13 Steps: How to Start Your Own Graphic Design Business

Does this story sound familiar? You’ve been working in graphic design for a number of years and have built up a strong portfolio of work.

Perhaps you’ve won some awards and/or made it to the most senior level? You’re now thinking the next logical step is to either set up as a freelancer, or to start a graphic design business of your very own…

Before you take the plunge and leave your day job, read these 13 steps to maximise your chances of success.

1. Ask yourself: are you motivated enough?

This may sound obvious but if you think you’d quite like to run your own graphic design business… forget it. Hesitancy, indecisiveness, or any degree of wavering or lack of commitment will only result in frustration, aggravation and ultimately, failure.

Starting a graphic design business is the easiest part of the whole process – maintaining your initial enthusiasm and momentum is the tricky part, so think carefully before making that first leap of faith.

Running your own graphic design business involves juggling with the demands of existing clients, cash flow and staffing issues, all the while trying to source new business. It’s not easy, but if you’re dedicated and positive, it can be extremely rewarding.

2. Evaluate your skills

Be honest with yourself. What can and can’t you do in terms of providing a service? Your business will be called upon to provide a wide variety of tasks and this will probably determine your staffing requirements in the short to medium term.

Typically, graphic designers will be expected to produce:

  • Logos and branding
  • Business cards
  • Website design
  • Design for social media
  • Design for animation
  • Stationary
  • Print design, such as books, brochures and flyers
  • Typography design
  • Packaging design
  • Print advertisements
  • Restaurant Menus
  • Infographics

Consequently if you do not have the skills required to provide these services, it is important that you have access to a range of suitably skilled contacts to whom you can sub-contract work before starting a graphic design business.

Carve yourself a niche and become a specialist in an area, such as packaging design.

3. Further develop your skills…

If all this sounds pretty daunting and you feel your skills are limited, or maybe you just need a bit more experience, then studying a course in graphic design is a great way to develop your skills and build your confidence.

IDI tutor Robert Potts tells us a little bit about what it’s like to study towards a design degree with IDI in just over one minute:

4. What is your ultimate goal?

Be specific: we already know you want to set up a graphic design business, but what makes it unique? How will you measure its success? Where are you now, and where is it you want to be in, say, three years time?

This involves taking stock of your current situation and how you might leverage the best possible advantage from picking your moment to start up on your own.

Finance is a main concern for many. If you are already employed within a larger design practice, you may be able to source potential commissions prior to your departure but avoid poaching clients as this will only create tension and earn you a bad reputation within the industry.

If you are a recent graduate, there are usually a variety of government-backed schemes designed to help you establish your own business. Various criteria apply regarding eligibility so research these well in advance and apply as appropriate.

5. Identify your target market

Much as you would like to, you will not be able to provide all of the graphic design services potential clients might ask for. Focus your efforts on a specific segment of the market and aim to provide a first class service in the first instance.

While sub-contracting a few commissions can be lucrative, liaising between clients and contractors will be time consuming and fraught with difficulties involving quality assurance and delivery deadlines.

Aim to identify and profile your ideal client. Ask yourself: who are they, where are they, what service do they require and what is their budget likely to be?

The resources and requirements of a small business will be different to those of a typical family wedding or graduation celebration, so it pays to be aware of your client’s expectations and aspirations.

6. Check out the competition

Research the graphic design businesses in your geographical area – particularly those competing for clients within your target market. Compile a spreadsheet which records what services your competitors provide, how much they charge and how, when and where they advertise.

Do your competitors offer any form of financial incentive to their customers such as discounts or loyalty bonuses? What do they say their turn-around time will be?

Don’t forget to look online. Many businesses operate from a physical outlet and provide an online service too, others are provided solely online.

You should revisit and revise your competitor research on a regular basis as a good business will be constantly refining its tactics and strategy.

7. Establish a price list for your services

This should be partly informed by your research into your competitors. However, you must also decide how you will charge for your services. Will you charge each client an hourly rate or will you be a paid on a project-by-project basis?

Both methods have their advantages but require you to be able to scope the extent of each piece of work accurately. If you opt to charge by the hour and estimate that a commission will take a specific number of hours, and the job overruns by a significant amount of time, you will undoubtedly annoy the client.

Equally, underestimating the extent of a commission could result in you failing to make a profit or even running at a loss. Many business people try to compensate for unforeseen expenses by building a financial cushion into their pricing structure. This is typically determined by a percentage of the perceived cost, for example, the estimated cost plus 10%.

