Art & Design Careers: Going Freelance

Art & Design Careers: Going Freelance

QS Staff Writer

Updated August 3, 2023 Updated August 03

Three established art and design freelancers share their top tips on how to get started, from gaining work experience and creating a portfolio, to finding clients and managing your own business.

Though not without its challenges, self-employment can be a financially and creatively choice for art & design graduates.

Step one: Gaining work experience

David Pugh, based in the UK, has been working as a graphic designer for around 10 years, of which seven have been as a freelancer.

His first piece of advice? “Don’t try and go straight from graduating to being self-employed. Get a job – any job you can – and get some professional experience.”

This, he says, is the best way to learn – and you’ll be amazed how quickly you make progress.

Michelle Lam, based in Canada, agrees. “It is always a good idea to work within a studio for a couple of years before setting out as an independent designer, so you will have the experience in running a business and dealing with clients.”

That said, Lam herself went straight from design school to freelance work. “It required a lot of endurance, patience and self-confidence. It's really hard work, but I love what I do!”

For Andrés Marquínez, a Colombian-Spanish graphic designer based in Madrid, has been freelance since 2007. He advises maintaining good relationships with former employers, as they can often be a key source of ongoing work.

Step two: Creating a portfolio

Whether you’re applying to join an existing company or hoping to go solo, you’ll need to create a portfolio of your work to show to potential employers and clients.

Here, Lam says, the key is quality not quantity; it’s better to include only your best work, rather than trying to show everything you’ve done.

She also recommends including a brief explanation of each project. “People love to read about the concept and process behind a great design. But don’t write a whole essay!”

For Pugh, the portfolios that really stand out are those that include at least some commercial work – which is another reason to start gaining work experience as soon as possible. “No matter how good the work from your degree course is, it won’t carry the same value.”

Marquínez advises making sure your most recent work is shown, and presenting work without too much clutter or fuss – erring towards a more minimalist style.

Step three: Finding clients

Both Lam and Pugh point out the importance of having an internet presence – both via your own website, and also using social media resources such as Behance, Dribbble, Pinterest and Tumbler.

However, Pugh warns against neglecting face-to-face interactions, which he believes are the most effective way of making valuable contacts. He advises attending as many professional networking events as possible, and taking on even very small projects – “that’s how you build relationships”.

Marquínez agrees, saying that while he could in theory complete all his transactions remotely – using email and phone calls – he prefers to meet clients face-to-face fairly regularly, as the best way of nurturing relationships.

Step four: Adapting to being freelance

The pros and cons of working freelance are “just what you’d expect”, Pugh says. “You have the freedom to do what you want and to reap the rewards of your own work, but also the inconsistency of the work.”

Lam likewise highlights the creative rewards that can come with being self-employed, adding, “You can often achieve greater satisfaction from finding your own projects and your own hard work, instead of working at a well-known agency.”

On the down side, she notes that working independently can mean missing out on having other designers around to share ideas with, often useful when developing a project.

Meanwhile Marquínez points out that as a freelancer, you need to be multi-skilled – able to handle business management, accounts and budgeting, and pitching and presenting.

While it is possible to pay others to take on some of these tasks, Marquínez suggests a more cost-effective approach is to establish barter-based relationships – in which you offer your own skills in return for another professional’s assistance.

This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in January 2020

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