How to Start a Graphic Design Business
Are you an experienced graphic designer with an entrepreneurial spirit? If so, maybe you’ve been wondering how to start a graphic design business. While talented designers have many job opportunities available, some have a knack for business and a strong desire to branch out on their own terms.
Graphic design is a diverse field that includes a variety of specializations, talents and areas of focus. Because of this, it’s a career that naturally lends itself to freelance work, self-employment and independent contracting. If you’ve been curious about how to formalize these plans to start a thriving business, this guide is the perfect resource.
What Does a Graphic Designer Do?
Graphic designers provide services related to printed and digital creative designs that can be used for many different types of media. Graphic designers are responsible for creating visual, physical and digital products to use for signs, logos, advertisements, displays and more.
Graphic design businesses also leverage technology to create digital elements for websites and online spaces. This might include designing web layouts, typefaces, digital illustrations and more. In many scenarios, graphic design professionals either have a background in art, or they work alongside art directors and web developers to produce the right products for a given project.
Types of Graphic Design Services
Because the field is so broad, graphic designers might choose to specialize in one particular service or skill to start. When starting a business, this can help you establish a solid niche right away. As a result, it may help you find better or higher-paying clients who are seeking specific skills.
In general, the list below covers some of the most recognizable types of graphic design services available in the industry:
- Branding: Graphic design for brands and brand development (e.g., logo design, color schemes, etc.)
- Print design: Layout and print design (relevant for magazines, newspapers, and other physical or printed publications)
- Advertisements: Marketing and advertising-related graphic design services
- Packaging: Graphics for physical packaging and product labels
- Motion Graphics: For videos, animations, etc.
- Website Graphics: Images and designs for web and mobile development
One benefit of starting a graphic design business is that these services are highly in demand as long as other types of businesses continue to exist. With the right skills and marketing plan, the job and business outlook for graphic design businesses is incredibly positive.
10 Steps to Launching Your Graphic Design Business
If you’re interested in learning how to start a graphic design business, hopefully, the positive outlook for the career field as a whole has given you the confidence to get started.
Whether you come from a large marketing agency, a mid-sized design firm or a home office with a stable list of freelance clients, it’s important to embrace the many opportunities for exciting work that lie ahead.
The list below includes 10 helpful and practical steps for finding clients and making your graphic design business dreams a reality.
1. Determine Your Business Goals
The popular expression “failing to plan is planning to fail” might be cliche, but it’s especially true when it comes to starting a new business. The truth is that your business plans will be murky unless you have an idea in mind for how to move forward.
While you might not have the perfect answers when you’re just starting, it’s never too early to start brainstorming things like:
- What kinds of services you want to offer or be known for?
- Will you set up as a solo shop or as a company with multiple employees?
- How many customers and clients will you need at a given time to maintain budget?
- What’s the ideal amount of time spent per project or assignment?
- What type of business model do you want to follow for long-term success?
The more specific you can be when first outlining these goals, the better. Additionally, it’s helpful to set timelines for when and how you will complete certain steps. Find an accountability mentor, or make sure to develop a system for checking in and reevaluating your goals once you’ve been in business for at least a few months.
2. Take Stock of Your Skills and Resources
Although it’s not always a negative characteristic, graphic designers who come from established career backgrounds often have many resources, tools and other advantages at their disposal. When you step away from professional employment, you may find you no longer have some of the tools you need. This includes the basics like a laptop, design software and service subscriptions.
Take inventory of what you have access to in your own home and office and what you might need to purchase as a business investment. These resources might include:
- A capable laptop with the right of amount of memory and processing
- An external hard drive for storing and backing up files
- Design software such as Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop or InDesign (some of the most popular options, although certainly not an exclusive list)
- A working printer to handle physical products, blueprints or printed files
- Marketing materials and other office supplies
Additionally, you should also evaluate what skills (both personal and professional) you have at your disposal. If you’ve got a solid working knowledge of how to market your new design business, that may help save money and time at first. However, don’t be afraid to invest in the intangible resources and skills you need to help your business truly take off.
3. Conduct Competitive Research
It’s probably not a surprise, but graphic design is a fairly competitive industry. There are many talented designers in the field, and there are also established and capable companies that work with large clients on a consistent basis.
