7 Side Income Strategies for Designers

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I’ve seen some posts recently about how designers can make extra money online. Too often those posts are filled with crowdsourcing or design contest websites. Sure, you can submit a design to Threadless and maybe win some money or you could compete with thousands of designers to MAYBE get paid as a logo designer, but that’s unreliable and considered spec work. We don’t want that.

If you’re a designer, you’re probably a creative thinker. You need to get out of your mindset that you can just sign up for something and start generating a passive income. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t just crap out designs and sell them as stock either, that won’t work. Maybe it did in 2005-2006 but recently the stock market is over-saturated. That said, it’s still possible to make some good money selling stock, you just need to think about it differently.

I’m going to talk about fresh methods that forward-thinking designers are using to make extra money on the side. Side projects baby! Every designer has them and you should get on it.

1. Selling Posters and T-Shirts

It’s common these days for designers to have an online store selling their posters, t-shirts, stickers, buttons, etc. Where I come from, designers treat themselves a lot like musicians. Here you are making art and at the same time you have your own swag to go with it. While stickers and buttons are cheap items to get produced, posters and t-shirts tend to be cost-prohibitive for many designers. Fortunately sites like Society6 and Imagekind print your work only when customers order your design. While the profits are thin here, you don’t need to pay up front for a large batch of products.

Become a poster artist or start a clothing line.

If you’re good, you might see a good business coming from your poster work. Get yourself featured on OMG Posters or Laughing Squid and you can expect to see some sales. And if you’re noticing a lot of interest in your products, this is where many designers think about starting their own clothing line. Their side project becomes a little bit more serious. Brandon Herbel of Make Believe Clothing is an example. If starting a line is something you’ve considered, you might want to check out the book I wrote on the subject.

2. Selling Digital Files

If it can be downloaded, it can be sold.

Let’s get this out of the way. You are really leaving money on the table here. If you can make an icon, illustration, or create a cool effect in Photoshop, you can sell that sucker online. People buy it. I’m 30 years old with 6 professional years of experience and a big enough ego that makes me think I should draw everything by hand. But I would still buy stock or some sort of time-saver or shortcut if it’s going to help me. Stock vectors, textures, fonts, layer styles, actions, themes, templates, frameworks, ebooks, tutorials – those are all sellable assets. If you can download it, it can be sold.

It’s not that hard tech-wise.

So how do you sell it? You can either join a marketplace like iStockPhoto, Shutterstock, or Graphic River or you can sell it on your own site. Joining a marketplace offers you a built in customer base and all the technology for purchasing and downloading is in place. Just know that the website will either cost a monthly fee or will take some percentage of your sales.

Some good news! We are redesigning the Arsenal and will be allowing other designers to sell their digital products in our store! However, it’s not an open marketplace. You must apply to become an Arsenal Artist and we have pretty high standards for what we will accept. Quality over quantity. If you are interested in making money as an Arsenal Artist, please email me with a link to your portfolio and ideally some products you already have made. You can earn a decent side income here too.

If you sell digital products on your own site, you keep every penny but you also have to promote it yourself and figure out the technology to sell the products. But that’s not much of a barrier anymore. Using a service like eJunkie or Pulley is an easy way to do this. Most shopping cart or ecommerce packages support selling downloadable products. So the technology part shouldn’t be holding you back.

Here’s an example:

Download Now – $7

Sell solutions for common design problems.

Once you’re ready to sell, what ARE you going to sell? What kind of products actually make money? From our experience selling stock art and design files on our own website Arsenal, is that vectors and templates sell very well. But there are TONS of options for designers looking for clip art or stock. How are yours better? How are they different? You should have some foresight into what YOU like to use in your designs – so chances are other people share your taste. Make stuff for your friends and your peers. What kind of solutions can you create for common design problems? What effects do you consistently use in your work that you could simplify and sell as a Layer Style or Photoshop Action?

Selling WordPress themes is also an option. Sites like ThemeForest have allowed authors to make over seven-figures selling their own WordPress themes. Crazy! If you design solutions based around WordPress for your clients, chances are you’ve streamlined your process by perhaps building off a base-theme or creating common elements that you reuse for new projects. Nobody likes reinventing the wheel. I’m sure you’ve purchased a plugin or bought a Premium theme from places like WooThemes or StudioPress so why not start offering your own? If they can do it, why not you?

How versatile are your products in other people’s designs?

One tip, the more versatile your products the better. For example, a stock illustration of something very specific won’t sell as well as a halftone pattern or a simple distress texture. Also educational products sell very well like eBooks or Video Tutorials but creating those is a lot harder and takes much more time. Which leads me to my next point, learn to write.

