5 Non-Design Skills Every Freelance Designer Needs

Let me be honest with you. The hours, sweat, tears (and sometimes blood) that went into mastering your design skills and software is not enough for you to make it as a freelance designer. You’d think that with all the expensive software (which I’m sure you paid for) and high tuition fees, we’d at least be fully equipped to deal with whatever the design world throws at us. Unfortunately, that’s a dream and this is business.

I agree with designer, Lance Padgett when he says “Creativity and design skills are only half the battle”. There is a lot more to being a freelance designer than knowing how to design and your overall success is dictated by more than just what is in your portfolio. It is therefore because of this that I’ve come to share knowledge of some essential basic business skills that all freelancers should aim to master.

1. Project Management

As a freelance designer it is inevitable that you’ll be handling numerous projects with different clients at the same time. It is therefore imperative that you learn how to manage a project well. Mastering the arts of time management, prioritization and organisation are key factors in achieving this. The more successful you are, the busier you are. The busier you are, the more organized you need to be.

2. Marketing Yourself

“Marketing is a contest for people’s attention.” – Seth Godin. Marketing skills are undeniably vital for any freelancer. Regardless of your ability and availability, if nobody can find you then you’ll probably be looking for a second job soon. As ‘artists’, we tend to forget that this is business and what matters most is your ability to produce results and close sales. I’m not the most extroverted person, neither am I the most talkative, charismatic or connected. If this also describes you, I have a little trick that helped me. Make it a task to find those who are extroverted, talkative and connected, who thrive on sharing just about anything, and have them market you.

Oh, and how can we forget about social media! It’s literally become a gold mine for freelance designers. Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook etc. – The list continues. This is a great place to start building a brand presence. Get on as many social media platforms as possible. Do it quickly.

3. Entrepreneurship

You need to have an entrepreneurial mindset. It’s a necessity for any freelance designer. You claim to be creative, right? Then it shouldn’t be difficult for you to find new, innovative ways to do what you do. Get out, take risks, make money! Furthermore, always be ready to identify and capitalize on promising opportunities in your field.

4. Client relations

Being one the most important skills listed here, it’s the most difficult to be specific about. Clients come in all shapes and sizes and unlike with a firm or agency, where there is a particular person whose job it is to interact with clients, as a freelance designer, you’ll be responsible for all client interaction. Not too long ago, I came across a post on a LinkedIn discussion board titled “Client from Hell”. A graphic designer lamented in distress as she shared her experience with a particular client who treated her as a slave, was never sure about what he wanted and wouldn’t pay her for her work. Her story is a familiar one that so many freelancers experience. Unfortunately, even with all of our artistic and empathetic powers, we can’t truly know what a client is like until after we know them. That’s why, regardless of who you work with, you must remain true to yourself, set your standards and keep them. Then make sure your clients know of these standards. Use contracts and take deposits if you have to (and you have to). Many times we designers rush straight into a project especially if it’s an exciting one and forget that this is business.

However, on a positive note, just because a project has ended, it doesn’t mean your relationship with a client has to. If you’re pleasant to interact with and deliver quality work, clients are more likely to return and even refer you to others.

Oh, and don’t ever be afraid to say NO.

5. Empathy

This is an interesting word but I believe it sums up why we’re designers and not just artists (If you don’t know the difference, go hunting). In stark contrast to ‘Clients from Hell’, we also get ‘Designers from Heaven – (who have lost their way)’. Let’s be honest, as designers, we often get too caught up on designing just for our portfolios or for other designers, with little or no regard for what the client actually wants or needs to communicate. Read: The Dribbblisation of Design.

I first discovered the existence of this skill in an architecture theory class. We learnt that empathy validates you as a designer. Your ability to empathize with your clients and their struggles, as well as those of the end user/customer, ensures that you are making design decisions with the right intent.

Ask yourself these questions at the start, middle and end of every project (and answer honestly):

  • Is this work really what my client/user wants? (You’d be surprised that most of the time, you may fail at this one alone).
  • Is this work communicating my client’s brand/message or my brand/message? (I love squares (don’t ask), I used to find a way to incorporate them into every logo, graphic and website I produced. Then I met an anti-square client…)
  • Does this work make things easier and smoother for my client/user?

If you can’t answer these questions about your work honestly, find people who can. I think they call it a survey.

Your clients will always be happier when they know you want to work with them and that you understand them.