7 ways to find freelance design work
1. Build and update your portfolio website
If you’re a web designer, and you don’t have your own personal website, with a portfolio, then you have some self-examination to do.
Your portfolio website is step one. You can’t lazily email prospective clients a list of links to sites you’ve worked on. Your personal site should be the crown jewel of your portfolio. You have to prove yourself as a design professional if you want to be taken seriously and secure high pay. Your portfolio is your cred.
None of the rest of this post will hold true if you’re lacking a portfolio. If you don’t take the time to do this, the next designer will. This is a crowded space, so don’t expect cutting corners to work out well.
Once you have a portfolio built, link to it everywhere — even where it doesn’t seem relevant: in your email signature, on your social media channels, and on business cards if you have them (yes, cards are old school, but they’re still useful for random social encounters … someone’s always looking for a website).
2. Create social profiles on design websites
You should also create accounts on sites like Dribbble and Behance. These sites have well-established SEO (search engine optimization), so they often show up on the first page of Google. Almost certainly more often than your own portfolio does! Use their SEO advantage to drive more search traffic to your work and site — even if you don’t bother engaging on those platforms.
Dribble and Behance were built for designers who want to share their work and get feedback from other professionals. That makes them excellent ways to get your designs seen by potentially thousands of people who may eventually refer you. You might even get really helpful feedback to improve your skills.
(Never design in a vacuum! Even the best designers continually seek and listen closely to feedback from peers, colleagues, and others. You can always grow as a designer.)
Of course, building a portfolio requires detailed, time-consuming work. So when you sign up for Webflow, be sure to fill your public portfolio with your best work. It’s low-effort, and has already brought many designers a wealth of job inquiries. Other designers, companies, and would-be clients can follow you and message you about contracts.
Remember, don’t just wait for people to come to you — make it easy for them to stumble on your work in so many different places that they’ll have no choice but to reach out. Seriously — this can have a significant impact the volume of work you get.
Why? Because once you have even a couple contracts in place, it’s much easier to get more. Freelancing is a career path built on referrals. Good designers who reliably produce quality work always get referred, especially if they’re easy to work with.
(In fact, being an enjoyable person to work with matters more than how good your portfolio is. Life is short, and people want to work with good people.)
If you’re looking for inspiration for your portfolio site, we have a list of some of the best sources of web design inspiration on the web, or if you want help getting started, you can check out the portfolio templates on Webflow.
If there’s one secret to freelance design and development, it’s that you only have to put serious energy into securing your first few contracts. The rest will come more naturally.
3. Freelance job marketplaces
There are many freelance websites out there to find work. Here are a few top ones:
Upwork is an online marketplace designed to connect freelance designers with prospective clients. Create a profile, upload your portfolio, and start bidding on design projects. You can even apply for jobs you might not feel totally qualified for yet — that’s how you grow and become an even better designer.
One thing to note before you join Upwork: You’ll probably notice a lot of bids far below a rate you’d be comfortable working for.
Don’t let this discourage you. I consistently won over 50% of my bids on Upwork, even when I was vying against 30 other people asking for significantly less.
Why? Because employers don’t want to waste their time. They generally prefer to work with freelancers that have great design skills and are good communicators who don’t come with the baggage of a 16-hour time difference. In other words, no, clients on these platforms don’t just care about how much they’re paying. They want quality. Massive companies like GoDaddy and Fortune 500’s rely on these platforms. Don’t dismiss them.
If you’re not comfortable with written communication, honing your English and your writing will be more important than improving your portfolio. That’s priority number one. Otherwise, international work (or work in the biggest markets) will often be hard to find — or disproportionately low-paying.
Two quick tips for Upwork:
- Complete your profile ASAP — their algorithms will rank you higher in search results!
- Work toward Top Rated status so you can get priority access to the best-paying jobs
The combined startup/employment directory AngelList provides another fantastic place to find freelance work. Companies searching for skilled employees there range from “dude in a basement” to booming enterprises like Uber and Stripe, so it’s an excellent place to secure contract work with a well-funded startup.
Just create a profile, search for jobs, and — if your portfolio is up to par — expect quite a few to come looking for you. A junior developer friend I recently visited had a Skype call with a new company from AngelList every day I was there — so believe me, it works.
If the position excites you, and there’s a great fit with the startup, you could even consider joining the team full-time, and gain serious equity in the process! Welcome to startupland.
Toptal is a freelance marketplace I’ve seen getting some attention on Twitter (on both the designer and the client side).
They advertise themselves as having the top 3% of freelance talent out there. They’re able to do this by taking applicants through a screening process to make sure that design freelancers are a good fit for their network. This makes sure their clients, like Airbnb, Thumbtack, and even Zendesk, receive the best freelancer designers out there.
While it may be a little harder to get into Toptal, compared to something like Upwork, you can be assured that you’ll be working with quality clients.
4. Create content and start blogging
Product Hunt’s Ryan Hoover has a great article about how building an audience is the best first step to recruiting a great cofounder or startup team, and the same goes for finding clients when freelancing.
Writing intelligently about the topics you’re most passionate about can position you as an expert in your field. It’s the quickest way to garner credibility, awareness, and — if you take the time to thoughtfully share your posts with the right people — some much needed traffic to your design portfolio.
Start your blog on your personal site, and repost to Medium a few days later. Write useful and relevant industry content. Make sure to let your personality shine through your posts. Remember, clients want to work with good, interesting people, and your writing can show that you’re exactly that.
So show your prospects that you have impressive insights and opinions, and the desire to help others by sharing them. This is all about building your personal brand. It’ll undoubtedly turn some people away, but those people would be terrible clients for you anyway. Be yourself and you’ll attract people who will wind up loving working with you.
Don’t expect a monsoon of visits to start with. Like all things that matter, building an audience takes time, patience, consistency, and some marketing. Do not get discouraged. A blog is a long-term investment in yourself. You’ll always get some value out of it, even if it’s not in the form of paying clients. A few views from the right people can mean infinitely more than a million views that lead nowhere. Numbers aren’t everything. Create as many opportunities as possible for inbound serendipity.
Just know that the work doesn’t end after you hit Publish. Promote your blog by posting it on social media platforms, Hacker News, Reddit, and contacting newsletters, article curators, and other bloggers/tweeters in the industry who might find your post useful and share-worthy.
Just don’t be spammy about it. The purpose is to educate, not self-promote