How To Get Your First Design Client – Even If You Don’t Know How

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I was recently invited for drinks by a graphic designer friend of mine, deep in the heart of the Sussex countryside. After we ordered our drinks, we chose a sofa next to a window so we could admire the stunning views over the Goodwood Estate.

View of The South Downs, Sussex: The perfect place for like minds to discuss life, love and the universe
View of The South Downs: The perfect place for like minds to discuss life, love and the universe

Our conversation inevitably turned to work. We discussed when you’re learning a new skill why it’s important to hire people who are better than you, at what they do best.

Friend: “So Louise, what are you working on at the moment?
Me: “I’m working on improving the experience design for the website of a leading scientific publisher. Do you want to take a look?” I opened my laptop and showed her the prototype I was working on.
Friend: “That looks great Louise. How did you learn to do that?
Me: “In 2012, a business acquaintance introduced me to a lead user experience consultant who took me under her wing. She helped steer my graphic design career in a brand new direction.”
Friend: “Is that the secret to your success now?”
Me: “Definitely. Learning from someone more experience was easier and faster than trying to figure it out on my own.”
Friend: “It’s funny you should say that!”
Me: “Why??”
Friend: “I had dinner with Richard Branson once, and he said exactly the same thing.”
Me: “Whaaaat! You’re kidding me??!!”
Friend: “Right!? And you know what… I think he wanted me to pitch him”
Me: “Aaaaannnd??”
Friend: “I didn’t… :’-(”
Me: “…”

When I heard those words my heart sank. This pitch would have turned everything around.

The timing was perfect. Virgin Atlantic had recently launched a new route from London to the Caribbean and my friend had recently won the prestigious ‘Observer Travel Award’ for best luxury travel brochure design.

She is at the top of her game.

It got me to thinking, why in the world wouldn’t you want to pitch a multi-billionaire who wanted to hire you?

For instance, what are the phrases you tell yourself, that keep you tip-toeing on the edge of a business breakthrough?

I mean, what if you were in my friend’s shoes? What if you had the chance to pitch Richard Branson?

Could you think of any reason why you shouldn’t sell to him? If so, what would you say to yourself? What might stop you?

On the go? Read this article in your own time… print it out and even add your own notes (PDF file size 525kb) Get your Step-by-Step Guide plus the exact and confidential A4 pitch that earned me my 1st design contract worth $12,500 — without an online portfolio. Download your free PDF 5 Step Guide Here.

Phrases that compromise your instinctive nature

I imagine you’ve at least one of these thoughts before:

  • “I don’t want to push it too much.”
  • “He would never hire me.”
  • “I need more experience.”
  • “I’m just a one-woman-band.”
  • “I’m not confident enough.”

Why do we say things like this?

What these phrases reveal is this: it may not only be Richard Branson you’re afraid of working with. I know you’re thinking it’s easy to give these reasons because he’s a multi-billionaire, but what if the same phrases are stopping you getting work from clients worth £1,000, £10,000 or £100,000?

The amount the contracts are worth may change, but the way you feed your fear won’t. Unless you learn to re-phrase what you tell yourself, you’ll never get more valuable clients.

Most people stay in the same job for years. They watch colleagues get the jobs and contracts that they really want instead

What if you knew that securing the work and contracts everyone wants is not about “being confident enough”…

Now, there’s good news. To retrain your brain and secure the work and contracts you (and everyone else) wants doesn’t have to take months of therapy or preparing yourself to be “more confident”.

Instead, it’s about…

Asking the right questions

Once you know how to ask the right questions, not being bold enough becomes a secondary concern.

Yes, you might be apprehensive about presenting that pitch, sending that email, making that call or attending that meeting, but even if you’re not self-assured you can still come across as professional and get the job.

If you’ve recently started out in graphic design and you’re not feeling positive enough to reach out to potential clients, here are 5 steps to help you become fearless, act professional and get that job, even if your self-belief is waning.

Step 1: Specialise.

What most people do: –

They randomly learn one type of design software without understanding if that software is in demand, or decline.

