How to find design clients

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One of the hardest tasks that freelance designers face is that of keeping their client pool thriving. Aside from the clients who come back asking for more, a lot of times, you complete a job for a client and they move on. They leave you with an empty spot in your schedule and, unless you fill it quickly, that means lost income for you.
Recently, I posted an open-ended article here on GDB asking readers how to find design clients and their preferred methods of finding them. Below you will find a few of the best suggestions, the pros and cons associated with each method, and a few more tips on how to find design clients. (PS, If you want the latest info from the discussions happening here at GDB, stay updated via email or twitter.)

1.  Word of mouth marketing

While a seemingly obvious answer, this option was by far the preferred method of everyone who contributed to the conversation. I would add that social media and a designer’s online presence contribute immensely to the “word of mouth” method. Whether people are talking or typing, when one person tells another person about your design services, it’s word of mouth marketing. Below are a few comments and tips that the readers contributed on how to find design clients using word-of-mouth:

The word of mouth has been my friend for a long time. It’s been working so great that I’ve done almost exclusively local projects, I didn’t have to worry about looking for other clients elsewhere.

Here in Cyprus, the whole world really revolves around word of mouth. Different people will work differently, but as long as the client is 100% happy, it’s all good – repeat work, or future clients are virtually a given then.
When I first started working out here, I didn’t realise that, shot myself in the foot once or twice.

Word of mouth is king for sure! Nothing sells your services better than someone else raving about them. The majority of my work comes via word of mouth, but unfortunately not quite enough and I’ve had to pursue other methods of landing clients.

Word of mouth. After being self employed for more than 20 years, there is always someone who will pass along my name.

2. Knocking Doors/Cold Calling

Surprisingly, this technique came in second place. Cold-calling or knocking doors can include a number of different techniques including:

  • Emailing a business
  • Actually knocking on a business’ door
  • Contacting a business via social media
  • Calling a business on the phone
  • Approaching a business owner face to face

Here are a few of the tips the readers offered when it comes to finding design clients via “the cold call”:

My favourite ‘way’ how to find design clients is simple – I find out about some small/medium businesses in the area, then prepare myself and go to them. Just like that. 15min talk with business owner/someone in charge. It really works. I’d say better than any ad you may put anywhere in the city.I even set some time during the week to walk across the city. I write down names of cafeterias, shops, pubs, clubs, restaurants etc. Then find out if they have/need a website etc – if they do, I go to them.

Twitter is also another good way to find design clients. I keep a running search open in TweetDeck for “graphic design” as well as a more localized search feed. Any time I see someone say “I need a designer!” I contact them immediately and ask what they need help with. These are usually one-off projects, but sometimes you make a solid, long-term connection that leads to more work.

Some readers also offered their opposing views on using the cold-call method:

Good idea, but most want your work for cheap because they know you are a start-up and looking for clients whereas other designers are too busy to go around door to door, they might be viewed less needy for work. (View the entire discussion here.)

3. Participate in Forums

Finding a good community to participate in is a great way to network with a lot of other professionals who could later offer you a design job. I also like the creative take that Ashley suggests: offering a contest where you give away something for free in hopes to get a paying job out of it in the future. This is a great implementation of Chris Anderson’s “Freemium” principle.

I got my first big break from forums at goodreads. I’ve been in a group with a bunch of authors for a while before I started freelancing (so I knew these people). I offered my services up for 3 free websites, kind of like a contest. After I finished those I posted them up in the forums and people liked them so much they’ve been coming to me ever since.

I took some advice from David Airey’s forum and offered my services pro bono to a local Non-Profit Company. The company brings local musicians to retirement homes and hospitals. This has caused a surge in business from the musicians. I have been hired for two websites, several flyers, and I am working on a CD cover for a musician’s first album. I am a strong believer that “freemium” works.

4. Design Contests / Freelancing Sites

This is always a hot topic in the design community. Should designers participate in design contests, crowdsourcing, freelance sites, etc? Check out what a few readers had to say about the issue:

Design contests are a great source for “getting your foot in the door” with new clients.Yes, you may not get paid for every single line you draw (I don’t remember ever being directly paid for networking either!)and yes, not every contest you win will become a long term client. But, there are many creative designers that are finding after providing say a logo via a contest, the client then turns to them in the future for further branding and design services. In the interviews I have been doing with designers participating on design contest sites this is an obvious trend.

So far I have only worked on projects through freelancing sites. All my clients are from abroad. I haven’t done even a single project locally since I started working for freelancing sites. The beauty of freelancing sites is you choose the job, you decide the price and time frame and get paid much much better than what a local client can pay you.

