Digital Design Businesses: a Complete Guide to Go From Freelancer to Entrepreneur

starting a design studio

Most digital designers wouldn’t bother with a business. After all, if their passion is in creating beautiful and practical works of digital art, then why both with a business? They could just take on clients, create works to their specification and then be done with it.

What many freelancers don’t realise is that they are already operating a business of sorts, but instead of being a large business with global reach and several employees, it’s a one-man army where you do everything from accounting to public relations to marketing and finally, the work itself.

starting a design studio


Advantages of creating a design business

If you like the nomad and humble lifestyle of a freelance designer, then why bother trying to take on bigger clients and jumping head-first into a competitive industry? There are many advantages to creating your own design business, but here are just a few examples of the benefits you’ll experience.

First of all, more exposure. As a business entity, you’ll gain more support and you’ll have the means and funds to increase your recognition. With enough work and the right marketing team, you’ll have an easy time reaching prestigious clients and big-name brands. The chance to work with important names is a great way to network your business to improve your client relationships, and you’ll find yourself swimming in expensive contracts and deals in a short amount of time.

Secondly, your products and services will appeal to more people if you can offer a variety of services. If you specialised in concept art in the past, then you can upgrade your portfolio to include website design, logo creation and even traditional media. Whatever the customer wants, you can become a company that provides every possible service that they could need.

And lastly, it’s a good startup for those looking to create a business portfolio. Many artists realise that it can be difficult to secure a good living with their art unless they are immensely popular due to a combination of luck and trend setting. For example, the artists on Patreon who make the most money do so by drawing sketches and pin-ups of popular video game and movie characters. If you don’t tackle a niche like this, then it becomes a difficult struggle to do what you love and save for a retirement fund at the same time.

how to start a freelance graphic design business


Learn business basics

You can learn how to run and maintain a business in a short amount of time thanks to many online courses that teach you how to start a business. Whether you’re a complete beginner or you have a bit of experience from your past endeavours, it’s always a good idea to refresh your knowledge—perhaps you’ll learn something new!

One of the biggest issues that a freelancer encounters when transforming into a business is trusting others. You’re no longer a freelancer that works on their own. You have team members and staff that are willing to help you and turn your business into a flourishing company, so trust in them and build relationships with them so that your business runs more efficiently and with fewer hiccups.

One example is health and safety. If you run an art design studio, there will undoubtedly be some health and safety hazards from traditional media (such as spray paints and chemicals) and large pieces of hardware. It’s a good idea to educate you and your employees by outsourcing health and safety services and teaching them how to operate equipment, how to store art materials and how to handle equipment such as paint and thinners.

With enough practice, a bit of studying and some expert advice, your managerial skills that you learned from freelancing will quickly and easily translate into a business environment.

how to start a graphic design business from home


Customer support is essential

Freelancers need to keep in constant contact with their clients to ensure that their work meets the standards and expectations of the client. Customer service is critical in freelancing because it improves the chances that you’ll receive further commission requests or jobs from a client, resulting in a steady flow of work that’ll keep a freelancer in business.

Unfortunately, this never seems to translate well into a business environment. Luckily, a freelancer understands the importance of keeping in touch with their customers and clients. It’s a mindset that can be taught to every employee that works in a design business because, at the end of the day, those clients are the reason your design business can exist in the first place.

It’s far easier to retain customers and keep them coming back as opposed to finding new ones. In the design business, this is an extremely important point that should define how you work as a business. When a new client registers their interest in your services, you have to do your best to keep them for as long as possible. Your customer support needs to treat every client with respect and talk to them in a peaceful and polite tone, your artists need to follow their requests to the point and you absolutely must meet deadlines if they are set.

Putting on a good first impression is vital, and there’s nothing better than making your business seem smart, serious and approachable.

design business


Equipping your digital workplace

Unlike traditional offices, an art studio requires some very specific materials. Think about what a freelancer might use and then multiply that by every employee that you hire.

The most basic digital design setup includes a powerful computer or laptop, a graphics tablet and the usual computer hardware such as networked storage, mouse, keyboard and so on. However, many artists prefer to use specialised equipment such as the Wacom Cintiq range of interactive displays. These can get very expensive if you hire a lot of digital artists. There are cheaper alternatives from makes like Ugee and Huion but Wacom is, and will most likely always be, the industry standard that every successful art studio and designer turns to for hardware.

Maintaining these devices is a matter of care. They don’t often break unless treated badly or used in a rough manner, but it’s always a good idea to remind your staff to treat the hardware well. Some artists prefer basic graphic tablets like the Intuos range, so make sure you have plenty of equipment in storage in case an artist prefers to use a different type of tool and to keep spares in case something breaks. You can usually get bulk-buy deals from wholesalers, so make sure you buy enough for your entire team.

Monitors are also incredibly important for professional artists. Many monitors and displays have bad colour reproduction due to cheap hardware. Expensive IPS monitors will create a huge dent in your budget, but professional artists will refuse to work with cheap hardware. If you want them to work hard and do their best, then you’d better provide them with the necessary tools to work with.

Your other departments, such as human resources, marketing and accounting won’t need specialised computer equipment or expensive tools. They can work off basic computers, but you still need to take them into consideration when planning your furnishing budget.

digital design business


Specialised office furniture

But digital hardware isn’t the only consideration when you’re drawing up a budget. You also need to think about things such as adjustable desks, traditional media, drafting tables and comfortable seating. An artist will be spending several hours at a time at their desk, so you need to consider their seating arrangements, positions and angles that they lean against a table.

Adjustable desks are expensive but offer your artists a degree of freedom when it comes to adjusting their workspace for optimal drawing efficiency. Most artists prefer a slanted work surface and this can be achieved with drafting tables. Alternatively, if you equip them with interactive pen displays, make sure you buy VESA compatible mounts so they can be repositioned and moved around at will.

design entrepreneur


Outsourcing vs in-house designers

As a design company, you’re a prime example of a business that can recruit and make use of freelancers. Fortunately, many freelancers wouldn’t pass up the opportunity of taking on regular assignments from a business, so you’ll easily be able to find artists who are specialised in different fields.

Simply post your job advertisement on various art websites and you’ll quickly receive dozens of hits from budding artists who are looking for their big break to get involved with the design industry. Make use of their skills by assigning them typical jobs such as logo design, website design and simple jobs. You can also assign new recruits or interns to these smaller jobs. Give the important jobs to your in-house team of professional designers, and open up a communications channel so that your clients can communicate directly with you and their assigned artists.

There are other jobs you can outsource, however. For example, you can outsource network administration, technology management or even accounting. The general rule is to handle large requests or important clients in-house, and let your interns and team of freelancers work on the less important and standard design jobs.

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