Start a graphic design business in 10 simple steps—the ultimate quick guide

Maybe you’re still only dreaming about starting your own graphic design business.

Or perhaps you’re doing a few side-jobs in your free time hoping to start a graphic design business full-time.

Maybe you’ve just started your graphic design business but need a bit of a boost to take it to the next level.

Wherever you are in the process of starting your own graphic design business, this post is for you.

(And if you want more than just these 10 tips, you should also subscribe to our newsletter and we’ll send you tons of stuff to help you build a successful graphic design business.)

1) Understand your situation

No one is ever 100% ready to start their own graphic design business with absolutely no risk, all reward.

Business just isn’t like that.

(After all, I started my graphic design business almost by accident when I got laid off and had to start hunting for work.)

Some life situations, however, reduce the risk. For example, it’s less risky to start your own business if:

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  • Your household or family isn’t completely dependent on your current income for stability.
  • You’ve got savings or other income you can use while building your client base.
  • You’re already working a full- or part-time job and can continue to do so until you don’t have time for it.
  • You’ve already got clients you’re working for in your free time–and even better if they’d like you to take on more projects.

How risky is your situation?

Remember: many businesses don’t really get rolling until years 2 to 3, so be prepared to need another source of money in the early days of starting your graphic design business to ensure you can pay your bills.

You can be better prepared for the first couple of years by drafting up a simple one page business plan. In fact, we’ve created a free downloadable one page business plan template you can access 100% free-of-charge.

2) Identify your motivation for starting a graphic design business

Are you starting your own graphic design business for the right reasons?

  • Why are you interested in starting your own design business?
  • What’s motivating you to strike out on your own?
  • Are you passionate about your graphic design business idea?

By understanding what you want to get out of starting your business (i.e. more time with your family or the ability to simultaneously work and travel around the world), you can determine what type of graphic design business is right for you and take steps to ensure you start a design business you love.

Most entrepreneurs will tell you:

Starting and operating any business (successful or otherwise) is stressful, time-consuming, and a lot of hard work. A lot of hard work…and persistence, and dedication, and long days and nights, and weighty decisions you can’t pass off to anyone else.

But it also means a flexible schedule, a measure of control over your own financial security, additional vacation time, no commute, limitless growth possibilities, the ability to say no to a client or project, and a thousand other wonderful freedoms.

(While I get to take far more vacation days than I ever used to at my 9-5, I also put in my fair share of 50+ hour work weeks in order to keep my clients happy and afford the extra time off.)

Simply put: work hard…play hard.

And if you don’t have the discipline to apply yourself to your work when the comforts of home beg you to procrastinate each day, being an entrepreneur may not be for you.

3) Inventory your skill set

This is one of the toughest questions to answer honestly, and it’s one many successful veteran creative entrepreneurs still evaluate themselves with:

“Do I have the skills to compete with other professionals in my industry?”

If you’re unsure, check out Dribbble, Behance, Etsy, SmugMug, or wherever professionals in your industry post or sell portfolio pieces. How do your best pieces stack up?

If you’ve still got improving to do (and really, who among us doesn’t?), don’t fret.

Both Ferrari and Kia are profitable car companies, and while your current skill set may only allow you to charge Ford prices or retain Mercedes-level clients, you can always take classes, study tutorials, and hone your skills to move up to that next level.

Pro tip! Ask three trusted sources to give your their honest opinions on industry professionals’ work versus yours.

More on finding the right skills to build your graphic design business:

4) Define your graphic design business

What does your business specialize in? Who are your dream clients and projects? What aura does your business project? 

I think most of us initially secretly responded with, “I just need clients who want to pay me to do stuff. The details really don’t matter.”

At the outset, any job is exciting and any client is a chance to prove to yourself and your doubting Thomas that you ARE good enough to be a professional designer.

(And that’s okay. Food isn’t free.)

Soon enough, though, you’re going to get tired of working long hours for peanuts, dealing with a demanding client you can’t afford to ditch, and working on projects you really don’t enjoy.

If you’re not happy as an entrepreneur, your business isn’t going to last very long because it’s not going to feel worth it enough to continue.

So set your graphic design business up for success!

