Tag Archives: freelancing

How to begin building a graphic design portfolio

26 May

So you want to become a graphic designer. Maybe you’re just graduating and looking for a career, or maybe you’ve already got a job somewhere and are thinking about a change to graphic design. You love trying new fonts, you’re pretty good with Photoshop, and you’re always taking photos. But what next? How do you synthesize that into a graphic design career?

Growing up in a supportive but decidedly not-art-informed background, this was pretty much my situation coming out of high school. And the first obstacle I needed to tackle was…

The Almighty Portfolio

My physical portfolio was adapted from a photo album and has a few pieces from the same client on each page.

My physical portfolio was adapted from a photo album and has a few pieces from the same client on each page.

The thing you’re going to be focused on is building a strong portfolio, which is a website you can link to and physical book you can take with you. Your portfolio is a collection showcase of two things: what you can do and what you want to do.

  1. You should revise and update it frequently with sample photos of projects you finish
  2. You should only keep stuff in there if you’re proud of it and reflects what you want to do in the future for others. This might change over time as you get different or more exciting jobs, so see point #1 up there.
  3. You should separate it by sections to avoid overwhelming people. Generally, clients already have a certain type of project in mind when they go looking for designers, like logos or websites or business cards, so having at least 4 or 5 samples of a project looks really good.
  4. …but if you don’t have a lot to show yet, keep it to one page. A portfolio subsection with only two things is as compelling as a produce stand with two apples, and it’s not fun to do a whole lot of unnecessary clicking through barren sections. So to start with, you might keep your work together and use sections to feature the work you have a lot to show from.
  5. In your physical book, consider getting a portfolio that has pages you can add or take out. You never want to have blank pages. You can also get more pages than you need and swap them in/reorder them to cater to a particular client who’s going to be seeing it.

Getting projects for your portfolio before you have clients

But where do these projects come from when you’re first starting out? Even if you don’t have clients yet, you can still do a lot:

  • Wallpapers and phone backdropsThis great blog post has a lot of solid advice on this. Be sure to come up with a theme that will allow you to create your own art and design and play to your strengths. (Note: I would avoid using screenshots of celebrities/cartoon characters/models of cars; picking something more general will allow your design skills to not get overshadowed by how the viewer feels about My Little Pony.)
  • Gift items – create a design for each month and use it to make a calendar, or use photos from an event to lay out a cool photobook. Or get some nice cardstock make your own greeting cards or gift card holders when you give gifts. The nice thing about this is that it’s something your friends will keep and share with others, which can lead to more work for you!
  • portfolio_giftcardholder

  • Donate your skills to a nearby non-profit organizationPlaces like animal shelters LOVE professional photographers to get good shots of their adoptable pets, and other organizations always appreciate help with flyers and promotions. It’s not a great idea to commit to working for free indefinitely, but if working on a project is equivalent to the money you’d donate to a cause you believe in, it can work out for both parties.
  • Your own branding materials – Branding is something you’re going to need anyway, so your logo, business cards, and website are all testaments to your skill and should be in your portfolio.

Educate yourself!

If you take graphic design courses at a university (in my area, we have a good selection of community colleges that will offer weekend/night classes if you’re trying to do that in your spare time), your assignments can be great portfolio builders. Again, only include things that reflect what you want to do; if something didn’t turn out strong, or a teacher assigned something and you hated doing it, leave it out.

Graphic design courses will also teach you new things about the programs to use, give you the skills you need to give and get constructive criticism, and provide you with opportunities to meet and network with people. Real life classes are just a good idea all around, in my opinion. Keep in touch with your classmates, too. You never know when they might meet somebody who needs your skills.

If that’s not a good option for you at this point, you can also get a lot of great tutorials online for free or for a small cost. Creativepro.com is pretty good for small articles, and classes about the Adobe suite of programs is money well-spent.

Courses for InDesign on tv.adobe.com will unlock your ability to use more advanced print layout techniques than just Photoshop.

Courses for InDesign on tv.adobe.com will unlock your ability to use more advanced print layout techniques than just Photoshop.

Feedback, feedback!

When you meet design peers or have instructors, get them to look at your portfolio early and often, and really listen to their feedback. Find your favorite design bloggers who are doing the kind of work you want to do, and ask politely if they have time to look at your portfolio because you really value their advice. (Many will agree, because we all like feeling like experts, but don’t bug the same person every time you make a change – we’re busy people.) The more pieces you have, the better advice they’ll be able to give you. And this is also a form of networking; if your style sticks out in their mind, they can refer new work your way when their plates are full.

When you get commentary, take their advice to heart. If they tell you a piece isn’t strong or doesn’t fit, you may want to remove or revise it. The good thing about such a digital world is that it’s not hard to make revisions. This is also where those skills taking constructive criticism will shine.

Once you have a strong portfolio, you’ll have more luck applying for design jobs or reaching out for your first freelancing clients. Be sure to upload your best pieces to LinkedIn and your social media photo galleries, too, so anyone who searches you up can instantly see what you do and you stay fresh in your friends’/family’s mind as an active graphic designer.

Samples of my portfolio on LinkedIn let prospective clients dive right in.

Samples of my portfolio on LinkedIn let prospective clients dive right in.

There’s always time to refine.

Even the strongest portfolio is always getting more focused as your body of work and interests change, even years and years after you’ve been working as a designer. So don’t worry if it’s not perfect yet! The first step is getting it out there, and keeping yourself busy so that you’re always adding new things. So go forth and build your portfolio, for great justice!

And hey, take a look at my portfolio if you want to see how I did it!

