12 Essential Skills and Pieces of Advice for Freelancers

When it comes to the skills and characteristics that are essential to having success as a freelancer designer, the most obvious ones involve creative skills and the ability to design. While this is of course important, there is far more to achieving success as a freelancer than simply being able to design. In fact, the non-creative skills and characteristics are sometimes the most important since they often have a profound impact on the experience for clients.

In this article we’ll take a quick look at 5 skills and characteristics that you should be aware of if you are currently freelancing or planning to make the jump. You won’t necessarily need to be an expert in these areas prior to getting started as a freelancer. In most cases, with some effort and attention these are things that pretty much anyone can do. With time you can even improve your abilities in some areas that you may consider to be weaknesses. At the end of the 5 tips, we’ll go over 7 ways you can gain exposure as a freelancer.

1. Communication

Communication is a critical skill for freelancers. You’ll need to be able to communicate effectively and efficiently with clients throughout the design process. Your ability to communicate will impact 1) your understanding of the client and the needs/wants of the project, 2) your ability to share your vision for the project and to secure the work, and 3) your ability to explain things clearly to clients.

Each designer has a different process for communicating with clients. Some use the phone or Skype to get familiar with the project. Others prefer email throughout the process. Some designers have an intake process that they use with each client, and others use a different approach for each project. What’s important is that you find an approach that works well for you and your clients.

2. Organization

One area that many new freelance designers struggle with is organization. If you’ve worked as part of a team before, you probably were only responsible for certain aspects of working with clients, and you probably had little to no responsibility for running the business. As a freelancer you’ll wear many hats, and this requires outstanding organization. Many new freelancers underestimate the importance of organization. and the scope of responsibility can be a big shock.

As a freelancer you’ll have to handle marketing, sales, finances and bookkeeping, customer service, management of any outsourced work, plus the actual design/development work. All of these other responsibilities will reduce the amount of time and effort that you’re able to dedicate to doing the design/development work that brings in revenue. So the more organized you can be, the less time you will need to dedicate to each area, and the more time you can spend doing the actual design/development work.

Your organization skills can also have a big impact on your clients and the experience they have working with you. They’re not really concerned with all of the different responsibilities that you have by running your own freelance business. They just want you to manage their project in an organized manner.

3. Reliability

One of the reasons that some clients prefer to work with a design agency rather than a freelancer is the issue (or in some cases, the perceived issue) of reliability. Freelancers often have a stigma of being unreliable. No client wants to start working with a designer only to have them prove to be undependable. You can help to demonstrate your reliability by communicating effectively and promptly with potential clients from the start. Clients often start to question the reliability of freelancers when they don’t get a response or a proposal promptly. If you present yourself professionally and respond promptly to potential clients it can go along way towards easing any fears about your reliability.

4. Discipline

Many people have the idea that freelancers sit around the house most of the day and work whenever they feel like it. Of course, this isn’t the case with successful freelancers who have have put in a lot of effort to build up their client work. But as a freelancer you’ll have no boss looking over your shoulder telling you what to work on, and you’ll have no one to tell you what time to start work and what time to stop. Being a successful freelancer requires a lot of discipline. Since most freelancers work from home, there are plenty of potential distractions that you will need to avoid.

5. Assertiveness

As an independent worker, your success rests on your own shoulders. For this reason, freelancers often need to be pro active, aggressive, or assertive. If you’ve been working as an in-house designer or as an employee for a design agency, you probably are used to having projects assigned to you. As a freelancer you will need to find the work. Some freelancers are fortunate to have most or all of the clients coming directly to them, but it usually takes some time to get to that point. Many freelancers will need to be more assertive when it comes to finding clients. This could involve marketing efforts, networking, pursuing referrals, social media, or even cold calling.

Freelancers also need to be assertive when it comes to problem solving. When you’re working as part of a team, the responsibility to solve every problem and overcome every challenge will not be only on you. However, as a freelance you’ll need to be pro active at finding solutions and working through challenges

New freelancers and students who are just coming out of school are often faced with the challenge of gaining exposure for their work. The exposure is often needed for securing new client projects, but it can also be needed to help with landing a job or just building name recognition within the industry.

With so many talented designers out there already it can seem like a daunting task to grab any exposure for yourself. In this article we’ll look at some practical ways that any designer can improve their exposure. Implement a few of these ideas and you will be well on your way to reaching your goals of landing new clients and building name recognition. Several of the suggestions involve social media and/or blogging, so if you don’t already participate in those activities now is the time to start.

Bonus: 7 Practical Ways to Gain Exposure as a Designer

1. Design Galleries

One of the best ways to gain exposure and to build a name for yourself is to let your work do the speaking. Your portfolio site is not only a place to show off your work from client projects, the design of your portfolio site itself can lead to loads of exposure.

