How to be a successful freelance designer in New York City (and elsewhere!)


While there are several design meccas around world — from Tokyo to London to Copenhagen, the design scene in New York City is like no other. Never has there been a city with as many jobs in the creative sector that range from the biggest and best companies in advertising, fashion, publishing, tech, entertainment and anything else you can possibly imagine.

It’s a city where dreams are made (and sometimes crushed), where in a sea of millions there will be total strangers willing to take a chance on you, where your life can change immensely on a seemingly ordinary day, where nothing is impossible, and where the hustle is beyond anything you will ever experience elsewhere.

When they say, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” they really, really mean it.

Living in NYC has been a dream come true, but like all good things, it doesn’t come without some struggle (unless you happen to be a trust fund kid). In a city of 8.6 million, and a seemingly never-ending stream of talented creatives moving to the city, making it as a successful designer can seem like an impossible feat, especially if you don’t have some big names in your portfolio. There were days where I felt like I was on top of the world, and other days where I felt like everything was going so wrong that life would be so much better if I could escape to Calgary to live out some chill Canadian version of The Simple Life (ok that was weirdly specific).

With that said, if you can fight the good fight, being a freelance designer in NYC can be the most rewarding experience of your life.

I’m excited to announce that this is my first post in my design talk series! In this series, I’ll be tackling some of the most asked questions in the industry in a Q&A style of post. If you like what you’re reading or have some questions of your own, let me know in the comments below! 




What is a “designer” exactly?

When I talk about being a “designer” in the simplest of terms, I’m referring to a “graphic designer.” This is usually what I say to friends who aren’t in the creative industry. However in NYC (and other large design focussed cities), the term graphic designer” isn’t as commonly used — companies expect their designers to be multi-disciplinary and versatile, and as a result, “designer” is a role you tend to see most often being thrown around and on job postings.

As a designer in NYC, you can expect to be doing a wide range of things — from art direction, print and digital campaigns, working on event activations, creating digital experiences and so much more. You could be designing social media ads one day, creating 3D renderings of an interactive store experience the next, to being on set directing a national campaign the week after. Variety is definitely one of my favourite things about my job!


What does it mean to be a freelancer?

Before I moved to NYC, the words “freelance designer” would conjure up images of someone working from home, designing something like pizza delivery brochures. I was surprised when I moved to NYC to find out that that was far from the truth.

Lots of big ad/creative agencies and companies love to hire freelance creatives — this could range from bringing on an art/copy team to work on a specific campaign, or simply hiring a talented designer to do on-going work for a department. You’ll be working with other freelancers and full-time employees of that company, ranging from other creatives such as copywriters, photographers, producers and the creative director (who is likely your boss), to others in your department such as project managers and marketing managers.

Note: “full-time” employees is a term commonly used by recruiters. This refers to permanent, salaried employees at a company. It can be confusing since most freelancers work full-time hours at the office as well.


How much do freelance designers make?

If you have an awesome portfolio, you can expect to make a great salary being a freelance designer in NYC. While the “starving artist” term gets thrown around frequently in the creative industry, talented designers in NYC are largely respected and are paid what they are worth. Williamsburg is a hotbed for designers in NYC, and there’s a reason why rent costs as much there as in Manhattan.

As a freelancer, you can expect to be paid hourly on a full 40 hours a week basis, which can translate into a 6-figure salary for a talented mid-to-senior level designer.

The hourly rate can differ based on industry (with tech and finance paying the highest, and entertainment and publishing paying the lowest). If you’re unsure of your “worth,” I highly recommend talking to a creative recruiter who can look over your resume and portfolio and place you at a specific skill level.



Is there job stability if I go freelance?

A common concern I’ve heard from people who are scared to make the leap from being a permanent designer at a company to going freelance is job stability. When I first moved to NYC, I took a full-time job at a creative agency. I was shocked once I started meeting other designers and started learning that most designers actually preferred freelancing. The money can be more than double what you making if you’re full-time at a company, and there’s a newfound freedom of being able to represent yourself, and being able to pick and chose what companies you want to work with.

After working for the creative agency for almost a year, I started getting creative recruiters reaching out to me about job opportunities at awesome companies but I was hesitant because they were mostly freelance roles. Finally, after talking to a recruiter about what freelancing entailed and feeling assured that it was a good move to make, I took an on-going freelance role at a large fashion company and haven’t looked back since.

Sure, freelancers can be fired or have their contracts cut short, but considering how there’s not much job security even for full-time jobs, it’s not that big of an argument. As long as you consistently show up to work and deliver, freelance roles tend to be pretty steady.


What about healthcare and other benefits?

Most often, you’ll be signed on as a “full-time employee” of the creative staffing agency that your recruiter who represents you is from. That means they take care of your paychecks and also provide you with benefits such as healthcare and sick days! Usually there’s a period of time before these benefits kick in (such as being employed for at least 60 days) and it differs between staffing agencies so check with your recruiter.


