How to Become a Digital Nomad Graphic Designer in 2021

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This guest post was written by Tara Whelan, a traveling graphic designer living the “laptop lifestyle”.

Do you want a job that allows you to travel the world

A job that you can bring with you to the beach, mountains, or jungle?

A job that gives you complete control over schedule? 

If you are a creative person, graphic design can be your ticket to a flexible and rewarding lifestyle career.

The trick is learning how to become a digital nomad graphic designer from scratch.

For the past 6 years, I have been freelancing as a graphic designer—living in three countries and visiting many more.

I’ve done this all without taking time off from my day job. 

And the kicker?

I had never worked as a graphic designer before.

Becoming a traveling graphic designer isn’t as hard as it sounds, and it can give you the travel freedom you’re looking for.

Here’s my story and how you can follow in my footsteps to live a creative nomadic life. 

Interested in starting a travel lifestyle? Here’s the internet’s most comprehensive guide on how to become a digital nomad with no experience.

What does a remote graphic designer do?

Graphic design is a very broad category of design that includes all types of creative digital visual works. 

Graphic designers usually use Adobe Creative Suite or similar design software to build eye-catching creatives.

People often think that you have to be good at drawing, but that is not necessarily true. You just need a good eye for color, scale, balance, and detail.

Graphic design can include a wide range of outputs. You can specialize in:

  • Branding (e.g., creating logos and labels for products)
  • Marketing materials (e.g., posters, brochures, illustrations, and infographics for social media)
  • Corporate material (e.g., PowerPoint presentations, annual reports, etc.)

The list goes on and on.

graphic showing different types of graphic design projects
As you can see, Mitch’s graphic design skills can use some work 🙂

Niching down and becoming an expert in one area will allow you to charge more, but it’s not absolutely necessary. I’m still finding my niche and enjoy mixing it up with a variety of different projects.

In addition to everything listed above, I’ve also designed a website, custom lettering projects, and even a surface pattern for clothing!

As soon as you have the skills, you really can create anything your clients ask for.

What does a day in the life of a traveling graphic designer look like?

Many people often forget that working remotely still means working. 

Yes, I have the freedom to travel whenever I want, but I still spend most of my day on my laptop. (By the way, a good digital nomad laptop is essential!)

My schedule usually depends on:

  1. My project deadlines
  2. The travel plans I have

Sometimes, I hustle to work ahead so I can take time off to completely disconnect (like for a road trip through Italy).

traveling graphic designer on a road trip looking in her car mirror
Road trippin’ through Italy

So far, my favorite pace is to move somewhere for a few months. This let’s me get into a productive work routine while still giving me time to explore.

Here’s my typical work day as a digital nomad graphic designer:

  • I wake up and do some stretching somewhere near the sea
  • Grab a local coffee and snack (a pastizzi is one of my favs)
  • Head to a cozy cafe to knock out a few hours of work on my laptop
  • Take a lunch break and go for a stroll
  • Head home to work for a few more hours if I have to make any video calls
  • Go for a run and meet friends for a drink. 

Notice my days aren’t full of tours and exploring or late nights partying. 

I am still a responsible professional, and not on a gap year backpacking trip. 

The part I love about traveling this way is that I feel more like a local. I spend a few days getting to know my surroundings, researching nice cafes and yoga spots, or finding local meetup groups with similar interests. 

From there, I set down roots, build friendships, and immerse myself in the culture.

I take weekends off to venture outside my neighborhood, explore the surrounding areas, and maintain a healthy work-life balance. 

One of my favorite digital nomad productivity hacks is to work like crazy on rainy days. That way, have extra time to learn sailing, go snowboarding, or do other fun stuff when the weather is nice.

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How to become a digital nomad graphic designer

working as a digital nomad graphic designer from the side of a pool
My favorite type of office <3

Just like in any field, it is good to gain as much experience as possible in your expertise before doing it solo and working for yourself. 

The more experience you have as a graphic designer, the more money you will make. 

It is also easier to get clients once you have been working with a firm, or have a network of people that see you as a professional.

That said, you have to start somewhere. 

I started freelancing while still working my day job. I would ask friends and family if they needed any logos or wedding invites or anything so that I could build a portfolio and practice my skills. 

Then when I did quit my day job, I took on other part-time, seasonal, or one-off jobs to help supplement my graphic design work as I gained more experience and more clients. 

My background is in architecture, which has a design element. But you certainly don’t need to have a degree in a creative field to be a nomadic graphic designer. 

Graphic design is an easy skill to learn—the hard part is landing clients (but we’ll get to that in a sec).

I began building my portfolio by offering design services very cheap or in exchange for something (like a free yoga retreat or hotel stay). 

It took me two years before I was confident enough to go full-time—and even then, I had savings and some backup gigs. 

But it worked out!

The more projects I took on, the more people saw my work, and I slowly built a network of returning clients.

How to get good at graphic design

graphic design lettering example

If you are starting from scratch, the first thing to do is learn Adobe Creative Suite. Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator are the basics, and Premiere if you want to do video (which is a huge growing market). 

To learn these programs, you will be doing small projects that automatically build your portfolio. There are tons of online courses to help you learn, I often used Skillshare and Lynda when I needed to up a specific skill. 

If you’re on a tight budget, you can even sign up for a free trial of Skillshare and take a bunch of design courses before your trial ends.

Once you have a few sample projects to show people, you need to arrange a portfolio. 

Rather than setting up a website or sending large PDF documents by email, the easiest way is to simply create a dedicated Instagram account to show your work. 

