How to Succeed as a Freelance Graphic Designer

Say no to the status quo! Here’s how to push your creative boundaries, cut through the noise, and succeed as a freelance designer.

How to Succeed as a Freelance Designer
Portrait for Kelsie RimmerBy Kelsie Rimmer  |  Updated July 19, 2021

If there’s one thing that every designer knows, it’s how hard it is to stand out. 

As a field filled to the brim with creators and innovators, the design industry can be an incredibly difficult place to make a name for yourself. In fact, if you’re new to the design grind, the task of breaking in can feel like it’s going to swallow you whole.

While everyone has their own style, brand, and way of doing things, when making a career for yourself as a designer, you have a choice to follow one of two paths – to either follow the rules, or break them. The truth is, that if you want to stand out as a designer, you have to do things differently.

For the rule breakers, trendsetters and go-getters, here’s five ways to break convention and truly stand out as a freelance graphic designer. Ready to push those creative boundaries? Let’s get started!

1. Create a killer digital portfolio

Graphic Design Portfolio

Creating a killer portfolio isn’t easy. You have to curate it, plan it, design it, personalise it, not to mention regularly update it as you create new work. But as a designer, your portfolio is essentially the first (and often, only) impression you get to make on prospective clients, to acquire jobs or opportunities – so you gotta make it count! 

While it’s tempting to just opt for the easiest, quickest or most comfortable way of presenting your work, adding a little bit of sparkle to your portfolio will increase its chances of catching a client’s eye. After all – it’s outside your comfort zone where the magic happens.

The tried-and-tested portfolio styles and layouts are popular for a reason – they work! But, if you want yours to stand out from the crowd, you have to push your portfolio beyond its limits. How can you present it differently? How can you make the experience more engaging? How can you challenge yourself? 

“Try to think of ways to make your portfolio more dynamic, for example with movement or interactivity,” says Envato Designer, Camilla Anderson. “You could add some subtle animation to elements on your website or within the mockups themselves, or include a playful interaction to make your folio more memorable. You could also create a demo reel for your design work to include on the homepage of your website, or to email out to prospective companies and clients.”

Whether it’s integrating motion, breaking the desktop grid, or even going off-screen and creating a physical look book to complement your digital portfolio, challenge yourself to create something that cuts through the noise.

2. Get Experimental

Experimental Graphic Design

Every idea, trend or creative convention has to start somewhere and with someone – so why can’t it be you? If you’ve created something that challenges the status quo, breaks creative convention, or pushes those design boundaries – own it. 

When it comes to your work, don’t be afraid to bring out your creative chameleon and show your versatility every now and again. Demonstrate your skill set and project versatility. Play. Test. Experiment with different forms, mediums, concepts. Spark your own curiosity and build a collection of work that shows this off.

“I find it so much more creatively compelling to carve out my own style and way of doing things rather than just watching some YouTube tutorial,” says artist and designer Jenna Hutchison. “I think for me, being an artist is about using the products how they’re not meant to be used.”

Curiosity will naturally attract clients, and show them that you think outside the box and solve problems differently. Having a more profound relationship with your style and being comfortable with experimentation is HUGELY favourable in the design industry, and will make you sparkle in a sea of talented designers.

3. Connect With Your Clients

Unique Instagram Template

While building a killer portfolio is one thing, building a loyal, nurtured client base is perhaps even more important. And if you want to connect with your clients, you’ve got to get personal!

With so many talented freelancers trying to rise to the top, consistent word-of-mouth marketing is the key to building a successful, sustainable career in the creative industries.

Being a talented designer is a great start, but forming a lasting impression and great connection with your clients is what’s going to take your design career to the next level. Personalize your portfolio, create multiple online touch points to increase your credibility, send out thank you cards, make your clients feel heard, understood and nurtured – going the extra mile can make all the difference. 

Also, don’t underestimate the power of social media – particularly Instagram – for attracting clients and communicating your brand and style. Create a killer first impression by turning your Instagram into a one-stop shop for your brand – feature your portfolio, online store, inspo or even a glimpse into who you are behind the screen.

4. Be Consistent + Persistent

Branding Mockup

Every designer knows that consistency is a vital ingredient of strong branding. If you want to build a visual brand that people can recognise, you need to be consistent and persistent across every platform where your work is visible. Demonstrating your digital capabilities cross-platform is absolutely crucial in this day and age – both for you and your clients.

People are drawn to brands they can recognise and identify with, so make sure all of your messaging aligns – on your Instagram, your portfolio, your newsletter, your blog, and your website. You can never affirm your brand too many times!

Whether you’re operating under a business name or just your own, it’s easy for your branding to fall to the side while you focus on building strong identities for your paying clients. Investing in your own branding demonstrates that you practice what you preach, and serves as your first and lasting impression.

Continually exposing your audience to a consistent visual style and messaging means that they’ll become increasingly more familiar with you, your work, and your brand.

Clients need to be able to know your brand anywhere they see it, so don’t be scared to paint the town ‘Pantone Warm Red C’ across every channel. Promote yourself consistently, persistently and relentlessly, until people can’t help but notice you!

5. Never Stop Evolving

Creative Photoshop Action

Change is key to growth, and growth is key to success. Always look for new ways to expand and evolve, to iterate and innovate. And most importantly, never stop learning!

Design trends will come and go, so don’t feel like you have to change your colors every season, but don’t be scared to experiment with new ways of doing things either.

Design is an incredibly innovative, trend-heavy and tech-savvy field, so staying ahead of that curve will ensure that your work will be a breath of fresh air in an overcrowded space. Be a thought leader. Read. Write. Even if you’re writing to one person on your blog, establishing and sharing your expertise demonstrates your broader understanding of how things work.

“Staying the same is boring. People often want creatives to have ONE style, and I have to continuously push against that,” says Illustrator and Designer Frances Cannon. ” Forcing yourself to stick to a specific style stifles your creativity. I want to do everything and I won’t limit my creativity to fit into one style.”

If you find yourself stuck in a creative rut, do something new. Jumping off the tools and immersing yourself in an unfamiliar environment can work wonders for sparking new possibilities and ideas. Innovate your process by trying out new tools, apps and programs. Try out Photoshop Actions, brushes, or start with a template until you find your rhythm.

Test your boundaries, constantly question the status quo, ask for feedback, iterate and reiterate. Keep. Moving. Forward!

For more inspiration on how to stand out, check out the work of some of the incredible designers over on Envato Elements, or keep up with all the latest tips, tricks, and trends from the creative industry here on the Elements Blog.

Love the artwork in this article? So do we! Feature image created using items from stokkete and Youandigraphics on Envato Elements.

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