Whether you’re a new designer just starting to build up your skillset or an experienced in-house designer just breaking into freelancing, setting freelance graphic design rates can feel like picking a random number out of a hat and hoping it’s the right one. You don’t want to undersell yourself, but you also don’t want to get laughed out of the building. It’s a tricky balance to strike.
To be fair to yourself and your clients, consider these three factors when determining your rates: location, level of experience, and expertise. If you take those three things into account, you’ll be able to match your rates to those of other freelance graphic designers and set your expectations and your clients’ expectations accordingly.
The median salary for designers is highly dependent on where they work. San Francisco, CA; New York, NY; and Bridgeport, CT are some of the most lucrative locations in the U.S., but there’s a wide range of average salaries across the country. Those cities in particular are surrounded by promising start-ups and plenty of highly ranked design schools, including Yale University, the second highest-ranked program for aspiring designers. See how your city compares.
This kind of calculation can help you figure out what to charge based on where you already live, but it’s also useful in decision-making when you’re moving to a new place. Let’s say you’re a freelance graphic designer choosing between living in New York, NY; Atlanta, GA; and Dallas, TX. The cost of living is different in each of them, but so are the average rates. Based on the data above, New York is one of the best locations for graphic designers, meaning the average rate is also the most competitive of the three choices. So, in this simplified example, it might make the most sense to choose New York.
While New York may be the #1 pick in your head, there is another party to think about: your clients. If you already have clients where you live now, and they require you to come into the office, you’re going to suffer a blow to your business when you move. When you’re working in the same location as your clients, determining rates is straightforward because economic factors like cost of living and self-employed graphic designer taxes are aligned. If you’re working remotely, you’ll need to think about how rates are settled when you live somewhere else entirely.
Which location is more important? Yours or Your Client’s?
You should establish rates based on where you live rather than where your client lives. That privilege is one of the greatest benefits of being a freelancer because you have the freedom to live wherever you want. “I always said I wanted to make my dream of being a freelance designer work so that I wouldn’t be tethered to one location. This is one of the best remote jobs,” says freelance graphic designer Krystianna Pietrzak. Take advantage of that flexibility if you can.
Let your clients know where you live to ensure you are on the same page when establishing rates. If you have the flexibility to work anywhere you choose, there are several things to think about:
Cost of living. This varies wildly from place to place, so make sure you're comfortable with what you're getting.
Communication. Are you living in the same time zone as your clients? Communicating across time zones can be a significant barrier.
Clientele. Is this an area where you can easily network and generate more clients if you choose?
If you are looking for somewhere new to live, running these thoughts through your head and thinking about how your rates may be affected will surely help you in the long run.
Jess Goldsmith is a freelance graphic designer who currently uses Bonsai to manage her work. She also relies on Google calendar, which conveniently automates time zones on both ends. Jess always emphasizes her meeting times when scheduling meetings with all clients, whether international, domestic, or same area.
2. Level of Experience
So, you’ve already taken location into account—now it’s time to think about your level of experience. Say you have one, two, or five years under your belt. Here’s how your average rates might break down for each of those levels.
For one year of experience in graphic design, the average salary is $52,000. Add a year to that, and the average salary is $56,000, while five years of experience equates to about $66,000.
If you’re closer to entry-level, your range will be lower. Most experienced freelance graphic designers charge between $65 and $150 per hour. And at the low end, newer designers charge from $25 to $50 per hour. The amount of time you have spent doing your job defines your credibility—and rates.
Your rate as a freelance graphic designer should be at least $66 an hour if you live in the U.S. and have 7-10 years of experience. According to Nation1099, this freelance graphic design rate in the U.S. was calculated using Glassdoor, ZipRecruiter, PayScale, and Indeed and their “all-in expense formula”: the sum of benefit deductions, fees, and expenses.
Your expertise is your specialized, unique skill set, or knowledge you have in the field you work in. It is important to consider when outlining your freelance graphic design rates because it helps you clearly identify and justify what you are charging.
Sharing your expertise not only helps clients know what you can do for their brand or business, but it also helps you understand what you have to offer. It helps you expand on what you can do and establish your reputation, which increases your professional value and justifies the rates you charge. Once you can clearly pinpoint what you do, it will be easier to work out your market-based pricing.
The Simple Dollar explains that market-based pricing is comparing your rates to other—in this case—freelance graphic designers to ensure your rates are at a competing price. If you are multifaceted in your expertise, you can charge more; if not, you’ll charge less. For instance, if you are skilled in web content, graphic design, Adobe Creative Suite, and logo design, you could charge more. Someone else who is only skilled in web content and logo design may only be able to charge less.
Using our Freelance Rate Explorer will help you see what the rates are for your expertise. Your rates will be clear to you once you have been able to fairly align your expertise with other freelance graphic designers.
Get the whole picture to determine your rates
The three factors listed above are the biggest, but everyone’s situation is different. Everything from health factors to self-employment taxes by location to significant pay disparities can influence average rates in a particular place.
Pay disparities are a major issue in freelancing today; race and gender continue to be the bases for wage discrimination, and freelancers are not exempt. But individuals can still work to close their personal pay gaps.
How to close your own personal gap
If pay disparities work against you, you can make a change as well. When looking to close your own personal gap, negotiate, charge higher rates, and ask for transparency about what rates your counterparts are receiving.
Negotiate: Freelancers who don’t think to negotiate can miss potential revenue and slow down the growing success of their project portfolio. From the moment you meet with a client, think about what you both have in common. Make a personal connection and then bridge that conversation into the project at hand. As a freelancer, it is you against the client, so making a good first impression is the welcome point to negotiation.
Charge higher rates: Presenting higher rates to clients can give you a better reputation, which can then generate higher-profile clients. And what is attractive to one high-quality client, may lead to another through a thoughtful referral. You produce amazing work, so set a price that reflects that.
Ask for transparency: If pay disparities work in your favor, you can make a difference. Be transparent about what you make and speak up when you hear about someone else being compensated unfairly. Submit your data anonymously to support reports like the one from Design Census. AIGA Eye on Design has also created the Graphic Design Salary Transparency Form to create a culture of transparency in compensation. Whether you are looking for a difference to be made or can provide salary information to make a difference, this is a great place to start.
Using formulas and guiding tools is crucial for determining rates as a graphic design freelancer. You have to incorporate other expenses like health insurance, retirement funds, and self-employment taxes, to name a few, not to mention the cost of tools and programs used to create projects. So, using a freelance rate calculator can be very helpful when establishing your rates.
In the end, your approach to outlining projects, developing client relationships, and essentially earning a decent living are all connected to your approach to pricing. There are plenty of tools to help you align and justify your rates. After considering location, level of experience, and expertise to see what you should charge clients, remember to check out Bonsai’s freelance rates explorer—so you can back up your rates with cold, hard data.