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I am looking for more people who would be interested in taking part in Freelancer Focus please see this post for details if you are interested. I am also interested in design case studies too.

Freelance DesignerFreelancer Focus is a regular feature, where freelance designers are invited to answer a series of questions about themselves and freelancing. This week Astrid Mueller (pictured left) is the freelance designer in question. If you would like to take part please read my previous post. Any designer or illustrator can also take part in Design Case Studies.

1. Your name?
Astrid Mueller

2. Where are you are based (Country/Area)?

3. What type of work do you do? (design for print, web, multimedia etc)
Main focus on illustration, but also offering graphic design

4. How many years had you been working in the design industry before you went freelance?
about 5 years doing graphic design

5. How long have you been freelancing?
Full-time since April 2006

6. Why did you decide to go freelance?
Some may call it fate – a set of lucky circumstances led me to dare the “jump”!

In Switzerland, people tend to be careful, and most of the voices I heard before thinking about going freelance were cautious, recommending me to start with an employed position first.

Today, I see the advantages of this, but I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary. If you have enough savings as backup, the design knowledge, and a feeling for customer service and marketing, I don’t think it matters how you got this knowledge. The result is what matters. Of course it will probably be better if you’ve had on-the-job experience in an actual job, but some people may acquire their experience with other means and/or freelance jobs on the side.

7. How did you market yourself (find design work/new clients) in the beginning – (online portfolio/brochure/direct mail/email/phone etc)?
Website, business cards, flyers, phone calls to make appointments, and I met as many potential customers as possible. I travelled to London, Hamburg, Munich, and Zurich, and met about 12 magazine art directors or advertising agencies in each city.

8. How do you market yourself (find design work) now?
The preparation time and travel expenses of personal appointments are very high, and I’ve now reverted to marketing myself with other means: online portfolios, a mostly search-engine friendly website, an email newsletter, fair visits, follow-up emails, participation in illustration and design books, postcard mailings, and specialty mailings to a selected audience.

9. How did you decide what to charge? What was the process?

  • I calculated how many actual work hours I have per calendar year, and how much I need to earn to survive (or how much I’d like to earn). If you divide the wanted income by actual working hours, you get a base for the hourly rate you need to meet that goal. It’s important to also calculate non-billable time such as sick-leave, vacations, office-work, fair visits etc.
  • I asked other designers what they charge. In Switzerland, people tend not to talk about this openly, but when you ask, usually people don’t mind to share.
  • I tried getting marketing and design guideline books. There’s a great one for the U.S.A.: Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines.
  • I always keep track of my hours spent on design projects, and compare that with what I charge
  • I take into consideration which usage rights the client needs for my designs. Apparently, usage rights are often neglected when designers write their bills. They can add considerable income though! I consider if a client needs one-time rights, use in one country of international, exclusive rights, copyright transfer, or even work-for hire (total transfer of rights, not recommendable), which media the design will be published in, etc. The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook recommends to charge up to 300% for work-for-hire contracts! For more about this, I strongly recommend to purchase the book.
  • I take into consideration how large a client is. I charge less for private customers than for international corporations.
  • I don’t have a “friendship” rate. Real friends know that I design for a living, and have to be able to live with my earnings. If the lowest hourly rate that barely covers my costs is not affordable, I usually don’t do the job. Exceptions: gifts or trades of favours.

10. Do you work from home/have an office/work inhouse at design agencies?
Right now, I work from home. I’ve subrented an office space for a while though, and can only recommend it. It’s a personal decision and some people work better alone, but others – like me – need to get out. In my case, it greatly helped me to get going every day, instead of just taking it easy at home where it’s easy to get distracted too. Another advantage I had was that I subrented in a design environment – thereby opening possibilities for tip sharing, collaboration, or even just someone to say hello to.

11. How do you organise your workload, do you work long hours?
I use Mac iCal, and as soon as I get a request in, I plan in actual work hours in my calendar. I often fall prey to fully booking the days, which doesn’t leave room for unplanned events. In my experience, everything takes about 1.5 as long as the time I originally allocated for the task. This is individual experience though, and may vary with everyone. So yes, I work long hours if I have client deadlines. Depending on how busy my social life is or how big of a marketing drive I have at the time, I sometimes work night shifts even without pressing client deadlines.

12. How much holiday do you give yourself?
I try to take vacations whenever my boyfriend can take vacations, sometimes more – I’ve also taken time off in low seasons before, but usually I get stuck in front of the computer instead of just getting outside when there’s nothing urgent to do. I’m estimating the total vacation time in my last year of about 4 weeks, excluding holidays.

13. How do you keep up to date with what is happening in the industry?

  • I subscribe to interesting blogs in, which makes it easy to keep an overwiev of all my favorite blogs, and to get a quick impression of which new posts are interesting to me and which not.
  • When finances and time allow, I try to go to trade fairs.
  • As an alternative, it’s a cheaper alternative to browse trade fair websites. Often they give a list of the exhibitors including contact addresses, for nothing or just a small fee.
  • I subscribe to design magazines such as computer arts
  • I buy products (in my case mostly women magazines, because I illustrate for them), to learn about the market, what the competition is doing, what’s in fashion, and to get contact addresses of the art directors
  • I browse portfolio websites, and see what other illustrators are doing
  • I look at successful illustrators / designers and see how they are doing it
  • I network with other designers, and exchange tips and sometimes promotion projects and costs

14. What blogs, magazines, podcasts etc do you subscribe to?
insprational blogs:

artist blogs:
many illustrators and designers that I like
art business blogs:

fashion blogs (it’s my market):

and magazine websites of vogue,…

German design magazine PAGE
Swiss magazine PUBLISHER

15. How do you generate ideas/what techniques do you use to stimulate creativity?
I try to get as much input from the client as possible. The more I know, the better I can design to reach their purpose and target group. To brainstorm, I read the briefing thoroughly, then sometimes go for a walk. That’s a good way for me to start ideas coming. Sometimes they come when I’m in the shower too. Sometimes, ideas start flowing as soon as I start my research on the internet.

16. What about the business side of things, accounting, invoicing, bookkeeping, how do you manage it?
I have a bookkeeper who does the taxes for me and reviews my bookkeeping. I try to prepare as much as possible on my own so that these costs stay as low as possible, with the nice side-effect that I always have the overview. So far, I’m only outsourcing this, but I’m looking for ways to possibly outsource more to be able to maybe eventually expand my business.

17. What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone starting out freelancing?
Always put the customer first, and try to see things from their perspective. Don’t take it personally if one customer doesn’t hire your services, your design style may just not have fit his market and needs, or budget.

18. Would you ever go back to fulltime work?
Not if I don’t have to. I love my business!

19. Anything else you would like to add?
If anyone has more questions or suggestions, just send me an email, I’m always open to sharing and exchanging tips and thoughts!

20. Where can we see some of your work (URL)?