Freelancing 101: Setting Yourself Up for Success as a Student | A Post-FIDM Series by Alumna Sara Berkes

Graphic design freelance advice from FIDM Graphic Design Alumna Sara Berkes

I don’t profess to know everything about being a freelancer—I don’t even think I know a whole lot about being a freelancer. But though I only graduated from FIDM’s Graphic Design Branding program in December 2013, and started my own freelance journey in March of 2014, I managed to hit the ground running. I started finding work almost immediately after I decided to try self-employment, and have been working as a full time freelancer ever since. Most importantly, I’ve been making a living working as a full time freelancer, and most of the time, get to work on projects I’m both incredibly excited about– those that stretch my design muscles and challenge me.

I didn’t start out with a professional website, I didn’t start out with a lot of connections, and I didn’t start out with a job working for someone else. So how have I made it work? Well, plenty of trial-and-error, luck, and of course, taking the right steps to set myself up as a professional from the get-go.

Because it’s impossible to go backwards and re-do things differently after you graduate, I thought a good place to start sharing advice with you would be to start with what you can do now– while you’re still a student– in order to to set yourself up for freelance success. Though, of course, nothing in life is guaranteed, and you can take every “right” step the whole way through and still not get to where you want to be, the following tips will lead to a much more likely success story than if you spend your student life partying and ignoring deadlines.

Freelance 101:Setting Yourself Up for Success as a Student

Tip No. 1: Make friends with the peers you admire.

FIDM Graphic Design Students

Freelancing can be a lonely life. Unless you work in a co-working space, you probably work from home. Alone. With nary another eye on your work but yours.

One of the most valuable things about design school is getting the opinions of other designers on your work, especially the opinions of designers you admire, and who help make your work better. When I was first starting out, I would find myself getting stuck and frantic on client projects. I wasn’t used to doing it all alone, and experienced a lot of moments of second-guessing and thinking everything I did was terrible. Coupled with the fact that for the first time, someone is paying you money to design something, it’s a lot of pressure when you’re new to it.

Having peers that I could email and ask the opinion of, even just vent to when I was stuck, helped me immensely. Sometimes all it takes is another set of eyes to see exactly what you’ve been missing, or even just reassure you that you’re not terrible and that you shouldn’t give up. The most valuable opinions I rely on are still those of my friends from FIDM—I trust their skills and taste and respect their opinions.

Tip No. 2: Do an internship.

Whether it’s one where you’re Googling all day long or one where you’re thrown into the shark pit of client design, internships are incredibly valuable. And though the conventional reasoning is because most employers want to hire someone with experience, or that an internship could turn into a job opportunity, know that no matter what, any internship will teach you something. Whether it’s something as simple as getting along with other people, or designing to a real-world deadline, or even to help you realize you don’t want to work for someone else, they provide invaluable experience—and yes, connections—outside of the design school bubble. And when that first client is hiring you straight out of graduation, that internship will reassure them that you’re serious about what you do, because few people who don’t care will take on extra work for little (or no) pay on top of a full class schedule.

Graphic design freelance advice from FIDM Graphic Design Alumna Sara Berkes

Tip No. 3: Start respecting class deadlines.

Thumbnail samples of graphic design work by FIDM Graphic Design Alumna Sara Berkes.

Thumbnail samples of graphic design work by FIDM Graphic Design Alumna Sara Berkes.

Even if you don’t care about your GPA, or your teachers sometimes let it slide (which, at FIDM, I never saw a teacher do, FYI) when people start paying you, deadlines take on a whole new meaning. Yes, sometimes you’ll luck out with a client who really doesn’t care about the deadline—I’ve had a few, and it’s always nice knowing you have that little extra cushion if you need it. But it’s the exception, not the rule. Most likely, your clients will have incredibly tight deadlines. They’ll want it done yesterday. And if you don’t get it to them when you say you will, they will worry. They will send you freaked out emails thinking you’ve died. They will question your professionalism. And most likely, they will not hire you again, nor recommend you to their friends.

So start building good habits now, and get used to meeting tight deadlines, especially when those tight deadlines are coming from multiple places. Get used to pulling late nights when you procrastinated all day on Facebook, or decided to hang out with your friends instead of doing your homework. And if the reason you can’t meet deadlines is crippling perfectionism over very small details, get used to handing things in that are “good enough,” because most likely your “good enough” is a regular person’s “great.”  I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but in most cases, the small details you’re agonizing over aren’t something that a client will even notice, or considered worthy of jeopardizing your client’s launch or release date for. We can always make something we designed better, that’s the crux of being a designer. So you have to learn when to let it go, or you will drive yourself to a breakdown, and drive your clients away.

Tip No. 4: Learn to explain (and sell) your work.

It’s very likely that throughout your freelance career, you will be questioned on your design choices, or be asked to explain why you chose to do something a certain way. Or, when a client wants something you truly don’t believe in and feel would jeopardize the design, you have to justify and stand by what you’ve created. Design is subjective, and though you may think that every decision you make is amazing and incredible and the best design decision possible… your clients will have opinions too. And because they’re the ones paying for it, their opinions do matter.

But if you’ve ever been unsure about something and been convinced otherwise (as I’m assuming we all have), you know the power of explanation and justification. Words can do wonders, and though it’s great when design can stand on its own, people like knowing the reason behind choices. Especially when they’re paying for them. And we all know that good design is not just about things looking pretty—it’s about things functioning, and functioning well. And there’s always a reason why something functions well. So learn to explain this reason, learn to explain your choices, and learn to sell others on your ideas from the get-go. There are plenty of opportunities at FIDM to give presentations. Use these to practice. Take criticisms constructively. This skill is an incredibly important one to develop. Because sometimes the only difference between a client who’s unsure about something you designed to a client who’s incredibly excited about it, is the way you present it.

Take these four tips to heart, and start cultivating professional skills and experiences while you’re still a student. And if you’re already graduated and can’t go back and change that experience, stay tuned for upcoming articles. I’ll be breaking down tons of areas of the freelance life, and giving a lot more tips on navigating it successfully.

Editor’s Note: FIDM Digital Arts contributor Sara Berkes is a graduate of FIDM’s Graphic Design program and a freelance graphic designer based in Canada. For more freelance advice and to see more samples of Sara’s work, visit her site at and follow her newsletter here. If you have any questions about freelance graphic design, be sure to leave a comment below! Images in this post are courtesy of Sara Berkes Creative and Death to the Stock Photo.

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Sara Berkes is a graduate of FIDM’s Graphic Design program, FIDM Digital Arts contributing writer, and freelance graphic designer based in Canada. Subscribe to her newsletter Letters from Brandcamp and browse more of her work samples at Sara Berkes Creative. Check back on the FIDM Digital Arts Blog for more freelance tips written by Berkes.


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Author: Sara Berkes

Sara Berkes is a graphic designer, writer and maker based in Ottawa, ON, Canada. She has a combined BA in English and Creative Writing from the University of King's College and an AA in Graphic Design, which she earned from FIDM in December 2013 along with the 2013 / 2014 Graphic Design Award. When not designing or blogging at Sara Berkes Creative or writing for the FIDM Digital Arts Blog, Sara can probably be found sewing, knitting, or hiding from Winter. You can find out more about her and her work at

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