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Design is one of the more unusual industries to work in because it’s one of the few that often involves working for free, especially for those who are just starting out in a design career. Working for free is starting to become more and more commonplace for those new to particular industries – as this article from The Guardian shows – but for designers, who actually create something, it doesn’t need to be this way. The dangers of spec work are well-known, and this post in particular does a brilliant job of explaining why it’s harmful. The premise is that a client offers money for designers to compete with each other. One designer gets paid, the other designers don’t. It’s not fair, and it’s not rewarding.
But when you’re just starting out in a career in design, you may be tempted to work for free in order to build your portfolio. You know that you can design but you need to get clients on board, you need a good portfolio to show people and, when your portfolio is on the small side, clients may ask you to work for free with the benefit being that you get to showcase the work that you do on your site.
It seems like a catch-22, you can’t get a great and varied portfolio without working, and you can’t get paid without a great and varied portfolio. You might be inclined to accept a few offers of working for free.
My advice to you is this: don’t. Working for someone for free helps that company significantly more than it helps you – they are not doing you a favour. If your goal is to put together an amazing portfolio, taking on free work for someone else is a recipe for disaster – 9 times out of 10 you’re giving up creative control as well as failing to get paid, and it’s much more likely to leave you feeling unhappy.
If your aim when first starting out as a designer is to have a portfolio that you’re proud of, and is truly unique to you and full of your personality and style, consider designing things for yourself. If you think of a great logo idea for a company that doesn’t exist, design it and use it for your portfolio. If you think of a creative site design for a fictional company, build it anyway and use it for your portfolio – clients want to see whether you can design things well, not whether the design is for an existing company or not. And if you’re in the mood to redesign an existing company’s logo, branding, site or app – then consider an unsolicited redesign so that you’re free to design it exactly how you want – such as how Andrew Kim redesigned Microsoft’s branding, and made a name for himself at the same time.
Of course, designing things for fictional companies won’t pay the bills. If you want to make money at the same time as building a portfolio, keep in mind that there are some designs that have been built without a client asking for it, and have later been sold for respectable amounts of money. This leads us quite neatly to the first way to earn while building a portfolio.
Dustin Curtis, the world-famous designer behind the Svbtle network, once made a web app that produced a visual timeline of your life, named Lifepath.me (which sadly no longer exists). It was a beautiful, intricate and cleverly crafted design that had obviously had a lot of work go into it and was something that helped to make him even more famous than he already is. Several months after launching it, he sold it for just over $10,000 (in addition to the $3880 he made from signups).
Threewords.me is a fairly simple site designed and built by coder Mark Bao that let’s people create a profile and then ask others to (anonymously) add three words to sum them up. It was a great idea – nice, clean and simple and it went massively viral. Mark later sold the site for an undisclosed figure (with rumours of that figure being six figures).
Both Lifepath and Threewords look incredible on Dustin and Mark’s portfolios – successful, beautifully designed and remarkable. They both also require the ability to code, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the coding needed is relatively basic and frameworks like Ruby on Rails are perfect for sites like these. You can find more on how to start learning Ruby here.
While this method doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make money (and if you do, it may well be for significantly less than what Dustin and Mark have earned), it does still let you build something that you’re interested in, and can be truly proud of – and even if you sell it for only a small amount, it’ll still earn you more than if you chose to work for free.
You can also get paid for designing and building high quality WordPress or Tumblr themes and choosing to sell them on your own site. The themes for sale on Inspect Element are a good example of this – they both look great in designer Tom Kenny’s portfolio, and they can also earn him some money too.
If you really enjoy building WordPress themes, you could even take it a step further and develop an entire series of templates that you can sell. ElegantThemes is a great example of a designer whose amazing at what he does and consistently puts out fantastic WordPress themes that his community loves. Similarly, Liam McKay has built WPBundle.com which is a collection of beautifully designed WordPress themes – the whole bundle selling for $200.
You can even create a theme that you’re proud of and sell it on a service like Themeforest, if you’re worried that you won’t be able to get enough people to see it on your own. Orman Clark of Premium Pixels recently broke the ThemeForest record by making over $47,000 in just one month from the sales of his WordPress themes. While you perhaps shouldn’t expect that sort of money any time soon, it does show that you can design the things you want to design without having to go unpaid.
In the same vein as creating themes and templates, there’s also a huge market out there for people that want stock icons, illustrations and beautifully designed fonts and they’re willing to pay for quality. If you think that you can do a good job, and want great designs for your portfolio as well as to sell, then you could make some extra income by creating designs to sell on sites like iStockPhoto.com and GraphicRiver (which is owned by the same people that run ThemeForest).
If you’re more interested in designing and selling fonts, there’s plenty of sites out there to help you do that too. MyFonts.com has been around for some time and is well-known for showcasing and selling really beautifully designed fonts, while the relatively new Lost Type Co-Op by Riley Cran and Tyler Galphin is an interesting Pay-What-You-Want font store that allows you, the designer, to receive 100% of the funds from each sale.
If you’re already out there creating designs that you’re proud of, then it makes sense to showcase them somewhere on your own blog. Blogs are great for getting your thoughts down, for letting you show off your new designs and for getting you involved in the design community, but you can also make money by running adverts too. A great way to support a blog, and make a small amount of side income, is to include a small number of relevant affiliate adverts in the sidebar, such as for your hosting company or for particular design tools that you use and would recommend to your readers.
Even if you don’t make much from advertising on your blog, it’s still a great way to get your designs out there and to start making a name for yourself.
Many design sites are in need of great tutorials, written by people that know their craft well – and a lot of these sites are also willing to pay for them. If you’ve created a design for your portfolio that you’re really proud of, you can help out other designers by writing a tutorial on how to recreate it – a step by step guide of the techniques you used in the design. It’s a great way of showing off your design, of helping out the community, of making a name for yourself and for making a side income.
If you have an idea for something you’d like to build – whether it’s a physical product or an innovative new app that you think could turn a profit, but the cost of starting the project is holding you back, consider using Kickstarter. Kickstarter is changing the game by allowing people to get the cashflow they need to start creative, interesting projects by allowing anyone to be an early investor. If you’d like to be your own client, and work on an idea that you can really commit to, you no longer have to be put off by the lack of start-up cash. You can read more about how Kickstarter is changing the game in this post from Ryan Carson.
Other than getting money and a portfolio that you can be proud of, there are other benefits to designing things for yourself. The most obvious of this is that you’ll actually get to design the things that you want to design – if you think your portfolio is missing great examples of your hand-drawn style, you can add it. If you want to practice your typography, there’s no-one stopping you. You can choose what you work on, which allows you to be more creative, work on your own unique style and, ultimately, be happier.
And if you do a really good job and make something that people love, you can earn a reputation for creating outstanding work, which you can’t put a value on. Good luck – and if you’re just starting out, remember this: if you don’t want to, you never ever have to work for free.
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Alex writes for printing specialists Print Express. In his spare time, he tries to improve his coding skills (he’s currently learning Ruby) and studies graphic & web design.