Client Acquisition Tips from 11 Freelance Design Experts

Being a freelancer is hard work. Not only do you have to keep up with work projects but you also have to keep track of invoicing, communicating with clients, marketing yourself, and even making sure you have enough work for upcoming months to keep bills paid. This can make freelancing quite time consuming and exhausting. Thankfully, there are solutions to keep clients flowing in without taking away from the actual money-making tasks.

Bringing in new clients can be less of a pain and time suck with the right methods, and seasoned freelancers are just the ones to ask. The following 11 freelancer designers are experts in the field and have a lot of experience in client  acquisition. So, we asked these experts the same question:

What advice can you give on finding new clients and/or making yourself visible enough that your work queue remains full?

While their answers vary slightly, most of them show that gaining new clients can become almost automated, if you put in the right leg work in the beginning. As you read through the advice below, you may want to think about which fits you the best. Every freelancer varies in their gifts and skills, so pick the method that will be easiest for you to keep up with until the time comes to let your efforts bring the clients to you.

A freelance illustrator from San Diego, California, Graham Smith has an impressive list of clients: Blue Moon Brewing Co., Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, NPR, ESPN, J.P. Morgan Chase, The Washington Post, T. Rowe Price, Sony, and many more. His clients aside, though, his work definitely speaks for itself. His illustrations can be found in publications, on products, and in advertisements. His work is quite unique too with a combination retro yet still modern look and full of earthy colors and fantastic textures. Smith begins his sketches with traditional paper, pen, and pencil and finishes the final touches digitally. To check out his stunning portfolio, visit his website  or follow him on Facebook or Google+. You can also watch his sketching process in his Vimeo videos, or keep up with his process on his blog.

When we asked Graham Smith for his advice on keeping work flowing, he replied with very actionable tips:

To make sure my work queue stays full, I produce a stream of sketchbook pages, life drawings, desktop videos, and even the occasional illustration, and share my passion for the work through my online network. I have a website, 2 paid portfolios, a blog, Vimeo channel, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+. Collectively, they tell the story of what I do as an artist, and demonstrate my creative process, step by step. I think art directors like to see behind the scenes, the sketches, and the thought process, as much as the final product. It helps art directors get to know you, and to decide if creative partnerships are possible.

In real life, I collaborate with other artists, which is my way of networking. I like to center those collaborations around events that benefit the local arts community, educational art shows, or museum fundraisers. (Sometimes, it’s just for fun!) Postcards, postcards, postcards. I give them away, and mail them to art directors. Doing interviews, framing yourself as an expert in your field, and participating in online discussions is a great way to get noticed, and to drive traffic to your online assets. Every new meeting, eyeball, and link, counts toward keeping your work queue full.

While Chris Thurman specializes in web and UI design, he is also an expert in branding, print design, motion graphics, and video. This freelancer based in Louisville, Kentucky has an obsession with “making things better,” which shows not only in his work but also his design blog, Visual Swirl, on which he posts inspirational designs, tutorials, and design resources. His work, from logos to websites, are clean but eye-catching, and every design seems to capture the brand expertly. His own portfolio website  is an excellent example of his awesome skills, so be sure to check it out. You can also follow him on Twitter or view his videos on Vimeo. Be sure to check out his newest top secret project at PressClever.com and sign up for an alert once the project goes live.

Here’s how Chris keeps clients knocking:

Be everywhere. There are so many different ways that clients can find you that it’s best to open up as many potential channels as possible. Everyone may be looking for the “magic bullet” approach but outside of showing up in Google for local searches for “web design” there is no one method that has worked more than others for me. 

With that said, I’ve received new work from a wide variety of sources. As examples, I’ve received inquiries from the following sources: word of mouth referrals from existing clients, family/friend referrals, networking groups, “designed by” links in the footer of existing projects, twitter interactions, Dribbble, Behance, blogs featuring my portfolio, design galleries featuring my work, other web design directories, Facebook groups, Linkedin groups, etc. Having a profile setup and work samples on as many sites as possible is a very easy step. Getting noticed on galleries and blogs takes a bit of outreach but it works well. 

