7 Habits of a Highly Successful Freelance Web Designer | October 22, 2006

I’ve had a few people contact me recently, asking how to make it as a freelance web designer. Rather than answer everybody individually, I thought I’d post my thoughts online. So in my best impression of a self help book, here are my 7 habits of a highly successful freelance web designer.

Love what you do

If you work for a large company, it’s easy to clock in, do your job and then leave it behind at the end of the day. I’ve seen companies where the staff just don’t seem to care about what they do: either the projects they are working on or the profession in general. For them it’s just a day job and they wouldn’t dream of reading a web design book or going to a conference outside office hours.

To be a successful freelancer, you need to have a passion for what you do. Passion (with the aid of caffeine) will keep you working late into the night when the rest of your friends are down the pub or fast asleep. Equally passion will keep you focused, motivated and away from the TV when times are slow. It’s the driving factor that got you into the industry in the first place, and in all likelihood the reason why you chose to go freelance.

Passion is particularly important when dealing with potential employers, be they design agencies or end clients. As somebody who uses freelancers myself, being able to demonstrate your love for the industry is much more important than your experience or technical ability. After all you can teach somebody a new skill, but you can’t teach them to enjoy their work. Ultimately this passion will be contagious and will rub off onto your clients, prospects and the work you do.

Never stop learning

Web design is a multi-disciplinary skill that’s as broad as it is deep. Every day new ideas or techniques are discovered and sometimes it’s hard to keep pace. However the best web designers are endlessly inquisitive and always want to keep abreast of the latest trends and technologies. They will scour the web reading every blog post or article they can find, their RSS reader literally building under the weight of new content. Their Amazon wishlist will be full of the latest titles and they will always have a couple of unread books lying around just waiting to be digested. Simply put, the successful freelance web designer loves what they do and is constantly learning how they can do it better.


Having a broad range of skills is vital as a freelancer as you never know what you may be expected to do. However gone are the days when you can get by being a Jack-of-all-trades. Now you need to specialise. Some skills are more in demand than others, but if you’re the top of your field in a particular language or skill, you’ll always be in demand.

Information Architecture is a hot field at the moment, as more and more companies focus on improving the user experience. Good graphic designers are also extremely thin on the ground, especially those who have an understanding of Interface design and the vagaries of CSS. And while on the subject of web standards, it seems that companies can’t find good standards based developers fast enough. Traditional programming languages will always be popular, particularly if you understand higher level concepts such as OOP and UML. However Ruby on Rails is the language du jour (OK, I know Rails isn’t a language), so if you happen to be a Rails expert, you won’t be short of a contract or ten.

It’s important not to specialise at the expense of your other skills. Clients and agencies like well rounded people with a wide set of interests. Your skills should resemble an inverted T. Generally very broad but with one (or preferably more) areas of deep knowledge.

Get a killer portfolio

As a freelancer, your resume isn’t worth the disk space it’s saved onto. Instead what you need is a killer portfolio. If you are new to freelancing, building up a portfolio can be quite tricky. The best way to do this is to contact friends and family and offer to build them a website. I’m not suggesting you do this for FREE as this is potentially damaging to the industry and can also leave you in the difficult situation where your work isn’t valued. If you must do something for FREE, consider offering your services to a charity or community group who just wouldn’t be able to afford the services of a professional designer. Alternatively, create your own personal project or sandbox where you can demonstrate your ideas. I’ve hired freelancers in the past based solely on the basis of their personal work.

If you’ve been working on the web for a while, don’t post up every project you’ve ever done. You’re only as good as your last couple of projects so put your best foot forward and showcase your most recent work. After all, Nobody wants to see a website you created back in 2002, no matter how good it was. People are very visual, so portfolios are a much easier prospect for designers. If you are a developer or Information Architect, case studies may be the better way to go. A good case study will allow you to explain your involvement with the project, justify the decisions you made and demonstrate how you contributed to the success of the project. Above all, be honest. If you didn’t do the design, or worked in partnership with another agency, let people know.

