How to Become a Freelance UX Designer

The glamour of freelancing as a UI/UX designer or researcher is alluring. You get to set your own schedule, be your own boss, work from wherever you want to, and pick projects that you are passionate about. Survey says that those are the four main reasons for in-house professionals to make the jump and become freelance UX designers. Now, the question is whether it is a viable career step for you.

According to the latest reports, 35% of the American workforce – 57 million – are freelancers. The numbers are even higher when it comes to professionals from fields related to art and design. (Let’s not forget those to whom freelancing is the only option due to health issues.) Furthermore, 80% of professionals who have a full-time job would be willing to do some freelancing on the side. Freelancing is popular option in UX as well, so there must be some perks to it.

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The pros and cons of working as a freelance UX designer

If you are not sure about launching a freelance career in UI/UX, your first step should be the evaluation of the pros and cons that come with it. Consider all these before you decide!

Pros of freelancing as a UXer

Once you are on track as a freelancer, you will have full control over all aspects of your work and career. 

1. Time and schedule

The first thing that freelancers emphasize as a perk of their job is the flexibility of their schedule. As a freelancer, there is no expectation for you to follow the classic workday schedule and sit at your table from 9 to 5. Also, you can choose to work full- or part-time, according to your circumstances. What’s more, it seems that freelancers are able to deliver their work in less than 40 hours per week.

Last, as a freelancer, you can take breaks whenever you truly want without feeling judged or pressured. Most of us are unable to focus on tasks for more than 90-120 minutes. Therefore, having the ability to take breaks freely can help us do a better job. Many freelancers strive for a great balance between work and everyday tasks to save time.

2. Money

Once a freelancer, you can set your own rates and there will be no income cap on what you make. There are many blog posts written by successful freelance UX designers explicitly stating that they make more money than they did with in-house work. Obviously, being your own boss allows you the freedom to charge as much as the market enables. A 2016 survey by Freelancers Union found that “the majority of freelancers that left a full-time job made more within a year.”

3. Location

When you work remotely, it doesn’t matter where you do the work, until it gets done. If you want to work from a busy cafe then go home and work from your couch wearing pajamas nobody will stop you.

It differs from person to person where we feel the most productive, so having the freedom to choose our work location can have a great effect on the quality and quantity of our work. Another perk of working from home is the time you save on commuting.

4. Clients and co-workers

When you work in-house, you don’t get to pick the clients you’ll be working with nor the terms under which you’ll be working with them. The same applies to co-workers. This can lead to early burnouts and stress that affects the quality of your work, your productivity, and your personal life. Successful freelance UX designers get to choose who they are working with – both clients and co-workers.

The number of clients you choose to work with is also up to you. You can work on multiple smaller projects or a few bigger ones. This can be an opportunity for you to widen your horizons and learn about different industries. Consequently, your experience will make you a more desirable freelancer to hire.

Cons of freelancing as a UXer

The reality of the pros above is that not all freelancers get to enjoy them: you have to reach a certain degree of success in order to have all these freedoms. Consider these cons before you become a freelancer (and when you set your rate):

1. Unstable cashflow

Becoming a freelancer is a financial risk that you must be ready to take. There is nothing scarier for a freelancer than an open schedule. This lights a fire under some people, while others get crippled with self-doubt and fear. If you cannot handle an unbooked month with a cold head and a positive attitude, you will have a hard time with the unpredictable nature of freelancing. So before deciding to become a freelancer, you have to consider that there will be no monthly guaranteed paycheck to fall back on.

2. Lack of benefits

Most stable jobs come with benefits that some of us take for granted. You will have to be comfortable giving up these benefits when you become a freelancer. Most importantly, be prepared to pay for your own health insurance, which can be rather expensive.

3. Other professional and soft skills 

For some reason, nobody talks about the fact that as a freelancer you will have to be your own marketing, finanace, and sales team. This might appear very easy from the outside, but it takes a lot of manpower to manage them. Once you are a freelancer, you will have to substitute for all the departments of a traditional company.

