How to Start a Graphic Design Business

Learn to kern your way to small business success. Get creative, get paid, and get started today.

Business at a glance

Income potential

Graphic Designer Average Hourly Rate
$15-300+

Freelance Graphic Designer Salary
$40,000-200,000+

Yep, that's a pretty big range. Depending on your skills, experience, and clients, you can absolutely make up to six figures as a freelance graphic designer.

Startup costs

$0-5,000

Assuming you have a computer and design software, you can start for as little as $0.

If a computer, design software, and drawing tablet purchase are in order, your startup costs will be a lot higher.

Training

There are no formal qualifications or certifications required for graphic designers, though graphic design training is offered at nearly every type of educational institution, from community college to Ivy League.

How to start a freelance graphic design business today

So you’ve always dreamed of becoming a graphic designer. Good news: you can do it, right now. How? It’s easier than you might think. Assuming you’ve got a little experience under your belt and a halfway decent computer to use (which we assume you do if you’re reading this on the internet), you can start a freelance graphic design career for the low low cost of almost zero dollars and it’ll probably only take you an afternoon to get up and running. Let’s get right to it then, shall we?

What kind of graphic design services should I offer?

The critical first step to starting a graphic design business is figuring out what kinds of services you can reasonably offer. There are two considerations here:

  1. What are you capable of doing?
  2. What would you like to do?

These are not necessarily the same thing. So look at your skill set and see where it overlaps with your aspirations. That spot contains your core service offering.

You should also think about different graphic design niches that you might be able to fill so that your marketing efforts (later) can be a little more focused and clients will eventually know to come to you for specific services.

There are an almost endless number of niches in the graphic design industry, but here is a short list of some of the most popular ones:

Industries

  • Alcohol manufacturing
  • Food and beverage
  • SAAS (software as a service)
  • Cannabis
  • Video games
  • Tech
  • Charities
  • Clothing/fashion
  • Sports
  • Music
  • Film and TV
  • Health and wellness

The choice of niche is up to you: choose one or a few of these examples, or combine them to create a targeted offering that works for you. For example, websites for charities or advertising for health and wellness companies. Just make sure it’s something you’re interested in and have the skills for.

Let’s talk dollars and cents

Unlike many small service businesses, you don’t need a lot of equipment to launch your graphic design business so your startup costs are close to nil. As long as you have a decent computer, you should be able to get rolling for less than $100. That’s the easy part. The bigger question is: how much should you charge?

Your hourly rate will depend on your level of experience, the niche that you’re servicing, and the city where you work. A typical freelance graphic designer salary per hour is as low as $15 for someone just starting out in a small market, to $300 for an established designer working in a big city for high-profile clients. The most important thing is to avoid underpricing your services—as your business grows, you’ll be happy you started out with reasonable rates that earn you a good living, rather than having to constantly explain to clients why you’re raising your prices.

There’s also the option to price your services based on the project, not on the time it takes. This is an especially attractive choice for junior designers who plan on learning as they go; flat free pricing gives you the freedom to work through your designs and consume educational materials without worrying about the clock. It’s also a great way to assuage the fears of budget-conscious clients, since they know from the start what their bill will look like.

How you price your projects is up to you. You might price them based on the amount of time you expect it to take, the attractiveness of the subject, the ease of working with a particular client, etc. Take the time to think carefully about what the project is worth to both you and your client before giving a number.

Last thing: look at what competitors in your niche and city are charging for similar work as a way to guide your pricing.

Essential details

Potential Services
  • Logo design
  • Website design
  • Brand asset design
  • 3D modelling
  • Packaging and label design
  • Book design
  • Print design
  • Advertising campaign design
  • Brand identity development
  • Type (font) design
  • UX design
  • Animation
  • Illustration creation

This is a short list — the scope of possible graphic design jobs is huge.

If you're reading this, chances are you have some idea of what services you'll offer, and in what industry.

What to charge
  • Simple logo: $100
  • Simple marketing email: $100
  • Business cards: $150
  • Social media ad: $200
  • Brochure: $200
  • Basic website: $1,000
  • Short ebook design: $1,000

Heads up: flat fees for projects vary widely depending on your expertise, the client, your region, and a lot more. Consider the above as a single data point to inform what you'll charge. Dig into reddit, forums, and ask in your network if you need more information.

Skills required
  • Creativity
  • Problem-solving
  • Time management
  • Customer service
  • Communication
  • Technical design skills

What do I need to start a graphic design business?

Fortunately for you, graphic designers don’t need much beyond a decent computer. The average laptop these days is completely capable of running most design software. So assuming you’ve already got one, your equipment needs are minimal.

If you don’t currently have a license for graphic design software like Adobe Creative Suite, you can sign up for a subscription for about $55 per month. That’s super cheap compared to a few years ago when you had to buy the software outright for hundreds of dollars. You can also choose to license only the CS tools that you need specifically, such as Photoshop, for a lower price.

You should also think about having some business cards printed (with your design! Hooray, your first job!) so you have something to hand out to potential clients you meet in your day-to-day life. Business cards usually start at around $20 for 100 cards, depending on paper stock and add-ons options.

Now go ahead and build your website

Just because you’re a whiz with pixels doesn’t mean you’re a boss at building websites. But you do need to have one to capture clients searching for your services online and as a homebase for your portfolio and contact information. Lucky for you, you don’t need to be a developer to launch your new graphic design website—you can do it with Durable in less than a minute.

