How to Find a Great and Affordable Graphic Designer Using Upwork

Arthur Gladwell
Writers’ Blokke
Published in
8 min readNov 13, 2020

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A step-by-step process to hire an illustrator or graphic designer on Upwork that does not suck or break the bank

Photo by Alexander Schimmeck -Unsplash

👉 This article is for anyone looking to hire an illustrator or graphic designer for a book cover, a children’s book, a marketing campaign or for your tshirt business. Although I use Upwork to hire designers for my print-on-demand (POD) business, you can use the same process for any job that requires an illustration or graphic design.

Who am I?

I’ve been selling POD designs on Etsy, Merch by Amazon, Redbubble and other POD platforms for several years. It’s still a side hustle, mainly because I still need a good health insurance for myself and family. I consider myself a tshirt entrepreneur, and not a tshirt designer simply because my design skills are rudimentary. My 5-year old daughter can run — or draw— circles around me when it comes to creativity.

I do have however an eye for good design, what colors go well together and what fonts look good on a tshirt. I also know how to use Upwork to find great illustrators and designers at an affordable rate. Affordable is the operative word.

Let me tell you why I use Upwork and share with you my process to find great designers.

Why Upwork?

I’ve tried different services over the years, like Fiverr and Freelancer. I finally settled on Upwork because of the quality and quantity of great designers on the platform, the clean user interface and the ability to filter results on a number of key variables.

I work on a regular basis with two illustrators and one graphic designer through Upwork. Occasionally the artwork I get from the illustrator is good enough to be uploaded straight onto the POD platform. Most of the time however my graphic designer takes the illustration I commissioned from my illustrator and adds typography and other visual elements to kick it up a notch. For example, I commissioned an illustration around the theme of democracy and street protests in Venezuela in January 2019. I gave my Italian illustrator an image from the New York Times as inspiration. He draw the illustration (left). My Filipino graphic designer then added text and other visual elements (right).

Original Illustration (left), and with the added text and visual elements (right)

Hundreds of amazing illustrators offer their services on Upwork. But in my business, it’s hard to predict which designs will sell, and which ones will bomb. The 80/20 rule applies : I get 80% of my revenue from 20% of my designs, although in reality it’s closer to 90/10.

Since 9 out of 10 designs don’t sell, I can’t afford to spend too much on a single design. I filter out designers from the United States or Western Europe because their rates are out of my budget. Mind you, I think those guys (and gals) are amazing and should be paid handsomely for their work but personally I could not break even if I had to pay over $50 for a single design.

Side note: If you’re designing a book cover, then spending a few hundred dollars makes more sense.

This step-by-step process will show you how to find talented designers that charge $5 to $10 per design.

The $5–10 range is because I pay my designers according to the complexity of the design. If a design requires a lot of colors, multiple design elements (like several cartoon characters), then I’ll pay them $10–15. By the same token, if I ask for simple variation on a design, the rate goes down to $2–3 per design.

The first thing is to create a free account on Upwork and post your first job. Upwork makes money by taking a commission (around 20%) on each payment you make to the freelancer. If you pay them $10 for a job, they’ll get $8.

The job listing has 7 sections: Title, Description, Details, Expertise, Location, Visibility, and Budget

  1. 🟠 Title and category: This is an example of a recent job listing:

Looking for Kawaii Style Illustration of Piano Lifting Weights for Tshirt Design

Note that I am specifying the genre of illustration (Kawaii), the topic (Piano), and what the end product is (Tshirt).

Within the same section, you can check off “Illustration” or “Cartoonist” for job category.

2. 🟠 Description: This is the full description I wrote for the same job.

I am looking to find for this project an illustrator to draw Kawaii style illustration of a piano lifting weights: for ref, this the style I want:

https://www.threadless.com/@Naolito or
https://obinsun.threadless.com/

Please ONLY apply if you can match this style and if you have designs already in your portfolio that match this type of art. I can pay $5 per design and will give profit sharing bonuses for successful designs as well as end of year bonuses. You will get detailed instructions. I will use Google sheet to track our work for two-way feedback/questions.

