How to Grow Your Freelance Design Career to the Next Level

Vicky Shoub
December 13, 2018
10 minute read

You’ve finally found your footing as a freelance designer. You have a healthy client list, a growing set of skills, and a proven process for landing new leads.

All in all, things are good. Or at least good enough.

But what if you wanted to take things up a notch? What if “good enough” wasn’t enough?

This article is all about taking your freelance design career to the next level. You’ll learn the business, design, and marketing skills you need to set your career on hyper-growth. You’ll also learn the approach you should adopt to go from “getting by” to making six figures and more as a designer.

Part I: Strategy

Taking your freelance career to the next level is less about specific skills. Rather, it’s about how you approach your business. As you’ll see below, a strong brand and strategic positioning will have a far bigger impact on your career than picking up new design skills.

Understand Your Clients

Why do businesses hire freelance designers?

If you said “design skills”, you’d be wrong.

One of the biggest reasons why freelance design careers fail to take off is that designers don’t understand business fundamentals. Too often, they approach freelancing with the same perspective as a regular job.

In regular jobs, skills are paramount. For a hiring manager, knowing that you can work your way around Sketch and UI/UX issues is important.

A typical designer job description. Note how it focuses on skills, not end results.

But businesses hire freelance designers for entirely different reasons. They don’t care if you understand Sketch or Photoshop. Many times, they won’t even know what these tools are.

Instead, they hire freelancers because they have a pressing business problem.

A startup might hire a UI/UX designer because it can’t get visitors to convert. A salon might hire a graphics designer because it wants to upgrade its brand. A local charity might hire a web designer because it wants to accept donations online.

In all these cases, your design skills are the conduit to a solution, not the solution itself.

Think of the time you hired a plumber to fix a leaky faucet. You didn’t care if the plumber was skilled with a spanner; all you cared about was whether he could fix the leak.

A design career works the same way. Your ability to fix problems is more important than your skills with a tool.

The sooner you understand this, the better you’ll be able to serve clients, and the faster your career will take off.

Develop Niche Expertise

When you’re starting your design career, it’s tempting to take on every project, regardless of its size or industry.

This can be good move initially to get some experience and build up a portfolio. But continuing along the same path is a recipe for disaster.

Four reasons why:

  • A generic design service means that you don’t stand out from other designers.
  • Bigger brands want usually want designers with expertise in their niche.
  • Trying to do everything means that you never develop specific, in-demand skills.
  • By focusing on a niche, you understand it better and can create custom-made solutions for it.

Once again, think from your client’s perspective. Clients want to hire the best person for the job, not just someone who’s completed 50 projects in unrelated fields.

If you’re a B2B SaaS startup, would you rather hire Generic Designer #144 or a designer who has helped dozens of similar SaaS companies improve their conversion rates?

The latter of course.

ConversionForGood’s Shopify-focused service is a great example of niching down to own a market

There’s an added benefit to niching down – it narrows your focus. Figuring out what kind of leads to focus on in a large market can quickly get overwhelming.

But by focusing on a niche (such as “e-commerce store owners who use Shopify”), you force yourself to narrow your search.

This not only helps you while searching for clients, but it also helps you develop niche-focused solutions.

Focus on Positioning

Positioning, in marketing speak, is how you place your product or service in relation to others in the market.

Think of the difference between a Lexus and a Toyota. Even though both brands belong to the same parent company, Lexus is perceived as a luxury offering because of its positioning.

As a designer, your positioning is made up of five things:

  • Your pricing
  • Your niche focus
  • Your design approach
  • Your brand
  • Your clients

Positioning is essentially the process of defining who you are. This is a subtractive process. Who you are depends more on what you don’t do than on what you do.

Lexus, for instance, is a luxury brand because it doesn’t sell cost-effective cars. WalMart is an affordable brand because it doesn’t have glossy interiors and high prices.

A well-defined market position makes it easy to narrow down your marketing focus. If you’ve positioned yourself as a “high-end” designer, you won’t waste time chasing cheap clients.

At the same time, clear positioning helps clients figure out whether you’re the right fit for them. A client looking for affordable solutions won’t knock on the doors of a designer who works exclusively with luxury brands.

Try to define your positioning early in your freelance career. Identify the clients you want to work with and the kind of work you want to do for them. The clearer you are about what you are (and are not), the easier it will be to win over your target clients.

