What Does It Take To Start & Grow A Design Business?


This is actually a repost of an entry I wrote last year. I felt it was very appropriate to share once again, so here goes:

I was recently invited by the Houston chapter of the AIGA to participate in a panel discussion of exactly what the title asks. Ever the diligent participant, I wanted to properly prepare so I am providing all the resources I’ve used here on my blog. I’m writing on the fly and simply pouring my thoughts (so I apologize in advance for improper grammar). They asked several questions, but here I answer a select few that I wanted to emphasize.

So many students want to start their own business after graduation, is there a recommended minimum number of years experience in order to have the credibility to do so?

I wouldn’t necessarily specify a particular number of years of experience because everyone grows and develops at a different rate. Some people may only need 1 year, while others may need much more significant time of developing their experience level. There are way too many “green” freelance designers out there who just simply need more experience designing for customers and running a design business.

What I can recommend is this: Don’t run out and go it alone your first few years. Get out and get a real design job for a firm, a corporation, or small business. The experience you gain simply by observing the environment, the processes, the dynamics of teamwork, and the manner in which your company relates to the customers is invaluable. I learned so much by simply watching how my co-workers dealt with a particular design problem, or how my boss managed his team, or how a project manager dealt with the daily production of creativity.

These are elements that are not taught in design school (for the most part), and many best practices are more often caught than taught. Put yourself in the right environment to watch and observe. We’re visual people anyway. Watching and observing techniques in both being creative and running a business just makes sense. For some this observation process will take much longer than others. And even someone like me, who has a lot of experience in this field, STILL manages to learn new practices every day.

If a recent graduate wants to begin freelancing to round out their portfolio, what advice would be helpful? If an experienced designer wants to start a freelancing business on the side, what would you tell them?

Recent Graduate: Remember you’re serving a client. That’s your first priority. Yes, your second priority (aka: Goal) is to build your portfolio. Keep those priorities in that order. That’s the difference in fine art and commercial art. The main objective is to help the customer—that’s why you’re in the design business in the first place. Too many artists who are eager to get noticed put their own objectives ahead of the client’s. They forget all about helping the customer and keeping his message simple. They instead focus on being creative for creativity’s sake. Sure we all would love that client who has a big budget, who gives us carte blanche to do whatever we want, so his ad can win Best of Show in the latest Communication Arts Design Contest. We all want that. However, most of the time, you have to create excellence within a modest to meager budget. Learn to serve the client, keep the message simple, keep the design simple—and you’ll find you actually have rounded out your portfolio with real-world projects.

Experienced Designer Freelancing on the Side: All of the above PLUS… Remember to manage your projects daily. Communicate regularly with your customer so they know where you are in the design process. My rule of thumb is this: No surprises. When you’re working a regular job and freelancing on the side, it can get confusing keeping all the projects and shifting priorities organized. Stay on top of it. I highly recommend using Basecamp from 37 Signals to help manage your projects. I live by it and swear by it (if I ever swear).

No matter who you are—continue growing and pushing yourself in your craft. Do not rest on your laurels! Subscribe to the latest podcasts. Read all you can. Read blogs, books, magazines. Develop your design skills. Learn new features in the design applications you use. Protect time every day for your own personal development. I’ve been designing professionally for over 15 years, and I still set aside time to develop my skills in design, using creative applications, learning new tricks and tips, and even learning how I can run my business more effectively.


The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What To Do About It by Michael E. Gerber

The Creative Business Guide to Running a Graphic Design Business by Cameron S. Foote

Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines by Graphic Artists Guild

Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable by Seth Godin

The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al and Laura Ries


E-Mything Your Business Podcast

The Adobe Creative Suite Podcast by Terry White

Photoshop User TV by NAPP

Layers TV by Layers Magazine

The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry

For Graphic Designers Only by Michael Huggins

Please understand these answers and resources are not exhaustive. I could write for hours on end and give you limitless resources from which to choose. The AIGA’s web site has a wealth of resources on this very subject. These are just some starter resources to get you going quickly.


  1. Posted December 4, 2009 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Bill –
    I agree with your answers to the questions you posted here. I have also found that the experience gained working for a reputable design firm is invaluable and can definitely be used to your advantage when starting out on your own. I recommend a minimum of 3-4 years of experience prior to freelance…

    It was great to meet you.

  2. Posted January 13, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Hi Bill,

    I meant to write you sooner but the holidays were crazy. I learned a great deal form you and the other presenters at the AIGA business lunch. Thanks for all the great advice!

  3. C J Harper
    Posted January 29, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Great advice here. Though I am a freelance writer, not a designer, I can see how your thoughts here would be beneficial to freelancers across the board – especially writers. Hope you are doing well.

  4. carla
    Posted July 13, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    Hey. tried to call you. Call me. 423 956 6017. Hope all is well.