What does a day in the life of a freelance designer look like?

Every day is different which I love! Depending on the industry, the range of projects you get will be entirely different. When I worked in the fashion industry, a lot of my work consisted of working on look books, print and digital mailers, retail store displays, and being on set with photographers and a film crew working on photoshoots and commercials.

At ad/creative agencies, the work is very fast-paced working with a variety of clients launching 360 campaigns. This involved brainstorming sessions with a big group of creatives, and translating these ideas into unique campaigns. Because of the fast-paced nature of these campaigns, this can also translate into long hours, but the work can also be the most rewarding.

Working in tech, my scope of work tends to be more specialized since these companies usually have the bandwidth to hire a lot of designers at once. Projects tend to be divided specifically by skillset and you (and possibly a very small team) own these projects. Since tech companies tends to use illustration heavy branding (over photography), it’s a great place to be if you have strong illustration skills!

Since freelance designers work on-site, you can expect all the perks that companies have at the office — such as free food at tech companies, invites to company parties, outings and happy hours! It’s a great environment to meet others and make lasting friendships!



Who becomes a freelance designer?

Freelancing, ironically, is common with those starting out in the industry and those with a solid portfolio (or simply, “book” as they refer to them in advertising). With junior designers starting out in the industry, it’s a good way for Creative Directors to “try them out” if  they don’t have that much experience but have a great book. These positions usually don’t pay that well but it’s still a win-win for junior designers to gain experience and work for some cool clients!

Most commonly, freelancing is popular amongst experienced designers who find that the freelance lifestyle suits them better. At an advertising panel at SVA, one senior copywriter/Creative Director said she switched to working freelance after decades of working as a full-timer, because she was tired of all the office politics. Rather, she wanted a steady 40-hour work week where she can come to the office, do what she loves (writing!) and can leave at a timely manner without taking the office drama with her.

Others love freelance because it allows them to take off a few months in-between gigs to travel. Some love change and the excitement of being to work on different campaigns for different companies easily. Others simply aren’t sure what exactly they enjoy doing the most, and freelance is a great way to work in different design roles and for different industries and assess what speaks to them the most. The reasons for going freelance are unique to everyone!


How do I get a freelance job?

Freelance jobs tend to be through word-of-mouth or through recruiters. Most of these jobs are largely unadvertised, which is great because if you can get your foot in the door, your portfolio will go straight to the hiring manager. It’s important to keep your Linkedin up-to-date with an easy-to-find link to your portfolio, so that recruiters can find you easily. Networking is also important as jobs can pop up when you least expect it!



Do you have other tips for designers trying to break into the industry?


1. Make a kickass portfolio

Obviously this is easier said than done. I’ll be making a more detailed post on this later but for now, I’ll say that simplicity is key. Your portoflio should showcase first and foremost, all your great work. Ditch all the fluff a website might have and keep it minimal. Remember CD’s are here to look at your work, not your vacation photos (although I do recommend adding some social links like to your Instagram so that should they feel compelled to know you beyond your designs). Use a portfolio website such as Adobe Portfolio or SquareSpace to make a clean, simple website.

You’re only as strong as your weakest project. Don’t put projects you’re not completely in love with in your portfolio. If a CD happens to click on one of your weaker projects first and don’t like what they see, they will most likely move on to the next candidate rather than give you another chance.

Your work should represent your strengths and also focus on projects you want to be doing. If you mostly have a portfolio full of print projects, but you really want to be a digital designer, it’s unlikely you’ll get a callback, despite how awesome your work is. If you don’t have any relevant design work you’ve done for clients, do some passion projects during your free time and add those in. Some creative directors love that.


2. Network and make as many connections as possible

In a city of millions, it can be hard to stand out. Networking and personal connections can go a long way. Luckily, NYC is a great place to network, as there are tons of design meet-ups (my favourite is Design Mark at Buzzfeed that happens once a month!), happy hours, and creative staffing agencies such as Creative Circle or Aquent, that you can reach out to.

Friends are also a great place to start as many have a friend of friend that they can introduce you to. You’d be surprised how well-connected you are to different companies just based on your immediate circle of friends!


3. Never stop learning.

To stay ahead of the competition, it’s important to always be up-to-date with design trends and the community on a whole. NYC is a city that constantly shapes and redefines design, so it’s important that your work stays relevant. Software keeps changing as well so it’s always a good idea to learn these and add it to your resume!



I hope this post provides a valuable insight into the exciting world of freelance design in NYC and elsewhere. There’s so much more I can say, but I think that’s a wrap on this post. If you guys would like to hear about certain aspects of the creative industry, let me know and I can address them in future posts as part of the design talk series.

Until then, remember to  keep doing what you love, keep hustling, and don’t give up on your dreams.


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