Q: Where to get Photoshop for free?
A: You can use a peer-to-peer (P2P) software service or a bit torrent software to download and/or capture an illegal version of Photoshop. I do not advocate this, because it is ILLEGAL and punishable, and I believe that good products are worth their purchasing prices. Photoshop is one of them: When you can make anywhere from $100 to $10,000 on a single design, the $700 price tag of Photoshop CS4 really isn't bad at all.
It's a steal!
Of course, you can also try Photoshop free for 30 days, opt for the less expensive Photoshop Elements, or even use basic Photoshop technology free at Photoshop.com, a software-as-a-service application that I believe is the foundation for the next generation of Photoshop software.
Don't steal it. Buy it, use it and profit from it legitimately. It's the American way.
Q: How much should I charge for design services?
A: Whatever you're worth. If you're asking this question, you're a freelancer and probably a newbie at that. You need a portfolio under your belt before you'll be taken seriously and so your stock is low. Do some jobs on the cheap to build a portfolio (I've discussed picking a niche and cranking out 100 designs in 100 days before – link to this), something you can actually do incredibly fast, and your stock goes up exponentially.
Ultimately, you have to consider where you want your business to go. Many, many freelance designers make the mistake of budgeting for their time as though an employee. If you want to work your whole life as an employee and not as a business owner, you can go ahead and make this mistake as well. But if you want to own a business, then you need to base your hourly rate on things such as the costs to hire an employee, the cost to market your services, your physical and digital overhead, your insurances and, last but not least, your profit margin.
Create a professionally researched business plan to see where your money will actually go, and you'll likely find that $20 an hour isn't going to get you anywhere (unless you can pay your employees $5). Chances are, you'll need to charge between $100 and $200 an hour to take your business where you want it to go.
Q: What niche should I specialize in?
A: Something you love to design, something you can sell, something you can profit from as a business. If you can't define a clear way to do all three, you can't specialize in it. Some say you don't have to love what you do. That's true if you're an investor, but if you'll actually be operating your business (at least until you can afford to hire a manager), then you don't want to get bored.
Also keep in mind that selling and profiting are two different things. I can SELL logo design for $20 a pop all day long, but I can't PROFIT from it at that rate. Now, if I can sell logo design for $1,500, I can pay someone else to do the work and still profit. I could also add that you must be able to do it well, because you can't profit from something you don't do well – at least, not for long. Customer satisfaction is paramount.
Q: How can I get a job with a great design firm?
A: By any means necessary. Scour job listings all you want, but being bold and aggressive will often get you much farther much faster. If you want to work for a particular agency, petition that agency with your spec designs. Network in the industry to make key connections that will put you at the front of the line for career considerations. Market yourself extensively. Perception pays now, but waiting around for opportunity to knock can take an eternity.
Do you have any stupid questions? Ask me and I'll try to offer a legitimate answer.