Running a graphic design business has its perks. Graphic designers have the freedom to set their hours, work from home (or the coffee shop down the street), and be their own boss. They also have a unique opportunity to make money doing what they love.
Sounds good, right? It is! But there are some caveats, too.
Are you a self-starter? If you want a paycheck, you’re the one who’ll be bringing it in. Do you have marketable talent and skills in graphic design? Without them, the competition will be tough. Do you have the business acumen and discipline to run your own business? If not, these are areas you will need to master or your business will struggle.
What is a Graphic Design Business?
Graphic design covers a wide range of visual arts. It’s not just logos or website design, but also print design, package design, editorial/publishing, and more—basically anything you see that has a graphic element to it.
But what defines it as a graphic design business versus simply freelancing?
The main difference as far as this article is concerned is in the way the graphic designer sets up their entity, what intentions they have for scaling their design business, and how many clients they intend to serve.
To start your own graphic design business, you’ll need to understand the steps involved.
In this post we’ll cover:
As a professional graphic designer and business owner for many years I now have the pleasure of helping other designers start their businesses. I hope this article helps you to reach your own graphic design business goals!
Let’s get started.
1. How to choose your graphic design business name
It’s important to choose a business name that is unique and memorable. A graphic designer may choose to create a unique and creative company name or use their own full or partial names as their company name. For example, Joe Schmo’s company name could be Joe Schmo Graphic Design or simply Schmo Graphics.
There are pros and cons to using your own name for your graphic design business:
- If you use your whole name, it appears more personalized. Clients may believe (correctly or incorrectly), and like the idea that you’re a freelancer, and therefore more approachable than an agency with a hierarchy and a gatekeeper.
- Using your whole name without a modifier such as graphics, etc., also allows you to pivot to other sectors without pigeonholing you into a specific category.
- Using your name may also make things easier for your clients or customers — there’s less potential for confusion as to who they’re dealing with or who they should be paying.
- If your name is common there could be other businesses already established under your name. This becomes problematic when trying to establish your website or other business identifiers.
- If your name changes through marriage or divorce it could be confusing.
- Unfortunately, some people also make judgments if your name is associated with a certain ethnicity or religion. It’s not fair, but it happens.
Ultimately, much of your decision will depend on what your actual name is. How common is it? Is it hard to spell or pronounce? Is the dot com domain of your name already taken?
Once your name is chosen everything else hinges on it, so make sure you settle on a name that’s appropriate, unique, and memorable.
2. Registering your graphic design business name
Now that you’ve chosen your graphic design business name it’s time to register it. If you are using your given name you can skip this part. But if you are using a fictitious name you must register the name with a government agency—usually your state or county clerk’s office.
Although business name registration varies from state to state, it’s usually a fairly easy and inexpensive process.
The US Small Business Administration (SBA) has a section dedicated to business name registration and is a good place to start. If you are located outside the US check with your government entity that oversees business development.
3. Choosing your business entity
When starting your own business, you’ll need to decide which form of legal business entity you want to establish. Your business entity determines which income tax return form you have to file, so you will want to speak with a tax advisor before committing. The most common forms of business are the sole proprietorship, partnership, LLC corporation, and an S corporation.
If you don’t choose a graphic design business entity you are, by default, a sole-proprietor. Many small businesses start as sole-proprietors, then advance to an LLC or other form of incorporation. Freelance graphic designers, for example, are usually sole proprietors, but they can also choose a corporation entity if they fit the IRS criteria.
To understand how each entity affects state and federal taxes read more from the IRS website, then consult with a tax advisor to understand the tax implications of each option.
4. Write your business plan
Many new graphic design business owners jump right in without a well thought out plan. But this would be a mistake.
A business plan is a roadmap for your business, laying out what you want to achieve and how you plan to do it. It’s not something that has to be perfect from the start but should be revisited and updated as your business grows.
Items to include in your business plan:
- Market research – do people want what you’re offering?
- Target market and customer segments – who will you be serving?
- Your unique value proposition – what services are you offering?
- Your cost structure – what are your revenues and business expenses?
- Market analysis – How saturated is the market and who is your competition?
- Marketing – How do you plan to find graphic design clients?
- Operating model – How do you plan to get it all done?
- Key vendors and resources – Who is going to help you get it done?
One of the biggest benefits of creating a detailed plan is that it forces you to think about your business and its future. Going through the process of writing a plan can reveal problems in your business model, potential risks, and gaps in your knowledge.
You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on legal professionals to write a business plan for you. A simple business plan is something you can do yourself, the important thing is to take the time to do it, and to think it through clearly.
The SBA has examples on its site of traditional business plans, as well as what they call a lean startup plan. A tool called the Business Model Canvas (BMC) can help you create a lean startup plan. You can search the term “Business Model Canvas download” on Google to download a blank BMC and even watch videos explaining how to fill it out.
The SBA also has free mentors through SCORE who can help you navigate the Business Model Canvas as well as other business guidance.
To register with SCORE simply visit their website and signup to work with a mentor. SCORE connects small business owners with mentors who can help with business challenges such as creating business plans, acquiring business loans, and other business matters.
