Want to know how to build a successful freelance design career? Get exclusive tips from the experts, including designer Jessica Walsh.
There’s no denying that graphic design is an incredibly competitive field. The design industry is overflowing with talented designers, creatives and innovators, which can make it a difficult place to build a successful career.
While everyone has their own design style and personal brand, when breaking into design, most people choose one of two paths – either in-house or freelance. Due to benefits such as flexibility, creative control, and financial freedom – as well as the recent global move to remote work – more and more designers are opting for the latter.
If you need a hand getting your freelance design career off the ground, we’ve collated eight essential tips from an impressive array of industry experts on how to stand out in this ultra competitive industry. This includes exclusive advice from internationally acclaimed designer Jessica Walsh, as well as leading art directors, packaging designers and more. So whether you’re looking for more freelance graphic design jobs, advice on how to become a freelance graphic designer, graphic design tools, or want to learn how to start a freelance graphic design career, you’ve come to the right place.
Ready to find out the secret to a freelance design success? Read on to discover top tips for boosting your profile from some of the most prominent designers in the biz.
Founder and creative director of world-renowned design agency &Walsh, 35-year-old Jessica Walsh is one of the most influential graphic designers of the modern age. Her designs and illustrations have been featured in various publications, including the New York Times and New York Times Magazine, and she’s worked with huge celebrities and brands from Jay-Z to Levi’s.
After earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 2008, Jessica worked alongside fellow designer Stefan Sagmeister at the New York design studio they co-founded together, Sagmeister & Walsh, for almost a decade. She’s since founded her own company &Walsh – a creative branding agency that delivers modern, bold and vibrant designs with retro influences.
Jessica is passionate about increasing the number of women in creative director roles and in graphic design in general. She lectures at various creative conferences and universities internationally, teaches design and typography at The School of Visual Arts in New York, and has won numerous awards from major international competitions. There’s no denying that Jessica has had a huge impact on the modern graphic design industry, which makes her advice for new designers truly invaluable. Without further ado, here are her top tips for boosting your career as a graphic designer…
“My first tip is to fake it ‘til you make it! How I interpreted this early on in my career is that, if someone asked me to do something I didn’t know how to do, and I wanted to do it, I’d just say yes and then figure it out later. It’s really not that difficult to accomplish any task if you use common sense, persistence, and know how to be resourceful. This is now my #1 piece of advice that I give others when just starting out. Google things, read up, research, and create your own opportunities.”
“At an early age, I realized that at our core, people are not that different. Emotions are largely universal. Once I recognized that my instincts and reactions are not special, it gave me confidence in my opinions. If I create something that evokes an emotion in me, it’s likely that a large number of people will have a similar reaction. If I find something shocking and unusual, others likely will too. What lies in the particular, lies in the universal.’”
Scott Wrightson is the Art Director at Aussie design agency Smack Bang. A trendy, modern creative agency focused on helping brands develop their unique visual identity, Smack Bang is all about building and elevating future brands to allow them to disrupt the status quo and make change for good.
Working globally out of Sydney, Scott and the Smack Bang team create memorable designs that amplify the individual vision and voice of the brands that they collaborate with. The agency’s clients include a mix of emerging and established brands, such as Microsoft, Verve Super, and The Unseen.
In everything they do, Smack Bang aims to spark engagement and connection between brand and consumer, driven by strategic insight, succinct storytelling and boundary-pushing design. Here are some of Scott’s most valuable insights for emerging designers to get their foot in the door…
“Put as much work out online as you can. Instagram, Behance, Dribbble — wherever you can showcase your skills. Giving potential employers or clients multiple ways to discover your work can only serve to benefit you and increase your opportunities.
Alongside your work, make sure you market yourself. Clarify your offering and skillset, and what differentiates you from other freelancers vying for the same work.
Some designers enjoy focusing on one specialty, such as branding. Or perhaps a niche within that speciality — for example, brand work in the food and beverage space. This is a great way of building a reputation as a specific expert, but it’s not for everyone. I would personally recommend exploring a range of areas, such as motion, illustration or editorial design. Having a more rounded skill set and knowledge base will help improve your creative thinking and present a more varied range of opportunities.”
“I started out designing as a young teen, having fun creating logos and merchandise for the local band scene. I produced some truly awful work but I loved every minute of it, and I knew I wanted to study and develop in the world of design.
