how to promote yourself as a new freelance designer

How to promote yourself as a new freelance designer

One of the scariest things about becoming a freelance designer is that you invariably start with nothing, zip, nada. You might have just graduated from university or maybe you’re coming from a full time role, both of which mean you’ll have minimal work to show off. So being a new freelance designer on the scene, just how do you promote yourself?

A little history

I started my freelance life as an editorial designer. About six years ago the Spanish editorial world suffered a severe knock and I found myself out of gainful employment. It was sink or swim and I had no point of reference. I really went it alone. I had no real portfolio to speak of, or at least none that would work outside of an editorial house. Most of them were closing up shop or chopping heads, I needed to do something fast.

I built my first real portfolio – one that had a www before it and I started a blog. You can’t work as a freelance designer without a portfolio and having a blog will help no end.

Ye, but I’ve just graduated, what can I show?

So you’ve got no real work and you probably think you can’t write. Don’t fret. I’ve been there. Before I started my blog I hadn’t written since high school but – and here’s the good news – writing is just like anything else: once you start, you get better. All of a sudden, you get your first ever comment and then you just keep on trucking. If you haven’t started yet, do it now!

A portfolio is fundamental. If you’re a designer and you can’t code (that’s for another post) then there are endless platforms and systems out there that will help you to get something up and running with the minimum of fuss.

Here’s a list of some places that will do the heavy lifting for you:

http://dunked.com/
http://www.squarespace.com/
http://prosite.com/
https://www.coroflot.com/signup
https://carbonmade.com/signup
http://www.behance.net/tour
http://shownd.com/
http://www.krop.com/creativedatabase/

Presentation is everything

How you present your work matters. Many designers make the mistake of presenting an image of their project along with the project’s name, maybe with a URL thrown in for good measure. Don’t do it! You’ll be missing out on the big sell. Tell your potential clients just what it is your good at. Show them the process you went through and how you can help them with a similar project.

Pick a day, any day and scout the popular pages of dribbble. It’s guaranteed that you’ll find shots of wireframes, sketches and workflows. Why? Because people love to see a process, and clients are people too :)

Instead of presenting all of your projects, select four, six at the most and make case studies of them. If you don’t have any real work, then use your college projects. Just be sure to explain the who’s, the why’s and wherefore’s. Tell us what the brief was, how you answered that brief and the process that got you to the final result.

It will do wonders.

Being designers many of us choose to design our portfolios from scratch. If you don’t yet have any client experience, I can tell you that there is no worse client than yourself, anything from hereon in will be a breeze. You’ll come up with an infinite number of designs for your portfolio, and you’ll probably end up going back to the first!

The portfolio “absolute musts”

  • Do tell people who you are and what you’re about.
  • Don’t make it all about you. Tell people what you can do for them.
  • Do make sure that your contact details are prominent and easily accessible.
  • Don’t limit your contact details to a form. A lot of people prefer to write directly from their favourite email client. A little spam is worth it.
  • Do let your personality shine through, they’ll find out anyway :)
  • Do have a clear call to action, whether it’s to check out some of your case studies, or if you’ve got the gumption, to hire you directly.
  • Do present your work in a clear and easy to understand manner.
  • Don’t make your client struggle to find his way around your site. Don’t hide interactions because it’s cool. As Jason Fried said, “Be clear first and clever second. If you have to throw one of those out, throw out clever.”
  • Do use testimonials, even if they’re from your ex tutors. They help build trust.
  • Do focus: Try not to show a smattering of every style and project type you’ve ever done. While this may show you’re versatile it can also say that you haven’t found your creative voice yet.
  • Do add a blog, it will bring you lots of warm traffic.
  • Do implement basic SEO.

Once you’ve got your portfolio up and running you’re ready to start looking for clients. Yep, that’s right, at first you’ll be looking for them (rather than them looking for you). Sorry.

Warm emails

This is an interesting, somewhat time consuming technique. It has a higher success rate than cold emailing (which is minimal to say the least) and has the advantage of drumming up real leads.

So how do I do this?

