A Freelancer's Guide to Getting Paid

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Get paid! This sounds simple enough, but it's where many newbie freelancers (and even veterans that should know better) screw up. Whether you are breaking into illustration, graphic or web design, or doing fine art or craft commissions, getting paid for your art can be an art form all in itself. With a little education and determination, you can make your skills work for you.

Here, I've written out everything that I wish I had known when I was just starting out in creative freelance information gleaned from nearly six years in the industry and through my BFA education. While I still have a lot to learn myself (and there is always more to learn), I hope this article proves invaluable to creatives struggling with the professional side of freelance art and design.

Get Good.

First it has to be assumed that you have honed your artistic skills to a marketable level. This can be pretty hard to determine for yourself, so instead of over-analyzing it I would suggest you just jump in and see how the market responds.

I usually run into one of two types of young artists in the industry: either they are overly confident rock stars that spent more time in school practicing their signature than learning the trade, or they are very talented and hardworking individuals that have low confidence in their skills and undervalue themselves. I believe the second type is actually much more common.

In my opinion, a golden balance between those two attitudes is the recipe for success in the art world. If you do good work and you act like it, then you will inspire clients to chose your services and keep them coming back with a job well done.

Don't panic.

Full-time freelance can be a rough road, so prepare yourself for a bit of a learning curve. Dismiss any feelings of desperation you might be having. This not only clouds your judgement and leads you accept jobs that aren't worth your time, but your clients will pick up on it instantly. For example, do not accept the jobs you see on Craigslist offering to pay $50 for a fully rendered portrait. I saw one once asking for EIGHT portraits and offering only $50. I laughed out loud when I saw it and I pity the poor soul that responded to that ad.

People posting these jobs have no concept of how much work art really is, and how much it is worth. You can bet they will be a pain in the ass to work with when it comes down to it as well. Ask yourself this: if someone asked you to make 1000 of those at that price, would you be ecstatic or miserable? Sure, in this case that's $50,000, but it would take you the rest of your life. Learning how to say "no," is a skill in itself.

What should you charge for your work?

Break it down by how much you want to make per hour, and multiply by how long the project will take you. This does not mean minimum wage. Minimum wage is for unskilled labor, and you have skills. Remember that you are probably not your target audience, so what you could personally afford if you were the buyer is irrelevant.

It helps a lot to know yourself and your process when coming up with a time estimate. If you are unsure, time yourself doing one of your techniques; you might be surprised at what you discover. Before you agree to a price on a project, estimate how many hours you will spend on the piece. Add in some wiggle room and make sure that you can easily fit in that amount of time before the deadline. If your cat eats a funny frog and you have to make an emergency vet trip, you don't want to have set yourself up so that the deadline is so tight you have to choose between your poor cat, who is now laying on the floor foaming at the mouth, and your next rent check. (Hint: save the cat.)

Make sure you are not planning to be constantly stressed out. You can handle a hard push here and there, but eventually you will burn yourself out doing that all the time. Charge more for rush jobs that will cause you to work overtime. On top of the hourly wage for the time you spend physically creating the artwork, it is also good practice to charge a base price. Don't forget that you will be spending time meeting with (or emailing / phoning) the client and discussing the project, gathering reference, doing research, and brainstorming ideas. All of the time you spend on these things add up to billable hours. For some projects, royalties may also be appropriate. Add in the cost of your materials as well. If you paid good money for your design software, this counts as materials also. However you want to break it up to make that money back is up to you, but be smart and fair about it.

Remember, your client is not only paying for your work, they are paying for your expertise. How many thousands of hours have you spent perfecting your skills? All that time gives you real value, and you can charge a premium for it. Many artists think "anybody can do this." I felt that way for years, and it took me a long time to realize that no, they can't. It's still strange to me, but most people simply can't think the way you do when you make art. Even if they could, they haven't put in the years of practice and learning that you have been all along as if it were second nature.