Network like crazy

As the old saying goes, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. This couldn’t be more true as a freelance web designer. The best way to get work is to use your contacts and network like crazy. When starting out, let all of your friends and family know what you are doing. Ask if they know anybody who needs a website and whether they would mind introducing you. If you are going directly after end clients, local business networking events are a great source of contacts. Events like the local chamber of commerce are a great way to meet potential customers or gain those all important referrals.

Targeting end clients can be very time consuming and costly. Instead, consider letting others do the work by contracting direct with a design agency. Agencies are always on the lookout for reliable freelancers, often at a moments notice. These agencies do the hard work of finding and managing clients, leaving you to get on and do what you’re best at. If you can hook up with half a dozen agencies in your local area, you should find enough work to keep you busy. One way to find potential agencies is to email everybody in your local area and let them know that you are available for freelance work. An even better way is to go where other web developers hang out. Geek events.

Going to pub meets, user groups and conferences is one of the best ways to make useful connections. On a basic level, people much prefer doing businesses with somebody they have met and feel comfortable with. Next time they need help on a particular project, they are much more likely to remember you and get in touch. If they know you are actively looking for projects, they are also more likely to recommend you to other people.

Networking sounds like a scary thing to do, but in reality it’s usually just a case of hanging out with people in your industry, sharing war stories and occasionally getting some work out of it.

Manage your time

As a freelancer, you need to make sure you manage your time well, and keep on top of all the administrate tasks you need to do. Many people expect to do less work as a freelancer then when they were in full time employment. However this couldn’t be further from the truth. As well as doing the work you get paid for, you also need to market yourself, manage your projects, do your accounts and everything else that’s involved in running a small business.

When you’re busy, it is very tempting to work all the hours under the sun. Even when you’re not rushed off your feet, the work you have always expands to fill the time available. To combat this you need to put some boundaries on your time and manage your work-life balance. This is particularly true if you work from home. Make sure people know the difference between your work time and your home time. Just because you’re at home doesn’t mean you have time to do the dishes, clean the house and take out the trash. Conversely don’t participate in avoidance techniques like doing the chores, making snacks or watching TV. As well as putting on the pounds, you’ll end up spending twice as much time working as you really need to.

One of the benefits of being a freelancer is being your own boss, so make sure you’re both strict and fair. Feel free to be flexible with your hours, but if you email a client at 10pm, don’t be surprised if they phone or email you outside regular office hours as well. If you find your attention fading, rather than sitting in front of the computer take a walk or go down the gym for an hour. When you come back you’ll be refreshed and much more productive.

Build your reputation

One of the best ways of becoming a successful freelancer is to become the person people want to do business with. That way, rather than searching for new clients, they will come to you. To do this you need to build a solid reputation. You can do this by doing great work and turning past clients into new sources for referrals. You can also build your reputation by sharing your experiences and knowledge through writing articles, blogging and speaking at local events. By building your reputation as an expert, people will be happy using your services and recommending you to others. Blogging is a particularly good way of doing this and is something I highly recommend. When looking for a new freelancer I’ll get a much better sense of their interests and abilities though their blog than I’d ever get from reading a resume. It’s a great marketing tool, so if you don’t have a blog, you should set one up straight away.

So those were my “7 habits of a highly successful freelance web designer”. Feel free to chip in with your own suggestions. Next week: “What Hex Value is your Parachute” and “Developers are From Mars, Clients are From Uranus” :-)

Posted at October 22, 2006 10:06 PM


Jeff Croft said on October 22, 2006 10:49 PM

As someone who works in-house rather than freelancing, I can say that all of these skills apply to that situation, as well. Great list, Andy.

Derek Punsalan said on October 22, 2006 10:56 PM

Great list. Maybe inspiration for a wallpaper to to slap on the desktop reminding freelancers of what and why they’re doing what they’re doing?

Of all the listed items, “passion” is definitely one of the more difficult habits to maintain. Under the weight of deadlines or demanding clients, passion can definitely turn anti-productive. A good habit to add would be to know when enough is enough. Time time to take a break and relax between sessions to prevent from being burned out.

Nat said on October 22, 2006 11:18 PM

Ha ha looking forward to next week’s article!

