5-step roadmap for becoming a freelance web designer
There's never been a better time to start a new career, learn how to work for yourself, and become a freelance web designer. So for those of you wondering how to become a freelance web designer, this ultra-practical, step-by-step roadmap is for you.
I've been a freelance graphic designer since 2011 and love running my own business, doing something creative every day, finding ways to delight my clients, and the fact that I am constantly learning something new. It's been a blast, but as a solo freelancer, it can also be very isolating; there's not a creative agency or web design company around you teaching you what comes standard in the business. The only way to learn is to do your own research and figure it out as you go. So this roadmap is a compilation of what I had to figure out as I went. This is the practical guide I wish I had when I started out so many years ago.
So here you have it - how to get started as a freelance web designer, in 5 steps.
1. Develop a great eye for good design.
Great designers don’t come from knowing every technical skill and how every button in photoshop works. Most technical skills can be looked up on youtube and learned on the same day it’s needed. The main thing that determines whether a designer will make great design is whether or not they have a good eye for design, good taste, a good sense of what’s appealing to look at and what works.
Subscribe to and spend time with everything in the world of art, design, and marketing that you can. Understand current trends. Understand what makes good art good. Understand what makes good communication effective and persuasive.
Take online classes on design theory and principles, user experience, marketing, and branding. Skillshare, Udemy, Coursera. And best of free-est of all: Youtube.
2. Develop technical skills in all the areas running a design business will require.
Remember that you are not just a designer. You are an all-in-one business. You are a designer/customer service rep/bookkeeper/project manager/billing manager/secretary/salesperson. If you're not interested in wearing all of these hats, you're probably better suited to working in an agency setting where 100% of what you do really can be just design. But if you're ready to run your own business, name your own price, work when you want, where you want, select your own clients, and be in the driver's seat of your career's destiny -- you'll need to learn to operate like a business.
1st Priority - Learn how to:
Master your design software. Take online courses. Type "How to [do X thing in X software]" into Youtube. Memorize what every button and dropdown menu does. Begin to create content and design on a web builder and in Adobe CS.
Learn how to manage projects, meet deadlines, and monitor your time using a time-tracking software (see software recommendations below).
Learn how to estimate how many hours a project will cost you. Track your time so you can figure this out and monitor whether or not you are getting paid enough for your time.
2nd Priority - Learn how to:
(Master these a few months or a year into the process)
Learn how to manage fees and income
Decide on your rate. An average rate for someone just starting out is $20-30 USD/hour.
Entry level (first year): $20-30
Junior (1-2 years): $30-40
Mid (3-5 years): $40-60
Senior (5+ years): $60-90
Director (10+ years): $90-200
To learn more about figuring out your hourly rate, check out Hourly rates: Tips for pricing your work.
You can also opt for flat-rate pricing like $500 for a logo or $1000 for a basic website. You have to figure out how many hours you’ll spend on it, what you'd like as an hourly rate, and then charge the flat rate accordingly.
Create and track estimates and invoices. Typically, before the beginning of a project, a client receives an estimate or proposal. After a project is agreed upon, many designers issue an invoice for a 50% down payment, and then a 50% final payment just before the project is formally handed over and completed. Decide on your own process and stick to it. If you are not hyper-organized when it comes to money, how you're charging the client, and making sure they understand exactly how you will be charging them, then money issues will inevitably be your greatest liability and headache. For a great starting point, check out How to Create Your First Freelance Invoice, Plus an Invoice Example
Understand how to be prepared for paying taxes on your freelance work. In the US, you have to do your own withholding and put away around 30% of everything you make into a taxes bank account. :(
Learn how to realistically scope out projects.
Number one rule to happy clients: Underpromise. Overdeliver.
Send each client a “scope of work” document which lists out all of the deliverables in overly specific details, every step of the process, exactly what is included (and NOT included) in your service, how many design options the client gets, and how many revisions they are allowed at each stage. Don't be afraid to put a dozen items under your "This service does not include:" list. Communicate early and often that the project will only include items specifically outlined in the "Scope of Work" document and that it does not include anything not explicitly stated.
Your time is what you bill for, so be ready to set considerate and reasonable boundaries with it. It's not that clients are trying to steal or waste your time with all their extra requests; it's that they're not mind readers. Communicate clearly about how much time and how many design options or revisions you'll have for each step in the process. Saying no when you need to frees you up to say yes for the important stuff. I try to set aside 10% of the project’s time-budget to be used for extra wiggle room tasks so that I can say “yes" to a few client requests that fall outside our agreed-upon scope. But that 6th revision to the logo’s 10th version? Sorry, no. Kindly redirect the client back to the originally agreed-upon scope, and when they make those extra requests, say the 11 most powerful words you have for preventing scope creep: "Would you like me to put together an estimate for that?"
Similarly, build in wiggle room for your own sake. No project goes perfectly. You are about to be constantly doing things you've never done before and that means even your most generous time estimates are going to fall short. First, estimate for more than the time you think you'll need. And second, consider building in 10-20% of the overall time-budget for the “Oh shit I didn’t know that would take so long” moments.
Learn how to create and manage client contracts
A good contract informs the client, manages expectations, and protects both of you.
