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How to Go from Freelancer to Professional Designer

by Julian Shapiro
6 min read
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By being reliable, getting personal, using modern tools, and creating your own brand, you can up your game as a freelance experience designer.

Most freelancers struggle with the nuances of being multidisciplinary entrepreneurs who have to find, persuade, then eventually satisfy nitpicky clients. They unfortunately let the client-freelancer process get to them, and they lose sight of why they got into the freelance game to begin with: to be their own boss and to have fun producing high quality work.

There’s a simple trick for rising above the riff raff of freelancer tedium: understanding that freelancing is all about appearance. Appearance is what separates the novices from the professionals—far more so than the quality of their actual web development work does. It’s a hard truth, but it’s the truth.

A great appearance can single-handedly permit you to charge twice as much as you were before. Appearance is responsible for giving potential clients the impression that you’re as good as the expensive agency they’re considering going with.

Fortunately, there are clever shortcuts for appearing professional—even if your web development skills aren’t yet fully up to par. This article introduces four important considerations that a freelancer going from novice to professional should embrace if they want to shortcut their way to the top of the freelance marketplace.

If you want to start landing higher-paying clients, here are four tips for upping your game.

#1 Establish Reliability

The biggest concern clients have when working with freelancers is their reliability. There’s a lurking fear that you’ll vanish halfway through a project, or just won’t deliver altogether.

Showing clients that those fears are unfounded goes a long way toward establishing yourself as a genuine professional who’s worth coming back to and paying more for the next time around. The trick to establishing reliability is to simply use a tool that helps increase the visibility and transparency of your development process; always keep the client up to date on your work—involve them throughout the funnel.

For example, a free project management tool like Trello not only helps you keep track of your own work, but it also lets clients easily follow your progress. Trello is extremely easy to use—with its drag and drop interface, it works as a virtual board of post-it notes.

Another tool to consider is Streak, a Gmail add-on that lets you track all communication and progress with a client from the initial introduction through to the product’s delivery. It even sends you reminders when it’s time to follow up with the client.

Remember, even if you’re making use of these tools, you should still manually reach out to your clients on a regular basis. Sending personalized updates on your progress is essential.

#2 Use Modern Tools to Iterate Faster

Most designers still rely on Photoshop and Illustrator. This is counter-productive. These tools are meant for graphic design, not for web development. However, to be fair, the tools that have existed to replace Photoshop and Illustrator for web purposes have historically sucked. (Dreamweaver, anyone?)

The tools at our disposal today are actually pretty good. The new crop of visual site builders embrace all the modern best practices of web development. From responsive design to clean, semantic, and cross-browser HTML and CSS, they are incredibly powerful shortcuts to producing quality client work from scratch. (They don’t lock you into the look of stock templates.) Responsive web design tools like Webflow allow you to follow real web development best practices: you work with actual HTML elements and follow actual HTML coding procedures. You’re not treated like a dummy who can’t handle the concept of putting a div inside a body element.

Guess what happens when you’re able to design much quicker than before? You can iterate much faster

Beyond Webflow, which handily allows you to design UI animations in a drag-and-drop manner, its competitors Webydo and Froont are equally worth checking out. All of them allow you to design responsive, professional client sites in one tenth of the time it takes to build a site by hand.

Guess what happens when you’re able to design much quicker than before? You can iterate much faster. To try new color, font, and sizing combinations, you simply hit a few buttons to see your variations in real-time. What about restructuring your page for mobile? Also easy to do within minutes.

This ability to iterate quickly means you can also respond to client feedback very quickly—from both the design and development perspectives. This gives you the appearance of being a fully-staffed design agency—not just an overworked one-person outfit.

The truth is, most designers show their clients wireframes and mockups before scurrying over to developers to explain what they want coded. Clients don’t enjoy this phase since they’re unable to visualize how the wireframes will translate into the full website. However, these modern site-building tools tools allow designers to perform both aspects of site development. And, being in charge of the full development funnel means the designer is better able to adapt their work to client requests at any stage in the development process. Talk about happy clients.

#3 Get Personal

You have one inherent advantage over larger agencies: your personal attention. Having a smaller client list means you can afford to spend more time getting to know each client. Take this time to understand their brand, their message, their business, and their customers.

Remember, you’re not just their web designer; you’re the interpreter of their business objectives.

Don’t just have clients fill out a boring questionnaire for you to skim. Instead, proactively call them and ask insightful questions. They’ll be impressed that you care, and they’ll usually be be more than happy to talk your ear off about their business. Find out what problems they’re trying to address and who their target audience is. Listen closely. Be part of their team.

At minimum, the goal here is to give clients the impression that they’re being treated like royalty—not just like another paycheck.

#4 Create a Distinctive Brand

These days, with everyone is taking a stab at being a freelance designer, how can you stand out from the crowd? How do you get clients to ask for you by name? It’s simple: Don’t be just another designer with an average portfolio. Be a designer with a unique approach—whether its aesthetic, UX, or your tone of voice, do something original. It’s the only way to be memorable in a sea of identical fish.

For example, do you want to be seen as a rebel designer with vibrant, youthful designs? Or do you want to be the professional designer who understands corporate branding in the age of Snapchat and Tinder? Each of those personas attract very different kinds of clients. Choose the persona that lies at the intersection of what best suits your skill set and what best suits the types of clients you’re already in a position to contract with.

Once you’ve figured out how you want clients to see you, craft your website, your logo, your email signature, and every other point of contact to reinforce this desired appearance.

Wrapping Up

Take yourself from an intermediate designer who’s being paid hourly to perform design work to a professional who delivers an agency-quality experience every time. The latter is someone who not only impresses clients with all the bells and whistles they’d expect from a top-notch agency experience, but someone who also delivers a thoughtful and highly memorable customer experience.

Recognize that customers want more than a great website, they also want a great relationship with their designer. It’s what keeps them coming back to you, and not the thousand other designers who can deliver the same quality work you can.

What are your tricks for going pro? Share them with us in the comments below.

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post authorJulian Shapiro

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