Tips for Successful Freelance Design

by Robert Cubbon - Date: 2006-12-30 - Word Count: 1224 Share This!

Rob Cubbon writes

Meeting the client

Spend a little money on your clothes and briefcase or portfolio-type bag to create a good impression. People may deny it but they will always think: expensive clothes, lots of money, doing well, good designer. Dress smartish, but not trendy - no one likes trendy designers.

When you meet the client, I would always advise you to smile at the first moment and look them directly in the eye. Of course, some studios and work places can be serious and aggressive and it is probably not a good idea walking around them with an inane grin.

But first impressions count and I have always found it best to try to be disarmingly friendly first. Don't go over-the-top but try to give this impression "I was happy before this moment, I'm happy now and I'd be happy working with you in the future".

Taking the brief

This can be the moment where everything goes wrong so pay attention.

A brief is where someone who knows a subject very well explains it to someone who knows nothing about it. For this reason it is staggeringly common that the briefer will omit something very important or, just as common, spend ages talking about past events that are totally irrelevant to the job in hand. But keep listening.

One has to maintain the eye contact, look interested and, where possible "mirror" your client's posture and movements. By this I mean if your client is sitting up straight, sit up straight. If your client is nodding, nod with them. If they smile, smile. If they look serious, look serious. If your client is poor at maintaining eye contact then be careful not to look at him/her too closely.

Be on a level and equal to your client in every way. So try to make sure your eyes are level with his. Do not "tower above" or "cower below" the client. And keep listening.

And all this time your brain in the background is churning away thinking. You need to know the parameters and if the client has omitted to tell you anything it will be about the extent of them. You also need to know the target audience and, of course, what it's trying to achieve.

So think, size - can I decide the size or format? Colours - can I decide the colours or do I use the corporate ones? Fonts? Corporate fonts or can I choose them? Illustration? What sort of graphic device can I use to illustrate the piece? What style of photography, illustration, montage, etc? Message? What is the hero? What have I to communicate?

If the brief is written you have no excuses: read it again and again, read it in the middle of the project and read it towards the end. It's amazing how many times people miss the simple things in a brief.

Never, during any stage of the design process, forget the brief.

Don't jump into the job

So you've got the brief and you understand what the client wants you to communicate. Now what? Sit down and think about something else.

The problem with the creative mind is it rarely works when it is supposed to. You find you either get your best idea immediately or suddenly days later during an idle moment it'll hit you like a meteorite ... The Most Amazingly Good Idea.

So don't think about the subject ... think around the subject.

Use the internet to aid lateral thinking

Creatives are paid fortunes to think laterally, to come up with a word or an image that no one else has thought of. But now we have the most amazing lateral thinking resource at our fingertips - the internet.

You have dictionaries and thesauruses to help you with words. There are directories of English idioms and expressions which are particularly helpful with advertising copy. But, my personal favourite internet aid to lateral thinking is image searching.

One of the most difficult but potentially the most creative and fun thing can be illustrating abstract notions. Try putting an abstract term that complies with your brief (maybe empty, separation, togetherness, contrast, love, hate, anger, comfort) into a stock photography site's search engine and see if it gives you any ideas. Don't forget normal search engine's images searches like Google or Yahoo! They are getting better and better and give you a different option to the staid stock image.

Computers don't have the associations with words that we do. They just dispassionately match the word we type in. Think of all the times you've had a search fail. It's these "failures" that can spark an un-thought-of angle that could really make a campaign.

Logo design

Type the client's name into a font application program like Suitcase and you will immediately see it in many different typefaces. Try all the different combinations of upper and lower case.

When scribbling on your pad remember to use all sorts of different writing materials to give you an idea. Pens, pencils, markers, felt tip, charcoal, whatever you can get your hands on. If you are right-handed write the logo name with your left hand a few times. Get colleagues to write it down as other people's handwriting may give you an idea.

Use the abstract image search idea above to give you angles for icon or symbol ideas.


The style of photography and/or illustration may be covered in the brief or may be up to you but either way try to push the boundaries a bit.

We all have our favorite stock photo libraries but try others - and don't forget the internet image search. Try to pick anything but the obvious image.

Remember the CS versions of Adobe Illustrator have a live trace tool which can re-draw any image in vector form which you can present as a quick fix illustration negating the need to commission.

Don't forget that illustration and photography can be combined.

And think simple. Simple and iconic always sells.

Whilst designing

It's important not to fall in love with one of your designs. It can be very easy to be wedded to an idea or a design and convince yourself of its brilliance, especially if you are working in isolation.

All feedback is good feedback. So ask anyone, your other half, the kids, the janitor, your opponent what they think. It may be you've spent ages perfecting a headline that's spelt wrong!


Here comes the moment where it all counts. You are going to present your ideas.

Present your work as well as you possibly can. Get the nicest printouts and mount them onto boards of equal size.

If your presenting on screen do so on the largest one available and in a way that covers the whole screen not with an untidy desktop in the background.

If you are presenting a website, maximise the browser window. If you are presenting in Photoshop hit the tab button to get rid of all the ugly palettes and hit the F key to get rid of the desktop.

If sending ideas as a PDF, set the initial view in the Document Properties to Fit Page or Open in Full Screen mode. First impressions count.

Always present your ideas one-by-one. Never lay them all on the table at once.

Start with your weakest idea first and end with the strongest. Always keep something up your sleeve if the client doesn't like an idea.

Pretend you are the manager of the swankiest boutique in the world showing a billionaire the most flawless diamond ever.

Rob Cubbon

Related Tags: writing, design, digital, color, communicate, special, illustration, illustrator, artwork, fonts, process, presentation, logo, photoshop, printing, print, printers, preparing, quark, indesign, colour, bleed, brief, typography, headline

Rob Cubbon
Born in Kent, England, 30 May 1968.
Educated in local schools until 18 where left to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree in University of East London. Started working in publishing 1989, involved in writing, photography and design for various magazines and newspapers. Worked abroad as English teacher.
Freelance designer for print and web since 1995.
A 20 a day smoker since 18 found a method of quitting 3 years ago developed from passing interest in self-hypnosis, meditation and NLP.
For more information on how to use self-hypnosis and meditation to give up smoking for free, visit

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