Each of these “methods” may only account for 1-2 clients per year (some bring in a lot more) but the sum of all of them together is where you start to see some traction.

Skills in t-shirt design, logo design, and website design make Brent Galloway an interesting freelance designer, especially considering that he also has a successful blog and even a store for selling his work. His blog, YourFreelanceCareer.com, is aimed at helping others find the same success that he grew into as a freelancer. He even wrote an ebook sharing his secrets and all the gritty details on how exactly he kickstarted his freelance career. Generously, it is available to download free on his website . His custom hand lettering for the cover of his ebook shows well his grunge yet modern style of design. Be sure to check out more of his work on his website or follow him on Twitter – you’ll notice he has quite the fan club!

Galloway has some excellent advice on acquiring clients:

I take a different approach to landing new client work. Rather than chasing after the clients I’d like to work with I developed a strategy where clients find me.

If you’re new to freelancing then you’re going to have to start by doing all of the leg work yourself. Word of mouth is where it’s at, so use your network and your network’s network to your advantage. There are a countless number of ways to get your name out there, so do some searching and find the right strategy for you. The key to my strategy is what you do with the work once it’s completed.

All it takes is one client project. One client project to turn into a case study. One client project to convert into a referral. Once you’ve completed a project follow-up with your client to make sure they’re completely satisfied with your services, then ask for a referral. Don’t wait until you’re out of work to ask around. Keep the momentum going at all times. At the very least ask your clients to keep your name in mind.

Also at the end of every client project I don’t just upload a shot to dribbble – rather – I share my process and showcase the work in detail on my blog. Prospective clients love to see this, and it proves your expertise in your field of work. You can make your work sell for you – you just have to put in the extra effort by presenting your work in the form of a case study. Then share that case study around your social media accounts. Over time your portfolio and name will grow to the point to where clients are knocking at your door to work with you rather than you having to chase after them.

Those of you who are quite active in design communities on the web will recognize Jacob Cass, a well-known brand/ identity/ logo designer. As a small business owner of his own design studio, JUST Creative , Jacob Cass has worked with clients such as Walgreens, Scott Barnes, Computer Arts Magazine, Wired Fax, PCG Systems, Learnworks, and much more. In conjunction with design agencies, he has also worked with Jerry Seinfeld, Nike, Disney, RedBull, GrimeBoss, Sweet’N Low, and lots more. Most of his work is focused on designing and implementing marketing promotions for brands, but his website also hosts his blog on which he publishes graphic design resources, tips, and articles. Be sure to follow him on Twitter or on his Facebook page.

Cass offers the following key advice on helping client find you:

Rather than thinking about ways to find new clients, you should be thinking about ways to let your clients find you. Having an online presence in as many places that you can properly manage is key, as well as having your website and social profiles search engine optimized, thus allowing people searching for designers to easily find you. There really are a huge number of ways to market yourself as a designer, but what I’ve found as the most successful is my personal blog. Give blogging a shot!

As a world renown graphic designer who specializes in identity design, David Airey has lots of experience with clients, who include big brands such as the BBC, Yellow Pages, CampusIT, blinkbox, Rupp, Berthier Associates, Asian Development Bank, Henri Ehrhart wine, and many more. He has also written and published two books: Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities (translated into 10 languages) and Work for Money, Design for Love (available in 7 languages), both of which are for sale on his Amazon page. In addition to Airey’s portfolio website and blog, he also maintains two other blogs, all of which are visited by over 600,000 designers each month. Be sure to visit either Logo Design Love or Identity Designed. You may also want to fol low David on Twitter.

We are honored that Airey agreed to answer our question on keeping the work queue full. His advice is short but sweet:

Love the ones you’re with. If you do everything you can to delight your current clients, they’ll turn into your best salespeople.

Years of experience show in Jan Marshall’s freelance portfolio, which contains a variety of styles in book cover design. With every book, she accurately captures the essence of the content creatively and professionally. Illustrations, typographical designs, and photo manipulations are equally stunning within her work displayed on her website . She also has done a number of designs for book series, and excellently maintains a consistent look with each newly released book. Make sure to check her out either on her website or follow her on Twitter.

