Why the best time to start freelancing as a designer is now (and how to begin today)

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If you read many publications about design and freelancing you have probably noticed there can be a lot of doom and gloom in regards to the current state of the design industry. I hear quite a lot of hopeless chatter about how the internet age and the advent of affordable computers and software have let loose a torrent of unskilled designers willing to work for next to nothing and devalue the industry.

Pretty bleak right?

Don’t get me wrong, I too find these trends troubling. The industry is changing with the world around it, and if designers don’t react they risk being left behind.

This is nothing new though. The internet has changed a lot of businesses. It shattered the old music industry, and has shaken both the film, and book publishing industries. Bigger record labels and publishing houses are becoming less profitable, and some are closing up shop altogether. Artists are starting to produce work and release it independent of bigger corporations.

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So what the heck does any of this have to do with design?

Well a couple of things.

First: the design industry is going through changes that look a lot like the ones that other creative fields went though recently. The technology to be a designer is now available to everyone, designers are being forced to adapt to the new environment in order to survive. The waves of unskilled or mid and low level designers this creates, makes it a difficult world to be a bigger studio in. A world perhaps better suited to a smaller “independent” designers.

Secondly: there are hoards of amazingly creative and popular artists out there making work independently that need to hire designers for book covers, record art, and film related design. Independent artists don’t have in-house designers like big record companies did. This is a new and growing client pool and it can be one of the more rewarding ones to work in. It also means designers not backed by a professional studio with a big name can still have opportunity to work with these high profile clients.

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While I was still in school studying design I was contacted by a Canadian best selling author to design the cover of his latest novel. He is a successful author who had noticed the changes in the publishing landscape and decided to do something about it. Rather than publish his latest novel with a traditional publisher he decided to go it alone. Publishing it independently the way musical artists have been doing for a few years now.

Because of that choice the design work was available to me, even as a student, that would have otherwise been taken care of by an in-house designer at a publishing company.

Despite the challenges our changing industry might present us with, they are not without their silver linings. There are some incredible new opportunities available because of this new demographic of clients.

How can you get a piece of that action?

Support the arts! Find out what’s going on around you and make an effort to get involved. Go to music shows, art shows, book readings and film festivals. Meet the people involved and make sure they know what services you offer.

Make sure your portfolio shows you can do this type of work. Even if they are just concepts add a book or record cover to your portfolio so browsing artists can see what you can do.

If for nothing else, this reason alone proves now is as good a time as any to start freelancing as a designer.

What are you doing to get in on this new market? Let me know in the comments!

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About Ben Brush

Ben Brush is a graphic designer working and living in Nova Scotia. You can view his work on his website. Find more posts by Ben on his graphic design blog Design Puffin or connect with him on twitter.

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  1. ‘Even if they are just concepts add a book or record cover to your portfolio’

    Such a good piece of advice. Thanks for the article!

  2. It’s nice to see an optimistic approach to things, but I think this website does it’s readers a disservice by sugarcoating things. Lets be honest..there is over saturation. Crowdsourcing, outsourcing and spec work have driven our wages down and cheapened the industry.

    Are there still small businesses out there willing to pay a decent amount for freelance design services? Sure….but they aren’t easy to find. The real money is going to the agencies who can acquire larger projects from larger businesses and corporations. These are the clients with the deep pockets and needs for ongoing work.

    There is this misconception that a freelance designer only acquire a strong group of clients and worry no more. This is completely untrue; small business clients rarely need recurring design work once you’ve designed their logo, print work, and website. And they sure as hell aren’t going to tell their competition about you.

    It boils down to this…if you want to become a successful freelancer, you better be really damn good at what you do, work endless hours and know how to market the hell out of yourself. Designers are a dime a dozen. Offering great design and service isn’t even enough anymore because most clients won’t even be able to find you amongst the sea of fly by night designer wannabe’s who have cheapened the field. You have to be different…you have to be stellar. Simply building a portfolio, reading a couple of marketing books and joining the chamber of commerce isn’t going to get you very far.

    Just my two cents.

    • Hey Trent. Good comment.

      I don’t disagree with you at all. I think freelancing is one of the toughest gigs out there. Most industries have changed in innumerable ways, and more people are trying their hand at it than ever before.

      Unfortunately none of that is going to change any time soon. The only thing we can do is figure out what still works ( and what doesn’t ) and look for new and emerging opportunities.

      I definitely get that I come off as overly optimistic here, but that’s because I am. I still love what I do and think there is tremendous potential out there for making a living doing great work. Of course that’s only possible if we change with the industry.

      Appreciate your comments Trent. I can be both cynical and optimistic about the future. In this case though, I feel good about the new possibilities.

  3. Great post! And great news to hear. You’re right, the industry is being saturated with the low end and DIY website creators. But the tips in this post is exactly how I started freelancing. I was working a corporate job and happen to meet another employee who is an independent music artist. As a result of working with him, I’ve met and worked with other artists in music and modeling as well as working with start-ups. But the key and challenge is connecting with artists who can afford to pay your rates. Many starting/emerging “starving artists” just can’t or won’t pay much of anything for the services they need. I’ve had to get a bit creative in pricing and payment requirements.

    • Dannielle.

      That’s a great point. Just because people are looking for design work doesn’t make them ideal clients.

      Only a section of this new market will value design, and have the resources to afford it. That section, though, is large enough to be significant!

      Thanks for your addition to the idea.

  4. Eventually people who hire the cheap “designers” realize it’s worth paying a more talented/experienced designer, because in the end it saves money and headache. We get it done faster and easier, and are more likely to give them what they want on the first try. I’ve been awarded a job because “we hired a student/someone from the internet/my brother-in-law and we’re just not getting what we want” any number of times. And then the client wants it fast and will pay my full rate and then some. And through the exercise of whatever they’d already done, they went through the painful process of not knowing what they want to knowing exactly what they want and therefore my job is relatively easy! With patience, perseverance, and a great portfolio, a real good designer will do just fine. Don’t undersell yourself to compete with the less talented.

    • Heather, I’m in the same boat.

      I’ve had clients come to me because the last designer they hired just didn’t cut it. As long as you do great work and take good care of your clients they will keep coming back and refer others.

      Word of mouth is king, and that applies to bad, under qualified designers just as much as it does to great ones.

  5. Great article and comments. I personally have been out of school, and looking for a position for a year now. So I understand that the market is flooded. If anyone has anymore insight or suggestions that I can try to get noticed. I would appreciate it. Thank you for shedding some light on the world of freelance. Are there some sites that you trust and work with regularly? Thank you in advance for you input!

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