In a world run like a well‑oiled machine, it can be difficult to find happiness if you don't fit into the mould. Millions of workers out there every morning like robots marching to their station. The monotony of life can be overwhelming. What if this way of life isn't for you? If you want to break away from the 9‑5 and your hour‑long commutes, or you just crave the freedom to do what you want to do ... then freelancing may be the next step in your career.
Here are 8 essential tips to being a freelance designer written from my own personal experience that I wish I knew when I started...
The first real question you must ask yourself is "am I ready to freelance?". Doing as I did and quitting your full‑time job in haste and entering the freelance world essentially blind is not what I would advise to anyone, but I was in a situation where I needed to leave my job and I luckily had a safety net to fall back on. But if you're sick of the office Christmas parties, the weird smell coming from the shared fridge every day or you just want to be your own boss, it might be time to consider it.
Money makes the world go round it's safe to say and without your own financial security, starting life as a freelancer could turn disastrous in a flash. If you have a phone bill, a mortgage or rent and that all‑important Netflix subscription to pay for each month, you don't want to jeopardise your basic living needs if you're struggling to get clients through the door. My advice would be to begin freelancing whilst in full‑time employment (if your free time allows it), not only for the financial safety, but you might find that you suck at self‑management and you're just not cut out for running your own business. I'd recommend having some work lined‑up and some strong client relationships in place before you take the plunge full‑time. Of course, there is more to life than money and a freelancing career shouldn't be defined by it ... but when it's time to pay those bills, it's pretty damn important.
Word of mouth, portfolio packs and e‑mails are all great ways to find clients and establish relationships with creative directors looking to hire a designer for their company's next big project. Sure. But when society is glued to screens and our faces forever embellished in blue light, it'd be wise to take word to social media. LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram are a few examples of great places to share work and stories with like‑minded people and of course help find new business connections.
1️⃣ LinkedIn is the more formal of the three, used globally solely for the purpose of work. Connecting with people has personally brought interest to my work and even created job opportunities by just being talking to people. Connect with recruiters and your feed will be inundated with freelance opportunities before too long. If you live in or around London, you'll have a field day.
2️⃣ Twitter is a fantastic place to feel part of a community. Working alone can easily make you feel isolated when you aren't surrounded by other people who have the same creative mind as you. Twitter helped me in finding an endless stream of designers, illustrators and creatives to follow and feel a connection with. There is also a great number of job opportunities posted by real people looking to hire freelancers and I've been lucky enough to find most of my work from just a simple introductory tweet.
3️⃣ Instagram is becoming more and more tricky with their questionable algorithm changes over the past few years but can still be a great way for creatives to share their work. Almost like a mini‑portfolio, sharing your work online can bring in a strong following if you're discoverable enough with the right hashtags. The "story" feature on the platform has also been used by designers and illustrators frequently to show your processes and progress shots. If someone values your posts as something they can learn from then they'll come back time and time again.
Most freelance roles that you see advertised on LinkedIn and suchlike are likely to be in‑house roles, meaning you're expected to be in the studio working alongside your employer for a pre‑determined period of time. Though in the past few years, remote work has been gaining popularity for obvious reason. What's better than working in the comfort and warmth of your own home without the dreaded sardine‑can commute. Don't get the wrong idea about remote working though. Remember, you still have a job to do.
The best thing you can do if you are planning on working from home is to create your own working space. Walking into your home office should feel like you're walking into a shared studio, just without the other people around. Having a clean and tidy designated workspace will not only help keep you working efficiently and effectively, but also to put your brain into "work mode". It's often said separating your work life and home life is important for your own sanity, so doing so when you work from home is even more important. Try dressing for the occasion and avoid the dressing gown and slippers. Some even say wearing a pair of shoes inside helps get you into the zone, so give it a try. I find instrumental music helps me focus with the removed subconscious distraction of lyrics. But find what's best for you!
When it comes to distractions like children running around the house and a pair of sound‑cancelling headphones aren't enough, there are always alternatives. Co‑working spaces are great if you work better around others and can afford the fees. Coffee shops offer a more atmosphere for free (though you aren't guaranteed a table) ... just remember to watch your caffeine intake before you're bouncing off the walls.
This is the inevitable question that all freelancers have searched for like the Holy Grail. If you've had some freelance jobs "on the side" of your full‑time job and are now taking the plunge, your rates are probably already too low. I myself fell victim to undervaluing my skill but with almost no clients at the start of my freelancing career, I didn't have much choice. I'll go into more detail about setting your rates in another blog post, but the most common method is to set your minimum day rate based on how much you need to earn. Figuring out your desired annual income based on your current living costs gives you a pretty good starting point. Subtract weekends (that's 104 days) from 365 days in the year, and figure out how many days of holiday you'd realistically like to have. Divide your desired annual income by this number and hey presto, you've got yourself your minimum day rate!
This being said, everything isn't set in stone. Obviously, factors like experience, skill level and location will affect how much you should charge and it will often vary from client to client once value‑based pricing comes into play (but again that's a post for another day). You'll see designers in London charging from as little as £150‑a‑day to upward of £500‑a‑day based on their level of experience. Designers outside the capital probably see an average towards the lower end of this range, but with remote work becoming ever more common and you begin to work with clients from across the globe, your location becomes ever more trivial. Test the waters. See how it goes. Remember, you can always lower or increase your rates whenever you see fit.
