How to go above and beyond your peers and successfully find work as a freelance UX designer
As the digital economy grows, more and more people are choosing to become freelancers. Americans collectively spent more than 1 billion hours per week freelancing in 2018. In many countries, freelancing is now growing faster than overall employment.
So, why the rush toward freelancing? This business model makes sense for companies and individuals alike. While businesses benefit from flexibility and access to a larger talent pool, freelancers can enjoy greater control over their working hours, location, and earnings.
As a veteran or aspiring UX designer, you may be wondering if the freelance lifestyle could work for you too. Is launching a freelance career in UX possible? How much should you expect to earn, and how exactly would you get started?
This guide will help you find your way when building a freelance UX career. We’ll cover everything from creating a portfolio to finding jobs to working remotely—and much more.
Related: How to Get a UX Job
Why Become a Freelance UX Designer?
Before pursuing a career as a freelance UX designer, there are some basic things you should know about the freelance lifestyle in general. Here are some of the pros and cons:
Pros of Being a Freelancer
There are many advantages to being a freelancer. As a freelance UX designer, you’ll be able to control not only your workday but your entire career.
Here, we’ll discuss four “pros” of freelance work.
Rather than working a fixed 9-5 schedule, freelance UX designers work the hours they choose.
As a freelancer, you will be able to work part-time or full-time, as you see fit. You can take time off to spend with your family and friends when they need you. And you can organize your workload around your everyday tasks.
Time flexibility can significantly improve your quality of life.
Another great thing about being a freelance UX designer is the income flexibility it offers.
While employees are limited to the same salary every month until they get a raise, there is no income cap on a freelancer’s earnings. You can charge anything for your UX design services, up to what the market will accept.
The earning potential doesn’t end once your time is fully booked. You can put prospective clients on a waiting list, securing more earnings for the future. Or you could hire an assistant to perform certain tasks for you (for example, marketing and billing), freeing up more time for clients.
Since most freelancers work remotely, they also enjoy location flexibility. This could mean anything from working at your local coffee shop to working on the other side of the planet.
As freelancing gains in popularity, it’s becoming increasingly common to work while traveling. People who do this are known as “digital nomads.”
Being a digital nomad has many benefits. Besides being able to explore new places as a tourist, you will also have the freedom to move somewhere permanently, while taking your clients with you. This can allow you to enjoy a lower cost of living and/or higher quality of life.
Continuous Career Growth
A final benefit of becoming a freelance UX designer is career growth.
As a freelancer, you will gain experience working with many different types of clients. You will also have a chance to experience a bird’s-eye view of all the aspects of running a company. This can give you more empathy for your clients and the business challenges they face.
The extra time flexibility you have may also give you more opportunities for professional development.
Cons of Being a Freelancer
Of course, being a freelancer isn’t all roses. Every career choice has its potential drawbacks, and freelance UX is no exception.
Below are some cons to consider before making the leap.
Being a freelancer is inherently unstable. While some months might be very busy, others may be quite slow.
The trick to being a successful freelance UX designer isn’t just in getting the first few clients. You will need to build a reliable system to generate clients, over and over again. Each freelancer’s system will look different.
To be a freelancer, you will have to be highly self-motivated. And you will need to feel comfortable with financial risk-taking.
One of the biggest challenges freelancers face is the complexity of their tax returns. Freelancers must create individual invoices for every project and keep them organized for tax time.
As a freelance UX designer, your tax return will look very different from an employee’s. If you don’t feel comfortable completing it on your own at first, you may want to consider hiring professional help.
Tax laws vary depending on your country and individual situation. In all cases, you will have to put aside taxes for the end of the year (or the end of each financial quarter).
The amount you earn from clients is not all “money in your pocket.” This is an important point to keep in mind when setting your rates.
Paying for Your Own Benefits and Expenses
As a freelancer, you will have to arrange for your own healthcare coverage. You may also have to pay for other types of insurance (such as professional liability insurance). And you will have to buy all your own equipment.
These expenses are usually tax-deductible, but you will need to factor the costs into your business plan.
If you enjoy working as part of a group, you may find the freelance lifestyle difficult.
As a freelance UX designer, you will probably change teams often. Your contact with your clients will be mainly project-focused, with limited time for daily small talk.
This doesn’t mean that freelancers never interact with other people. Just like freelancers create their own work schedule, they are also responsible for creating their own social interaction.
Work-related socializing for freelancers could mean networking via social media, meeting clients and prospects for coffee, or attending industry-related networking events and conferences.
When Should You Become a Freelance UX Designer?
Now that we’ve covered the pros and cons of being a freelancer, perhaps you’ve decided that becoming a freelance UX designer is right for you. But when should you take that first step?
The good news is, you don’t have to take big risks right away. To start with, you can take on some small projects outside of your current responsibilities to see if you enjoy them. While you may already be quite busy with your full-time job, those first few “side-hustle” projects can become the beginning of your new client base.
Some people recommend having a savings fund of 3-6 months of expenses before leaving a full-time job. The exact amount of money you need will depend on your personal financial situation.
People with large financial commitments (such as car payments or mortgages) might need to be more cautious than those with fewer permanent obligations. If you don’t have many ongoing commitments, you can always scale your expenses down temporarily as your business gets off the ground.
Skills Needed to Become a Freelance UX Designer
Perhaps you already have experience working as a full-time UX designer, or maybe you’re transitioning from a related field (such as web design or graphic design). Either way, there are certain skills you will need to succeed as a freelance UX designer.
UX Design Education
If you don’t yet have formal UX education or are looking to gain more, now is the perfect time to invest in yourself. While experience is very important for getting hired as a freelancer, education will improve your skills, increase your confidence, and show potential clients that you are dedicated to your craft.
