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Graphic design is an evolving field and, thanks to the rise of online marketing, it’s in high demand. If you have graphic design skills, some knowledge of technology, and a bit of creativity, a career in graphic design could be for you. But rather than working for an agency, you could start your own graphic design business, build up a client roster, and enjoy a career that you’re completely in charge of. 

Business Overview

Graphic design businesses provide design services to businesses, publishers, nonprofits, and more. Design businesses can be as small as a single designer, or as large as an agency with dozens of designers on staff. These businesses often balance many clients with many individual projects at a time, and a single project may involve multiple meetings to discuss brainstorming, pin down an idea, assess rough drafts, and refine the design into a finished product. While initial sketches may be made by hand on paper, design businesses today work almost entirely digitally. 

Industry summary

The graphic design industry has undergone significant growth from 2014 to 2019, according to IBIS World. With increased profits, corporations are investing more in advertising, which resulted in a projected 2.7 percent growth in the graphic design industry in 2019, alone. In 2019, the graphic design industry should bring in a total of $14.8 billion. Thanks to this growth, more design businesses have been established, with 16,823 graphic design businesses in existence. The industry’s employment rate has also grown to 58,457. 

Because graphic designers often work for corporate advertisements, like designing catalogs, direct mail pieces, and sales publications, the graphic design industry fluctuates as corporate spending on advertisement creation fluctuates. With corporate spending on advertising expected to increase in 2019, we should see a similar increase in the graphic design industry, too. Small businesses also make up a significant portion of revenues through logo design, business cards, flyers and more. 

Industry trends

The graphic design industry continues to rapidly evolve, and today’s industry is vastly different from the industry just a decade or two ago. According to Forbes, as technology gives businesses the ability to interact with their customers online, this transformation has led to an increased demand for graphic design materials that facilitate customer communication. 

The increased use of content marketing means that companies rely on graphic designers to create content, such as website headers, infographics, and other visuals, to enhance content. Many companies now use A/B testing to gauge how to get the best results from a piece of advertising or content, meaning that designers may be called on to produce multiple designs for these tests. 

Evolving technology has also led to changes in the graphic designer’s lifestyle. Graphic design software is now accessible through not only laptops, but also tablets and phones, giving designers the ability to be more mobile. Companies are increasingly hiring freelancers and contractors in place of full-time in-house graphic designers, leading to plenty of opportunities for graphic design businesses, agencies, and independent freelancers. 

Who is the target market for your graphic design business?

The target market for any graphic design business will depend on the business’ design style and areas of specialization. Some designers will specialize in one aspect of marketing, such as creating direct mail pieces, while others take a broader approach and offer a particular style that can be applied to a variety of materials. 

In most cases, a graphic design business’ target market will consist of various businesses, but there’s also a market for designers who work with nonprofits, publishers, independent authors looking for book cover designers, and more. A graphic design business’ prices can help to define its target market, with some companies willing to work with smaller businesses while others may target only higher businesses with large projects and large budgets. 

Skills, experience, and education useful in running a graphic design business

Starting a graphic design business doesn’t require a business degree, but certain skills and education can help to make a business a success. 

Graphic design experience. It goes without saying, but graphic design skills are an absolute must when starting a design business. While these skills can be self-taught, a degree in graphic design can help to prepare a business owner for the multiple challenges they’ll face in owning a business, from providing customer service to marketing their services. 

Creativity. The graphic design field is highly competitive. Creativity in their design work and their marketing for their own business will help design business owners to stand out from their competitors. 

Technology skills. Design businesses are dependent on technology, which means a business owner needs to be skilled at using different types of technology and design programs. Troubleshooting technological issues will certainly be a required skill, and the ability to troubleshoot some more minor issues can save businesses tech support and repair expenses. 

Management experience. The ability to hire, train, and manage employees is important for any design business owner who plans to have staff. 

Organizational skills. Graphic design businesses typically balance multiple projects with multiple clients, all with different deadlines and many different components. Organizational skills are necessary to keep projects progressing forward and to ensure that deadlines are met. 