5. Accounting and banking concerns
One of the first things you’ll do when you start your own graphic design business is to set up your accounting and billing structure. This includes things like setting up a business bank account, obtaining an Employer Identification Number (EIN), and deciding which accounting software you will use to keep track of everything.
In every case, whether you are a freelance graphic designer or a small business owner you will need to keep your personal finances separate from your business finances. Small business owners who fail to do this run the risk of accounting confusion and possible IRS problems.
Banks offer different services to small businesses, so it’s important to do your research and find one that offers the best rates and services for small business owners.
There are plenty of invoicing and accounting programs available that are ideal for graphic design companies and new business owners. These five are a great starting point in your quest to find what works best for you.
You can also ask other business owners to see which accounting tools work best for them, especially if the company you’re asking is another graphic design company.
6. Choosing the graphic design services you want to offer
New graphic design business owners can find themselves tempted to accept every project that comes along no matter how diverse. And in the beginning, this approach can be beneficial. You’ll be getting money in the door, getting experience, testimonials, and learning which projects you do—and don’t—like to work on. But in the long run, specialization is better.
Specializing offers several benefits:
- Faster turnaround – You’ll finish projects faster because you’ll be following a proven framework.
- Less acclimation time – You already know which tools, vendors, and processes you’ll be using, so no need to start from scratch each time.
- Easier to quote – When you do the same types of projects over and over it’s easy to know exactly the amount of time it will take.
- You become the expert – Instead of being fairly good at many things, you become great at only a few, or even just one, depending on your niche.
- You make more money – Specialists typically can charge more because they are experts at what they do.
If you are already a freelance graphic designer, you’ve probably already determined which services work best for your skills and interests. Once you are operating as a scaleable business, you may want to clarify your services even further, initially sticking to those you enjoy and do best, then expanding your service offerings as you hire new people.
7 . Defining your business pricing structure
Your business pricing structure can depend on many things, including your location, how long you’ve been in business, and what type of graphic design services you offer. But to be clear, pricing your services is highly subjective. There are no rules—your prices are whatever you decide they are, combined with your talent, skills, and ability to acquire quality clients at those rates.
When pricing graphic design projects there are a couple of options to consider: cost-per-hour and cost-per-project.
Cost-per-project is the most popular option because clients want to know how much they will pay up-front. There’s a chance of sticker shock if you use cost-per-hour since the price is undefined.
Whichever pricing structure you decide upon, be sure you have a clearly defined, well-worded, and legally solid contract for any graphic design jobs you do. If you start a graphic design business without a solid contract structure in place you run the risk of losing the revenues you worked so hard for.
8 . Create your logo and branding strategy
For a graphic designer, logo and branding strategy should be easy, right? Ironically, however, many graphic designers do a great job creating brands for other businesses but struggle with a branding identity for their own business. It usually doesn’t have anything to do with lack of skills, but rather a tendency toward getting it “right.”
My advice here is to not get too bogged down with perfection, especially in your first year of business. Create a respectable logo and branding strategy, yes, but don’t get “analysis paralysis” spending long periods of time in contemplation and indecision.
Of course not all graphic designers are logo and branding specialists. If this is you, consider hiring a fellow designer who specializes in these areas, or educate yourself by reading or watching videos about how to brand your business.
9. Acquiring graphic design clients
A strong marketing strategy is required for any new business to flourish. To acquire your first graphic design clients, you must identify your target audience and devise messaging that appeals to them. You’ll also need a solid strategy for how you intend to reach these people.
Strategies for acquiring graphic design clients:
- Build an impressive portfolio: Even if you are just getting started with your design business, create a graphic design portfolio and add projects that reflect your area of expertise. Your portfolio can stand alone or be included on your business website.
- Establish yourself on social media: Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram are excellent places to promote your work, join design-related groups, and establish connections with potential clients. When you start a graphic design business social media should be one of the first things you set up.
- Optimize your business website: Your business website is paramount to gaining business online as well as through traditional means. You can start with a basic website, then optimize it by making sure your website is up to date, easy to navigate, and includes keyword-rich content that will help you rank higher in search engine results pages.
- Consider blogging: Blogging can be a smart business strategy. Blogging is not only a great way to share your knowledge and expertise, but when done well a blog can also increase your website SEO.
- Start networking: Get involved in your local graphic design community and attend industry events. Meeting fellow designers in person is a great way to develop relationships that could lead to referrals, collaborations, and unexpected opportunities.
- Direct communication: Don’t be afraid to reach out to potential clients directly. A well-developed email, targeting the right person, written in a friendly, engaging manner could be just the right leverage you need to get on their radar.
- Consider some beneficial printed materials: When you start a graphic design business you don’t probably don’t need any printed materials other than a well-designed business card. But you might also want to consider a brochure or flyer to leave with prospective clients—this way you can show off your design skills while leaving relevant marketing materials.
10. Create your graphic design client contract
As a graphic design business, it’s important to have a contract when you work with clients. The contract does not have to be complicated. It can be as simple as a “Project Estimate and Agreement” form.
