Making Money in Design – 6 Tested Tips to Get New Clients

Making Money in Design

Table of Contents

Making money is a skill necessary for every designer and web developer. It is a lifeblood of your business and a way to cover your expenses while designing great stuff. The best way to make money and avoid starvation is by working for clients. So, how can you get more clients? Sadly, there is no silver bullet. In this article, I’ve covered 6 strategies you can use to get new clients and how to choose the right ones. You may be familiar with some of these, but read through because you may find new helpful advice. In the end, we will also shatter one myth about designers.

6 ways to get new clients

Making money as a freelance designer starts with clients. I met a lot of people who think that getting clients is one of the scariest thing in the world. Some of them would rather crawl over broken glass. Unfortunately, clients and their money are lifeblood of your business. You need both to survive and thrive doing what do you love. It is a well known fact that lack of clients the main reason many design studios and agencies fail. What if you are not sure if you can handle this? Well, go and find “normal” job. Or, you can learn and use following strategies to get new clients.

No.1: Focus on referrals

The best option to starting making money is through referrals. One of the facts you need to know about is that people are not hiring new designers that often. It is similar to getting a haircut. You may ask couple of your friends, colleagues and family members for their recommendations. If you end up with more than one option, you will compare prices and previous work of these hairdressers. You may also decide to visit the salons to see the interior. Then, you will choose one hairdresser and let him or her take care about your haircut.

You will probably not repeat this process every time you will want new haircut. Unless the hairdresser screwed up your haircut, it is highly likely that you will visit him or her again and again. The same situation also applies to design. Clients will discuss their needs with their friends, colleagues and other people who hired designers in the past and ask them for recommendations. Clients will trust these referrals much more than any other public reviews or testimonials. The question is “How can you get more referrals?”

Keys for getting more referrals

There are seven keys to getting more referrals to boost your chance of making money. The first key is being pleasant to work with. Here is the thing. Nobody wants to work with jerk. That doesn’t mean that you should try to fake anything by being nice in every situation. It also doesn’t mean that you should avoid any potential conflict in order to keep harmonious and calmed working environment. Neither of these things will work. They may even start to backfire at some point.

Instead, you must be willing to tell your client uncomfortable truth about any decision when it is needed. You should be also always willing to say your honest opinion. Remember, you are the expert here and client hired you for your expertise. Don’t keep your ideas and opinions for yourself. Your client has no telepathic powers. Communicating your opinion can be done in different ways. You can do it politely in the form of dialog with open-minded attitude. Another way to avoid being perceived like a jerk is taking ideas and feedback of your client seriously.

This means that no matter how bad the idea may be, don’t make fun of it. If you don’t understand it, ask for further explanation. Also, you should always encourage your client to actively participate in discussions and appreciate his ideas and feedback. It can happen that these situations may be uncomfortable for your client. Be empathetic and make it easier for him (or her).

The second key is doing great work. No matter how pleasant are you, if your work sucks, nobody will hire you anyway. Making money in design requires that your work has certain quality. Work of high quality is the core of healthy (web) design business. This doesn’t mean that high-quality work is a self-sustainable machine for making money. The uncomfortable truth is that your work will not automatically sell itself and work as a magnet on clients when it reaches certain level.

Your portfolio is only proof that you made some design work before. Does this mean that you should trash your website and sell your domain? No. You need to convince your potential clients that you can solve their problems and take their business on another level. This will be much easier with tangible proof of your skills. Your portfolio is this proof. Therefore, keep your portfolio. Also, make sure to constantly update it with fresh and better examples of your work (something I should do as soon as possible) and don’t forget to pay for your domain and hosting.

The third key for getting referrals is knowing your pitch. You need to have a crispy clear idea about what you can do for potential clients and what pains which they have you can solve. Then, you need to be able to communicate this in a short and interesting way. Nobody will give you fifteen minutes to explain what is the thing you are doing. You will also don’t have time to explain any technical terms. Your message must be short – four sentences are maximum – and avoid any jargon. Lastly, spice your message with more than sufficient amount of enthusiasm. This will transform your pitch into magnet on clients.

The fourth key for making money by getting clients through referrals is networking. You are in the business and business is about relationships (the good ones). In other words, you need to figure out who can hire you. Then, you need to find someone who you know who also knows that person. Or, find someone who knows someone who knows that person. Or, go one level deeper. What if networking is not your favorite activity?

There is one approach to networking, socializing, finding new friends or whatever you want to call it, that will work for everyone. When you meet someone, be enormously curious about that person. Ask questions about him or her and his or her work. Try to learn more about the person, her interests, hobbies, work, etc. Just try to avoid making the meeting look like interrogation. Next, think about where can lend a helping hand. Try to find a way to be useful. Then, when you will start talking about your work, you can use these information to create opportunities for business.

