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12 Sure-fire ways to be happier as a freelance designer

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I consider myself an incredibly fortunate person.

Through a combination of hard work and luck, I am a freelance designer – my dream job. For all of its ups and downs, complications and stressful moments, this is a career that suits my talents and temperament supremely well.

And yet – being solely in charge of my own business all the time can take its toll and threaten to deplete me of a very precious commodity which I like to call my DHQ (Designer Happiness Quotient).

Why is your DHQ important to your design business? How does it help you succeed as a designer?

Here’s why and how – if you’re able to maintain the joy in your work and your work life – you are going to stick with it that much longer:

  • You will find ways to overcome the obstacles that face a designer in the freelance world.
  • You will tough it out through the hard times.
  • You will grow and evolve
  • You will stay excited and inspired as a designer.

If you keep your DHQ up, it will reflect in your work. Your clients and prospective clients will see that. This can only lead to a more profitable, better business. And that’s also something to be happy about!

Need a few ideas? Here are a bunch:

1) Try a new niche.

Have you achieved rut status, doing design for the same industry over and over again? That’s a recipe for boredom which leads to lackluster design and a low DHQ. Approach prospective clients in a completely different line of business to liven things up!

2) Flip your perspective.

Work in association with other designers whenever you can, and see how they do things differently than you do. Working in-house is a great way to do that (read more here).

Seeking inspiration online works, too. Find new ways to approach a type of project you do often – following the same template over and over may be speedy, but it gets a little boring, doesn’t it?

3) Add some new tools to your arsenal.

Just getting some new font collections inspires me to reinvent myself. Why not try on different design personalities? Would a pen tablet kick your vector skills up into the next level?

Give it a try!

4) Teach.

A couple of years ago I taught a series of drawing and cartooning classes to elementary and middle school students. Talk about a complete reset for my creative brain!

The next item on my DHQ boost list is to have a Skype conversation/design collaboration with a classroom of kids in the Cayman Islands, led by my friend Cathy who teaches there. I can’t wait!

5) Work through tutorials.

I know it’s hard to make time for this – but every time you make the effort to spend a little time learning, you’ll feel great, knowing that you’re becoming a better, more productive, more marketable designer.

Whether you’re learning new software or simply honing skills on an application you use daily is up to you!

6) Guest blog (if you like to write).

In my case, writing about design keeps me thinking about how to be a better designer. It holds me accountable to the practices I preach. And the communication with other designers can’t be beat!

7) Donate your design time for a cause you love.

Funnel the energy of your non-design passions into your design life. If you have a nonprofit that you support, reach out to see if they need a project done – periodically.

Don’t become their full-time, on-call volunteer designer, though – that circles right back around to burn-out, which defeats the whole purpose!

8) Say no.

Creating time and space to allow you to be a thoughtful designer is important. And on those same lines, allow yourself the time and space to think about other things besides design.

Giving yourself that distance gives you the excitement of coming back to it instead of feeling like you’re under a constant crush of projects and deadlines.

9) Relocate.

If your circumstances allow for you to move your home base for even a short time, do that! Trying out some new surroundings can be the ultimate refresh of your design sensibilities.

And if you can go somewhere that’s culturally very different than your usual location, all the better – let some of that new culture soak into your design and liven it up!

10) Attend a community creativity workshop.

Even if the focus is not on design, hearing from other creatives talking about their process always boosts my DHQ.

11) Get feedback on the results of your work.

Say I’ve designed a direct mail piece for a restaurant. If my client tells me that she got a ton of coupons back and a big jump in foot traffic, that spikes my DHQ for sure! Making my clients happy and improving their business makes me happy and improves my business. Win-Win!

12) Find the joy in the small details of design.

Bringing order to chaos. Incorporating beautiful photography. Getting that certain buzz that you only get from opening a Pantone swatch book. Visiting a press.

Remember why you chose design in the first place. Think about the amazing fact that you are a professional designer! Being able to call yourself one is just awesome, isn’t it?

Appreciate that!

So there you have it – just a few of the infinite number of actions, large and small, that you can take to make yourself happier as a designer. You’re still going to work like a dog and feel like a lunatic at times, but just keep in mind that your DHQ is important. Your very survival in the design world may depend upon it.

Do you have a secret for boosting your DHQ? Leave a note in the comments!

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Written by Rebecca Blaesing

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Rebecca Blaesing is a freelance designer who lives and works in Maine and New York City. She specializes in branding design and loves logo work.

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  1. Kim Barsegian says:

    Thank you Rebecca, that was truly optimistic!

  2. I like the optimistic vibe this post has. Tips number 1, 7 and 12 are my personal favorites! I love how encouraging this article sounds. Definitely something anyone should read if in doubt about their career or work!