You’ll want to look for a UX design course that is pragmatic, industry-focused, and can be completed while keeping up with your other responsibilities.
Creating a Portfolio
To prove yourself to clients, you’ll need to create a portfolio. A portfolio is like a freelancer’s resume—it directly demonstrates what you’re capable of creating as a UX designer.
An effective portfolio should include, at a minimum:
- an “about me” page with information about your background and experience
- visual examples of your best UX design work
- details about the projects you have worked on
- up-to-date contact information, or a contact form
It could also include:
- testimonials from past clients
- an FAQ page
- a blog section, for content marketing and SEO
If you’re looking for more portfolio help, check out these inspirational UX portfolio examples from Springboard students.
Average Earnings for Freelance UX Designers
We’ve already spoken a bit about the potential ways to earn as a freelance UX designer. But how does the average designer price UX projects, and how much money does he or she actually make?
Average Freelance UX Designer Yearly Earnings
First, we’ll discuss the average yearly earnings of freelance UX designers.
Career website Paysa estimates that the average freelance UX designer’s yearly earnings are $97,426.
(Source: screenshot, Paysa.com)
However, this is based on a small sample size and in reality, earnings can vary wildly.
As the website UX Designer Salaries shows, UX positions of any kind have a wide range of salaries around the world, depending on the country the employer/client is located in. Earnings also vary significantly based on experience.
Average Freelance UX Designer Hourly Rate
That being said, let’s examine some more specific information. What is the average freelance UX designer’s hourly rate?
Popular contractor platform Upwork lists the sample UX designer rates of an intermediate-level, U.S.-based specialist as the following:
(Source: screenshot, Upwork.com)
As you can see, even within this narrowly-defined group, the range is quite wide. Designers are charging anywhere between $25-$75 per hour, on average, for all types of work.
So what exactly should you charge? As mentioned earlier, your earnings as a freelancer are entirely up to you. Charge as much as you feel comfortable with charging.
But don’t forget to factor in expenses, such as taxes, equipment, and anything else you need to do your job. Remember, also, that a lot of your time as a freelancer will be taken up by non-billable work (invoicing, marketing yourself, etc.).
Using a Per-Project Rate
Some freelancers prefer to price their work per project, rather than per hour. This eliminates the hassle of tracking hours and simplifies billing. But how should you calculate your project-based rate?
Determining a rate for a large project can be challenging, but will become easier with time and experience. Basically, estimate the number of hours it will take to complete the project, and multiply that by the hourly rate you are willing to accept. Add a small buffer, in case the project goes on longer than expected. The number you end up with will be your project rate.
How to Find Freelance UX Jobs
Now that you know how to price your services, it’s time to look for freelance UX jobs. Here, we’ll go over a few strategies for finding your first few clients.
Self-Marketing vs. Job Boards
In general, there are two ways freelancers can find clients: self-marketing and job boards.
Self-marketing could include, among other things:
- creating your own website
- publishing an email newsletter
- giving interviews to blogs or traditional media
- networking on social media and in person
In the long term, engaging in at least some self-marketing can be a good idea for freelancers. It creates sustainable channels for client generation that are not dependent on a third party (such as a job-search board).
However, self-marketing can take a lot of time and/or budget and doesn’t always produce instant results. If you’re just starting out, it might make sense to take on a few jobs via job-search boards first, to gain experience.
Resources for Freelance UX Jobs
If you’re looking to score those first few freelance UX jobs, here are some resources you might find helpful:
TopTal: TopTal is an exclusive, high-end job board that accepts only “the top 3% of freelance designers.”
LinkedIn: Having a LinkedIn profile is key for any freelancer. On LinkedIn, you can connect with professionals from top companies around the world. You can also use LinkedIn Jobs to search for freelance UX jobs.
Facebook: While you may think of Facebook as mainly a personal social network, it is also an excellent place to search for freelance UX jobs.
Facebook groups that you may find useful:
General Remote Work
Freelance UX Jobs and Networking
Working Remotely: Tips and Tricks
While working remotely allows you to have a flexible lifestyle with no commute, it also comes with its own challenges. Here are some important things to keep in mind:
Find a Comfortable Workspace
Just because you can work from anywhere, doesn’t mean you should.
You may have seen photos of “digital nomads” relaxing with a laptop on a beach or by the pool:
…but this might not be realistic for every day.
Having a quiet place to work regularly can be very helpful for freelancers. This could be an extra room in your home, or a spot at a coworking space.
As an added benefit, any money you spend on your dedicated workspace is tax-deductible.
Give Yourself Regular Breaks
Many new freelancers find that, without dedicated work hours, it is tempting to simply work 24/7 as projects come up.
However, overworking can take a toll on your mental and physical health.
You may prefer not to work the traditional 9-5 schedule (if your clients are in different time zones, it may not even make sense to do so). But scheduling regular times for meals and breaks can help you remain healthy and productive.
Get the Right Equipment
Finally, when working remotely, you’ll want to make sure your tech is up to date.
For remote workers, investing in a quality laptop and high-speed internet is well worth it. It pays off to have a backup plan (such as a local co-working space) in case the power goes out at home. And keep in mind that you may need to buy your own subscription to any design software you use regularly.
You should now have all the information you need to launch your career as a freelance UX designer. The freelance lifestyle is challenging, but can also be highly rewarding. Enjoy, and good luck!
If you’re looking to improve your UX design skills as you transition to the freelance lifestyle, be sure to check out Springboard’s self-paced, mentor-led UX Design Course.