Most designers make one critical mistake when pitching to clients. They make it all about them. They talk themselves up: I can do this, I can do that, I have experience in Adobe CS6, and so on … Past a certain point clients don’t care. They don’t care because you’re some uninvited designer who’s turned up in their inbox.

It’s called warm emailing for a reason.

Make a list of companies you’d be interested in working with (and don’t write apple, they won’t bite). Make sure the companies you’re targeting have money to spend and make sure to choose a sector that you have a genuine interest in. From this list of companies, find out who is the right person to contact. Do a little research if you need to and get their email address. Don’t send a “Dear sir” email to the front desk, it will just get binned. It needs to go to the right person, direct to their inbox. Google is your best bet, along with Linkedin and local business directories.

So you’ve found a company that appeals to you, Maccy Design Inc. They have a budget and the head of design is Henry Smith, good work.

Now, hop over to Google Alerts. Create an alert using Henry’s name and/or Maccy Design Inc. This will notify you the next time anything newsworthy happens to them. You may have to wait, but meanwhile you’ve got a whole list of potential clients to work your way through, so odds are you’ll hear something soon enough from someone…

… Google comes up trumps.

Your first alert comes through with a link to a story about “Henry Smith, CEO of Maccy Design Inc.” Henry has just announced that Maccy will be opening a new branch in London.

So here’s your email title: “Congratulations on the London office.”

Henry’s far more likely to open something relevant, something that suggests you’re in-the-know. Generic email titles get binned or spammed. The email title is relevant and it implies that you know something about Maccy Inc. You’ve done your homework.

The email could read something like this:

Hi Henry,

I just read about your good news on **** site. You and the team must be stoked.

I’m a freelancer designer myself and I specialise in editorial design. I think I could really help you out in the new London office.

I just completed a project for *****’s that I think fits in quite well with the Maccy’s style. You can read about the case study here. www.example.com

If you think that I could be of help, then I’d love to chat with you in the next week or two.

Regards
Nathan

You see, this approach is so much better than a mass email campaign. Of course it’s more time consuming, but you want to close the deal right? You are putting yourself in a winning position. You have the correct email, the potential client’s name and you have an ‘in’. None of this would be possible with cold emailing.

You’ll also notice that the email is very short, it’s not crammed with links to every piece of work you’ve ever done. No-one has time for that. Keep it brief and make it about how you can help them.

If you hear back from 3 out of every ten people you email then you can be very happy. With each reply, make a note of what text was used in the email, and then use it as a base to make gradual improvements and win more leads. Don’t get too down about results. Remember you’re emailing strangers :)

Blog about your course and experiences

Setting up my first blog was one of the best business moves I ever made. TheFreelanceDesigner.info was the place where I broke my blogging cherry. I felt like I had nothing to say, but I did it anyway.

Everyone says “Get a blog” and it seems like stock advice nowadays but it’s still valid and I heartily recommend it.

Why?

  • It brings in traffic related to your target market
  • It establishes you as someone who is knowledgeable in a subject
  • Writing helps you to gain a better understanding of what you do
  • You may actually get real people, leaving real comments.
  • Interaction from unknowns will leave you feeling like it’s all worthwhile
  • It will help you get work :)

I’ve won contracts by simply sending a link to one of my blog posts in emails to potential clients. Sending a link to a relevant post can do wonders. I’ve sent out links to posts about my work process, the process of iteration, and even tutorials that may be relevant to their project.

There’s only one reason why you shouldn’t start a blog, and that’s if you can’t maintain a steady stream of posts. Nothing looks more unprofessional than a dead blog. I’m ashamed to say that I finally stopped posting on The Freelance Designer over 12 months ago. I think I reached the point of no return, that’s why I stopped. I moved on.

OK, I’m convinced. What blogging platform should I use?

You’re spoilt for choice. Blogging platforms are everywhere, but there are a few that are solid and here to stay.

My platform of choice is WordPress. It’s easy to setup, simple to use and can be customised to suit your every need.

Here are some other options:

(My advice is to keep your blog attached to your portfolio, the traffic will help no end.)

Email signatures

An area that is so easily overlooked. It’s simple and effective. More and more, we’re on the move. We tend to answer emails via our smart phones and the standard “sent from my iphone” signature could be a lot better.

