What if I show you step by step how to start a graphic design business? How would you go about it? You’d be surprised how little formal knowledge you need to get started.
All you really need is some graphic design background, and the willingness to learn on-the-job skills and software. In fact, graphic designers are the ones who decide how businesses look which means that you have a very big say on what people will see, feel and think about the products of businesses.
The world is becoming more and more of a visual society and it’s said 70% of our decisions are made via visual means and graphic design is at the core of such decisions.
So, kudos to all the graphic designers out there!
In this article, I’ll provide a step-by-step guide on how to start a graphic design business from scratch (or from an existing freelance career).
This thorough article is divided into two main parts of starting a graphic design business:
- The Foundational Stage
- The Build-up Stage
Ok, without any further ado, let’s dive right into the world of graphic design and how you can start your own business in this profitable industry.
How To Start a Graphic Design Business – The Foundational Stage
1. Assess Your Skills
In order for you to start and grow your own graphic design business, one of the best things you can do is to assess your existing skillset.
Before learning how to start a graphic design business with all its ups and downs, take a very honest and objective look at your skillset. Do you have the skillset that’ll allow you to start your own graphic design business?
Hone in on what you’re great at, and educate yourself on things you don’t know but will need to succeed.
Look at the skills you have. What can you create? What are you good at? Are you more of a logo design or a poster design or both?
If you don’t know what to do, I recommend finding a mentor, or an experienced creative person who can help you develop your skillset and get into the industry. Doing this will help you in the long run.
2. Create a Business Plan
You’ve probably heard or read this quote somewhere; “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”.
Having a business plan is one fundamental step to starting a graphic design business.
A lot can go wrong if you do not plan right. Without a plan, you may find yourself confused and aimless, with no real progress to show for it. I know that’s happened to me before with my freelance business. A plan usually consists of a few things:
- Target Market – who are you selling to? What is your niche? Is it for large corporations in need of high-quality designs, or for small businesses looking for low-cost design services?
- Investment Plan – what’s your upfront budget to kick off?
- Goals – what are your short-term and long-term goals?
- Finances – how will you generate revenue, pay the bills, etc…
- Marketing Plan – how will you market your services and brand?
- Pricing Structure – how much are you going to charge?
- Environment Setup – do you have a comfy place that allows for a smooth workflow?
3. Choose Your Niche
Before you jump into the world of freelance design, it’s important to choose your niche and your target market.
You should already have a rough idea of the industry you want to serve. Of course, when starting out, you don’t want to be too broad or too niched down when choosing your niche.
Find a sweet spot leaving room for a few chances of optimization. What I mean by that is you don’t want to go immediately into serving a specific type of clientele. Why?
- If things do not take off the way you expect with one industry, you’ll find yourself having a few other options to start working on.
- If you get bored doing stuff for one particular industry, you can hop onto another one to see if this is THE ONE!
4. Find Your Own Style
This is what will make you stand out amongst your competitors in the design industry and give you an edge over other freelancers.
Try to think of the difference between what you like, and what you don’t like.
Think about it: why do you feel this way? What can you do to make that change? How are all those changes going to affect your business?
Answering these types of questions is really helpful when determining which niche will be best for starting a graphic design business, or what kind of niche you want to find yourself working in later on in life.
How To Start a Graphic Design Business – The Build-Up Stage
After going through the foundational stage, you should have a pretty good idea of where you will take your business. Now it is time to build up, on that knowledge and put that plan into action.
1. Equip Yourself With the Right Tools
Setting up your own graphic design business will not only require physical equipments but also software applications for different purposes such as invoicing, payment, accounting, etc…
In order to build a graphic design business, you need to have the proper tools to do the job like a pro.
One thing that you should never skimp on is your toolkit.
That means investing in the proper software and hardware to ensure you’re creating the best quality work.
When it comes to software, you’ll also want to make use of the best ones on the market so as not to compromise on quality, speed, and deadline.
Here is an article that I wrote on the best software for graphic design. I’ve personally tested a ton of them since 2014 and I can confidently recommend them for your own graphic design business.
2. Get A Professional Logo
A logo is one of the first things potential clients will notice when they browse your online portfolio. It may not make or break your business, but it definitely will make a lasting impression!
You need to create a professional logo for yourself as early as possible as your logo will be the face of your brand.
