I’ve been in the design industry for almost 15 years, but my independent design career started in 2015. Before that, I was working as an in-house UX designer, design lead, product designer, design project manager and web designer for a number of businesses and tech startups.
However, I’ve always felt I’m destined to work for myself and most importantly exercise my brain with various products and design projects instead of working on one product for years.
So when I decided to quit my full-time job and dedicate my time completely on freelance projects I got plenty of raised eyebrows how I’m going to maintain a steady income, support a family and pay a mortgage. And I agree – a bit like with the gig economy model, the price of freedom, when you don’t have enough leverage, is instability. Another way to look at it is – excitement and the opportunity to work only on projects you enjoy, but if you’re over 25 you’ll most probably see it as a “lack of security” rather than the “dream freedom”.
So if you’re on a crossroad and you’re wondering if a freelance or an in-house design career is right for you, read on to see some practical tips.
This is based on my 5-year experience as a full-time freelance UX designer and a 6-month journey as a design studio founder. I’ve spent £0 on advertising and marketing and I was generating higher income than any full-time role I’ve ever interviewed for.
Here’s the best path to having a successful freelance career as a UX designer
1. Invest a few years in working at an agency or for different companies
This should be ideally in the space you’d like to work as a freelancer. Jumping from education to freelancing is usually a mistake as you don’t have any commercial projects to help you sell yourself – no experience, no portfolio, no leverage.
You’ll have a hard time finding clients if you don’t have any successful projects. You’re also missing an amazing opportunity to go and learn from bigger companies, test and experiment with bigger budgets, use world-class tools, etc. Your early freelance clients will most probably be small and their limited budget will limit your growth, which will make it harder for you to land bigger clients with more complex needs.
2. When you start, the very first year – work for cheap, work for free
This is worth it only if you do it for the right projects. Find a small charity that needs good design or a local business you want to support. This is for the same reason as point 1 – to pump up your portfolio. You need at least 7-8 good projects to start attracting decent clients and you can’t fake that. Also, if you help the right organisations it will make you feel good.
A couple of examples here. In my early years as a designer I designed the website for a charity that supports children of British soldiers. This was extremely satisfying, they still exist and I’m so proud I was briefly part of their mission. During the same time, I approached a promising local glamour model with the offer to design her website for free – she never appreciated the help and this was in an industry I had no interest whatsoever. This was a pure waste of time.
Ideally, you should be gaining this experience while still working full time, so yes – this means busy weekends, missed parties and working early mornings and late evenings.
3. Invest time in showcasing your projects and polishing your portfolio
This is a mistake I’ve done many, many times. I’ve been so busy jumping from project to project that I’ve often neglected my portfolio and before I knew it, prospective clients were mainly seeing outdated projects which was doing me more harm than good. Every time I added new projects to my website or social media channels, I was seeing an influx of new enquiries.
4. Spend time on creating a killer personal website
This was the most critical part for me. The previous version of the website you’re seeing now was not bad at all for its time and after publishing it on Awwwards and winning an Honourable Mention award I got tons of traffic and referrals which was a breaking point for me. It gave me exposure, attracted new clients and most importantly – it boosted my Google ranking. Which leads me to point 5.
5. Invest in your website SEO
This is a long-term game, but if you get it right, you’ll be seeing a constant flow of enquiries for months, even years to come. How did I achieve this? Mainly from quality backlinks which resulted in more backlinks. Other than Awwwards, where you can submit it yourself, my website was featured on a number of design and tech publications. I was always saying yes to giving a quick quote or an interview as long as it linked back to my website. The main benefit of this is not that clients will find you through those links, but that it will boost your Google keywords ranking.
6. The social networks to be on are Dribbble, Behance, Instagram and LinkedIn.
If you have enough energy, I’d also add Twitter, especially if you’re targeting tech entrepreneurs and startups. I was a bit late in the game with Dribbble, Behance and Insta and I regret is as I can see how much they’re helping me now. They’re the only acquisition channels for many freelance designers I know. So even if you’re just starting, make sure you invest in your presence on these 5, it will go a long way.
7. Don’t underprice yourself
When you have the 7-8 killer (or at least decent) projects in your portfolio, your aim is to price your work at a rate of an average UX designer working as a full-time employee. This is a great deal for clients. From there, you have to be adjusting your prices depending on how much you think you’re worth it, without staying off work for more than 2 weeks. This is hard to explain and advice on, as it really depends where you’re based, what industry you specialise in, etc, but you’ll intuitively feel what I mean when you’re in the situation. If you’re extremely busy, but not satisfied with your income, you’re definitely underpricing yourself.
8. Quote by project, price per hour + value
What I mean here is – never work on an hourly rate. I’ve done this for a couple of years and it was only leading to issues and complications. It will even become “unfair” with time, when you’re gaining experience and speed up your delivery process and clients underestimate your value because you’ve been fast and efficient.
There’s a great quote by Paula Scher “It took me a few seconds to draw it, but it took me 34 years to learn how to draw it in a few seconds.”
Estimate how many hours/days a project will take you to complete, factoring in the project deliverables, the value for the client, how “difficult” the client looks, how many people are involved, etc, BUT always quote a fixed price. You might be losing from some projects, this is inevitable, but overall you’ll be much better off if you don’t work per hour. The best person to learn from about pricing is Chris Do, I strongly recommend this video and his courses.
The more experience you gain, the more focus you should be putting on the value you’re bringing for the client and less how much time you spend on the project. That’s how you’ll be getting more profitable as a freelancer. You can’t charge crazy prices per hour, it looks greedy and wrong, but you can charge more for the value you’re providing and no one will question it if you bring results.
9. Avoid quick projects of 2-3 days.
Unless you’re desperate for work, don’t commit to new projects of 2-3 days. You’ll have plenty of requests like “Hey, can you come to our office and help us for a couple of days with our homepage?”. The main reason is that these gigs eat up quite a lot of prep time in communication, soak up your energy and give little in return. The only exception is if it’s for a good company that might boost you after that.
10. Ask for recommendations
Then use and reuse them. Many of the projects you work on might not even exist in a couple of years. However, the people you worked with will still be around (hopefully…) and a few nice words from them on your LinkedIn profile and personal website will be the only thing you have left from these projects.
Similarly to what brands are doing on Trustpilot and Google, take advantage of the social proof online reviews are offering.
The best time to ask for a recommendation is straight after you complete a project. People would usually be pleased with the result and would like show their appreciation. The best way to do it is request on LinkedIn, then drop them a quick email to let them know, then remind them if needed and once you have the recommendation – post it on your website, stick it to their project showcase, recycle on social media channels, etc. This is super powerful!
11. Ask for referrals
Happy clients bring more clients. Word-of-mouth is the most effective marketing channel since ancient times. Do it straight after you finish a project and ask for a recommendation. Something along the lines of this will do the job: “Hey John, it was a pleasure working with you. Please, keep me in mind if someone from your network is looking for a designer, I’d love to work on more projects like yours”.
I hope this helped. Let me know what worked for you to become a full-time freelance UX designer or what other strategies you’re experimenting with.