Freelance Illustrator & Designer Survival Guide

So its been a little over 6 years since I walked out of the door of the greetings card and gifting product studio I was employed at. Although I miss the other designers and illustrators in the studio it has been the best decision I have ever made.

Standing on your own two feet and being completely independent is not for the feint hearted. No holiday pay, no sick pay, no regular income can cause all kinds of anxiety and over the last 6 years I have experienced highs and lows. Life post covid has been quite a challenging time for all business owners but I am still focused, driven and fighting to keep my business alive.

It’s been 5 years since I wrote a blog about surviving my first year of business so I thought it would be cool to share some things I have learnt over the last 4.

In this post I will cover the following:

  • building and maintaining an active client base
  • creating additional income
  • remaining focused and driven
  • the many hats of a freelancer
  • looking after the most important part of your business – YOU!

Building and maintaining an active client base

The most important part of your business is having customers. Without customers you will have zero income and as much as it’s nice to just create your own designs all of the time, that does not pay the bills. So how do you go about finding these customers?

Finding New Clients


Without putting yourself out there and meeting new people, whether that’s online or in real life (yes actually physically putting yourself out there!) you will not find new potential customers. Building your network is quite simple; be active and engage.

Online Networking

Social media is a great tool for networking. Not only does Instagram act as a fantastic portfolio tool it enables you to connect with businesses and other designers too! Be engaged on instagram, get involved in conversations on posts that grab your interest.

Don’t view other designers/illustrators as your competition, they are your peers. Sometimes I get enquiries that don’t suit my illustrative style and rather than just turning down the enquiry, I always send them to someone who’s work I’ve seen is the right fit!

Now if your looking for somewhere online to network and connect with other business owners LinkedIn is your holy grail! Over the years LinkedIn has grown into a place where business owners can share insightful information, work and also share their personal experiences and challenges. Nowadays it is a little more like facebook, a great place to connect with like minded individuals and get to know the person behind the business.

Growing your network is simple, get involved in conversations by commenting on others posts and then just send a connection request. Not only have I met new clients on LinkedIn, I have also met some wonderful illustrators and designers. This provides me with some much needed social interaction, the sort I had in the studio in my last job.

Networking in the flesh!

There are lots of local networking events you can get yourself down to. Over the years I’ve been to drop in networking such as Business Buzz and I have also been to some more formal events as a guest at closed networking groups. Again being engaged is key and being prepared is also helpful.

“So what is it you do?” is the most common question I’ve been asked.

To which I answer “For the last 6 years I have been helping my clients stand out and make sales with bold and fun creative solutions from logos and branding to pattern designs for products and a whole manner of things in between!”

This always helps to open dialogue and begin a discussion about what kind of services I have to offer. Though I do admit, I used to struggle at networking events which is why I have learnt that preparation is key. Standing around nursing a coffee won’t get you anywhere.

A comic strip about going to networking unprepared

Applying for Jobs

It would be foolish to just expect enquiries to constantly arrive in your inbox. Having a banging website with great SEO will help, as will networking. But there are other ways to find and connect with potential clients.

There are a number of jobs boards out there to browse through on a regular basis: If you could jobs, LinkedIn’s jobs board and the for hire subreddit on Reddit are a few to name. I go on these regularly and if I see a job that suits my style I will apply. I have gained 2 long term clients from Reddit that I have been working with for more than 4 years. Applying for jobs is not to be snuffed at.

Maintaining a client base

Be professional

Meeting deadlines, being responsive with emails are all important factors in keeping your clients happy and coming back for more.

Ask questions

If you are unsure of anything make sure to ask questions before starting the project. This means that you won’t waste any time.

Be honest

If your client is asking you to do something that is outside of your skill base, don’t agree to do it. Instead recommend someone you know (from your wonderful LinkedIn connections) that can do a brilliant job. Half arsing a job that you’re not sure what you’re doing will leave a bad taste in your clients mouth.

Share your knowledge & expertise

If there is something your client hasn’t thought about that you know could improve the work that you’re doing for them, open a dialogue and get chatting about it. Being knowledgeable is another demonstration of your skills and expertise.

Creating additional income

Residual income (some people call this passive income) can be a great additional revenue to help your business survive those quieter months. It is also a great use of your own time when you have little client work scheduled in.

Start selling your own designs on products

As a creative you will more than likely be working on your own personal projects when you are not working on client briefs. You will most likely be creating engaging images for posts on Instagram so why not adapt these in to physical products that you can sell online or in person.

Selling online

Whether you decide to go down the route of having your own commerce store , or setting up a shop on a marketplace such as Etsy, having your own products to sell can give you some much needed additional income. I use Etsy as I found managing 2 levels of stock time consuming when I have a million other things going on as a business owner.

I use artwork that I create for my socials to make products such as badges and stationery! My yearly calendars have been one of my bestselling items. I generally find that on the lead up to Christmas my client work slows down. So having an item that sells well can help me get through the quieter months.

