The design field presents an array of opportunities for freelance work. Learn about the skills, strategies, and mindset needed to thrive as a freelance designer and navigate the challenges of managing your own business.

Key Insights:

  • Freelancing in Design: Freelance designers have the flexibility to work independently, often remotely, and handle their own business operations. They have the freedom to choose their clients and work on projects that align with their skills and interests.
  • What is a Designer?: A designer utilizes creativity, artistic ability, and technical skills to design everything from small objects to large structures. Design can encompass different fields, including floral design, mechanical design, graphic design, and UX/UI design, each requiring special knowledge and computer-assisted design (CAD) software skills.
  • The Realities of Design Freelancing: Freelancing comes with its own set of challenges including finding clients, negotiating deals, and managing administrative tasks. Freelancers need a strong, independent spirit and the courage to manage their finances without a steady paycheck.
  • Steps to Become a Freelance Designer: Becoming a freelance designer involves determining your design specialty, learning necessary skills, building a portfolio, networking, and understanding the basics of running a small business. It requires a combination of technical expertise, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit.
  • Learning the Necessary Skills: Skills for a design career can be acquired through college programs or specialized training programs at schools like Noble Desktop. These institutions offer comprehensive instruction in various design fields and prepare students for the job market.
  • Running Your Own Business: As a freelance designer, you also become an entrepreneur. This means managing your own accounting, marketing, and legal matters, maintaining a web and social media presence, and continually updating your skills and knowledge.

Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2021 show that 19% of all employed Graphic Designers are self-employed. Although the figure varies from branch to branch of the design field, nearly every one of those branches includes designers who’ve left the nest of conventional employment to work for themselves, to wit, as freelancers.

The term “freelance” was coined by Sir Walter Scott in his novel Ivanhoe (1819). Set in the Middle Ages, the novel terms mercenary warriors who were for monetary hire rather than bearing allegiance to one country or another as “free lances.” As soldiers of fortune are less frequently encountered today, the term has come to possess non-military connotations. Freelancers, in whatever profession, are essentially hired metaphoric guns whose services are available to the highest bidder without requiring a long-term commitment from either party.

Different types of designers do different types of freelance work. The common threads are that the work that can be done largely independently, frequently from home (or another remote setting), and generally with a minimum of management from above. As a freelancer, you’re paid to do a job rather than to be at the office at 9:00 in the morning and will exercise your design craft while simultaneously running your own business. As with all things in life, that comes with both advantages and defects.

What is a Designer?

A designer is a person who comes up with designs—plans, drawings, schematics, renderings, and prototypes—of just about anything you may encounter in today’s world. Everything from a shampoo bottle to the outsides of airplanes had to be designed before they could become tangible realities. The designer is often the person who comes up with the idea for something and then comes up with the plans for it. Designers are idea people and creative types who possess the ability to see things that don’t exist (yet).

Designers come in as many shapes and sizes as the objects they design. You’ll thus encounter everything from Floral Designers to Mechanical Designers and Graphic Designers to UX/UI Designers. Each field requires specialized knowledge, but the threads connecting all of them are a creative spirit and artistic ability. Much designing today is done on the computer, using CAD (computer-assisted design) software, but the good old-fashioned ability to draw is still an essential tool in most designers’ toolkits.

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Read more about what a designer does.

What is Design Freelancing Like?

Design freelancing shares a great deal in common with other forms of freelancing: you search for clients, negotiate a deal, do the work, send a bill, and get paid. At least if all goes well, and despite the constant risk that it won’t.

The most baffling aspect of freelancing to those starting out on their own is finding clients. There are several ways to do that, the first of which is the way you go about finding a conventional job: well-known websites like Indeed and LinkedIn regularly have listings for freelancers of all flavors, so you need to monitor those as you would if you were looking for regular work. The second involves more monitoring of the internet, this time of the sites designed to match clients with freelancers. Some of these are all-around sites, while others (Designhill, Behance, or Dribble, for example) specialize in design work.