Don’t Forget Your Brand

Designers are frequently guilty of ignoring their personal brands. It’s easy to see why – with websites like Behance and freelance platforms, you don’t necessarily need to maintain a visible brand to get clients.

But if you want to really take things to the next level, having a sharp, well-defined brand will go a long way.

A brand is essentially an exercise in communication. It tells clients who you are, what you can do for them, and how much you’ll charge for the service. Think of it as an outward manifestation of your market positioning and niche expertise.

A strong brand not only makes you more memorable, but it also acts as a justification for your prices. Shepard Fairey can charge six figures for a sketch not because of his skills, but because of his brand.

While your brand has a lot of moving parts, it essentially boils down to two things:

  • How you present yourself (i.e. the visual aspects of your identity)
  • What you have to say (i.e. your content)

There should be a clear alignment between the two. If you’re selling yourself as a premium modern designer, don’t make your website look like a page from circa 1998 Geocities.

Your brand should match your aspirations. If you’re charging premium rates, make sure that your brand has a premium vibe to it as well (Image credit: TheHistoryOfTheWeb).

We’ll cover more about branding and positioning in the next section.

Part II: Actionable Tactics

Strategy is futile if it isn’t executed properly. Once you’ve had time to think about your freelance career, it’s time to take concrete steps to turn your ideas into actionable results.

We’ll share a detailed process to do so below.

1. Zero Down on Your Target Niche

As you learned above, focusing on a niche helps you stand out and create more market-focused solutions.

But how do you decide which niche to pursue?

The answer to this question can be tricky. You want to pick a niche that offers a balance of low competition and substantial opportunities.

The ideal niche is:

  • Large enough to sustain a growing freelance practice
  • Narrow enough for specialized solutions
  • Lucrative enough to support your prices

Of course, you also want to pick niches you’ve worked with in the past. Clients are much more likely to hear you out if you can show them results for similar businesses.

Take stock of your prior work experience. Make a list of every client you’ve worked with before. What industries did they belong to? Was there an industry or client you particularly enjoyed working in? Is this industry large and lucrative enough to support your practice?

The answer to these questions will help you zero down on your target niche.

2. Draft a Brand Statement

A brand statement is a short sentence that encapsulates your target niche, offered solutions, and market positioning.

In other words, it defines who you are, what you do, and how you do it.

Consider this brand statement from creative agency Mighty as an example:

This statement identifies the who (“nimble digital agency”), the what (“help growth-focused brands”), and the how (“utilize agile methodologies”).

Here’s a good template to follow for creating your brand statement:

[Brand] helps [Target clients] achieve [Target result] through [Your approach]

As a freelancer, the key to a strong brand statement is to be highly specific. Identify the exact industry you’ll target as well as the exact solution you’ll offer.

Thus, you might have something like this:

Acme Inc. helps small e-commerce startups achieve higher conversions through conversion-focused UI/UX design.

Give enough attention to this statement; it will define every aspect of your marketing approach.

3. Develop Client Personas

A client or buyer persona is a sketch of your ideal client, i.e. the kind of clients you’d want to work with.

A well-crafted client persona makes it much easier to create targeted marketing campaigns. The persona will tell you where your ideal clients hang out, what are their problems, and how you can help them.

A rough client persona looks something like this:

(Image source)

To create a buyer persona, identify the “four W’s” of your ideal client:

  • Who they are, i.e. their age, occupation, and other demographic data.
  • What they want (such as “higher conversions” or “stronger brand”)
  • Where they are found online (LinkedIn, industry forums, Facebook groups, etc.)
  • Why they would be interested in your service (“have worked with similar brands in the past”)

This requires substantial market research, but if you’ve done your homework with niche selection and market positioning, you should already have a strong handle on things.

Try to hang out at forums, blogs, and websites that target your industry. Are there any issues that regularly crop up? Is there some demographic consistency across the audience?

Find the answers to these questions and you’ll find your client persona.

4. Create Your Marketing Collateral

In business speak, “marketing collateral” is all the content you can use to support a marketing or sales operation.

A whitepaper, an eBook, a video, and even a blog post are examples of marketing collateral.

Marketing collateral essentially answers the question – “why should I hire you?”. If you have a lot of case studies, for instance, you can share them with clients to convince them to close the deal.

As a designer, your collateral creation priorities should be as follows:

  • Your portfolio
  • Case studies and results
  • Testimonials and recommendations from past clients

If you’re familiar with the buyer’s journey model, you would recognize all this as “Decision stage” content.