It’s important not to get discouraged when you start to realize or discover how many graphic design service providers are out there. As a new business owner, you will begin to carve out your own niche in the industry and serve clients and customers that are a perfect fit for your skills and expertise. That’s why it’s also crucial to know what your goals are when you start in the design business, and what resources are available at your fingertips.
When you start performing competitive research in the graphic design business, find answers to the following questions:
- Do competitors charge an hourly or per-project rate?
- What is the average client rate for graphic design projects in your local area?
- What do the most successful graphic design businesses have in common?
- What needs or pain points do these companies help clients solve?
- Which characteristics set you apart from the other businesses?
4. Assemble a List of Graphic Design Clients
If you come from a freelance background, it’s likely that you already have a running list of recurring clients or referrals. When you transition to a graphic design business structure full-time, be sure to communicate with these clients what changes they can expect.
It’s also beneficial to assemble a list of connections or potential clients and fill them in on your new endeavor. You can use professional networks and platforms like LinkedIn to connect with clients, or you can spread the word about your new business website.
Keep in mind that if you worked at another company prior to your business, it’s never advisable or ethical idea to bring these clients over to your new business. There may even be a non-compete clause in your previous contract that prohibits contacting a previous client from a legal standpoint.
5. Establish a Budget and Secure Funding for Your Graphic Design Business
To get started in your new graphic design business, you may need to pursue business loans or make a personal investment. If you don’t have the individual cash assets to invest, you’ll need to first explore outside options to get funding.
Assign a specific dollar amount or budget to each item that you need to get your business started on the right track. The costs of starting a graphic design business might include:
- New hardware or computer programs
- Leasing fees for office space
- Money to pay assistants or employees
- Costs associated with marketing (e.g., developing a marketing plan, logo design and building a company website) or administration
- Additional education, training and coursework
As you plan a longer-term budget, consider incoming revenue from projects and clients. How much can you eliminate expenses while getting started to secure a more stable financial future? These questions are critical, and any potential investors or loan officers will likely want to know the answers.
6. Get Your Legal Documents in Order
While your business plan is important, so is the legal structure of your newly established graphic design business
Conduct thorough research and decide whether you want to become a:
- Sole proprietorship
- General or limited partnership
- Limited liability company (LLC)
The legal structure of your business influences everything from how you pay state and federal taxes, to how you work with employees, and also which business expenses are tax-deductible. If you’re unsure how to plan this step, you need to connect with an accountant who specializes in helping small business owners make the right decision prior to their launch.
You should also be prepared to file the necessary legal paperwork with your locality in order to conduct business legally and responsibly.
7. Set Rates and a Feasible Pricing Structure
One of the first questions new customers might ask is how much you charge for specific services. As a formal business, always be prepared to provide a standard answer based on a pre-defined pricing structure. Customers will expect to be treated fairly and to have transparency when it comes to how much they owe.
Helpful tools such as invoice templates and professional accounting software can make your job much easier when it’s time to accurately report on your income and outgoing expenses. If the financial side of things isn’t your strong suit, connect with a business advisor or conduct competitive research for industry standards.
8. Create a Practical Workspace or Office
If you’re accustomed to working from home as a freelance graphic designer, you may already have a space that works well for your workday. When you become an actual business, you’ll need to think through more details to ensure strong productivity and flow of work. For instance:
- Do you need additional space for new employees? How much?
- Will you be storing equipment or other gear to complete projects?
- Is the work area free of distractions and noise?
- Do you need a private space to meet with clients one-on-one?
Although some of these questions may not apply when you first start your graphic design business, be sure to factor in business growth as you plan for how to use your space into the future.
9. Network for Potential Business Opportunities
Once you officially start a graphic design company, it’s time to get the word out and to start networking. Although you may have to take a step outside of your comfort zone, spreading the word about your business is a primary responsibility in the early days.
If there are any professional associations within your neighborhood or community, now is a good time to pursue membership. If you have connections in the local business community, branch out and share a link to your new website or portfolio.
If you choose to work with personal connections (such as friends or family members), make sure they have a good understanding of your boundaries and business requirements. Even though it’s nice to lend a helping hand, it’s never a good idea to continually work for free.
