12 Ways to Make Money in the Design Industry, Aside from Client Work

When it comes to working as a designer or developer the options that come to mind are typically 1) work as an employee for a design studio or agency, 2) work as employee as an in-house designer or developer, or 3) work as freelancer.

While all of those are perfectly legitimate options, there are thousands of designers and developers who are earning a living in the industry with less traditional approaches. In this article we’ll look at some of the ways that you can use design and coding skills, aside from the 3 approaches mentioned above.

Working as a freelancer is something that many designers aspire to do. In reality, most freelancers struggle to find enough client work to make the income that they need. A growing number of designers and developers are taking alternative approaches as a result. One of the great benefits is that many of these things can be done part-time or full-time, which also means that you can combine one or more of these approaches with client work.

So let’s take a look at some of the options for designers and developers. We’ll also see some examples of people who taking these alternative approaches, and you’ll find links to some excellent learning and training resources that can help you in your own pursuit.

1. Designing and Selling Stock Graphics

A common approach to making money as a designer is to sell stock graphics (PSD files, logo templates, Photoshop brushes, vectors, icons, etc). Marketplaces like GraphicRiver, Creative Market, and major stock photo sites like iStock allow designers to sell their own creations to a large existing audience. The down side of selling at these types of marketplace sites is that you will need to share the revenue with the marketplace, and in many cases you’ll also face restrictions related to pricing, the types of products you can sell, and exclusivity.

Of the major marketplaces, Creative Market provides the most flexibility and fewest restrictions for designers. They don’t require exclusivity (you can sell your products at your own site or at other sites), you can set your own prices, and they offer 70% of each sale to the designer.

GraphicRiver


Aside from selling at marketplaces, you can also sell stock graphics and resources from your own website. If you’re a WordPress user there are a number of e-commerce plugins that you can use to sell your digital files. Regardless of whether you are a WordPress user or not, you can use simple e-commerce systems like DPD or E-Junkie. Hosted e-commerce platforms like Shopify and Bigcommerce are also options, and come with plenty of features.

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can achieve success with selling stock graphics, we have an interview in our shop with Ryan Putnam on this topic.

Real-World Example: Peter Olexa

Peter Olexa designs a wide variety of stock graphics, including PSD files, print templates, and vectors. Peter sells his work at Creative Market and GraphicRiver, and at GraphicRiver alone he has made over 10,000 sales between his two profiles.

Peter Olexa

2. Designing and Selling Website Templates and WordPress Themes

If you design websites for clients a possible alternative source of income would be to create and sell website templates. You could sell static HTML/CSS templates, or templates for a specific content management system. The WordPress theme market has been huge for several years now, and it shows no sign of slowing down.

If you do client work, creating templates is something that you could do between projects or whenever you happen to have some down time. You could even use your templates as a starting point for client projects, or offer the templates to clients that are working with very limited budgets.

The process of selling templates is a lot like selling stock graphics. You can either sell at your own site, or sell at large existing marketplaces. The most popular marketplace is ThemeForest, but sites like Creative Market and Mojo Themes also offer excellent opportunities.

If you’re considering selling your own templates or themes, see Make Serious Cash from Web Templates: 10 Insider Tips. In our shop we also have an interview with Brain Casel on the topic of launching a WordPress theme shop.

Real-World Example: Henry Jones

Henry Jones is a well known designer who founded Web Design Ledger and Theme Trust. At Theme Trust Henry sells beautiful WordPress themes. Over the past few years new themes have been released at Theme Trust, and there are now more than 20 themes available. Henry has chosen to sell his themes at his own site, but many designers/developers take the approach of selling at a popular marketplace like ThemeForest.

Theme Trust

3. Create Plugins or Addons

If you’re more of a coder than a designer you may prefer to create and sell plugins or addons as opposed to templates or stock graphics. The market for WordPress plugins is huge, and there are countless opportunities for possible plugins that could be created. Aside from WordPress plugins, some platforms like Shopify include a shop where developers can sell their own addons.

Your plugins could be sold at your own site, or you could sell at a popular marketplace like CodeCanyon. Another option would be to sell WooCommerce extensions, or at some other existing shop.

If you’re interested in learning more about selling WordPress plugins please see Selling Premium WordPress Plugins: An Expert’s Guide.

Real-World Example: Pippin Williamson

Pippin Williamson creates WordPress plugins and distributes them from his site Pippin’s Plugins. Some of the plugins are free, and others must be purchased. Premium plugins can be purchased individually, and a membership is also offered. The membership provides access to some plugins, as well as tutorials. One of Pippin’s plugins is Easy Digital Downloads, a free e-commerce plugin. Although the plugin is free, Pippin monetizes it by offering a number of addon plugins that bring additional functionality.