What they don’t realise is, they risk jeopardising their whole career by not keeping up to date with design technology skills that clients will pay for. For example, when graphic design moved rapidly from print to digital, a whole generation of print designers found themselves out of a job.

What we’ll do: –

We’ll thoroughly investigate the type of design software skills that are profitable today. Then we’ll create a strategy that will allow you to build client relationships, sell your design skills and get paid market rate or more for your work.

What you’ll discover is that by focusing on design skills that are favoured by employers, you’ll instantly increase your hire-ability and earning potential.

Action step: (approx 1 hour)

Go to LinkedIn. In the main search field located at the top of the page type in “graphic designer.” Your goal is to find out what type of graphic design skills are in demand today.

Below is a screen grab of search results for the term “graphic designer” in the London area.

In the left-hand menu, you can filter the results by location, postcode and country.

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Once that’s done, click on each job one by one, and cut and paste the job description into the spreadsheet. For this example, I’ve identified two main categories that graphic design jobs fall under, website and print design.

Here’s an example. Click to view.

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 20.28.00

Now you can clearly see the type of design skills favoured for each category of design. In other words, what type of software design skills potential clients will actually pay you for.

Next up, we’ll take a look at the most powerful skill, beyond a great design portfolio to secure clients… 

Step 2: Building relationships.

What most people do: –

Most designers pray that potential clients will land in their lap without them having to do any relationship building at all. Then, when a potential client get’s in touch out of the blue,  they risk jeopardising the relationship before it’s even got off the ground, by asking the wrong types of questions.

Bad relationship building questions:

  • “If I worked for you, how long would it take for me to get paid?”
  • “Can I work 3 days from home for you?”
  • “What are the benefits of working for you?”
  • “I’m just a one-woman company, does that bother you?”

Asking about money, working from home or your company status shows you care more about your needs than the clients. Starting off with your best foot forward, shows you are keen to put your clients needs first.

Good relationship building questions:

  • “What are you looking for in a graphic designer?”
  • “Do you have any design jobs coming up in the near future?”
  • “Can I give you my details in case you have any design work coming up soon?”

Good questions are OK, but the client could answer them with a “No”, “Not sure right now”  or “I don’t know” and your intention is to remove all doubt from their minds whether to hire you or not.

I’m going to show you the exact questions to ask, to get to magic relationship building status.

What we’ll do:-

We’ll go a local networking event, or we’ll ask a colleague to introduce us to a potential client.  Even if the potential client doesn’t have a design job for you immediately, I’ll show you the exact questions to ask that get you noticed. What happens during the kind relationship building that gets you noticed is, you unearth your engaging powers, making you come across as impressive and memorable. 

On the go UpSkillers? Read this article in your own time… print it out and even add your own notes (PDF file size 525kb) Get your Step-by-Step Guide plus the exact and confidential A4 pitch that earned me my 1st design contract worth $12,500 — without an online portfolio. Download your free PDF 5 Step Guide Here.

Action step:

Book your place at a local business networking event or go to and ask a colleague to introduce you to a potential client. Then, you’ll have the opportunity to practise magic relationship building questions. Magic relationship building questions allow potential clients to comfortably share their vision of their future, with you. Easily.

Magic relationship building questions:

  • “Where’s your focus right now?”
  • “Besides an increase in perceived value, what would you like the outcome of your design or re-design to accomplish?”
  • “I hope you don’t mind me asking, what does success look like for you as far as the design for you on this project goes?”
  • “Oh OK, what’s the thought process around the current design?”
  • “I was wondering if you achieved ‘X” or “Y,” have you thought about how that might look like?”

Magic questions allow you to immediately identify whether the client needs your services or not. 

If you’ve had a positive encounter and the client is keen to hear from you again, the next step is to schedule a catch-up call via phone or Skype to get the design brief.

Step 3. Arrange a call to get the design brief and the budget

Your aim is to get the client to share a detailed design brief and budget with you in the same conversation, either before your chat, via email, or to discuss during your call. The design brief outlines the project status, it defines business and customer needs. It gives you an overview of what the client wants your design work to accomplish.

