Graphic design as a self-employed career...


Random post, but it's a discussion I was having today with someone!

Is it actually possible to earn a full-time comfortable living from it? I ask this as nearly every designer I know tends to 'have to' charge peanuts in order to get any work, and even though their work is pretty good, tend to attract the type of clients that want designs for nothing or for monkey money i.e. £20 logo and generally struggle financially, having to prop themselves up with bar work and stuff. I know designers don't have to go to that level, but it seems a lot do, and it's quite saddening seeing LOTS and LOTS of LOTS of people fighting over the same mini project and scraping the barrel so to speak. It seems even more cut throat then most other cut throat industries. Its quite rare to meet designers who charge a 'decent' amount. What kind of rates o you need to be charging to earn a 'good' living? We met one who charges £90 per hour, and although his work is fantastic, hes not exactly rushed off his feet. What/where is the balance?
I'm very much of the view that I'll chuck it in if and when I have to join the competitive race to the bottom price-wise as I don't see how I'd realistically be able to make it work. I'm lucky enough to do most of my work as an associate for some biggish service sector organisations which - while not always at the creative cutting edge* - is good because they have allocated budgets, they don't penny-pinch and they pay consultancy rates (in a lot of cases they're passing on the cost to a client in any case). I charge in a range from £44 (not-for-profit organisations) and £60 an hour and, while I'm not working at anything like capacity, I find I can maintain a decent standard of living at around 40% utilisation. Being a limited company with a good accountant also helps you keep more of what you make (this means I'm not technically self-employed but the only difference is the paperwork).

In short, I guess it all comes down to who you're working for.

* Mind you, the hourly rate is the same whether I'm branding and developing a major project from scratch or tarting up an MS Word document (I'm not proud) for internal use - like I say, working with people who value what you do is the thing.
After 3 years of running Bleed Ink, we're starting to get to a point where there's just about enough work coming in to support a living wage. Quite often we'll have a month where we have £200 coming in from regular work and then a week where its closer to £2000.

I think a common misconception from the world of PAYE is that to make a living self employed you need to make a lot of money but you don't. You can quite easily be supporting yourself on a modest income and still only just break even on paper.
The first 4 years of my freelancing career I've been charging peanuts for the exact reasons you state above. I havn't been able to land a full time contracted job, and I want to design. If I charge any higher, I'd get no work what so ever. Especially being from up north where there's little money anyway. If I was single, living alone, I'd also have to have a part time job somewhere else in order to pay rent and bills.

Luckily I'm not in that boat, and my fiance earns enough to make the difference and give us a decent quality of life, but some designers arn't so lucky.

I'd like to think i'll be able to earn decent money in the future, but I'm realistic enough to know it'll take time.
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I think it is the best self employment career as you could get freelancing work 24x7 available on the internet and whether its relates to creating a logo for an organization or to create some health pictures for the newly created website a lot of work is up and one always need graphic designers for that.
The UK is full of opportunities for designers to make money, loads of money if that's your aim - however that doesn't make it easy, as you already know. In my opinion the likelihood of success will always be dictated by your goals and the business strategy you have used to differentiate your brand, market your services and meet these goals. I do not think it's fair to say that creative talent alone is a basis for financial success across the board in lieu of solid planning, project management and promotion. I think if a freelancer or agency is currently not making a reasonable or consistent income it may be beneficial to reflect on what marketing processes are in place and what methods are being used to get and keep viable clients. For example if you sit in your kitchen on your laptop spending all day making pitches to People Per Hour (or similar) for £25 logo projects and £150 websites just to kid yourself that you are self sufficient then you will struggle long-term to be profitable, purely because the chips are stacked heavily against you and there's no money in it. On balance when you look at the investment in time a job takes to achieve, if it's too heavily weighted against a decent return, then surely it's sensible to adjust your market positioning and focus on another method.

A lot of the successful agencies I've come across have the benefit of starting off with a solid back-bone of meat and potatoes clients that potentially offer little in terms of creative back-slapping, but offer enough regular cash to keep going when the pay-day or vanity projects dry up or as a spring-board for profit when times are good. On this basis you can allow your hourly rate to be flexible to your circumstances and ensure that you can actively seek work which is really worth the time. Often agencies are set up off the back of pre-existing relationships, be them personal or professional and if you are starting cold without the benefit of having worked in the field to make this a viable proposition, then it's that much harder to know where to start getting a valuable retainer or reliable, regular client-base for your business. I know that way back when I graduated I felt there was a lot of pressure to go it alone from day one and be the successful and independent creative powerhouses that my tutors purported to be. The irony was of course that the same tutors were able to subsidise their earnings via tutoring students and by following their goal blindly when still wet behind the ears I would have missed out on the 10 years I spent working in design agencies, making connections and endearing my skills to clients that chose to jump-ship when I did.
I would say that at the moment the present economic climate doesn't make life easy. I have a number of clients for whom I do or place print and they probably form most of our income. We (husband & I) have a decent digital press in house (literally) along with finishing kit and have the benefit of donkey's years in the print business. Not a great deal of the work I do is very 'creative' - invitations, service sheets, forms etc but I make money from the print we do and put out. I do agree about the tutors being subsidised - grossly unfair - and our local Uni is also now offering design and print services - which I am subsidising!

If I were a young designer I would get some solid work under my belt with both a creative agency and also a printer before branching out on my own. You will get to learn more than you do in Uni, and see design and print in 'action'. And also get to see marketing (good and bad) in action.