New graduates: how to set up freelance

Justin Maller’s experiments with form and colour influenced the motion graphics he produced for Nike

Getting started on a freelance career can be tricky for new illustration and animation graduates. Laura Snoad guides you through setting up on your own.

While many designers are currently hunting for full-time jobs, those opting for careers in illustration and animation tend to launch into freelance life from the off. Being your own boss and picking your own projects has huge appeal, but at the same time those wanting that sort of freedom must bow to the gods of admin – whether that be finding clients, chasing payments or filling in a tax return.

How to set up as a freelancer

Graphics for the dining room at London’s Barts Hospital by Morag Myerscough

“When I started, it was all about joining the big corporate companies,” recalls graphic designer Morag Myerscough, whose vibrant, DIY aesthetic has adorned interiors from restaurants to children’s hospitals. “I went against this by setting up my own studio, but it was difficult. Now is more encouraging towards young people with start-ups and doing it for yourself.”

But with being your own boss and carving your own career comes a rub: university might have taught you, but it probably didn’t push you to chase clients or swot up on contract law and, unlike your agency-side contemporaries, there’s not a senior colleague to steer you through.

First stop is to organise the huge chuck of projects you’ve worked on as a student and intern. Freelance web designer Matt Booth, whose clients include McLaren, Volvo and Manchester City FC, argues the key is editing.

“Keep it simple and keep it lean. People aren’t going to trawl through dozens of projects.” It can be a laborious task, but he also suggests making your work visible across multiple platforms: set up your own site, but also create a Behance presence, put up work on Flickr, Vimeo and YouTube, and even work-in-progress on Instagram, he says. “The more places, the more chance you have of potential clients seeing it.” 

Rolling Stones' music video for Doom and Gloom by Trunk. For more on this project, click here.

Richard Barnett, who regularly hires freelance animators to work on projects for his production studio Trunk, stresses the importance of putting your mobile number on the web. “Let your work do the talking, but saying that, as a producer I want to be able to call you and check availability, so make sure I can get your number easily.”

Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of being a new freelancer is the need to drum up enough work to pay your bills, and that means making contact with potential clients, and fast. “It has to be a co-ordinated attack, just one approach is never enough. First, send something through the post, mail is still always a treat, then follow with a call,” advises Richard.

Self-promotional postcards are a good start, but remember the aim is to stand out. “We once got some homemade biscuits and were so charmed we invited the person in to go through their showreel and eat the biscuits with us,” recalls Richard. 

Matt agrees: “Trying out new ways of directing people to your work is a good way to stand out from the usual emails sent out to clients. I was once overlooked for a project as a client assumed I was busy, and so I created It’s a more light-hearted way of letting people know if I’m available and the key is I’m always available, it’s just a matter of when.”

This illustration by James Wignall was used as part of a title sequence treatment for BBC TV programme Best of British

Both Richard and Matt stress the importance of thinking laterally about how your work might be seen by clients. Try to get it on the blogs and feeds that art directors might trawl, and interact with companies through their social networks. It’s important to enter competitions or film festivals as time-poor producers will often scan the nominees lists. Also research places where you can pick up smaller clients, like, which pairs new directors and animators with emerging bands in need of videos.

Meeting people in person has a better hit rate for being remembered. Freelance designer and animator James Wignall recommends events where you can actually meet companies you’d like to work for, such as See No Evil, and networking talks like Glug, where you can approach like-minded collaborators, who can call on you when they need an extra pair of hands.

In many cases, social media, networking and persistence can get your career off the ground, but getting an agent can be a real boost. “It’s always good to have additional potential revenue streams, and a good agency installs confidence in your clients, as well as you not having to deal with client management side,” explains James.

Australian illustrator Justin Maller agrees on the benefits of having an agent, especially when dealing with international clients. “Once you start attracting a certain kind of job where there are usage rights involved, multiple executions, parties and outcomes, then having an agent is very important.”

Throughout his career, now-freelance designer John McFaul has had a number of agents, starting off with the CIA. He recommends paying attention to personality when picking an agent, and ideally going with someone who seems genuinely interested in working with you as an individual to avoid getting typecast.  

“When my studio was doing really well, we had that problem,” he explains. “When we didn’t really want to do certain kinds of work anymore, they still wanted to, because they wanted their 30 per cent.”

Once the briefs are in your inbox, it’s time to make the call as to whether to rent out studio space. Recent University of Brighton graduate Paul Layzell, whose surreal animations with brother Matt have brought them attention and clients, has a soft spot for starting at home. “The kitchen table is definitely a right of passage everyone goes through,” he says.

Marketing collateral by Yolo for Flash! - a series of events at Sheffield Students Union

However, Yolo graphic designer Martin Fewell thinks it depends on how you work. “Some people need the discipline of an office environment to actually get stuff done,” he says, “It’s worth renting a desk if that’s the case, you would probably pick up contacts and work there as well.”

Richard Barnett suggests that if you can’t afford to rent a studio, work in a space that you don’t need to tidy everything away each day – preferably not your bedroom, otherwise you feel like you’re always living in just one room. “If you do work at home, take a 15-minute walk before you start, and another at the end of the day to give your mind a bit of space and distance yourself from work,” he recommends.

If you leave thinking about getting paid until after you’ve started the work, you’ve already left it too long. James recommends doing your research before you take on a job. Find out what a company’s payment reputation is like from fellow creatives. He also advises checking out a potential client’s finances. “There are a lot of company check websites out there which let you see how well a business is doing (up until its last filed set of taxes),” he explains. “These are a good indication that you’ll get paid on time.”

From The Layzell Bros’ series Chicks with Cheeks

Matt Booth also recommends thinking ahead. “You may feel you can trust a client to pay on time, but sometimes it doesn’t work out like that. Agreeing to an up-front part-payment of an invoice is a good way of covering any uncomfortable eventualities.” And if you haven’t seen an invoice before, it’s worth scoping out sites like It’s a peer-uploaded collection of legal documents that can give you a good idea of what to include in your own contracts, and has a specialist section for designers.

Knowing what to charge when you start out is also quite a challenge. James suggests: “If it’s an illustration project, then look at the time it’s going to take you, apply your day rate and then double it as inevitably these things take longer than you anticipate, plus client changes.” Another tip from James is to stipulate how many changes the client can make and how much extra it will cost if they go over the set amount. 

Being paid late is not the only way that you can be exploited as a freelancer, James suggests keeping an eye out for anyone who promises you more work in the future in exchange for a cheaper rate. Be careful with crowdsourcing sites, like Talenthouse, and totally avoid competitions where the prize is to get your design used and a small fee (such as 99 Designs).

But, despite all the worries, the one thing both James and Matt wish is that they’d gone freelance earlier. The latter says: “As long as you stand out from the crowd, are honest and are willing to learn and willing to work hard, you will eventually make it.”

Story of success

As well as speaking to leading creative industry figures about what the best approaches for new graduates, we also wanted to talk to those who've joined the industry in the past few years – and who've made notable success of their careers already – about how they made their way. Discover their stories through the links below.

Brinley Clark: designer at The Partners

Jacob Stead: freelance illustrator

Martin Craster: freelance motion designer

Natalie Suthons: motion graphics artist at Red Bee Media

Oliver Caiden: compositor at MPC

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