Recently, I was approached by a student from Hawai’i who requested to interview me about what it is like to work as a freelance graphic designer. She asked some very thought provoking questions which really made me think. It was a great exercise and I thought you might enjoy some insight into the life of a graphic designer!
KL: In your words, what do you think freelance graphic designer is?
JZ: A freelance graphic designer is somebody who offers graphic design services on a contract basis, pays all of their own employment taxes & benefits and wears many hats. A freelancer, also known as an independent contractor, is responsible for all aspects of running their business including: business development, sales, accounting, marketing, project management, and of course, the actual design work once they manage to land a contract or sign on a new client! A freelancer must be incredibly organized since they have so many responsibilities and must be very self disciplined. It’s a lot harder than a traditional job where you work for one boss, get a check every week or two and there is nobody to protect you from costly mistakes or angry clients so you have to be on your “A game” all the time!
KL: What is your educational background?
JZ: I received my bachelor’s degree in the fine arts from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh back in the spring of 2010. I graduated with honors and a double major emphasis in graphic communications and painting. College was great exposure and I’m glad for the time I spent learning however I learned the most while on the job working with real clients on real projects under the guidance of a real art director (my boss). My degree simply gave me a nice base of knowledge and an advantage over others in getting my foot in the door.
KL: How long have you been a freelance graphic designer? What is your experience like being a freelancer?
JZ: I officially started my career as a freelance graphic designer in 2013 when I first moved to San Francisco, so just over 5 years now. There have been times when my freelance business has been my only form of employment, and there have been times where I worked a typical 9-5 agency job and worked on freelance work after my normal work day and during weekends. Here is a year by year break down of my journey.
- 2012: I freelanced sporadically mostly for friends or free projects. I had a full time job with a creative agency in Denver Colorado which I started months after graduating in 2010.
- 2013: Moved to San Francisco which marked my first time taking freelancing seriously and I opened a business checking account and my Yelp account.
- 2014: I did not charge enough money to sustain myself in 2013 while living in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. and accepted a full time position with a small marketing firm. I let most of my freelance clients go, but kept 1 or 2 of them who were willing to work with my newly limited schedule. (Thanks for sticking with me guys!)
- 2015: After saving up and learning even more, I took the leap into full time freelancing again! I thought I was doing great until H&R block took about 40% of my earnings for state and federal taxes which halved my total savings. I was hurting for money again and started looking for a new steady office job.
- 2016: In the spring, I started working a new full time job (marketing department of an architect firm) and again released all but two of my best clients who were willing to work with my new schedule. This new job paid very well so I was able to save quite a bit and I would work at night after work and on weekends on freelance projects.
- 2017: Moved to Hawai’i! I was able to line up several projects and went back to freelancing full time. Things slowed down a lot by spring so I took a part time job teaching Ballroom Dance in the evenings to help supplement my income.
- 2018: This is where I finally started seeing some traction! I picked up a few new really great repeat clients. Things were gettin busier for me in Hawaii (as yelp was ranking me in the top 3 Graphic designers in Honolulu!). I was preparing to leave the island to pursue a new business endeavor with my husband that would bring us back to the Bay Area. And so, here I am! Still learning as I go and still refining and applying what I have learned.
KL: Why did you choose to become a freelance graphic designer? What sparked your interest in freelancing?
JZ: Since I can remember, I always wanted to have my own business. When I was young, I dreamed of owning a boutique flower shop. I’ve always been very clever and a natural leader so I guess that I am naturally cut out for freelance life. I’m also ok with uncertainty which is key. Back in 2013 when I got my first serious freelance client, I quickly became hooked on the thrill of winning projects and impressing my clients. I find freelancing to be very exciting and challenging and as an artist, I love that I have been able to create the means by which I support myself and I love that there is no limit to how far I can go! Funny enough, I ask myself almost every day why I’m doing this when getting a normal job would be so much easier, would likely pay better, and would give me more free time. Deep down, I believe that I can build that for myself and that if I keep working that thing will snowball and get easier. I also have to keep one eye on the road and figure out where I want to go next or what I want to achieve both long term and short term.
