Design and Illustration careers are as varied as the artists that inhabit them. Today we’ll explore the world of freelance graphic designers. As in previous articles in this series, I sought out several freelance graphic designers from around the globe to share their experiences with me. Happily, they obliged, and we discussed their training, daily tasks, sourcing clients, various media they work in, self-promotion, and more.
Previously we explored the career path of an in-house graphic designer. While freelancers may take on the same tasks as those working within a company, they also have to hustle for clients, be self-motivated, and wear many hats (promoter, accountant, agent, art director, and more) in order to keep their business moving in the right direction.
I hope you find the following to be informative, motivating, and as inspiring as I did after reading through the experiences of those I questioned. Consider this your guide on the role of a freelance graphic designer.
What Does a Freelance Graphic Designer Do?
Aside from the usual answer of “they design”, freelance graphic designers offer a range of services, some of which I will highlight below:
- Logo design: Whether creating a unique image for a company, busting out some fantastic hand-drawn type, or compiling a brand with existing typefaces, logos are typically the realm of the graphic designer. This often goes along with branding a company and can be something the designer creates from scratch, with a team, or to complement existing design work.
- Layout Design: Whether printed or digital, any form of media that requires layout design will call for a designer to do it. Magazines, newspapers, book covers, advertisements and more all need someone to combine photographs, typography, and illustrations into a cohesive design for the reader or viewer. Often this coincides with preparing files for printing or publication.
- Packaging Design: From cereal boxes to make-up packaging, all products that require design before they hit the shelves in stores need a graphic designer to create the box template, layout, and composition of their packaging. It’s a very broad category, but anything that is sold or displayed had a designer behind it in some capacity.
- And more… Icons for web display or mobile games, user interfaces, sell sheets for product lines given to retailers, or literally anything that needs to be designed can and will be created by a graphic designer.
"When I became freelance, some of my clients were Cerealicious, FCAID & HR Desk. I did minor works for certain friends as well. And now, my biggest client would be L'Oreal." - Grace Urbano, Philippines-based graphic designer.
Freelancers often don't stick to one sort of client or specialty, preferring to diversify their portfolios and have as many clients as they can. The possibilities for work are numerous, which can also bite a designer in that there are many, many hungry artists out there trying to scoop up said work as well.
Additionally, how diversified and how centered your portfolio is on a single or small amount of design styles may serve as a boon or detriment depending on the client. Some want a designer who is an expert at logo design, while others want someone who can do it all. What you decide to do is a personal choice that may be informed by your work history and experiences. There is no real right or wrong answer.
"I'm working [...] on a magazine of the culture of the Yucatán. I'm in charge of all of the editorial design and illustration, so basically I'm shaping all of the magazine..." - Sofía Guerrero, Mexico-based graphic designer.
What Training Does a Freelance Graphic Designer Go Through?
Just like in-house designers and freelance illustrators, the training of a freelance graphic designer varies. Some have a degree in graphic design, while others are self-taught and have worked up a portfolio over time in order to acquire clients.
A degree can get your foot in the door with potential clients or more hits on a site like LinkedIn, but can also be very expensive depending on what school you choose to attend. Not every degree program is equal either. Some schools have more recognition than others, larger budgets for a more diverse degree program or access to better technology and supplies, or a better staff (which really is a toss-up depending on what you want to learn and who they’ve hired).
Regardless of whether you pursue a degree or not, good designers make learning a lifelong pursuit. There’s never a time when you don’t need to brush up your skillset, learn a new program, or work with a new medium. Opening new doors for yourself or tackling a new self-guided project keeps your mind and design skills sharp like the point of your pencil. And unlike in-house jobs, it’s much easier to acquire freelance clients without having a degree, as they’re less likely to overlook your portfolio because your resume hasn’t hit a certain set of keywords (which is how some in-house job listings are reviewed).
"I was trained for graphic and web design, as well as social media management, by the agency I worked with initially. After a few years of training and work with them, I branched out on my own." - Kea Grace, Mississauga-based designer.
Who Does a Graphic Designer Work for, and How Are Clients Sourced?
Let’s take this in two parts, starting with the type of clients a freelance graphic designer may have. Clients may be small businesses just starting up or large companies known worldwide. It’s not uncommon for a company to outsource some of its graphic design work even if they have in-house designers; especially to meet tight deadlines or get batches of work done (photo editing, layout design, etc.). So really, the answer is any company or person that needs design work on a freelance basis.
