From Zero to Thriving Career: Getting Clients as a New Designer

Success as a freelance designer depends on the designer’s ability to build up a reputation for quality work and a long stream of loyal clients. A central tenet to landing more clients is to put your wares “out there” and gain exposure on high-traffic platforms. Building a portfolio in this manner is a slow process, but the returns in the form of recurring, high-paying work are worth the effort.

Practically, here are a few things you as a just-starting-out designer can do to gain exposure for your work:

1. Free eBooks

A well-written free eBook filled to the brim with helpful, inspiring tutorials, opinion pieces and trend analysis can get shared thousands of times across the internet through social media channels. These eBooks don’t have to be very long; powerful, pithy content — not length — is what readers look for. While it may seem counterproductive to offer valuable content for free when paid alternatives exist, useful free eBooks are often shared extensively and reach an audience numbering in hundreds of thousands. This means enhanced exposure for your work, and the residual effects of building up a reputation among design circles.

Marketing guru Seth Godin has vociferously propagated the benefits of releasing free eBooks for building up a loyal audience (a concept he has implemented extensively with his own books). His free ‘IdeaVirus‘ remains the template for releasing quality eBooks and leveraging the crowds. 37Signals’ GettingReal is another eBook that has been shared across thousands of blogs because of the sheer value it provides. While these two eBooks aren’t necessarily related to web designing (though there are definitely some conceptual overlaps), they are good models on how to market an eBook for maximum impact.

2. Freebies – Design Templates, Backgrounds, Logos, Typefaces and Patterns

Conceptually, the idea of releasing freebies such as templates, backgrounds and patterns is the same as releasing free eBooks: by offering something free, you get to build an audience that can later be tapped for paid work. Giving away free templates, logos, etc. is a designer-specific solution to the problem of gaining exposure – one that is highly effective when leveraged through your relationships across social media channels, blogs etc.

Image Source: 100 Free Stamp via Shutterstock

3. Work for Non-Profits

There are always charities or other non-profits in your community — perhaps some you already support — that need help with design work. Doing discounted or pro-bono work for these organizations can help you get your career started. Charities are often willing to provide recommendations and referrals in exchange for in-kind contributions, and giving back to your community will help boost your public image and visibility. It’s an opportunity to build your portfolio while giving back and improving your community.

Best of all, you gain valuable connections to board members who are often influential businesspeople in your community.

4. Networking

When you’re first getting started, it’s critical to ramp up your business relationships. One of the best ways to do this is participation in local networking opportunities, including chambers of commerce meetings and other similar events. These groups will help you connect with other businesspeople in your area who need your services. Because of the collaborative environment, impressing a client you find through this method often leads to referrals. Working through these groups can play a key role in building a local reputation and fortifying your portfolio.

Image Source: Social Media Circles via Shutterstock

Keep in mind, though, that most people do networking wrong and end up wasting their time. Passing out business cards to a room full of people is usually fruitless. Read a book like Bob Burg’s Endless Referrals to learn how to do it the right way.

5. Guest Blogging

Guest blogging is an effective way to grab eyeballs and build up a reputation in design circles. A single guest post (with a link to your site/portfolio) on a highly-trafficked, well-respected design blog such as Smashing Magazine can attract considerable attention from fellow designers and potential clients. There are no specific rules to guest blogging; each site has its own requirements of voice and content. You must ensure that only your best work gets placed on these sites, be it in the shape of tutorials, opinion pieces, or analysis of current trends in the industry.

Image Source: Welcome Carpet via Shutterstock

A few avenues to consider guest blogging are: Smashing Magazine, Design Observer, Hongkiat, AListApart, SixRevisions &, of course, Speckyboy.

6. Showcase/Design Galleries

The popularity of design galleries and portfolio websites can be gauged from the fact that deviantArt, the leader in this space, ranks as high as 130 on the Alexa Top 500 websites list. The up-and-comer Dribbble has increasing sway in the marketplace as well. Building up a strong following on such portfolio websites can be instrumental in gaining more work as a freelance designer since these platforms are frequented by clients and fellow designers alike. While deviantArt is largely a design gallery with no single authoritative source, design blogs such as 1stWebDesigner, Hongkiat and others frequently create ‘showcase’ posts with the best work from top designers. A mention in such a post can win a lot of attention and further boost your chances of landing a high-paying gig.

Getting exposure on such platforms is largely a function of the quality of your work, but building up a relationship with the concerned blogger through email and social media channels can help in getting a mention in such a ‘showcase’ post. Sites to visit: Web Creme, CSSMania, deviantArt, Dribbble & Behance.


  • karks88

    Good post!  I think a big key early on in your career is to work on some lower cost projects.  Gain as much experience as you can and build a portfolio.  After awhile, you’ll be able to start charging more for your work.

    It’s also worthwhile to take up a personal project about something that interests you.  Music reviews, sports, design, etc.  Something you’re passionate about.  Make it the best site you can and perhaps even get a little bit of advertising revenue.  That’s a good way to show that you do indeed know what you’re doing and can help clients build something successful.

  • Kyttias

    Inviting others to author special guest content and showcasing other’s work are both great ways to get word-of-mouth attention towards you. In both cases, featured people are likely to mention and link to your site. Great advice, as usual!