All about freelance graphic design

Freelance graphic designers can succeed with talent, marketing skills, and perseverance in today's competitive marketplace.

In a structured work environment, graphic designers can concentrate on the job at hand: bringing all the components of a great design together in one cohesive piece.

Freelance designers, however, should master a number of other skills that may include illustration, copywriting, photography, layout, and web content/design.

The decision to freelance requires some forethought. Many freelancers have begun by keeping daytime jobs while working for outside clients after hours. The transition is often smoother and income remains steady while building a solid client base.

A freelancer must be prepared to address a range of issues. Are you ready to market yourself? Do you have a solid networking system in place? Are you prepared to put on a business hat for the IRS, select private insurance, and stay on top of bookkeeping chores? Administrative skills will be required; you will be answering phones, keeping files orderly, and scheduling jobs and appointments. Meticulous record maintenance is necessary for deductions and income reporting.

You will also need a web presence and e-mail address. Keep a free e-mail account for personal use if you wish, but your business correspondence should reflect stability. You do not need to spend a fortune for a site and many on-line companies offer professional-looking templates that will suit your needs. A nominal monthly fee eliminates the banners and allows you to register your own dot-com address. You do not need a fancy site. It should be fast-loading, simple to use, and easy to navigate.

You will need a dedicated space to work plus supplies and equipment. Your computer system should be able to handle most types of files, whether in Mac or PC format. Many smaller companies and organizations use personal computers, which means you will need to cross-platform if you are on a Mac.

You may want to start your business with local contacts, but you can easily expand into national markets as well via e-mail and the Internet.

Locally, you should have plenty of options even if you live in a small town. Doctors, for instance, often design their own letterhead and business cards. Non-profit organizations will have design needs and they can rarely afford agency services. You might volunteer your skills for a fund-raising event to help get your name out in the community. Visit the smaller printing companies. They may not have an in-house designer and they are always in contact with clients who will have art and illustration requests. When you call on printers, ask for a tour; you will increase your knowledge base in the latest printing techniques. Small presses also may need some low-end typesetting and layout skills, which is a good way to get your foot in the door.

Are you planning on working primarily with advertising agencies? If so, you want to make yourself available for their overflow or promote yourself as a specialist they will rely on for certain types of jobs.

When approaching ad agencies or community newspapers, you may want to consider e-mail or a professional query letter as opposed to a phone call. Agency and newspaper employees are always under deadline. Interrupting with a phone call may create the wrong first impression and you can receive far from the warmest response. In your query, offer to present a portfolio at their convenience or, better yet, include samples of your work for the art director to keep on file.

You are going to land some clients who assume you can guide their projects through each little stage to completion. You may be asked to interview the president for copy, snap a few photos of the company's products, and get print quotes on 10,000 brochures. Keep a digital camera and small tape recorder handy for these types of situations.

Good communication is critical for a freelancer and his or her clients. Your goal is to keep everyone on track and satisfied so that you will be paid on time. Do not hesitate to request a day or two to prepare a proposal. This gives you time to crunch numbers and lay out all the parameters of the job. You will already have calculated the hourly or job rate based on your income requirements. Put everything in writing before the job begins. A checklist and worksheet might be helpful. Be sure that everyone understands the deadlines and follow up with the client in writing when changes occur.

You should have all rights issues understood and put in writing: is this a work for hire assignment or will you retain the copyright to all materials? Many excellent resources are available on this subject and you should be familiar with all basic aspects of copyright law.

National markets abound for graphic designers, but competition is steep. You will be submitting work along with thousands instead of dozens of other designers. Each company to which you submit is wading through slush piles of talented and less-than-talented wannabes. Several good books, which can be purchased or found at your local library, list design markets such as greeting cards, gift wrap, novelty items, children's magazine and book publishers, and T-shirt companies. Research each market thoroughly and then request specific guidelines from each company; they are usually happy to respond as they depend on the talents of freelancers. For each of these markets, many artists and writers forums exist on the Internet. Spend some time reading archived forum messages and you will gain a great deal of insight into the nuances of each market.

On the national level, turnaround time can be slow and income can be sporadic, especially at first. You may be fortunate and land a handful of steady clients right away. Many professionals will testify it can take six months or much longer to become established.

As a freelance graphic designer, you will find the rewards are great. Do not feel guilty if you wear slippers at your computer or drawing board and find time to listen to the birds chirp while you are racing to complete the next assignment.

© High Speed Ventures 2011