You can create other content types – blog post, eBooks, videos, etc. – but they won’t have as much of an impact on getting you customers. Focus on them only when you have a substantial body of Decision-stage marketing collateral.

5. Chart Your Sales Funnel

A sales funnel essentials defines a path clients take to go from “lead” to “paying client”. It charts every stage of the sales process, right from the time you first make contact with a lead to the point where you sign the final contract.

Freelance designer sales funnels aren’t terribly complicated. For one, your deal sizes are smaller. And two, since you’re acting as an individual (and not a company), you encounter less resistance from potential clients.

A traditional sales funnel has the following four stages:

For freelancers, the most important stage is the first one – lead generation. This is the stage where you capture leads and bring them into the pipeline.

How you go about capturing leads will depend on your experience, expertise, and target niche. Some of the most popular lead capturing tactics for freelance designers include:

  • Establishing a presence on niche-focused Facebook groups and forums.
  • Guest blogging, podcast appearances, and interviews on niche-focused blogs.
  • Establishing a strong presence on portfolio sites like Behance and Drribble.
  • Responding to job ads on platforms like Workamajobs, UpWork, etc.
  • Sharing your content on social media platforms

In all these cases, any content you create should lead back to a lead collection form. Give away something valuable in exchange for an email.

Once you’ve captured an email, you essentially have a lead in your sales funnel.

The next step after lead generation is to see whether the lead is qualified or not. There are automated tools to do this. However, since you’re likely dealing with a small volume of leads, you can do much of this manually.

Research your leads’ websites, study their deficiencies, and see if there are any ways you can help them grow. Then email them with your suggestions to kickstart the conversation.

Building a sales funnel is one of the best things you can do for your freelance career. It will free you from the dreaded feast-or-famine cycle. Instead, you’ll have a full pipeline of people who want to work with you.

Refer to this article to learn more about building a lead generation system.

6. Build a Brand

The design field is filled with freelancers and agencies offering similar services at similar price points.

How do you stand out and get higher rates in this undifferentiated market?

Easy: with a strong brand.

While your work is certainly important, your brand is what helps you establish an identity. Once people know you as “X”, you’ll have a much easier time convincing people to give you their money.

(Here, “X” can be anything – “e-commerce conversion rate expert”, “small business branding expert”, “content marketing expert”, etc.)

Here are some tactics to build your brand:

  • Share your expertise through thought pieces, blog posts, how to’s etc. in your target industry
  • Appear on podcasts, interviews, and roundups – anything that helps your visibility
  • Speak at industry conferences. This can give a massive boost to your brand visibility
  • Create a custom solution designed for a specific industry or user-base

Anything that improves your visibility and establishes you as an expert is good for your brand. Think of this as a long-term process, not a quick-fire tactic.

7. Charge Higher Rates

As a freelance designer, there are only two ways to make more money:

  1. Work more hours
  2. Charge higher rates

You can’t obviously stretch the first one beyond a certain point. But you can charge clients higher rates.

The pricing strategy you adopt will depend mostly on:

  • Your brand perception
  • The value you deliver to clients
  • Your market positioning vis-a-vis other designers

Positioning yourself as a “premium” provider and improving your brand perception are sure shot ways to charge higher rates. The only problem is that both these tactics take time and require substantial experience (you can’t label yourself as “premium” if you’ve only worked with tiny mom-and-pop stores).

A much better tactic to improve your rates is to focus on your value.

With this approach, your goal should be to attach a dollar figure to your expected outcome. If you can show clients that a UI/UX campaign will bring them an additional $100k/year, you can easily charge them $10k+ for the service.

Another way to underscore value while also reducing resistance is to productize your service. With this approach, you turn your service into a commodity, highlighting the deliverables and affixing a fixed price to them.

99Designs is a great example of this. They offer customers a flat fee and a list of deliverables. The experience is the same as buying a product.

By productizing its service, 99Designs reduces resistance and offers clearer value

In this case, customers have a clear idea of the value. They know what they’re getting and how much they’re paying for it.

In the long run, focus on improving your brand perception. But for immediate results, think of value-based pricing or productizing your services.

Over to You

Taking your freelance design career to the next level is less about mastering skills and more about branding, positioning, and marketing yourself. A strong understanding of client needs, robust positioning, and a planned sales approach can go a long way in getting better clients.

Use this advice to kick your freelance career into high gear.

To find companies looking for freelancers like you, check out the available design jobs on Workamajobs.

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