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Whether designing for self-publishing authors or for publishing houses, Marshall seems to keep her work queue quite full. When we asked her how, here’s what she said:

Well, for me, it’s all about Networking which is quick and easy to get underway, and also has the added advantage that I get to work with people I already know and like! Here’s my recipe for success: get yourself out there in the world of social media (a lot of my work comes via Twitter), be easy to find and show yourself to be an expert in your field (a regularly updated blog and/or a website displaying your work does this for you), make friends with the people who might need your services (don’t just ‘show off’ on social networks—be nice and make friends), show people your face (clients are people, and people like to work with people they like, not logos), and grab with both hands the work that comes your way (and it will). So, most of the time, I think that’s probably pretty sound advice. But, there could potentially be a fly in the ointment. Maybe you should be asking yourself one other question first: what kind of work do you want? “I want great work that pays well and looks stylish in my portfolio!” I hear you say. And I’d agree with you! But it’s amazing how many designers settle for less.

Beware the ‘working-for-nothing’ trap.

There’s nothing easier than Being Busy. All you have to do is take on all the work you’re offered. This will fill up your days and make you feel productive. But, are you getting paid a fair fee? To be successful as well as busy you need to say no to the projects that don’t pay what you’re worth. We all work for nothing now and then: when we’re pitching for business; when we need a particular type of project to display in our portfolios, etc. And that’s fine—as long as it’s a solid investment in the future. However, we should all beware of making it a habit. “But, low-paid work is better than no work at all, right? It only costs me my time (there are minimal outlays of cash in most design work), and if I’m doing nothing else I might as well be doing something for nothing.” Sorry, the answer’s no. If you spend all your downtime on low-paid work, that’s how it will always be, because you won’t have time to find the well-paid work. Unless. You use that time. For networking.

Your time is valuable. Be mindful of how you’re using it. :)

A self-taught graphic and web designer, Janine Pring’s talent shows in her portfolio. Many of her illustrations, especially those in her clothing and accessories store, Dreametry Doodle, are a mixture of tribal style and retro/digital look. Her own portfolio website  design shows off her skills in web design as well as her creative, whimsical style. However, her portfolio shows her ability to design professional websites and graphics for clients. Be sure to check out more of her work on her Behance profile or follow her on Twitter.

This young freelancer had some very helpful advice to give regarding clients:

Based on my experience, in order to have a continuous flow of work, you need to make sure you show everyone that you’re passionate about what you do. Do everything to let the potential clients think that you love what you do. Second, build your online presence, you need to spread your name out there, post on freelance marketplaces, discussion forums and social networking sites. Third, always do small pro-bono projects, this will help you build your network, portfolio and people will endorse you. Lastly, make sure you meet your client’s expectations — this is the most effective way to getting clients, if your clients like what you sent them, they will surely recommend your services to the people they know. Nothing will ever beat the “word-of-mouth” strategy.

Always remember to expand your network and aim for positive results, this will then lead to more projects/work.

Franz Jeitz, a London-based freelance graphic designer with a love of typography and lettering, created his own blog on his website. Amazingly, Jeitz uses the website as both a portfolio as well as a way to give back to the design community with inspiration, tutorials, and even freebies such as brushes, vectors, and textures that he designs himself. His stunning typography and other designs can be found on his Behance profile and Instagram profile, both of which are definitely worth checking out. Or follow him on Twitter to keep up with his freebies and latest designs.

Jeitz has some excellent tips on gaining new clients as well as fostering old relationships:

I found that the easiest way to find new work is by targeting your direct social network. I’m not talking about Twitter or anything, but people you know, friends, friends of friends … We often overlook what’s right in front of us. You’d be surprised how many in your social circle need design work. In order to recruit them as clients they need to be aware of the services you offer. Share your work on Facebook and let your friends know that you’re available for hire. Don’t force it too much though, no one likes a sales pitch when they are going for a pint with mates. If you love design as much as I do then it will come naturally to talk about it with enthusiasm.

