Realizing many Smashing readers probably already have a head-start into the world of professional and freelance web design, this post is meant to act as not only a step-by-step guide, but also as a checklist for those who have already started their career.
Hopefully this guide can cover all aspects of becoming a professional and freelance web designer, from business aspect and working with clients, to creating an effective portfolio and advertising one’s work.
1. Do The Necessary Research
The absolute first step into any freelancing career is to do the needed research ahead of time. Freelancing is a huge life and career change, and one needs to look into exactly how it will change life before diving in.
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RESEARCH THE COSTS
Making money on one’s own terms sounds incredibily appealing, until the realization comes that it’s a lot less money than working at a company (at first, at least). Below is just a short list of expenses to consider. Make sure they are covered when venturing into a freelancing lifestyle.
- Domain name and hosting services
- Stationery, Business Cards, and other marketing material
- Needed software
- A desk space and supplies
- Subscriptions to stock photo sites and other forms of resources
On top of that, consider basic living expenses and additional emergency or living money. At this point, a formal budget is not needed, but it’s a very smart idea to go over the basic numbers of starting a freelancing business, and maintaining it. Most of the time, designers must save up before starting a freelancing career.
TAXES & INSURANCE
While most aspiring freelancers will slowly transition into the lifestyle, opposed to quitting their day job cold turkey, it is important to look into taxing information, insurance, and other assets that will be changed with self-employment. Because local laws and personal circumstances can vary so significantly, new designers should research this area on their own.
RESEARCH THE TIME
A more specific schedule can be setup later, but it’s a good idea to look into the time requirement for work each day, per week, and even per month to handle X amount of clients. For some, the time needed to be invested in this type of career path is not currently available.
Consider current social or family happenings, career responsibilities, and for some — even school. If it is not a good time in life to change focus, it may not be a good time to start freelancing full-time. Sometimes it is appropriate to put dreams on hold. With that being said, set a realistic date to begin a true freelancing lifestyle, whether that means just easing into it now, or setting a time in the future to go full-time.
If all consideration is put into place, the idea is well researched, then it can be time to start a freelance web design career! Below are the remaining steps to take.
2. Become A Brand
There are many differences between a young freelance web designer just trying to get by, and a successful freelance web designer with their business and future in mind. One of those differences is that successful freelance designers understand, and pay close attention, to branding.
Branding a business, even if only a one person operation, can do a lot of things in terms of the business’s sucess. A good brand builds credibility, client loyalty, delivers a target message to clients and other businesses, and even aids in marketing strategy.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
The name of a freelancing business can signify a lot, and most designers just choose to use their full name as the brand name. This is fine, but another option is to use a specialized brand name. Depending on the future plans of the business, it is smart to think closer about an official name.
If one plans on turning an individual freelancing business into a firm one day, a name other than the designer’s given name may be more appropriate. Also, a specialized brand name may be more memorable than the designer’s given name, and the posibilities are then endless as far as finding an SEO friendly name, or a name that gives off a portrayal of the business it represents.
On the other end of the spectrum, it’s easy to see the benefits of using a given name as a business name. Using a designer’s given name is always original, and something uniquely personal to the designer. Really, both can be successful decisions, but it is a decision that is often times taken too lightly. The way the brand is futher marketed depends largely on this decision. Below are successful examples of both instances.
Here are four great examples of using a specialized name for the brand:
In contrast, here are four great examples of using the designer’s actual name as the brand.
All of the examples above are the portfolios of individual designers. However, one will notice that designers who chose a specialized name for their brand often call themselves a studio. This gives the impression that they are a bigger business; a more formal organization. The portfolios with given names, though, provide a more personal appeal — something many clients look for. This often gives them more of the true freelancer feel.
Depending on how a designer wants to operate their business, the clients they want to attract, and based on the future goals of the business, the final decision of the freelancing business name can have many possibilities.
After the official brand name is decided, it’s time to start creating a logo around it. Many beginner designers don’t understand the importance a logo has in a brand, or even how important a brand is in itself. Opposed to creating a quick logo in the process of designing a portfolio template, a logo should be made separately and with the utmost consideration.
Below is a small showcase of excellent logo design in a few web design portfolios.
Because these designers, and so many more, took the extra time to create a well-branded and effective logo, they have the opportunity to expand the logo design to stationery, business cards, advertisements, and more. Not to mention, these logos serve the origial purpose of logo design — to create a brand, build business loyalty, and create an image that aids in recognition.
A designer will want to create a logo that represents their design style, and that will attract a client that is looking for that type of web design. To create a great logo, read up on logo design principles, tutorials, and logo design processes.
Below are just a few of these tutorials and walkthroughs.
AN ELEVATOR PITCH
There is a lot more to being a successful freelance web designer than just being good at web design. Any sort of freelancer has to be an entrepreneur as well. Rule #1 for entrepreneurship: create an elevator pitch.