Make sure your email signature is on every device. Keep it simple, but professional. Don’t have one hundred links; your name, web and phone number, or Skype ID will do just fine.

Get involved in the community

Getting involved in the design community is great for keeping your sanity, it’s also great for business! The only requirement for entering is a willingness to participate and, of course, to learn. Who better to learn from than your peers?

Being objective about your own work can be difficult and a second opinion can come in very handy. If you don’t have a design buddy to bounce ideas off, then a design community can be an extraordinary help. People like to lend a helping hand where they can, so enjoy it, but don’t forget to give back. If you’re really lucky you might even find yourself acting as a mentor!

Mentors

We all appreciate a few wise words from someone who’s a little further down the road than us. If you work from home, then chances are you won’t have a colleague you can tap on the shoulder and ask for help. Building an online relationship with a mentor can be a rewarding experience. Bare in mind though, most mentors don’t make a living from helping others out (unless they do), so don’t bombard him or her with constant requests and emails. Most times people will tell you if they are too busy to help. The key is not to take it personally and to be patient.

If you need help immediately you can try Clarity It’s a service that is gaining a lot of momentum. Essentially, you can talk to any number of experts on any issue you might have related to the world online. There are experts from all sectors. Some charge for their time while others are free.

One of the great things about an online community is the perspective it can give. People come from all walks of life and from countries that perhaps you’ve never even heard of.

If you’re having a hard time, or you feel like you’re being dumped on by a client , the taxman, or even yourself, you can guarantee that another designer out there is feeling the same. Maybe they can even help you with your problem. There’s strength in numbers and knowing that someone has your back, even if only virtually, can be a big motivator in moments of uncertainty.

CSS Galleries

CSS galleries are a great way to get an initial lift after launching your portfolio.

You’ll probably get quite a spike in traffic and while this is guaranteed to lift your spirits, remember that 99% of the people hitting your site will be other designers, so don’t get discouraged about the lack of leads coming in. The gallery traffic will help a little with Google but I think at this point Google are pretty well aware that visits generated from these kinds of sites are usually passing traffic.

There are a lot of CSS galleries out there. I recommend that it you don’t want to spend a few hours copying and pasting text that you spend $25 and get these guys to do the posting for you:

http://thecssgallerylist.com/

They’ll make sure that your portfolio is uploaded to over 100 galleries. No I don’t work on commission :)

Dedicate a set amount of time

Marketing is hard, trust me. We’re designers and we design. You might even design in the advertising sector but marketing yourself is another kettle of fish.

Set aside a set number of hours a week that are sacred. The amount of time you put in will vary, it depends on whether you have any clients or not: if you don’t have any yet then I suggest you spend all day, every day until you do… But, seriously, the trick is to set aside a set number of hours every week and not stray. Even if you’re working, stop what you’re doing for an hour or two and send your emails, research your warm leads and keep freelancing disaster from the door.

Otherwise

Further down the road, when you’re least expecting it, you’ll be hit, “Bam!”

The feast or famine cycle is worthy of a post in itself, but for sake of brevity we can sum it up like this… You have work and then you don’t, which is a bitter pill to swallow.

The problem is this: when you have lots of work, you’re so busy actually working that you stop marketing yourself altogether. Eventually when your current workload dries up, or when all your leads have died down to nothing, you’re left with exactly that – nothing. What you have to do is restart the marketing process and wait for it to take effect before you can start feeding again (and sleeping at night). That’s a poor way of working, so don’t stop marketing. Ever!

Freebies and Design platforms

Giving away design resources is turning into big business. There are several websites out there that have dedicated themselves to supplying free (and paid) design resources. They have a solid following of designers who visit regularly and who download and use these resources.

Giving away free design elements is a good way to get exposure. It’s a good way but not a great way. If you drop in on dribbble and search for freebies you’ll find pages and pages of top class work just waiting to be downloaded.
If you do go down this road you may get a few likes and, if you’re very lucky, they might even say thanks. Chances are, though, that no one will remember who made what or where they found it. Sure, you can include your name and URL on all the files you give away, but unless you get to the level where all of the resources on a particular site are yours then I wouldn’t get too excited. Some designers have used it to their advantage and done a great job. But as a career move, don’t count on it.

