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The State of Freelance Designers

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Of the 53 million people who now refer to themselves as freelancers that contribute $715 billion to the national economy, the majority are writers and developers, but a big portion of this number are also graphic designers. Technology has changed how people can work, and graphic design is one of those industries that can be done anywhere in the world at any time with an Internet connection and the right software and talent.

This article breaks down the state of freelance designers today, including what the industry looks like, what it pays, where the most designers are found, and the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed.

Illustrating the Size and Scope of the Freelance Design Industry

Research firm IBIS World noted that the graphic design industry has continued to grow over the last five years and offers significant future opportunity tied to the demand for design services that address the need for a digital and print brand presence. The Creative Group listed graphic designers as the fifth highest in-demand job among the creative careers of today.

Those graphic designers who have expanded their product portfolios by adding interactive media design have been able to quickly grow their businesses and charge a higher rate. IBIS World also identified industry areas of opportunity through 2019 where graphic design will be greatly needed, including healthcare, gaming, mobile, education, technology, and financial services.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics find that the areas with the greatest opportunities within freelance graphic design include, in descending order, specialized design services; advertising, public relations, and related services; newspapers, periodicals, and books; printed and related services; and computer systems designs.

Sketching Out the Ways to Work as a Freelance Designer

The Freelancing in America report noted that designers and all types of freelancers now fall into one of five segments, illustrating that there are many ways to work, or migrate in to working in the growing freelance economy:

  1. Independent Contractors: 40% of the total freelance workforce, or 21.1 million professionals, do not have an employer and work on a project-by-project basis.
  2. Moonlighters: 27% of the total freelance workforce, or 14.3 million professionals, have a primary job but do freelance work on the side.
  3. Diversified Workers: 18% of the total freelance workforce, or 9.3 million professionals, combine a part-time traditional position with freelance work.
  4. Temporary Workers: 10% of the total freelance workforce, or 5.5 million professionals, have a single employer, client, or project where their status is considered temporary.
  5. Freelance Business Owners: 5% of the total freelance workforce, or 2.8 million professionals, see themselves as a freelancer, but also a business owner, such as a graphic designer who hires a team of designers and creates a virtual agency but still sees themselves as a freelancer.

Outlining Compensation for a Freelance Designer

According to a 2012 State of the Industry Report on Freelancing, graphic designers are one of the top freelance professions, along with software developers and virtual assistants, where they will likely earn more as a freelancer than an employee.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the national average for graphic designers in 2014 was $44,150. The top paying industries to approach with your design talent includes the Federal Executive Branch, Aerospace Products and Parts Manufacturing, Securities and Commodity Contracts, Telecommunications, and Scientific Research and Development Services. The salaries range from $63,000 to $78,000.

To further illustrate the various compensation rates within the industry, here is a breakdown of starting salaries for various types of design work within the entertainment and creative services industry from The Creative Group’s 2015 Salary Guide:

  • Graphic Designer (5+ years): $63,500 to $90,000
  • Graphic Designer (3 to 5 years): $51,500 to $72,000
  • Graphic Designer (1 to 3 years): $38,750 to $56,500
  • Package Designer: $59,250 to $89,750
  • Package Production Artist: $46,750 to $65,250
  • Layout Designer: $46,500 to $64,500
  • Litigation Graphics Specialist: $58,250 to $87,000
  • Infographics Designer: $55,750 to $78,000
  • 3D Animator: $61,500 to $89,500
  • 3D Modeler: $60,000 to $85,250
  • Multimedia Designer: $57,500 to $86,250
  • Presentation Specialist (3+ years): $55,500 to $81,000
  • Presentation Specialist (1 to 3 years): $44,500 to $57,500
  • Interactive Creative Director: $100,500 to $180,250
  • Interactive Art Director: $84,000 to $125,000
  • Interaction Designer (5+ years): $80,500 to $114,500
  • Interaction Designer (1 to 5 years): $54,500 to $85,000
  • Responsive Designer: $70,250 to $101,750
  • Digital Designer: $63,000 to $89,000

Mapping Out the Best Places to Work as a Freelance Designer

According to research done by Zen99, the Bay Area, including San Francisco and Oakland, were determined to be the best place to work as a graphic designer. While the national average for salary was listed as $44,150, those graphic designers in the Bay Area actually earn more with an average of $77,000 per year. Despite being slightly less on the salary level, Oakland ranks higher as a best place to work because the cost of living is cheaper than San Francisco.