Knowing the client’s budget allows you to access if the outcome they want is possible against your market rate and their timeframe. So what happens when the client says “but if I share the budget with you, you’ll just tell me that’s what it costs.” To a certain extent, that’s correct.

That’s when you need to know:

  • The exact market rate for your role
  • How long it will take you to do the job
  • How much you need to allow for contingency (things like how many rounds of revisions will be included.)

For that, pointers included in a design brief should be:

  • Background – project status so far
  • Brief – the to-do list
  • Objectives – outcomes (not always, sometimes you have to dig deeper for these).
  • Budget

Below is an example of a real life design brief. The exact details are covered for privacy reasons, but as you can see, it’s very detailed. The client has already identified most of the problem areas, that he wants you to solve.


Below is a fascinating example of a simple design brief written by Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol in 1969.

Example of a design brief sent from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol in 1969
Sent from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol in 1969!

Once you’ve discussed the design brief thoroughly with your potential client, you can start to prepare your A4 pitch snapshot. The A4 pitch is what you’ll prepare once you’ve received the design brief.

What most people do: –

Most designers ask questions during the design brief stage that put the onus on the client to make the design decisions. Then, when the designer goes to a pitch the client , they don’t have the exact requirements needed to deliver the job. The client then thinks they’re unfocused and unsuitable for the role.

But, you may be thinking, “What about clients who don’t know what they want? What do I do then?” If that’s the case, it’s up to you to spring into action and produce three potential design solutions, that allow the client to decide what direction they want you to proceed in.

Here’s an example of questions most designers ask during the design brief meeting:

Bad questions to ask 

  • “How much experience do I need to do this?”
  • “Do you like this typeface?”
  • “What’s your favorite color palette?”
  • “Do you want me to do A or B?”

What we’ll do:-

You’ll get a detailed design brief from the client. The design brief will provide the details you need to be able to do the job and exceed expectation.  When you do this right, you’ll have all the information required for how you’re going to solve the client’s design problem. When you do this right, the client will think you’ve read their mind and the likelihood of you being offered the job is high.

Good questions to ask:

  • “Who is your target audience?”

How they answer this will clearly let you know if they’ve defined it or not, plus you’ll learn more details about the type of audience, if they have one.

  • “What are the dimensions for the posters or flyers?”
  • “What’s your budget and timeline for this project?”

If they avoid questions about the budget, you can always email them about it instead. If after emailing them, if they still can’t share a definite budget with you, it’s going to be hard to work together.

Getting an answer to the budget question (or not as the case may be) allows you to weed out those that can’t pay you market rate. Generally, big companies don’t have a problem paying you market rate or more.

Also, get into a good habit of charging market rate.

That’s because companies have done their homework and know what market rate is. By not charging, at least, the market rate you undermine yourself and that can define how you’re treated by the client in all future dealings with them.

The last thing you want is to find out that a younger graphic design colleague is getting paid a higher rate than you are for doing the same job … just because they asked.

Action step: –

Arrange a call or Skype chat with your potential client, to discuss the design brief. If the client can’t supply a design brief before or during the call, you’ll need to decide if you want to take this project any further. Supplying a detailed brief means, the client has an idea what he wants your design solution to achieve, it’s up to you as a design professional to fill in the blanks for him or her.  

Questions to ask whilst discussing the design brief will give you the details required to write a comprehensive A4 pitch snapshot. A snapshot that shows the client you listened to their requirements and know exactly what they want to be delivered and when.

Magic questions to ask:

  • “Legacy data aside, do you have any recent data to backup the current design?”

Asking potential clients if they have data to validate the current design will allow you to assess where the current design weaknesses are.  

  • “Current design aside, what are your design outcomes for this project?”
  • “I’ve recently completed a project exactly like yours that resulted in an X revenue increase. Would you like to learn more?”
  • “I’ve gathered some design reference for you on X. Did you know that if we did Y, you could achieve Z?”
  • “Short term, what are the deliverables on this project?”
  • “What would you like the outcome of this project to be?”

Once you have details required to take a holistic view of the design brief, you can move onto the next step.

