today’s question: “what was your first freelance job and what did you learn?”

technically my first graphic design job was designing the drink promotion tent cards at the restaurant i worked at in high school. but the one i count was designing a line of stationery cards for a new brand. i think i found it on craigslist. the ad asked for an illustrator with a print background. i sent my portfolio PDF showing the range of my illustration skills and my resume. the owner responded she liked my style and asked to meet me. we met at a bar, had some wine and she told me what she wanted her stationery line to be. it was right up my alley and we clicked really well. i knew what was required of me as a designer, but on the business side i had no clue what I was doing. i charged her $500 for 5 designs, each getting two rounds for revisions. i cringe when i think about how much work went into the designs. you live and you learn right?

what i would do differently today:
• charge $600 per card with two revisions for each design. if you’re new start out charging hourly. you will still be learning to manage your self and working with clients.

• add another $1,000 for all the email correspondence, managing the print vendors, deadlines, and all of our in person meetings.

• save my taxi and supply receipts to write those off as a business expense when i do my taxes.

• our contract would include what would happen if the idea is killed once the work has begun. is there a kill fee? do i get paid for a percentage of my fee? or paid for the hours? my client had changed her mind after two rounds on one of the cards to a new idea and i hadn’t brought that up in our contract. all that work down the drain and i had to start all over again.

• contract would say that if the client wanted more revisions after the two rounds i would charge my hourly rate to finish the project.

• contract would included rights and usage of the artwork. those designs i did now live on a ton of other products. my designs were also manipulated into other patterns and layouts and look really bad (in my opinion). it’s unfortunate because it could’ve been a great piece for my portfolio but now i don’t even want to show anyone. i could always redo it for myself but i guess i’m a little bitter about how the final product came to life.

• contract would say how long the client owns the rights to them. is it a year? 3 years (i’ve learned that 3 is an industry standard for product. it hits a season, goes on sale, maybe moves to outlet), or forever? depending on how long they want to have the rights another fee would be included. more years = more money.

• contract would say how many products each design can live on.

• require approval on ALL products my designs go on before they are put into production.

i still remember that day vividly. i was sitting in the FIDM college study lounge and there was a girl sitting next to me who was really outgoing. she just started showing me her sketches from a little boy’s clothing line she was designing. i liked her energy and thought her clothes were actually pretty good looking. she asked what my major was in school and i told her i was studying graphic design. her eyes lit up. she told me that she was pretty serious about developing this line for real (that was her school project at the time) and that she needed a logo asap. i decided that even though i had never designed a logo for a company, i was going to take the challenge. this was my FIRST paying client!

she asked me to design business cards, clothing labels and a logo. i charged $300. which at the time made me think i was richy rich. i couldn’t wait to call mom ‘n dad and tell them how baller status i was. turns out, like katie, i learned very quickly that $300 was quite low for the amount of work that went into that project. but it’s all good, i definitely needed the experience and i will never forget how excited i was that day.

what i learned from the experience:
depending on your experience with design, and how large the company is, this number will vary. but one thing i can tell you is that logos are worth more than $100. a logo can transform a company! think about when you are driving down the road and see a restaurant with nice signage…or when you are wandering the grocery aisles and see a package that catches your eye. logos are a serious aspect to a company. over time i was increasing my rates till i felt comfortable with a number. i wish i could give you solid numbers, but honestly each logo i do has a different price tag. if you are just starting out, i would say $500 is a good price.

• totally agree about the 2 rounds in the contract (and an hourly rate beyond that). this is one of the most important things to do so you don’t end up doing 30 rounds and wanting to scratch your eyeballs out. people are very indecisive. giving them clear guidelines helps them get their thoughts sorted out in a more organized fashion.

• when designing logos, do your first rounds in black and white. i know you might be excited to introduce color right away but people WILL choose a design based on the color they are drawn to. you want to work out the structure of the logo before you start diving into color. it’s worth the wait, trust.

• save your files on hard drives! i had a computer crash and now i sadly don’t have those files to look back on. and when you save them, be very organized. get a system in place that works for you. i usually name my files (name of company)_(date)_(logo)_(version).ai – you want to be able to easily search for these later!

• don’t send logo options to your clients that you don’t love. they WILL pick them on occasion, and you will have to try to talk them into the other options you actually like. edit down to only what you would want them to pick. it’s better to send 3 solid options than 6 decent ones.

do you remember your first paid gig? do you have any cool stories to share about what you learned?

(illustration by katie evans. read more freelance advice posts are over here!)


Add your own

    torrie says:

    this. is. an awesome post. i’m not even going to go into graphic design but it’s so informative and honestly if i were to start out designing a something, this is exactly what a beginner wouldn’t know. great advice! a couple family/friends have asked for me to design this or that (for free) but i have been doing many drafts over and over every night. i love doing it, but i think i will only show them options i LOVE rather than just OK ones! that way the “customer” doesn’t get too confused by so many options. thanks! (just in case i do consider taking real “work” ever. 😉

    Chrissy says:

    This is the sort of thing I wish I’d been told more of at college. Yes you can learn this stuff formally but people’s personal experiences are so much more valuable – this column is my absolute fave.

