Rookie Mistakes I Made as a Freelance Designer, and How to Avoid Them

I wanted to start this blog out by talking about some of the mistakes I made during my first couple years of doing freelance graphic design and web design work.  Don’t get me wrong – I am sure that several years from now I will have even more to write on, but for the time being here are some of the things I have learned by trial.

Appropriately prepare your documents in InDesign

If you do work like I do – a lot of layout heavy projects such as booklets and brochures – you should be developing a pretty close relationship with InDesign.   I was lucky enough to have professors in college that taught us about layers, master pages, styles, text variables, bleed, and sections; not using those would certainly hinder any large document.  If you aren’t well versed in these tools, I would highly recommend playing around with them or checking out some online tutorials.  In addition to helping maintain structure, they also enable you to easily make changes as a project evolves – something critical when working with clients.  If there is anything I have learned over the last few years, it’s that rarely will you start a project for a client where everything is set in stone from the get-go.  Unfortunately, even though I did start off knowing a lot about document setup, there were still a couple of time-costly mistakes that I made.

Page 1 starts on the right side

And by “right”, I mean not the left side.  This mistake was by far the simplest thing that I had to learn the hard way; it’s one of those things you just don’t think about until you’ve done it wrong.  Unfortunately for me, I did not realize I was doing this until after completing a near 100-page document… in which shifting the page numbers would require me to manually fix hidden layers on just about every page (Ouch!).  After that experience, it’s always one of the first things I make sure is set up correctly in a document. 

Margin/Bleed

What is this, amateur hour?  You may think so with a section head of “margins/bleed.”  As it turns out, there’s more to this than just setting them up, though there have been times where I forgot to set up a bleed.  Thankfully there is a default margin set in InDesign, but something that you may not be thinking about is how the reader will be holding the document and the impact this should have on your margin sizing.  This is something I learned from the Creative Director at my last job when I questioned why the top and bottom margins weren’t equal. 

As it turns out, you want to have more margin where a viewer’s hands will go, if you can afford it. This would typically be the outer sides and bottom of a document; you can see this quite easily in most books.  If the piece you are working on just doesn’t look right with differently sized margins, you can make them the same.  It’s not bad or wrong to make the margins all equal in size, however, if you do this still keep in mind the space that is needed for someone to hold the document without their hands getting in the way of the content.

Don't under-price your services

From what I hear – this one is pretty common; I certainly did it.  You’re new to freelancing, you don’t have much of a reputation, and you don’t want to risk scaring away potential clients by presenting them with a high rate, even if you know you deserve it based on the quality of your work. 

My first offer for work in college I actually ended up turning down.  My professor’s husband needed a logo design for a sports academy he was starting; I quoted him at $20/hr, and he agreed.  Looking back,  this was a low rate compared to the industry. The job included several different logo designs to choose from, simple brand guidelines to accommodate, and additional time built in for revisions. The timeline I gave him was 2-3 weeks, priced at $380 give or take a few hours depending on revisions needed.  

After agreeing however, he came back and said he needed it sooner, in a week or less.  I was willing to do this, but because of my schedule that week it would have required me to work odd hours, so I equated it to overtime.  I sent him an updated quote, rated at $30/hr for the rush.  Unfortunately, he rejected the offer, stating that it was too high for him.   I thanked him for his time and moved on.  My only qualm and something that sticks with me today is that he made a point to me that even the first quote of $380 I gave him was higher than all of the other student offers, but he initially wanted to go with me because my professor spoke highly of my work.

Some people are simply looking for cheap work.  At the time, I probably could have accepted working at the lower rate and provided him with a lower quality logo – though it wouldn’t really have benefitted me in the long run and I didn’t need the quick cash.

When I first started actually supplementing my income with design work, I did make the mistake of accepting a job at too low of a rate.  One of the first major jobs I did was rated at a meager $15/hour.  It was for about 75 hours of work, and I feared asking for a higher rate would have lost me the business at a time when I needed the additional income.  What it actually did was lock me into a rate with this project that ended up stretching out for about 4-5 months, and had an extra 32 hours at this rate tacked on for edits.  It also made it difficult for me to raise my rate on future projects with this client.   

