The key to getting noticed is making art you love and sharing it with others.
Before I started getting hired to create work for large brands, most of my freelance clients were small business owners who wanted custom hand-lettered logos. I had full-time design jobs for several years after college, and did freelance projects on the side, but I dreamed of someday working with larger clients and freelancing full time.
I saw commercial artists I admired making a living as freelancers, and it didn’t seem realistic that I would ever be in that situation. I looked at what I charged for projects at the time and wondered how freelancers could live off rates like mine.
(Spoiler: They couldn’t. I know now that my rates were below industry standard.)
Now, as a full-time freelance lettering and stop-motion artist, I consistently create work for national and international brands and am able to support myself.
But how did I get to be in this situation? Once I had some big names in my portfolio, this helped get the ball rolling for future projects, because ad agencies and brands could see that I was able to pull off those types of projects and do a good job with them. So how did I get those first few big clients in my portfolio? Some deliberate choices, creating a lot of personal work, and a bit of luck.
Below are some steps you can take to attract larger freelance clients.
Want It Badly
Some designers love full-time jobs and don’t have a desire to become a full-time freelancer, which is completely OK! There’s something to be said for having a daily routine, steady income, regular hours, working with a team, benefits like medical and dental insurance, paid time off, and 401k matching.
A few years ago, I moved to Salt Lake City from Los Angeles with my husband. I was working full time as a graphic designer and lettering artist for a startup. There was a consistent need for lettering work at my design job, which I loved. But after a while, as was my experience with each of my former office jobs, I started feeling discontent - wishing my situation were different, wishing for more time to devote to my side projects, wishing I could “make it” as a freelancer. I had a lot of dreams and wanted to turn them into reality but wasn’t sure how.
If you want to be a freelance artist who works with large brands, you need to want it badly, but you need to do more than desire it. You need to be dedicated to putting in time and work.
Use your personal time
A few years ago, in my free time, I began creating lettering out of flowers and food and really enjoyed dabbling in it. After a while of having fun and experimenting, I had the specific thought, “If I create and post creative and fun designs like this every day, I’ll bet my Instagram following will grow.”
It may seem like an obvious cause and effect, but it was an aha moment for me.
So I put in the work. It wasn’t always easy to make time to create something nearly every day, but for several months, I made it happen. I used personal time in the morning before going to work or at night after dinner. Although it was often fun, it was still “work.” It would’ve been easier to watch Netflix and relax with my husband after eating dinner, but the easier choice is often not the more productive choice.
By setting aside time every day to create, I began a cycle of creative momentum, meaning I felt really inspired and wanted to keep creating. Use times of creative momentum to your advantage. Don’t waste the feeling of motivation, because if you lose it, it’s hard to get back again. Keep the momentum going by creating even if you aren’t feeling inspired, and the feeling will return.
Visually appealing is key
I do my best to make each design as visually appealing as possible, whether it’s personal work or client work. I’m a commercial artist, so I need to make my designs work commercially, while still making it feel handmade, creative, and pretty at the same time. Color schemes are important, brightness and contrast is important, using materials and content that are pleasing to the eye is really important.
Hollywood actors are usually very good looking, just as houses with curb appeal sell more quickly than others. We all want to look at beautiful things. Our eyes linger on pretty sunsets, paintings by the masters in museums, people who are attractive. It’s the same with advertising. We want to look at interesting, visually appealing things. If you’re consistently creating and posting things that others want to look at, share, and repost, then you’re more likely to get hired to create that sort of work.
Stay Top of Mind
It’s important to create personal projects and post your work consistently online. If you’re a prolific creator but post infrequently, it isn’t likely to snag you large client projects, because no one is seeing your work. Don’t worry if you think the work isn’t perfect. Post it anyway.
I created and posted a lettering design nearly every single day for several months in an effort to build my Instagram following, learn, and get my work seen. My follower count began to increase daily, my work improved from all the creating I was doing, and I started getting more press online. This initial period of growth was instrumental in setting me on my current professional path.
I no longer create and post daily, because my designs are more time consuming now, but I still post to Instagram a few times a week - it’s part of my job to stay relevant and on the radar. When I don’t have new client work to post or am not allowed to post client work yet, I post behind-the-scenes photos or unpublished process photos from past projects. I also use any free time in my production schedule, to create personal work that inspires me or uses a new technique that I’d like to try. I make time for personal work.
Many of my Instagram followers are potential clients. More often than not, when I ask a client how they came across my work, someone on their creative team follows me on Instagram. So to keep the jobs rolling in, it’s important for me to stay top of mind among those of my followers who work for advertising agencies or who work on in-house marketing and creative teams for brands.
Use relevant hashtags so your work can be found on Instagram and show up when people search certain hashtags. I know, a bunch of hashtags can be annoying, but if you’re posting and adding hashtags regularly, you’ll always be towards the top of these searches.