Now, let’s talk about how clients are sourced. When asked how they acquired clients, every single one of my interview subjects said the client comes to them at this point in their career. Whether it’s through social media, their website, or networking, they are being contacted by the client who at that point has already seen their portfolio or resume (presumably).
Early on, however, sourcing clients came through job listings, forum posts, and even tweets. There’s no wrong way to find work, but knowing your value as an artist, not undercharging for your services, and not being taken advantage of are important skills as a designer in addition to the work you provide. Learning that part of the trade often comes through experience, though, rather than simple advice from others or being something you can learn in school.
"My motto is that a happy client brings more clients who also would like to be happy. Word of mouth is definitely the most powerful tool you have. And to find those initial clients the secret is to network, network, network and network!" - Helder Olivier, Portugal-based Graphic Designer
How Do Designers Self-Promote?
Designers have to be their own marketing team, often, unless they have an agent or hire someone to do their marketing for them (which sounds fantastic, but is also expensive). Many designers share their work through online portfolio sites like Behance, Dribbble, and deviantArt. They also remain active in social networks like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
It's important not only to showcase your work in a way that makes it easy for clients to find you, but also to be relatable in some way, grow your fan base, and network.
"At the moment, online networking, mostly Twitter. I'm starting to network locally to build up my local client base (in Kent, UK) by attending networking meetings." - Leese Johnstone, UK-based graphic designer.
What Projects Do Graphic Designers Produce, and What Media Do They Work With?
Let’s start this two-part question with what sort of projects a graphic designer may produce. I’ve mentioned layout design, and in particular layout design for printed media like magazines or advertisements within magazines or newspapers. Since there are way too many project types and associated media, I’ll use a magazine advertisement as an example.
The designer is given a brief from their client (usually the company or person who has purchased ad space and would like to advertise their product or business). Often they’ll provide product photos or the designer works with the photographer gathering the images they need for the final advertisement.
Depending on the printer or client’s preference, the designer will work in Adobe InDesign or Adobe Photoshop (usually InDesign is preferred). Any copy or editorial (words that appear in the advertisement) are provided by the client, or if the designer is adding information to the final piece, it is approved before being dubbed finished.
"The client wanted a rebrand of her logo because it was hindering her business. She wanted something more professional but still friendly and unpretentious. She let me have full control to do what I wanted but she let me know that she had this idea for it to be art deco in style. The creation of the logo took about a month plus a few days." - Alexandra Lucas, Ohio-based graphic designer.
The designer may provide multiple layout versions for approval or a series of sketches beforehand. It depends on circumstances for sure, but the project is similar to most design projects in that you'll follow a series of steps from conception to completion and work in tandem with the client and/or other designers along the way to get the product (in this case advertisement) to where the client wants it to be.
Some designers charge a flat rate, some charge by the hour, and others will charge per revision after their initial quote is met. This can have an effect on how long a project takes and what media are used (digital, traditional, or a combination), as well as how long that particular designer has involvement with the project. Perhaps the client can afford layout work by them, but does revisions or additions themselves or throws that to an in-house team, leaving the conceptual phase in the hands of the freelancer.
"There’s a lot to layout design and making sure it works for what type of layout you’re doing. For magazines, booklets, and newspaper layouts I had to find the best font that would be readable at a small size, but also had to make sure that when printed and the ink spread that you could still read it. Whereas [with] poster layout, I have to find fonts that worked better on a larger scale and appropriate for the event." - April Baird, Nova Scotia-based graphic designer.
The role of the freelance graphic designer is quite varied. Where design work is needed, clients will hire freelancers to create a plethora of work for them, from logos to layout to packaging design and (quite honestly) so much more. Budgets, media, and price ranges vary, and are often determined by client and designer together before work has begun.
Experience is gathered not only in school, but also through each and every professional project. Portfolios from graduation day are soon replaced entirely with client work done over the course of several years.
Freelancers are constantly growing and developing and hustling for work. Being self-employed means you have to be determined, self-motivated, and flexible in terms of working under deadline and without the rigidity of the in-house 9-5 job.
They sacrifice stability for diversity, however, and many designers move fluidly between the freelance and in-house world as their careers progress. There is no wrong way to freelance so long as you’re respecting clients, fellow designers, yourself, and any contracts signed.
Many thanks to the designers who participated in interviews for this article. You can check out their individual portfolios in the links below, as well as getting a taste of their work and experience in the images and quotes throughout the article above. I hope you found this guide enlightening, inspiring, and motivating, whether you’re a new designer or an old hat at the trade. Happy designing!