Skip to main content

Start your own design business in 2019

Start your own business graphic

Whether you’ve been freelancing for a few years or just a matter of months, the start of a new tax year is the perfect opportunity to take stock of your career and decide where you want to go next. Conversely, you may be working in-house or full time and feel like the time is right to try your hand at something new. Maybe your side hustle is starting to take over your free time and you’re questioning if this might be a sustainable career move.

But how do you know when the time is right? Should you jump in feet first or plan carefully? If you’ve been wondering how you can take your freelance career to the next level, the good news is you’re not alone.

With more than half a million new businesses being created across the country each year, a recent independent survey revealed that over a quarter of UK adults had ambitions to start their own business — equating to an average of 13.5 million. Commissioned by tech start-up Studio Graphene earlier this year, the survey also showed a rise in people starting their own businesses over the past five years.

Whether it’s freelancers setting up with friends, or designers moving out of full-time employment to become their own boss, a significant proportion of the UK have ambitions to become self-employed.

“I see a lot more small independent studios that are all successfully creating their own little corner in the industry,” observes Tom Muller, founder of independent design studio helloMuller. “The value of good design has also seen a lot of businesses being driven by design — which is good thing for us independent designers.”

A brightly coloured poster of bubble shapes and splashe

Tom Muller's limited edition Divinity III print, released at Thought Bubble Festival 2017

Yet for all those who strike out on their own there are many tales of failure, and being a successful freelancer does not equate to knowing how to run a business. So how can you ensure you equip yourself with the right tools to set you up for success?

helloMuller started life as a portfolio and a creative banner under which Muller would collaborate on design projects with artists, publishers and brands. In 2010 he converted helloMuller into a proper independent studio and continued working with clients in the publishing, film, tech, fashion and arts industries.

“The reason I set up the studio in the first place is because it gives me a space to work independently on projects I can choose.” says Muller. “The freedom to choose my own projects and client relations and build my own body of work is the main drive.” helloMuller has always run as a solo operation, but the nature of the work and clients means Muller often collaborates with other creatives and artists.

Working predominantly in publishing and entertainment for the last five years, Muller counts DC Comics and Valiant Entertainment, Image Comics, Sony Pictures, and various production companies in the fi lm industry amongst his clients — working on everything from visual identities, publication design to image making.

“I’ve never set out to have a specific philosophy for the studio, but the aim is, and always has been, to create work I’d like to see out in the world.”

Where to begin?

A result of meticulous planning and preparation, Birmingham-based graphic designer and art director Luke Tonge quit his full-time job at the end of  to pursue his passion for editorial design and brand identity.

The move followed 10 years working at large agencies, while juggling an impressive side hustle of freelance design work — notably design and art direction of the relaunched The Recorder magazine for Monotype.

“I initially worried about going freelance, lacking confidence, “admits Tonge, “then found my freelance career was flourishing but I’d hit a ceiling in my job. It became increasingly clear there was only one sensible way to go — and I figured if it all went pear-shaped I could head back to an agency sharpish.”

Luke Tonge design and art direction for Boat magazine, Alpha Life and Recorder by Monotype.

Luke Tonge design and art direction for Boat magazine, Alpha Life and Recorder by Monotype.

In the last  months Tonge also launched the first Birmingham Design Festival, an experience that helped grow his existing network and establish his reputation within the local creative community.

“I’ve got a great professional support network, locally and further afield and I had some clients who had promised me work. Plus the day I actually left my job I was offered a couple of days a week teaching at Birmingham City University, so that was the cherry on the cake in terms of circumstances aligning.”

After finishing university, Bristol based designer Jason Smith observed the direct impact of the recession on the amount of credible creative jobs on offer. Following a handful of interviews at uninspiring agencies he decided to stop looking for roles and directed his efforts at starting self-initiated projects with likeminded people, a decision that led him to join forces with fellow creative Ben Steers to start their own studio: Fiasco Design. With a portfolio demonstrating a flair for digital, their client list includes the likes of Channel 4, Penguin Books, Aardman Digital and Orange.

“When we started the agency we didn’t start out with any predefined idea of what we wanted to be or how we wanted to grow,” admits creative director Steers, of his studio Fiasco Design, which launched at the tail end of 2013. “There was no five-year business plan, no company road map, no grand vision. Any dreams or ideas we did have for the business you could have fit onto a post-it note.”

Fiasco Design created a new visual identity and brand toolkit for Hereford College of Arts.

Fiasco Design created a new visual identity and brand toolkit for Hereford College of Arts.

At the time, the UK economy was in a state of shock and the job market was flat. “Getting things off the ground and turning the business into something that paid us a full-time wage wasn’t easy and took a good year or so to do,” explains Steers. “The only way we managed to do this was by saying yes to everything and then worrying about the rest later.”

For Steers and Smith, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome as a young agency was getting prospective clients to trust them; they were often seen as a riskier option in comparison to larger agencies. “We’ve always had a ‘small agency, big ideas’ mentality,” says Steers, “and this has really helped us make the transition from working with local companies to national and international brands.”