Having a contract helps to protect both the client and the designer. It lays out the expectations for the project, and can help to avoid disputes later on.
The contract should include information on payment, timelines, and ownership of the final product.
By having a contract in place, both parties can feel confident that they are getting what they want from the project. In addition, a contract can provide peace of mind in case something goes wrong. If the project goes wrong, the contract may be used as a reference to understand what the initial project scope and terms of the agreement were.
Here is a simple contract I used for years. I am not a lawyer, so I can’t advise on how well this contract would stand up in a dispute, but before I sold my business I used this contract for about 15 years and never had a problem.
11. Make sure you are using the best software for the job
The tools you need will depend on the category of design you are specializing in. For example, print, logo, and branding designers would want to consider industry-standard applications like Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign, whereas website graphic designers wouldn’t need a page layout program like InDesign at all.
Adobe Creative Suite
To start a graphic design business you’ll want to invest in the best tools to do the job. No matter which categories of graphic design you specialize in, Content creation software will likely be one of your first purchases.
Adobe Creative Suite is not only the number one software investment for graphic designers, but it’s also one of the best AI-powered software tools for designers and content creators.
Adobe Creative Suite is a subscription-based software platform for a wide range of content creation and marketing software. With over 20 software programs ranging from photo and video editors to page layout programs, web builders, and more, Adobe is the number one choice for accessing multiple tools even if you’re on a budget.
Before investing in any design software compare the top two or three, noting their price, features, and industry usage popularity.
AI writing tools
These days using an AI writing tool is a must for marketers and business owners looking to stay on the cutting-edge of fast and effective copywriting.
While I realize graphic designers aren’t necessarily marketers, the two worlds tend to overlap quite a bit! Plus you may want to learn use an AI writer for your own business marketing such as learning how to blog for high SEO rankings.
If you want to experiment with an AI writing tool free for a week, I recommend you check out Jasper.
You could also look into ClosersCopy, another exceptional AI platform. ClosersCopy doesn’t have a free trial, but they offer a 30-day money-back guarantee for all purchasers of a lifetime plan.
12. Sharpen up your business skills
As a new business owner, it will be essential to keep your business skills sharp and up-to-date. One effective way to do this is to read business books or listen to business audiobooks.
Books can provide valuable insights and practical strategies that can help you build your business acumen and better manage different aspects of your business, from marketing and communication to team building and financial management.
Other ways that graphic design business owners can hone their business skills include attending business workshops or seminars, working with experienced mentors and coaches, and engaging in peer learning with other business owners.
Whether you are just starting out or have been in business for many years, these approaches can help you continually grow and thrive in an ever-changing business landscape.
Business book recommendations:
The 10x Rule
Anything You Want
The Pumpkin Plan
Sell or Be Sold
Marketing Made Simple
The Automatic Customer
The Hard Thing About Hard Things
The 10x Rule
An excellent book by Grant Cardone intended to help you set goals larger than you are inclined to, and take massive actions to achieve them.
An insight-filled handbook for aspiring entrepreneurs written by seasoned business owner, Norm Brodsky, and co-written by editor Bo Burlingham. An entertaining and practical education on what running a business is all about.
Anything You Want
Author Derek Sivers chronicles his own journey from struggling musician to successful entrepreneur, sharing the lessons he learned along the way. His message: focus on a small number of things and do them well.
The Pumpkin Plan
This practical guide provides an in-depth look at the principles that drive success in any field, while offering clear and actionable steps that entrepreneurs can use to grow their ventures.
Chronicalling the ups and downs of Zappos, from its early days to its eventual sale to Amazon for over $1 billion, author Tony Hsieh shares insights on what it takes to create a successful and sustainable business.
Marketing Made Simple
In clear, concise language, the book explains the fundamentals of marketing in easy-to-understand terms and offers practical tips for producing effective marketing materials and messaging.
Authors Dan Tyre and Todd Hockenberry propose a new business model, the inbound organization, which is designed to attract and engage customers throughout their purchasing journey.
The Automatic Customer
Written by John Warrillow, a leading expert on building lasting and profitable businesses, this book highlights the key strategies needed to attract and retain customers through marketing, smart pricing, and flawless service.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things
A book about the challenges of being a CEO. In it, author Ben Horowitz chronicles his own experiences as the co-founder and CEO of LoudCloud, and offers advice for others in similar situations.
Starting a graphic design business isn’t for everyone, but if you have the inclination, talent, business acumen and wherewithal to do what needs to be done it can be a fulfilling and lucrative venure.
With your own graphic design business, you are in charge. Whether it’s highly profitable or not is up to you, the business owner. You have the freedom to choose which jobs you want to accept or reject, how much you want to charge for your services, what your work hours will be, where you will work, and so on.
The graphic design industry is strong and growing. There’s never been a better time to start a graphic design business!
Good luck and happy designing!
Please Note: Some of my articles include affiliate links. This means I may earn a small commission when readers purchase products through these links. There is no cost to the reader. This affiliate relationship doesn’t affect which products are mentioned in the articles. Some of the products mentioned are not affiliate links. All of the products I highlight are recommended for their quality, performance, and overall reputation.