 yrs. and would NEVER do it again. Self employment is not the ideal situation for me.

  44. Hi David, Surprised by the super simple design of the site. Sorry, haven’t been here lately.
    Nice info. More than anything, patience and dedication are a must.

  45. Good luck, Rob. I hope it works out brilliantly for you.

    Chaitanya, no need to apologise at all. Patience and dedication — two important traits in self-employment, no doubt.

  46. Hi

    I just found your blog through blog catalog, and I must say it’s awesome. I started out on my own recently (7 months) and this post was a great help.
    Congratulations on your 5 years!

  47. Another very informative post. Thanks so much David. Your site has been hugely beneficial to me.

  48. Good of you both to say, Sid, Kevin. Thanks guys.

  49. Along the lines of “don’t go it alone” is hire a bookkeeper. As soon as you can. Your bookkeeper or accountant can be your best friend in business.

  50. Thanks David, this is some really useful advice. I started my own practice a few months ago, and I wish i’d read the section on how to spot problem clients! It is unfortunately inevitable you will have to work with clients you don’t like.

  51. Namita Tiwari

    Hi David,
    I just stumbled upon your website by chance… and wow… what an eye opener. Your blog is a great motivational tool for all who decide to start out on their own… not just designers. These are regular roadblocks that we all come across… we have similar thoughts… but fail to comprehend… forget about expressing them so very clearly …and beautifully. Kudos!
    Am myself a designer… based in Delhi… and have a tough time extracting my dues from clients… its difficult surviving if one is not a great self pusher…
    I loved the Picasso piece… “It took me all my life” … and now with renewed hope and and self belief, i can say… the only thing that has been stopping me so far…has been me …and only me…if we push ourselves…we dont know where all we can go …what all we can achieve.
    Your blog reads a lil like Notes To Myself…hugh prather.
    Hope youy keep writing many such notes…and keep us inspired.

  52. David,

    #15 is really #1 for me. Everything seems like it should follow naturally.

    I’ve been the owner of a small film/design/creative firm for about 6 years.

    Whenever I get bogged down by all the demands of running a business or suffer from people fatigue I sort of dream about going out on my own (in reverse) as just a solo, freelance, creative, consultant working on one client at a time…alone at home where my wife and kids can be near.

    Today I woke and just knew that it was time.

    Perhaps I feared this day because of some imaginary security or sense of importance that comes with being “the boss.” Or maybe I’ve just been afraid to be the only one to blame if I fail.

    But no more.

    This article gave me great peace. Thank you.

    Bryan

  53. Rob, Namita, Bryan, you’re all very welcome. Happy to publish content of interest. Thanks for dropping by.

  54. Number 12 seems very familiar, I have seen it somewhere (in a book) It makes the best impression to me. I try to be happy with everyone, everyone just remembers me. It ‘s like karma ! Thanks David for great advices.

  55. David Bone

    Lots of great advice and useful tips there! Thanks for being so generous with your advice, and of course congratulations on your fifth anniversary! That is the magic number in surviving starting a business.

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