One of the things I love about being a designer is the flexibility of potential income sources. Let’s admit it, nobody likes to put all of their eggs in one basket and nobody should. Fortunately, designers, you’re in a pretty good position.
I’d like to show you some of the ways to make money right from the design skills that you already have. I’ve personally tried everything I listed in this post at some point in my career and I was able to successfully make some cash.
Perhaps you’ve seen many posts like this before, but I want to shed some light on this issue from my own perspective. What you’ll see here are very subjective opinions and you may have different experiences, so feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section.
Just because I listed six ways here doesn’t mean that there are no more or that you should do all six. Actually, I would recommend choosing only two or three and focus just on those.
1. Getting a job as a designer
Ok, this one is pretty obvious, but there are a couple of important things here I wanted to mention. First of all, you don’t have to quit your job if you want to become a successful designer.
A lot of designers’ goals are to go freelance full-time as soon as they can. However, working on your own is not for everyone and we all know the perks of being hired. A UI/UX designer position is in a high demand these days. A lot of companies can afford six-figure salaries for good designers.
Designers are not just there to put a nice looking coat on the finished product anymore. Design plays one of the main roles in every digital product development.
If you find a really good company to work for (check out hired.com), you may have a lot of freedom, be able to work from home, make good money and the company will even support your growth by investing in your education and helping you become a well-known designer. Additionally, you’ll have a chance to work on meaningful projects that you could never tackle on your own.
What else would you need to become a successful designer in the industry? So, think about it if you’re not up for taking all the risk and stress that comes with running your own show.
Also, having a full-time job doesn’t stop you from diversifying your income and adding the rest of the four points from this list.
The downside is that you work for someone else and have to report to someone above you. A lot of designers value independence and complete freedom, which I totally understand.
2. Client work (freelancing)
Custom projects for clients is probably the most common way how designers make money. However, I think it’s kind of a bittersweet business.
It is very rewarding for sure and you can make good money quickly. It can help you to get a lot of experience as a designer and have an opportunity to work with different clients and teams on various projects. If you hop from one project to another fast enough, you won’t be bored and it will help you stay motivated and inspired.
The downside is that you’ll have to directly deal with clients (it’s not always a pleasurable experience if you make some mistakes in qualifying your prospects) and be responsible for billing, administrating and pricing the projects (the big one!).
Based on my own experience in doing client work, I found that the actual design work is only 65% (very often even less) of all the total time spent on the project. The other 35% is client communication, management, administration, etc.
The good thing is that after some time, as you start gaining more experience, you’ll slowly attract better clients, which will help you to maintain a higher profit margin. You’ll also become more efficient in doing your administration work and you’ll be able to automate most of the repetitive tasks that take too much of your time.
Perhaps you can even hire a VA or a junior designer who can help you with all the small tasks. You can also make some extra money by referring work to other freelance designers or developers (check out crew.co).
If you want to scale it up even more and replace yourself, then you’ll have to turn your freelance business into a company or agency, which is a big and risky step for a lot of freelancers.
Otherwise, it might be pretty hard to scale it up while remaining a solo designer. After all, you’ll still have to trade your time for money, which I think is not the ideal business model in the long run.
3. Teaching design
This is something I’ve tried by releasing The Essential Web Design Handbook. Making money from selling your ebooks or courses is not that easy, though.
It doesn’t happen overnight and you won’t be able to make a quick buck like you can with freelance gigs. It takes a lot of time and effort to build your audience first. You have to establish your name in the community as an expert to gain credibility.
Once you put all the pieces together and collect enough emails (I launched my ebook with 4,000 subscribers), you can start thinking about making a product for sale.
Even then, you have to remember that teaching such a fast changing craft like web design is really hard. Some methods and techniques of your work you’re teaching today, may completely change next month and be way outdated next year.
You also have to accept the fact that the very first product you make probably won’t make as much money as you expect. However, you have to think about teaching as a long term investment.
