Six Strategies of Successful Freelance Designers

This article was created in partnership with 99designs, a global creative platform that empowers freelancers all over the world.


Even a decade ago, having a career meant experiencing an endless cycle of commuting and working, working and commuting. Today, highly-skilled individuals are seeking more flexibility in their day-to-day lives, and many are going freelance in order to find it.

According to a recent survey, more than half of the U.S. population will be freelance in the next ten years. Emboldened by better technology, high-speed internet and shifting industry expectations, people across industries are heading out on their own in record numbers. Many are carving out opportunities by freelancing part-time as a "side-hustle" while others have found success taking the leap into freelancing work full-time

But the freelance phenomenon is hardly new for designers. In fact, many may spend their whole careers having never appeared on a company’s payroll. If you’re a designer, you’ve probably heard about all of the great benefits that freelancing can offer (the ability to work anywhere with WiFi, to run a  business on your terms, to be selective about clients, and create designs whenever and however you work). You might also be aware of the challenges, too, including an unpredictable cash flow and the need for self-management. It can be tough to know if, and when, you should make the leap.

 Be a boss–your own boss (via  Unsplash )

Be a boss–your own boss (via Unsplash)

So let’s cut to the chase: even if you’ve already got a well-developed personal brand (and if not, there’s a Skillshare class for that!) there’s a few other things to consider when deciding whether going freelance is right for you. Whether you have just launched or are curious about trying someday, here are a few strategies to help you maximize your chances of success

Strategy 1: Face Your Finances

Not everyone can boast financial literacy when they’re just starting out, but if you want to run a successful business, the first step is to make sure that you’re keeping track of your cash flow and having an overview of your finances that makes sense to you. Fortunately, you don’t need to hire a full-time accountant to issue invoices and monitor your accounts. The internet is here to help!

Tools like FreshBooks or Due are great for designers. They not only allow you to process invoices, but provide freelance-friendly services–like the ability to request a deposit before you start working. You can also set up automatic late notices and track your expenses. If you need  a more intensive bookkeeping solution, tools like Xero or Quickbooks offer more functionality.

Even with the best tools at your disposal, the anxiety of waiting for an invoice to be fulfilled can be stressful. That’s why some freelancers swear by creative platforms like 99designs, which offers a pay and hold program that takes the guesswork out of getting compensated. Clients pay 99designs upfront, and the money is released to you once you complete a design  project That way you never have to wonder, “will they or won’t they?” about a payment again.

 Obtain a planner. Step 2: conquer the world (via  Unsplash )

Obtain a planner. Step 2: conquer the world (via Unsplash)

Strategy 2: Help Yourself Stay Productive

Managing your own schedule can require a lot of  discipline. If you work from home, it can be all too easy to put off tasks in favor of personal errands. But procrastination can be a slippery slope. One minute you’re doing a “quick” load of laundry and the next, it’s 4:00 pm and you haven’t even started those revisions you promised.

Good news: you don’t need to reinvent the wheel or even put on pants to break the cycle. You just have to adopt some basic project management techniques. Many designers swear by productivity apps, templates or other productivity apps for staying on track throughout the day. For those that want a more analogue approach, bullet journaling can be a helpful technique.

If the internet itself distracts you, there are ways around that, too. SelfControl and Cold Turkey lock you out of sites you specify for a period of time. The most important thing is to explore what works for you and stick with it.

 Staying productive is the only way to keep your freelance business growing (via  Unsplash )

Staying productive is the only way to keep your freelance business growing (via Unsplash)

Strategy 3: Introduce ‘No’ into your Vocabulary

It’s a common misconception that great freelancers say “yes” to every offer. Although there will always be times to prioritize great customer service, you have to know when to gently push back against unreasonable requests, budgets, or project scopes and set some boundaries. Develop parameters for yourself and communicate them clearly to new clients before agreeing to any new work. When a client’s request falls outside of your limits, learn to professionally and politely say, “I cannot provide that service.” It will protect you from burning out over the long-term.

 Self-care is everything (via  Unsplash )

Self-care is everything (via Unsplash)

Strategy 4: Build in Time for Your Personal Life

Studies have shown that creative minds do better with occasional breaks–all the more reason to work them into your schedule. Lunch with friends can be a great way to break up the day and give you a chance to socialize. You may discover that going for a brisk walk, an activity that’s been linked to better idea generation, can boost your brain and do wonders for your productivity.

Finally, just because you’re a freelancer doesn’t mean your working hours have to be erratic. If you’re not on a deadline, consider shutting down the computer at a reasonable hour. Freelancers deserve rest and relaxation, too–and the most successful ones prioritize it.

Strategy 5: Get the word out

Don’t underestimate the power of marketing yourself. Start with building a strong portfolio and making it discoverable to your potential clients. Consider signing up with a service that connects businesses with creative needs to designers, and showing up at relevant community events and conferences. It’s also good practice to have a website (it’s where you’ll direct your leads), and/or robust social media channels like Instagram that show off your work.

 Surround yourself with people who lift you up (via  Unsplash )

Surround yourself with people who lift you up (via Unsplash)

Strategy 6: Find your tribe

Having a network of peers to lean on can make a big impact on your career. Online groups offer great support and inspiration when the need strikes–-search for networks on Facebook or LinkedIn, through hashtags on Twitter, in public Slack channels or poll folks in the industry that you know about online groups that they find most useful.  

If in-person interaction is more your thing, and there are co-working spaces nearby, you may want to consider renting a desk.. Not only will it get you out of the house and into a fun, modern work environment, it’s also a great, organic way to meet fellow freelancers and future clients, too!

 There’s only one way to go (via  Upsplash )

There’s only one way to go (via Upsplash)

Got all that?

Freelancing can be the ideal setup for graphic designers seeking autonomy over their career and the kinds of work they do. With these strategies in your pocket, you’ll be set up for success, and prepared for whatever challenge comes your way.


Want to learn more about how to strike out on your own? Check out Skillshare’s classes on going freelance, building your personal brand, and so much more.