Freelancing as a web designer during your student years could be the best career step you ever take. Your time as a student could be the perfect chance to freelance, as you (hopefully) don’t need the income to support yourself, and you have the time, mindset and patience to learn as you go. Freelancing as a student is also a great opportunity to expand your skills and add some real world client interaction to your CV.
Don’t Undervalue Yourself
This is easy to do: even after 8 years working for myself as a web designer, I still manage to undervalue my time and expertise to a client at times.
Set an hourly, daily or project rate for your time, and try sticking to it. You’ll be surprised how many clients will still use you even if you don’t offer a discount: some clients are simply testing the water to see if you. Standing by your costs can also reinforce the quality and value of your servers over a competitor who’s willing to halve their costs.
If you build additional cost into your project costs, you can also cover the time you spend doing any administration such as tax returns and invoicing clients, and can be more flexible with your clients when they request a brief update to their website, for example.
Set Realistic Expectations Between You and the Client
One of the best pieces advice I ever had in managing client expectations on a project is to “under promise and over deliver.”
So, if you think a website is going to need a week of your time to design and build before you can get something to the client, tell the client it will take two weeks. This gives you time to catch up if you become ill or hit that dreaded creative block, and it gives you more time to add a final layer of polish to your work and really impress your client. This simple is amazingly powerful for keeping your clients – and yourself – happy when working as a freelancer.
Find a Niche
This is one of the best ways to generate work for yourself in a market crowded by web designers: find a speciality in the web design field, and promote it!
Your niche could be a particular open source software you’re interested in (Drupal or WordPress, for example) or a specific design style you like, such as minimalism or illustration. Develop your knowledge in that niche, and get involved with the community around it, and you’ll find it easier to promote your services:
Read and post in discussion forums related to your topic.
Releasing a free theme, module or extension to the software that fills a gap in what’s currently available (e.g., release a responsive theme for a software package that doesn’t have one yet).
Spending a little time every week helping others using the software on support forums and Twitter (hashtags are great for this!)
Blogging about the way you’ve solved problems with that particular software. E.g., “How to change the homepage layout in Magento” or “How to install Drupal”. Blogs kept up to date are a great addition to a portfolio, and show potential employers in the future that you’re passionate about web design.
It may sound bizarre, but by focussing on a more narrow service range, you may find your pool of potential clients increases, not decreases, by attracting clients from further afield who want help with that particular software, or want a designer with a particular style.
You can select a niche yourself based on your passions or past experience, or you can fall in to a niche accidentally (I did!); be sure to publicise any quirky projects you’ve done on your portfolio, as this can help guide more clients to you.
Keep Your Portfolio Up to Date
There are few better ways to promote your web design work than a portfolio of previous projects, whether it’s on your own website or on a service such as Forrst or Dribbble. By adding newly completed projects to your portfolio on a regular basis, you’re showing the best quality of your work; as web designers, our skills improve every day.
And if you offer work in a particular niche, a portfolio which showcases the unique type of projects you have worked on previously can help create new clients for you if you do a little to optimise your portfolio pages for the relevant phrases: think “Website design for t-shirt store using Magento” rather than “Website design project”. If you’re freelancing but looking for a full time position, or might do in the future, consider adding an up-to-date CV to your website, too (a page on your website is ideal, but a PDF would be fine).