Slide2According to estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 259,500 graphic designers in the U.S. and 24% of them are self-employed.  That means that approximately one out of five graphic designers is self-employed.  Even thought so many of us eventually end up working for ourselves, graphic design programs in colleges do not focus enough (if any) on the business aspect of running a successful graphic design practice so young designers are going into business unprepared and uneducated about business issues.

In the following article, you will find step by step guidelines on how to start your own design agency, drawn from my experience of running a small design agency for over a decade. This guide was written as a support material for my presentation at the 2016 National Student Show on April 8,2016, mainly to share some of the resources that I have found helpful. Enjoy!

First, you have to ask yourself the question: Why do you want to start your own business? Is earning more money, flexibility or more creativity the reason? Sure there are lots of perks but we also have to consider the con: are you ready to quit a 40 hour work day only to find yourself working 60+ hours and not always get paid. There are lots of things you would have to give up – financial stability, comfort, nights and weekends, hanging out with friends to name just a few, and in order to properly evaluate if this is the right path for you must figure out what are your personal goals.

Step 1. Figure out your goals in life

  • What do you like to do?
  • What would be your dream job?
  • What skills do you have?
  • What industries do you know about?
  • What experience do you have?

Review your answers. So how do you know if it is going to be worth it at the end? By figuring out what are your long term goals and what makes you happy you will understand what values are important to you as a person and aligning these values with your business objectives will ensure that you are following right path for you.


This is a check list that will help you determine if you are ready to go out on your own or you need to maybe weight for a bit.

  • Do you crave independence and lack routine?
  • Are you self-motivated?
  • Are you outgoing enough to enjoy talking about your work and “selling” with your portfolio?
  • Do you want to freelance for other firms or agencies?
  • If not, do you have enough contacts that could support your business?
  • Do you like to wear different hats?
  • Are you optimistic?Assuming your answer is yes to these questions then you can move on to do some research. If you have several no questions maybe you can benefit from talking to a mentor or another industry professional before you jump in the

Step 2. Research

  • Figure out how much it will cost you to run a business. Calculate start up costs. Make a list of basic equipment – a computer and a phone, domain name and hosting, business registration fees, health insurance, accountant…
  • Do you have any capital to cover initial costs?
  • Learn about the industry and the competition
  • Make an appointment with an Small Business Development Center counselor
  • Take an accounting and/or business class
  • Choose a mentor
  • Write a business plan

 Resources for your research

  1. SBA –  a good resource for all small business related issues
  2.  Starting & Managing a Successful Business (Score)
  3. Community Colleges that focus on small business development such as the  Collin Small Business Development Center – (for Dallas locals)
  4. Books
    The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies by Rhonda Abrams
    Six-Week Start-Up: A step-by-step program for starting your business, making money, and achieving your goals!

Step 3. Clarify your business concept

  • Describe your business and spell out your business values
  • What makes you unique?
  • Who are your potential customers?
  • How are you going to sell to them?
  • What is the story you are trying to tell?
  • What is your niche?
  • Why should anyone hire you?

Step 4. Make it legal

  • Find an accountant and advise with a lawyer
  • Choose the right type of legal structures (Find out more info here )
    • Sole Proprietorship
    • Partnership
    • Limited Liability Company (LLC)
    • S corporation
    • C Corporation
    • Cooperative
  • Register your business with your local or state government
  • Apply for tax identification numbers

Step 5. Figure out how much to charge

There are three main ways to charge for design services:

  • Per hour – Use this  online calculator to figure out how much your rate should be
  • Per value – You might not want to bill hourly. You focus too much on the input side and are more likely to track everything in detail. Ideally bill per week, or per day if the project is smaller.
  • A combination of both – I find this to be the best method. It allows me to list value pricing for the initial estimate and charge hourly for additional work.

Step 6. Have a contract

  • Always use a contract no matter how small is the job
  • Get a down payment or a retainer before starting the project – 50% is common
  • Never negotiate your rate, instead negotiate the project scope
  • Do not give final work files until you have been paid in full


AIGA Standard Form of Agreement
Business and Legal Forms for Graphic Designers
The Creative Business Guide to Running a Graphic Design Business by Cameron S. Foote

Step 7. Build a brand for your company

  • Come up with a name
  • Create a logo
  • Get a domain and hosting
  • Build a website
  • Create marketing materials
  • Create company pages on Social Media

Step 8. Get clients

  • Network, network, network
  • Get with the chamber of commerce or other professional organizations
  • Ask for references and testimonials from previous clients
  • Create a marketing plan and efforts
  • Attend conferences
  • Post updates on social media
  • Be active in the community
  • It’s who you know

In conclusion don’t get discouraged by all the things you have to do. Also, dream big and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Everyone does. Know that even though there are some set backs, the rewards of owning a business are far greater than the set backs. Good Luck!