Just remember that you must always be and stay genuinely interested in the person you are talking with. Otherwise, you will look either like a pushy salesman or stalker. I don’t know what’s less creepy option. So, it will be better to avoid both. Lastly, don’t be afraid of asking people you already know for recommendations. People generally like to recommend other people if they know they can trust them. People also know that by giving recommendations, they are helping the person they are recommending while also helping you. Don’t be shy, just ask.

The fifth key is being visible. No one will know what you do unless you will tell it and show it. Being visible is crucial for any way of making money. If people don’t know you, how can they pay you? This means that you have to do the work, then publish your work on various place and then talk and also write about your work (if you can), also on various places. In other words, you have to put yourself out there. Nobody will do this for you.

First, create your portfolio on your own domain. The best will be buying domain for your name, if it is possible. Second, create your portfolio also on other websites such as Behance and Dribbble. You can also try DeviantArt. Third, start a blog and write regularly about your work. Fourth, participate in online forums and talk with people.

No.2: Request for proposals

Another less interesting way to get more clients and boost your ability of making money is through requests for proposals, also known as RFPs. Let’s be honest. Many RFPs suck. They are often written in a wrong way by people who don’t want to write them. Many RFPs are often too prescriptive. This often happens when client is hiring a designer for the first time and client wants to maintain control over the project. This often results in damaging designer’s process and worse outputs. Fortunately, skilled designers can help client get through this and do exceptional work.

Luckily, there is still sufficient amount of good clients using RFP process to hire designers. If you find one of these clients, go ahead and initiate the contact. You will have a big advantage right from the start if the person heard about you and your work. If not, there are couple things you can still do in order to improve your chances to succeed with RFP. First, read the proposal couple times to get full understanding of the problem. Second, learn about the client and his business as much information as you can.

The thing is that in order to solve client’s problem, you need to understand his problem first. The third step is about building relationship with the person who wrote the proposal. The key is to be genuinely interested in the person and enthusiastic about your work. Also, if you can provide the client with few referrals and couple examples of your work, the better.

No.3: Make a contact

If you want to work for certain company or client, you should go ahead and contact him. I understand that it can be too scary to take the initiative and send mail or call the client or company? However, sitting on your butt and hoping will not help you. That said, don’t think that you will get immediate response on your contact. This type of business development is uncertain and also very slow. If you are in situation where making money is serious issue and you are fighting for your survival, I would suggest different ways of getting new clients.

The issue with this approach to making money is that you are basically trying to create work that doesn’t exist yet. If you are willing to take the risk, I suggest that you take advantage of your current social network. There is always at least some chance that you will know someone who knows the client you want to work for. You may also know someone who can get you at least one step closer to your dream client. You can also try less direct approach and start socializing with people around that client. You can then get introduced to client by these people. This will also give you a better chance to get the job.

No.4: Visit conferences

We all know that conferences are great place to meet interesting from design industry. Fewer people know that conferences can only play a role in making money. Events such as conferences are not interesting only to your colleagues, but also to potential clients. Sometimes, it can happen that you will meet both in one person. For example, it was just a couple of days ago when I met another web designer. Today, we are working together because he has more clients than he can currently handle. He is doing development and I do design.

Conferences are also full of designers working for companies who are looking for hiring new people. It can easily happen that some designer can help you get introduce to someone from HR department. Conferences are also good place for looking for internship. If you have a decent level of skills and quality work to show, you can get new job before the conference is over.

No.5: Start a blog

One indirect way for getting new clients and making money is through blogging. What if you are not very good writer or you don’t know what to write about? First, you don’t have to be good writer in order to start a blog. You just need to know how to write, which is taught in elementary school. Then, you will get better with practice. The more you will write, the better you will get. You should see my first blog articles I wrote about two years ago.

These articles contained about two or three hundred words. The quality of the content? It’s not worth even mentioning it. It was just horrible, but it was the beginning. Beginning is supposed to be hard. When we start doing something new, we will suck at it for some time. That’s part of the process. So, don’t be afraid. Be honest and share your thoughts and opinions. Also, don’t worry about haters. When you will find your voice, there will naturally be people who will not like it. Don’t think about them. Instead, think about people who share your opinions.

What about the subject of your writing? You can write about design of products company you want to work for is developing. You can also write about your own work or side projects. Another great subject for blog articles is something you are currently learning about. This will also improve your learning abilities because you will practice what you’ve learned. Are you reading some interesting book? Write about that. Share your thoughts on the book and what have you learned from it. Focus your blogging efforts on sharing knowledge and providing value to readers.

