- The median annual wage for full-time graphic designers was just over $50,000 in 2018, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- But you can earn even more — six figures or higher — if you become a freelancer.
- We asked six freelance graphic designers their tricks to the trade.
- They've been successful as a result of finding clients that champion their work, networking not just online but in person, and working on retainer whenever possible.
- The experts also noted that counterintuitively, you may need to turn down some work to make more money.
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The median annual wage for full-time graphic designers was just over $50,000 (or $24.21 per hour) in 2018, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But if you want to raise the ceiling on your income potential in this field, freelancing may be the ticket.
"Unless you're the exception, the only way to make a lot of money as a graphic designer is to freelance," said Reagan Burns, owner/creative director at Lime Creative, LLC and owner of Element Cowork. "There's a salary cap and a gender gap in advancing into the art director roles in creative fields."
Veteran freelance graphic designers can make well into the six figures by charging as much as $150 per hour. Yet hourly rates can vary widely among designers depending on their background and experience level, with low-end designers netting only $20 an hour and on average freelance designers charging a rate of $45 an hour.
This variation means that the little things you do as a freelance graphic designer can make the difference between a modest salary and one that's $100,000 or higher. To learn best business practices on what freelance designers can do to up their game, win more clients, and make more money, Business Insider interviewed six experienced freelance graphic artists to learn their tips and tricks.
Educate and understand your clients, and find ones that will champion you
After graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a BFA in graphic design, Burns took a job as a graphic artist at the advertising agency R&R Partners in Las Vegas. When she first entered the workforce, Burns believed all she needed to be successful was to "think creatively, and outside of the box, and to wow [her] managers with unique and visually appealing design."
However, she quickly learned that while she prioritized the art of design, it was actually the client and agency who paid her salary, and that their satisfaction and preferred direction was what mattered the most. After becoming aware of the salary limitations of staff design positions she decided to leave the agency after just one year and went out on her own, founding Lime Creative in 2009.
"Once I was signing and managing my own clients, I had the freedom to prioritize design and also the client," Burns said. As she did so, she relied on the following strategies to develop and build her business, which netted her around $115,000 in 2019:
- Show your clients what they don't know they need. Burns suggested that freelance artists keep in mind that clients are outsourcing or hiring a designer because they do not have familiarity with what they need for their brand. This creates an opportunity to add value as a freelance resource. "By educating them, you can guide them on why certain design aspects matter and define your authority on the matter," Burns said. "This will also lead to greater trust and respect and loyalty."
- Get to know your client. Honing your connection with your client beyond just the cursory business transaction will help you cement a bond that can extend the life of your partnership. For example, by taking the time to understand their larger business needs as well as learn something about their personal interests, you're giving your client more reasons to rely on you. "When you develop a personal relationship with [your client], you will demand respect from them, and any issues that arise will have the opportunity to be discussed before any rash decisions are made," Burns said.
- Be super reliable. Burns pointed out that while creativity is a right-brain trait, organization and timeliness — key concerns of most clients — are left-brain traits. "Clients need their freelance creatives to fight their natural instincts and work against a deadline," said Burns. One way to showcase your reliability is to offer resources to your clients, including information that highlights your business processes. "Build a blog where the client can do their research and learn about what services you're providing to them," she said.
T.J. Harley is the president and creative director of Atlanta-based graphic design studio Harley Creative, which he formed in 2012 after serving as creative director of sports marketing company IMG College for over a decade. He added another important element of client management: identifying clients who will be champions for you.
"Ninety percent of my business comes via word of mouth and referrals from current and former clients," said Harley. "It's the absolute best advertising there is. It's important to find clients who are going to be cheerleaders for you and say your name when they're asked for recommendations."
Rub elbows with potential clients — in person
Much networking today, particularly for work-at-home freelancers, is done online. But Dale Johnson, cofounder of travel blog Nomad Paradise, suggested that the most effective way to find high-paying clients is by getting in front of them in person — for example, by attending industry conferences and events.
Johnson, who has been working remotely as a designer, content marketer, and publicist since 2016, explained that he used this strategy to land "$10,000's worth of work" with a large SEO and marketing agency that needed infographics. The designer accomplished this by going to one large digital marketing conference, MozCon. Once there, he leveraged social media to gain attention for his services, which led to face-to-face meetings that led to landing a significant new client.
"While being prolific on Twitter at the conference, which gave me visibility, I also posted a blog post about being a non-marketer [at] one of the world's largest marketing conferences in the official Facebook group of MozCon," Johnson said. "This piece gained serious traction in the group, and the content manager of the agency reached out to me directly to discuss working together."