There are other reasons to charge what you are really worth. If artists are consistently under-charging, then the market responds and people start to expect that they can pay peanuts for good artwork. Let's be honest and admit that there is a lot of this going on already. If you set your prices so that people learn to respect that art has value, you bring up all of us. If you charge what you are worth (and it's usually more than you might think before you actually crunch the numbers), then you will also wind up with better clients that won't be trying to cut corners at every turn.

Don't worry about undercutting the competition. It is better to compete by making better work than being that cheap design guy. People can go to websites with premade stock photos and designs if they are looking for cheap. It is obviously possible to charge too much, but don't necessarily assume this is the case just because you had a few potential customers walk away or even laugh. It could be that you are just not reaching your target audience and you need to connect with the right kind of people. Not everyone can afford professional art or design services, and that's ok.

Get paid in advance.

For some projects you can charge 100% in advance, collected on day one. Don't be shy. If you have a good portfolio, your buyer will know what they are getting for the price. For longer projects, at LEAST get half up front, and don't do any work that you haven't already been paid for at any point. For example, if the client pays you up front for the first step of the project, like brief brainstorming sketches, then don't supply the next step (a tight sketch, for example) until you have been paid in advance for that part of the project. This way, you will never wind up doing work that you don't get paid for and you can break it down into pieces for clients that feel uncomfortable paying everything upfront. Don't deliver the final until you have every penny. If you need to send a proof, make it a low-res copy so it can't be used.

Draw up a contract.

Contracts don't have to be too thick with legalese or overly complicated, but make sure you are covered if (when) you have to ask for more money for revisions. This is for your client's benefit as much as it is yours; make sure your customers won't have any surprises. I usually make minor changes to final work for free, such as color adjustments for graphic design projects. Any slight adjustment like that I recommend giving away in good faith. It's not much trouble at all and it makes up for any errors in communication that may have happened along the way. Multiple revisions and true redesigns are billable, however. Work with the client and be flexible, but have standards. The point of having an agreement is to make sure both parties are happy. Make it win-win, and make sure both of you feel like you are coming out ahead in the deal. It is called a "commission" for a reason. If you break the word down, you get the latin prefix "co," meaning together / mutually / jointly and "mission," a task or duty. In another words, it's all about two people working together with a common goal.


It is important to work out all the details of the project ahead of time. Make sure you know exactly what the client wants and expects for their money. The "I'll know it when I see it" clients are probably the most difficult kind. If you run into one, it's a good idea to make a variety of detailed planning and brainstorming sketches for the client to review before you put a lot of time into something. Communication is always key. Make sure they commit to one idea before you begin working in depth, or you might be facing endless do-overs to the point where the client gets discouraged and drops out of the project.

Use your design sense. You will very often know what will look better and work well for the client better than they do, but this can be a tricky thing to explain without insulting anybody. It is a diplomatic give and take to find a balance between what the client wants and what you know will actually look good. Designers, you don't have to give into pink and purple polka dots and flashing rainbow letters if you explain (without being condescending) why that kind of website, for example, would not serve their business well in the long run. A lot of times clients have a hundred ideas, but even if somehow they are all good ones, you can't fit them all into the same project. Arm yourself with information about the market and educate your client about how design works and why. You might be amazed how receptive they can become. If you are a web designer, show them the top websites on the internet, for instance, and explain why they are designed well and how this serves the companies they belong to.

A lot of the time people don't know what they want, and even if they think they do they might not be pleased with it when it is actually done. That's why they hired you. Remember that you probably want to walk away from this project with a piece worthy of your portfolio. This isn't always possible, of course. The balance is very important. I always ask new clients if they have worked with an artist or designer before so I can know where we are at before we start. If they won't give an inch on those dancing pink unicorn gifs they want in the side bar, it might be time to politely explain you are not the designer best suited for their project.


Sometimes, shit happens.