I think something, which is linked to managing your time, is managing stress and psychological health. Freelancing is a tough gig and can be a hundred times more stressful than working your 9-5 in a big company.

If you allow yourself to get stressed then it’ll reduce your productivity and creativity, and just spiral downwards. Get on top of it. Learn meditation, yoga - whatever else you need.

The last thing you need as a self-employed freelancer is to burn out and need a 3 month unpaid holiday.

Lisa said on October 23, 2006 2:59 AM

I can relate to the caffiene and the working late at night while everyone else is asleep. Sleep is a precious commodity.. of course, my sleep loss is more about the “Never Stop Learning” part of your post, and less about the “Manage Your Time” part. Heh.

Excellent list!

Doug C. said on October 23, 2006 6:13 AM

Great list of tips and thanks!
Doug C.

Birgit said on October 23, 2006 6:21 AM

While all of the points are more or less obvious, it’s good to read them and be aware of them. Thank you for that great list!

Jeff S said on October 23, 2006 7:36 AM

I just recently left freelance to work full-time for a small agency, and I’ve been completely burnt out. I enjoyed freelancing so much, but the money wasn’t there. I’m still not sure what I want to do.

Catalin said on October 23, 2006 8:10 AM

He he.. kind of right.. I can remember my first projects… small ones :) Nice article !

George said on October 23, 2006 8:33 AM

Great read. I went freelance in January of this year and thankfully things have gone really well. My biggest challenges were pricing (it seemed some clients have completely different appetites than others) and managing the work / life balance.

I would recommend it to anyone though - if you really love what you do and are proactive you will get learn and develop much faster than being in a traditional agency.

Scatman Dan said on October 23, 2006 9:32 AM

Fantastic article. Everything I do put more concisely than I ever could.

maltpress said on October 23, 2006 10:32 AM

As someone who’s two and a half days away from being properly self employed - and to be frank I’m utterly terrified by the prospect - this article has come at just the right time for me. It’s put my mind at rest that I am at least of the right mindset and skills and it’s also been reassuring to see the other people who’ve gone through this and come out the other side alive…

Many, many thanks.

Mark said on October 23, 2006 11:45 AM

I’m a bit of a mix between freelance and in-house design.

How about a list of clients requiring websites as your next article?

We’d all love one of those. Imagine the bun fight.

Blair Millen said on October 23, 2006 11:57 AM

A very comprehensive and useful list of tips Andy. I particularly agree with your point about time management and only contacting clients during office hours.

Trevor May said on October 23, 2006 12:03 PM

A well timed article, Andy. I’m about to venture into freelance (again) next month. I had intended to go it alone at some point but redundancy decided that I’d be taking the plunge earlier than expected!

Nate K said on October 23, 2006 1:43 PM

I second what Jeff Croft said in the very beginning. Even though I work in house for a Book Publisher, it takes all of the above to be successful. Passion is vital to this industry, you have to love what you do and seek more knowledge.

And, managing your time, well, I need to get back to my project instead of my RSS reader - so Im still working on that. hehe.

Kevin Ross said on October 23, 2006 2:41 PM

Thanks for the reminders, Andy. I’m sure those who are freelancers and those who are seriously considering jumping into that arena (as am I!), are well aware of the dedication it requires. Your list serves as a timely reminder. I appreciate it. Thanks!

masone said on October 23, 2006 4:10 PM

Wow, great article, thank you! Your inputs are really useful and very encouraging.

t.d.r.s. said on October 23, 2006 4:52 PM

i had to say thank you for a most informative read. i am an aspiring web… designer/developer/artist/producer or whatever the term is these days. i haven’t decided on a title yet.

David W. said on October 23, 2006 4:57 PM

Excellent list, I couldn’t agree more. One sidenote for those working at home is that you also need good support from your family. At first, it can be difficult for a spouse who generally uses the computer for play, to not view your work at the computer as play also. Working from home is a learning experience for everybody in the home.

Design is Art said on October 23, 2006 5:06 PM

Great Job Man!

David G. said on October 23, 2006 7:19 PM

I noticed a major shift in my networking power once I started handing out legit business cards. I also bought an 877 number that is relatively inexpensive. These two implementations have added immensely to the business.