My featured items on my etsy store

Selling in person

I’ve done a few craft fairs over the years, some with success, some with not so much. The cost of the table alone can be quite expensive. So it is important to choose an event that is suitable for you to sell your wares. Do your research: somewhere with a great location where there is guaranteed to be footfall always helps.

Royalty based websites

There are some fantastic places to upload your designs and gain a royalty per sale. This is great as you don’t have the expense of investing in physical stock that you need to hold. Here are just a few examples.

Redbubble is an active marketplace allowing you to upload your artwork on to a multitude of products. You can also specify your profit on each item. Another fantastic UK based site is Art Wow. This business actively offers wholesale so your products can end up being in stores as well as being sold online.

Lastly there is Thortful – a greetings card marketplace full of designs from independent designers. I have been a part of Thortful since its early days and with a few best sellers you can have a nice bit of extra income each month. With Thortful it is important to regularly update your designs. Be current and on trend and to also promote your designs on your own social media.

Some designers can make a living solely off of Thortful. But my main business focus is my client work where I can charge an hourly rate, as for me, this pays my bills.

Remaining focused and driven

Working from home can be full of distractions. Not only do you have to fight off the want to binge a Netflix series; other people assume that because you’re working for yourself you have time to meet up. (Yes you can do both! But if you want to build a successful freelance business there needs to be balance. You can’t just go out when you want to because to remain professional you have to remain available!) So how do you stay driven and focused?

Write a business plan

A business plan doesn’t have to be an essay about your business objectives, accomplishments, profits etc. *yawn*. The core parts to any business plans are your goals and how you plan to achieve them. Break down your business in to the relevant areas. For me this is client work and residual income. I break down these into bullet points and lists.

For example: to understand how to find more clients I write down a list of my current clientele and make a note of how I found them, or they found me. From this I can see which has been the most successful way to gain new clients and then I plan to do more of what I was doing before, whether thats posting on social media, going out networking, applying for jobs. It’s that simple really.

I also break down where my residual income has come from. If I am making more money from Thortful than I am from Redbubble, why is this? Is it because I’ve got more artwork uploaded on one than the other, is it because I’ve updated my designs on one and not the other? Understanding your sales can help you to set goals to increase revenue.

Understanding the successes and failures of your business by writing a business plan can help you set goals, focus on the things that have worked for you and make a plan to use your time wisely to help your business grow.

Keeping organised

Each week I write a list of what client work I’ve got on, what personal work I’d like to achieve plus any other jobs I need to do tsuch as updating my accounts. My to-do list is always written in order of priority with notes next to jobs such as deadlines. This weekly list may not fully get ticked off and thats OK. I always write my next weeks list on a Friday afternoon. This helps keep me focused and driven whilst making sure I don’t miss a thing!

The many hats of a freelancer

There is so much more than just doing the design work when being a freelancer. Not only do I get to work on awesome design projects I am also replying to emails, quoting jobs, invoicing clients, chasing up invoices, updating account spreadsheets, applying for jobs, networking, creating content for social media, being active and engaging on social media, packaging up online orders, making stock and so much more! I call these my many “hats” and as much as I would like to just be wearing the creative hat, it is important to not neglect the other hats.

Scheduling in time to reply to emails, update my accounts and create content is as important as meeting client deadlines. It can sometimes feel like a juggling act but if you neglect one task it can build up to a mountain and I’m speaking from experience of leaving my account spreadsheet for months on end without updating it properly. This then ends up as a major stressful task that can take a whole day to fix. Not ideal! So making sure that I wear each of these “hats” once a week is key in keeping my business ticking over and me sane.

Looking after the most important part of your business – YOU

YOU are the beating heart of your business so it is important that you take care of yourself as well as the business. Some of the advice above will help you to stay organised and keep stress and anxiety at a manageable level. But self care is just as important in avoiding burnout.

I am speaking from experience of what I called “long burnout”. This was a result of me working long hours and not taking care of myself in 2020. Yes I made a lot of money that year but the long term effects of burnout meant 2021 was a struggle.

A piechart depicting a chaotic year in the life of an illustrator

So here are a few tips on taking care of YOU!

Set boundaries

Give yourself set working days and hours. Don’t check or reply to emails outside of this time and make sure you give yourself time to “switch off”.

Eat and drink well

It’s easy to forget to eat and stay hydrated if you lose yourself in a job. Give yourself regular breaks, make sure you have a lunch break and remember to stay hydrated. Give your body the energy it needs! It shouldn’t be death before decaf – I now only drink decaf!

Get moving – don’t be glued to your desk!

during your breaks get outside for some fresh air, a walk, a run, whatever you enjoy doing to get your blood pumping and help reduce any anxiety.

Sleep – catch plenty of z’s

Rest is important! Staying up late and getting up early will have a negative effect on your body. Your energy levels and your ability to think will be massively reduced. This will eventually effect your business.

The bottom line: Don’t give up!

I could go on about how I have maintained my freelance business over the years. I feel that these are the most important pieces of advice I could give to anyone who’s just starting out or even a few years into their journey and feeling a little lost. So if you have any questions – leave a comment!

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