First, select three adjectives (not four or five…three only!) that you want someone to use if asked to describe your business.

  • Are you ultra-modern?
  • Cheerful?
  • Always available?
  • Affordable?
  • Grunge or underground design?
  • Strictly professional?
  • Passionate?
  • Lightning-quick turnaround?

Then define your ideal projects and your ideal clients, and research how and where to find them. (More on that below.)

The truth is, you can get better freelance work by defining your dream client.

5) Create a portfolio before starting your graphic design business

In order to get those ideal clients and projects you’ll need to start a successful graphic design business, you need a portfolio of your best work. Remember: quality, not quantity!

However, if you’re just starting out, stellar portfolio pieces can be hard to come by.

This is where you have to get creative:

  • Offer your services to a local non-profit, government, or homeowner’s association
  • Take continuing education classes that promise portfolio pieces
  • Create portfolio pieces based on self-inspired projects (things you’ve always wanted to create)

If you’re just getting started and need a cheap but reliable web host, we recommend Bluehost.
If you’re a little further along and need a host that can handle more serious traffic needs, we recommend WP Engine.

For more on creating winning digital and physical portfolios, try these:

6) Set your pricing

This is easily one of the most challenging aspects of starting your own design business: determining what you’re going to charge.

And the catch is, it’s never resolved. 10-year veterans still fret over whether or not they’re charging enough, how to charge more, and if they’re selling themselves short.

Bonsai also has a really cool interactive graph that will help you see how much money you should expect to start making compared to others like you.

Bonsai Freelance Rate Explorer

When you’re just starting out, it’s even more of a mystery, but the basics of pricing are as follows:

  • Determine how much profit you need to survive (personally and professionally)
  • Determine what your knowledge, experience, and quality can command
  • Determine what the market will bear

7) Find the right clients (and projects)

As I mentioned before, when you’re just starting your graphic design business, sometimes the “right” clients are anyone who’s willing to pay you.

But as time wears on, you get more selective.

You start to recognize which clients you work best with, and which are the headaches whose phone calls you deliberately ignore.

You figure out which projects have the highest profit margin, and which ones you really enjoy working on. If you’re lucky, they’re one and the same, but if not, you might have to get creative on how to pair your favorite projects with your most profitable ones.

So where do you find your favorites?

Well, if you have favorite clients, keep track of how you found them and try to repeat the process. And don’t forget to ask those favorites to refer you to like-minded friends.

Or pre-qualify local clients by getting to know them first before offering your services. Entrepreneur groups, chambers of commerce, and women’s/men’s groups all help you get to know other businesspeople in your area so when they need a designer, they think of you first.

Also, foster relationships with complementary businesses like copywriters, web developers, print shops, marketing specialists, and small business advisers – when their clients need your services, you’ll be on the short list of who to call.

If you struggle with “networking,” you’re not alone. Try one of these posts:

Finally, sign up on freelancing job sites. There are all sorts of quality clients who are searching for long-term freelancing partners on sites like Upwork. Work one project through a site and you just might earn a great client for years.

8) Establish your social media & site presence

Before you start setting up social media, you’ll want to register a domain. We’ve partnered with Porkbun to offer $5 .design domain names. For just $5, you can get a domain with .design at the end to really stand out from the competition.

Get a .design domain for just $5

Enter your domain below and check if it’s available.

Then, at the very least for B2B businesses like ours, social media helps validate your business. When potential clients Google your business, they want to find something (and you want it to be positive).

Even an occasionally updated Twitter feed, Facebook page, and/or Instagram account shows that:

  • You’re relevant and savvy with today’s technology
  • Your business is established enough for you to have created these accounts
  • You’re actively still in business

With a digital marketing strategy (and maybe a bit of luck), you may even find a social media outlet(s) bringing you business. We happen to know of one small but vital change that will bring in more clients.

And if nothing else, dear Aunt Betsy and that ex-coworker from your first job out of college will see your latest work…and may know a friend of a friend who turns into your next client.

(True stuff: my very first client was a friend of an ex-coworker who needed a go-to designer.)

