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Freelance Graphic Design as a Work-At-Home Business

Jun 12, 2008
Are you a whiz kid with a pen in your hand? Can you whip up photographic mash-ups that make the Mona Lisa look like illegible scrawl on a bathroom wall? Do you look at album covers and glance at the heavens above, shaking your head knowingly? Then why not put those skills to use and show those rank amateurs how it's really done?

Whether it's putting together album covers, posters and logos for the local garage band, doing ensemble flyers for traveling street theatre or producing viral advertising for the world's largest shoemaker, there's never been a bigger market for freelance graphic designers, or a better time to be one. The software and hardware that once made digital design and subsequent mass-marketing a rare and expensive medium has cheapened to the extent that anybody with an internet connection, an inexpensive personal computer and an inspired idea can have their work broadcast to tens of millions of people around the world.

Graphic design in its truest form is about conveying a message with a combination of carefully selected colors, symbols, images, shapes and words that, put together, create a unique identity for a product. Those who can do this with rapidity, enthusiasm and a little flair are always in demand. If you've got some ability within the realm of traditional fine arts, all the better, but it's not the be all and end all of your career. Like all artistic pursuits, though, you need the right tools for the job. Specifically, you're looking for the following:

1. Software. Whether you work with a can of paint and an easel or a mouse and a monitor, you are going to eventually end up with a digitized version of your finished work for delivery to the client. For those of us with liquid assets, I highly recommend Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. If you can't splurge the high cost for these programs, you can find extremely serviceable replacements in the free, open-source GIMP and Inkscape. Together, these should cover your needs for vector artwork, photo retouching/manipulation, post-processing and final file exports.

2. A good digital (or even film-based!) camera is a useful optional extra. I prefer Canon DSLRs for their aggressively reasonable prices and excellent image quality, but high-end point and shoots can do the job in a pinch. They do, however, lack slightly in credibility while on-site. For those of us nostalgic for the days of 35mm, you can find brilliant film SLRs on eBay for knock-down prices.

3. If, however, photography isn't your cup of tea, then free stock photo services such as MorgueFile or Stock.xchng are excellent resources that do all the work for you.

4. Finally, a flatbed scanner always comes in handy, whether you're digitizing hand-drawn designs, scanning client-provided images or transmitting 35mm negatives. The Epson Perfection and Canoscan 8400F have garnered extensive praise for being well-rounded and affordable. Throw in a color inkjet printer or a membership to the local Kinkos, and you're done.

So now you're well-equipped and looking to set the world on fire as a gun-for-hire designer, but don't know where to start. Assuming you haven't done this kind of work before, your first priority would be to produce a varied portfolio guaranteed to blow the socks off any potential employer. A useful technique, I've found, is to start by going through your collection of books, video games and CDs, and picking out a few of each with covers you either hate or love. Decide why it is they produce such strong reactions in either case, and what you would have done differently. With this in mind, attempt to redraw as many as you can in your own image. As you come up with successful designs, put them aside.

Similarly, find some eye-catching stock photos and see what comes about when you simply sit and play with them in your chosen image manipulation software. Get to know the functions of the software and the way images respond to different treatments until it's second nature.

When you think you've got a killer portfolio and the mindset to successfully close a deal, it's time to find a client. Great first-time employers include local musicians and stage acts, as well as neighborhood businesses with uninspiring logos or lackluster advertising material. (You know what we're talking about when I mention brochures or restaurant menus that look like they were put together by a ten year old using Word Art and MS Paint).

Most potential clients of this caliber don't know how presentation affects their business, or feel that hiring a graphic designer to do work for them would be too expensive, so offer them a cheap, friendly, local alternative: yourself! For small projects, offer a flat rate; and for larger ones, keep a log of hours you spend and how many designs you produced so that you can bill accordingly.

It helps, too, to do some gratis work to get your name out there. Use your judgment and offer to redesign for free when you think it's suitable. Networking and subsequently maintaining contacts in the local business community is what can net you, initially, the most lucrative projects, as well as long-term contract work. Graphic designers in the freelance arena have to think of themselves as part-artist, part-salesperson. Pound the pavement, scan the back pages of community newspapers for projects that look interesting, make calls to fashion, art and IT magazines to see if they have any space for an aspiring designer in their ranks.

On a larger scale, attracting corporate clients requires an online presence, and enough of the above to make an impression. Magazine freelancing in particular can generate contacts and assets in the upper tiers of international marketing and design. Spend some time uploading your creations to a website like Flickr.com or DeviantArt.com, where you can get free exhibition space, as well as having a place to call your own that you can point people to for easily accessible examples of your work. This is just an extension of your portfolio; but like your portfolio, make sure it's a showcase of all your abilities. Indicate especially that you can diversify and handle different mediums and project sizes.

Freelancing as a graphic designer can be initially difficult; more often than not you may find potential clients slamming doors in your face. Take this in stride and persevere. Like most creative positions, as you accumulate paying jobs, more will become available to you. There's a lot of demand globally for you to carve out a niche for yourself in freelance graphic design.
About the Author
Brian Scott is a freelance writer for http://www.FreelanceWriting.com, a free website offering freelance writing jobs and hundreds of writer's guidelines to paying magazines. Read his blog for freelance writers at http://workingwritersnewsletter.blogspot.com
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