No.6: Try advertising

The last indirect way of getting new clients, and also making money by spending a bit is advertising. Let me make two things clear. I believe that advertising has value. I don’t believe that by spending some money on advertising you are wasting your money. The biggest, and maybe only, problem with advertising is in how people perceive it. Today, we want everything now. We are not willing to wait. If we don’t see the results immediately, we think that it doesn’t work.

Advertising work in a different speed and can have different results. Meaning, you may spend your whole advertising budget without making any sale or getting any client. Was advertising completely useless? Not necessarily. It is possible that you didn’t get new clients, but you were able to raise your profile and made yourself more visible. The more visible you are on the places where clients look, the higher is your chance of getting new clients and making more money. This can be the value advertising can give you. Is advertising for everyone? Well, it depends.

For designers with established name or brand and available budget, advertising can be one of the ways to attract new clients. For novice designer barely making it through the month, advertising can be too big investment. It may not be sustainable for him at this moment. The problem is that there is a collision between short-term and long-term thinking. Is investing in advertising expensive for novice designer? Can be. Is not investing in advertising expensive for novice designer? Can be.

There is certain chance that advertising can work as a catalyst for designer’s career. Let’s say that you have a handful of quality examples of your work. Advertising can help you get your work on places where potential clients are looking. The same hypothesis applies to more experienced designers. Another reason why you might consider advertising is that advertising on social media is pretty cheap. Today, you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a billboard. With only few dollars, you can use networks such as Facebook and Twitter to promote your work and yourself.

How to choose the right clients

We are responsible for making sure that we are the right designers for our clients. This is something nobody told me when I started. What this means? Before we accept new project, we need to make sure that the project is within our abilities. Or, that we are able to learn what’s necessary. This is also why having a portfolio is important. Every work you present there tells specific story. It also shows the kind of work you are the best choice for.

You are the right designer for client

Every project will start with two decisions. First, your potential client will try to decide whether he wants to work with. Second, you will try to decide whether you want to work with the client. Is client’s problem interesting for you? Do you have the skills necessary to solve client’s problem? Can you eventually acquire these skills? Will the project provide you with space for your design process? And finally, can client afford your services for full price (making money doesn’t include discounts)? In other words, can they pay you?

Aside from testing the client by sending him price estimate, you should primarily listen to your gut. If there is already something you don’t like, such as waiting too long for his response on your messages or calls, maybe you should reject him. Chances are that these gaps will only increase with time. Also, if you have a hard time gathering information about the project and requirements, the same will be truth in case of getting feedback.

Another way to find out whether the client is right fit for you and you are the right fit for him is to do “solution to the problem” test. In many cases, you will be approached by client with at least some idea about the solution for his problem. In other words, they will tell you what design they want you to create or what the website should look like. You should be able to walk him backward from their solution to the problem. If this is true, he will be a good client.

Client hires you as problem-solver

There will be sufficient amount of clients who will prepare detailed spreadsheet, diagrams and mind maps to outline the project timeline before they even call you. This is a clear warning sign. This means that potential client wants to hire for production, not for design. If you want to be real and professional designer, never do production work. Otherwise, you will only be that guy or girl who transformed client’s solution into nice mockup. Accept only clients looking for real designer.

You should also accept only clients with clear and specific goals for the project. Your client should always have clear idea about what to expect from the project and set of metrics that are the most important for them. If client has neither of those things, you should either go away or define these two things before starting work on the project. Without any goals and metrics, you will not be able to evaluate the success of the project. Never start project without specific goals and metrics.

Client understands the value of design

It will happen from time to time that you will be approached by specific type of client. This type of client is always trying to negotiate the price or get a discount. These clients often don’t see the value of design and your work. For them, you are often just another expense. Working with these clients is pain. They are almost never engaged in the process and the project. They will often tell you to just do your work so they can be you and move on. This kind of “cooperation” never works. Stay away from these clients. Look only for those who see the value of design and how it can improve their business.

Let the money speak

You are in business and business is about making money. Therefore, let the money speak. Meaning, listen to how your potential client talks about money. Does he already have the money to pay you? What are client’s values? What is client willing to pay for? Does the client have access to more money in case you will have to increase the budget? Is the budget limited in any way? Is the client willing to speak openly about how much money he wants to spend? Did the client work with professional designer before? Did he get expected value from that designer?