3. Hone Your Writing Skills

More and more, writing skills are beginning to be what sets designers apart from the pack. You may be a REALLY GOOD logo designer, but it’s only a matter of time before someone else becomes just as good or better. One way to enhance your reputation is to blog. Ok, no brainer, we all know that but – how do you become known as the best designer? Not just by designing but by talking about design. You should talk about typography or merchandise design. Make bold claims and back them up. Step up your game and figure out how to be a good writer. You don’t need to go as far as Austin Kleon and become a full fledged author. But if you do, more power to you! Your words can exist only on the web and that’s ok.

Take your blog seriously.

Most designers have a website. Most designers have some sort of blog whether it be WordPress, Tumblr, etc. Chances are it’s pretty stale and fairly self promotional. Maybe you write the occasional news update here and there or maybe you’ve tried to write a quick behind-the-scenes look at a project you are working on. Those are fine, but if you want to build a side income, try treating your blog a bit more like a business.

Turn your blog into a resource. Write thoughtful articles about things you are interested in and keep content fresh and current. Your goal is to drive traffic to your site and to your products. Hopefully you’ll also convert some of those into clients. Create content that starts conversations.

Write articles for other blogs.

If you start building up a track record of writing good content, you can start asking your favorite design blogs for author positions on their site. Have an awesome article you wrote? Instead of publishing it on your own blog, try sending it to some more popular blogs and seeing if they’ll pay you for it. You won’t necessarily make a ton of money with just one guest post, but you could drive some extra traffic to your own blog and products this way. If nobody is interested you can always post it on your site.

Writing a book is easier than ever.

The problem with blog articles is that they’re typically free. People don’t want to pay to read a blog article. But if you can write a blog article, you can write a book. Lots of times a book is just a handful of good articles sandwiched in between two covers – or heck, simply compressed into a PDF and hosted on your site.

Sometimes your awesome article is too long and would fit better in ebook form. You’re a designer so you can probably make something classy in InDesign so your ebook doesn’t look like the crappy spambooks out there giving ebooks a bad name. Look what the folks at A List Apart have done, they’ve got a whole series of awesome books. I bet you they sell like hotcakes.

And if you want to get into physical production, you don’t NEED a publisher. That’s what I did with Thread’s Not Dead. I set out to write the ultimate guide for t-shirt designers and since I had no author cred or publisher contacts, I needed to do it myself. I designed it nicely, formatted it for iOS and Kindle devices and hosted it on my website. I wanted to sell it for $50 so I recorded my own audiobook and bundled it with some other digital files. I had a whopper of a product all of a sudden. Something that felt meaty and substantial, but all in digital form.

The nicely designed ebook created high demand for a printed hardcover book so I sought out publishers but nothing came out of it. As a result I self published using a site called Lightning Source. If you want to know more about this, I wrote a much more in-depth article about how I made my first book. When the hardcover edition came out, I even held a launch party at a local indie book store so it felt official. Speaking of launch parties, let’s talk about how events can act as another revenue source for the not-so ordinary designer.

4. Host an Event

So much of what we do as designers happens online. Take a step back and think about experiences people have. What are some of your best experiences? Chances are you’ll remember events you attended or places you’ve gone. People you’ve met at those places. Want people to know more about your design studio? Why not host a party at your office? We did that with our Open Houses for Go Media. While they were free to attend, we were able to sell merch and we got some new customers out of the deal. We also got to design really cool invitations!

But what if you could charge admission to your event? Or sell drinks? Start your own indie conference for example. We did that with Weapons of Mass Creation Fest and others are doing it like Columbus Creative or Brooklyn Beta. Or put on a show with your favorite bands and design the poster and promotional materials for it. When Bill and Wilson were starting Go Media, they threw big events with hundreds of DJ’s during the winter when business was slow.

Find a cause and build an experience around it. Have something you want to support or change? Get people together in person to support or promote the idea. Create an experience around this. We wanted to help promote the cool indie spots around Cleveland while at the same time increasing Go Media’s awareness in the city. So we started On the Map. We made short documentary vignettes on a bunch of businesses we liked around town and held an event to show them off. We could have charged admission or sold drinks, but we chose not to for that particular event.

Sell your stuff at other events. 

If hosting your own event is outside your comfort zone, try getting involved with design conferences, indie craft fairs, concerts, etc. Apply to be a vendor so you can set up a booth or table and you can sell posters, t-shirts, stickers, buttons, books, and other merch. What’s that? You don’t have those things to sell? What are you waiting for, get on that!

Hold a Workshop

Another idea to not only get your name out there but give you a little extra cash is to hold a workshop. Have it at your studio or at a local university. Make a one-day workshop on a technique or idea you know a lot about. Sell tickets to the workshop (maybe with Eventbrite) and make it limited so not everyone can get in. This should pay for your time and effort and also it will help you look like an expert while making new contacts at the same time. It will also allow you to promote your own work or other side projects if you want. But really, you’re selling the opportunity for others to learn from an experienced designer like you. Why not?