Building a business and a culture based on trust and honesty, their ambition was simple: To dedicate themselves to work they enjoyed, that they were genuinely passionate about. Smith adds: “The assumption was always that if we did good work, the rest would follow. That’s kind of how it’s worked out.”

Lead by example

“My advice for anyone that’s thinking of starting their own creative practice would be to take a more measured approach than we did,” says Steers. “Get some years under your belt at an established agency and soak up as much as you can while you’re there. Involve yourself in all facets of the business.”

Smith echoes this view, believing that having good people around you when running a business is key. “Forget egos, you need to be able to be honest and ask for help when you need it, especially from friends and peers that have been in similar situations. It’s just as important to discuss your problems with likeminded friends as it is to share your successes.”

“Find your champions,” advises Swedish designer Jenny Theolin. “When I started, I had made many friends who were also business owners. They shared everything from contract templates to new business advice. Moving country four and a half years ago, I had to start this all over again. So be prepared for this process being never-ending.”

Seaton works closely with brands who are ethically minded and want to do some good in the world such as sustainable clothing label Dancing Leopard.

Seaton works closely with brands who are ethically minded and want to do some good in the world such as sustainable clothing label Dancing Leopard.

Remember also, that while jumping in head first may sound exciting, in reality getting a few years studio experience can make all the difference — not least by equipping you with the people skills needed to succeed in this competitive market.“

Fail on someone else’s dime; learn from the experience that will surround you and start to build a picture of the kind of business you’d want to run,” recommends Tonge. “I’m amazed when kids do it straight from university — if it works for you then more power to you, but for me 10 years was the amount of experience I needed before I felt ready to stand on my own.”

While there are no hard and fast rules to starting a business, digital and content strategist Sarah Seaton believes that personal drive and the right mindset goes a long way to setting you on the right path. For better or worse. “Your journey is your journey,” says Seaton. “Freelancing or running your own business really forces you to take a hard look at yourself, your values and how you want to live your life.”

Money and finance

Surviving the first few months takes commitment — and being strict on your outgoings. Forget expensive equipment and a new office. Until you’ve got your fees figured out and a steady stream of clients, you need to spend as little as possible.

As Tonge advises: “Save hard when the money is good — have a rainy day fund bank account that you can tap into when necessary — and keep a good pipeline of work so there’s always an iron or two in the fire.”

Decide how best to bill for your time, too. Whether by the hour, the day, or project-to-project, it has to work for you, says Seaton. “Day rates are a constant point of contention for me,” she admits. “I have set day rates, though they’re flexible depending on the project. If I know it’s a long-term piece of work then I’m happy to lower the day rate, as the stability this gives is added value for me.”

The Common Curiosity brand refresh for art and culture site I Choose Birmingham

The Common Curiosity brand refresh for art and culture site I Choose Birmingham

It’s a sentiment shared by Paul Felton, co-founder at Common Curiosity, who prefers to judge the value of a project on more than profit. An independent rebrand may not pay anywhere near what a global brand would pay for a similar job, but the value it offers may outweigh the instant cash reward.

“Perhaps you get a great portfolio piece from it, or you help out someone in need and maybe get a few recommendations,” says Felton. “We try and look at the bigger picture and factor in lots of these aspects. Our approach is to estimate how long we think the project will take in hours and days, then from our day rate assign a cost to that,” he continues.

“One of the difficulties we have is we operate in two cities where budgets and expectations of what things cost are quite different.”

The Common Curiosity branding for craft beer, natural wine & cider bar Kilder.

The Common Curiosity branding for craft beer, natural wine & cider bar Kilder.

Felton and fellow Birmingham designer Alex Woolley met while employed at digital agency Purpose, where they worked together for almost four years, sharing a similar approach and philosophy. Initially striking out on his own as a freelancer, Felton enlisted Woolley to help deliver a couple of larger projects, leading to a conversation about whether it would be sustainable full time.

“We had a lot to iron out — we were in different cities for one,” says Woolley. “But we were keen to align on what we wanted – from clients, size, disciplines… We made sure we took the time to consider it properly, but in the end it felt like a no-brainer and Common Curiosity officially got going in February 2016. We were fortunate to have Royal Mail as one of our first clients, that we both loved working for at Purpose, so it was a very natural progression for us to start working together again.”

Prep and planning

With  years’ experience in the design industry, from working as graphic designer and art director agency-side, to starting her first business in 2009, Jenny Theolin facilitates change through branding, event and experience design.

“During the first two years I was running my business in parallel to my employment, so my focus was limited. But, when I left agency life, my urge to just fuck it took over.”