Sadly, a disturbing amount of clients walk away from contracts or refuse to pay for work that you've done. "I decided I don't like / want it" is not a valid reason for a client not to pay you for your work if you have done what they asked and done it well. It continues to blow my mind that people do this, but it seems to happen to all freelance creatives at some point. Imagine someone sitting down at a restaurant, eating their meal, and then refusing to pay the tab because they "decided they didn't like it!" For some reason, a lot of people think it is ok to do this to artists. I usually include a "kill fee" in my contracts, which is a fee I charge the client in the event that the project is abandoned, usually 15% of the remaining work's price. While someone that is determined to break contract will likely still not pay the fee, I've found that the majority of clients are less likely to walk away when they are aware that they will be charged to end the project. The kill fee separates clients that are simply naive about how art labor works, and those that actually want to screw you. As far as clients go, you more often run into the former, actually. I think people just don't understand that art is hard work (that's why they call it "artwork," after all). Educate them.

Don't work for less than your regular rate.

While it is your choice ultimately, all of this applies to friends and family as well. I do not give family discounts. If my buddy needs an album cover for his band and only has ten dollars to his name, I will not take the job. There are a few reasons for this, and it has nothing to do with a lack of love:

1. I am a professional. If I want my friends and family to respect me as such, then I need to show them how I do business.

2. There is an opportunity cost to everything that you do. While I am spending countless hours making that album cover, I am missing out on other more lucrative work I could be doing instead. If you take a job like that, you actually lose money.

3. It can cause some real tension. In principle I don't mind doing work for friends and family, and I have done it often-- at full price. If you aren't getting paid what you need though, then any revisions and adjustments start to really hurt. When you are doing something as a favor, you may quickly become resentful when changes need to be made because there is this lingering vibe of "I'm doing this as a favor, act grateful" rattling around in your subconscious. Conversely, your buddy has the feeling "I want this to be right, you said you would do it like we agreed!" It's nobody's fault, either; it's just human nature. If you are getting paid for your work, revisions and critiques are no problem because you are making good money.

4. As soon as you do a cheap job for a friend, they pop up with another friend that wants a cheap job too! This might never end and you will get trapped in that discounted rate forever. I don't ever want to have to say: "Sorry, you are not a close enough friend for me to do this at the same price." Ouch. If you charge properly though, then the future recommendations from your friend or family member will be excellent, lucrative jobs.

Beware of red flags.

Avoid jobs from "start-ups" that promise to pay you for your work "once the money is available." You will usually receive a pitch that goes something like this:

"I have this great idea for a new business / website! We are going make a bazillion dollars once this thing gets started, it's so totally going to be the next (insert famous multimillion dollar business here)! I just need you to build me a website / make me a branding package / illustrate my children's book that doesn't even have a publisher yet / do all of the work for me. I can pay you when we make it!"

They really believe what they are saying, too. I have a reality check for you. Small business start-ups with no investment capital (especially to the point where they can't afford to pay a designer) just about always fail. Even start-ups with investment capital often fail, and those that don't immediately tank usually still won't see a real profit within the first three years. Thousands of people out there think they have the next greatest thing; most of them don't. If you are getting paid in advance though, none of it matters. You can just do the work and be on your way.

Be awesome.

Now before your new art-ego makes you float away after all that brutal money-talk, I would like to remind you to make excellent customer service the cornerstone of your business plan. Be awesome! Treat your clients as you would want to be treated if you were paying for a service. Don't be paranoid, don't be a flake, and always fulfill your end of the contract. The worst thing you can do is leave a client feeling cheated because you didn't do your best. The best advertising on the planet is word of mouth, especially in the form of a genuine recommendation from a trusted friend or colleague that had a good experience with your services. If you are doing it right, word of mouth often winds up being your very biggest source of new clients and projects. There is no substitute for personal networking. Return customers are a hugely important part of your business and they give you precious job-security that freelancers rarely get to enjoy. And be excited; it's contagious!


  1. Wow, what a great post!! Thank you for all your thoughts and sharing this with us.

    1. You are very welcome. Thanks for reading!