If managing your personal finances is a challenge for you, imagine managing the finances of a business. Freelancing is a business and it comes with serious responsibilities, such as invoicing, proposals and taxes, varying from country to country. You will have two options: either research a lot before or hire someone to do it for you.

Imagine a scenario where you are communicating and planning with a seemingly enthusiastic potential client, you may even decline other offers, just for the whole project to get abruptly canceled. You have to be prepared for such situations.

4. Software and hardware

Most companies provide the tools their employees need, so they don’t have to think about the cost of the software and hardware they use. However, when you become a freelancer, you’ll pay it from your own pocket and these expenses can add up. Always keep this in mind when you are setting your rates.

5. Isolation and overall effects

Finally, freelancing can become very lonely. Usually, you won’t have enough time to build relationships with the teams you are working with. You might think that this is banal, but loneliness has similar effects on your overall health as smoking or obesity, and it should be taken seriously. When it comes to working from home, you will have to manage your own time and find a healthy work-life balance.

What do you need to become a freelance UX designer?

In this section, we will not cover the legalities that are necessary to start a freelance UX business, as these vary depending on your location. It is your responsibility to make sure that you abide by local laws and you behold all the necessary documents, such as permits, that are required to become a freelancer.

1. Financial stability

We have reviewed many articles about starting out as a freelancer in UI/UX design, and 90% of them forgot to mention a crucial fact: you need to be financially stable before you become a freelancer. There are many reasons for this, most of them were mentioned above:

  • It might take a while to score your first project
  • There is no guaranteed paycheck at the end of each month
  • You will have plenty of unexpected expenses

Freelance UX strategist Kavita Krishnan advises you to save enough money to cover your living expenses for at least fourteen months. Others recommend a 5-month backup or starting out while having a regular 9-5 job. This latter strategy, though exhausting, is very effective.

2. Freelancer UX portfolio

Simply put, you cannot become a successful freelancer without a portfolio. In freelancing your portfolios replace resumes. Through case studies, you can prove your skills and showcase your efficiency. A good freelancer UX designer portfolio combines beautiful visuals with a descriptive copy. Neither of these two aspects should be underestimated. While a beautiful portfolio with pretty UIs will grab the attention of a potential client, the details of your methodology will put everything in context. Marry these two factors and you’ll end up with an irresistible freelance UX portfolio.

Screenshot of Nicola's ux portfolio and a case study
UX portfolio and case study made with UXfolio

UXfolio is a tool that allows you to create stunning and convincing portfolios with heavy-hitting case studies. Many freelancers prefer our tool because it allows and helps them to create memorable cover pages and case studies that go way beyond visuals. If you want to gather some inspiration, check out some of the best UX portfolio examples!

3. Your first clients

The first clients are the hardest to get. Therefore, having this part out of the way is very important. We will go into more detail below, but it is best to have at least one client when you make the jump. This will give you momentum, a case study for your freelancer portfolio, and security. Also, if it all goes well, a good review from your first client will give a kick to your career as a freelance designer.

4. Online presence

Freelancing as we know it today wouldn’t be possible without the freedom that technology provides. In order to be found by clients, you will have to build an online presence using all the tools available. You must embrace the pushy marketer and salesman within, especially at the beginning of your freelance career.

Social media is a must, a personal online portfolio website is a must, and heavy-duty networking is also a must. This takes plenty of work, especially when you are starting from scratch.

5. Competitor analysis

Having a good understanding of the market is very important for planning and rates. Ask around your professional network about rates, check out job boards to find out about the rates of the market that you are targeting. Also, see how successful UXers market themselves and follow in their path.

