What it Takes to Be a Successful Freelance Web Designer (Interview with Rafal Tomal)

by Gregory Ciotti 9 Minutes

For any of you web designers out there, get ready for a fantastic read!

As part of a continuing series on the Bidsketch blog, we’re going to talk with some really talented freelancers (and former freelancers) in the areas of web design, web development, coding, freelance writing, marketing, and many more.

Today it is my pleasure to bring you our very first entry in this series, an insightful interview with Rafal Tomal, the lead designer over at Copyblogger Media and an all-around talented and friendly guy.

While I’ve had the benefit of chatting with Rafal before on the importance of web design that converts, today he’s here to tackle a completely different beast: to tell the tale of his days as a freelance web designer.

First things first, let’s get to know the man himself!

If you could Rafal, please elaborate for those unfamiliar with your work just what it is you do for the Copyblogger team under the Copyblogger Media and StudioPress brands.

Where do you spend most of your time these days? How has the experience been with the team so far?

I’ve been working with Copyblogger Media since the beginning of the company. So it’s going on almost 2 years now.

I’ve worked as a freelancer with Brian Gardner for a bit longer, though.

I’m responsible for the graphic design aspects of all our internal sites and products. We tend to update all of the websites continuously.

Besides this, a big part of my work is centered around our StudioPress child themes for the Genesis Framework. Some of them I only design and some I design and code.

Also, you may have also noticed that we occasionally do some custom themes for notable bloggers in the community, such as Chris Brogan, Darren Rowse or Jay Baer. I usually do the design and code for those sites.

So I’m pretty busy but I love what I do! 🙂

The experience with the team has been great. I’m lucky to have a boss, Brian Gardner, who is also my good friend.

It’s the most professional team I’ve ever had a chance to work with. We all meet once a year in Austin, TX, forour company party during SXSW.

On a last personal note, how about a little excerpt about yourself: when you’re not designing, what drives you? Any hobbies or particularly big life interests?

I spend a lot of time with my wonderful wife. We love traveling together.

I’ve been living in the USA for 5 years and there are still many places we want to visit here.

Also, I love sports and I’m trying to be active all the time. I regularly play soccer and swim.

Moreover, I’ve started practicing Krav Maga, which is a connection of self-defense and real life street fighting.

1.) So, I specifically wanted to talk with you today because I know a large majority of Bidsketch users are super-talented web designers of the freelance variety

I know that a lot of folks will enjoy getting a glance at your early days as a freelance designer.

To start off, how about your initial introduction to web design & development: what was your inspiration to begin designing websites, and how did it turn into a profession?

I’ve been interested in all the computer stuff since I was a kid.

You might be surprised but I was always more interested in programming than graphic design.

I started learning C++ when I was 13. I wanted to be a game developer and a few years later I was able to do simple games and develop some applications for Windows and Linux.

The Internet in Poland (that’s where I come from) became popular a bit later than in the USA. However, I was quickly interested in discovering how websites are made.

I first learned PHP because it’s very similar to C++, then I started discovering HTML/CSS, JavaScript, etc. and of course I loved it all. 🙂

I quickly switched to designing websites because that was something that let me make some money for the first time. It was of course much easier to sell a website than a game.

I started designing graphics because I needed it for my web projects. So the design aspect was actually the last thing I was interested in, but I quickly discovered that I’m a better designer than a programmer.

Also, over time, I enjoyed doing design much more and decided that it would be my main profession.

I like my programming background, though. It helps me a lot today.

2.) Now I’d like to specifically get into your days as a freelancer. What are some of the differences from then and now?

The main difference is that now I spend about 80% of my time designing and coding.

The rest of my time is spent on some contact with clients and overall organization of my own work.

The main focus is my profession which I love doing and where I feel very confident.

As a freelancer, designing and coding was about 50% of my time.

I had a lot more contact with clients. I had to estimate all the projects which I hated doing.

It always took me a lot of time and I never felt like I was doing it right.

Probably every freelancer knows that feeling when you’re afraid you’re not charging enough, but on the other hand, you don’t want to lose the client.

Also, even though a typical freelance business is small, it still requires some regular administration tasks that we don’t know about until we actually start the project.

However, the feeling of entrepreneurship, freedom and full responsibility was the greatest feeling I ever had.

3.) As a freelancer, what was the one thing that you found most difficult?

Was customer “acquisition” (aka finding new customers) a big deal, and how did that process work for you?

Did you often generate work from referrals, or was a lot of time spent prospecting for new customers in order to have a consistent flow of work?

To be honest, I’ve never had problems finding clients.

The biggest challenge was to choose those good clients who are not only paying more but who are also moving your freelance business forward. (Editor’s note: Fantastic advice here!)

If there are big names in your portfolio you can expect bigger and better clients next time.

Of course, I made many mistakes in the beginning.