The third way of finding work is more old-fashioned and basically involves going up to people and asking them if they need a Designer. This is the hustle part of any job search; only you have to hustle harder and longer if you’re a freelancer. Get business cards printed up and hand them out, ask everyone you know whether they need a job done or whether they know anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who might need your services. This is where hustle borders on chutzpah, and your mantra becomes “the worst they can do is say ‘no’.”

A portfolio and a website are essential adjuncts to your search for clients, and, as a freelancer, you need a broader and wider-ranging portfolio than you do when looking for your first job. That and your website are the only things you have to recommend yourself until you make human contact, and they both require constant care and feeding to be kept current. The Google bots need to be kept happy, which brings you into the mysterious worlds of SEO (appeasing the bots) and Google Ads (bribing the bots: the old dictum that it takes money to make money rears its inconvenient head here, although plenty of freelance Designers have made it without paid advertising.) You’re also going to have to manage some sort of social media presence, although it needn’t be an all-out campaign. Having a couple hundred thousand followers on Instagram is nice, of course, but you don’t need them to run a small design business.

Once you’ve found a client, you have to come up with the terms of your arrangement. That means setting your own price, which puts you between the Scylla and Charybdis of not pricing yourself out of a job while not selling yourself disadvantageously short. The art of negotiating a deal is a whole discipline unto itself; if anything, there are too many books available on the subject, to say nothing of online courses and video tutorials. The ins and outs of the pseudoscience of negotiation are, however, beyond the scope of this article.

Then all you have to do is do the work, submit it on time, and attach a copy of an invoice. Then it’s time to go back and start the process all over again.

Is Design Freelancing Right for Me?

Freelancing can be great; it’s also not right for everyone. When people hear you’re a freelancer, their immediate thought is how cool it must be not to have a boss. While freelancers do work without close managerial supervision, they still have clients, and clients have to be kept happy. Whereas most clients can be kept happy by getting their work done well and on time, some are more difficult than that, and some can be downright unreasonable. Clients who blame you for their own shortcomings aren’t unknown, and, at some point in your freelancing career, you may have to tell one of them what they can do with their job. It’s all part of the package.

The package also has many appealing facets, not the least of which is that you get the freedom to do your work as you see fit. The basic principle is that, as long as the work gets done right and on time, you can do it in any way you want. To a lot of people, that’s the best of all possible ways to work, and since freedom doesn’t come free, they’re willing to pay the price for being able to work when they want, how they want, and if they’re lucky, for whom they want.

Being a freelancer means running your own business, which comes with a lot of things people working regular jobs don’t have to worry about. The biggest difference is that you’re not getting a steady paycheck: you can’t count on the same income next month as this, and that can drastically impact your lifestyle. You’re going to have to take care of your own medical insurance and retirement plans, your tax return is going to get a lot more complicated, and you’re probably going to end up having to pay an estimated tax four times a year as opposed to getting that annual refund check from the IRS. You’re also going to be in charge of promoting your own business, keeping your website polished and up-to-date, ordering your own paper clips, and trying to keep overhead down. Designer freelancers also need to keep their software up-to-date, which means keeping on top of the newest innovations in the software: continuing professional education becomes your responsibility, too.

That’s not to scare you off a freelance career. The benefits can be enormous for the right type of person and can even make it possible for people ill-suited to office existence to have productive and successful professional lives. Basically, freelancers need to have a strong, independent spirit and the courage it takes to assume the tillers of their own ships. It’s not for the financially faint-hearted since you’re giving up that regular paycheck. You may even make less than you would if you were on salary (you can also make more), but you have to believe that the loss in financial security is mitigated by the professional independence freelancing affords. It’s not for everyone, but some people wouldn’t work any other way.

