Money is always an iffy topic, especially when it comes to design and designers. When I started out I made a whopping $840 a fortnight after taxes. Now I make that in less than a day, it's crazy when I think about it. And for a lot of us it's never been about the money, myself included. But what I inevitably realised is that money brings freedom, the freedom to choose the work we take on as well as the freedom to have time to do what we want and to work on meaningful projects. I also believe in pushing not only the quality of our work but also the value of our work. These are some useful tips based on my experience working at agencies over the last 9 years and my first year of freelancing fulltime.
For reference I've made over 6 figures $140k+ working about 7 months in total on and off across the year. I enjoy some time off in between and the freedom to do other things so if you are committed you can be sure to blow my numbers out of the water. Bear in mind I have been doing this for 9 years so with it comes experience and it is a skill set that you will need to build. These are some tips that will be sure to boost your value regardless if you're starting out or if you're a veteran. They are not overnight tips, you will need to put in some hard work but if you take action I'm adamant you will see results after a few months.
1. Be a good designer, produce great work that solves problems.
This seems like a no brainer, but you'd be surprised how many people neglect this. I am a strong believer in working on ones own craft. Improving the quality of your work helps you as a designer but also pushes the industry forward. A strong body of work commands interest from prospective clients and increases your perceived value.
So what aspects can you improve and how?
Think of all your favourite designers and put down a list of say 5. Done that? Good. Now your goal is to close the gap between your work and the work of these designers. Also follow the work that your favourite designers like and save via pinterest, behance/dribbble etc. and from there you've found your benchmark.
Visual - First you're going to need some visual chops. The best way to improve this is to practice, spend 1-2 hours a day deconstructing and recreating the work of these designers. What would begin as merely copying and recreating will eventually allow to see and understand why certain things work. Why type hierarchy, spacing and interactions are a certain way etc. Many great designers started this way. Read this great interview from Halli of UENO. As well as this great article by Mike Buzzard cofounder of Cuban Council and now a Design Manager at Google. The idea is really just to keep creating, over time you will realise your own ideas as your visual library expands within your head. And if you're a seasoned veteran - just keep creating as there's always room to improve. A seasoned chef still sharpens his knife.
Thinking objectively - Visual chops are all well and good. But design is more than just the visual, it's about meeting goals, objectives and thinking about how things work. It's important to have a holistic view of your work and where it sits in the scheme of things. Sure a lot of designers don't want to think their work sits in a marketing plan or a business strategy but it does. Think about what the hell is all this for? If you have an overall picture of where your work fits into the scheme of things you will also understand the value of your work. Get into reading about interaction design and business. Learn new skills such as prototyping and wireframing if you don't already. And if you can - join communities and find great mentors to learn from.
While there may be art in what we do, we are not artists we are designers. And it is the balance of form, function and user/client objectives that makes our work great.
2. Be a great communicator.
People whether they are Creative Directors, Marketing Managers or Project Managers are at the end of the day just people. People just like you and me. I remember when we were hiring designers I would always look at the work of candidates first but I dare say almost equally as important was how well they communicated. How did they come up with the context and rationale for their design solutions. Were they consistent with keeping the communications line open when needed.
Being able to communicate well and eloquently builds trust amongst potential clients. How well can you answer their questions? Try to be empathetic and put yourself in your clients shoes. What do they need to know and how best can you solve their problem? Identify your professional tone of voice and personality. I prefer to write to clients and prospective clients in a conversational tone, I find it's easier to be level with them and it is the kind of organisations that I like to deal with. It weeds out all the unnecessary jargon and allows us to engage on a more personable and “authentic” level.
Not directly related to communication but I'll put it here as well. Punctuality is super important. If you are going to say something is going to be delivered at a certain date/time make sure you do it on time or even better earlier than your proposed time. Under promise and over deliver not vice versa. I'm not a super organised person by nature but through the years I've learnt to always deliver no matter what.
3. Put your self out there.
If you have the 2 above points down, then now it's about getting your name out there. No one is going to hire you if they don't know about you. As stated in a previous post I used to feel iffy about promoting myself. But by putting yourself and your work out there, you are not only making yourself known but are making connections with like minded designers from all over the world. Join online creative sites like Behance, Dribbble etc and keep posting your work. I think Dan Mall said it best “contribute to the conversations you want to be part of” and read his great article here on getting the work you want. Giving yourself exposure is almost as important as having great work when you are a freelancer. So share your work and reach out to different communities. You can even share your journey and post snippets of your design exercises. Similar to what Paul Flavius did with his 100 daily ui elements challenge. Hit 2 birds with 1 stone.
4. Work with only good clients, that pay well.
As your designs become more solid and your reputation grows by now you should be receiving a few job leads. The key is to close clients that you have qualified – to pay you what you think you are worth . But how do you do that? By offering them value. Value in your work and what your work will mean to their business. For reference all my clients are via a pull methodology meaning they get in touch via different channels and I never reach out. So they know about what kind of work I offer and what I'm about. Also most of the time they know which markets I serve. So identify what markets you serve and think about what your time and work is worth. Do you create work for for a few hundred, a few thousand, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands? Identify your mark and determine what you think is good pay and accept accordingly.
Good clients will refer you to other good clients. And I mean not just attributes of pay but how easy they are to deal with and most of the time how nice they are. You will be surprised how like minded businesses will engage with each other. On the other hand average or less than stellar clients will more often than not refer to other average clients. If you do sites for $100 dollars as an example you will be known as the $100 website guy/girl attracting those kind of clients. Likewise if you do sites for $30k+ then you exist in that market. Or if you are Huge Inc. $18 million for the four seasons website :)
NOTE: This is an article about boosting your value and earning more money. But for me the quality of the projects is the most important, if the design work is meaningful in some way take it on regardless of budget. I still do jobs for not for profits for a much reduced rate because to me that is worthwhile work. So it's up to you to define what is important.
5. Be nice
Seems like a weird one to add in but being nice is important. Most people don't like to work with designers who have huge egos. Treat others like how you would like to be treated. Etiquette and manners go a long way. It is ok to disagree with your client, what I'm saying is be professional and easy to deal with. This ties back into picking the right clients and referrals. If you do a good job people will remember you and refer you on to others.
There you have it. Hope these tips are useful to you.