A beginner’s guide to making money as a freelance designer

Chat to anyone in a creative field and they’ll likely tell you that if you’re hoping to get rich quick, you probably shouldn’t go into design (uh oh!). We’re certainly not going to argue that a fresh-from-college designer is going to snag a salary on par with their doctor or lawyer friends, but fear not, young creatives:  

It’s entirely possible to make a great living as a designer. 

Here’s how. 

Start small – but not too small 

“Starting out in design – particularly if you’re going straight into a freelance career – isn’t easy, but don’t fall into the trap of undervaluing the abilities that you already have,” says Kate Hilson, Head of Print at Friends of Design.  

Colleges like Friends of Design send students out into the world with a good foundation of creative and business skills. Those skills cost you time and money to develop, so don’t give them away without fair compensation! 

Quote on value, not on cost 

Figuring out what fair compensation is can, of course, be challenging. You’ll want to pay close attention to getting it right, though, because “too cheap” can be just as big a deterrent for clients as “too expensive”. 

“The first thing I like to do when costing a job is get to know my client as well as their project,” says Kate. “That lets me assess their potential budget, and get an idea of how valuable the project is to them.” 

When judging value, consider how important the work you’re doing is to your client’s brand, how much it’ll be used going forward, and what kind of return your client will get from it over its lifespan. 

“Logos, for example, are a high value item – they’re the face of the brand and will likely go on every product and communication for as long as the brand exists,” says Kate. “A once-off flyer or emailer, on the other hand, only provides short-term value to the client, which means it needs to cost less for them to get the same return on their investment.” 

Keep in mind that an emailer going out to a million customers is also worth more than an emailer going out to 100. Likewise, a multinational company logo is more valuable than a logo for a small mom and pop business.  

Be realistic about your skills 

Once you’ve figured out how much you think the project is worth to your client, you need to adjust that value to account for your own skills. 

“As a junior, your work is unlikely to be as fast or as instantly fabulous as a more experienced designer,” says Kate, “so your client may need to be more involved, provide more feedback, or wait longer for the finished product. That has to reflect in your price if you want them to pick you over a more established design house.” 

While you can’t charge big agency fees as a fresh-from-college designer, don’t be shy about upping your rates as you gain experience. 

“If your work is excellent, and you’re a pleasure to do business with, clients will be willing to pay more for your services. Just be careful of being too ambitious if you don’t have a steady flow of work,” says Kate. 

Protect yourself against scope creep 

Once you’ve figured out a fair rate for a project, it’s vital to protect yourself against scope creep – unless you want to do a lot more work for free. (You don’t, trust us.) 

“For large or complicated projects, clients are often more comfortable with a fixed fee, but you have to be very careful about specifying exactly what that fee covers if you don’t want to be taken advantage of,” says Kate. “Itemised quotes are your best friend in this situation. Lay out each and every item that you plan to be doing in as much detail as possible and, if necessary, put a cap on your hours as well.” 

This kind of quote also has the side benefit of helping clients understand where their money is going, and can be a useful tool for getting them to pay what you’re worth without feeling cheated. 

Be worth what you charge 

The value of a great designer isn’t just in their artwork. A huge part of success lies in building relationships with clients.  

“Repeat business is the holy grail,” says Kate, “but to get clients to keep coming back you need to be more than just a good creative – you need to be a good business person too. Every interaction your client has with you needs to be positive and hassle-free. That means full transparency, excellent communication, and – above all – complete reliability.” 

Remember, when a client chooses you over an established agency, they’re taking a leap of faith – they have no guarantees that you can deliver on your promises. If you mess up, they’ll run for the hills and maybe even warn others against you, but if you can impress them and earn their trust, they’ll be your biggest fans and best advertisement. 

Believe in yourself 

Every creative has days when they feel like they don’t know what they’re doing. When you’re just starting out, there are going to be plenty of those, especially when you start quoting on bigger projects for the first time. 

“It’s scary, but it’s also exciting – that’s the freelance life,” says Kate. “You need to have the confidence to push through your fear and trust that your skills will take you where you need to go. After all, no-one is going to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself!”