Every new article, every new tutorial, every new ebook you write will accumulate a certain number of followers and email subscribers over time. You’ll see how big of a potential it all has once you release your first product.
If you can make $10,000 having 4,000 emails on your list, think how much you can make when you have 10,000, 20,000 or 50,000 people following you. The amount of time you have to spend on making new products may be the same, but the profit will be much higher every time.
Teaching valuable skills might be your best way to bring people to you and build your own community. If you decide to switch later to selling design products or consulting, you’ll have a very good foundation. You’ll have a big group of people who already know you and trust you, which will make launching literally anything much easier.
I know a lot of people say you can release a course on Udemy.com or Skillshare.com without having your own audience. However, this may not be as easy as it sounds. You will still have to promote your own course, because guess what, there are hundreds and thousands of people just like you. An author’s credibility is a huge sales factor.
To learn more, I would recommend listening to Brian Clark’s episode on the New Rainmaker podcast: “How to Succeed in Online Education (On Your Own Terms).”
4. Selling design products
I used to sell my own WordPress themes both through the Theme Forest market and later my own theme shop before I joined StudioPress.
There is always a high demand for website templates. I can code and I was able to create a complete WordPress theme by myself, but even if your focus is just design, you can still partner up with a web developer and split revenue 50/50 or sell just your PSD or Sketch files.
Besides the website templates there are tons of other digital products you can make and sell like icons, illustrations, patterns, product mockups, textures, logos, stationery templates, wireframe kits, etc.
Whatever you use in your own work, there are probably thousands of designers that may need it too. Remember that customer support comes with selling any products. People may have questions on how to use it or something may not work as intended if they use older software.
Again, I would recommend to start building your own audience and selling your design materials through your own website.
If you want to test the waters or your goal is to build a shop using one of the already existing services, then you can try selling your products through one of the markets like the Creative Market (it’s an affiliate link, but I love this site! I personally buy a lot of design materials and stock photos from there).
Let’s not forget that besides the digital products, you can sell physical products as well. Society6.com may be a great place to start selling your own artwork.
5. Advertising and affiliate
If you run your own website or a podcast about design, then selling advertising or joining affiliate programs can be another way to make some extra cash.
Well, you need to have a very popular website to make really good money from it and I don’t think it’s a great idea to fill out your personal blog with tons of affiliate links or ads. People may stop trusting you and you’ll be redirecting all the traffic away from your own website (you may do a better job by recommending your own products instead).
Market only products that you really use and truly recommend. A single affiliate link here and there on your personal site can get you a couple of free dinners a month.
If you’re thinking more seriously about affiliate marketing, then I would recommend to start a whole new website that would be focused just on that. That way, it won’t affect the audience you’ve been building under your own personal brand.
Of course, consulting is also client work, but I wanted to give it a special place on my list. It’s more about advising and counseling than doing the actual design work that I mentioned earlier.
Very often companies don’t even need to hire another designer. They may already have a visually well-designed website, but they need to just make it better, get an opinion from someone from the outside, optimize for conversion or improve the user experience.
You can offer UI/UX design audits or art direction for the company that already has a team of designers. You can do some research, user testing, A/B testing and then propose your website changes. You can even productize your service to make the entire selling process easier for both you and your clients.
As much as I love pushing pixels and the creative phase of working on projects, I think consulting is a great alternative to regular client work. I love the fact that I can provide a lot of value for the client with less effort and in a shorter time.
You don’t have to wait to get content from your client and you don’t have to worry about never-ending design revisions. On the downside, you still have to take care of your own billing and administration.
So, if you’ve been doing freelance design work for a while, you may want to try consulting. Remember that your authority will be the most important sales factor, so you have to work on your personal brand first.
Summing up, I just wanted to add that every way to make money with your design skills is good as long as you really enjoy what you’re doing.
If you love working on custom design projects for clients, go for it. If you hate working with clients, you may want to try teaching design and selling your own digital or physical products.
What are your thoughts and experiences when it comes to making money in the design space?