Now if you’re talking about design leftovers, from a personal or client project, or you have a lot of time on your hands, then go for it! It will get you exposure… some. But not as much you think.

Social schmocial

I couldn’t write a blog post about promotional techniques without mentioning social platforms. Love them or hate them, they’re here to stay.

Can they be used to promote our freelance careers? To a certain degree yes they can. It’s a rare designer who doesn’t hang out on Twitter from time to time. It’s a great way to keep up with what other folks are doing and a great way to catch up on the latest cat gif, but seriously… Social media is a great way to promote yourself amongst the people who are already following you. Outside of your immediate circle of followers the effectiveness of your socialness decreases exponentially.

Blogs, freebies and industry related news stories are ideal candidates for sharing on social platforms. You can get a healthy number of visits to your latest blog post via Twitter alone. But as everyone knows social media can be time consuming and you must take extra care not to fall into a social media black hole. Your time is far more precious – any time lost in non-productive activities is time lost from paid project work or other income producing avenues.

As a side note, when I need to get my ‘game head’ on and avoid all contact outside of my desktop I use Self Control by Steve Lambert. It’s a Mac only app that allows you to block out certain web sites, email feeds and any other pesky interference’s that come down the internet tube.

My experience with social media is limited to catching up on industry related news and socialising with like-minded folk, so I won’t go on at length.

To summarise: use it sparingly, have a get out clause and don’t expect new clients to be begging to be your friend.

Meetup Groups

If you’ve never hear of Meetup.com then dive into their website right here: http://www.meetup.com/find/ It’s a fantastic resource for like minded people who want to get together and talk shop.

In my experience the networking opportunities are second to none, be sure to have your business card at the ready. Aside from meeting people who work in the same industry it’s also a great place to meet potential clients. I’m a member of a local meetup for foreign entrepreneurs, and as an entrepreneur can include just about any profession going, I’m guaranteed to meet new people (some of them very interesting) every time.

Definitely check out a meetup near you because you never know what might come of it.

Business cards

Many digital freelance designers don’t bother with cards as apparently they don’t meet real people any more. I make it a personal goal to leave the house and least once a week and for that reason I love business cards.

It used to be that printing quality business cards was a pricey affair, but today it’s within reach of most. Moo are pretty much the standard for quick, cheap and reasonably decent cards. If you’re in a pinch they’ll do nicely.

Of course you can spend as much as you want. Letterpress is a beautiful technique and tends to have a price tag to match. Letterpress is a totally manual process that delivers stunning results, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. If you want to try a very reasonably priced specialist printer then take a look at Elegante Press.

If money is a real concern, you can always make your own cards. For the last few years I’ve worked under the moniker of Hand Made Studio, which of course lends itself very nicely to custom, hand made cards. I still love my little rubber stamp. The cards were different from the run-of-the mill glossy cards that people usually give out they always got a reaction. A reaction is good, people will remember you.

The important thing about business cards is to have one. Once you get your first batch, never leave home without them. Nothing looks quite as unprofessional as writing your email on a napkin!

Online Interviews

I know it’s early days and you’re probably thinking, “Who’s going to interview me, I’m just a pup?” But there are many, many blogs out there looking for new and interesting content. An interview with a new designer talking about his or her initial experiences as a freelancer might be of great interest to others thinking of doing the same.

Approach a few blogs with a pitch, maybe even a rough outline and see if they bite. Don’t be afraid to aim high. The worst that can happen is they’ll ignore you. That’s nothing to fear. If you’re going to go solo you’ve got to get used to rejection. It’s part and parcel of the game. Just remember it’s nothing personal.

Getting in touch with bloggers at a similar professional level to you may also be a good course of action. They will appreciate the need to cross-promote services and experiences. You could reciprocate. You never know. It could be the beginning of something beautiful. Stranger things have happened!