    I’d like to know how you guys keep focused? If I’m working from home I find it really hard not to keep getting distracted by Facebook, Twitter, blogs (this one especially, because it feels like I’m doing something vaguely related to work!), TV etc. How do you two tackle this?

    Lauren says:

    This is some of the best advice I’ve ever seen. I feel like I can actually go out and successfully do freelance now. People tend to undervalue design and so I always feel weird coming up with budgets that I know are doing to shock people and/or make them feel ripped off or angry. And I totally agree with Chrissy above me…I wish they had taught us this stuff in college! Thank youuuuuu

    Heather says:

    Amazing amazing advice. This is probably one of the most helpful posts about freelancing that I have ever read. Thank you so much!

    Caytlyn says:

    I’m still trying to figure out how to get people to pay me. I always have friends asking for logos and such, and it’s not a problem I want to do it…I just don’t know how to tell them I need to be paid! This is really great advice, but how do you establish that friend/work relationship?

    Kate says:

    Wow. This post is amazing! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us- this is incredibly valuable!

    Laura says:

    Awesome advice post ladies! Man, wish I too had thought about all of that when starting out. Quick question about contracts…do you have a lawyer look over them or anything like that, or is it just to have something in writing to keep both parties on the same page?
    Keep up the fab work! xo

    Anni says:

    All too well. I think we all far undercharge for our services at first, I did my first paid shoot for $150 and that was after a few free sessions. I lucked out, though, I had pretty awesome clients from the get go.

    amy says:

    Great advice! I’m dipping my toes into the freelance world and i have a lot to learn!

    Jessica says:

    I had an awful experience with a client last night – and after agreeing to disagree about the value of my time, this post reenforced that I am worthy and deserving for what I provide. Sweet, sweet validation // Thanks so much gals!

    caroline says:

    it’s always so reassuring to find that designers are confident in their rates! when i started out, i did almost everything for free because i was nervous clients wouldn’t pay me, and i wanted the experience. biiig mistake! but, you live and you learn. i LOVE your comment about designing logos in black and white for the first round. what an idea! i do this for a living and am way too in love with color to restrain myself, but will absolutely be putting that into practice from now on. thank you!

    LJ says:

    Great advice that I *still* need to take even though it’s been years.

    Another tidbit to add, when sending out rough comps (especially logos) — watermark those bitches! I’ve had clients, even some that I was close to, take images from the proofs I sent and use them for other things. One time, I bar I was working for just used an entire image I sent them as proofs for a bumper sticker design and sent them in for a freakin’ ad in a local newspaper. I didn’t even know about it until I was flipping through and saw a 4-up of my sticker ideas.. So watermark, watermark, watermark!

    Steph says:

    First time commenter! THANK YOU for this post. Keep these up!!!!

    Stuart Smith says:

    Great post!

    I have been burned before so I would say always do a contract no matter what. It might be scary to say to a client first time but trust me it’s so worth it. Even if you are doing a freebee (not encouraged) still do one. Like in the post said, people will use your design for whatever and however they think looks good. Even more so if they don’t see the value in paying for good design.

    Good comment on the watermark too and you can always hold the CR until the pay. Finally put a payment date too when possible, if it exceeds that they pay extra.

    Keep up the good work everyone.

    Dana says:

    Great Post!

    I had read this post just before.

    I did a job (2 month ago). It was almost my first job.
    a friend called me: can you take pictures from my cd´s and books (he has a label).
    at the end of this call. he said: i pay you. sure.

    i said: ok. cool.

    that wasnt sooo good. i forgot the contract.
    i payed a lot of ” experience-money” (we in germany say: Lehrgeld).
    after i was done. i told him my price for this graficwork. but he wasnt so happy about this.
    he told me: i thought you do the graficjob for 8 Euro per hour?!
    i thought that was a joke.

    We are still discussing about the price.

    i learned: always write a contract!!!

    greatings from germany

    Matisse says:

    Thanks so much for the post! I look forward to these every week. I am just starting to freelance while looking for full time employment, so its good to get advice where ever I can. Pricing can be tricky, but confidence is key! M

    Laci Jordan says:

    A contract example would be GREAT! = )

    cj says:

    this post is perfect. I have done freelance for the past 6 months and am working up my experience (and rate!). Gotta work on those client relationships. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and advice! <3 <3 <3

    Lucy says:

    Thank you so much!
    This is so useful – I’m just starting out freelance and am totally under charging. I think It’s all about confidence. Thing is, I got offered to be paid half of what I expected to charge so that’s really put me off to be strong enough to say ‘no, the work is worth this much’.


    melissa says:

    This is a great article! My first big freelance gig was with an internal magazine for a jewellery company. My major problem was with the invoicing. But that’s easier, once you design one and get the hang of not being afraid to set out terms to be adhered to, it’s not a problem x

    Danielle says:

    This is a great post! I think all designers go through that moment of excitement for the project which means we forget or delay talking about pricing. It feels awkward to put together a contract (especially if it’s a friend) however you need to clarify the terms. The points you made were right on target and you even added some things that I didn’t consider! Thank you!!