For those that don’t know what an elevator pitch it, it is a premeditated, well thought-out introduction to one’s services or a person’s business as a whole. Let’s take a look at a better definition. Excuse the use of Wikipedia for a professional reference, but Wikipedia’s definition of an elevator pitch is just about perfect for the freelance web designer:
An elevator pitch (or elevator speech) is an overview of an idea for a product, service, or project. The name reflects the fact that an elevator pitch can be delivered in the time span of an elevator ride (for example, thirty seconds and 100-150 words).
… A variety of other people, including entrepreneurs, project managers, salespeople, evangelists, policy-makers, job seekers (web designers and freelancers), and speed daters commonly use elevator pitches to get their point across quickly. — Elevator pitch, Wikipedia
Take the time to create an elevator pitch for a freelancing business. For a freelance web designer, it can venture beyond the traditional use of a speech in an elevator, to the introduction to a portfolio, the about page, or as an introduction to an application for a freelancing position.
Many marketing gurus leave the assumption that the creation of an elevator speech for a business will increase the client list dramatically. Usually, this isn’t the case — at least not directly. What it will do though is still quite useful:
- Save the designer countless hours in coming up with a smart introduction over and over again.
- Create a professional atmosphere for a portfolio, or whereever it is used.
- An elevator speech will make sure that any new introductions don’t leave out vital information about the services or freelancing business.
The following is an example of an excellent elevator pitch for a 45royale web design studio.
45royale is an enthusiastic web design studio located in the bustling metropolis of Canton, Georgia. We promote web standards and bring energy and commitment to our work every single day. — 45royale Inc.
The above is a strong example for a small, yet established business. Freelancing can use the same principle, but with a more personal approach:
Hi there, my name’s Brian Wilkins and I am a web designer/front-end developer living outside Boston, Massachusetts. I currently work at Reelpoint, an online design and marketing firm. I build clean and functional interfaces. With a hunger to constantly grow and evolve as a designer, I have a genuine passion for art, typography, design, technology and creative thinking. — BrianWilkins.net
That detailed elevator pitch can be seen on his about page, telling potential clients exactly what he does. On the front page, as part of his portfolio design, he includes a much shorter, but equally effective pitch:
I’m a web designer that creates clean and modern content for the world wide web.
Taking the time to create an elevator pitch can help launch a freelance career through the use of business tactics. Below are some further resources for creating a great elevator pitch.
AN OVERALL STYLE
The last thing to do is create an overall style for the freelancing business. Fortunately, most of this is accomplished by the above several factors. The overall style, colors, textures, and even how a designer presents one’s self should reflect the style of work a designer completes.
To promote consistency throughout the life of the freelancing business, though, designers need to look at branding in a more broad sense when first starting out. Creating a color scheme, design style, and other overall design guidelines based off of the logo design, and information presented in the elevator pitch. Then, stick to the brand as the freelancing business progresses.
3. Create A Portfolio Website
Step number three is an obvious one — create a portfolio website. However, it deserves a decent overview and closer look because we as designers are our own worst clients. Many new freelancers, or anyone just entering the web design world of business, will open Photoshop and start grinding away. Instead, think about what a portfolio can actually do.
A mediocre portfolio will have a great design, and show off a designer’s past works. However, an excellent portfolio will do the following things:
- Reflect and grow a designer’s brand.
- Show a client not only what a designer can do, but what the designer can do for them.
- Show great talent, but also business savvy and professionalism.
- Intrigue potential clients strongly enough so that they stay on the website long enough to make contact with the designer.
- Provide a user-friendly interface for the client (who very well may not be so Internet or design savvy).
Keep all of this in mind during the design process of a web design portfolio. Make note that a designer’s portfolio has to be their best work. Furthermore, consider the following items when creating, or even modifying a design portfolio.
CONSIDER A 1-PAGE PORTFOLIO
It’s called direct response marketing, and it’s proven to be one of the most effective forms of marketing to get the most sales. It’s bascially a method that involves making a huge impact in the most direct way possible. In the world of web design, this means an incredibily effective and amazing portfolio — but in only one page.
Of course, this isn’t a great method for everyone, especially those who offer more than just basic web design services. However, without a one-page design, a designer can still take use of this knowledge by applying more direct-response marketing to their portfolio. This may mean simplifying it, puting the contact form on the front page, and merging similar pages together.
USE A CONTACT FORM
Provide a traditional email address and other information, but most importantly, include an email form. It makes things easier for the potential client to get ahold of the designer, even if only to ask for more information. This then provides further opportunity for the designer to sell their work.
The form above (Komodomedia) is a perfect example because it gives the visitor various options for the form, rather than just requesting a quote. This designer has made themselves approachable, which is an excellent way to gain more clients. Also, above the form, there are other ways to contact the designer, which may be suitable for different visitors.
MAKE THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS NOTICEABLE
Make sure the most important components of a portfolio design are out in the open and easy to use and find. For most, this means the contact form and information, the portfolio pieces, and the logo.
A perfect example is Alexandru Cohaniuc’s portfolio. The biggest text on the page is “Portfolio”, “Hi, I’m Alex”, and “Contact.” Right above the word “Portfolio” is the logo, strategically placed in the top left.
4. Build Legal Documents
To make things really official, a designer has to create some legal documents. These can be reused for each client, but must be made initially to deal with potential problems later.