11 Essential Skills Every Freelancer Needs to Succeed

There is a lot more to being a successful designer or developer than having creative and coding skills. While those skills are a great start, every freelancer also needs to work on developing other skills, and some of them may not come as naturally as others.

In some cases you’ll need these related skills to do a great job for your clients, and in other cases you’ll need these skills to run a successful business or to offer additional services to clients.

In this article we’ll take a look at 10 related skills that designers and developers should not overlook. Chances are you are already pretty good in many of these areas, but some others may present opportunities for you to improve what you have to offer.

1. Communication


Photo credit: Sebastien Wiertz

Communication skills are a good trait to have for any business person, but they’re essential for any designer or developer who wants to maximize their effectiveness in the field. You can have amazing talent as a designer, but if you’re not effective at communicating with clients, the design process can be frustrating for everyone involved. And consequently, the results will suffer.

There are a number of ways that designers/developers need to be able to communicate with clients, including:

Listening to Client Needs/Wants

When you are working for a client you will need to have a clear understanding of the client’s business, their situation, and what they want and need out of the project. This is the foundation of the project, and in order to get the proper foundation, you will need to be able to listen to clients and understand the details involved.

Asking the Right Questions

In order to fully understand the client’s business and what they need from the project, you will need to ask the right questions to make sure that you are on the same page before diving into the design or coding. With some clients you will need to ask more questions than with others–it all just depends on the situation.

Clear Explanations

One of the most frustrating things for clients is when a designer/developer uses a lot of jargon or terms that they don’t understand. When talking with clients, make an effort to use language and wording that will be clear to them even if they don’t have the same experience that you do.

Communicating Professionally

Whether you are communicating with clients face-to-face, over the phone, or by email, it is important to present a professional image. Many designers do most of their communicating by email since it is great for communicating quickly and for having a documentation of your communication with clients. However, make sure that you are still maintaining a professional image even through your emails.

Communicating Through the Design

The design work itself will also involve communication. Part of the job of a designer is to create something that will communicate the client’s message to its audience. If you’re designing a website, you will need to create something that effectively communicates with the website’s visitors. Of course, in order to be effective at this part of the job, you will first need to do a good job of communicating with the client to understand their business, their audience, and the message that they want to convey.

Dealing with Feedback and Criticism

Throughout the design and development process, you will get feedback from the client and possibly from users. Soliciting feedback and using it to improve your work will require some communication skills. At times you may also face criticism, and how you deal with that criticism will impact your effectiveness.

2. Project Management

Running a successful client project will involve some management skills. If you are a freelancer, all of this will fall on you. If you’re working for a larger agency, you may have a designated project manager, but developing these skills for yourself will only help the quality of your work and may open up some doors in the future.

Part of effective project management is having a process or plan that you can follow. There are a number of different project management apps that can help you keep everything organized and managed effectively.


Basecamp from 37signals is one of the most popular project management tools. Even on the cheapest plan, you can manage 10 active projects at a time for $20 per month. You can also get a 60-day unlimited free trial to see if Basecamp is a good fit for you.



Freedcamp is a free project management app. You can manage unlimited projects, tasks, calendars, discussions and more.



InVision is another popular option that offers a free plan which allows you to manage one active project at a time. Paid plans start at $15 per month for managing three active projects at a time. InVision allows for communication and collaboration from various users and teams throughout the design and development process.



activeCollab has been around for quite some time and has over 200,000 users. It allows team members to communicate, delegate, share files, and more. It gives you a timeline view for managing your project and keeping it on track. You can break the project down into tasks, track time and expenses, handle invoicing, manage a calendar, and more. Pricing starts at $25 per month.



ProofHub can help you to define goals, collaborate and share ideas, organize your work, and deliver your work on time. You can make notes, support discussions, and manage to-do lists. Pricing starts at $15 per month for 10 projects.


3. Time Management

If you are a freelancer or an independent designer, time management will also be critical to your success. As a freelancer there is no one looking over your shoulder, and it will be up to you to stay on task and work efficiently.