5. Miscellaneous

There are obviously countless ways to find new design clients. A few other suggestions that were made included local print advertising, job-searching on classified listings like Craig’s List, Job Boards and more.

Keep the conversation going!

Now it’s your turn. You’ve heard my opinion and the thoughts of some other readers here at GDB. Now you weigh in on how to find design clients. Do you agree with the tips offered above? Contribute to the conversation!

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is a web designer, entrepreneur, and the founder of this blog. @prestondlee

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  • Thiago Cavalcanti

    This is very important to me since I’ve just got back to freelancing from a six month hiatus caused by a corporate job I took.

    So I’d love to hear people elaborate on those strategies and how they turned up for them.

    • Preston D Lee

      @Thiago Cavalcanti,
      Be sure to check out the last article. There are a lot of tips there that other designers have shared. Good luck with the freelancing!

      • Thiago Cavalcanti

        @Preston D Lee, I did, but I’d sure like to read more! Thanks for your reply.

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  • cooljaz124

    Yes, ofcourse. My freelance career started from my college days ( Just 2 year back ) when my friend @vivadesign won a contest in 99 Designs, and then I registered there, I was not aware of Illustrator that time, managed to develop myselves from the great design community from 99designs and ofcourse a lot of hardowrk. Then managed to get a job right after 6 months as web designer and one year from there, Im a front end developer as well – getting most of works from my portfolio website and portfolio from 99designs, logosauce and a lot of other communities im active in.

    All thanks to the wonderful community who was with me , and made me the real me now !!!

    • Preston D Lee

      That’s a great story. What tips would you offer to others when it comes to building a good community to support you?

      • cooljaz124

        @Preston D Lee,

        Ofcourse the main thing is, SHARE KNOWLEDGE , HELP OTHERS , BROWSE & READ A LOT:)

  • Karol K.

    There are many other things that work pretty good as well. For example, it’s worth to know your way around some simple old fashioned SEO 😉

    • Preston D Lee

      @Karol K.,
      Also a great suggestion. Thanks for adding.

  • Jay Kaushal

    Thanks for categorizing the jobs/clients Preston. There are so many ways of getting clients and you have covered it all in your article. Perfect categories, I must say. The working style of every person differs from another. So one can choose his path according to his taste and how he want to deal with his clients. It is not necessary what suits me may suit other guy too.

    A big thanks for featuring my name in Freelancing category :)

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  • Michael Hart

    It’s interesting the ways social media are changing the ‘word of mouth’ advertising type. Facebook allows you to target friends of your fans; essentially closing the loop of word of mouth recommendations. I’ve also been thinking of offering a refer-a-friend promo through my twitter followers’ networks.

    • Megan BE

      Michael, I totally agree!!! Offering incentives to potential clients has great positive effects. It always boils down to “who you know”.

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  • Pliny Gale

    I agree that word of mouth is best. If you choose to knock on doors or make cold calls, make sure you are actually talking to businesses you are wanting to work with. Make sure they understand your skills as well.

    Design Contest sites should be removed from this list. As far as I am concerned, anyone who uses this method to find clients is not a professional. It is pretty much impossible to make money with spec work contests and it hurts the reputation of the entire industry.

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  • DesignBuddy

    I agree with Pliny Gale; design contest sites are a joke. One recommendation not mentioned is to check out the chamber of commerce website and peruse through their new business listings. New businesses need a website, logo design and promotional materials. I haven’t had much luck with this technique but it’s worth a shot.

  • Flopspop

    Very good article, thanks for sharing. Just wanted to add another option for finding steady work; check with print shops (offset, silkscreen, etc.) both locally and out of your area and see if they need design services. A lot of small printers don’t have art departments and are constantly in need of design services. I personally have gotten quite a bit of work from a medium sized company that prints mylar bags for the herbal incense industry.

    The only drawback to this avenue is that you may need to reduce your rate to give the printer some room to make a little money for themselves, but the return should be worth it in the long run. Not to mention, you’ll be dealing with people that understand what it takes to create artwork which will save you loads of time “explaining” things as you have to do with new customers…

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  • Megan BE

    Another avenue is think of what you specialize in and go to your local small business’s and offer your services. If you have previous experience in the service industry, contact your favorite local restaurant. Or if you once worked retail, visit the smaller stores who need advertising. Focus on what you know and advertise this.

  • Artista

    Really helpful notes to make from this post :)

  • Cindy

    Very helpful article. Thank you! :)

  • kishor

    Thanks for the article. Good Read.

  • Cyndee Adkins

    Wonderful tips! Thanks once again! Personally I find word of mouth to definitely be a great avenue.

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