On the go UpSkillers? Read this article in your own time… print it out and even add your own notes (PDF file size 525kb). Get your Step-by-Step Guide plus the exact and confidential A4 pitch that earned me my 1st design contract worth $12,500 — without an online portfolio. Download your free PDF 5 Step Guide Here.

Step 4. Prep your proposal.

What most people do: –

Most people do a bit of research on the company. Then, they make up a design brief based on how they think the client should proceed. They spend hours creating a proposal that doesn’t match the client’s actual needs. The result is a proposal that totally misses the point.

Bad proposal prep:

  • Creating a complete redesign of the client’s website and logo that wasn’t asked for or identified from the project brief.
  • Preparing a pitch in English when the language that is spoken in the client’s office is German.
  • Including your daily rate in the proposal if it wasn’t agreed upon or if the budget wasn’t shared during the project brief.

Good proposal prep:

  • Preparing an overview of the current design and how it could be improved (if that’s what was included in the brief: “improved  or re-design”).
  • Preparing an outline of how you would work together.
  • Including any time, you may not be available to work on the project.

On an A4 sheet of paper we’ll break out the design project into 3 phases:

  1. Discovery phase – the research phase
  2. Design phase – the sketch phase
  3. Development/Production phase- the execution and delivery phase

These 3 phases will provide the structure for your A4 pitch proposal. Next to each phase include a timeline, deliverable and cost based on the client’s budget.

What we’ll do: –

We’ll cut and paste the design brief to an A4 sheet of paper in Word or Google docs. In the introduction, we’ll summarise the design brief findings. Then we’ll add the 3 phases into the A4pitch snapshot. Then, we’ll add the tasks associated with achieving each phase, and the timeline for completing each phase. We’ll do it this way so that the client will have an A4 project snapshot to refer to during your pitch meeting with the client.

Action Step:-

You’ll create the A4 pitch based on the instructions above. You’ll create 3 examples or case studies of design work that how you’ve solved a similar problem for a previous client. As for most of you, this will be your first client, I suggest doing 3 pieces of pro-bono to show you mean business, based on your specialised design skills defined in Step 1.

Below are some examples of what you can do to create a winning proposal.

Magic proposal prep:

  • Create 2 or 3 examples of case studies of design work you did in a previous role that relates to the clients design brief, that exceeded expectation.
  • Host your case studies online or in Dropbox so you can share a link to the case studies folder with the client.
  • Stating your strengths and 3 reasons why you would be a good fit for the clients design team (if they have one). 

Here’s one way you could do that:

Once you have prepped your A4 pitch proposal and double checked it against the brief, you could email it to the client. The client would usually expect to receive it within 24 hours of your catch-up call.  Or if you would like more impact, you can present it during the actual pitch meeting. It’s up to you, both ways are acceptable.


Mike Tyson Quote
Mike Tyson Quote Print by Designer, Mike Monteiro. For Sale at

Step 5. The pitch.

Once I showed up to a design pitch with my 1YO old daughter because my babysitter was ill. Luckily my client at the time (my graphic designer friend above) was super sympathetic, but if you want to make a good impression, I don’t recommend it.

Other examples of hiccups to avoid when pitching are: arriving with a Dominos cheese crust pizza or coffee from Starbucks :S Yes, I’ve seen this happen. Arriving with food makes it look like you’ve shown up for an unplanned lunch meeting, it shows a lack of respect for your client’s needs.

Arriving with weekend luggage, unkempt hair, hungover, smelling of heavy perfume or aftershave, dirty nails, suffering from a heavy cold or completely hyper from drinking too much coffee is also not very client friendly.  

Learning by failing at the pitch stage became a powerful motivator for me to learn how to get it right next time. Sometimes you can’t afford to fail.

I want to help you avoid some of the pitfalls that are so obvious now, but at the time so consumed I was with my needs, I hardly noticed the clients needs at all.

Now, it’s not that you can’t turn pitch disasters around – you can and I’ll show you how, but you don’t want to waste a client’s time. Be there to align your skills with their needs, to make your pitch meeting as valuable as possible.