The first design is a piano lifting weights. The piano’s expression: he is “grunting”, maybe there are little beads of sweats to show that he is exercising. The words (which I will add) will be: “Piano Forte”.

Thanks! and I look forward to seeing your submission.

I added a little sketch I drew on a notepad as a reference:

3. 🟠 Details. Select “One-time project” and add an optional screening question (I don’t). Note that the cover letter is your first contact with the freelancer. You’ll notice right away if they’ve actually read your creative brief, or are just sending a form letter they send to everybody.

4. 🟠 Expertise. For this particular job, I selected “Cartoon” , “Adobe Illustrator” and “Illustration”. For level of experience, I select “Intermediate”.

5. 🟠 Location. Select “Worldwide”. You have the option of selecting preferred regions and countries. If you speak Spanish, you might want to consider designers from Latin America, in which case their level of English fluency is less of a factor in your hiring decision.

6. 🟠 Visibility. I usually select “only Upwork talent”. Pick “Anyone” option only if you want your job to come up in public search engines. In the next field, I click on “One freelancer”.

Talent Preferences. Although this is an option, make sure you fill this out. Here’s a screenshot of the settings I use.

Upwork — Talent Preferences

a. Talent type: I prefer to deal with independent designers rather than agencies who might take an additional commission from the freelancer.
b. Job Success score. I pick 90% and up for job success, as most reviews tend to be generous with their feedback and inflate this metric.
c. Amount Earned. I select $100 as I want someone who has a proven record, even if it’s just $100.
d. English Level. I need to be able to communicate concepts and ideas to the designer. Of course, when you start messaging back and forth with the designer, you’ll get a better sense of his/her English comprehension skills.

7. 🟠 Budget. I pay a fixed price, and select the minimum ($5). Make sure you pay every designer for their design, even if they offer to do a “free” test. You’ll get better results, and no one should work for free.

What’s next?

You’ll soon get A LOT of folks applying for your job. Keep in mind that some applicants will not necessarily match the criteria you asked for. You can use the “thumbs down” to remove anyone from the list of applicants that does not meet the basic criteria. Maybe their bid is way over your budget, or they have zero earnings. Or if they have some earnings, it’s not for graphic design jobs. For those that do meet your basic criteria, review their cover letter, but most importantly take a look at their portfolio.

Ideally, you will find a design in their portfolio that sort of matches the esthetic sensibility and style you’re going for. Some of them have external links to their portfolio on sites like Behance.net or Dribbble.com that will give a better gauge of their style and range.

In addition to reviewing offers from folks applying to your job, I also encourage you to search and invite freelancers using the search box at the top of the page and apply the same filters (see screenshot below) you used in your job listing. Invite those that match your job criteria and have good designs in their portfolio. Upwork lets you invite up to 15 freelancers under their free plan.

Filter options with search results

Hire three or four designers for this job. This will allow you to compare apples to apples since they’re all working off the same instructions. The comparison is not only for the design itself, but for their response time, how well they understand English, and how much feedback you need to provide to get a good result.

Although I’ve worked with designers from all over the world, I’ve found that I prefer to work with designers from the Philippines: their English is usually good enough to be able to communicate complex concepts, and helps you avoid any misunderstanding. Their design skills are above average and of course, because of the lower salaries, they tend to demand less than their US counterparts.

Lastly, if you missed it, I include this bit in the job description:

(…) will give profit sharing bonuses for successful designs and end of year bonuses.

Be kind and fair to your designers. If one of your designs sells thousands of dollars, it’s only fair that they should receive some of that windfall.

Good luck in finding some amazing designers for your project! I would love to hear if you’ve used these tips to find great designers on Upwork.

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Arthur Gladwell
Writers’ Blokke

Arthur Gladwell writes about art, entrepreneurship and food.