Financial Overview

The specific startup costs of a graphic design business will vary according to a number of factors, such as if you’re starting the business with yourself as the only designer or if you plan to hire multiple designers and need to lease office space and acquire additional computers and other technology for each designer. Starting a graphic design business can be accomplished for as little as $2,000 on the smaller scale, while larger businesses with staff and an office can cost as much as $60,000 to launch. 

Common startup costs for a graphic design business include: 

  • Lease and any necessary renovations to an office space
  • Computers, printers, scanners, and other equipment
  • Design programs 
  • Desks, chairs, and workstations for each designer
  • Office signage

These startup costs will vary according to the number of staff, the types of computers, and the types of design programs needed. 

Working capital

A graphic design business depends on working capital in order to operate. Working capital helps to fund monthly expenses, like monthly design program subscriptions or the purchase of new computer equipment. Without enough working capital, a business can’t purchase the elements it needs to function, which can make it difficult to stay in operation. 

Insurance

Budget for multiple types of insurance to keep a design business fully protected. 

  • General liability insurance helps to cover expenses like medical bills or lawsuit expenses if a client is ever injured while in the business’ office. 
  • Professional liability insurance offers additional coverage that protects a business if it is ever sued for causing financial harm to a client through omissions, negligence, copyright infringement, and other potential issues. 
  • Commercial property insurance helps to cover an office and the equipment contained within it if an event like a fire or flood damages the property. 
  • Workers comp insurance covers expenses like an employee’s lost wages or medical bills if they’re ever injured while at work. 

If you anticipate using a home office for your business, you may want to invest in in-home or home office insurance, which offers both business property and liability coverage. Most traditional home insurance policies will not cover expenses related to a home-based business. 

Insurance policy costs will depend on many factors, from the location of an office to the value of the equipment that the office contains. To find the best policy for a business, request quotes from multiple insurance companies. Then, compare the coverage while paying attention to factors such as deductibles, coverage limits, and policy exclusions. 

Common operational expenses

Besides the above startup expenses, budget for the following operational expenses that apply to most graphic design businesses. 

Lease 

The cost of an office lease will depend on factors such as the office size and location. Offices that are in busy areas typically cost more, but they may have perks like access to parking garages and easy accessibility for clients. 

Employees

As a business grows and gains more clients, additional staff may be needed to keep up with the work. According to PayScale, graphic designers earn an average salary of $46,278, but they can earn as little as $31,000 and as much as $73,000. Salaries fluctuate depending on geographic location and a designer’s experience level and talent. 

In addition to budgeting for salaries, there are additional expenses associated with having employees such as paid time off, contributions to health insurance and unemployment insurance, and the cost of workman’s compensation insurance. 

Marketing

As the owner of a graphic design business, you can perform most of your company’s marketing on your own in order to keep expenses down. Expect to focus on marketing efforts like developing a professional portfolio, exploring print and online advertising, and creating brochures and other printed materials for clients who visit the business in person. 

Licenses & Permits  

Different states and towns have different licensing and permitting requirements for owning a graphic design business. Check with your local town hall to identify licenses and permits that are required before you start your business.

How much can you potentially make owning a graphic design business?

Data is not currently available on the annual income of graphic design businesses, but the industry continues to grow and evolve, meaning that a well-planned business could bring in significant income. Your profits will depend on the years that your business has been in operation, as well as the number of designers it employs. Graphic design businesses that target large corporations with significant project budgets will usually make higher profits than businesses that target smaller projects with smaller budgets. 

Things to consider before starting a graphic design business

Starting a graphic design business requires a comprehensive set of skills that goes beyond pure graphic design capabilities. Learning how to find the right clients for your business, how to price your work appropriately, and how to develop relationships with clients that allow you to do your best work all takes time. 

The advantage of going into graphic design is that you can open a business with yourself as the only employee and build from there. This arrangement means that your business can operate on less income than would be needed with multiple employees, and because you won’t need to lease an office space, it can be a money-saving option that gives you time to grow. 

When it comes to graphic design, one of the best strategies you can have is to develop your own unique design aesthetic. Once you establish this aesthetic, it will be easier to identify your ideal clients and command higher pricing for your work. 

Resources

American Institute of Graphic Arts
Design Management Institute
The Graphic Artists Guild
Society for Experiential Graphic Design
Society of Publication Designers

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