Get your 5 Step Guide plus the exact and confidential A4 pitch that earned me my 1st design contract worth $12,500 — without an online portfolio. Download your free PDF 5 Step Guide Here. Because if you’re like me, you may want to read it in your own time, print it out, add your own notes, or even read it on the go… (file size 525kb)

What most people do: –

Most people arrive unprepared for the pitch meeting. When they do this, the client thinks you’re are disorganised, unprepared at worst, wasting their time. What you don’t realise is that it could jeopardise your future career. The technology design industry in London is quite small, especially amongst the best companies, you can’t risk being unprepared if you want to maintain a great reputation.

Examples of bad pitching

  • Shaking the client’s hand and saying “Nice to meet you, James.” When the client’s name is Chris.
  • Interrupting the client’s introductory talk about the company with questions.
  • Presenting a pitch based on your own bias, not the clients need.
  • Not presenting an A4 pitch snapshot of how you’ll work together.

Examples of good pitching

  • Arriving on time.
  • Having your A4 pitch and case studies ready to present.
  • Looking your best

What we’ll do: –

We’ll make sure you have a printed A4 copy of the pitch ready in your laptop case. We’ll do this because after you’ve run through your 3 case studies and how they relate to the job in hand, you’ll present the A4 pitch to them. When you do this, the conversation will be about what you can do for the client and when you can start.

Action step:-

You’ll print out: an A4 copy of your pitch, a one page CV (optional) and the client’s original design brief. You’ll have 3 case studies ready to show the client in either powerpoint or hosted on WordPress, accessible and open in the order you want to show them, from your laptop computer.

Examples of magic pitching:

  • Arriving 10 minutes early.

You’ll arrive early, but you’ll only let the client know you’re there 10 minutes before the appointment. Arriving early but, not too early shows you are punctual, reliable and most importantly that you respect the client’s time.

If this is your first pitch, get 3 pro bono case studies together to show initiative.

  • Securing your WiFi and password from reception when you arrive and log in.
  • Remembering the client’s name.
  • Having your pitch open on your laptop, ready to run through.

You’ll have 2 or 3 examples of work ready to show them that’s relevant to the project brief. You’ll also show them how your work improved X, Y, and Z metrics.

  • Having your project questions ready.
  • Having your market rate ready to share with the client, based on actual research.


Once you know how to ask for what you want, your entire life can change:

  • You can stop living hand to mouth.
  • You can afford to buy that new car.
  • You can afford to take the kids on holiday whenever you want to.

Knowing how to ask for it is the magic ingredient to accelerate your successful career in design.

 Here’s a quick summary of what I’d like you to do next:

    • Step 1: Specialise in a specific area of design, whether it’s print, web or UX – choose one and dive in.
    • Step 2: Build relationships, reach out to potential clients practice asking magic questions.
    • Step 3. Practice asking for a design brief, if the client doesn’t know what that is – decide if that’s the client for you, or not.
    • Step 4. Prep your proposal.
    • Step 5. Create your Pitch.

Made it all the way to the end of this article?

Congratulations… phew. I know this is an intense post. It’s a lot to take in all at once, especially if you’re just starting out. And I don’t want you to rush through it. As thank you for reading this all the way to the end, I’ve already prepared a PDF download for you,Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 14.07.58 because if you’re like me, you may want to print it out and add your own notes, or even read it on the go…

I’ve actually taken it a stage further for you, and broken it down into a 5 part email series to show exactly how to implement each step, including the pitch that got me my first design client worth $12,500 a month. Where shall I send it to?


5 thoughts on “How To Get Your First Design Client – Even If You Don’t Know How”

    1. Hi @Sal – Thanks for your comment, I’ve saved the 5 Step Guide as a PDF for you to download and read in your own time. I hope that helps you digest what you need. Thanks again, Louise

  1. The A4 pitch document is very clear. I like the way you talk about stuff no one else does. I can’t any info like this online and I’m way too embarrassed to ask my what my colleagues earn. Thanks for this!!

    1. I’m so glad you found it helpful Emily, is there anything else you would like to know that I haven’t covered yet?

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