Don’t be concerned about how professional it looks at the beginning. As you create more and better work, it will improve.

The best tip for people wanting to learn graphic design is to just start. 

Start drawing, start experimenting, and document your work. 

People love to see in-progress images of how you came up with a certain idea for a logo or illustration. 

Building an Instagram page to show off your work kills two birds with one stone. It helps you discover your talents while simultaneously attracting followers and potential clients.

This video is full of gold nuggets on how to build an awesome Instagram portfolio:

How to find remote graphic design jobs

working from laptop with view of the mountains

Learning the skills is the easy part. It’s finding freelance work that is more difficult. 

I have never worked as a remote graphic designer for a company so I can’t say how that lifestyle compares to working for yourself. 

However, I do know that finding clients can be challenging—especially if you’re already traveling and don’t have a network. 

You will always have more success finding clients by asking the people around you. 

As soon as I started my Instagram account (that started off with just doing lettering), lots of friends contacted me to make small signs, logos, or invites that they wouldn’t know how else to do. 

Now, a few years later, I still work mostly with people I know or who have found me word-of-mouth. I always make sure to do top-notch work. When clients are happy, they come back whenever they need more graphic work done, and they’re happy to spread the word to their friends.

In addition to contacting friends and family, your local community is also a good place to start putting your name out. 

You don’t have to make business cards or set up a website, just make a list of places that you think could use your help. 

Maybe that’s a local cafe or restaurant that needs a new menu (or an English menu if you are abroad) or a local charity whose fundraiser could use some fun posters. 

Go meet people and offer your services—maybe for free or at a discounted rate the first time—so that they are eager to work with you.

Other than your immediate network or community, I have also tried Fiverr and Upwork to find small jobs. 

It is more competitive and sometimes you have to do the work in advance, but either way, you are growing your portfolio, building your skills, and learning to pitch ideas to clients. 

Oftentimes these jobs require recurring work, so it is a good place to start even if the immediate project doesn’t look that rewarding.

How much do graphic designers earn?

As graphic design is a broad field, so is the pay scale. The more experience you have and the more specialized skills you have, the more you can make. 

Working in a management position at a large design company will be the most lucrative, but working for yourself is more flexible and can still bring in a comfortable salary.

graph comparing stability and flexibility for freelancers vs remote workers
Aww, look at Mitch’s cute attempt at design. It’s…unique!

In addition to pure graphic design, you can combine your job with any other skills you might already have, like social media management, video editing, or web design. If you can add graphic design skills to these jobs, your salary will improve, and you can attract a more specific kind of client.

Starting as an in-house graphic designer and transitioning to a remote position would be the ideal trajectory. 

However this may take some time to build up trust with your employer. And for certain positions, you might be restricted to certain time zones. 

Finding a recurring freelance graphic design job is a more flexible (and more stable than one-off gigs). 

For example, you might find a company that needs social media infographics each week or the design of a monthly newsletter. These are good ways to start working remotely while attracting more clients. 

When I first began freelancing I only did one job a month. Now I’m at 5-6 jobs a month, some of which are complex and time-consuming. 

When starting out, I aimed for 1000 Euros/month. This was more than enough for me because I had savings, some backup jobs, and lived in very cheap countries. 

Nowadays, I make more than that working just 25 hours per week. I make plenty to cover all my travel and living costs. And most importantly, I actually have the time to travel and enjoy each destination.

That said, there is still plenty of room to grow. And as I gain more experience and attract bigger clients, it will grow.

I really enjoy the lifestyle of working for myself rather than a remote position in a company. It gives me more control over which clients I work with and the work I get to do.

So, whether you want a full-time income or are just looking for ways to earn an extra $50 a day online as you travel, freelance graphic design can get you there. (Just make sure you use a good digital nomad bank so your earning don’t get eaten up with fees)!

What other advice do you have for someone who wants to become a nomadic designer?

remote graphic desinger laying in hammock overlooking the river

It’s difficult knowing how to charge for your work. Asking for money makes me feel icky, so I used to undervalue myself and lower the fee, especially when working for friends.

This is a bad idea. And I’ve learned some tricks to avoid it.

First, I try to not give any discounts. Discounts make it difficult to charge more at a later date. Plus, people simply won’t take you seriously if you’re a pushover with your prices. You need to treat yourself as a professional with a valuable service to offer.

If I do give a discount or work for free, it would be for a one-time event or charity. In these cases, I clearly state my regular fees so they know that this is a deal and I am donating my time. 

It is also difficult to know whether to charge per project or per hour. 

In the beginning, it was hard to estimate how long a project would take, so I would set a base price and add on any extra design revisions. For some projects, I still do this. But more often than not, I now charge by the hour so that the client values my time.

Overall, graphic design is a great way to travel the world while working. It may be tricky to land those very first clients, but if you want to do something creative and have the freedom to work from anywhere, it’s totally worth it!

Mitch's Travel Recommendations:
Safetywing Insurance - This cheap travel insurance has saved me over $15,000 in medical bills.
Booking.com - Book accommodation without adding your credit card (in case you need to cancel).
Skyscanner - Find cheap flights.
Trusted House Sitters - Take care of pets in exchange for free (sometimes luxury) accommodation.
Flexjobs - Find remote jobs without having to sift through crappy ones.
Skillshare - Free trial to take unlimited classes that teach digital nomad skills.
Anytime Mailbox - Virtual mail service that can handle your mail while you’re away.
Wise - Send and receive money abroad cheaply (great for freelancers).

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