What it takes to be successful as a freelancer

Designers' tips on the necessary skills for freelancers, communicating with clients, and pricing your work.

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Being a freelancer is a dream for some and a nightmare for others. The former associate it with freedom, while the latter view it as uncertainty about the future and a lack of social guarantees. We spoke with several designers who are veterans in freelance work to discover what’s necessary in today’s world to maintain independence and achieve a decent financial return.

Contributors for this article include:

Anton Sten is a product designer who has been freelancing for over 15 years, working with high-profile clients like Spotify, IKEA, and Google, as well as notable agencies such as R/GA and BBDO. Currently, he's shifting from a predominantly freelance role to a full-time position 

Aysha Tengiz is an illustrator who currently works full-time as a freelancer with a client list that includes Google, Facebook, LUSH, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

Danika Baker-Sohn is a multifaceted creative professional who has been fully immersed in the freelance world since 2021, offering her expertise in art direction, content creation, brand design, and book illustration. Her diverse portfolio includes collaborations with Vayner Media London, Vice (Virtue Worldwide), Sony Music Sweden, and Readymag, among others.

Inês Nepomuceno is a graphic designer and educator who splits her time between teaching and freelancing. Her freelance work includes projects for the Luxembourg Casino Museum and collaborations with cultural institutions in Portugal.

Serafim Mendes has been a freelance graphic designer for nine years, primarily working with Apple for the past two. He also handles smaller projects on weekends, focusing on the music industry, from festival identities to band artwork. His experience spans collaborations with firms like Pentagram and &Walsh.

The difference between freelancing and working full-time for a company

Anton Sten: I don’t want it to sound like full-time employees are lazier or more comfortable, but I do think one big difference is the fact that as a freelancer, you have to bring your A-game every day. I think that recurring work from existing clients is such an important part of whether you’ll be successful or not. The other part is referrals, which also really boils down to doing your best possible work and, certainly not least, being a good collaborator. Obviously these are all traits you’ll benefit from if you’re a full-time employee too, but being a freelancer has really formed these skills in me.

Aysha Tengiz: For me, freelancing is about being in control of your time and workload. This was always something I wanted for myself, and not having to answer to higher management is always a perk! The downside is the insecurity to this style of life—there’s a lot of anxiety and pressure not knowing where or when your next paycheck will come from.

Danika Baker-Sohn: I find the freedom that comes with freelancing—having the privilege to work with so many different kinds of clients in so many different capacities—is something that keeps me constantly engaged and evolving. No year has looked the same for me so far because I’ve kept wanting to try new things, and the energy I get from actively shaping my own path forward gives me the excitement and motivation I need to keep going.

Inês Nepomuceno: Before I became an independent graphic designer and teacher, I worked for ten years in a school's design research department while also freelancing. I often wonder why I maintained these dual roles for a decade. It wasn’t just for the extra income; more importantly, it was for independence.

“Being part of an institution had its perks, like financial stability and a collaborative atmosphere, which helped projects grow through lively discussions. However, I missed being my own boss, making decisions, and steering projects in my own way.”—Inês Nepomuceno

That’s why I continued freelancing, which allowed me the freedom to say no to projects. This ability to choose, even if it felt daunting, was precious to me. In an institution, you might have more protection because you often have backup from people who might be more experienced, which can make you feel stronger. As a freelancer, meetings are sometimes more intimidating because you might be alone, facing a group. Even if they’re respectful, it’s a different dynamic, especially if you’re just starting out.

Serafim Mendes: My remote arrangement with Apple closely resembles full-time employment. The main difference, in my opinion, is the structured environment that helps projects progress smoothly and allows the pursuit of larger projects where you can depend on the expertise of multiple individuals. Freelancing, having been a predominant part of my career, forced me to acquire a broader skill set, from client acquisition to budgeting and project management.

Essential skills for a freelancer

Aysha Tengiz: A lot of the most important skills are actually quite unrelated to the creative side of the job. Admin and management are really important (boo) and I learned a lot of these skills when working in retail during the years I was building up a portfolio to work freelance. Emailing, keeping on top of work and understanding contracts are all essential skills to being able to run your own business. 

Danika Baker-Sohn: The actual technical skills you offer as a freelancer are truly only 50% of the game—the other half is comprised of time and project management, taking care of your mental and physical health so you can operate independently (sustainably), and not shying away from engaging with the very real business side of self-employment. Being agile and adaptable has been extremely important for me.

