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  • Writer's pictureJeanette Johnson

How I Became A Freelance Graphic Designer.

I’ve been experiencing a change in my career. Due to industry shifts because of COVID-19, I’ve been doing a lot more writing. In fact, I had only just started the blog portion of my website a couple of months before the outbreak took hold and shook the world. 

Because of the impacts of the virus, my full-time position was eliminated. I was forced to transition my side freelance design work into my full-time career, and so far, I’ve been fortunate to land enough work to keep up with - though more projects are always welcome. 

I have been under pressure to focus on the things that will help me get in front of more customers. I want people to see my freelance graphic design work and know that I’m available to hire. This feels like a massive undertaking, considering businesses are closing their doors to the public and cutting their marketing budgets to staunch the hemorrhaging costs of staying open throughout the pandemic. 

Focusing on my blog seemed important because it would allow me to write for key terms that potential customers would search for online. I hope that they can see me through the hundreds of freelance designers out there. It feels like I’m holding up my hands in a crowd of people screaming, “Pick me! Pick me!” But the kicker is, everyone else is also screaming, too. They’re jumping up and down, some are holding signs, and some have bullhorns. 

I started to reflect on how I came to this point in my career. And I can honestly say it’s been a meandering path that has ended with *fingers crossed that it lasts* my continuing to be a self-employed freelance designer.

But, how did I get here, and why did I choose graphic design? 

As a child, I loved to draw and color. I never had a real paint set until I was in 4th or 5th grade, and my mom let me paint characters from Winnie the Pooh on my bedroom wall (I still can’t believe she actually let me do this). I was always sketching and trying to draw characters from my favorite movies.

I excelled with art throughout school, and I looked forward to painting bold “go get ‘em” signs to hang in the gym. 

When I was in high school, English and band were two of my favorite subjects, in addition to art. As I approached graduation, my initial plan upon entering college was to become an English major and, later, probably, a high school English teacher. Before I even registered for my classes, I had made a shift and transitioned to becoming an art teacher. I was only in the art education program for a couple of weeks, and I hadn’t even taken any of those required courses yet. But I knew I would never have the patience to teach. Looking back at that decision - it was absolutely the right one!

I was lucky to attend a college with a substantial and diverse art program, Wayne State College. One of the majors within this department was graphic design, and it was exactly what I hoped it would be - for the most part. I was exposed to the different tracts a design degree could take me down. As web design was only just starting to rely on any semblance of design (2006-2010), most of the courses were for print layout, photography manipulation, and typography.

I started taking on a few freelance design projects here and there to help build out my portfolio.

I discovered a love for printed works that included poster design and business stationery. The more I worked with print, the more I loved the printing process and the available paper types

Oh, the paper! I love paper! Nothing beats a good, double-thick, 130-pound piece of Classic Columns snapping under your thumb. Go ahead, call me a nerd. I don’t even care!

I took enough painting, sculpture, and printmaking classes that I was able to achieve a minor in studio art. I still paint regularly and have works for sale. You can see some of those pieces here.

As you can imagine, graphic design positions are scarce if you want to live in rural locales. It becomes even harder to find employment when you graduate during the Great Recession of the late 2000s

I was able to find a spot doing part-time work at a small print-shop tucked into a little-visited strip mall. It was interesting, to say the least. Then a more permanent spot opened up at a slightly larger print shop with a downtown storefront. I learned a lot about paper types, copiers, plate making, ink mixtures, and time management from these positions that I still use to this day. I even learned how to run a fax machine, a skill I’ve only had to use on a rare occasion since. 

I learned a lot about paper types, copiers, platemaking, ink mixtures, and time management from these positions that I still use to this day.

After working in the print industry, I switched to an in-house position at a local community college. The best thing about this position was the creative freedom and the control I was able to wield over the school's brand. I helped develop a newly established, barely existent brand into a regional powerhouse that people within a hundred miles could recognize at a glance. 

As comfortable as I became working in higher education, I felt that I had done as much as I could after seven years. I took a leap and landed in an in-house position for a small business in the manufacturing sector.

This was entirely new to me, and I learned a lot about manufacturing, website design and monitoring, and social media management. This position pivoted my career from design into a gamut of marketing skills that I had previously only touched the surface of (though I had previously thought I knew more than I did). 

I had always designed the ads for digital display, and now I was selecting and buying the spots. I had written content for viewbooks and brochures, but now I was in charge of all messaging. I had posted and developed creative for social, but now I was writing and developing content for the whole calendar year. Learning new platforms and skills in this position lead me to feel more comfortable in the side-projects I was taking on. 

Throughout all this time, I had still taken on side projects like wedding invitations, logo designs, t-shirt art, and a couple of small websites. I had established a business name, my branding system, and general business practices such as contracts and invoices. I made sure that if I ever had to make the jump, I would be ready to go.

Now that I’m fending for myself, I’m learning to toot my own horn a bit more. Finding ways to stand out from the crowd are especially challenging. Trying to sound louder than those other designers waving their signs and blowing their bullhorns is even more intimidating. But, I just have to remind myself that they have likely been doing this independently for longer. They have years of blog posts on their sites and have found a foothold within their niche. 

Now, I just have to find mine! 

Image by Anni Roenkae on Pexels.



There are three things you need to think of when developing your brand. 
  • IDEA
Why are these three things so important? Learn more about the three "I"s at this blog post:
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