Other geographic areas on the rise include Detroit and the Twin Cities where the tech sector is expanding, there is more demand for graphic design work, salaries are above average and the cost of living is lower than other large to medium-size cities.

Zen99 also looked at other factors that go into determining the top cities for freelance graphic designers related to the cost of housing and rent, lifestyle factors, transportation and health insurance. When taking these factors into consideration, the top twenty list of cities for freelance graphic designers looks like this with accompanying median incomes:

  1. Los Angeles, California ($57,500)
  2. Oakland, California ($68,430)
  3. San Francisco, California ($77,940)
  4. Portland, Oregon ($51,200)
  5. Miami, Florida ($46,930)
  6. Tulsa, Oklahoma ($49,440)
  7. Detroit, Michigan ($54,040)
  8. Saint Paul, Minnesota ($53,800)
  9. Denver, Colorado ($49,390)
  10. Greensboro, North Carolina ($46,870)
  11. Minneapolis, Minnesota ($53,800)
  12. Atlanta, Georgia ($52,890)
  13. Seattle, Washington ($60,230)
  14. New York City, New York ($65,430)
  15. Dallas, Texas ($50,650)
  16. Long Beach, California ($56,320)
  17. Nashville, Tennessee ($48,390)
  18. Cincinnati, Ohio ($51,200)
  19. Chicago, Illinois ($53,190)
  20. Mesa, Arizona ($47,080) 

Drawing the Guidelines for Becoming a Designer

Numerous qualities are needed to work as a designer. According to the same report by The Creative Group, some of these include:

  • Experience with a strong portfolio that illustrates the scope of your talent;
  • Mobile mastery illustrating that you understand how to create compelling design elements for the mobile environment;
  • The ability to be versatile, working in hybrid roles that may include design as well as web development, coding, SEO, or copywriting; and
  • Soft skills, such as the ability to sell ideas, collaborate, and communicate in a clear and effective way.

Beyond these qualities, there are the fundamentals that you need to get under your belt. While some are self-taught, the best way to go is to get it in writing through a two to four-year track of study in graphic design. This includes many graphic design courses through a college, university, or trade skill, such as design foundations, digital illustration, digital media production, and portfolio and career development. As a freelancer, you will want to supplement this education with business and marketing courses as well as other technical classes.

Additionally, you will have to get that experience and develop your own portfolio. You can do this as an intern or entry-level position in the design industry as well as create your own designs and market them. You can also try many of the online freelance job sites that list numerous design projects and temporary positions, leveraging these positions as a “foot in the door” approach to building out your portfolio and experience. Some of these include Upwork, Guru, iFreelance and The Blur Group.

 Creating the Benefits

The 2012 State of the Industry Report on Freelancing noted that graphic designers often enjoy LESS free time as a freelancer but that they are okay with that because they typically have more projects and opportunities for work than opting for an agency job. In fact, of all the types of freelance jobs, they are the least challenged when it comes to finding clients, experiencing a feast or famine cycle, or struggling with a work/life balance, staying productive, and getting paid on time, according to this report. Compared to all other types of freelancers, it would seem that designers have the least amount of challenges within the freelance work environment.

To understand more what it is like to work in the – and transition into – freelance design world, check out this extensive interview with a freelance graphic designer who offers considerable advice and expertise on the benefits and challenges of this exciting and growing career opportunity. Other information out there even details what a day in the life of a freelance designer is like. Additionally, if you are in the midst of designing that new freelance career, many experts offer tips on how to market and handle the daily aspects of running your own business.

Painting the Outlook

If you are considering going into the freelance design business, you can feel good knowing that the predictions are for a bright growth outlook. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that jobs for graphic designers will grow 13 percent between 2010 and 2020. The digital segment is set to grow by an incredible 61 percent while areas like publishing will decrease and printing will only grow by two percent.

Much of this growth will be specifically targeted at freelance designers because companies and startups are looking for strong, reliable talent that is willing to work on the fly. Ready to get started?

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CEO at Due
John Rampton is an entrepreneur and connector. When he was 23 years old, while attending the University of Utah, he was hurt in a construction accident. His leg was snapped in half. He was told by 13 doctors he would never walk again. Over the next 12 months, he had several surgeries, stem cell injections and learned how to walk again. During this time, he studied and mastered how to make money work for you, not against you. He has since taught thousands through books, courses and written over 5000 articles online about finance, entrepreneurship and productivity. He has been recognized as the Top Online Influencers in the World by Entrepreneur Magazine and Finance Expert by Time. He is the Founder and CEO of Due.

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