“Managing several different workflows and client relationships is an insane amount of work, and you need to be able to learn a lot really fast and create systems that work for you on the go—and change them when necessary.”—Danika Baker-Sohn

Lastly, building and maintaining a solid foundation of technical and interpersonal skills is obviously also key. I think this comes with taking genuine interest in the people and teams you’re working with, consistently learning new tools, and not always assuming you know best.

Serafim Mendes: The most essential skill in my career has been a self-taught approach. Although I hold both a BA and an MA in Graphic Design, I've largely educated myself using online resources. Staying current with new technologies and creative methods not only keeps me engaged, but also ensures that my work remains innovative and diverse.

Maintaining productivity without the employment structure

Anton Sten: On a daily basis, I list to-do’s in Things divided by each project or client. I try very hard to keep this list to no more than 3-4 items per day. Anything above that I’ll schedule for a later day. This way, the list is prioritized and reasonable.

“There’s no point in having 15 tasks in one day if I know I’ll only be able to do 3-4.”—Anton Sten

Typically, I only allow myself to push 1 task on to the next day. This way, each task also needs to be defined.

On a weekly basis, and more generally, I try to work out 3 times per week. I also have a dog that forces me to take daily walks, which is such an undervalued way of solving problems.

Aysha Tengiz: It took me a long time to get out of the habit of working 9-5, and not guilt tripping myself for having more flexible days. It’s really important to work to schedules that suit you: some people are more proactive in the morning and some at night. I spend a lot of my morning reading in bed and then going for a light run before beginning my day, rather than forcing myself straight into work from the get go. Some days you also just need a rest. If it’s just not working one day, taking time to rest and coming back fresh can be much more productive than soldiering on. 

Danika Baker-Sohn: I’m not great at making each day look the same—solid daily routines (other than a good morning routine) have never worked for me. I work pretty fluidly, always defining my big goals and “must-dos” for the week, and then breaking those tasks down into smaller steps and allocating time blocks for them on different days. But some constants like my daily walks, going outside, personal writing, meeting up with friends, and slow mornings are a must—they set my mood and energy for the entire day or restabilize me in the evening. Whenever I feel demotivated or down, it’s usually because I’ve prioritized work over these crucial bits of self-care, and need to rebalance.

Inês Nepomuceno: Since becoming a mother, I've learned to work on a really tight schedule, and this helps immensely in freelancing. I feel I organize much better than before because I only have these hours to work. I really enjoy what I'm doing, but I also need to leave early most days. Being a freelancer should allow you to take breaks, and this flexibility has a huge effect on me. Even if it’s just taking 10 minutes to enjoy some sunshine or reading a bit before starting a project, these activities refresh my mind and have a real impact on my work.

Building an online presence

Anton Sten: For the last 5 years or so, I’ve almost exclusively worked with referrals, so there’s been a filtering process already since I typically ask how the person came across my name. Besides that, I think learning what the right type of clients are for you and your business is a skill like any other that you’ll get better at the more you practice. I think it’s also worth mentioning that not every client will be The Right Client, but you’re running a business and occasionally it’ll just be work, and that’s fine too!

Aysha Tengiz: I was quite lucky in that  I was developing a portfolio and beginning my online presence during the height of Instagram. It was really easy for art directors and commissioners to find work online, and we had a free online platform that reached thousands of people. Since then it’s dropped off a lot, which can be difficult because it’s still an important way for people to find you. I’ve begun a monthly newsletter to attempt to combat this unfortunate decline of social media. 

Danika Baker-Sohn: I currently only have my website, LinkedIn, and my personal Instagram. I haven’t leveraged other online strategies yet to draw in new clients because so far I’ve been lucky enough to get work through incredible people in my network. I have a weird love for job searching—I know that’s a super unpopular opinion. I frequently check creative freelance job boards/platforms when I’m free for new work, and that’s where I’ve landed some of my favourite jobs to date.

“I know the next step, though, is to work more on a wider online presence to try and get to the next level.”—Danika Baker-Sohn

Inês Nepomuceno: On Instagram, my posts are mostly limited to showcasing current projects with brief text and no deep insights or explanations of the processes behind them. My online activities aren’t about heavy investment in communication; they're about showcasing future aspirations. I'd like to do more and improve how I manage my online presence, but balancing teaching, work, and other demands consumes all my time. 

When I update my website, which has been a work in progress for years, I ensure only the projects that truly represent my aspirations remain, removing those that didn’t turn out well. This approach does bring in projects, mainly through contacts made on Instagram, but I find that building a network both online and offline is what truly sustains my freelance work.

