Finding your first graphic design clients

This is a series about starting your own graphic design business. I figured, after being in business for 10+ years – it was time to start collecting all my business-running knowledge for those of us who are entrepreneurship inclined. Who knows? Maybe I can stop one of you from making the same mistakes I made.

Before you select a business name, or take any steps to incorporate your business, you should start by finding a few clients in order to get started.

Graphic design businesses don’t take a lot of money to start. All you need is a computer, and the basic tools a designer needs to design. Since startup costs are very low, you can skip all the setup tasks and find out if you have what it takes to hang your design shingle by finding someone to help.

Many articles out there suggest that you sign up for fiverr or Upwork in order to find work. I disagree with all those articles. You probably already know or are somehow connected to your very first client.

Tell everyone you know what you’re doing

To find that first client, all you need to do is tell people in your network what you’re doing. So pull out your phone, open your favorite social media app, and create a post where you tell your friends and family about this new business you want to start. 

Try something like this: “Hi everyone, I wanted to drop a quick career update. I have decided to start taking some graphic design clients on a freelance basis. If you or someone you know is in need of (services you want to offer), please let me know so we can connect. Thank you so much in advance.”

That’s it. That’s the message. 

If you have a network of former colleagues, or maybe acquaintances you don’t see often or you don’t follow on social media; schedule some time to either grab lunch or a quick cup of coffee so you can share the news. Be cool. This is not a high-pressure MLM sale. You’re just putting feelers on anybody who might need someone like you to help.

Inevitably someone you know will be in the process of starting or purchasing a business, everyday a new real estate agent graduates and needs to get started with business materials, etc. 

Don’t be picky

Many designers talk about niching down your client type or your services. But in the beginning what you need is to practice talking about your business, meeting people, selling yourself and discovering what your market and location call for from a designer. Other things you’re practicing? Talking about your services, explaining what your process is like, and establishing that client/designer relationship in a way that works for you. 

So I recommend that when it comes to your first 5-10 clients that you don’t get too picky with the type of client you sign. Sign them now, serve them for a few projects, and if you eventually get to the point where that relationship no longer serves you; you can walk away. We will talk in the future about how to walk away from a client in a professional way.

Set some prices

Setting prices is scary. You feel like maybe you should work for free or nearly free because you don’t really know what you’re doing, or you’re still building a portfolio. That’s all nonsense. You should start the exercise of pricing your work properly since the beginning, so any clients you do sign have the potential to stay with you as your business grows if you both wish.

Everyday, I read messages from desperate creatives who are barely making ends meet while burning out in terrible design contracts. They don’t know how to calculate their worth, and they crash and burn before they have the experience they need to decide if they even want to own their own business. 

Prevent doing this by using tools like the Bonsai Rate Calculator to see what other people in your area, in your industry, with your similar background and experience are charging as freelancers per hour. 

After you find out what that hourly rate is, take a big deep breath, and promise yourself that you’re going to actually use exactly the rate the calculator told you to use and not rationalize any discounts because you are feeling the pressure of the sales conversation with your prospect.

Always sign a contract

You finally found someone who says “Let’s do this” after reading your proposal email. And now you’re probably thinking of the first round of samples you’re going to send them, and the client questionnaire you should probably put together. Before you put pen to paper, or finger to mouse, take the time to sign a contract. 

There are several places where you can get a contract. Bonsai also offers a free graphic design template contract that you can modify and use for your needs. If all fails, you can also write a one page document that outlines the basics: Who your client is, who you are, what you are providing the client, when you are providing it to them, how much the client is supposed to pay and when. 

You’re probably wondering: a contract feels so serious, and maybe my client doesn’t want to sign one. What happens if I lose my client because they don’t want to sign a contract? Then, my friend, that’s a client you probably don’t want to have in the first place. Any serious entrepreneur understands that contracts are there to protect you, as much as they are there to protect them. A person who shies away from the kind of protection a contract offers, is someone you don’t want to be in business with. 

Collect a deposit

After your contract is signed, you’ll want to collect a deposit. Industry standard is anywhere from a set fee ($250) to a percentage of the project. Personally, I charge 50% of the project upon contract signing and the remaining of the amount due is paid in percentages through other milestones of the project.

Why a deposit? I have discovered, during my years of experience as a graphic designer, that deposits help projects get completed. Your client has put some money down, which means they have something on the line tying them to the project being completed. A deposit helps avoid clients who ghost mid project and never finish up — leaving you with an incomplete project and no payment for the work you have done.

My deposit, unlike the other invoices in my contracts, are due upon contract signing. You want to make sure you have that money in hand before you do any work.

Good luck my friend! If you’ve followed these steps, you should be well on your way to starting your very first graphic design project with your very first client. Stay tuned for more on this series about starting your own graphic design business.

Astrid M. Storey

Astrid M. Storey

Astrid Storey is originally from Panama and spent most of her early years traveling through Central and South America. She arrived in Denver in 2003. During the next decade-and-a-half, she’s juggled a career in a variety of creative and marketing roles while building her own studio, Storey Creative, with clients in real estate, health care, publishing, and tech.

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