I studied graphic design at university, and then landed an unpaid position at a local design agency, working for free for several months before securing a paid position. It’s tough to get a foot in the door at the start of your career, so as I’ve said, I’d recommend doing as much as you possibly can to plant your name in the minds of potential employers or clients.
Finally, don’t be disheartened by setbacks. Every designer goes through this and it’s important to remember that just one opportunity can boost your career.”
Karlie is the lead designer and founder of boutique branding design studio Fika. She’s a graphic designer and packaging guru with a Media and Communications degree majoring in Interactive and Visual Design from Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her desire has always been to create, whether that be through a thread in a cross stitch, packaging design, or digital and print designs.
Previously working as a freelance graphic designer, Karlie created Fika Studio to help bring brands to life. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Fika aims to build brand identities in the most simplistic and beautiful way. Known for creating the iconic branding and packaging for the growing and hyped brand bangn body, as well as other brands such as Wednesday cleanse day, Scouted recruitment and Sassy saints, Karlie has these valuable pearls of wisdom to share with freelance designers wanting to grow their businesses.
“Learn wherever you can – whether that’s Skillshare, YouTube or even TikTok. Whilst these lessons might not be in the areas of your key offering, they can always be adapted to suit your work and workflow.
While you can learn from all these amazing social platforms, be careful not to get caught up in comparison. You’re comparing your journey to designers who might be 10+ years into a career, and popular styles are always evolving. While great, social platforms also contribute to the idea that we must ALWAYS be churning out design work. This is fairly unrealistic – sometimes a project might take two days, but others may take 12 months.
Not everything you design, especially early on, will fit your aesthetic. This will change over time but don’t be focussed on designing “for the gram”. Simply design work that makes you happy and your career will grow.”
“I left high school wanting to be a designer and enrolled into a Bachelor of Media & Communications majoring in Interactive & Visual Design. I worked and studied full time, really throwing myself into learning the whole way through my degree – which landed me in a Senior Design role as a new graduate with a wide portfolio and vast work experience. I continued in the design industry building up my skill set across business, design and digital until I launched Fika Studio.
Because of this, I’d recommend diversifying your work. You don’t have to JUST do branding or print work. You’ll often see designers offer photography as a service too. My diversification has come from corporate digital work. I’m now able to build brands that work on a larger scale, and understand the needs of my corporate clients better. The best way to be equipped as a well-rounded designer is to always keep learning in every capacity. I don’t believe you can design your best work if you’re unaware of what’s happening in other industries.”
Mexico-based designer and illustrator Yeti Iglesias has been a freelance designer for many years. Offering custom designs and illustrations through her website, Yeti’s work is inspired by animals, plants, mythical creatures and magical places. She started her freelance career to help brands connect with their community through illustration, and she also shares her vibrant, colorful work with her clients and followers on Instagram to help grow her business and network.
Straight from the mouth of someone working in the field, here’s Yeti’s top tips for boosting your freelance graphic design skills.
“Being a freelancer is quite fascinating – who doesn’t want to be their own boss? My first piece of advice would be to save up money to start out on your own. Money is key to starting a successful freelance business, as it allows you to focus on working hard instead of getting worried about not having enough money to pay your bills.
Patience is also important. Nothing comes easy! You need to have a strategy for how to reach more potential clients and take action every single day, but it won’t happen overnight. Having an active social media account has helped me reach more clients, grow my network and define my true style.
You also need to treat your clients as you’d like to be treated. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about freelancers being unprofessional with their communications and their delivery dates. Being a freelancer doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. Yes, you are your own boss, but you have clients who are depending on you, and as a freelancer, you need to come across even more professionally than an in-house designer. Make sure to always deliver on time and remember that your work speaks for you.”
“I officially started working as a freelancer about a year ago. I was working in a place that I didn’t like, so I decided to save some money and started looking for clients. While it’s been incredibly rewarding, it’s also been a challenging path. Sometimes I have a lot of clients and sometimes I have none, but I love what I do and that keeps me going every day. I love working with different clients from all over the world.
My main piece of advice is to always follow your heart. I know it sounds cliché, but doing the thing you love is exactly the thing that will make you happy. Money isn’t everything in life! Starting is the first and the hardest step. Once you take that step, you won’t ever look back.”
We hope you enjoyed these tips for building a freelance design career from some of the most successful creatives in the game. If you want to brush up on more design tips and trends, check out 10 Big Graphic Design Trends for 2021. Or to learn how to grow on social media, read up on these 15+ Expert Tips For Building a Strong Social Media Presence in 2021.