Design Process
5 minute read

Yours Truly, Freelance Design Advice

Micah helps businesses craft meaningful engagement through branding, illustration, and design.

Dearest New Freelancer,

Well, you did it. You’re a freelancer now.

What a word. Freelancer! So lithe and nimble and untethered. Strap a rocket to your back, aim for the stars, and whoosh! Any client, any project, any day now.

Good on you. It takes guts to sail the seas of self-employment. There are no guarantees, but you looked uncertainty in the eye and chose to bet on yourself. That’s admirable.

Freelance design advice

Rewards and Reality

Quickly, you’ll find yourself collecting new skills, experiences, and a whole helluva lot of confidence. You’ll also take your lumps. You’ll be low-balled, nitpicked, and no-showed. There will be big-timers, down-talkers, and dozens of well-meaning folks who want to hire you for any job but the one you’re good at.

Don’t misunderstand. Freelancing is incredibly rewarding. Wanna work on a big time project? Master a new discipline? Go on an extended vacation? Get paid more? It’s all on you, and when you come through, it’s euphoric.

But it takes a while to get rolling. The first year is disorienting, the obstacles abundant. If you’re a fan of finding things, you’ll have a blast. Find a niche. Find clients. Find work that actually pays.

You’ll also have to sell. A lot. Skills and experience are ingredients, but if you want the whole cake, you’ll need to build trust, identify unspoken needs, and close deals. Is selling ever awkward? Of course, but awkwardness is irrelevant. Just remember three things:

  1. Ask informed questions.
  2. Listen carefully. Listen actively. Most of all, listen.
  3. Don’t be stingy. If you see how you can solve a problem during a sales call, share the vision.

With selling comes rejection, a freelancer’s constant companion. There are thousands of ways to say no. You’ll face most, and just beneath your outer layer of composure and determination, there will be a persistent ache. That’s disappointment.

It’d be dishonest not to tell you upfront: success and struggle made a prehistoric pact that one could not be had without the other. Freelancing, like most worthwhile endeavors, has been fictionalized. Don’t be fooled by the social media mirage of tricked-out travel vans and pool-side conference calls. Even freelancers get flat tires and sunburns.

Freelancing tips

Time, Money, and Triumph

There are events in life that take on new meaning once you’ve experienced them. Switching jobs. Ending a relationship. Buying a home. Raising kids. Freelancing is like that. With time, you’ll forge a path that’s all your own, but it also helps to know what lies ahead.

Like irregular financial rhythms. Bid adieu to that bi-weekly bankroll you’ve grown accustomed to. Steady paychecks are a thing of the past. Early on, money comes sporadically. No work in the pipeline? No pay on the horizon. Plan ahead and stay on budget.

Then there’s the element of time, which touches every facet of freelancing. You’ll track time, bide time, waste time, and wonder where the time went. Use time wisely, and the myriad problems of work-life balance, blown deadlines, and burnout will solve themselves.

There’s other stuff, too. How to manage difficult clients. How to combat isolation. How to overcome irrational self-doubt and leap to the next level of your freelancing career. Each could be its own book.

Just know that you’re not inferior, cursed, or powerless when difficulty comes knocking. You’ve simply arrived at the door that exists to be karate kicked into oblivion. On the other side? A more confident and capable version of you.

Freelance designer

Finding Work and Getting Better

The first few months of freelancing are oozing with minutiae. Every day will bring a hundred time-consuming details—new licenses, new bank accounts, new user profiles.

With so much to do, you might decide to do nothing at all. A better option? Make a daily to-do list. So simple. So effective. If you’re really ambitious, organize your days into time blocks. Just make sure to spend more time doing your to-do’s than arranging them. Speaking of which, keep your admin tools minimal. An email account and a calendar will take you a long way.

When it comes to finding your first few jobs, don’t hesitate to mine your personal network. Call aunts and uncles. Email old bosses. Text childhood friends. If it’s been a while, don’t pretend that you’re “reconnecting” for the sake of the relationship. Be honest—you’re freelancing and looking for projects.

And when you quote those first few jobs, don’t forget to do the math. If you have to take on 50 projects per year to make the equivalent of a junior-level employee, reconsider your prices.

Most importantly, carve out time every day to hone your skills. No clients? No worries. Create your own projects, and push yourself to do the caliber of work you want to be hired to do. No matter what, don’t stop sharing what you create, and don’t restrict yourself to social media. You can build a solid client base and make a good living without becoming an Instagram all-star.

Freelance design tips

Secrets, Success, and the Only Way Forward

If you haven’t noticed, you soon will. There’s a horde of online experts hoping you’ll pay big bucks for their secret freelancing formulas. Here’s a secret: you don’t need career coaching, motivational gurus, or expensive seminars to succeed as a freelancer. If you want to grow and work to grow, you will. If you treat clients well and solve their problems, you’ll stay busy.

If there’s a freelancing secret worth sharing, it’s this. When you fly solo, the world is malleable. Mold and shape it to your advantage. The road ahead is paved by you.

Well, we’ve reached the point where a letter like the one you’re reading comes to a crescendo. Normally, there’d be a rousing call to perseverance, but you don’t need that either. You’ve made the leap and landed two feet firmly planted. The only option now is forward—one foot, then the other.

Yours truly,

A fellow freelancer

• • •

Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the basics

How do I promote myself as a freelance designer?

As a freelance designer, you have a number of ways to promote yourself: social media, in-person networking events, and securing referrals are common strategies. It’s important to know who your ideal client is and what kind of work you specialize in, otherwise, you risk wasting promotional efforts and resources.

How do freelance artists succeed?

The success of creative freelance careers depends on a few variables. If you’re a freelance artist or designer, you must be highly skilled and capable of world-class work. It’s also important to be able to sell your services, manage projects, and maintain client relationships.

How can I become a freelance designer?

There are a variety of ways to become a freelance designer, but like any career, it’s best to have a plan before starting. To land freelance clients, you’ll need a portfolio that showcases your problem-solving skills. It’s also a good idea to have some savings, as finding freelance design jobs can take some time.

How can I be a successful freelancer?

Whether you work at an agency, a corporation, or as a freelancer, forging a successful design career takes knowledge, skill, persistence, and a willingness to continually improve. At times, it can be hard to find freelance work, but a commitment to great design and customer satisfaction will take you a long way.