Design is everywhere from the biggest billboards to smallest small print and most of it will have been created by a paid professional.
After ignoring my A-level art teacher’s pretty good advice to study design at University, because I was oblivious to how much design work there was out there, it took me a while to find my way back into this creative field. I did this by working for small startups where even raw skills were a lot better than no skills at all. Getting my rubbish work out of the way on the job, and receiving constructive criticism from the people I’ve worked with, has been a valuable learning experience (as has reading many books on design and practicing on my own projects).
Along the way I’ve learnt a few things about what’s needed to do professional-standard design work, how to find clients, and how to build a strong portfolio.
What You’ll Need
Unlike copywriting freelance design will cost a bit more in terms of the software you need. While freeware like GIMP and Inkscape are great starting points for learning digital image manipulation and how to create vector graphics they have their limitations – Adobe’s Creative Suite is the only way to go if you want to take on a full range of professional design work.
While the entire suite had previously been stupidly expensive designers can now gain access to all the main Adobe apps for around £50 a month. This is definitely worth it if you’re pulling in regular design work and it can be claimed back as a business expense (whoop!).
A decent personal computer is also recommended which is going to cost upwards of £500 if you don’t already have one. The tech savvy out there will be able to get some good deals if they go bargain hunting, but generally speaking you want something with a decent amount of RAM (upwards of 8GB), a good graphics card (avoid any systems with an integrated card) and lots of storage space.
I’ve used PCs and Macs extensively and personally don’t have a problem switching between the two, but would say that Macs are a safe bet for screen quality while PCs offer more relative bang for your buck.
Building a Design Portfolio
When you’re building a freelance design portfolio everything counts as long as it’s good. My approach to building a portfolio was to work for startups that needed someone who could be an all-rounder, with a skillset which included basic design.
I’d recommend this approach, or working out what you’re interested in and contact people in that industry and tell them you’re trying to build a portfolio (for example if you’re into music there are always new bands out there with no money who are in need of album covers). I wouldn’t advise working for free for very long, but as long as you don’t let people take advantage of you it’s a great way to build experience. And if you feel like you’re being taken advantage of say no, or ask for money.
Once you’ve got one you’ll need a way to show your portfolio off. Most of the work I’ve done has been digital so I’ve never really bothered with a physical portfolio, opting instead for the online alternative. I’d recommend a basic package from One.com and their 1-click WordPress install. There are 1000s of free WordPress themes to choose from, and while the designs may not be unique on the web it’s really the content that matters.
Nothing drains the introverted side of my personality like networking events, so I’ve always tended to avoid the kind of networking that involves eye contact, small talk, and exchanging business cards. The most effective way I’ve found of proactively finding work is simply by emailing prospective clients, explaining who I am, what I’ve done, and how much I charge. Social media is also great for making connections that lead to work without having to leave the house. Social media loves visual content as well – it gets tons more engagement than just words, so lends itself to promoting a designer’s portfolio.
I’ve personally found Twitter to be a great source of leads, and it’s also a good idea to polish up your LinkedIn profile as a lot of companies search for freelancers through it. LinkedIn encourages users to add links, videos and images to their profile so it’s always a good idea to pimp it out as much as possible with all the awesome design work you can muster.
Growing Your Business
Once your basic business is set up – you have a keyboard, computer, a Creative Cloud subscription and some clients – and you start to get a regular flow of work it’s probably time to start thinking about how to grow your business.
Learning some basic Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) techniques will be necessary if you want to generate leads through your website. If I had to offer one bit of advice on how to do this it would be to write regular blogs about the thing you want people to find you for. Be specific – if you’re looking for work in your local area write about being a designer in your local area. It will help.
And if you’re freelancing gig becomes a fulltime job you’ll have to think about contacting HMRC to set yourself up as an official self-employed person. It’s really not as scary as it sounds, and the platform is now pretty good for managing your self-assessment tax returns. Some businesses will ask for a Unique Taxpayer Reference before hiring you so if paying your taxes bums you out think of it as widening your pool of potential clients.
Books That Helped Me
I’m a great believer in learning by doing, and also learning by reading then doing. Books which have helped me fill in the gaps in my knowledge are:
- Know Your Onions: Graphic Design by Drew de Soto
- Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton
- Graphic Design Rules: 365 Essential Design Dos & Don’ts by Sean Adams , Peter Dawson, John Foster, and Tony Seddon
- Graphic Design School by David Dabner, Sandra Stewart, Eric Zempol
- InDesign in Easy Steps by Robert Shufflebotham
At the time I started University, studying English Literature not Design, MySpace was still popular and the internet still populated with low-res imagery. Now there are many ways to learn design cost-effectively, show off your work on the web in all its hi-res glory, and find freelance clients.