10. Market Your Graphic Design Business
Most business experts agree that instant success is rarely a given. New business owners should take time to consider how to market their services and products. With graphic design, you can often use your past projects to showcase your talent and customer service skills.
Whether you keep marketing services in-house or choose to work with an outside consultant, take time to ensure that all marketing material (including your company website) communicates your brand’s mission and purpose. Since graphic design is a highly visual field, marketing materials should also be cohesive and quickly communicate the look, feel and style of your company.
As your business expands, consider how to reach new audiences with tools like a user-friendly website, social media platforms, email marketing systems and printed materials.
Mistakes to Avoid When Starting a Graphic Design Business
Although most professionals start a graphic design business with the best intentions, mistakes do happen. It’s easy to get caught up in the small details when the pressure to succeed is great.
Even so, there are a few important mistakes that you should always aim to avoid when you start marketing your business and services. Staying away from these errors can help you save your company’s reputation, your budget and even your peace of mind.
Completing Work Without a Formal Agreement
From your very first client, always have a contract agreement system in place. Official contracts should serve as legally binding documents that outline the terms of your work and the role of the client in the review process.
Contracts help reinforce important policies such as:
- How much a project will cost the client upon completion
- What the review process will look like (how many edits and revisions are available)
- Working hours and communication protocols
- Non-negotiables or standards for design
- Client expectations and wishes (e.g., specific fonts, images, etc.)
- Copyright and trademark policies, in addition to other important legal information
- Official process for settling any disputes, missed payments, etc.
Contracts help ensure that both parties are on the same page before a new project begins. Additionally, they ensure that designers and other creative professionals don’t get caught in the trap of completing free or unpaid work as a result of a client’s demands and opinions.
Working Against Your Style or Standards
Occasionally, it’s a good idea to stretch the limits of your creativity and to expand the services that your graphic design business offers. In doing so, when you start a graphic design company, you can open new doors of opportunity and build an impressive portfolio of innovative work.
That being said, good designers are always authentic and honest in their design process and style. If something is outside the realm of your knowledge or expertise, be sure to say so. Chances are, you’ll complete better work when you’re confident that the needs of a project align with your style, skills and even your values.
Similarly, it’s important to know that you don’t have to agree to every single project when you start a graphic design company. Although it could be scary to turn away good business, there may be certain situations in which you can’t complete an assignment with the integrity or precision that you’d like to. In these situations, it’s OK to carefully evaluate what a client is asking for and decide if you’re the best fit.
Forgetting to Build Your Online Presence
Graphic design includes a good amount of “heads-down” work that requires focus, accuracy and attention to detail. However, when you transition from being just a graphic designer to a full-fledged business owner, you must have the mental capacity to meet other requirements as well.
One of these tasks is to create an online presence for your new brand or business. Whether you choose a specific social media platform or design a user-friendly website, it’s vital that potential clients know how to find you and learn more about your services.
While word-of-mouth referrals are powerful, don’t forget that modern consumers regularly default to online research. Without some type of profile or website, your business may come across as unprofessional or inaccessible when compared with competitors.
Not Establishing a Mission or Vision Statement
Now that you’ve learned how to start a graphic design business, are you ready to truly take it to new heights? Then it’s time to develop a mission or vision statement.
The benefits of developing a mission statement include:
- The ability to define the “why” behind your business endeavors
- A chance to see and rediscover motivation and purpose
- The opportunity to share what you value with your customers
- The chance to refocus when things become busy, difficult or stressful
Failing to create a mission or vision statement is an easy mistake to make since there are so many other details vying for your attention. Having one in place, however, can help you stay committed to the hard work of building your business and overcoming challenges.
Start Your Graphic Design Business from Scratch
Hopefully, the 10 practical steps outlined above have given you a boost of confidence as you establish and market your new graphic design company.
Devote some time to studying these tips, and make sure to connect with veterans in your industry who can provide in-person wisdom and advice for growing a successful design business.
When you begin your entrepreneurial journey, celebrate the big and small steps along the way. As a skilled graphic designer, you have a great deal of talent and expertise to offer to the marketplace and to your individual clients. Embracing these characteristics can help you create a stable, flourishing business that continually exceeds customers’ expectations for years to come.