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Ask Lawrence: How to become a successful freelance graphic designer

19 Jun 11:00 By Lawrence Akers

How Do I Become A Successful Graphic Designer

When I first met Jane, we had been working together in the same company years before. I already knew that she was a talented graphic designer who had a bright career ahead of her.

Jane always gave 100% to her employers but like many graphic designers, she faced boredom and burn out working on the same brand after a period of time.

Additionally, the studio she was working for had a problem with the culture and it was becoming what some would call “toxic”.

Long hours, late nights, little thanks and job insecurity.  I know many people think that this is ‘the norm’ however this ‘norm’ can have a toll on the team after a while.

Fact is that Jane felt trapped in her job and she wasn’t too sure what to do but knew that there had to be something better.

I’m not sure who it was that suggested to her that she should consider freelancing instead.  I remember getting a call from her as she had heard I had just started in recruitment and asking if there was the opportunity to meet and discuss how this might look moving forward.

Jane decided that she was going to give freelancing a try and that we would work together to see what we could achieve.

Like many people who initially take on freelancing, there were some challenges.  Jane had to learn how to turn on that freelancer mindset so that she could go onsite, ask all the right questions, build the right relationships and get the work done.

Through persistence, communication and being open minded to feedback, Jane was able to develop her skills as a freelancer in a short amount of time to the point where she was so busy with client requests, she was barely available to work for me anymore!

She had become a successful freelance graphic designer.  She had mastered the art of temporary assignments, and I couldn’t have been more proud of her.  

Over a drink and some reflection, Jane shared with me that turning to freelance had been one of the best decisions for her career.  What she had been able to learn both professionally and personally had taken who she was as a graphic designer to a whole new level.  Regardless of what happened from that point onward, the skills that she had learned and refined in that time was going to offer value wherever she worked.

What are the qualities of a successful freelance graphic designer?

The simple fact is this; there are three main reasons as to why a company or studio will require a graphic designer.

  1. Overflow work

This is where there is simply too much work for their existing team to do in the time frame that they have to achieve it in and so they will require a graphic designer who can come in, hit the ground running, and help their existing team to get the work finished.  

As you would imagine, this requires someone who is experienced and who can handle those high pressure environments well.  It also is someone who is willing to ask the right questions and then listen, make notes, and put into action.  The client won’t have time to hand hold someone, so you need to be confident in your ability that you can deliver what is being asked and in the time frame that is required.

The range of work here could be anything from finished art to conceptual design, so you need to know what your strengths and weaknesses are and to be able to focus in order to provide a professional result.  

This is probably the most common request when it comes to freelance and if you’re good at this, then this is often where many professional freelance creatives get their bread and butter work.

  1. Conceptual Ideation and Collaboration

Another area is in bringing in the concept thinking and strategy.  These opportunities are understandably not as common as many studios will want the work handled by their seniors for consistency and quality control.  

In some cases though, there might be a need to bring in a fresh set of eyes or a new way to look at the brief.  Clearly the key skill set required here is going to be in coming up with ideas that are on brand and that can be done in a relatively short amount of time.

  1. Annual Leave/Sick Leave/Headcount

The third most common reason why freelance exists is around covering for annual leave, sick leave or in businesses where headcount is an issue and they can’t engage people on a permanent basis.  Some freelance jobs have the potential to go for an extended period of time and to be successful in these opportunities will often come down to a match against their niche requirements and cultural fit.

This is certainly where freelance creative specialists with niche skill sets can place their best foot forward.  Imagine that you’re a packaging specialist for example.  There is a smaller pool of people who have commercial industry experience in this area and so they are in higher demand.  Given that the majority of packaging design studios are generally only keen to see people that have come from other award winning packaging design studios, your changes of finding work in that space is so much higher than those who have limited or no experience in that area.

What does it take to make a living as a freelance graphic designer?

When you distil all of this down, what does it take to make a living as a freelance graphic designer?  It comes down to a strong set of skills across hands on technical and conceptual ideation.  It takes flexibility and professionalism with an ability to step into any environment and be focused, positive and motivated.  It takes self awareness to know what your capabilities are and how long it will take you to achieve a finished outcome.  It takes communication skills that allow you to take from the receptionist to the CEO and the emotional intelligence to know when you need to stop, listen and take note.  It also takes an open mind to hear constructive criticism and a drive to continue your own professional development.

Especially in the current market, it may not be without it’s challenges but most of all, it takes a mindset that you are a professional freelancer and that this is what you do for a living.  You embrace it and know that the service you offer gives your clients exactly what they want, and that this has come from getting out there and getting experience.

Check out this week's Virtual Meet up on this very topic.


Image: A suited businesswoman working on her laptop indoors with a teapot by side by Nenad Stojkovic (CC BY 2.0)