More on getting your business set up online and in social media:

More on setting up your blog and ki

9) Learn the basics of design contract

Before the phone starts ringing and you start negotiating your first projects, create a simple contract. You’ll have plenty of time to add to it as experience identifies what you’re missing, but the basic must-haves are:

  • Contact information for both you and your client
  • Objective/scope of project
  • Investment
  • Payment terms
  • Timeline
  • Deliverables
  • Signatures and dates for both you and your client

10) Get to work!

The last hurdle is what we often call ‘freelancing fear.’

As crazy as it sounds, once you’ve started your graphic design business, it’s not uncommon to be afraid – or terrified – of those first projects or client calls.

But you’ve got to pick up the phone, and you’ve got to accept those projects despite the butterflies making a jumble of your stomach.

Set yourself up for success like this:

  • Practice, practice, practice. Start a fake phone conversation with your best friend, dog, or just your bedroom mirror. Know how you’ll answer the phone and what you’re going to start with.
  • Keep a cheat sheet of what you’re going to say and questions you need to ask.
  • Remember that as much as you’re auditioning for the role of designer, they’re auditioning for the role of client.
  • Don’t forget to smile when you answer the phone.

BONUS: Tools we recommend once you start your own graphic design business

Here are a few tools you’ll want to bookmark and use as you start on your career:

  1. Freshbooks: the #1 invoicing software for freelancers & solopreneurs
  2. Get a .design domain for just $5: build your portfolio fast with a $5 .design domain from Porkbun
  3. SolidGigs: kill the feast/famine cycle of your freelance business with our weekly gig list.
  4. Bench: for bookkeeping & tax help.
  5. Bluehost: for affordable, easy-to-use web hosting—because every business needs a web site.
  6. Chrometa: Time tracking to ensure you never lose time you spent working on a client’s project.
  7. ConvertKit: for sending marketing messages to previous or potential clients.
  8. Udemy: for continuous learning on all kinds of subjects (including business).
  9. LegalZoom: for help with trademarks, copyrights, and other legal issues.

For more top tools used by successful freelancers & solopreneurs, visit our “Top Tools” page.

Thoughts? Questions?

Have any of these tips been a difference-maker in your business? Do you have questions or need clarifications on any of the above? We’re here to help. Leave a note in the comments with your thoughts!

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About April Greer

April is the Director of Projects at Reliable PSD, a design-to-code company for designers, by designers. She’s the glue keeping everything together, organized, and right on time, and giving everyone a fantastic experience while she does it.



  1. Ah, #10! Can’t say enough about it….

    I’m a believer in preframing for referrals. Each time I land a new account, I say to the Client, “I’m going to make you very happy. Your business will shine, you’ll feel like a rock star, and you will thrilled with the result. And when that happens, would you mind if I asked you to refer your colleagues/associates to me?” Of course, the response is always “I’d be happy to refer you – IF you impress me first!” Once the project is complete, I say to the Client “Remember when I asked you if you wouldn’t mind referring your colleagues/associates to me? What do you think, are you confident enough in my ability to send your friends or family my way?”

    It’s a lot easier to ask for a referral when you’ve preframed your Client for it from the start. 95% of my work now is by referral/word of mouth, and I believe this is the reason. I rarely get a new client any other way anymore.

  2. Great post, John! I would add that, along with the business plan, one should write a marketing plan. This plan should outline how the business owner will make the business plan a reality, from strategizing what to sell and when, to networking and proper utilization of social media. Without this supporting document, even the best business plan is just words.

  3. From my own experience, for a business the most important thing is Clients and Cash. Enough Cash at hand to keep rolling till Clients start filling in Cash and repeat. While most of your points address the Client angle, none of the points actual talk about Cash, for a new startup business keep the Cash register ringing is equally important 🙂

  4. Hmmm…
    Great info!

    On a side note, as I have learned from several business owners, clients are important, and so is marketing, but if you are good at what you do you really don’t have to spend as much time and cash on advertising as you think. Referrals help, but can and does give your client the impression you are looking to expand or take the focus away from them. It just needs to be tastefully done.

    I’m thinking an infographic on the best ways to ask for a referral??

