Success kid

7 secrets to being a successful student freelancer

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Many people may tell you that it’s not a good idea to start freelancing as a graphic designer without a good deal of experience behind you.

This is good advice.

But it’s also quite misleading.

It’s entirely possible to be successful as a student freelancer, so long as you follow a few simple guidelines.

1. Start small

Obviously, if you’re lacking in experience, you simply aren’t equipped to take on the sort of projects that large agencies tackle.

Don’t go after big jobs straight away.

Start with smaller projects to build experience (and your portfolio).

Flyers for local businesses or wedding invitations may not win you any D&AD pencils, but they pay the bills.

2. Don’t be afraid to say no

If a client comes to you with a job you know you won’t be able to do, don’t take it on.

It’s better to turn a client away because you’re busy or lack experience than to let them down half way through a project.

This won’t do your reputation any good, and you’ll probably never hear from them (or any of their contacts) again.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If you need help or advice, ask for it.

Ask your friends. Ask your family. Ask your classmates and your tutors. Join a graphic design forum and ask on there.

Just ASK!

It’s surprising how many people are willing to give you advice.

4. Don’t work for free

You may be a student, but you probably know a hell of a lot more about design than you think.

Clients will be looking for a designer because they require that knowledge. Therefore they should be prepared to pay for that knowledge.

Beware of clients who are just looking for a free ride.

Claims of “future work”, “exposure” or “it will look great in your portfolio” should all be ignored.

5. Avoid design contests

Design contest sites may seem like a good way to make money.

You submit designs based on a loose brief, and if the client likes the design more than the other submissions, you ‘win’ the prize money.

But this is speculative (spec) work. It doesn’t guarantee you payment for your time and is a major problem for the creative industry.

The ‘client’ can simply claim they didn’t like any of the designs and cancel the contest to avoid paying anyone. Yet they still have the designs and ideas to take to someone else to draw up cheaply.

Stay away from them.

6. Be professional

If you want to be taken seriously as a professional, you have to act like a professional.

Get work done on time and reply to emails and phone calls in a professional manner.

Social networks such as Twitter or Facebook are valuable marketing tools. But remember, unless you’ve changed your privacy settings, everything you write is public.

Never complain about a client over social networks. Try to keep swearing to a minimum. And consider how voicing your opinions publicly could put potential clients off working with you.

7. Have confidence

This is probably the most important key to success, and also the hardest to maintain.

Saying “yes” to a new challenge or opportunity is terrifying!

But this is how you will grow as a designer and learn new skills, and it gets easier with time (though only slightly).

Remember to know your limitations. Don’t take on a web design project if you have no experience designing and developing a fully functioning website.

But also don’t turn down a design job because you’ve never designed ‘XYZ’ before.

The beauty of graphic design is that your basic design skills are transferable.

Designing a book jacket for example, has different challenges and considerations that designing a poster.

But the fundamentals of good design, which you already know, are still the main foundations of that design. Build on them!

11 Replies

  • Hey Paul, great post! Thanks for the mention I really appreciate it. This is great advice for anyone want to start out on their own in the design industry 🙂

  • Great blog post, thanks for sharing!

    Totally agree – never work for free or without deposits, I have have 2 clients refuse to pay me before once I have done the work for them, they must think “freelancer” means free work!

    Thanks again, keep up the great work!

    • Thanks for commenting Mark, I agree, the term ‘freelancer’ seems to be confusing a lot of people nowadays.

      Personally I always ask for a deposit and don’t work with someone who refuses to do business that way. It’s nothing personal, I just don’t like to gamble with my income.

  • I stumbled across your blog by someone tweeting this article. It’s good advice you’re giving out there. I have been considering going freelance since the job market hasn’t been so kind since I graduated last year, but I feel my skills are not up to scratch just yet. After reading this I do feel more inspired, thanks 🙂

    • Hi Yinka, thanks for commenting. I honestly didn’t feel I was ready to go freelance when I did, but you’ll probably be surprised by just how much you know already. Much of what you’ve learnt will be transferable to other areas. I’m studying design for print, but my fundamental knowledge of design helps me create digital or web-based designs too.

      The best advice I can give you is to start small and try to focus on an area of design that you feel you’re best at. Also, try to find clients who need the sort of work you love to do. It’s hard working on a job that bores you so go after the ones that excite you.

    • Yeah thanks for the advice. I did alsorts of stuff on my degree but finished not knowing what direction I wanted to take, so I kind of just fell into wanting to do web design. I didn’t really know know where to start, so I’m working for free for a charity at the moment, but would like to take on paying clients. I’m hoping to do something similar to what you’re doing such as setting up a blog etc.

      How did you find clients?

      • I started where you are with charity work. It’s a great way to meet different people and you never know when one of those people will recommend you to a contact who needs a designer. Tell everyone you know that you’re a designer looking for work. It’s surprising how many people have a need for a designer but have no idea where to find one.

        I’m hoping to put together an article about finding clients in the near future so stay tuned!

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