It can be tempting to underrate your services for the immediate reward of work and the fear of missing out on work, though, in the long run doing this can actually make your job more difficult.  You may get stuck with that rate for a long time depending on how long the project takes, and find it difficult to increase to the rate you deserve on future projects. While this may be okay if your freelance work is just a side hobby that doesn’t impact your livelihood, if you are dependent on this income, don’t sell yourself short.  If a client wants quality work they most often will be willing to pay for it.  You can certainly increase your rate over time if you believe your quality of work is increasing, but your starting rate should be based on the market you are in and the quality of your work.  In some areas, this may be as high as $40-60/hour to start.  

Do some research on the services you offer and the region you are in to decide what you should be charging, and don’t be afraid to negotiate with potential clients.  It may even be helpful to do some research on what local agencies are charging so you can show potential clients that your individual rate, while it may sound high if they have not worked with an independent contractor previously, is actually reasonable.

Start your portfolio ASAP

One of the hardest things for me while transitioning to a full-time gig has been building a portfolio from my part time freelance work and my pieces from college.

As a student, it can be easy to overlook the importance of putting more effort than you need into any assignment. You may be swamped with other projects to work on and tests to study for, so you whip something together for design class that while not your best work, will get you a good mark.   This is something I did often, but looking back was short sighted.  When I started doing freelance work to supplement my income, these pieces from college were all I really had to show for, and many of them I didn’t feel comfortable enough with to use on my portfolio.  I even went back and spent hours updating old projects so they would be at a level I considered acceptable to advertise my services with. 

It's possible you aren’t in college but you’ve started tinkering with Photoshop, building websites as a hobby, or something along these lines.   Use these opportunities to make great pieces if you think you may ever want to get into the industry full time. 

Here are a couple of things I would recommend for building a great portfolio:

  • Do your best work every time
    Whether a college project or one of your first freelance gigs, do your best work; approach every piece as though you will be putting it in your portfolio. It can be easy to take these projects for granted, but in the future, you may find it difficult to make up your own projects from scratch to fill the holes in your portfolio. 
  • Go back to old projects and improve them
    It’s very possible and likely that your skills have improved over time. If there is an old school project you did that wasn’t so great, take some time to go back and make it better.  
  • Sign up for online communities and challenges
    Another way to find inspiration for work to show on your portfolio may be through facebook groups or other online communities that give daily prompts or challenges. One I signed up for recently is the Thirty Logos Challenge, a website that will send you a realistic logo prompt every day for thirty days that you can then share on social media.  Things like this are a great way to hone your skills and build your portfolio.  

Don't treat your friends and family like friends and family

When you are first starting out, a lot of your networking is going to be done through your friends and family; chances are you will end up with a client or two that fits this bill.  Due to the connection you have – whether it’s your mom’s coworker or your best friend’s cousin – you may feel comfortable toning down the business side of your new relationship.  I’m here to tell you flat out: don’t.

I’m not saying you should be cold and unfriendly; you should be just as warm and welcoming as you would be to a client who you have no relation to.  What you do need to avoid is letting down your professional wall, which can help you hold clients to certain standards.   

One mistake I made early on doing websites for family friends was linking my own credit card information to the hosting platforms, and asking the client to update it once the project was completed.  I trusted that they would, but in two cases I ended up getting a surprise bill when the domain and hosting renewal came around; neither had ever changed the billing info like they had promised. In one case this was an easy fix and we got the proper billing information put in place. In the other case, the person I had worked with had cut ties with the organization, and it became quite a hassle trying to get reimbursed.  This was a headache I easily could have avoided if I had kept up my “professional wall” from the beginning. 

 

These were just a few of the mistakes I made when first starting out in the freelancing arena; I could have saved some serious time and money if I had known any better at the time.  Be sure to keep these in mind if you plan on starting your own freelance design gig.