    Otherwise this content is good. It seems a little heavy, as far as getting exposure etc, and simply to make money, but in my experience I’d rather focus on the work then what I’m trying to achieve financially (at least this is how it comes across) because if you’re good at what you do money will come 🙂

  5. I fully agree with Mel on the emphasis upon work and letting it speak for itself. Also, as Kristine puts it, referrals are an essential customer-base but winning them requires a happy client network that will spread your word. Alongside putting up a team of incentive-driven, passionate & like-minded people, is something that greatly helps in the long run. They bring ideas, networks, energy and add a lot of support. Five year vision, six monthly targets, professional advisers, masters of business administration, etc. are sure-shot recipe, I feel, to bog down budding entrepreneurs, but become necessary when external opinions (investors, shareholders etc.) are unavoidable.

  6. Excellent article. Starting any business can be difficult, but if your passionate about what you want to achieve, it’s possible. It’s also advisable to participate in forums , you can learn and network with other professionals within the industry.

  7. I started in 2005 and have never looked back, I’m always looking for more work. Want to be inspired, come see my awesome portfolio, Recommend me to your friends, please & thank you for taking a look ! All the best Guy Tasker creator of Awesome Graphic design company based in South Africa. Online based Business, I work from home 🙂

  8. Wendy Foster says

    I want to start my own business doing design

    • me too. Hope its moving forward for you. Reading this article and comments on my 9 to 5 London commute has made me think hard about next steps. I’d love to set my self up, just need to take the plunge i guess with lots of positive affirmations, 🙂

  9. Great tips.. They can be applied not only to design business but to other kinds of businesses too.

  10. Bitaman Prosper says

    good ideas when you have enough capital

  11. New Vision Media says

    5 star on this one. copy/paste to clip board 😉

  12. Some great advice here. I have recently started my own Graphic and Design and Illustration business at

    Please take a look if you are interested in seeing what I do. You may even pick up some tips on how to present yourself online if you are planning to start your own business soon.

  13. To tell about Web Design like producing a two Web pages can be skilled by just about anyone, but to build a self-sustaining work one needs the right tools, planning,training and experience.

  14. Great article

  15. Thank you for this great article, I like it, it’s very practical.

  16. Very useful article thanks

  17. How to make a proper portfolio for design and web firm. It would be great if you can send me some samples/

  18. I wish everyone read this post before they startup.

  19. this article is very useful and have inspired me. thanks!

  20. i am totally agree with your all point. For me, one of the hard work is finding a reliable client for design business. I am enthusiast to follow your guidelines. Hope it will working for me to find few more client.

  21. Victoria J. says

    This was extremely helpful. Starting your own business is a daunting task and by breaking it down for viewers in such an organized and insightful manner is inspiring and palatable. I feel so inspired and motivated to begin.

  22. Great article! I really enjoy read each of sections. I only did a few of these aspects for my business, and i think i would add these steps to my business.

  23. Carley Hall says

    When was this article published?

  24. Structuring your business for taxes

  25. Fantastic resource!

  26. Hello April, I found this article very helpful! My question for you is what assets if any should I look forward into investing in, for example should I invest in some sort of printing machine, certain computer programs, scanners, etc.

  27. Very helpful .Thanks for sharing ☺

  28. thank you so much ,it helped me!

  29. Thanks for this, also i really appreciate those tools you recommended

  30. Hi April,

    I’ve started freelancing a few months ago and a lot of what you wrote resonates with me. Especially the bit about finding good clients that you work well with.

    I was also curious about how you get briefs from your clients. Do you have a template you get them to fill out or do you work with what they give you? I have recently found myself doing a lot of extra work which I feel is not on the initial brief but some how my client feels it is. It’s especially around brand ID stuff. Dose anyone find this difficult as well? Do you have any tips how I can ease my pain? Especially when there are multiple stakeholders in place who all feel like they require sign off, on every aspect of things.

    Thank You!

  31. Great and helpful blog to everyone. Thanks a lot for sharing this amazing article.

  32. Great Guide Greer!

    Starting a new business …it’s not an easy task but you have written what exactly required to start a design business.

    All these things are matter but the main thing is to know how the successful business owners like to shape the plans. We should check their footprints and follow –up them.

    I think the best business plan is your words….

    Keep up the awesome work!!!

  33. This is a very helpful article. It covers all the questions and doubts every beginner has.


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