One of the biggest mistakes was taking too many cheap projects only to make some extra money. It is crucial to have a good cash flow, but the progress and development of your business should be put first and foremost.

I started asking myself the question, “will this project help me to grow my business?”, before I took on my next project.

It’s better to spend more time and show off your work on some CSS galleries or take part in some design contests in order to get better clients.

By the way, that’s how I met Brian Gardner. He found me on one of the CSS galleries.

That was an example of a time when I said ‘no’ to a few cheap projects and tried to show off the work I had already done.

4.) What are some tips you have for us from your freelance days?

Specifically, I’d love to hear your strategies on:

  1. Approaching new customers cold: what to say, how to network with new clients
  2. Making sure you get what your owed and general tips on avoiding the “freelancers curse”: getting taken advantage or stiffed for pay
  3. How to stay organized, especially when you find yourself with a new flood of work

Customer contact: I liked keeping a friendly relationship with my clients and avoided too formal meetings.

We often started meetings by talking about families, hobbies and sports.

Try to be the guy whom your client can trust.

It’s better to say you’ll get something done in 2 weeks and surprise your client and do it in 10 days rather than promise to finish something in 5 days and then miss the deadline.

In other words, the strategy is to under-promise and over-deliver.

People just hate it when you don’t keep your promises.

Besides your talent, there are so many valuable skills that your clients are willing to pay a lot of money for, like your organization, integrity, the value of your word, etc.

Avoid getting stiffed: I’m not sure if there is any fool-proof strategy for this (other than to be paid entirely upfront). Mostly you need to trust your gut.

The more experienced you are, the better you can detect those bad clients. I’m fortunate in that I had very few clients who had problems with paying the invoices.

Usually, those who want to negotiate your first quote or have too many “money” questions at the beginning will have more problems paying you later. Make sure the client can afford your services.

Time management: Productivity is definitely important. It’s good to do at least simple project management in order to keep an eye on all your projects.

Try to also schedule the projects with bigger gaps.

You can always fill them in with some of your personal projects instead of having moments when you’re buried with 4-5 projects at the same time.

5.) This one is obligatory for a freelance interview: any horror stories?

I have only one really bad freelance story.

I don’t want to give too many details because I still respect all my clients, even those bad ones.

When I think about it right now, it could be my fault.

Simply, I either underestimated a pretty big and complex project or my client was really smart and took advantage of me.

I didn’t give up and finished the project but I learned my lesson.

I started asking more questions before giving any prices and I was more careful when writing my project proposals.

Doing these things helped me a lot and as a result I was more prepared for the future (much larger) projects.

6.) I’m interested in hearing your design process and some insights on your style.

You’ve addressed the importance of typography on your blog, but what are some other critical elements to a successful site design that you simply must get right?

Working with a lot of clients in the “marketing” space, what are some insights you’ve picked up on designs that convert well?

I learned that all the aesthetic details are not that important like the core of the design, which is a good layout and typography.

It’s very important to keep a good balance of white space, colors and the font styles you use.

There are too many designers who focus on their pixel perfect details but forget about the main principles of a good design.

Most of our clients from the “marketing” space don’t care how “pretty” the website is. They’ll look at the numbers down the road and will determine if the design was good or bad.

It took me a while to learn that the client is always right. Some of the clients try to be designers even if they don’t have any design knowledge or experience.

However, it’s our role to turn their craziest ideas into a good design. That’s the challenge of our job.

Instead of fighting with a client, support all your arguments and design decisions with a good, solid base of knowledge. They’ll appreciate that.

7.) Last but not least, let’s talk about inspiration: where you find inspiration for both your design work and for art/artistic creations in general?

I go through the CSS galleries once in a while and save some of the best designs.

I always make sure to look at their new projects and take some notes.

Dribbble is a great source of inspiration.

Designers usually don’t show a full preview of the projects and it helps to focus on the little things that can inspire you to create something else.

Also, I have a list of my favorite designers:

Besides this, I sketch a lot.

Sometimes my old sketches become a great source of inspiration for new projects.

Thanks for taking the time out today to stop by on the Bidsketch blog my man, I know I always learn a lot chatting with you and I’m sure the readers will too!

Any chance we can get a sneak peak of what projects you are currently working on? Where can people connect with you / follow you for updates?

You can follow me on Dribbble and Twitter at @RafalTomal. I often write and post teasers of what I’m currently working on.

Note from Greg: Rafal is such a humble guy that I’m going to have to be the one to let you know that you MUST checkout Rafal’s personal portfolio as well!

Last but not least, if you’re a web designer looking for an easy and efficient way to create beautiful proposal templates, be sure to check out how Bidsketch can help.

Thanks for stopping by, I’ll see you in the comments!


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by Gregory Ciotti
Gregory Ciotti loves small businesses & startups and gets nerdy about behavioral psychology on his blog Sparring Mind.