A lot of my work comes from returning clients so it’s important to nurture those relationships. Word of mouth is still the best advertising and there’s 3 key elements to it: solid work, reliability and friendliness. Nothing beats a recommendation from a client.

A freelance illustrator based in Toronto, Canada, Jessica Fortner focuses on editorial, advertising, and children’s designs. Working with digital and traditional tools, her designs are very poetic in style and full of beautiful, earthy colors. Although her portfolio speaks for itself, Fortner’s list of publications prove her incredible capabilities: she has appeared in Juxtapose, Harvard Business Review, Digital Arts, The New York Times, and much more. Fortner is also cofounder, editor, and designer of the online magazine, Squidface & The Meddler. Look her up on Tumblr, Twitter, or Facebook to keep up with her inspiring art.

Fortner provided us with an awesome answer to our question on acquiring clients:

One of the best things about being a freelancer is having the freedom to create the type of work you want. Decide what it is that you want to do and run with it.

It’s essential to commit yourself to work that’s personal. Use your downtime to work on your own projects. This is a place for you to grow and insert a unique personality that in turn will feed any commercial work you do. It’s an important space for experimentation and growth. Don’t be afraid to take risks and try new things.

Be sure that everything you put out into the world someway embodies the type of work you want to be doing. Ultimately, great work with originality and personality stands out and finds its way around the internet. I believe this is what clients are really looking for. So when clients first discover you, they come to you because of what you’re creating and they’ll want more of that.

Best known online by his alias, Inkbot Design, Stuart L. Crawford is a freelance graphic designer living in Northern Ireland. He specializes in logo design and corporate identity design and his work clearly shows his 10+ years of experience in these fields. He has worked with large corporations and small startups. He has done redesigns and helped businesses create their initial brand identity. And he attributes most of his full work queue to referrals. Be sure to look up his impressive portfolio on his Inkbot Design website and follow him on Twitter.

Here’s more client advice from Crawford a.k.a. Inkbot Design:

I think the most obvious one is seemingly overlooked by a lot of young designers – have your own portfolio website! Don’t use Dribbble or Behance as your portfolio, since these aren’t what they were intended for. Start simple, buy a suitable domain name and go from there. If you’re technically minded you can set up a WordPress site really quickly on fairly cheap hosting, get a theme and start populating it with your best work. Alternatively, pick a web service like Squarespace and get to work.

The point is that unless you have an online portfolio that you can both direct people to, and potential clients will find, you’re going to struggle to keep a regular workload. I see a lot of great designers and creatives on sites like Dribbble who don’t (seem) to have their own online presence – kinda crazy in my opinion.

Based in London, Sonya Parra is an incredibly talented visual artist and illustrator with an impressive portfolio full of speed sketches from events like the 2012 Olympics and London Fashion Week 2014, as well as stunning paintings and illustrations. She even has a fantastic collection of coffee art pieces she did for Nescafe Dolce Gusto UK Roadshow 2013. Her illustrations and paintings for sale are mostly of women subjects, some wi th lots of color and others with more pastel or a light use of colors. All of her work is worth checking out, so be sure to visit her website or follow her on Twitter, her Facebook artist page, or Instagram.

Here’s her advice for acquiring new customers:

Gaining new customers… Try everything.

It’s different for everyone as we all have differnt factors defining our target audience.

I use social media and find it massivly helpful in reaching out these days.

You can attract diffecnt clients from different platforms so cater posts individually and don’t automatically share posts across your social media accounts. They all work differently.

Word of mouth is so powerful. Constantly keep updating your social media accounts and refreshing your presence. Its the personal touch that makes all the difference so connect individually with as many people that like or comment on your posts.

Touching base with your clients is also really important.

Once you have a relationship maintain it. Shout outs and mentions of your followers’ achievements are always nice.

Need more advice? Take a look at these similar articles:

What About You? 

Are you a freelancer who has advice for the rest of us? We’d love to hear it, so leave a comment below!

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