Communication is vital in business and nevermore so than with freelancing where your relationship with each client is paramount. A happy client makes for a pleasant project and it'll increase your chance of future work. No one wants to work with assholes, right? Be efficient, be informative, be honest. My old university lecturer used to tell us that you had to bend over backward for a client. Whilst it is true that you'll want to impress the people paying you, it is important to hold some of the power.
Before you give a project the green light, feel comfortable in asking for a deposit upfront. I've heard too many horror stories of people not being paid and/or projects being dragged out for months with no end in sight. Payment upfront not only gives you a safety net to fall back on if things go unexpectedly awry, but also indicates that the client hasn't got any issues paying you. Remember, talking money isn't rude ‑ it's healthy business practice. A 50/50 split is common, but larger projects can be cut down even further to project milestones. Long story short here is don't start work until you receive a deposit.
During the project, be sure to keep in communication with your client. Keep them updated on progress, any unexpected hiccups and/or your timeline to reassure them that you will meet the deadline on time. Don't feel pressured into non‑stop emailing though, as sometimes nothing can be as bothersome as being badgered for updates every hour. If you feel that you aren't good at writing important emails or your grammar and spelling are lacking, try Grammarly. It's a pretty intuitive writing assistant to check your spelling, offer grammatical changes and even checks your writing style to check if you sound too much like an asshole and need to tone it down a touch.
Similarly, meetings are commonplace and it may be beneficial to meet your client before, during and/or after a project. But be wary that meetings can quite frankly be a waste of time, so try to push for an email or a phone call first. Your time is valuable as anyone else's, so why should you travel an hour into the city for a fifteen‑minute chat? Remember, don't think that you can't charge for the time spent at meetings.
Being your own boss can be great, but only if you manage yourself like one. With a growing list of names in your contact list, an endless stream of emails flooding in and the juggling act of having multiple projects on the go at once, it can be daunting if you don't plan accordingly. Though it may seem worthless at the time, it would be wise to organise everything from the outset. A simple folder system dedicated for work‑related assets is the best way to start. I personally use a productivity app called Notion to keep databases of clients, calendars, to‑do lists and project tracking all in one place. Productivity and efficiency go hand‑in‑hand. It's free for single users, which is perfect for freelancers.
Over time you'll undoubtedly accumulate a lot of files. A hell of a lot. Fonts, project files, brand guides and assets that you won't want to delete until you're 100% sure the project is completed and your client is happy. You're going to need storage. Lots of storage. Whilst you can pick up a few terabytes of physical storage nowadays for under £100, cloud storage is a valuable option to have (especially if you're on the move and need access on mobile or tablet). Whilst you're probably aware of the likes of Google Drive, Dropbox and OneDrive, I recently found that my Adobe Creative Cloud subscription comes with a huge 100GB of storage. If you're using Adobe CC it'd be silly not to keep your design files there (especially when a Dropbox account only offers a useless 2GB of free storage and Google Drive a still pretty unimpressive 15GB of free storage).
The freedom of freelancing is by far it's greatest calling. But whilst it can be empowering to break from the typical 9‑5, it'd be wise to keep some kind of structure to your schedule. This is where the warnings of keeping a healthy work‑life balance come in. Working from home and not having an office to escape from when the clock hits five can easily lead to overworking yourself night after night to complete a project. Similarly, at weekends, it can be all to easy to open your emails and find you have a list of project updates for the forthcoming week that you want to jump on right away.
The key to a healthy work life balance is to separate the two entirely. I set myself to following rules to ensure good practice:
📬 No work emails at weekends.
Turning off your work email notifications on your mobile and tablet will keep you from entering 'work mode' outside your designated hours. On holiday? Don't even think about it. Enjoy your downtime. You'll come back stronger and more refreshed on the other side.
🥪 Don't eat lunch at your desk.
It may be tempting to sit in front of your computer and watch some Netflix, check social media or check up on the news whilst you're having a bite to eat, but leaving your desk ensures you can't continue working, even if you're tempted to. Plus, returning to your post an hour later can give your mind a new refreshed look on your work and any problems will be easy to spot.
🍃 Get some fresh air.
Working from home can mean you don't need the leave the house some days. But whilst it can be a blessing on cold winter days, being stuck inside without any fresh air isn't great for your health. Being sat at a desk all day isn't too great either. Go take 15 minutes outside. Grab a coffee, walk the dog, have a stretch in the garden. At least open the window. Maybe try a standing desk, your spine will thank you.
Undeniably one of the biggest apprehensions new freelancers have about self-employment is having to do your own taxes. But it doesn't have to be difficult, if you do it right. Once you start earning enough money, it could be a nice idea to hire an accountant, but to begin with, it's fairly straightforward. You should know that you have a £1,000 tax‑free allowance on any personal income that does not need to be declared until registered as self‑employed. Be sure to register with HMRC right away , however.
When it comes to the tax return, it's as easy as submitting a form online by 31st January each year. You will be asked about the amount of money earned and spent relating to your self‑employment. You should keep track of all income, all expenses, all invoices and all bank statements so you can call upon them when needed. I use spreadsheets in Notion to track all income with invoices attached and a separate spreadsheet showing expenses that are tax‑deductible. Everything can be colour coded, easily searched and arranged in any which way you desire. Google Sheets is a decent alternative though if you want to keep it old school without all the bells and whistles.
And voila! Hopefully now you will have some better understanding of freelancing and the tips that could help along the way. Freelancing won't be easy and there will be ups and downs along the way. Mistakes will be made. That's life. Just learn from them. If you take the plunge then I wish you the best of luck in your freelance career. Come share your stories with me on Twitter.
Keep an eye out for future posts including more freelance tips in the future!