It’s a good idea to get your logo professionally designed if you don’t have the skillset or the experience to do so.
3. Build Your Portfolio
In order for you to attract clients and make money as a freelance graphic designer, you’ll definitely need a well-designed portfolio.
A well-designed portfolio is a must-have when starting a graphic design business.
Think of it as an advertisement tool that will help you attract your first clients and build up a reputation.
If you’re completely new to the industry and don’t have a portfolio yet, you’ll need to find your first projects (which will be free projects).
At this stage, no one will pay you for your work. It’s all about gaining experience for the first few months and only after building up a good portfolio can you hope to get paid gigs.
You can reach out to a few local businesses, your friends, and family and propose them do something for free in return for a testimonial.
4. Build Your Website
Next, you’ll want to set up your own business website. The business website is the face of your business.
If a potential client comes across your website and it looks unprofessional or is poorly managed, they might think twice before hiring you.
The fact that you’re a professional freelance graphic designer is only one part of the equation.
Many people are thinking of going into the same field as you are, so it has to be special and unique to stand out from the crowd.
When building your business website, you might want to consider if you will use a free website builder like Weebly, Wix, Squarespace or get a custom domain and a professional web hosting account?
The choice is yours but I would recommend getting a custom domain and web hosting account.
Having control over your own website will allow you to easily customize it to your needs without having anyone else touch it.
Essential Steps to Building Your Website
1. Get Your Domain
You may already know that you need to get your own domain name for your graphic design business. This is where you’ll send your visitors, a kind of online boutique.
I suggest you go for a .com domain name and choose a short but sweet your audience will easily remember.
There are lots of domain registrars out there, but my favorite one is Namecheap because of their low prices and great customer service.
2. Get Your Web Hosting Plan
Your web hosting service is basically a place where your website files are stored on the internet. The space given to you on the internet is called a web hosting account. And the one I recommend for beginners is Bluehost.
Bluehost is a very cheap and reliable hosting service with super-fast servers. Here are a couple of reasons why I recommend Bluehost as your web hosting service:
It’s a great starting point for beginners who are new to the world of web design.
- They offer unlimited storage space for your website files (like images, videos, pdfs, etc…)
- You can host multiple websites with one account.
- 1-Click WordPress install
- Free SSL Certificate Included
- Expert 24/7 Support
3. Install Your Web Theme
A web theme is basically the look and feel of your site (the colors, fonts, layout, etc…) It is just a web design style. And there are many free and premium web themes out there.
I personally use Kadence for all my websites because it’s super-fast and easy to build. It comes with an awesome drag and drop page builder feature that allows you to build and manage your website pages very easily.
4. Install Essential Plugins
Plugins are those software add-ons that are installed on your website to make it look more elegant and easy to navigate. It’s a great way to add additional features and functionality to your website.
But hey you don’t need a ton of them. A few essential WordPress plugins that will ensure the security, good functionality, and efficiency of your website:
Free Plugins to Start With:
- W3 Total Cache (speed optimization)
- Yoast or RankMath (SEO optimized content + indexing)
- Insert Header and Footers (additional scrips, tags…)
- ShortPixel (image compression)
- WordFence (online security)
- Askimet (block spam comments)
- UpdraftPlus (backup)
5. Customize Your WordPress Theme
Most of the time you will get a pre-designed and pre-built web theme to save time while building your website. But that doesn’t mean you can’t customize it!
As a graphic designer, your website is your own personal space that needs to reflect your style, your personality, and your goals. That’s why I love Kadence as it’s super-easy to customize and make it look the way you want.
Customizing your theme includes:
- Adding your logo
- Writing about your brand on different pages
- Listing all the services you provide
- Adding your best artwork to your portfolio page
6. Build Your Online Presence
In order for people to notice your freelance graphic design business, you have to have a good online presence that will help people find you online.
The internet is huge, and it has changed the way we buy, sell and connect to each other. Because of this, you should dedicate a good portion of your time to getting out there on the web and promoting your business.
Getting out there can be the most intimidating and discouraging process but don’t let this alter your efforts at becoming one of the greatest graphic designers if that is what you desire.
Below are the most popular ways for brand awareness and building your reputation as a graphic designer.
1. Social Media
Social media is great for promoting a graphic design business. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are just a few social media platforms that are very effective at getting your name out there.
