10 tips for going out into the design industry on your own

Experienced creative professionals share their best advice for going out into the design industry on your own and making money doing it! 



Evelyn Csiszar RGD, Visual & Interface Designer / Owner, Evi Designs

Cathy Ledden RGD, Create iT all, Ledden Design iT

Brent Long RGD, President, Fusion Design Group Inc.

Anthony Furia RGD, Graphic Designer, Furia

Nico Taus RGD, Creative Director, Studio123

Glenda Rissman RGD, Principal, q30 design inc.

Cai Sepulis RGD, Illustrator / Designer, Ballyhoo Media Inc.


1. Do what you love, and get paid for it. 

"Don't ask 'how much should I charge?', instead, ask 'how much should I make?' - figure out your break even rate (how much you spend, divided by how much you work), then target big clients, say no to free work and look at ways to reduce scope rather than price when necessary." Evelyn Csiszar RGD 


"Discuss budget and timing right at the start. With a new client, decide whether it is mutually beneficial for you to invest in each other - if the answer is no, it's better to find out right away." Cathy Ledden RGD 


"Think about sales, build a network, have a financial buffer - these things are important when you're starting out. It's not just a matter of doing good work and expecting the money to come in. You need to be smart about it and keep learning every step of the way." Brent Long RGD  


2. Define what success means for you. 

"Working backwards from an end result helps map a clear path forward. If you think about reaching an end goal by going down a straight road, the more you deviate from that path the longer it will take you to get there."  Anthony Furia RGD 

"Define why you want to go out on your own. It will take some soul-searching and digging, but it's important for determining what model makes the most sense. If you're looking for a more flexible lifestyle, a solo freelance gig is better for you. Or if you want to collaborate with people and grow a team, you should pursue a more structured studio approach." Nico Taus RGD 
"Build processes and structures by identifying tangible goals - write down what you have to do every week, every month to accomplish them." Cathy Ledden RGD


3. Work for someone else first.

"You need to have good business sense and a strong drive to succeed. There's nothing like real life experience to teach you how to get through the process and project management work necessary for running a business." Glenda Rissman RGD 


"Working for someone else is like a pressure cooker of knowledge - you'll find out what clients expect, how to manage a project, how to respond to RFPs. It is possible to learn these things without working for others, but it's much more difficult." Nico Taus RGD


4. Talk to people. 

"Reach out to prospects, attend events, ask for client referrals, find ways to promote yourself and your portfolio. If you have a great portfolio, think about how it can be applied to different industries and find ways to get it in front of the right people." Anthony Furia RGD


"Collaborate, partner with people, work with others, participate in the community. Join a network and take advantage of learning potential." Brent Long RGD


"Be on the lookout for partners, business mentors, lawyers, PR consultants and other people to help you get the work done." Glenda Rissman RGD 


"Who are you up against? What do they do that is different from what you do? How are you better than them, or how are they better than you? Find someone doing what you want to do, and seek help from them in the form of mentorship." Nico Taus RGD


5. Play to your strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses. 

"Design skills are a given. Working on your business skills and your client skills is what will really grow your career. Self-awareness is one of your biggest assets - it tells you what areas you need to work on and what your strengths are. It will help you recognize the fact that you shouldn't do everything yourself." Anthony Furia RGD 


"Pick the three things you're best at. Eventually you need to outsource the things that you can't do, or hire people. You can't be good at everything, so find people who balance your weaknesses with their strengths." Glenda Rissman RGD 


"Hone in on the stuff you're really good at, because those are the things you'll be able to sell more easily. Everyone has weaknesses - either bring someone in whose skills will fill in the gaps of what you can offer, or don't offer those services at all, because at the end of the day it will save you money. You can make more by concentrating on what you're actually good at." Nico Taus RGD 


6. Know your audience.

"Know who you're trying to reach and keep your message simple. If you're a graphic designer, your business card should say that on it. I know we do so much more than graphic design, but it's important to know who you're talking to and use the language that they'll understand and appreciate." Cai Sepulis RGD 


"Figure out the type of work you want to do and the people who are actively looking for that type of service, how much money they have to pay for those services, where they're located, what are their behaviours and what is the best way to reach them. You don't want to be putting a message in a bottle and hoping someone will pick it up at the other end." Nico Taus RGD


7. Don't waste time. 

"Track your time. Know how much time you're spending on things, so that you can bill for every hour." Glenda Rissman RGD 


"It's okay to say no. Filter client requests by asking what their budget is up front and getting as much information from them as you can before you dedicate your time to their project." Cai Sepulis RGD 


"The first few projects you put out into the world will frame your business. The projects you put out there signal to potential clients who you are, what type of work you do and what your business is all about." Nico Taus RGD 


8. Deliver value. 

"Deliver on your promises - on time, on budget, with results. Integrity and delivery will get you far more client referrals than beautiful kerning." Anthony Furia RGD


"Focus on the value that you bring to the client - work won't come to you automatically, you have to go out and get it. Have a clear understanding of what makes you different. Treat yourself like you would treat a client - build you brand, ask 'what's your unique value proposition?'" Cathy Ledden RGD


"Avoid being a generalist; be a specialist. People are looking for experts and are willing to pay more if they perceive that they're going to get a higher degree of quality, versus hiring someone who will be kind of good at a lot of things." Nico Taus RGD


9. Be realistic. 

"Not every day of self-employment will be paychecks and rainbows. You'll need a positive mental attitude and a good support network to pull you through the dark days when you feel like going back to your nine-to-five." Anthony Furia RGD


"A really good chili takes time to make, and so does your business. There are ways to accelerate the rate of your success and get to the next level, but all good things require patience. Keep in mind what's important to you, have a plan and work hard." Cai Sepulis RGD 


"Partnerships are like any long-term relationship - they have their ups and downs. At the end of the day you want someone dependable, stable, committed to your business. In life things happen, people get bored, perspectives change. Be prepared for things to change." Nico Taus RGD


10. Keep an open mind. 

"We all have mind trash - nagging doubts in our heads when we're thinking about taking on a new challenge. But we also have our successes, and that's what builds confidence. The only way to get better is by doing." Cathy Ledden RGD


"Be nice to everybody. Think about being fair, respectful and treating people well because that type of behaviour pays off." Brent Long RGD 


"Every story of success includes infuriating, non-replicable circumstances of being in the right place at the right time. The only thing you can really do about that is put yourself in more places at more times. Saying yes to social events even when you don't feel like it. Be prepared for opportunity - don't miss out on something great by not being ready for it when it comes. Live life without regret." Anthony Furia RGD


For more advice from the industry, check out presentation recordings from RGD's 2017 Creative Directions Conference.