  3. Robyn Petrik says:

    I’m not a designer but a freelance copywriter, and I love these ideas. Many of these tips can be tweaked a bit for any kind of freelancer. Thanks for helping us be happier!

  4. Jack Smith says:

    Great post, thanks Rebecca.
    One question though….
    How do you go about finding work in a completely different niche? It can sometimes be hard enough to find work when you have a portfolio of relevant work. What happens when you don’t have that?

    1. Rebecca Blaesing says:

      Hi Jack –
      Thanks for the question!
      If you’re trying to break into a new niche without any portfolio pieces that are relevant to that niche, I’d recommend either creating some sample pieces or finding some pro bono work that would get you those portfolio pieces. That’s how I got into package design long ago!

      A couple of thoughts about making those sample projects:
      If you’re looking to break into a niche that has some standard specs for materials – say trade show display materials for example, you could download templates and specs from a printer, and get familiar with how the files should be set up.

      Keep usability at the top of your mind when you’re starting out in that new niche. How is the user interaction the same or different than in other niches you’ve worked in?

      Then you just market the heck out of yourself to prospective clients in that new area and keep doing it until someone says yes!

      Does that help? I hope so!

    2. April Greer says:

      Hi Jack,

      Check out these posts on breaking into a new niche:

      Good luck!


  5. Requirements Inc says:

    It’s so timely article as I’m raw and new in a new city as we relocated recently. Thank you so much!

    1. Rebecca Blaesing says:

      I hope you found some helpful ideas in here – best of luck in your new location!

  6. Jerome tanibata says:

    Great article, Rebecca! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. What I like about your suggestions is that they’re very practical and easy to do. I’ve used quite a few of your ideas to maintain my “DHQ” so I can testify that they truly work.

    1. Rebecca Blaesing says:

      Thanks Jerome! Send in other DHQ-boosting ideas if you have some!

  7. Hi Rebecca,
    This is just what I needed to hear. Thank you!

    1. Rebecca Blaesing says:

      Hi Lara–
      I’m so glad to hear it! 🙂 If you come up with some other ideas to add to the list, please post them!

      1. As a designer in the process of boosting their DHQ (I like that term!) I found your suggestions Find a New Niche and Do Tutorials the most inspiring. I’m finding a new niche anyway and was pleased to see it topping the list here! And doing tutorials means you’ll have something fabulous to show at the end, pretty much guaranteed! 😀 I’ll add more if I think of them!

        1. Rebecca Blaesing says:

          Please do, Lara! And best of luck breaking into the new niche – share more about that if possible!

  8. I very well enjoydd this article.
    Yes, it is vdry essentialyou gain new ideas to keep your creativity flowing–it is like a beast that if you starve will die!

    1. Rebecca Blaesing says:

      Hi Damion–
      I love that idea of our creativity being a beast that we need to keep from starving. I’m going to use that!
      Thank you so much for the note – I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

  9. Bree Cleal says:

    Thanks Rebecca, I loved this post! I’ve been in the design game for almost 20 years, the last 10 years working for myself. Yes, it has its ups and downs but the ups are sooooo good! I’m definitely on board with all of your points. I’d like to ask though, do you think that a freelancer ever has a use by date? Do you see yourself doing the same thing at 60? I often ponder this question. Would love your feedback 🙂

    1. Rebecca Blaesing says:

      Bree, that is a fantastic question, and I think you have just inspired a whole new idea for a blog post!
      Having been in the design game professionally for about 20 years myself, I often think about this too!

      So far, my thinking is that I always hope to evolve as a freelance creative. As opportunities and new interests emerge, I like the idea of branching in new directions and trying new things, whether it’s writing or teaching or new design niches. The worst enemy of creativity is feeling stilted and bored. So far, through the variety of staff design jobs I’ve held and the freelance work I’ve done, I haven’t hit that wall yet!

      I can’t imagine not being a designer – can you? That part of my brain never seems to shut off, and after all this time, I still get excited about the work and the people. As long as I feel that way, I figure I haven’t hit my use-by date!

      What are your thoughts on this?
      Thanks so much for the note!

  10. Great post Rebecca! There is much to be said for a DHQ (Designer Happiness Quotient) – btw love that catch-phrase so appropriate!!

    I find tutorials a great way to get me inspired again. And as a designer who really wants to get more into Nature photography – but have no clue of the right camera, I’m literally about to take a Creative Live class that is about “How to Choose Your FIrst DSLR Camera”. Love when the Universe aligns like that 🙂

    1. Rebecca Blaesing says:

      Thanks Barbara! And that Creative Live class sounds great – have fun crossing creative categories!

  11. Thank you very much for your optimistic post! I agree with you, designing is great work!

    1. Rebecca Blaesing says:

      Thank you for the note, Barbara! I never get tired of design, and I hope you don’t, either!