Last night I hosted The Design Kids Christchurch monthly #TDKtuesdays meet up. This was my first time hosting it, and as a recent grad I know that it takes a bit more than the promise of a beer to get out to an event on a Tuesday night. That’s why I organised a Freelancing 101 session for this month.

As a young designer, freelancing is a great way to build up your portfolio, get some real world experience, and of course earn some much needed moolah. But freelancing isn’t exactly a class you can take in design school. Asking the basic questions like “when do I send an invoice?” and “how much do I charge?” can be intimidating. That’s why this #TDKtuesday was a no-dumb-question-zone and I invited along three creatives who were well versed in the freelancing game to share their experience.

We had an awesome discussion about all things freelancing. Here were the five key takeaways.

Note: if you’re not a designer this list still applies, just swap the word ‘design’ out for whatever you do.

1. Be clear with the client

There is a reason people say the key to a great relationship is communication, the same goes for clients. Before you begin working with a client make sure everyone understands the terms of working together. This is often where a contract comes into play, but sometimes if your gut-feeling gives you the go-ahead you might not use one.

Either way, you need to be clear with the client about these things:

  1. The deliverables: What outputs are expected at the end of the project? Will it be just a logo, or a set of logos? Will you include brand guidelines? Make sure you have a discussion with your client about this so you’re on the same page.

  2. The deadline: Make sure you discuss when the client needs the work by. Think about other factors that can come into play as well, like if things need to be sent to the printer, or a design handed over to a developer. Make sure you’re clear about when your work finishes and someone else takes over. Also, don’t be a dick and throw your hands up saying “not my problem I’m finished” once you’ve handed over to someone else. Make sure you make it a smooth hand over to the next person and they understand what you’ve given them (name your files clearly!).

  3. Who owns what: If you’re doing something like an illustration will the client own the artwork rights and do whatever they want with it til the end of time? Or will you get royalties for your work? This should affect how you price your work, so make sure you have this conversation with the client.

Here are some example contracts and services you can use. Obviously different countries, different laws, but overall these should be a good template. If in doubt, get friendly with a lawyer or even an experienced freelancer who knows about this stuff and shout them coffee.

Freelancers Union General Contract:

Freelancers Union Limited Use Contract:


2. The client isn’t stupid — you are if you don’t dig

It’s easy to play the blame game with clients, and laugh about how dumb they are for not knowing the difference between Helvetica and Arial, but I’ll stop you right there. Clients didn’t go to design school (most of the time). They run a business which you probably would struggle with. Give them some credit.

However, this is your time to prove that designers don’t just make things look pretty and are worth more than five dollars a logo. If a client has come to you they obviously have some part of their business they are trying to improve. Your job at this point is to become a bit of a detective and find out what problem/s they are trying to solve.

If a client says they want a new logo, rather than saying “ok sweet” try asking “why?” When they answer that with something like “because our old one sucks”, reply with “why?” When they say “because we aren’t getting enough business.” Then, you guessed it, hit them with “why?” And they might say “because people think we do X when really we do Y!” BOOM, you’ve hit the jackpot. Your client doesn’t need a new logo, they need a better way to communicate what they do.

If you can understand your client’s business, their goals, their customers, and their problems, they will love you for it. Suddenly they are ready to get their chequebook out for you rather than thinking this is something they are sort of forced to do. You’re actually creating something which will create a return on investment for them. It’s a win-win for everyone!

2. There is no recipe to price yourself

Unfortunately there is no step by step guide to pricing yourself. This is one of those things you’ve got to freestyle, but you’ll get better the more experience you get. However here are some tips to set you off in the right direction.

  1. Have an hourly rate, but don’t just charge that as you go. This can freak the client out (especially clients with small budgets). Instead, figure out how many hours you think this project will take and calculate a project fee based on that hourly rate in your head. The key here is to allow extra hours for things like emailing/meeting the client, getting feedback and making changes, and preparing to present your concept. Some cases where a project rate doesn’t work is if it’s a really big project with no end in sight, in that case a daily rate is better.

  2. Your hourly rate is going to seem high compared to what you earned working a cafe job, but that’s because you aren’t getting paid to do 40 hours a week consistently. You need to build in all your operating costs into your hourly rate. Think about software (design and things like accounting), supplies/equipment and co-working space rent.

  3. The type of project it is and skills it requires will also affect your price. If a project requires a particular set of special skills you have, rather than a more general skills based project, then don’t be afraid to increase your rate for that. The more unique or specialised your skills the more you can be picky about your price.

  4. Take into account the type of client it is. Like most of this pricing thing, go with your gut on this. If the client is a big multinational then they’re probably going to have bigger budgets, but if it’s a local nonprofit that’s probably not the case. Even though charging different amounts might seem unfair, one way to think about it is that by charging more to people who can afford it means you can work on projects you’re passionate about. You’re kinda like a creative Robin Hood.

  5. The secret to being super productive is to have a project fee to work to. Once your client has agreed to a project fee you want to get that work done as efficiently as possible. By efficient I don’t mean rushing it, I mean that the more work you get done in those hours you assigned, the more you’re pushing your rate up. In contrast, if you start mindlessly scrolling through your Instagram feed then you a literally losing money. Get it? Time is money. The more projects you can fit in, the more you’re earning.

4. Network with ‘your crowd’ to find clients and projects you actually like

Networking doesn’t have to be a big scary thing where you go try and talk with people in suits about ‘the market’ (unless that’s what you’re into). Sure you might find clients at those kinds of things, but save yourself the social anxiety and try going to things that actually interest you. Are you into gardening? Go along to your local community garden and help out. Like food? Seek out some interesting foodie events near you. See where I’m going with this? Go to shit that you actually like! Obviously you like design, and those events are great, but try branch out and go to other stuff you’re into. Sometimes it’s a little out of your comfort zone, but usually if it’s an event around something that’s not specifically business or networking you’ll find people act a lot more normal. You also don’t need to turn up throwing business cards round like you’re in a club. Just be yourself. Don’t stress if you haven't walked away with any clients either. The magic part happens when someone you meet there talks to their friend who mentions they need a designer to do some work. Bingo! They mention they just met this really nice person who happens to be a designer at their French Cinema Meetup. Boom, you’ve got a client! And because of this through-a-friend introduction you’ve also magically filtered out clients who you won’t like (most of the time).

5. The way you present your work is more important than the work itself

Clients haven’t paid you for a pretty picture (see point 2). Rather than just attaching a logo to an email and saying “here it is, pay me please,” tell a story and walk them through the development and thought behind the work. During the #TDKtuesday meetup someone gave a great example of a sommelier (wine expert) telling you the wine you’re about to try is the cheap stuff, then as you try the next glass they explain the tasting notes and the soil it was grown in. Both are the same wines, but one is immediately valued more than the other. The same goes for your work. Make sure you give the client a great story they can take away and proudly tell others. Get them excited about it and really proud of the work. This TED talk by Simon Sinek explains a great strategy to do this:

Hopefully these points have cleared up some of the mysteries surrounding freelancing. Happy designing everyone!