But before joining every social network under the sun, you need to find out where your audience hangs out.
It’s pretty useless to create an account on Pinterest, putting out pins every day on the platform, only to find out that most of your audience is on YouTube.
So, first, it’s good to know where your target market spends their time looking for a solution to their problem.
2. Graphic Design Network
There are a few huge online networks that are specific to the graphic design community. And joining them is a very effective way to meet like-minded people, share your work and land your first paid projects.
The most popular graphic design networks out there are Behance & Dribbble. Both platforms have millions of users and they are a great place to get eyeballs on your artwork, earn referrals, gain exposure and establish yourself as an experienced designer.
You might think “But these are for designers not for people who are looking for designers”. That’s true but since businesses know Behance is full of designers, they will automatically head over there to search for someone to hire.
So, imagine if your artwork is outstanding, attractive, and well presented!
3. Business Networking Events
Networking events are a great way to meet other individuals who work in the same industry as you. I think it’s really important to meet up with people, build relationships and learn from them where possible.
This can be done in person or online via webinars, Skype, Zoom, or a Facebook group.
You have lots of opportunities to network with people and make meaningful relationships. Not only will these relationships help you grow as a graphic designer, but also help your business.
Yes, they might your competitors but they might also help increase your bottom line. Let’s take a simple example:
“You go to an event and meet a few people who are also freelance graphic designers or have their own graphic design business. You spend a few hours together, talking about the event, mutually showing off your artwork and at the end of the event you hand them your business card. A few days later, you get a call from one of the guys you met at this conference and he asks you if you’re free for a project because he’s fully booked and cannot accommodate another client.”
How about that?
A competitor can also be a blessing to your graphic design business.
4. Get Involved in Forums
There are many forums out there where you can join the conversation and start building your reputation as a graphic designer.
But don’t join them to spam the users with a link to your website or beg for work. That is the most unprofessional way to approach the game and you can put a stain on your business name for a long time.
Forums can be used to drive traffic to your website and also get potential clients. But it has to be natural, not forcing people to click on your link as I said a few lines before.
Provide valuable answers that will really help the readers and who knows they might as well click on one of your links to your website and start browsing through your portfolio and finally converts.
How To Land Your First Graphic Design Clients
We’ve covered the first stages of how to start a graphic design business which will set you up and running to start getting those paid gigs.
But before you do that, I would like to share a few things with you that I have learned over the years of having my own graphic design business.
1. You need to be comfortable selling your services.
The best graphic designer in the world will fail miserably at their business if they don’t like working with people or don’t enjoy selling their services.
2. Respect your client.
If your clients feel that you are trying to get something out of them, then you will most likely not get the business. So, be honest and upfront with everything that you can do for their company or project.
3. Be an expert in your field.
You might have heard “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. That’s true, but there is no such thing as an old dog that doesn’t know what it’s doing. So, never underestimate your own expertise and try to be better every day.
4. Show, don’t tell.
So today’s world is filled with copy/paste work and off-the-shelf design services. As a graphic designer, it’s your duty to show what you are capable of rather than telling your audience about it.
Leverage your skills and experience and give them a reason to hire you.
5. Always be available to talk with new clients.
Being a graphic designer for many years and having thousands of clients doesn’t mean you are immune to the prospect of making new ones. Always keep these people on your speed dial because they will be the ones who will start showing up on the first page of google.
6. The same way you approach your work, you need to approach your business too.
There are only two types of graphic designers, those who do graphic design for themselves and those who sell their services to others as a business owner. As far as I’m concerned there is no middle ground.
7. Marketing always takes more time than you think it will.
Since your business is in its infancy, you need to dedicate some time trying to get new clients, speaking at workshops, and showing your work at different events around the city.
Just like anything else, it takes a while before all of that starts working out for you.
8. Don’t underestimate the power of social media.
Although social media can be a great way to connect with friends and family, it’s also one of the most powerful marketing tools out there in this day and age. Promoting your business on social media networks can bring in a massive amount of leads, sales, etc…
9. Prove yourself through your work
So, before even talking about what you can do, and what amazing software you use, you need to be able to prove yourself and show that your portfolio is more desirable than other designers out there.