Johnson has had similar success at other conferences and ceremonies, with IKEA being one of his highest-profile clients landed through this method.
"If you want to be paid highly, you have to do business with people willing to pay a premium for quality design," Johnson said. "These people do not hang about on freelance boards, and more often than not, work on a word-of-mouth referral basis."
It's well worth it, Johnson concluded, to do what you can to put yourself in front of these influencers. Altogether the cost of traveling to the conference was around $2,000 for him when airline tickets were factored in, he maintained that "the reward of the work at the end of it made it a more than worthwhile investment."
Go niche rather than broad
When Adrienne Johnston first went freelance in January 2018, she offered general graphic design services. But a few months into her new line of work, she realized that accepting such a broad range of gigs was inefficient and didn't allow her to maximize her income.
So after doing some research to determine which of her design projects offered the highest price for the least amount of time spent on them, Johnston decided to limit her offering to freelance presentation design.
"Presentation design ticks a lot of boxes for a highly profitable design niche," Johnston said. She noted that in addition to the fact that there's a large market size with around 35 million PowerPoint presentations given each day, there's also a big demand for these services, since many of her clients have PowerPoint on their computers but lack premium design software like the Adobe Suite, creating a gap for presentation designers to fill.
Her research also found that clients were willing to pay for presentation design for decks they could often use more than once, and there was a budget for them in many companies as a line item tied to revenue.
After identifying her niche, Johnston capitalized on it by building an SEO-optimized website and web presence to support her new, more focused business.
"That website was generating two to three leads a day at the six-month mark," Johnston said. Her niche strategy paid off quite rapidly, as she earned $200,000 in 2019, her second year of freelancing.
Keep increasing your rates
On her rapid ascension into six-figure freelancing, Johnston also effectively leveraged an intentional rate strategy that helped her ratchet up her earnings. The first step to her strategy was ensuring that clients would be aware of her positive track record of performance and skill set. To do this, she relied on earning positive reviews from clients on the global freelance platforms Upwork and Fiverr.
Once she had a strong reputation on these sites, she used that public knowledge to gradually inch up her rates. "I started with a full calendar of clients at a $40 hourly rate," Johnston said. "I increased that rate to $100 in my first year of freelancing by adding new clients at the $100-an-hour rate and slowly asking clients at the lower rates to move up or offer[ing] to refer them to other designers."
Johnston found that most of her clients were willing to accept the price increases for her services based on their previous work together.
Work on retainer whenever possible
Harley explained that one of the top ways he grew and maintained his own graphic design business was by always presenting an option for a retainer fee — an advance payment from a client that a contractor can draw funds from — when starting work with a new client.
"Charging a monthly fee in exchange for a certain amount of projects or time can be a great alternative to project-based pricing, especially if a client has multiple projects they need done," said Harley. "It's also a great option for clients, because you can act as their in-house designer at a fraction of what they would pay a full-time employee."
Harley added that when a client puts him on retainer, he in essence becomes part of their team, which makes the partnership much more efficient and productive.
However, he added, "once someone has you on retainer, you need to be flexible, which also means being available and reliable if they need something in a pinch. You're not only being paid to do design work, but also to be a reliable member of their team."
To that end, doing great work is essential. "You're only going to be as successful as the work you put in," Harley said. "Make sure you're doing quality work that will speak for itself when a contract renewal comes up or someone asks for a referral for a good designer."
Be prepared to turn down some work
Husband-and-wife creative team Theo Fels, creative director, and Julie Fels, content director, at Feisty Brown— which offers print, branding, and web design — have over 30 years of experience working with recognizable American and global organizations like American Express, Capital One, and Johnson & Johnson. The Fels pointed out that being deliberate about which jobs they take and which they turn away is important to their six-figure business.
"Sometimes we have to say no, but it's not easy," said the Fels team. "Turning away work seems like an odd way to generate income, but each job you take on needs to be balanced with your other work."
The couple said that they ask themselves the following questions when weighing decisions about whether or not to accept or reject a project:
- What does this job bring to our organization?
- What complications will it bring?
- Is it a job that will end up dominating our time for very little return?
- Do we think we'll work well with the team hiring us?
They added that as freelancers, they have to be prepared to not always expect to make six-figure salaries.
"Every year is different," the couple explained. "We plan as much as we can so that we're prepared for slow times. By budgeting and keeping money in the business, we are able to maintain some consistency and weather the storm when it hits."