Design blogs like our own often publish posts for inspiration that showcase brilliant design examples. Being showcased on a few popular blogs can bring an equal amount of exposure, if not more. Many times blogs find sites to showcase by browsing web design galleries, so having your portfolio site approved to the major design galleries can lead to even more exposure through blogs.

In addition, gallery/portfolio sites like Behance, deviantART, and Carbonmade allow you to set up a portfolio and display all kinds of work, not just web designs.

2. Guest Post at Major Design Blogs

In the web and graphic design niche there are countless blogs that accept guest post submissions. In some cases authors are paid, and other times the exposure and a link may be the incentive for the writer. Whether it is paid or not, having guest posts published on leading design blogs is one of the best ways to quickly gain exposure in the industry. This provides the opportunity to display your abilities and your expertise while teaching or discussing a particular topic.

With leading blogs that reach hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of visitors per month, there is plenty of opportunity here. You may think that you would only reach other designers by writing for design blogs, but that is not always the case.

3. Release Freebies

By creating and distributing a high-quality freebie you can pick up a lot of links to your site (where it is available for download), leading to visitors and exposure. Freebies aren’t great for directly leading to a lot of client work, but they are effective for building name recognition and for strengthening the quality of your domain through increased links to your site.

The possibilities for freebies are huge. Some popular items include PSD files, WordPress themes, icon sets, vectors, Photoshop brushes, and textures. Readers love to be able to get free items that they can put to good use, and many website owners and bloggers are happy to link to free resources. They also tend to be shared via social media.

If you’re dedicating the time to create something useful for others, you may also need to help get the ball rolling for promotion. If you have a blog with a decent following or social media profiles (like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Google+) with a large following you may be able to simply publish it on your blog and share it via social media. With a large enough following it should take off from there. But if you are looking for more exposure, chances are you don’t already have a large following. So here are a few things you can do to gain some momentum for your freebie:

  • Contact bloggers and send them a link to your free resource
  • Contact influential social media users and send them a link to your freebie
  • Build a network of friends who will help each other with social media promotion
  • Write a guest post for a leading blog and link to your freebie in the author bio
  • Write a guest post for a leading blog with a link to your freebie in the post content
  • Have the freebie distributed from a popular blog in addition to, or instead of, being distributed from your site

4. Write for Magazines, Newspapers, or Other Publications

While blogs and online publications can be great sources of exposure, offline publications should not be ignored. There are several magazines for designers that accept article submissions. Having an article published in a respected magazine would not only provide exposure for yourself, but it would also help to build your credibility when mentioned in a bio or on your portfolio site.

If you are targeting local clients and looking for exposure to business owners in the area, writing for your newspaper is a great option. Many papers are open to publishing articles in the business section that would provide tips or suggestions for business websites. This can be a great way to get your name out there to potential clients and it helps to build credibility as you will be seen as an expert on the subject.

5. Provide Training (In Person or Webinars)

Teaching others is one of the best ways to brand yourself as an expert and to pick up new clients. In a way, this is what you are doing when publishing guest posts at other blogs and writing for printed publications. Another way of doing that is through live training, either in person or online through webinars. The possible topics are endless. You could either offer training that will help other designers to improve their craft, or you could provide training to people who would fall into your target market for clients.

Offering training for designers can obviously help to improve exposure with the industry and to build your name recognition, although it likely won’t produce as many clients as offering a training session to people who would fall into your target market.

The training could be offered in person at a seminar, conference, or chamber of commerce event. Webinars are relatively easy to setup with services like GoToWebinar and AnyMeeting. If you are using training as a way to gain clients you’ll want to offer valuable information for free during the training, but have some type of extended offer or personalized services that can be purchased for those who want to go beyond the free training. The quality of the free training is then your sales tool to convince attendees that your services will truly be worth the price.

6. Write a Book

Another outstanding way to position yourself as an expert on a subject is to publish a book. Being a published author tends to give you as much or more credibility than just about anything else you can do. While published books are great for this, e-books are also excellent for gaining exposure. Anyone can produce and distribute an e-book, so it might not give you the same type of credibility as having your book picked up by a publisher. But in terms of getting people to your website, an e-book can be extremely valuable.

Free e-books are often linked to on blogs, websites, and social media. Those that are truly valuable often get recommendations and priceless exposure for the author. And the costs associated with producing and distributing an e-book are very small, with the exception of the cost of your time to write it.

7. Dribbble and Behance

Sites like Dribbble and Behance are not only great for getting inspiration from the work of other designers, but they also provide opportunities to get exposure for your own work.

What’s Your Opinion?

What skills and characteristics do you think are most critical for freelancers? Feel free to share from your own experience in the comments.

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