There are a few keys to managing your time effectively when working on your own or from home:

Have a Plan for Your Time

One of the biggest culprits of poor use of time is simply not having a plan or lacking direction. Without direction it’s easy to work on things that aren’t urgent or wander from one thing to the next without getting much done. Before you start each day, be sure that you know specifically what you need to get done and work to stay on task.

Minimize Distractions

There are plenty of things that will compete for your attention throughout the day. It could be emails, phone calls, text messages, social media, other people in your office or home, or any number of other things. Identify your most significant distractions, and work to minimize them so you can get more done.

Track Your Time

Working more efficiently requires that you know how you are using your time. You can track your time with a pen and paper, or use one of the apps listed below.

Time Management Tools

Some of the project management tools listed in the previous section include time management functionality, but there are also tools and apps created specifically for managing or tracking your time. Here is a look at some of the options.

Google Calendar

Google Calendar is a simple and free way to start managing your time more effectively.

Remember the Milk

Remember the Milk is a free to-do list app. You can keep tabs on your own to-do list on your iPhone, Android phone, or Blackberry. A desktop app is also available.

Remember the Milk


Toggl can help you to track how you use your time. You can create a task and click a button, and it will track how much time you spend on that task. And if you forget to click the start or stop button, you can always go back and manually correct it. You can then view a day-by-day breakdown to see exactly how you have been using your time. The cost is $5 per month with a 30-day free trial available.



RescueTime is focused on helping you to understand your daily habits so you can be more productive. It runs in the background and tracks how much time you spend on applications and websites to show you how you are using your time. You can set alerts, block distracting websites, and more. A limited free plan is available, and a paid plan is $9 per month.

Rescue Time

You may also be interested in these time management articles for our archives:

4. Sales

Most designers are not naturally good at sales. If you’re working as a freelancer or running your own studio, it is imperative that you have the ability to close sales. One of the biggest problems for many freelancers is spending too much time on potential clients without being able to secure the work.

You don’t need to be the world’s greatest salesperson, but if you can improve your skills in this area it will have a HUGE impact on your business.

Part of being effective at closing the deal is to present the client with a proposal that will meet their needs. Brennan Dunn’s article How to Get Your Clients to Write Their Own Quotes presents a helpful process that you may find to be very effective at getting your clients to sign on the dotted line.

Brent Weaver also has an article on a strategy for follow up that can really help you land work from clients that might otherwise procrastinate. See Try This One Simple Trick That Will Help You Sell More Web Design Projects.

5. SEO

Some designers and developers also offer SEO services to clients, and even if you don’t, it’s still important for you to understand SEO so you can properly optimize sites that you are designing and coding. Basic on-page optimization doesn’t have to be overly complicated, and simply providing clients with a search engine friendly website will help them to get better results, which makes your service more valuable. If you decide that you want to take it to the next level, you could offer SEO packages or add-ons to your design/development services.

SEO is a great add-on service to offer because many of your design and development clients will also have an interest in improving their own search engine rankings and traffic. You can get more work from the clients that you already have and spend less time chasing after new clients.

SEO can also be useful for getting exposure to your own portfolio site or blog and getting more client work as a result.

If you need to improve your SEO skills, here are a few helpful resources:

6. Social Media Marketing

Like SEO, social media marketing presents another opportunity for an add-on service. Today most companies recognize the need for a social presence and the power that it can have on their business, but many will lack the time or knowledge to make it happen on their own.

You could offer services to manage the social profiles of clients, to run contests or promos, or simply to design graphics to be used on their social profiles. Designing custom header graphics for Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ can be a great way to get more work from your web design clients. You may also have some clients that would be interested in hiring you to create custom graphics for them to share on Pinterest or other visually-oriented social networks.

And just like SEO, understanding and applying social media marketing can also help you to promote your own services and attract more visitors to your site or blog.

7. Email Marketing

Some of your clients may also be in need of help managing their own email marketing campaigns. If you do work on e-commerce websites, this is especially likely. If you understand email marketing, it’s possible to get amazing results for your clients that will give them a huge return on their investment of hiring you.