Steps to Become a Freelance Designer

How do you become a Designer? You can’t just walk into a Hiring Manager’s office and demand a position as Game Design Lead because you want a job that will entitle you to play video games all day. It’s a lot more complicated than that. The following guided tour will show you how your career path will likely run.

Determine Your Goal

The first step towards getting to be a Designer is deciding what kind of Designer you want to be. You’re likely to be someone with some artistic talent who feels like a career that lets you make art might be more interesting than accounting. The problem is how to do that without ending up starving like Van Gogh (minus the mental illness and the absinthe.) You could always become the next Salvador Dalì and make a mint from your artistic production, but that’s not exactly a sure career bet. You’re better off having a Plan B in terms of a design career that will allow you to capitalize on your talents and receive a regular paycheck in exchange. You’ll accordingly need to do some research into all the types of design careers that exist. That should help settle you on a goal, illuminating the path you’ll need to take.

Determine the Skills You Need

Having settled on the aspect of design you wish to pursue, your next task is to determine just what it is that the Designers whose ranks you plan to join need to know. There’s much more than drawing ability involved, although that’s almost always a piece of the puzzle. You should certainly draw, draw, and, if you can, draw the things you hope one day to draw professionally. Nevertheless, computers are being used more than drawing pads in most design fields, and determining what sort of computer knowledge you’re going to be expected to have when you start looking for a job should be at the top of your list of things to research. 

Learn the Necessary Skills

Once you know what you need to learn, you should set about learning it, and the earlier you start, the better off you’ll be. You don’t have to begin to learn Photoshop when you’re a teenager or start making animation or simple video games while you’re drowning in the chaos of adolescence, but if you do know what sort of career you want to pursue, by all means, start learning the software you’re going to use as a professional.

The place most people learn the skills they need for a design career is college, where programs like BFAs in graphic design include the practical training you’ll need to begin a career once you’ve graduated. Those interested in game design can take computer science classes while studying for a degree in fashion design will teach you to sew, sketch and use the computer to create garments. Undergraduate degrees are increasingly focused on career training, and thus, if college factors into your plans, you should seek out a program that will prepare you for the job you want. On the other hand, if college doesn’t enter into your plans (or if college is already behind you and you’re contemplating a career change), there are other ways of acquiring the skills you’re going to need to make it as a designer, most especially the in-person or live online IT schools that specialize in teaching students the career-specific and job market-targeted skills that are required for designers.

Many of these schools offer free video seminars that can give you a sense of what actual classes will be like. Noble Desktop, a New York-based school, is among the institutions that provide complimentary video tutorials in a number of design fields. These include a general introduction to design, Get Started in Design: Graphic, Web, UX/UI & Motion, along with more specific seminars, such as Get Started in Graphic Design, Intro to Adobe Creative Cloud, Intro to Figma, and Get Started in Motion Graphics. Any one of these will provide a foretaste of what the subject matter is like and are a handy way to investigate a number of different avenues as you search for the one that’s right for you.

Build a Portfolio

Very arguably, the most important tool in landing a job is going to be your online portfolio. Before you can assemble one, you need things to put in it in the form of projects that showcase your abilities. Most schools will help you develop portfolio projects, but there’s nothing to stop you from accelerating that process by working on projects of your own, either as sample exercises or as actual real-world projects you undertake as part of an internship or for such clients as you can scrape together.

What should go into a portfolio? The rule of thumb is at least three projects that show off as much of your range as possible. If they can be real-world projects rather than student exercises, so much the better. If you have more top-notch work than that, you can include it, but don’t overburden your portfolio with endless student designs for the flying car of tomorrow. You don’t want to overwhelm the people who view your portfolio: you want them to focus on the best of what you have to offer.

Network, Intern, Hustle

The next step is probably the most difficult, as it introduces the variable of other people to the equation. There’s more to getting a job today than just graduating college and metaphorically pounding the pavement in search of gainful employment. Networking, which can be done virtually using platforms like LinkedIn, is essential, as it can get your foot in doors that might otherwise remain closed to you. And there’s always the chance that your contact X knows Y, who knows Z, who might be able to let you know about a job opportunity. It takes time and effort to network, and it may seem to you that it’s never going to pay off, but it’s an inescapable part of the increasingly byzantine process of starting a career in today’s market.