With just a tiny bit of info from you, Durable’s free AI website builder can generate a complete, professional website for you in just 30 seconds. It will write copy, add images, choose colors and fonts, and do the layout for you while you watch. When it’s ready, feel free to flex those design muscles and make all the customizations that you might want, then publish it right away, no waiting.

The main thing you want to make sure is in tip top shape on your website is your portfolio. Whether it’s past paid work or creative pieces that you’ve done for yourself, include all your best work for potential new clients to admire.

Start promoting your graphic design business

With your website live and your software locked and loaded, it’s time to start looking for work. Don’t get bogged down in a complicated marketing strategy; when you’re first starting out, any paying gig is a good gig, no matter the size.

Think of small jobs as a way to introduce yourself to clients. Rarely do customers need one tiny thing and nothing else. If you do a good job, they’re likely to come back with more, bigger projects. Here are some things you can do to find those first jobs:

  • Share your website with anyone and everyone in your network
  • Spend small amounts on targeted digital ads on Facebook and Google Ads—learn how with this guide
  • Post on services like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace
  • Set up social media accounts (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and especially LinkedIn), post frequently, and make sure you respond to comments
  • Ask satisfied clients to leave great reviews (Durable can help with that)
  • Consider setting up a profile on a service like Dribbble.

Set yourself up to get paid

Before you put any ink on that first contract, be sure that you are set up to send invoices and receive payment, which is really the whole point of this, isn’t it? You can do it really easily with Durable’s invoice tool, which can send beautiful and professional invoices to your clients and streamline the payment process, ensuring that you get paid on time.

You should also open a business bank account to keep your personal and professional finances separate.

Durable Money is an online business bank account that integrates with your invoices and website seamlessly, keeping you on top of your finances and reducing the amount of time you have to spend on administration.

Ready to get started?

Get your Graphic Design website generated in seconds, and start building your business of one.

When your graphic design business starts to grow

Once you’ve completed a few projects and start to feel more comfortable and confident running your own business, there are some things you can do to accelerate your growth.

Brand your graphic design business

As a graphic designer you might already have done this step long before launching your business, but just in case you didn’t, here’s the push you need. It can be helpful to have a brand name for your business that makes you more memorable to clients. If you need a hand coming up with something catchy, try the AI business name generator.

While you’re at it, design yourself a logo to go with your new name, then use it everywhere you’re promoting your services: your website, business cards, ads, invoices, etc.\

Level up your marketing efforts

With the foundation of a marketing strategy already in place, you can add in some other tactics to boost your reach.

  • Competitive analysis: do a survey of your competitors—what they’re offering, how much they charge, and what their promotional strategies look like. Then use that data to adjust your own marketing plan.
  • Understand your customer: take some time to look at your existing clients and what makes them great (or horrible). Similarities between them can help you identify the ideal customer. Maybe you don’t like working for big corporations or maybe small businesses are too cost-conscious. Either way, understanding your existing customers can help you better target future clients.
  • Send email: social media is great because it’s free and far-reaching. But way more people actually read email. So gather up all the email addresses you have and send newsletters, special discounts, notifications of new service offerings, and anything else you really want your potential clients to know.
  • Set up a CRM: once your business really gets cooking, organization is going to be key to your ongoing success. And nothing is better at organizing data than client relationship management software. It’s basically a digital address book with super powers and you’re going to be glad you have one.

Upgrade your equipment

Before we get too far into this section, it’s important to note that in most cases, you do not need a $10,000 Mac Pro workstation. The laptop that got you your first jobs is probably fine to keep using for quite awhile and spending a lot of money on new equipment right away puts you on the fast track to debt. However, if you are starting to work with resource-intensive software for some projects, you might consider upgrading your machine. Higher end laptops start at around $2,500.

Likewise, while they are not strictly necessary, you may also be able to work faster and more effectively with upgraded peripherals. A second monitor ($300) can give you more screen real estate and a drawing tablet (starting at around $60) can be a more natural way to create illustrations.

Get insured

You might not think that a graphic designer needs insurance, but you’d be surprised. Things can always go wrong in unexpected ways (personal injury, professional malpractice, privacy violations), and in some cases, clients may require you to carry professional liability insurance as part of your contract. 

Our advice? Don't skip the insurance.

If you decide that you do need insurance, first check out our guide to business insurance. Then talk to a broker you trust about your options.

Design your business for the future

Once you’re an established small business owner, it’s a good time to think about where you’d like your business to go. Here are a few essential things that you can do to maintain your success over the long term. 

Write a business plan

A business plan doesn’t have to be a huge chore. Just put together a simple document that contains things like goals and the strategies you’ll need to use to achieve them so you have something to refer to if you get a little lost along the way. A great place to start is this handy template from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Register your business entity

Many freelancers start out as sole proprietors, which is an informal business type that doesn’t require much (if any) paperwork in most states. But you may find advantages from formal business structures, such as liability protection and tax benefits, so it’s worth at least learning about formal registrations.

Need a hand separating personal and business finances? Durable can help with that.

If you decide that a formal registration is a good idea for your business, be sure to work with a CPA or business attorney to determine which structure is best for your goals.

Scale your graphic design business

Eventually you are likely to have enough clients that your workday is full, which means your revenue is effectively capped. If you want to increase profits, you need to find a way to expand your business without working more. Here are some strategies:

  • Hire part-time, full-time, or contract employees
  • Add premium services priced at higher rates and eliminate basic service offerings
  • Secure financing for major purchases, such as high-end computers that will allow you to work faster

But remember, just because you can expand, doesn’t mean you have to. If you’re happy with your current clients and making enough money to sustain your lifestyle, congratulations, you’re living the dream.

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