Your clients may need help with the design of HTML emails, with email copy, and possibly just with setting up and managing their campaigns. If you do a lot of client work related to email marketing, you may want to consider using a tool like Campaign Monitor that will allow you to manage all of your clients from one dashboard.

Campaign Monitor

Being proficient with email marketing will help you to get great results that your clients will love, and it will help you to make more money by charging a premium for these services.

If you’re looking to improve your skills with email marketing, please see these resources:

8. Writing/Blogging

Blogging can be one of the best ways to quickly increase your exposure in the industry. You could have a blog at your own portfolio site, or write for other established and popular blogs in the industry. There are countless design and development blogs that are always looking for new contributors, and this gives you the opportunity to reach a large audience and establish some name recognition.

Having a blog on your own site is a great way to attract some links from other sites and blogs and to get search engine traffic that may lead to new opportunities.

Many designers are hesitant to start blogging because they feel like their writing skills are not good enough. Well, blogging on a consistent basis is a great way to improve those writing skills, and besides, you don’t need to be an amazing writer in order to be effective with your blog. You just need to be able to communicate to your target audience, whether that is other designers/developers or potential clients that may be searching for information.

Not only will blogging allow you to increase your exposure, but freelance blogging can also provide some supplemental income. Many of the leading design and development blogs pay writers for contributions, and the rates can be quite good in some cases. Most blogs that hire freelancers will also like to have an on-going relationship, which means if you find a few on-going gigs, you could have repeat work without the need to keep looking for new gigs. Several years ago I did a lot of freelance blogging for sites like Smashing Magazine, Webdesigner Depot, and the Tuts+ network. I definitely recommend freelance blogging to designers/developers who would like to supplement their income.

9. Keyword Research

Keyword research can fall under the broader category of SEO, but it is really a skill of its own. Finding the right keywords and phrases for your own site can help you to increase search traffic, and you can also translate those skills into your client work. You could include keyword research as part of a web design package, part of an SEO package, or offer it as a stand alone service.

While the free Google Keyword Planner can be helpful, you may find more robust tools like Long Tail Pro, Keyword Spy and Market Samurai to be more useful.

Long Tail Pro

If you’re looking to learn more about keyword research please see these resources:

10. Finance/Business Skills

If you are a freelancer, it is imperative that you run your business efficiently, and if you manage a small studio with other employees, it is even more important. Being a great designer doesn’t necessarily mean you will run a successful design business.

As a designer you may hate dealing with the financial details of running a freelance business, but if you want to succeed, you will need to do it effectively.

If you need to improve your business skills, here are two resources that can help.

Courses from Tuts+

Tuts+ offers tutorials and training on a wide variety of topics like design and development. They also offer two courses that can help you with the business aspect. Freelance Bootcamp and Working with Clients (and Getting Paid!) are available to Tuts+ members.

Learn Web Development

Learn Web Development is a course that covers the technical details of development as well as business aspects like how to find clients, how to price your services, how to build your team, and how to work less and earn more.

11. Growth Skills

The last skill that we’ll look at in this article is growth skills. In order to run a successful freelance business long-term and hopefully grow your business, you must be willing to set goals and seek the training and education needed to meet those goals. You can learn a lot just from looking at other designers. Find the key players within the industry by performing a local Google search for your trade or look them up on networking sites like LinkedIn, Behance, Dribbble, or even Twitter.

Another way you can learn and grow is by taking online training programs. If you’re an excellent designer with only a small amount of coding experience or vice versa, there are plenty of online sources where you can learn how to improve your skills that are lacking.


Udemy offers online courses for just about anything you’d like to receive training on–from web design to graphic design to even yoga (not that I’m suggesting the latter training option necessarily).

Udemy Online Training courses


Treehouse offers online courses if you want to hone in your coding skills. They offer courses for html, css, and even for writing code for phone apps.

Treehouse Online Training

What’s Your Experience?

What skills have you found to be the most critical to your work as a designer or developer? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Looking for hosting? WPEngine offers secure managed WordPress hosting. You’ll get expert WordPress support, automatic backups, and caching for fast page loads.

Divi WordPress Theme