Quite a few entry-level design jobs call for two years of experience, which is indeed as ridiculous as it sounds. How do you get experience without a job? It can be done. You can land an internship, which will remunerate you with valuable experience (but with little or no money), or you can do volunteer work, where the price of your services can compensate for your lack of experience. You can also sell your services to the local pizza joint by convincing the owners that they need a new menu and that you’re the person to design it. Or, if fashion is the field you’re trying to break into, you may be able to find a community theater needing a costume designer.

The key ingredient here is maybe the most critical intangible in getting a job: hustle. Some people are seemingly born endowed with the quality (they made money buying and selling baseball cards when they were ten), and some people have to get over their natural shyness and learn it. Bear in mind hockey great Wayne Gretzky’s famous dictum: “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

The Job Search

After all that, you’ll be ready to start your job search in earnest. And to make a full-time job of it. It takes effort even to find an entry-level job these days, partly because the market is competitive and partly because the job-search process has become much more complicated than it used to be. This is where you monitor job postings, use your network, and polish your portfolio until it gleams. Yes, it’s a lot of work, and some of it is tedious (there are only so many ways to rephrase a cover letter before you want to scream), and you need to be prepared for a lot of rejection. Some people get jobs in their first week of searching, and others for whom it takes longer. Be prepared for it to take longer, and be ready to be sending out dozens of resumes into the darkness of the internet without getting so much as a rejection email.

That may sound hopelessly pessimistic, but such are the realities of landing your first job. The secret is not to take rejection personally and to believe in your abilities and training. Your hard work getting this far will pay off eventually. You just need to stick with it. There will be a lot of rinsing, repeating, and rephrasing of that cover letter, but with good credentials, a great portfolio, and some hustle, your dream job should be within your reach.

Learn Business Skills

If you want to be a freelance Designer, you’re also going to have to make sure you know how to run a small business. That means wearing a whole lot of hats for which design school doesn’t prepare you: you have to be the accounting, marketing, and legal departments (although a relationship with a trustworthy lawyer is a necessity as well.) If you have an employee or two of your own, you’ll have to learn how to manage payroll, and you’re going to have to be able to create and maintain a web and social media presence for your business. Although there is no shortage of consultants who can relieve you of some of those burdens, they can get expensive, and one of the reasons you set out on your own was to be in charge of your own business in the first place. In other words, you’re not going to be just a Designer anymore: you’re also going to be an entrepreneur.

Learn the Skills to Become a Designer at Noble Desktop

If you wish to become a designer, Noble Desktop, a tech and design school based in New York that teaches worldwide thanks to the wonders of the internet, is available to give you the education you need to get started in this exciting field. Noble teaches certificate programs in numerous aspects of design and the technology that makes design possible in the contemporary world. These certificate programs offer comprehensive instruction in their topics and will arm you for the job market in whichever aspect of design interests you.

Noble has certificate programs in graphic design (the Adobe trio of Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator), digital design (the main troika of Adobe programs plus Figma for UI design), UX & UI design, and motion graphics. All these programs feature small class sizes in order to make sure that each student receives ample attention from the instructor, and can be taken either in-person in New York or online from anywhere over the 85% of the Earth’s surface that is reached by the internet (plus the International Space Station.) Classes at Noble Desktop include a free retake option, which can be useful as a refresher course or as a means of maximizing what you learn from fast-paced classes. Noble’s instructors are all experts in their fields and often working professionals whose experience is invaluable when they mentor students in the school’s certificate programs 1-to-1.

Noble offers further design courses that are briefer than the certificate programs. You may also wish to consult Noble’s website for a wealth of information on how to learn to be a designer.