5. Ads and Affiliate Marketing

If you’ve got any decent public profile or traffic to your website, you can sell ads on it. In fact that’s how most online bloggers and content creators make their money. You can quickly copy and paste a snippet of code to display ads from Google AdSense or ad networks like Carbon. That’s pretty easy and pretty passive. If you have an email newsletter, you can sell an ad on it. If you’ve got a podcast, sell a sponsorship spot or two. Heck, you could even get paid to tweet things for people. Speaking of tweeting for people, there’s a cool service called Headliner.fm that is basically a barter system for sharing. The more you share other’s stuff the more people share your stuff.

Affiliate Marketing

This one kind of has a bad rap. Just the term affiliate marketing sounds shady. But really, if you can buy a product online, there’s probably a way for you to promote it and make some extra cash. You don’t have to sign up for big sites like Pepperjam or Commission Junction to do it either, but those are options.  You would be able to look for products you don’t mind mentioning on your blog and you’d link to them hoping your visitors would buy. For every sale you get a commission. It’s pretty simple. You’ll likely make a small amount from affiliate marketing, but if you do it right you can really earn a big income. And by doing it right I mean dedicate a ton of your time to it like it’s your full time job. You probably would rather be designing.

I would just start paying attention to stuff you buy online and services you pay for. Chances are they have an affiliate program. In fact, you can make money by promoting my own book Thread’s Not Dead and get a good commission every time someone buys it. Most authors who sell ebooks probably have an affiliate program. You can always just look at Payloadz or eJunkie directories to see what’s up.

6. Make a Niche Website

I’ve covered most of the easy stuff for earning a side income as a designer. This one is a little more complicated but it’s not so bad if you’re crafty. What I mean by niche website is just a small, unique, clever site that does one simple thing. Jessica Hische is the queen of this. It seems she’s been able to identify little problems and solve them with a beautifully designed website. For example, Should I Work For Free?, Mom – This is How Twitter Works, Inker Linker, Don’t Fear the Internet, and many more. Find a  need and fill it. You’re a designer, you can solve these kinds of problems right? Make it look nice and make sure you have a way to monetize them. You’re either going to use them to drive traffic to your main site, sell ads on the site so when it goes viral you can get some ROI, or sell a digital product (like a single ebook) on that site. We did this with our site ShirtMockup.com. In fact, Arsenal was started that way in 2006!

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits has small niche sites for just about every idea he has. It’s like he turns each idea he has into a brand and monetizes it beautifully. He takes his blog posts and turns them into ebooks. He turns on his simple webcam and chats with his readers about the subject matter until he finally turns the whole idea into a course that you can pay for. Most of this “course” is set up in advance as separate blog posts and videos that are password protected with some live chat sessions here and there. I know because I took his Clutter Free course and it’s genius. While he talks about minimalism, you can talk about designery (or otherwise) stuff.

Another option is to jump on a trend. Designer Rob Dobi is my favorite example of this. In 2005 when NewsCorp bought Myspace.com for millions, Rob quickly created a niche site called myspacesoldout.com (not available anymore) which featured a single illustration of the founder Tom holding big bags of money with a snarky quote. (I was able to find this) After a few seconds it redirected the visitors back to his clothing line. Because of the timing and cleverness, the site went viral and he was able to drive quite a bit of traffic to his clothing company. He’s also responsible for Your Scene Sucks which generated a desire to be “drawn” by Rob Dobi. He jumped on the opportunity beautifully.

7. Public Speaking and Teaching

Another way designers make a side income is from getting up in front of people and educating them. Or entertaining, whichever you prefer haha. While speaking at conferences won’t necessarily get you rich, you can at least afford to travel to different places, network and meet lots of new people and of course promote whatever new thing you’ve got going on at the time. Designers actually DON’T make a lot of money from speaking, they do it because of the other benefits like increased exposure, the opportunity to broaden their expertise, etc. Speaking opens up doors that sitting in your room designing all day does not.

Here are some examples of designers like you getting up and speaking in front of people at Weapons of Mass Creation Fest last year.

One of those doors is teaching, which actually WILL get you paid. Unless you become a professional public speaker, which let’s be honest, you aren’t going to do that, speaking can parlay into working at your local university as a part time professor. For example, Kate Bingaman Burt teaches at Portland State University.

Sharing is Caring (and lucrative)

While not everyone is cut out to teach or speak in public there is one thing that most of these side-income-generating ideas have in common: Sharing knowledge and resources. If you can get over your fear that people will steal your ideas or take your resources and become a better designer than you, you will have overcome a major obstacle that prohibits designers from earning reliable side incomes. There is money out there with your name on it if you apply the techniques I talked about above. Seriously. If you have any other ideas, share them in the comments and let’s talk about this!

About the Author, Jeff Finley

I'm a partner at Go Media, a Cleveland web design, branding, and design studio. I started Weapons of Mass Creation Fest and wrote the book Thread's Not Dead, teaching artists and designers how to start a clothing company. I'm also writing a new book called Wake Up: The Morning Routine That Will Change Your Life

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