You may also have regular clients who require your services on an ongoing basis and will have to determine a monthly rate for them known as a retainer.

8. Don’t forget the legal bit

Take legal advice and devise a template for any contract you enter into with clients. This should come in a format that will enable you to customise details and information according to the requirements of each commission.

At the very least, you should have a document that captures all contact information:

  • the service requested
  • the schedule for delivery
  • the anticipated cost
  • both parties’ agreement to honour this
  • what has to be supplied by the client before the job will commence
  • transfer of rights to the completed materials
  • limitation of liability and your cancellation policy

Saving money by drafting your own contract is not always a good idea – for example, if any of the above terms are new to you or seem confusing, do your research and/or seek help from a legal professional.

9. Consider outsourcing skills

Take advice on the range of contracts that are available for the recruitment of graphic design specialists who are able to supplement and enhance your own skills.

There are many, many Human Resource services available and these can often be retained on a monthly basis. This will provide you with an excellent resource upon which to draw for contracts and employment law advice.

A web based search will provide several options in your area.

10. Employ an account manager

If you can manage to afford the cost, your first full time employee should be an account manager.

Many graphic designers starting their own business make the mistake of assuming that being able to handle the creative side of the business will be enough, that a constant flow of work will keep the business financially viable.

In reality, this is often unworkable as sourcing and then servicing the administration of each commission is a full time job in itself.

11. Get geared up

Research the office and IT suppliers who will best service your needs. When starting up your graphic design business, your financial outlay will be considerable and it’s up to you to make the best possible use of your resources.

Consider whether leasing or buying outright is the best option for computer and office hardware and take into account the ongoing maintenance contracts offered.

Scope the software you will require and the potential costs involved in upgrading in the future. Remember to include the cost of any licenses, both for you and any employees who might use these.

12. Showcase your skills through your own branding

You are a graphic designer. Your business is graphic design. Your clients will judge you on what they can see and this is why your brand image is crucial.

Your visual identity is your shop window. As explained in our article on creating your visual identity, it’s important to put time and thought into creating your logo, business card, brochure and website. These will be taken as a reflection of who you are and what your business does.

Business card design by IDI student David Hare

Which brings us to a crucial question: what will you name your business?

Make no mistake, choosing your business name can be a difficult and costly exercise. Difficult in the short term because the process requires some thought and effort, and potentially costly in the longer term as an error in judgement at this stage might prove expensive in the future.

It’s a question of where you wish to position your business on the ‘own name’ versus ‘corporate brand name’ scale. You are aiming to achieve a balance between the quirky and memorable, the staid and safe, the exciting and innovative, and the just plain ridiculous. No matter what you choose to name your business, it will have different connotations for different people so be careful…

Start by considering your responses to these questions:

Should I use my own name?

  • Not if you ever want to sell your business
  • Not if you want any potential clients to be able to tell what your business does

Should I include the term ‘graphic design’ in the company name?

  • Not if you intend to expand the remit of the business to cover other specialisms

Should I choose something that’s topical and more ‘on trend’?

  • Not if you want it to be horribly dated within a couple of years

Should opt for a name that means something to me on a personal level?

  • Not if you don’t want to have to explain it to every new client

13. Create a market strategy

Get smart with how you promote your graphic design business. Use printed media and the web and keep track of which is the most effective. Tailor what you spend on promotion and aim to maximise your budget.

Identify ways of advertising your business that don’t involve vast amounts of expenditure. This can involve offering resources and information for free. The most popular way to do this is by submitting articles to online blogs that specialise in publishing material in your field.

It’s also a great idea to start blogging. A well-maintained blog is an excellent way of ensuring that potential clients visit and then keep returning to your website, so keep it informative and entertaining.

And of course… network!

Alongside all of the above steps, you should be networking as much as you can. Almost every town, every city and every village has a business community. These communities often provide support networks and professional networking opportunities for owners of SMEs (Small to Medium Enterprises). Join one.

At the very least, you will be able to share common business problems and benefit from the experience of others who have started their own business.

On the plus side, as a graphic designer you are in an ideal position to provide a valuable resource for fellow business owners who might turn out to be regular clients.

In conclusion, while these hints and suggestions will help get you on the road to starting a graphic design business, starting any business can be a challenging and rewarding adventure and should be approached with equal measures of caution and confidence.

Ultimately, only you can determine the correct balance of risk and reward.

Good luck!

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