20 Things I've learned in 20 years as a freelance Designer

I hadn't noticed it in the general hum and hubbub of daily life, but as of last winter, my freelance Graphic Design career has hit the two decade mark. I've seen the rise (and fall) of desktop publishing give way to the WWW and now our tiny-screened smart phones. Since countdown lists are big web traffic generators, I've succumbed to peer pressure and made my list of 20 Things I've learned in 20 Years as a freelance Designer.

  1. It's my critical and trained eye that I get paid for, not my ability to use an application.
  2. Design isn't the product, it's a service. Quality customer service and attention will far outweigh the shiny logo or missed deadline.
  3. Immerse yourself in all forms and shapes of design, not just your particular media. Inspiration often comes from outside the norm.
  4. Make your design's uniquely yours, so that you lead by example, and your work can be train-spotted by design aficionados. Bad Designers Copy. Average Designers Imitate. Great Designers Steal.
  5. Being a freelancer requires extra effort in business functions you're not comfortable with. Set up a weekly and monthly schedule to do invoicing, pay your bills, follow up with old customers, do a bit of marketing, etc. Do not miss your schedule - this is the lifeblood of your business.
  6. Immerse yourself and become an expert at one thing. I spent a few months religiously learning cascading style sheets (CSS) so that I could throw away all of the old HTML 2.0 tricks that I had learned as a novice web developer.
  7. Remove all roadblocks between you and your prospective customers. How easy is it to find you? What piece in your portfolio is going to land your next job?
  8. Double your hourly rate. Starting today.
  9. Double your estimated hours for every proposal. You'll wonder how you could have ever done it in half the time when you're done.
  10. Get 50% upfront for all jobs. Never work unpaid, ever. Be brutal about this. Make your clients value your time, even if you're a novice.
  11. Invoice often, on schedule, and follow up on unpaid Invoices. There's no steady paycheck as a freelancer, just windfall after windfall.
  12. Do Pro Bono work occasionally. Consider this before you begin any project, especially one that may overtake your desired time and attention for no pay.
  13. Be humble. Don't consider yourself 'above' any client job or opportunity. Some of the longest lasting customer relationships have come from the strangest requests.
  14. Customers will want to manage you and have input on your art. Have good defenses for any major design decision, but accept retarded color changes ad nauseum.
  15. Any job without a proposal or spec is without scope and will be a huge time-suck. Go forth into the untamed wilderness prepared.
  16. Is your design easy to read? This simple test has saved many production dollars in my experience. Seriously, most people simply don't like to read.
  17. Whatever you're learning in college, you'll probably never use it in the real world. I loved my Magic Marker Technique college class, even with the professor admitting that computers had all but killed this old-school technique.
  18. Logos/Identities make great portfolio pieces, but you are not Paul Rand, and the 'corporation' you spent all the effort 'branding' will statistically fail within 5 years, anyway.
  19. Print is a dying medium. It's the shotgun approach to marketing: environmental impact is high, acquisition cost is high, and 99% of your materials end up ignored or in the landfill.
  20. In hindsight, more than 50% of your work is gonna suck. Simply do more work to get a bigger portfolio of work you're proud of.

While I have your attention, stop using the title Graphic Designer; You limit your audiences perception of your abilities (“They make pretty graphics!”). I prefer the simpler and broader title of Designer. You can use Art Director, UI/UX Developer, whatever works for your audience/customers...