A guide to starting your own graphic design business

Entering the world of work after years of study can be a daunting prospect. After all, we're constantly reminded that jobs – especially in the arts – are scarce, and we're told the horror stories of graduates being either unemployed or underemployed for years after completing their studies. With these kinds of expectations, along with pay cuts for many, it's understandable that a lot of people dream of avoiding the rat race altogether to enjoy the freedom of starting their own business. But is starting a business a feasible option for graphic design graduates or those fresh out of college education?

The simple answer is yes.

The great thing about being a freelance designer is that there is no governing body or licensing that requires you to gain experience before starting out. There is also no need to gain particular qualifications (although they can certainly be helpful). All you need to become a freelance graphic designer is talent and determination. This is not to say that setting up your own business isn't a huge challenge, especially in the early days. To be  successful in this field there are certain things you need to know or you run the risk of losing money and making a bad impression on clients.

Collected from designers I know and love; and to save you from learning the hard way, we've put together our top five tips for start-up design businesses. Follow this advice and you'll increase your chances of making a real success while escaping the drudgery of a 9-5 job – Win-win!

Develop a portfolio

Looking at your portfolio will be the main way that potential clients judge whether or not they want to hire you, so making your portfolio look great should be your absolute priority. Don't worry though, even if you're only just starting out and don't have any professional work to show off, your own personal projects should suffice in giving an indication of your abilities.

It can also be a good idea to take on some unpaid work for charities and non-profit organisations as this will show that you have experience of working to a professional brief. You may also want to include a blog on the same domain as your portfolio. As well as marketing your services, a blog can be a platform to show off your personality and demonstrate your expertise in design.

Invest in your equipment

Many freelance designers have a tendency to avoid as many work-related costs as possible, and whilst it may be tempting to keep your spending low in the early days, investing in any necessary tools and equipment will allow you to be more efficient in your work. In the eyes of clients, it will also make you appear to be more professional than someone scraping by with the bare minimum.

It's up to you what counts as being necessary, but generally this is likely to include a computer, design software, office supplies, a scanner and a printer. If you're unsure of what design software you'll need, most companies offer a free trial of their product, so you can try it out and decide if it's likely to be useful to you. There are also many free graphic design programs available online.

Be professional

As a freelancer, word-of-mouth recommendations are likely to be a major source of work for you, so it's important that no matter how difficult a client is, you leave an impression of true professionalism. This means maintaining a level of formality in all work-related communications, dressing smartly for face-to-face meetings, and the most important of all: always meeting deadlines with your work. If you carry yourself in a professional manner it is more likely that your clients will recommend you to others. It is also possible that clients will employ you for one project as a trial run, so behaving well could lead to a longer-term contract.

Be your own accountant

Protest all you want that you're a right-brain-thinking designer and not a number cruncher-- but even designers have to make money, so it's important that you keep track of what you're owed and how much you're making. The key is to keep things as streamlined as possible in order to avoid mistakes and confusion. Make a simple spreadsheet that covers all the projects you're currently working on, billed amount, payment date and whether the payment is still outstanding.

If you need some extra help there are also many great resources available online that are designed to manage all your invoicing and finances such as FreeAgent and Kashflow.

Find work through online job boards

You may be lucky enough to have a steady stream of clients coming your way, either through word-of-mouth connections or your online portfolio.  However It's likely that you'll experience at least one dry period during your time as a freelance graphic designer. At these times you'll need to have places that you can use to actively search for work. There are plenty of great online job advertisement boards such as People Per HourDesignM.ag job board and the Freelance Switch job board. All of these sites allow you to create your own advertisement of your skills and respond to existing job offers.