How to Get Targeted Visitors to Your Portfolio Website
Remember this: you can have the most awesome portfolio with tons of professionally designed artwork but if no one visits your site, then your graphic design business is doomed to failure because you won’t make any buck.
Ok, let me show you the different routes you can take to make those leads/prospects come knock at your door.
1. Google Traffic
You may or may not have heard of SEO. Search Engine Optimization is a collection of practices that can help you improve the visibility of your website on search engine results pages.
In other words, it’s the practice of making your site rank higher on search engine result pages. When your site rank higher in Google for specific search terms, which we called “keywords”, your chance of landing projects is higher because people will come to your website and start doing business with you.
Now, SEO is a very broad term with tons of moving parts, which I won’t get into in this post. What we want to talk about is how to make your site rank organically and attract people so they can find it.
So, how do you do that? Well, there 2 ways:
- Organic traffic through search results
- Paid ads via Google Ads
First, let’s see how you can start a graphic design business and make money from it using free traffic from Google.
The way you would want to get those clicks to your website is obviously via blogging. It’s actually the only to get organic and targeted traffic/visitors to your website/portfolio.
And there’s a roadmap on how to start a blog, develop and promote it online with no cost/no money involved so you can get graphic design projects.
But beware! It’s very true that you can get a lot of traffic from Google without spending a dime.
However, it takes a bit of time to start ranking on page 1 of Google.
Also known as PPC, paid traffic is another way of getting website traffic if you have a monthly budget you can allocate to this.
PPC stands for Pay Per Click, which is where Google pays you for each visitor who clicks on your ad.
With paid advertising, you can easily showcase your artwork and close some serious deals. Of course, not every person that clicks on an ad will become a customer but if you know how to optimize your ads, you can get a positive ROI because Google Ads, if done well, is super profitable.
2. Email Marketing
Email marketing is a great way to start and sustain a relationship with your clients. In fact, email marketing is still the best revenue channel in terms of ROI.
According to Constant Contact, email marketing has a return on investment (ROI) of $36 for every $1 spent. So, would you afford to not build your email list and miss on all this profitability?
So, how do you start building your email list?
Let me just point out that it’s not a simple thing as putting out a “subscribe now” box on your website, on every page.
Keep in mind that an email is pretty much a personal thing. So, don’t expect to get tons of emails just because you have a subscription box all over your website.
What you need to do is offer something of value in exchange for a visitor’s email. When they see they will something valuable that will help solve their problem, they will not think twice before giving your their email.
So, think of what can be valuable to your audience and promote it as a lead magnet on your site to collect those emails.
To be successful at making a sustainable income via your email list, you should obviously have an email marketing software that will automate the process and make your life much easier.
Below is a list of the 7 best email marketing software on the market. They are easy to use, efficient and won’t put a dent in your wallet.
- Active Campaign
- Constant Contact
3. Guest Blogging
Guest blogging or guest posting is the practice of writing guest posts on relevant sites that have a similar audience as yours. Guest blogging is a very underused but powerful tool to:
- increase your domain authority in Google’s eyes
- get more eyeballs, exposure, and reach
- drive targeted traffic to your website
This will help you build a network of contacts and relationships, which you can use for future leads/prospects campaigns.
Here are 5 simple steps:
There are obviously more ways to land graphic design projects but the ones I’ve listed are the most popular.
Wrap Up On How to Start a Graphic Design Business
- Assess Your Skills
- Create a Business Plan
- Choose Your Niche
- Find Your Own Style
- Choose the Right Tools
- Get A Professional Logo
- Build Your Portfolio
- Build Your Business Website
- Get Your Domain
- Get Your Web Hosting Plan
- Install Your Web Theme
- Install Essential Plugins
- Customize Your WordPress Theme
- Build Your Online Presence
- Find Graphic Design Clients
Any business that streamlines its processes and has a physical location relies on graphic designers to grow its brands, products, and services.
With that being said, you can be sure that the graphic design industry is one that will stay lucrative for a long time.
I hope you’ve learned something in this guide about how to start a graphic design business, how to promote it, the different ways to land your first paid clients, and the core business structure of building it.
Building your own graphic design business from scratch won’t be an easy ride, especially if you’re doing it alone and have no budget for marketing purposes.
But with hard work, dedication, and some creativity, you can make it work and the next successful graphic design business.