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How to become a freelance designer - a checklist

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

Starting out on your own is an amazing feeling, it is all about freedom. Your schedule, your clients, the way you work, you can decide all of those things. However, many creatives dive in to freelancing only to find themselves working 9am-9pm most days, so how can we make sure our new career move goes the way we want? After starting a creative business, an online community and tech company, I have learned a few things about balancing goals and a lot about what not to do. This checklist looks at the steps of setting up your own freelance business step by step. I chose the order so you will have all your practical details ready before your first client to make sure that first relationship is great. It can feel hard to push back and demand the use of contracts and payment in advance, but respect yourself and your time and good things will happen. Let's dig in.

freelance design


  • Prepare to go freelance

  • What will your business do?

  • Set a vision for the future

  • Register your business

  • Get insurance

  • Set up your accounting

  • Create a contract

  • Set up good routines

  • Your process

  • Portfolio and social media

  • Marketing your business

  • Keep on learning

Prepare to go freelance

Most businesses take a while before they start making money. Before you take the leap to start your own business, make an estimate for how much money you need every month to live and run your business. Try to be realistic but lean with your costs and then decide if you can save up a runway or if you want to look for a part time job for the first few months. Not struggling to pay the bills will put you in a much better position when you try to get work since you do not have to end up taking work for lowball prices just to pay rent. It will also bring you more confidence which reflects in the way you speak to clients. I would advice to have at least 6 months of runway before you get started.

What will your business do?

Before you do anything, it is important to know what creative services you will offer your clients. It can be tempting to try a little bit of everything and that is fine but the more focused you can be, the easier you will find it selling yourself. People like to know what they are buying so by finding a niche you can tailor your website, social media and the way you explain your business specifically to the problems your future clients will have. At this stage, you can even create a persona describing your ideal client. This will help you learn more about them and what motivates them.

Set a vision for the future

Running a new business means you will put in a lot of hours to start with. If you have a clear goal of where you want to be, you will feel much more motivated and you will save time by not doing things that set you off track. Choose a way to remind yourself of your goals as you get going. You can try a mood board or a weekly reminder in your calendar to check out all the progress you have made.

Register your business

Once you feel ready to start, register yourself as an operating business with your local authority. There are a few things to consider. Most freelancers start out as sole traders. This means YOU are the business and requires a lot less paperwork compared to running a limited company. The only caveat to be aware of is that by being a sole trader, your private economy and the business finances are one and the same. This means that any loans and other expenses are under your name and not the business. Many people run their business as sole traders their whole lives but it is important to be aware of when you make decisions. It is also why you need insurance.

Get insurance

Why do you need insurance? When you run a creative business, you might give advice, deal with printers and pay for services. If you are unlucky, something can go wrong and you might need to compensate your client or another business. To avoid the risk of emptying your bank account, an insurance will cover you in these situations. Ask your insurer what cover you need for your business. An indemnity insurance will help cover you if a client acts on your advice and it leads to a big business loss so it is a great option if you offer strategy.

Set up your accounting

Make your life easier and use an accounting software. There are plenty of paid options like Freshbooks and Xero or you can go for a free option like Quickfile. Any of these options will help you send branded invoices and have great functions like automatic reminders if your client forgets to pay.

Create a contract

A contract will save you in so many situations. It is a great way to make sure you and your client are on the same page and it makes it easier to renegotiate the budget if your client changes the scope. A great place to start is to use the AIGA template. Make sure you cover the basic things like who owns the rights to the design, when payment is due and what happens if the scope change. Your contract does not need to be long, add the things you find helpful and skip the rest.

Set up good routines

You are your own boss now! Make sure you take care of yourself and create an inspiring and rewarding environment to work in. If you work from home, make sure to take breaks and get out of the house at least once a day. Good routines are the best way to make sure you do not overwork and can keep a healthy lifestyle and relationships outside of work.

Your process

Few things will help you as much as a clear and well iron out process. When I say process, I mean the steps you take to go from that first email or phone call to handing off a project and building an ongoing relationship. If you are unsure of where to start, we created a free lead to retainer guide which takes you through each step in order and looks at common questions and how to prepare. Every designer has their own style of working but sometimes it can be helpful to use a template to get started. The key to a good process is that you and your client should know what is expected of you at all times so communication and a little bit of planning goes a long way.

I would also consider using some form of project management software to make sure you keep on top of day to day tasks and can plan ahead. Most tools allow you to invite other people or clients so you can collaborate much easier.

Portfolio and social media

An important step in bringing in work is to have a website. Your website acts as the home base for all the things you do in your business and it is an easy place to link to. Having a portfolio with case studies describing how you tackled different projects will help clients visualise themselves working with you so try to be as descriptive as possible. A little bit of planning and some beautiful mockups can go a long way. Don't feel overwhelmed. It is better to have a site up and running even if you don't feel like it is perfect just yet. There will always be things you like to improve but setting up your site earlier will mean you have time to build up your SEO over time.

When it comes to social media, less is more. It is easy to spend all your time posting to 5 different platforms and trying to keep up with each of them. When you are just starting out, try to pick one or two places where you think you can find your customers and focus on being consistent on that one platform.

Backing up files

You never want to find yourself in the situation of loosing files. The key thing to consider is the difference between "transferring" files and "backing up" files. Transferring means moving between places, like from your computer to a hard drive. If you only do this and your hard drive gives in, you only had one copy and will not be able to retrieve the files. Your insurance often only covers you if you have successfully backed up your work (meaning keeping files in at least 2 places).

I suggest a simple 3 point backup:

- A physical hard drive

- A cloud platform like Dropbox or Google Drive

- And an auto synching cloud platform like Backblaze

Platforms like Dropbox or Google Drive sometimes offer auto synching but it is seldom waterproof. If you use all three, you can manually back up to the hard drive and Google Drive/Dropbox once per week and Backblaze will always backup automatically each hour. That way, even if Backblaze fails, you will only loose maximum one week worth of work.

Marketing your business

When you hear the work marketing, many people think social media. Online marketing is helpful for your business but especially in the beginning, creating relationships is much more effective. This can be anything from having coffee with old friends and telling them about your business to attending networking events. The key is to look for ways that you can be of help to other people rather than asking for something right away. This does not mean you have to work for free. It can also be helpful to build relationships with other creatives that could give you work. If you want to kickstart your creative network you can join our Facebook group.

Keep on learning

A great way to build confidence and great relationships with your clients is to keep up on new trends, tools and software. As you grow, you might start collaborating with other creatives and knowing a bit about what they do can help you manage bigger projects. Try to plan in at least a few hours of learning every week. If you are feeling stressed for time, learning about something that directly benefits your business and gives you an edge at advising clients is ideal, such as learning more about marketing.

Do you have a favourite tip we missed? Join our Facebook community and spread the wisdom!

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Do you need files from clients but it always takes way too long? 

Kayla makes it easy for your clients to send you copy, photos or anything else you need to move forward. No email chains, attachments or sharing links needed. We even remind them for you!

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