4 Awesome Budgeting and Invoicing Tools for Freelancers

13 Jan

Money is one of the scariest things about being a full-time freelancer. Your workflow is unsteady, occasionally you will have to fight/diligently remind your clients to get them to pay you, and the U.S. government will take 30% of your earnings in self-employment taxes. And if you have a background like mine, Excel and Quicken give you the heebie-jeebies and were definitely not covered in art or design classes.

But if you’ve just made the move from a steady paycheck to a life of freelancing, your monthly income and spending are crucial to keep tabs on. Here are the tools I’ve used to keep track of everything.

Invoice Machine


Invoice Machine was my invoicing system when I freelanced alongside my full-time work. The free Small Account version lets you send up to 3 invoices and 3 estimates a month, with options to upgrade if you choose. It’s very lightweight and simple, and being able to have a handy address book of clients (including more than one contact per client, if you need to let multiple people know) automatically who’s paid you and remind people who haven’t beat my old system of “Make an invoice in Word and completely forget about it a month later” by a good margin.

They’ve also got some other cool features like an integrated timer you can start when you begin a project and stop when you finish, and other country codes for international clients. I don’t see a lot of resources being put into improving its features since two years ago, but if you’re just starting out with a few clients and you want something easy, I do recommend it.
Video tour of Invoice Machine


Curdbee became my new invoicing system when I outgrew Invoice Machine and needed to bill more than 3 people a month. They also give you some nice at-a-glance dashboard stats about how much you’ve invoiced and how much you’ve received each month.

It starts pretty barebones for the free version, and the features are handled with add-ons. If all the bells and whistles are important to you, you might find a better deal with Invoice Machine, but if not, you can pick and choose the ones you need as you need them and pay a small annual fee.
Interactive demo of Curdbee


Mint.com is a free web service that helps keep track of your money and set financial goals. It can automatically sort most of your purchases into categories without you touching a thing, which is huge for me. It has given me so much visibility into where my money goes each month, and lets me really hone in on where I’m spending the most. There’s budgeting trackers as well, but as a freelancer with wildly fluctuating month-to-month income and things like quarterly taxes to worry about, it doesn’t give you a lot of tools to deal with that.
Overview of Mint.com

YNAB (You Need a Budget)

So that’s where YNAB (You Need a Budget) comes in. If Mint’s strength is telling me what I’ve done in the past, YNAB’s strength is telling me what I need to do in the future. YNAB is not free and does not auto-track things like Mint, but the clarity it has given me and the phenomenal amount of learning resources they give (not only about using their software, but learning to relax about money) was definitely worth what I paid, and you can occasionally snag deals on Steam for it.

It has strong tools for breaking up things like quarterly taxes so you can save up for them, and just generally some great, approachable advice for getting off of a month-to-month mentality, which is something I’ve definitely struggled with since becoming a freelancer. They do offer a trial period, as well as free live classes if you’re curious about how it works (they give away a copy of the software after every class, so that’s pretty awesome).
Video tour of YNAB

What financial tools do you use that’s made your life easier? ¬†Let me know in the comments!

Making your dream job a reality, pragmatically

3 Sep

I worked as an in-house graphic designer at various places from September 2004 until March 2012, when I quit my job and went entirely full-time freelance. It’s been a great opportunity to work on my dream jobs: making my comic Sombulus and making board games with my husband Mark. But I’ve come to realize a few things about making your dream jobs your full-time jobs, and how to go about it in a (relatively) stress-free way.

The Day Job is not evil.

Making money off your dream project is not going to happen overnight, and that doesn’t mean you’re a failure or you should stop trying. What it means is you absolutely need some other way of supporting yourself while you improve your craft and grow your audience to that point, or you will be so worried about being able to pay the rent that your creativity will suffer (been there, not fun).

Plumber at work, by Yves B.

Plumber at work, by Yves B.

The good thing is that jobs and fun stuff are not a binary choice: you don’t have to give up on making money on what you love if you get a job doing something completely different. There’s always a way to make it work.

Stability makes growth possible

Once you’re supporting yourself, you have the mental room you need to experiment. Let’s take the example of comics. Try to figure out how to make a quality comic book that you can crowdfund and/or sell at local conventions. If this is your first time making a comic, practice with small stories and other pieces, put them out for people to read, and get good feedback on what your strengths and weaknesses are as a storyteller and an artist. Use that feedback to find education and new tools to improve your work.

Having a day job allowed my artistic skills to grow into something more marketable

Having a day job allowed my artistic skills to grow into something more marketable

The more freedom you have to afford the tools and take the time to improve your craft, two things will happen: the more your audience will grow, and the more your skills will grow.

Bringing money into the equation

Once you have something that people are consistently responding positively to, make your way to a convention or start a Indiegogo/Kickstarter for it. Start your goals small: if you're at a convention, try to make enough money to break even with the cost of the table first. If you're a musician, try to score a regular gig somewhere. Set one small goal at a time, and you'll find yourself moving forward.

Kris Sheppard: graphic designer by day, tableside magician by night!

Kris Sheppard: graphic designer by day, tableside magician by night! Check him out at krissheppardmagic.com

Many paths to financial stability

Sombulus has been online since 2010 and Whirling Derby launched a year ago. Both Sombulus volume 1 and our first published game should be coming out next spring, which is exciting and will finally start the ball rolling on those streams of income. But am I ever going to live off of any one of those? Probably not.

And that’s okay! Many of us have been raised to believe that we’ll grow up to only have one occupation, and performing that one task will solve all our financial problems. But in a lot of situations, it's a combination and rotation of many completely different things that pays the bills. Keep making and trying new things to bring in money and see what works for your audience!

Have you been pursuing your goal? What are you working toward, and how is it going? Let me know in the comments!

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