Who needs graphic designers?
Most design agencies at some time or another will need to hire freelancers or contract out certain pieces of work. Sometimes agencies will hire in freelancers to free-up the in-house design team so they can concentrate on a certain client, campaign or project.
This inevitably means that you'll probably be working on projects that aren't particularly interesting at first, but don't worry about that as it's invaluable experience - you'll see how an agency works. Use the time to learn from the inside: what the different roles entail, how different departments work together as a project travels from account management to the creatives to production etc. If you do a good job, chances are they'll get you back in again. If they get you back in three or four times, you're in!
Building a varied portfolio will also require you to approach companies direct. Corporate ID work, annual reports, company brochures - not every company has the sort of budget agencies eat into. Your contact with these prospects needs to be ongoing - you obviously need to ensure you are talking to a decision maker in the first instance, but that person may not have a project ready at your first time of call. Use the contact to establish likely future projects - what design projects do they handle in house? When would be a good time to call back to see if those projects are about to come into fruition? So long as you differentiate between staying in touch and stalking, hopefully some of these clients will eventually invite you in so you can demonstrate your credentials when they do have a project ready for you. Better still, try to get to know a couple of small things about that person - if they are about to go on holiday when you call, make a note so that next time you can ask if they had a good time. It will help build a rapport which companies need to feel they have with an outside supplier.
Specialising in a certain sector can bring rewards. I've done work for record companies and theatre companies so I'm well known locally as someone who has experience in the music and arts arena. There are pros and cons in specialising in a certain sector - sometimes it can boil down to whether you are in it solely for the money or developing your experience within that arena.
Always make sure you have business cards to hand with contact details and website URL, not just when you're going about your business but anytime. You never know who you might run into.
Nick Welsh - bespoke design for print and the internet Mono Industries
More on graphic designing as a freelancer.