Facebook ads

Facebook ads are cheap (at the moment). They have a good click-through rate and are targeted at well-defined groups of users. (They don’t have all your personal information for nothing, you know). You can be very specific with the people you want to target and for the same budget you are likely to get more hits from Facebook than Google AdWords.

Referrals: the Power of People

Marketing and self-promotion represent only one method of finding new clients. When you market your freelance business, you’re not only marketing for the present; you’re marketing for an unknown future. As a result, you need to make sure you have multiple avenues for sourcing new client work.

Referrals are a designer’s best friend. They appear out of nowhere and usually just when you most need them. But you’ve got to remember: referrals don’t just happen. You need to work hard to get them. Nothing new there!

How do you get a referral?

In short you do a good job and you treat your client like gold. There are hundreds if not thousands of designers who could have taken on the project, but your client chose you. Remember that. Also, bear in mind that the relationship between the client and the freelancer is about more than the product. We’re not always hired solely for our talent. Personality and rapport also come into play. If a client likes you, feels they can trust you and knows you’ll deliver then you’re 99% on the way to getting a referral.

But…

Sometimes you just have to ask. If a job went well and you got on with the client then simply ask for a referral. Don’t feel like you’re being cheeky. For one reason or another a client might not think to pass your name on. You’ve probably done such a great job that they automatically presume you’re fully booked for the next six months. It happens!

A short email can do wonders.

Hey Dave.

I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed working with you on project X, and I’m glad that you got the results you were after. If you think I could be of help on any similar projects, for you or any of your contacts then I’d be only too happy to chat. You can be sure that I’ll treat any referrals you might make like gold dust.

All the best…
Nathan

You haven’t pushed for anything, but the message is clear.

There is one small caveat with referrals. Mess one up and you’ll find yourself minus two clients. The trick is … there isn’t a trick. Just be open and honest. It’s not begging, it’s business.

If you have any other tips or tricks on how to bring those first clients rolling in the door then I’d love to hear about them. Also if you’d just like to pick my brains about anything freelance related, don’t hesitate to get in touch. I will get back to you.

Good luck!

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19 Comments

  1. Patrick Perring

    Great post Nathan and lots of useful stuff to keep in mind!
    Just starting out doing the freelance dance and can’t wait :)

    • Nathan Powell

      Thanks Patrick, glad it was of help. If you have any questions about getting started just drop me a line, and I’ll see if I can help at all.

      Good luck.

  2. Minh Pham

    Great stuff here, incredible even! I especially love the warm email part, I have got to try that! Thanks for the awesome info here!

    • nathan

      Thanks Minh!

      I’m glad you found it useful. Let me know how the warm emailing goes for you.

      Good luck

  3. Surprisingly useful article! I usually skip over posts like this as they all tell me the same (and mostly obvious) things. But this gave me a number of useful tricks I hadn’t even thought of trying!

    Especially love the Warm Emails part :)

    Thanks Nathan!

    • Nathan Powell

      Hey Laura.

      I can understand your reticence, but I’m glad you learned a few new tricks. Let me know how they work out for you :)

  4. Thanks for the thorough post and interesting, unique, and practical tips. It can be difficult to find relevant freelance advice with actionable information.

    • Nathan Powell

      Thanks Lindsay. I’m glad you’ve been able to take some actionable info from it!

      • Gemini Du Plessis

        Hi Nathan.

        Firstly, fantastic article!
        ive been browsing and browsing our dear oracle ‘google’ and found this article and it answered so many questions of mine.
        Ive got a few more questions about the freelance design world and stuff id like to know about actually being a freelance designer.
        (i wont be bugging you to teach me how to use wordpress or creative suite haha)

        could you email me in your time please.

        Gem.duplessis@gmail.com

        • Nathan Powell

          Thank, glad you enjoyed the post. It’s an oldie! Feel free to drop me a line. I’m sure you can find my email on the site :)

  5. Have just stumbled onto this post and just wanted to say this is great! Has given me some many great tips! As a freelance designer who has just gone out on my own, some of this information is invaluable! Cheers!

  6. Robert Crave

    Thanks for Sharing Your Information,this is very useful information.,

    Freelance Web Designing in Hyderabad

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