Create the work you want to be paid to create
Potential clients need to envision your work in terms of their own brand. Pare down your portfolio to reflect this. Up your personal work accordingly. Every time I add something new to my website, I take a good look at my portfolio to determine whether there’s a project I should remove. This way my portfolio improves as I do, so I’m always showcasing the best I have to offer.
If your online portfolio boasts user interface and web designs, but you want to be hired to design book covers, you should hide the UI and web projects from your portfolio and start a personal project redesigning covers of your favorite books. If you want to be paid to create stop-motion videos, you should remove the logo designs from your portfolio, learn how to create better stop-motion videos, and then fill your portfolio with those.
If you want to get clients based off your work, potential clients need to actually see the work. If you’re trying to get work based off your personal projects, do a little test: Keep your everyday personal life posts to a minimum, focus on posting your creative work, and evaluate whether featuring mostly creative work made a difference.
During the months when I was creating and posting something almost every day, I thought, “If I include physical products or food items that have commercial value into my designs, I’ll bet I can get some clients who want me to create similar work for them.” So, I started including products in some of my lettering designs.
It’s easy to say and not as easy to do. Finding the right niche for yourself may take some time and experimentation, but it’s an important part of the process if you want to be paid to create client work. I was lettering for several years before I began making handcrafted lettering out of objects, and I was lettering out of objects for several months before I got my first paid job to do it. All of my personal lettering projects helped me get to the right place at the right time.
The amount of artists within the sub-genre of food lettering or object lettering is small, but it’s larger than it was when I first got into it. The timing was right for me, and that was lucky. Now, the number of lettering artists makes it harder to get noticed. Pursuing a niche within your genre of interest or putting your own spin on something will make it easier to be seen, and getting your work noticed means receiving work inquiries.
Experiment with a lot of styles and media. Find something you love and want to pursue. Be true to yourself, your style, and your personality. Have fun with it. Start personal projects - one-offs or a series - whether you finish a series or not. Just start. Find something that won’t burn you out. I’ve been creating object lettering professionally for over two years now, and I haven’t ever gotten bored.
Eventually, you’ll stumble into something that (a) you really enjoy, (b) you’re good at, and (c) that you get paid to do.
Make the first move
You don’t always need to wait for clients to come to you. Be proactive about it.
A couple of years ago, for a personal project, I used a Lärabar - a favorite from my diet - as well as its ingredients to create a simple patterned lettering design. I tagged Lärabar in the Instagram post and on Twitter. Unbeknownst to me, a friend of mine who worked in a different branch of General Mills mentioned my name and work to someone at the Lärabar branch a few weeks earlier. The stars aligned once Lärabar saw the design that I’d tagged them in, and they reached out to hire me to create a couple more.
If my friend hadn’t mentioned my name to them, and if I hadn’t done a design using their product, I may not have gotten my first paid food lettering job. Luckily all of those things did happen, because once I got hired by one large company to create food lettering, other paid jobs followed.
Additionally, I’ve also been hired by clients that I’ve emailed or messaged on Instagram. My reaching out doesn’t always result in a paid gig, but now and then, it works out. I’ve worked with Red Vines, Annie’s Homegrown, and others this way.
Use your connections
Many of my peers and friends from college or just after college are now in established careers, have started companies, or work for amazing brands. I also have connections with former colleagues and friends of friends. You can use these connections to your benefit.
Evaluate who you know who works with or for companies that you want to get paid to create work for. Reach out to these people if you know them personally. If they’re a mutual friend, ask for an in-person or email introduction.
I was hired to create work for Flipboard, The Cooking Channel, Chatbooks, and others, because I personally know people who work at these companies. I messaged them, told them what I do, and let them know if they were ever interested in working together, I was game. I also included images and a link to my portfolio so they could see examples of my personal projects and client work.
Sometimes nothing will come of reaching out, other times it will take several months (or years) before they hire you, and other times, they hire you right away. It doesn’t hurt to try!
Turn Negativity into Inspiration
For all the positive feedback I have received about my work, I’ve also received a small amount of negativity. I was hurt by this at first, but I didn’t let these reactions get the best of me. In fact, it made me want to create even better work than I was creating before. Instead of causing me to second-guess myself and possibly quit what I was doing, this negativity had the exact opposite effect. It encouraged me to dig in my heels and work even harder, to plan new personal projects that I could channel my feelings into, and to create something beautiful that didn’t exist before.
Don’t let negative thoughts of your own or negative feedback from others stop you from doing what you love. Route any negative energy into working even harder. Create something positive of it.
Don’t give up. Don’t let a lack of self-confidence or motivation or your burnout win. Keep your momentum. Keep improving your craft. Do online tutorials, strike up friendships with others in your field, take classes and workshops, ask for critiques and feedback, and most of all just keep creating. You’ll get there.