Quincy, Illinois Graphic Design by Travis Hoffman | AAGD: Freelancing at a design student by Travis Hoffman
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AAGD; As a Design Student, what should I do to start a freelance business?

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I was fortunate to receive some graphic communication student questions from my alma mater, Western Illinois University. I’ve been honored to be able to serve on the Engineering Technology Advisory Council, the counseling body that helps dictate the curriculum and future of the Graphic Communication Program at WIU. In doing so, I’ve been lucky enough to get to know one of the Graphic Communication Instructors, Catherine D, who was kind enough to serve as the conduit for passing along some of the most popular questions the students had. Thanks Catherine, I appreciate the input and collective questions!


As a Design Student, what should I do to start a freelance business?


This particular question is difficult to provide a definitive answer, due to the fact that there are so many variables to consider. The students individual talents, work ethic, availability of industry standard computers/software, and so much more, come into play. The fact is, most school’s design or graphic communication programs often have various holes. In my experience, some of the biggest holes that currently exist are an in-depth understanding and execution of Typography. Great utilization of typography is really what makes the difference between a graphic designer and a great graphic designer. General exposure to what I would call the rock star graphic designers past and current, also seems lacking. This is important because many of the rock star graphic designers are actually still around. This means that sites like YouTube have some amazingly informative and inspiring videos about their lives, works and most importantly a look into how they think as designers.


Now that I’ve thrown all those caveats out there, let’s get real. In all honestly, I’d wager that at least 50% or more of design students just simply don’t yet have what it takes to start their own design business which would be their sole source of income. “What it takes” in some instances could be skill, experience dealing with clients, or just a poor work ethic. Though there are obviously exceptions to this statement, it would be wise to focus more on becoming part of a design community of professionals. Organizations like the AIGA and other online communities create an avenue for further growth in one’s creative abilities. Find other designers that are doing the type of work that you strive to do and try to network with these people. If you’re lucky, they might agree to give you some critiques and art direction into whatever freelance work you might come upon. This type of critique is what design students need more of; the more brutally honest the better. A student moving into the working world, if they’re lucky, will quickly learn that there is SO much to learn that college just doesn’t teach. The unlucky student may drag their feet and push on with their limited skill set, severely limiting their career advancement. In order for a design student to be truly be successful in the real world, needs to not think of design as a job, but as a lifestyle.


I’d approach the idea of freelance work a bit different as a design student. The real value in doing work is gaining additional pieces for your portfolio. I’ve seen quite a few portfolios from design students who have been desiring internships. Regardless of the school they trained at, they’re all very similar. The portfolio’s that often stood out to me were those that included work done by the student outside the required curriculum. This demonstrated to me a level of ambition and desire to advance their career in design. Making money should not be your driving force in freelance work as a design student; it should be finding opportunities to help hone your craft. Chances are you have a real surplus of time right now; the ability to spend late nights working on freelance work. This will most likely not be the case for long, so make the most of your time now to really build the foundation of a great design career. Continue learning outside of the classroom. Learn things, like what constitutes great typography, what drives you to work in this field, and what made Paul Rand such a design badass.


Thanks for the questions, and good luck! Feel free to add additional thoughts on the matter within the comments section. Have a question you’d like to submit to Ask a Graphic Designer? Click here to submit your question about anything graphic design related.





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