Pippin's Plugins

4. Running a Design Blog

Launching and running a design blog is another opportunity for designers and developers. There are a ton of other design blogs already out there, so if you are thinking of starting your own plan to dedicate a lot of time and effort before it starts to really pay off. Although there is a lot of competition for the attention of readers, the rewards of having a successful design blog can be huge.

There are a number of different ways that you can make money from a popular design blog. You could use it to attract more client work, sell advertisements, promote products and services as an affiliate, sell your own products, and more.

If you’re looking for ideas please see 101 Ways to Monetize Your Website or Blog.

Real-World Example: Chris Spooner

If you’re a designer you are probably well aware of Chris Spooner. In case you’re not, he runs two popular blogs, Blog.SpoonGraphics and Line25. Chris makes a full-time income from his blogs by selling ads and by offering a membership option at Blog.SpoonGraphics. In our shop we have an interview with Chris about his experience earning a living with a design blog.

Blog.SpoonGraphics

5. Freelance Blogging

While having your own blog is a great option with the potential to earn a nice income, the reality is that most blogs are not successful. Starting your own blog can be a great opportunity, but there is no guarantee that it will ever wind up producing the type of income that you are looking for. In fact, the odds are against you.

Freelance blogging is a better option for many designers. Instead of managing your own blog you can write for other blogs that pay contributors. There are a lot of design blogs, including Smashing Magazine, the Tuts+ network, Webdesigner Depot, and plenty others that pay writers.

There are a few reasons that freelance blogging is a great opportunity. First, you can start making money right away. If you build your own blog it could take 6 months or more before you make any money at all. By writing for other successful blogs you can get paid for all of your effort.

Second, it offers some flexibility. If you do a lot of client work you can write posts on a freelance basis whenever you have the time, and when you’re busy you can focus on your client work. If you start your own blog you will need to make a commitment to give it plenty of time and attention on a consistent basis, or else it won’t grow.

Third, writing for popular blogs can also provide you with some excellent exposure that will benefit you in other ways. You may have clients find you through your freelance articles, and the connections that you make with editors and blog owners can open other doors in the future.

Real-World Example: Jake Rocheleau

Jake Rocheleau has written for a number of popular design blogs. He wrote several articles that were published here at the Vandelay Design blog. He’s also written for sites like Specky Boy, DesignM.ag, Spyre Studios, DzineBlog, Design Shack, Web Design Ledger, and several others.

Jake Rocheleau

6. Writing E-books

Info products, including e-books, can be created and sold in just about any industry, including design and development. While writing an e-book will certainly take some time and effort, it does offer some flexibility. If you’ll be creating and selling the e-book on your own you won’t have any outside deadlines, so you can work on it between client projects or whenever you have the time. If the e-book covers a topic that won’t become quickly outdated or obsolete, it can be a good source of income for several years to come.

The technical aspects of selling an e-book can be quite simple. You can use a WordPress plugin to handle the e-commerce and product delivery, or you could use a system like DPD or E-Junkie, both of which are easy to set up. Another option would be Clickbank, a popular marketplace for selling digital goods.

DPD

Selling your e-book will require you to get it in front of the right audience. One approach to doing this is to recruit affiliates to promote the e-book at their site/blog or to their email list. DPD and E-Junkie include built-in affiliate programs, and most WordPress e-commerce plugins can be integrated with affiliate plugins. Software like iDevAffiliate can be used with just about any e-commerce platform or shopping cart. To attract the best affiliates you’ll want to offer a high commission and favorable terms.

If you’re interested in writing and selling your own e-book, see this podcast interview: Six Figure Earnings with eBooks (Not on Amazon) and a Pricing Structure that Works with Nathan Barry.

Real-World Example: Nathan Barry

The man featured in the podcast that was just mentioned, Nathan Barry, is an excellent example. Nathan has written and sold his own e-books The App Design Handbook, Designing Web Applications, and Authority. Part of what makes Nathan an excellent example is that he did not have a huge audience or a popular blog when he started working on his first e-book. He basically started from scratch, so he is an example of what is possible for others. See How Nathan Barry Made $12,000 in eBook Income in 24 Hours.

Nathan Barry

7. Offering Online Courses

Another type of info product that offers plenty of potential is the online course. There is plenty of demand for online training related to design and development. Site like Udemy allow you to sell your own course to a large, established audience. Alternatively, you could set up the course on your own site and sell access to it.

Creating an online course will require some time and effort, and you’ll obviously need some expertise on the subject at hand, but the potential is there (see the real-world example below). With so many sites offering online education in the industry (Lynda.com, Treehouse, Learnable, Tuts+) there is plenty of competition, but there are also plenty of people looking for this type of training and eductaion.

