5 Great Tips for Finding New Design Clients

Design Business, For Freelancers




For the past seven years or so I have been working as a solopreneur or freelancer. When I first started I had been laid off during the recession and work was hard to come by. I initially wanted to find full-time work as quickly as possible, but the very few jobs that were open were dismal enough to keep me freelancing despite my slim amount of clients.

From all of this I learned to be scrappy about finding new clients and work. A few of these you’ll see on every list of this kind (because they are tried and true and just plain work.) And a couple may surprise you.


1. Work for Other Agencies or Firms

When I first started working I thought that it was somehow a bad thing to work for other agencies. I wanted to work for small to medium sized businesses; a firm like the one I had previously been working for. What I didn’t realize at the time is that EVERY agency does this.

A company like Coke hires a huge agency. They come up with the marketing ideas, and they hire a smaller agency to take care of the micro-site since that isn’t their forte. The smaller agency specializes in the creative and outsources development, game or app. Either one of these agencies could outsource illustrations, hand lettering, etc.

So don’t be put off by that. This is one of the BEST ways to get consistent work because the pipeline is already set up for you. If you get three or four agencies that come to you for what you specialize in or just for when they have more work than they can handle, you’ll have a decent work load right there. Get them on retainer, and you’re in an even better spot. But we can talk more about that in another post.

So now to find this work. If you have any connections from your current or past workplace, start there. Connect with that guy who moved to another agency while you were working there and offer your services – or just get together for lunch.

If you don’t have connections already, start by looking at the list of firms that are currently hiring for full-time positions and offer to help as a freelancer until they fill the position. If there aren’t many available, look through the listings of AIGA and AAF members in your area and reach out from there.


2. Work with a complimentary service provider

For me I specialize in interactive design so I partner with a firm that has more development services than I have in-house. I send them my development work, and they send me work for designing sites or doing wireframing and user experience work.

This could work in many fields. For example I also do print graphic design and packaging design for an interior designer and send him work for displays and interiors. Who do you work with right now and are they sending you business back your way? If not, maybe you should consider partnering with someone who can reciprocate.


3. Networking

Here’s the one that is on EVERY list for finding new business. That’s because it works. It’s time consuming and may take a while, and for those of us who are introverts it’s not always pleasant. But you have to get out there and do it. So to start, you have AIGA and AAF, maybe COSE and your local Chamber of Commerce. Everything that you can manage to go to you should.

My largest client this year I met at a cocktail reception on a boat. I followed up a few days later and made an appointment to see if they would be a good fit for sending development work to. And I have gotten more than I could have imagined from this new relationship that we just fell into.


4. Mailers

Nobody MAILS anything anymore!! And if we’re talking about a flyer to everyone in town in the pile of grocery store ads, you’re completely right. But in the digital age, it’s a novelty to get something really special in the mail. I have used this technique for both individual companies I wanted to work for and agencies in town, with more luck targeting agencies.

I have done hand lettered Thanksgiving cards (which I got to see hung up on the wall after being called back into an agency I had sent it to.) And also a unique 3D piece where I bent wire to say “I (heart) wireframing” to highlight my new skills in the user experience and user interface arena. The wireframing piece not only got me in front of a lot of people I wouldn’t otherwise been able to connect with, but it also won Judge’s Choice and Gold awards at the ADDYs.

The important thing to remember here is that it REALLY needs to stand out and put your best foot forward. It’s a great potential piece for submitting to award shows as well, and you have complete creative license so go big here!


5. Craigslist

I’ll bet you didn’t think you’d see this one here! This is a technique that I used when I was first getting started and had very few contacts to press. And believe it or not I actually got some really good clients through Craigslist. So here are some tips for making it work.

Find posts that are well written without spelling errors and that are specific and not vague. They should have a reasonable scope and deadline.

If the post lists a price that is stupid low, always skip it. Most posts that may have someone who is willing to pay a reasonable rate won’t post a price. This is Craigslist after all so they will be looking to see how low people are willing to bid.

When you contact a post about potential work, use a template that you customize. Most of your emails will lead to nothing so don’t spend too much time on them. But do be sure to answer and address all of the questions and concerns mentioned in the post. Prove that you have all the skills and more that they need.

Be sure to include your hourly rate in the email. This will weed out the people who want a website built for $8/hour.

Don’t be afraid to look outside of your geographic area. I landed clients in Toledo, Pittsburgh and New York City by searching all of Craigslist through engines like SearchTempest. I will be the first to admit that trolling for leads online isn’t the most glamorous way to go about it, but it sure beats doing nothing.


Let me know how it goes and if you have any other out of the box suggestions on how to get new clients!