99.9% of clients are wonderful people. A contract covers the worst case scenarios for that .1% of duds whom you WILL run into eventually. Setting out expectations in writing on issues like art-ownership or how to handle cancelled projects prevents conflict. A contract's greatest use is not being wielded in court; it's to keep you and your client out of court in the first place. Protect yourself and your clients with a contract.
For some great resources to get started, check out How to put together a freelance graphic design contract and this relevant podcast from The Creative Agency Podcast.
3. Assemble your tools like a team of Avengers.
Desktop or laptop. Design programs eat RAM for breakfast, so get the fastest machine you can reasonably afford. If a laptop, consider buying a second larger screen.
Many designers use a drawing tablet like a Wacom or paint on an ipad using software like procreate. I've never used them much myself.
Notebook for sketching
For godsake a supportive office chair. Do not go for the hacker-hunchback look.
Here is a list of tools I reccommend. Many of these have a free plan!
Find your website builder. Options include Wix, Weblow, Wordpress. Figma, Adobe XD, Sketch. For someone brand new to web design, I highly recommend Wix. It offers a super shallow shallow-end and a super deep deep-end. In other words, it's incredibly user-friendly and easy to get started with, but has enough depth and complexity to keep a designer learning for many years to come.
Adobe CS or any of its less expensive alternatives.
A source for stock images. For photos, illustrations, fonts, etc.
Paid: Adobe Stock, Creative Market
Google Workspace or some kind of cloud-based workspace. I spend 30% of my day in google products. I share dozens of docs and design assets through Drive every week. Create budgets in Sheets. Meetings are scheduled and created in Google Calendar.
Project management software - Asana (free), basecamp (kind of free)
Time tracking software - Harvest, Toggl, Clockify, (other options) But Harvest has the best overall features and integration capabilities.
Invoicing software - Some people just use InDesign and a spreadsheet. I recommend Harvest or Freshbooks.
Client contract management software - Some people just use InDesign + PDF signing feature, or go all-out and use a dedicated service like Hellosign (Here are additional options worth considering)
4. Build up a portfolio.
The main way you develop your skills, and the primary way you attract paying clients is by having a great looking portfolio of work to show. Your previous work is your interview. When you're brand new, make 3 to 6 projects for free or for fun. Really let your personal style and vision shine through. Make a website about your cat. Offer to create a free website for the tire shop down the street. Design a logo for a friend’s new business.
Create a portfolio website that shows off your great work and that clearly communicates how you can bring value and solve the problems of your clients. Quality is better than quantity. 3 phenomenal designs are better than 20 ok ones. Your portfolio site should include:
About your process so clients know what to expect
How to contact you
Consider setting up a social media presence so that your friends and social network can be aware of, and reminded of, your awesome services.
5. Find paying clients.
Tell everyone you know (friends, family, colleagues, friends on social media) that you’re taking on client work and are starting with great introductory rates.
Find places online to list your availability and services.
Upwork, fiverr, and 99designs are kind of ok, but do not come highly recommended because they are overly competitive and very low paying
Local job boards (in the US, I’d post on Craigslist... Watch out for scammers there.)
Find online job boards specialized to your work. If like me you are creating Wix websites, one of their greatest advantages is the Wix Marketplace. As a Wix Partner, 90% of my customers either come from here, or from word-of-mouth from previous clients I found here.
Design job talent boards like Workingnotworking.com. More options at this article.
Every business wants to hire someone who genuinely believes they’re the perfect fit for the business and who has knowledge about their unique industry. When the Agency Management Institute asked Chief Marketing Officers, business owners and Directors of Marketing what they wanted from their creative agencies, the #1 response was: “Industry knowledge”. So reach out directly to local businesses who are in an industry you’re already knowledgeable in. It’s easier to convince a business to work with a newbie if you are not a newbie to their industry. Tell this business how you could improve their logo/website/marketing with your great design skills and industry knowledge.
Reach out to other designers and creative agencies, tell them you are available for any freelance junior design work they might have, and tell them why you think you’re the perfect fit for their specific needs. Ask them to refer any clients to you that didn't have the higher budget for their services.
Start networking. Attend every design-related meetup and event in your area. The more designers you know, the more you can refer work to each other. Figure out where new business owners in the area are networking and meeting up, go there, and hand out business cards with discounts. You could even try working out of a coworking space like wework because not only will you enjoy brewed coffee all day while you work, you'll be right in the middle of new businesses, solopreneurs, and startups who will definitely be needing a website as they grow.
Continue to hone your skills, improve your business, and form a niche.
Continue improving in all of the above 5 categories every chance you can get. Freelancing is not for people who dislike learning new skills everyday. Always seek to get fresh inspiration, increase your knowledge, and improve your business practices. All so you can do better work for your clients - and as a result, enjoy your work more.
As you get your bearings and a better understanding of what you like and don’t like, begin to decide what your speciality and niche is. Don’t be all things to all people. Be your favorite things to the right people. You may find you love writing the text content for your websites more than anything else; Become a content-focused website studio. You may find you hate coding and building out technical systems; let clients know that’s not a service you offer, or subcontract it. The more specific you can be about the kind of work you’re best at, the more the right fit of client will not be able to resist you.