I’ve been freelancing for as long as I can remember; through school, college, university and onwards. I’m not shy to admit that I have a lot of experience under my belt and I’ve seen many things on my journey. I’ve had many great project as well as some not so great experiences, and although I wouldn’t change a thing, I personally feel that many of the hardships I faced in the past could have been avoided had I been educated about what was to come. Here are just a few examples.

Always collect a deposit upfront

Believe it or not I’ve done some work in the past that required my blood, sweat, and tears and till this day I haven’t been paid for them. At the start a lot of freelancers are very trusting, giving everybody the benefit of the doubt when it comes to a project. This is a nice thought and all, but in reality not everybody is going to look out for you when it comes to the work. Never under any circumstance start any piece of work without collecting a deposit upfront (there are some very rare exceptions). Chances are that if somebody is put off by paying a set amount (normally 50%) in order to finalise an agreement, then they aren’t really a serious client in the first place, even if they seem like the nicest of people. Remember that the client’s top priority is to get what they need from you, and quite rightfully so, so it’s no surprise that some choose to disappear off the face of the Earth when they receive a finished product from a designer who doesn’t know better.

Write a contract / terms of agreement

A contract (or terms of agreement for some) will help protect you from the “what ifs” that might not have come up during the negotiation part of a project. Not only does it protect your neck when you’re working, but it also protects the relationship between you and the client should anything go pear shaped. A contract is there to make sure that both parties know what is to be expected of each other and no nasty surprises pop up. The document contains things such as; payment details, deadlines, revisions, rights of ownership, cancellation and more. Every project is different and sometimes this might have to be tweaked depending, but a general template helps save a lot of headache down the line.

You don’t have to be a legal casanova to write a contract, there are plenty of free templates online that you can download. I personally like to go for something without any legal jargon, like David Airey’s Terms and Conditions.

Taxes, taxes, taxes

If only this was taught effectively in school. I didn’t understand taxes until I was around 23 years old, and admittedly I still don’t have a full grasp on it. There have been times where I’ve been minding my own business, and then suddenly I find a letter through my mailbox chasing me up. When you’re invoicing for design work, remember to always include whatever tax is required on top of it. Your clients pay tax too so they’ll understand.

Know you’re worth

How much should I charge? Am I over charging for this project? Am I charging too little?

These questions popped up constantly for many years while I was still building my experience and reputation. It all boils down to being confident in knowing your value as a professional. For a long time I didn’t know that my skill has a lot of value and that not everybody can do what I can do, so this made me really undersell myself in the past. I’ve learned that at the very least you should admit to yourself that the time spent on a job alone has it’s worth, including; research, consulting, sketching, proposing etc. With this way of thinking every project will be worth your time and effort because you are factoring it all in when you quote for the job.

Find a specialism and own it

“A jack of all trades is a master of none”, an old quote but still relevant especially for creatives.

I’m a believer in finding a niche in what you do in order to reduce competition. When you find what are you’re passionate about and master it then people will know what to come to you expecting. Working at too many things will eventually make you the same as everybody else. There’s no harm in being well rounded, but it’s better to concentrate on less things so that you can do more. This might take a while and it can change quite a few times as you learn new skills, but you have to start somewhere.

Areas to go into include; front-end web design, web development, branding and identity, marketing, advertising, motion, packaging etc.

Learn at least basic HTML and CSS

Even if you’re going to specialise in one aspect of design, there are some things that are quite important to know. Unfortunately some things can be neglected which often ends up with you playing catchup further down the line.

I was fortunate enough to learn HTML and CSS from my brothers who are basically coding warlocks, and this has given me a head start when it comes to job applications and expanded my horizon when it comes to taking on projects. Although I don’t consider myself to be a web developer, I’m able to understand how a developer thinks and communicate with them effectively. I can also customise WordPress quite a bit, and build HTML email campaigns from scratch, just from basic coding knowledge.

I believe learning a bit of coding goes a long way, and even if you don’t know where to start, there are some very good online courses available to get you up to speed. My personal favourite are Team Treehouse, a subscription service where you can access a variety of web and APP development courses, and Code Academy, where you can learn to code for free!

Build your network

In the world of graphic design, in my case anyway, the majority of the work that comes in comes from word of mouth and referrals. Most people hire you because of a recommendation from another person who knows about your services. If you do a good job, you get a happy client. That happy client will hire you again and most likely they’ll refer you to someone else. It’s like a snowball effect that ends up with you having to market yourself a little less.

However there is still some leg work to do even with all the referrals. You have to make sure the cheques keep coming in and so the sooner you get used to going to networking events and making new connections, the better it will be for you. I sometimes find myself so distracted by my work that I sometimes forget to get out there! Nobody is going to toot your own horn for you, so get some business cards printed and give them out.

It’s pretty easy to find a local networking meeting that you can attend just by doing a Google search. You can also use websites like Meetup.com to sign up to some groups and meet new people.

Refuel your passion

If you don’t love what you’re doing then there’s no point in it. When you’re doing the same thing for a long time then it can become boring, which can have a negative effect on your drive to work and the quality that you produce. It’s your responsibility as a designer to keep yourself inspired constantly. Learn something new sometimes! Read a book to give you a fresh perspective! Check out Dribbble or Behance and see what others are doing!

Sometimes it’s even worth doing something unrelated to design so that your mind can rest. I personally like to look at Kickstarter projects and find cool new gadgets and games. Just don’t let your passion die, because you can end up being a disgruntled designer that dislikes everybody and everything.