Swedish designer Jenny Theolin nurtures her love of photography through side projects like Agency Dogs, which celebrates the office pooches of Stockholm’s creative agencies

Swedish designer Jenny Theolin nurtures her love of photography through side projects like Agency Dogs, which celebrates the office pooches of Stockholm’s creative agencies

Theolin advises setting clear principles and models for decision-making in business. “I use the Friends, Fame, Fortune model (a project has to tick at least two), as well as the Good, Cheap, Fast model (you can only pick two). I also have principles around costing. I have a client screening process and always ask for  per cent up front. I also cost in value, not time, I include challenge framing in the billing, and I never pitch.”

For Theolin, relocating back to Sweden provided her an opportunity to rediscover her home city, and cement it as part of her overall strategy for fuelling her career.

“When I moved to Sweden, one of my strategies was to become an authority on Sweden. My tactics included immersing myself in the city, culture and industry,” she says. Tweeting on behalf of @Sweden, being elected chairwoman of Design Sweden, launching Glug Sweden, and writing for three Sweden-related creative books have helped cement her reputation and credibility.

Nurture your clients

Once you’ve made the decision to start your own business it’s easy to get carried away by all the fun stuff — branding, website, business cards. But one of the most, if not the most, important activities is building and managing a client list.

Companies that you work with in the early days often become long-standing clients, and nurturing relationships will stand you in good stead as you grow. We might be living in the digital age, but it’s still word of mouth and recommendations that make or break your success.

The vast majority of our new clients come through recommendations

“The vast majority of our new clients come through recommendations,” says Wooley, “so we’ve really piled our efforts into doing great work for our existing clients, which often results in them then recommending us to others. If we get a foot in a new door, there’s no big sales pitch — that’s just not us. We meet for a coffee and find out about them and talk through some relevant case studies.”

Engaging with potential clients on social media can also raise your business profile — and be a surprisingly effective tool for winning work. “We rely pretty heavily on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram to help promote the business.” reveals Steers, who has a modest but growing audience on social.

“In the early days of the studio we won a number of milestone projects through Twitter. Platforms and algorithms have changed a bit since then but if you’re starting your own creative business, it’s essential you get your work out there and social media is still one of the best, most cost-effective ways to do this.”

It's ok to say no!

One of the hardest lessons to learn when self-employed is how to say no. Feeling the need to jump on work when it presents itself, even if its a little inconvenient or demanding, comes with the territory. But mastering the art of turning work down is always preferable to overcommitting yourself, as Muller can attest.

“I’ve been in situations where I’d taken on too much work, which led to me spending a lot of time managing clients and explaining delays in delivery. That is not something you want to make a habit of. Planning projects properly is vital.”

Striking a careful balance and respecting your clients time is essential. “Treat everyone as if your business depends on them. Don’t get walked over, but don’t forget that clients and potential clients are your new boss and they don’t owe you anything,” warns Luke Tonge, who has observed the flexibility that comes with being self-employed is balanced by the natural instability and uncertainty, which is easier to cope with some weeks than others.

Doeksen’s versatile designs have been applied to posters, animation, illustration and 3D objects such as this hanging totem.

Doeksen’s versatile designs have been applied to posters, animation, illustration and 3D objects such as this hanging totem.

“It’s easy to think you’re doing the world a favour by taking on their projects, but that kind of hubris usually comes before a fall.”

Dutch illustrator and graphic designer Sue Doeksen warns that saying yes to everything can be detrimental if you don’t manage your time. “It’s impossible to give your full attention to everything, so try to get clear planning in place with some extra hours to play around with. Creatives have a responsibility to manage client expectations, but we also need to set our own deadlines.”

Be mindful too not to fall into the trap of taking on too much repeat business, warns Theolin, as doing so may cost you more creative opportunities. “Learning to say yes when you mean no, and no when you mean yes, can be hard. Sometimes it’s easier to accept repeat business without calculating the opportunity costs.”

Likewise, taking on work for the sake of it can be just as impactful on your mindset and performance. “Don’t say yes to assignments you really don’t think fit you,” continues Doeksen, advising that it can be better to be selective and hold out for assignments that suit better, “otherwise you’ll end up producing work you don’t feel happy with.”

Visual identity for Cookeloere, 2017.

Visual identity for Cookeloere, 2017.

Seaton agrees. “It’s easy to just take what you can get because you’re suddenly responsible for your own paycheck. As long as you prepare yourself for some quiet months you can start to carve out your path. Set your objectives and your mission and go from there!”

Arguably, people matter more than jobs, and in an industry so heavily reliant on relationships, how you make people feel is more important than the money you make from them, concludes Tonge.

“The more independent you become, the more you rely on other people outside of your immediate radius to support and sustain you: the client who pays your wage; the contractors you might bring in to work on a project, and so on," he reveals.

"In an agency you can act like an ass and maybe get away with it, but when you’re indie that isn’t the case! Work hard and be nice to people. It’s a privilege to make a living doing what we love."

This article was originally published in issue 289 of Computer Arts, the world's best-selling design magazine. Buy issue 289 or subscribe to Computer Arts.

Related articles:

Lisa Hassell is director of creative agency Inkygoodness.