Want to Transition to Freelance Product Design? Here’s How.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got strong ideas, opinions, and preferences on the types of projects you like to work on. But when you’re employed by someone else, they call all the shots. That can be frustrating. Also frustrating? The limited earning potential (odds are, you’re worth more than what your company’s payroll department says you are). All understandable reasons to consider the leap to full-time freelance. For me, though, the most difficult part was trading a well-paying job where my income and workload was steady, for the uncertainty of striking out on my own. If you’re already employed and looking to make the leap to full-time freelance product designer, here’s my step-by-step advice.

First, plan for a smooth exit.

Resigning full-stop might feel satisfying in the moment, but a smart exit strategy will pay off down the road. Rather than making a beeline for the door, make sure your route includes a smooth financial transition to full-time freelance. Make the jump in a way that keeps your professional relationships intact. And make sure you know the expenses you’ll encounter up front. Here are a few pointers:

  • Create a video course: Video superstardom awaits. Create a YouTube channel and monetize it with ads. Do you have great skills with a particular industry software? Show them off in a series of videos on Udemy or SkillShare. Think about the frequency with which new product design software comes to market. Are you kidding me? There’s a never-ending need for new tool tutorials!
  • Become an affiliate: Sign up for a design product or service’s affiliate program. You’ll get a little kick-back every time someone makes a purchase. To make this work, you’ll need to promote your affiliate link in creative ways, like through a niche blog you run, or through a social media platform you have a following on. Try Webflow’s affiliate program. Full disclosure, I get a little kick-back if you sign up with that link. 8)

Funding the fun: costs and considerations

Insurance

Make your grand entrance!

You did it! Give yourself a round of applause. You’ve made the leap, and you’re now a full-time freelance product designer. From here on out, every impression you make is a reflection on your personal brand, so you’ll want to be sure you’re putting your best foot…and face…forward, every time. Naturally, you’ve updated your social profiles and website. Your next step is having a ready answer for one of the first questions every client will ask: How do you bill? Deciding how you want to bill for the UX and UI design work you do is an early perk of calling the shots. It’s important to have a solid plan, so that others aren’t calling those shots for you. I’ve explored many methods over my 10 years as a freelancer, and below I’ve listed some of the prototypical methods to help you decide. But don’t worry, you can keep experimenting to see what works best for you.

  • By the hour, day, or week: People sometimes call this Time-and-Materials billing. This is essentially your “rate.” Decide what you’re worth and bill for your time. The plus? As the scope grows and changes, you’re sure to get compensated for your time. The downside? If you’re highly efficient and productive, you’ll end up doing more work and earning less. The plus side of that, though, is you can justify a higher rate, and you’ll have happy clients that will choose you over less productive competitors.

It’s your party. Do what you do best.
And for the business tasks, invite a pro.

Now that you’re responsible for your own financial future you’ll need to know when to delegate tasks that make more sense for someone else to do. Those taxes we talked about…and 401ks? Ew! As product designers we want to focus on creating quality user experiences for people. While you iterate on your craft, an accountant can handle drab tasks for you. Experienced accountants may charge as little as $100 per hour or as much as $400+ on the high end, but their utility pays for itself in spades. Here are just three of the ways an accountant can make your life easier.

  1. Your accountant can handle tax preparation. You’ll likely handle day-to-day considerations like invoicing. But when it comes to end of year accounting, and tax write-offs (that’s money you get back for business expenses) it can be helpful to have someone guide you so you don’t make any mistakes, at least while you learn the ropes.
  2. Your accountant can teach you about financial tools. You’re probably used to having a human resources department handle contributions to an employer-sponsored 401K. But now that you’ve made the leap, your new human resources department is you. You’ll need to figure out what kinds of investments you’re comfortable with to secure your financial future. IRAs? Stocks? Cryptocurrency? There are many financial tools available, and your accountant can help you understand which ones are the best fit for you.

Look as good on paper as you do in person.

You may feel like a boss, and you may act like a boss. But the truth of being a full-time freelance product designer is, you’ve traded one boss for many. Not that that’s a bad thing. You’ve now got flexibility, autonomy, more money (if you do it right), and the list goes on. But as you march to the beat of your own drum, it’s also incumbent on you to step up. Clients expect craftsmanship at every touchpoint; here’s how to look put together the whole way through.

  • LegalZoom: Check out the document generation tool.
  • DocuSign: Try the free trial. After that plans start at $10.

Go ahead, mingle a little.

When you’re new to full-time freelance product design, projects and clients may only trickle in. But the reputation of outperformance you build — that’s your icebreaker. Once word gets around, your network of personal and professional connections will funnel a steady stream of referrals your way. Of course, before you can strike up a conversation, you need to find your clique. Here are a few of the places you’ll want to hit:

  • We the Makers: Scroll through hundreds of freelance and full-time design positions worldwide, and sign up for email alerts.
  • Smashing Magazine: There’s a job board exclusively for designers and developers, and you can also keep up on the latest issues, tips, news and thought leaders in the product design world. After all, what fun is a party without a little gossip?
  • Robert Half: Local staffing experts and an app that instantly alerts you to opportunities make this agency a great resource for finding remote or on-site work.
  • Designer Hangout: They’ve got over 20,000 members, and yes, a job board.

Take a party favor or two!

Here’s the takeaway: even though you’ve made the leap and are flying solo, you’re never really alone. You’ll be mingling with fellow designers and clients, hopefully you’ll find a trusted accountant — and of course, you’ve always got Yours Truly. Next up, we’ll talk about how to make that portfolio of yours the best it can be. Until then… cheers!

Freelance Product Designer. Now: Celebrating a decade of freelance UX and UI design!

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