4css said on October 23, 2006 7:27 PM

I would love to thank you for this article, I have already forwarded it to as many people as I could think of.

My treck into design came from the need to work at home. I started with the thought process of selling things I made online, and then became so addicted to css and design in all aspects from digital photography, web graphics and up to the hand coding. I have done just a couple of sites so far, but am just acquiring the confidence in myself to be able to create the sites, going from learning to designing.

I totally love all aspects of design and I don’t understand why people call it work!

PHP is my next quest, so thank you so much for all that you do for those who work in design. You are greatly appreciated. And with permission I would love to post a link to this in my directory.

Mike Caputo said on October 23, 2006 7:56 PM

Great article, Thanks!

Sonny Tran said on October 23, 2006 8:15 PM

I really enjoy it! Although I don’t plan to go freelancing, I think it’s very useful for web professionals in general.

Btw, can I translate this article into Vietnamese on my blog and link back to you? I think my readers (mostly Vietnamese designers and programmers) will really appreciate it.

Thanks in advance.

Nazim Beltran said on October 23, 2006 8:23 PM

great article! I agree 100% percent with the combination of good design and a broader grasping of the elements that make a well rounded web designer while at the same time not losing yourself in the forest that is the ever changing web industry…An added plus is establishing a good client relationship by devoting a passion towards making your clients happy and proad that they hired you in the first place…

Karl said on October 23, 2006 8:50 PM

Great article!! Thanks for the tips. Now I know that I am definitely on the right path. I’m building up my small business since two months. Flexibility is wonderful and my work is very interesting. After creating a nice portfolio I am going to start officially in the beginning of 2007.

Greetings from Vienna

Ash Haque said on October 24, 2006 1:32 AM

Awesome article dude, even though it was pretty long, I found myself reading the entire thing :)

Johan said on October 24, 2006 2:17 AM

The only thing that I like about design is, you can be creative. Passion sounds rather naive. I like creating concepts. I can be passionate about music and paintings but not webdesign on itself, it is functional.

Sonny Tran said on October 24, 2006 3:20 AM

I don’t agree with Johan. How come passion about web design is naive? It’s functional, yes, but it’s a form of creative art no less. And we can be passion about something functional, can’t we? Cars to me are functional, but I know a lot of people passionate about everything related to cars.

I enjoy designing web a lot, even more than watching movies, although I’m not a bit short of a movie junkie.

Bramus! said on October 24, 2006 7:59 AM

Excellent writeup!

Andy Budd said on October 24, 2006 8:48 AM

Maybe you’re in the wrong job then Johan?

Sonny Tran said on October 24, 2006 10:24 AM

Hi Andy, I don’t want to be nagging here, but I really like this article and can’t wait to share it with my friends, some of them are not very fluent in English.

So please tell if you permit me to translate it into Vietnamese and put a link back to your original article?

If you’re not comfortable with it, I totally understand, but please let me know, so I can stop check this page every few hours. :) Thanks.

Katie said on October 24, 2006 1:32 PM

I’m starting out my freelance web design career (on top of my day job) at the moment, and I’m really glad you posted this article! Thank you Andy!

Pati @-;-- said on October 24, 2006 3:02 PM

Hi, Andy.

Just yesterday Walter Kobylanski (http://www.htmllife.com/) published a checklist for days when you have too much work to do, and I added a note like this (that I’ve found very useful):

When you are in a rush and your eyes fight for stay opened, take some coffe and go to sleep for 15 minutes, not more, nor less. After that you’ll feel really good and it’s going to be easy to continue.

This works if you think that you don’t have a hole hour to go for a walk or to the gym ;)

Steve Williams said on October 24, 2006 5:35 PM

I can really relate to the ‘taking out the bins/emptying the dishwasher/cleaning the house’ comment!

But In my experience, the first 12 months or so didn’t fit the sensible working hours scenario at all - I worked every hour I could. Though I guess it depends upon how much money you need to earn from the start. Now 18 months in, I’m just starting to get my life back :)

Mike L. said on October 24, 2006 8:00 PM

Thanks for the inspiration. I appreciate you sharing.