Udemy

Real-World Example: Victor Bastos

Victor Bastos offers a popular course at Udemy, Become a Web Developer from Scratch. According to this article on Slate.com Victor has made more than $400,000 from this course, and the number of students that have taken the course is now MUCH higher than it was when that article was written.

While most courses at Udemy do not bring in this type of revenue, Victor is not the only one that has been successful. See How 10 Instructors Earned $1.6 Million on Udemy in One Year.

8. Running a Membership Website

There are several different ways to make money with membership websites in the design and development industries. We already talked about selling resources like stock graphics, website templates, WordPress themes, and WordPress plugins. All of those resources can be sold in a membership format as well. A well-recognized example is Elegant Themes, one of the leaders in the premium WordPress theme market. While most WordPress theme shops sell themes individually, Elegant Themes offers their themes through a membership format, and they’ve had well over 200,000 customers.

Membership sites can also be used to sell your online courses, or as an extension of a design blog. In the section about design blogging I mentioned Chris Spooner as a real-world example. One of Chris monetization approaches at Blog.SpoonGraphics is membership access.

The recurring income from membership websites makes them attractive, and extremely lucrative for those who are successful. If you’re looking to learn more, see How to Start a Profitable Membership Site Step-by-Step.

Real World Example: Vandelay Premier

Almost four years ago we launched Vandelay Premier as a compliment to the Vandelay Design blog. Customers can buy products individually or sign up for a membership that provides unlimited access. Visit our shop to see how we are using the membership approach.

Vandelay Premier

9. Creating Fonts

Designers can never have too many fonts. That means that there is an on-going opportunity to design and sell fonts. The approach is pretty similar to selling other types of stock resources or templates. You can set up a shop on your own website, or sell at marketplaces like GraphicRiver and Creative Market.

Although there are no shortage of fonts already available, and many of them for free, there is plenty of demand for high-quality fonts. Fonts are always among the most popular types of products at sites like MightyDeals and Creative Market.

If you are considering designing fonts, see Expert Tips When Creating and Selling Fonts.

Real-World Example: Laura Worthington

Laura Worthington sells her fonts on her own website, as well as at sites like Creative Market, Etsy, and MyFonts. Several of Laura’s fonts are among the most popular at Creative Market.

Laura Worthington

10. Creating a Web App

Another opportunity involves creating a web app. There are obviously endless possibilities here, even though plenty of apps already exist in the design and development industries. There are web apps for invoicing, accounting, getting design feedback, creating proposals, designing websites without coding, and the list could go on and on.

In order to make money with a web app you’ll need a good idea and a well coded app, but the potential income is huge.

Real World Example: Ruben Gamez

Ruben Gamez is the founder of Bidsketch, which allows you to create proposals to present to clients. Ruben started Bidsketch as a side project on top of a full-time job, and he built it into a successful venture that allowed him to quit his job. You can read more about Ruben and his experience in this interview.

Bidsketch

11. Designing T-Shirts

If you’re looking for something a little different than designing stock graphics or website templates, t-shirt design may be something that interests you. You could set up your own shop or sell your designs at sites like Teespring, Design by Humans, and SpreadShirt.

Each of the sites mentioned above works a little bit differently. At Teespring you can sell your designs with no upfront cost and risk. You’ll upload your design, set a goal, make your t-shirt available for purchase, and when the goal is hit the shirts will be printed and shipped to buyers, and you keep the profit.

At Design by Humans you can apply to become an artist. When you’re approved you’ll make $3 profit per t-shirt sale.

At SpreadShirt you can register an account, upload your design, and set the commission that you want to make.

Real-World Example: Lewis Ogden

Lewis Ogden isn’t a designer, he outsourced the design work, but he has an excellent case study that you will want to read if you are considering t-shirt design. The case study shows how he made $400 in one week using Facebook ads to sell a t-shirt design at Teespring. The project shown in the case study is pretty simple and could definitely be useful for anyone who wants to make some extra money by selling t-shirts, regardless of whether you are designing them yourself or outsourcing the design.

Teespring

12. Creating Community Websites

Aside from the types of websites and products that we’ve looked at already, you could use some creativity and start a website that offers some purpose to the design and development industry. The possibilities are endless, and these types of projects can be fun while providing you with an opportunity to make some money.

Real-World Example: John Shaver

John Shaver is the founder of Design Panoply, a design blog that sells stock graphics, and Photoshop Video Academy. But aside from Design Panoply John also has some community-oriented websites in the design industry. For the past few years John has been running MyDesignDeals, a daily deal site that provides deep discounts on products for designers. John partners with vendors who have a product or service that they want to market to designers.

Just recently John launched another community-oriented site, The Creative Feed. This site is a great place to find quality articles, tutorials, and free resources related to design and photography. It’s not overrun with low-quality links like many of the niche social sites that target designers.

The Creative Feed

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