If someone will want to pay you in the form of equity, think twice before accepting this offer. Unless the equity is at least 50.1 percent, you have no control over the business. Therefore, that equity can have tomorrow lower value than toilet paper. Also, stay away from people who will offer payment in the form of having nice piece in your portfolio. You goal is making money to cover your needs. You are not working just to fill your portfolio with pretty work. That will not pay your rent and your food. Never work for free unless it is a side project or volunteer work.

In every project, let the client know the value he is getting and paying for. Explain to him that design done right will have a positive impact on his business. Good design as an investment. Good design has the power to improve client’s business. Good design can make products and services more effective and easier to work with. As a result, good design can bring more profit.

The ethical side of the business

With every design you create also comes responsibility. Is the design your potential client wants you to create worth creating? Is the project congruent with your ethical principles? Can you firmly stand behind it without feeling bad? Sure, business is about making money. However, business can also be about making the world a better place. So, before you accept new client ask yourself whether you will feel good about working on the project. You should be always able to proudly present the results of your work.

The mythical designer

There is an enduring myth about almost superhuman creative person. This person is expected to solve virtually every problem just by using his or her own instinct, reading cards or rolling the dices. Whatever his or her creative “practice” may be, it can’t be based on any kind of repeatable and learnable process.This is the only option that’s just not acceptable. This is often how many people, and also many clients, perceive us designers. Truth to be told, we are often feeding this myth for couple reasons. Why?

We may want to create a little bit of mystery around or work so we can charge more. We may also want to make our work look more interesting to our friends. Lastly, we may just want to make ourselves believe this myth, for whatever reason. Anyway, the problem with this myth is that it is dangerous. This myth portrays designer as someone chasing pretty things and basing his decision on feelings. This myth also makes making money harder for designers. How?

Thanks to this myth, there is a chance that you will be approached by client who will tell you that he doesn’t want to restrict your creativity by sharing his ideas, information and other things with you. Unfortunately, this is not a way to making money. This is only way to harm your design process and condemn the project to failure. Failure of the project will result in damaging client’s business and trust in you. When your client doesn’t trust you, he will not be willing to hire you again. Therefore, your chances of making money in the future with this client are reduced.

This is why we are discussing this myth in this article. Making money is a skill. My first goal is to show you how this myth can negatively impact this skill. If we want to improve our chances of making money in the future, we have to finally destroy this myth. We have to tell our clients and people around us the six truths about our work.

The real designer

The first truth clients and other designers need to know is that your job, as a designer, is to solve problem within a set of specific constraints. These constraints can come from different sources. The point is that they are always here. The second truth is that designer’s work is always based on specific goals. When you are designing something, you are doing with a goal in mind. This goal can be launching new business, improving existing, improving user experience of some product or service, etc. That’s why designers should start with question “Why am I (or we) doing this?”

The third truth is that your client must understand that it is part of your job and your process to gather information. Without sufficient amount of information about users, client’s brand, market, business and competition there is almost no chance your design will ever work, or be realized. These information are necessary to design a solution that will fulfill client’s goals.

The fourth truth is that designer creates order in chaos. It is your job to take all the ideas, information and requirements and create systems. The fifth truth is that you as a designer have to talk to client and everyone else involved in the project. Your work is not finished when you send the PSD or HTML, CSS and JavaScript files to your client. Your work is finished only when you sell it. Meaning, you have to take charge and sell your work to your client. You have to explain your client the reasons behind your decisions. Then, wait for the feedback. Don’t let this on someone else.

The sixth truth is that you are responsible for your work. We discussed this topic in Becoming a Professional Web Designer. Extremely short summary is that you should always carefully choose your projects. There are people who design purely for making money. There is nothing wrong with approach. However, imagine that your work would have some higher meaning than just making money. You can use design to help people and make the world a better place. Have you read a book by Victor Papanek called Design for the Real World yet? You may find this book interesting.

Take these six truths and spread them. This may help us change the perception many people have about designer. Designer is not someone who is spending the majority of his day in Photoshop or text editor playing with pixels. The truth is that designer’s work starts long before he opens the Photoshop or editor. It starts even before he turns on his computer. Designer’s work starts with people and also ends with people. Design is that thing in the middle.

Closing thoughts on making money in web design

There is nothing wrong with making money, but it should not harm anyone. If I could give you just one advice today, it would be that you should seek out projects that will help you make the world a better place. Design gives you a lot of power. It is up to you to use this power to create something that will help others or harm them. The question is whether you will be able to live with that.

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By Alex Devero

I'm Founder/CEO of DEVERO Corporation. Entrepreneur, designer, developer. My mission and MTP is to accelerate the development of humankind through technology.

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