    I started doing small projects for friends or co-workers so I didn’t charge them a lot. This helped warm me up for bigger freelance jobs. My last freelance job was an opportunity to create a logo and identity package for a start-up company (I actually got it on my birthday while dress shopping lol). I drew up a contract for our first meeting that included approximate hours and an outline of the process. I did not consider that the client would delay the process in order to delay 50% payment halfway through. I kept calm and finally received payment for the worked completed but lesson learned!

    dana says:

    Nike paid $35 for their logo in 1983, now it’s one of the world’s most recognizable logos. Talk about underpaid~!

    Casey says:

    My first job was to design t-shirt graphics. I got so excited about it that I presented about 10 options in the first meeting, before even learning what the client wanted. They loved too many of them, couldn’t decide, and we revised about 5 times. Finally, the client bought 2 (out of what ended up feeling like 50 options) for the low low price of $300, after 5 months of back-and-forth. Super frustrating and not worth it. I’m still learning how to structure better pricing and how to protect myself from those situations. I wish I would have read your advice back then! Still, very helpful to hear your situations. Love this column. 🙂

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    Sara says:

    The first job I did was for a band, which was really up my alley! I was still in school and didn’t really care about money at the time, just the experience and getting to do something with music. I wrote up a contract and everything, it was one that one of my teachers had that was fairly generic and could be edited to my liking very easily. I learned a lot about what kind of business I wanted to keep for myself as well, how formal I wanted it to be and what I really wanted out of it. They paid me with some random money they had (I didn’t count, because I really didn’t care), and any merchandise that I would want in the future (which I was pretty pleased about). My biggest mistake was showing them 15 different versions for logos (!), my goodness was that a problem. It made the choice so much harder and they chose one that I didn’t like at all, so I had to compromise and make it work. In the end I was fairly pleased but it took such a long time and emailing back and forth. I will definitely not do something like that again!

    Court says:

    Thank you! I really wish they had taught us all of this in school, this is SO helpful, and makes me less anxious about getting myself and my work out there!

    daphne says:

    Great post:) I laughed at this
    “don’t send logo options to your clients that you don’t love. they WILL pick them on occasion, and you will have to try to talk them into the other options you actually like. edit down to only what you would want them to pick. it’s better to send 3 solid options than 6 decent ones.”
    this has happened more that you know it to me and yet I always send an option I don’t love and they pick it and then I have to work with it…

    Charlie Czechowski says:

    Also as a freelancer don’t do a job for free even for a friend. It creates tension and if you need to, just exchange a service for a service. If they need a bakery logo, just exchange a catering job for the design job. It’s delicious and you both feel like you paid each other back.

    Ashleigh says:

    Love your blog. I just did a blog post on my first freelance job too! The info is great. Just wanted to show you some comment love! You are super inspiring.
    A few of the comments here remind me of past work too. I guess in the end, you live and learn.

    Anonymous says:

    Love your blog, i’m thinking if you can share some tips on time management and being organised when it comes to your work. thanks! 🙂

    indianna says:

    Hi Bri and Katie… I don’t generally tend to respond or comment on blog posts but after following your blog and these advice posts for some time I felt compelled to reach out and say thank you… i work in architecture and although a different industry these posts are so inspiring creatively and so many of the same concepts apply… the tip about no colour is brilliant! As you can imagine the same applies to showing a client a residential design or interior concepts… only to find they hate or love a certain colour or finish… So many good tips too… very inspiring. Thanks x

    Lauren M. says:

    Great post, and I totally agree with b/w to start! One thing that I made a mistake on (once and only once) was sending proofs over at their full size and full resolution with no watermark. Oh yeah, and I didn’t have a contract for that job or ask for a deposit either. So you know what that meant…free work for them and never heard from them again after I sent the last proof. Duh :-\

    Jennifer M. says:

    This is amazing advice. I haven’t started freelancing yet, but I’m so nervous about charging “real” money. How do you become comfortable charging that much? It feels so much to me and I worry that I won’t be able to tell someone that those are my prices.

    Megan Alissa Glanville says:

    You Guys rock my socks off! Great post–this is exactly the kind of info that is needed–honest out of the gate advice on how to start freelancing, contracting and pricing!! Thank you~thank you! So great to find a fabulous design blog that is inspirational and practical. Keep it coming! : )

    anelise says:

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