KL: Was there a person or something (ex. mentor) who helped you on your journey as a freelancer?
JZ: Absolutely! To this day, my first boss has made the greatest lasting impression on me and I would not be where I am today if it were not for everything she taught me (on purpose or by accident. One day during a review, she asked me if I ever considered having my own business. I told her yes, but that I didn’t think I could do it because of all the responsibility involved. She told me she thought I could, but at the time, I didn’t want to and certainly was not ready. I’m a very observant person so I picked up a lot by watching and paying attention to her and how she did things). She is my definition of what success looks like and I strive to emulate her, but in my own way of course. Earlier this year, I actually had a call with her to ask for advice and how she did it. In a way, my clients are also mentors since many of them also own businesses and push me to give them my best. A lot of them are very tech savvy so they are always sending me to check out cool new sites and suggesting different platforms for me to examine.
KL: As a freelancer, how did you build connections with others? Or how did you get your name out in the freelancing industry?
JZ: I would consider myself more of a toddler in the freelance industry compared to some of my peers who have been doing this much longer, but we all have to start somewhere and no two paths are going to be the same for anyone. Building connections and finding clients is something I struggle with especially since I am relatively shy and have some social anxiety.
Things that have worked for me include:
- Craigslist: jobs and gigs for several major U.S. cities. Because I work remotely, I can search anywhere! I put a lot of effort into emails when I reply to a promising post so I’m pretty selective about what I apply for.
- Yelp: Maintaining my yelp account, regularly adding work, and getting reviews has helped me tremendously in acquiring client leads.
- MeetUp: I would look for business meetups where I might run into possible clients or network with like minded individuals. Always bring some business cards and always follow up after meeting a prospective client.
- Instagram and Facebook – I try to share recent works on my social media accounts and do my best to make sure my hashtag game is on point. I’ve gotten a few gigs from friends tagging me or referring me and also through special interest groups. For example: I regularly attend burning man so I’m a member of a “jobs for burners” facebook group. Mostly social media is just to show I’m active and am relevant or to promote brand awareness. If someone goes there to check me out, it’s nice for them to see something posted within the last few weeks (the more recent the better).
- Linked In I’m not as on top of this as I could be, but I have been approached by linked in members who were looking for freelance services.
- Referrals from existing clients. This is the best way to get new business. I give 110% to my clients and offer the best service I know how to give. When clients refer me to someone in their network, it is the highest form of a compliment. Referrals are valuable gifts and show me that my client trust me to give their referrals the same care and attentiveness I give them.
KL: Finally, what are your personal thoughts and opinions on the freelance industry?
JZ: The freelance industry is as competitive as any other field, if not more. It’s a mixed bag and you never know what kind of opportunities will land in your lap or who you are competing against. Like I said, it’s tough and it isn’t for everyone. You’ll work harder and longer and will spend a lot of time alone. You’ll sacrifice a lot and when freelancing is your profession, it’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle so the special people in your life will need to be very understanding. Your work day is not done at 5 or 6…it’s never done! You’re either getting the work done or plotting ways to find more or are updating your own portfolio and marketing channels. I do take at least one day per week where I don’t touch or even think about work. That one day is mine and it keeps me from burning out and gives me a chance to mentally reset and prepare for the week ahead.
I think the freelance industry will continue to grow and I think that more firms will use freelancers as time goes by. Some of the firms I have worked at have actually used other freelancers when the workload was too much for one person to handle. With advancements in technology, it is easier than ever to become a freelancer and with the unpredictability of the job market I think it will continue to draw thicker crowds as the freedom of where and how you can work will appeal to the more independent generations entering the work force. A lot of the young adults preparing to graduate now are less likely to seek traditional employment and will be drawn to the more adventurous realm of freelance life (at least for a period of time). I think we’ll see a lot of freelancers come and go as they discover the sacrifices required and learn that there is more involved than serving up a sweet logo for the shop down the street.