Kickstarting your freelance UX designer career

Here are a few practical tips that we have collected to help you kickstart your freelance UX designer career:

  • Stay active on all social media, such as Twitter and Instagram. Also, do not forget to link to your portfolio from each profile.
    • The most successful freelance UX designers all have a decent social media presence as you never know where your next client will find you.
    • Add ‘Freelance UX designer’ to all about me section, especially LinkedIn.
  • Ask your clients to recommend you to their network when a project is over. People trust the recommendation of others, so don’t miss out on this opportunity.
    • Word-of-mouth is still the most effective marketing tool out there, especially when it comes to local freelance UX design gigs. Most established freelancers say that they get offers through previous clients.
  • Always answer inquiries, even if you know that you cannot fit them into your schedule.
    • Turn down offers in a polite manner, so there is an option to collaborate in the future.
  • Ask for testimonials and reviews after each project.
    • you can use these in your portfolio and case studies.
  • Attend meetups, give talks and presentations.
    • Another effective strategy to become a household name in UX.
  • Set sensible rates.
    • Do not forget about all the expenses we have mentioned above
    • Check out the rates of your competition on freelancing platforms
    • Always look for the highest-rated professionals
    • Don’t be afraid to ask for advice.
  • Define your services.
    • Will you market yourself as a jack of all trades or an expert in one specific area
    • Make a list of what you do and a list (for yourself) of the things you don’t.
  • Use content marketing to get found by the right people.
    • Most successful UXers are generous with sharing their knowledge, experience, and expertise
    • You can get found through the content you write
    • Microcontent and long-form content are also important.
  • Get a lawyer to help you with freelance contracts and an accountant to help with taxes.
  • Build a brand.
    • While this is not the most important when you are starting out, having a brand that represents you as a professional can make wonders for your freelancer UX career.

How to set your rates as a freelance UX designer?

Before you start looking for offers, you must have your portfolio ready and your rate set. These are the two things that freelance UX job postings ask for. This is where every potential freelancer’s most burning question emerges: how much should I charge? First, you want to decide to charge per hour or per project. Let’s explore both:

Hourly rate (quantity oriented)

  • Recommended for long-term projects
  • Flexible for both parties
  • Clear for both parties
  • Get paid for extra hours

Project-based price (value-oriented)

  • Recommended for short-term projects
  • Gives value to your work
  • You get paid for your skills
  • You make more if you are a fast worker

You will see that in most freelance UX jobs an hourly rate is preferred.

Freelance UX designer hourly rate calculation

To come up with your hourly rate, research the salaries for in-house UX positions of your level in the region where the project is based. If you are not sure about your level, compare some job posts to your skills and experience to figure it out.

Take the annual salary to add your annual costs and divide that amount with the working hours in a year (around 2000). Now you have the hourly wage for an in-house professional of your level.

To that amount, you will have to add your yearly expenses that we have mentioned above, and one more thing: padding. This includes vacation, the risks of being a freelancer, and the time spent on building your freelance business. To give you a rough estimate, the additional amount should be over 30-40% of the in-house hourly rate. With this calculation, you’ll get a minimum. Obviously, if you are in-demand, this price can be much higher and vice versa. 

Final advice

Most articles advise you to be picky about the project to choose to work on, but we know that in reality, this is not always possible, especially if you are just starting out. This is the less glamorous and talked about side of freelancing. However, with the right attitude, you can turn each of these projects into opportunities. Later on, you will have the luxury to be pickier and pickier.

Start building your freelance UX designer portfolio at UXfolio!

If you don’t have your portfolio ready yet, sign up for a UXfolio account and get to building! With UXfolio you can create targeted, password protected portfolios for different clients, filled with case studies that can prove your expertise. You can also connect Google Analytics to monitor the behavior of your visitors and to optimize your portfolios for maximum impact!

UX career expert & creative @UXfolio. I've been participating in and writing about UX design for 4 years. In my free time, I read, listen to opera, and work out.

Hit me up at akos@blog.uxfol.io

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A typical mistake I see in UX portfolios is lack of content explaining their contribution to the effort, the images are only the final product and not the process to get there.

UX is very much about strategy and if the person is not showing how they got from A to B, they appear to be another UI trying to move into a UX role.

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