Question about blogs: Where do you draw the line between writing “tips and tricks” that bring people to your site… such as this article… and giving away your “trade secrets” which give you that edge in your particular niche?

Get sponsored links and advertisements?

Frankly, I like my competition sitting around with a bag of potato chips in front of the TV! I don’t want them picking up on the little things I do that keep client referrals coming my way.

Sergio said on October 24, 2006 8:03 PM

Great tips, i can handle a few of them…thanks!!!

Lee said on October 24, 2006 10:29 PM

Your first three tips are equally salient for freelance developers within other IT disciplines.

Useful tips for software developers that want to become a true ‘consultant’ as opposed to just a run of the mill contractor.

will said on October 25, 2006 12:54 AM

Great Read with some great tips. Wicked job Andy!

Yurk! said on October 25, 2006 5:27 AM

Saludos Andy… bueno, soy un freelancer Peruano y voy a seguir cada uno de tus consejos. Saludos.

Ron Brown said on October 25, 2006 2:10 PM

Excellent site, added to favorites!!

Leroy said on October 25, 2006 3:48 PM

Couldn’t agree more. Except about the Ruby part. PHP fan

Johan said on October 25, 2006 8:35 PM

Technical Skills
People Skills
Business Skills

Lynn in Boulder said on October 25, 2006 9:33 PM

Enjoyed the article, it helps me with my question of ‘what to look for in a freelance designer’. We have the problem of clients needing designs (in the financial services vertical) but are currently looking for a few, great web designers to work with. Any suggestions on where to find candidates or where to post. Thx.

Jana said on October 25, 2006 9:33 PM

I’ve been in graphic design for — well, a really long time! I was feeling burned out and thinking of switching careers. Then I kind of fell into web design, and boom! — my passion for design came back. I think when you stop learning, and start seeing everything with an attitude of “been there done that,” that’s when the passion goes. If you’ve lost it, maybe you just need more of a challenge.

Kris said on October 26, 2006 11:52 AM

Thanks Andy!
Just looking to start out in the freelance world myself so this article has crystalised some of my existing thoughts (which is nice!) and given me a few new things to think about.

Totally agree with the “always learning” part - I always have some kind of vocational book with me to read on the journey to/from work. I have missed my stop a few times by being engrossed in a case study..

K . S . Karthick Murari said on October 26, 2006 12:08 PM

Hi Andy Budd,

This is really a more useful stuff that every web designer freelancing must read.

Kian Ann said on October 27, 2006 6:32 AM

Great. But I think the most important of the habits is the first one. “love what you do”. absolutely CRITICAL. everything else is secondary :P

Luigi said on October 28, 2006 4:44 PM

Ciao Andy,
i agree perfectly with you.

Nice post :)

Rich said on October 29, 2006 9:05 AM

Great article Andy

It’s great to read this sort of thing from established pros, and to know I’m heading in the right direction.

Binusha Perera said on October 29, 2006 11:20 AM

Great advice Andy, certainly the passion is what drives people in this area. My problem is that I get caught up in technical work during my day job and I have being looking at getting in to what I love to do interface design combined with information architecture. I have setup designwhys so I could go freelance/contracting through my company, as you said its a matter of learning and being true to your self and survive in tough times. All the best to everyone considering a role as a freelancer…

Marko Petkovic said on October 30, 2006 1:57 AM

Nice tips, I see you use last rule “Build your reputation” even writing this article. Thanks.

Mez Hopking said on October 31, 2006 12:47 PM

Interesting article Andy, very concise and to the point. I definitely agree with everything you say.

I’d like to add that as well as creating a good portfolio, your web presence should be unique and inspiring to your potential clients.

This isn’t an easy process, but you can get there. It’s taken me three versions to get somewhere I feel comfortable and proud of. It really is worth spending a long time on a design, my latest version took me a month from conception to completion… it’s just been showcased on CSS Beauty, which has been a freelance life changing event… I’m having lots of clients coming to me now, rather than the other way round… stick at it, you’ll get there in the end.

Anyway, I think I may be rambling on a bit.