Starting Out as a Graphic Designer

by Beth Rifkin

4 min read

If you’re a talented artist, and people have offered to pay you for your work, you have probably thought about how to start a graphic design business of your own that combines the freedom of self-employment and the joy of artistic expression. You have to plan your moves before quitting your day job and trusting that enough paying clients will come along. Your eventual success or failure as an independent creator depends on how you answer some very basic questions right from the beginning. Before you start, try writing up a business plan that addresses the key issues of self-employment, graphic design, and basic survival in a competitive field.

Where Can You Find Paying Clients?

Finding that first paying client is a thrill for any independent contractor. Beyond the monetary reward, satisfying a client who treats you like a respected professional brings validation and encouragement to carry on. Finding that first client can be tricky, however, and going a long time without success may sap your will to continue. That’s why it’s a good idea to put out feelers in as many venues as possible, and reach out to potential clients in your personal and professional circles. Consider volunteering your efforts to local nonprofits. Many charities need brochures, promotional materials and branded merchandise designed, and getting your sketches onto thousands of tote bags and charity mailers brings priceless exposure for a new artist. Start looking for paying work with your current employer. Many businesses need graphic design work done, but they’re reluctant to reach out to an unknown outside contractor. Reach out to businesses your company has worked with, especially if your previous contact with them has been as a designer. Don’t hesitate to cold call or email potential clients, especially if you notice that their promotional materials could use a little work. For example, you could attach your business card to comment forms that businesses leave out for the public along with friendly feedback about what you can do for their logo or brochures.

How Do You Want to Work?

Your first clients can come from anywhere, and no beginner can afford to be picky. By the time you have a few jobs under your belt, it’s time to make some choices about how you want to proceed. Specifically, you need to decide what your workload and client relationships should be. If a lot of work comes in right away, you may be tempted to assume a full-time workload, but this can be tricky; as a beginner, you may have trouble giving every client your best effort if you’re divided between too many jobs. Part-time work – around 10 to 20 hours a week – takes longer to flesh out your portfolio, but it helps you manage your resources and deliver the highest-quality work you can, which often leads to your next job. You must also decide how close you want your relationship with clients to be. It’s important to understand the difference between employees and independent contractors. Experiment with client relationships until you find the right balance between freedom and stability. Pay particular attention to details such as reprinting rights and whether you can display your finished work as part of your portfolio.

When Are You Ready to Strike out on Your Own?

As your portfolio grows, and design clients start seeking you out, your workload inevitably increases. At some point, the balance tips between the time you devote to your day job and the time you could be investing in your design business. When you reach that point, you may be ready to leave your job behind forever and devote all of your energy to your list of clients. Some signs that you’re ready to make the leap include:

  • Income: Figure out the minimum income you need to survive, add 10% to that, and then try to consistently make that amount for at least three months before you leave behind a steady paycheck. Don’t forget to factor in your startup costs, which are often overlooked by designers who expect to do most of their work online.
  • Maturity: Even if you’ve been working in design since high school, going pro forces changes in your style and approach to your art. Be honest with yourself over how much growing you still have to do and whether your finished product looks like the work of a talented amateur or a professional.
  • Prospects: With any freelance work, there’s a risk of having several contracts end around the same time new work dries up. Be ready to scramble for short-term jobs on short notice, such as one-off logo designs. Try to cultivate several channels for marketing yourself, such as a website, trade associations, and membership at freelancer websites.

Leaving behind the safety of your day job for the unknowns of a graphic design career can be unnerving, and nobody is ever completely sure of success. With patience and planning, and by making sure you have a base of clients to support you, you can maximize your chances of success in what could be an exciting new career.

References & Resources

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