Serafim Mendes: Early in my career, I distinguished myself online by integrating 3D CGI with graphic design, a skill set that was uncommon among graphic designers at the time. This helped me carve out a niche early on. I focus my portfolio on the type of work I want to attract, and this helps me naturally draw the right clients or gain them through referrals.

Managing client relationships

Anton Sten: Managing relationships is easy—you just shouldn’t be an asshole. It’s really not that hard: be honest, be transparent, have a strong standpoint when needed, be flexible when needed. I think it all comes down to caring about the work and your relationship. My friend and mentor Kevin Twohy talks about ‘batteries included’, i.e., a person who doesn’t need to be told what to do. I think this is such a great way of phrasing it. You were hired to solve a problem: don’t wait for someone to tell you how to solve it.

Danika Baker-Sohn: I have this theory that when working with clients, one should be honest, but not too honest, to maintain a great working relationship. You obviously want to seem professional and like you’ve got your life together enough that your client trusts you and the process, but you’re also a human being who sometimes gets overwhelmed, needs assistance, and gets a little in over their head—but how you handle these rougher times is really important. 

More holistically, by this point I have a pretty good sense of if my vibe and a client’s vibe will work well together and if our values align, and I tend to only really pursue projects where I feel we’ll both get something out of it. This sets the scene for a respectful and energized working relationship, and often leads to long-term partnerships.

Inês Nepomuceno: I believe having an open dialogue with clients is a big part of creating a productive work environment. This way, you don’t find yourself in a position where you have to convince them, or vice versa. I try to maintain work relationships where there’s a dialogue without hierarchy.

“It’s not about just doing what the client wants, nor about them giving me complete freedom—because that can be intimidating too.”—Inês Nepomuceno

I also strive to be transparent about what I’m doing, both in terms of budget and in presenting the projects. Even if you don’t show all the sketches you made—because that can sometimes be problematic—it’s helpful to explain that you explored many possibilities.

Pricing and negotiating

Anton Sten: I’ve typically priced my services by the hour. I know this is what every expert says you shouldn’t do, and that you should do weekly retainers or fixed pricing, but hourly rates have just always worked great for me. When negotiating, be firm, but don't be stubborn. I’ve typically priced myself at $175/hr but had a client that couldn’t go higher than $165. I could have said that $175 is the price and risked losing the business. That $165 rate brought me more than $200,000 in the end. Maybe that number could have been $15,000 more, but it could also have been $200,000 less.

Aysha Tengiz: During the time I was signed with an agency, I learned a lot about charging more for my services and understanding my worth. Speaking to other creatives and knowing what they charge is helpful. Also if a client is offering a low budget, it’s okay to negotiate. A lot of artists have a big fear that if they ask for more money the client will disappear, but if they’re keen to work with you then they will normally be open to compromise. 

Danika Baker-Sohn: I have project rates, day rates, hourly rates, and itemized rates which I all calculate differently, but that make sense to me based on the type of work, client, and the value I’ll provide. For example, I price my services differently based on whether I’m working with a huge company or a small business, or if a project is a one-off or something more ongoing. There are a ton of factors to take into account, but always make sure that what you’re charging is at least enough money to be actively invested in the project at hand.

“My tip would be to approach prospective clients with the energy of you checking them out (respectfully) as much as they’re checking you out.”—Danika Baker-Sohn

It’s a two-way street, and heading into negotiations knowing your talent and worth, wherever you’re at, is huge.

Inês Nepomuceno: There's always negotiation depending on the project, and the price per hour varies according to the size of the client—we have different rates for institutions or corporations compared to independent photographers or artists. We also ask if there’s already a budget in place, and if not, we make sure to outline all the steps to keep everything as clear as possible for both us and our clients. 

My freelance rate is definitely higher than it would be for a full-time position. In Portugal, we also face significant taxes, so we have to factor in about 25% for that. Not having a fixed monthly income means we need to consider other expenses, like paying for software, computers, and other essentials ourselves. There are a lot of hidden costs.

Serafim Mendes: I base my pricing on a daily rate, which has increased as my experience has grown. I don't have specific tips other than to emphasize the importance of valuing one's work. Early on, demanding fair compensation was a challenge, but it has allowed me to filter for clients who truly value my services, leading to more meaningful and financially viable engagements.

Still unsure if freelancing is right for you? Learn how to effectively apply for full-time positions, start your own design studio, or boost any design career.