Tips for Freelance Designers Just Getting Started

Starting a new career path is always full of unknown variables.

When I first started offering freelance design services 4 years ago, it was a hot mess. I had no roadmaps, no one to guide me, and I had no idea what I was doing. I often made mistakes, and sometimes decisions were hard and fast. It wasn’t the most ideal entry strategy.

Learning by the seat of my pants got me by, but you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did. I’m going to share some of my most helpful tips for freelance designers who are just getting started.

The Secret Sauce

Starting out as a freelance designer, one of the biggest questions is, “How do I get clients?” I wish there was an easy, clear cut way to answer this question for you. The quickest answer though, is simply work. Getting your name out there, sharing your portfolio, and talking to prospective clients is all hard work. It’s hustle. It’s making an effort and not ever giving up.

There is a secret component in this equation though. That secret is networking. Talk to people. And then talk to more people. And just keep on talking. As cliche as the term “networking” might seem, it’s the best way to describe the process. Make connections, share information and be as helpful as possible. Engage with other designers, both in your niche and outside of it. On portfolio websites like Behance, comment and follow on others’ work. Share the inspiring designs you find on your social media channels and tag the artist.

Designers in your niche can offer advice about processes, their experience, collaborations, best practices, and a whole wealth of other valuable information. Having friends and support in your niche will help you immensely. Knowledge of designers outside of your niche are great to have on hand for referrals when a client requests something outside of the scope of your services. The same could be said about those designers when they encounter clients with the same problem and send referrals to you.

Another way to utilize networking, is to find out where your ideal client hangs out online and join that community. Once I found a place where prospective clients were hanging out, it was just a matter of time before I was being seen and heard. People started to recognize me and my work, and started referring me to their friends. After a while, around 75% of my work was all from referrals. Places like Facebook groups, Q&A forums, and reddit are all great starting places when considering where to search for your clients.

Remember to be genuine in your interactions; People can generally tell when someone is acting “salesy” and no one likes the sleazy salesman. Be honest, be helpful, and contribute to the community.


Show ‘Em What You Got

Your portfolio is a quick way for clients to assess your design style and make hiring decisions so it’s important to optimize this showcase. Let your work speak for you in the best way possible. I think a lot of portfolios are treated as a catch-all for every scrap of work that has ever been created. While I think it’s important to keep files (more on this later,) your portfolio should be a place that displays only your best work.

You know how people treat their social media feeds? It’s a highlight reel of happiness. This is how you should treat your portfolio; Showcase only your best.

Another key point about portfolios is the type of work that you display. The projects that you share in your portfolio should be relevant to the work clients hire you to design. Showcase the work that you currently offer or want to design.

Clients want to see how your designs look in action. Using mockups to display your work will help clients visualize how your design could benefit them. Remember to display some of your projects in real world use scenarios.

What do you display if you haven’t had any previous client work? Create design projects based on faux companies and clients. What matters is that your design skills and style are being represented. If your niche is logo design and branding, and you need more projects for your portfolio, the RookieUp Portfolio Starter Kit is the perfect way to get tons of project ideas and build up an amazing portfolio that will help you land clients fast.

Get Organized, Like Yesterday

There’s a lot of different aspects that are part of a freelance lifestyle. Websites, contracts, policies, invoices, project plans: All the things that an employer would normally wrangle, is now solely up to you. The best way to tackle all of these different moving parts is by being as organized as you can be.

When it comes to file names, create a format for everything. Through all the proposals, native files, rough drafts, and final versions, you’re looking at a hefty amount of saved work. The last thing you need is to get lost in a folder looking for a specific draft and there’s 23 different variations of roughdraft1finalfinalagain.AI.

Set a clear, relevant format, and implement it every time.

Another way to make your organization skills work for you, is to set up systems and processes. Streamline your workload by working in the same order every time. I think it helps to even create an outline of the steps and keep it tucked away for later reference and to share with clients. When working from a specific set of steps, you and your clients will always know what to expect and when. Less guesswork equals more productivity.

You can use websites like Trello, basecamp and asana to keep track of all your process outlines. You can even share these directly with your client to stay on the same timeline of workflow and expectations. One of the most important components to staying organized is all of your files. For the sake of your future self, keep everything. Files, emails, contracts, invoices.

Other than the obvious tax filing purposes and record keeping reasons, there are many instances when this could come in handy. A previous client might request additional work that requires native files. Unpaid invoices that need signed contracts as proof to receive payment. Keep all of your files, and keep them organized and tidy in clearly labeled folders.


At the End of the Day…

Starting a freelance design career is full of unknowns, but is also exciting and full of adventure. Giving yourself the best possible start, starts by making sure you are organized and prepared with at least an outline for a game plan.

Keep working hard, and your design journey will take you far.