6 Tips for Budding Designers to Earn While Building a Portfolio


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.

How Can You Earn While Building a Portfolio?

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.

1. Build and Sell a Site

How to Build a Website Using Twitter Bootstrap and SASS

You might as well do it with Twitter Bootstrap and SASS

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.

2. Create and Sell WordPress and Tumblr Themes

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.

3. Design and Sell Stock Icons, Fonts and Illustrations

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.

4. Start a blog and allow adverts

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.

5. Write tutorials for other sites

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.

Related: The Shortest Web Design Guest Posting Guide You’ll Ever Need

6. Get help for bigger projects using Kickstarter

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.

What are the benefits?

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.



  1. Ninad Ingole

    Totally agreed by your points but i have a question ! what if you are a beginner to web developments and created portfolio site for showing your ideas or themes that you are doing and not that much good with what others are doing. So can i still earn something ? i can get work from other company to do on web developments?

  2. Andreina Sira

    Those are really good ideas.. I didn’t know about the Kickstarter site… that is a good tip.. I’m more of a developer than a designer.. but of course to have clients I need the portfolio..
    Great article.

    • Hello Andreina, even as developer you need to show what you are capable of in portfolio :)

      Kickstarter is getting more and more popular for designers to kickstart their projects, just now for example Chris Coyier raised 90,000 for his video training project, which is awesome!

  3. Designing for Free, especially for one page WebApps is a GREAT way to get you’re Folio started. The above methods work, but are much much much more time consuming in almost every way. Just to get you work accepted into ThemeForest, GraphicRiver & Envato sites is very strict & time consuming, as they have a strict code of how WordPress themes must be coded & designed, as with their other Sites.

    Designing for Non Profit Sites like the “United Open Developers Projects Group” @OpenDevs which give back to the Open Source communities (by giving back any FrameWorks Coded for specific WebApps or Services, Custom Fonts Created for Projects, Unique Snippets of Code (CSS/JS/jQuery UI’s etc) and collaboration communities (GitHub, GoogleCode etc).

    Twitter is a great source for Open/Non-Profit Organizations & Designer/Developer Collaboration Groups (usually freelancers starting out join Groups like ‘United Open Dev Project Groups’ & SentraGroup etc.

    Good Luck getting you’re Coding & Designers Portfolio Up & Running quickly enough to start making money from Paid Work from the work you do from the above ideas or Free or Bonus-Type Work.


  4. Myrtle Brown

    Building portfolio for own is very good decision for any of the web designer because portfolio helps to make your own identity for creative work and abilities in the market. Above tips are also good, if designer want to earn money within portfolio site.

  5. Brad

    Great post! Also a little post request well to 2 really one is Ruby vs PHP I don’t get it Ruby is a frame work and PHP is a language. The last one is what is out there for young designers to earn money cause people will not trust young designers I have only go 1 job in about a year I am 15 what is with people I would of thought they would want fresh minds. :)

    • Totally agree. As a designer, I do not usually get involved in programming languages, but I love PHP. Ruby on Rails seems to be used in most of professional websites actually, but it’s not easy to find help to learn it. I would love to see a comparison between PHP and Ruby on Rails.
      Btw, great article, it helped me a lot!
      Thanks :)

    • Join a Group of Collaborators like @OpenDevs, I got my start there, and they give Bonuses from any Profit, or Norton, Kaspersky etc Licenses (& other Blogger Review Goodies) as alot of Members are Bloggers. Either way you get something out of it, being cash to licenses/boxed software/gadgets & MORE IMPORTANTLY a Great Project to add to you’re Folio (& You’re Name/URL on the Project ie. Advertising the work you did on the Project.)

      I got some cash, Norton 360 2yr Licenses, Trend Micro Net Security in Packaging sent out to me, a USB 4 Socket Adapter. I still help out when I can, as members/helpers/supporters come and go (full-time & part-time to very part-time occasional supporters/helpers come back to lend a hand & add more to Portfolio in the slow times! ).

      @OpenDevs – Twitter
      @jaycameron – Twitter

    • Andreina Sira

      I work for a web development company and we mostly work with PHP.. A really high percentage of website are build with php.. so I really recommend to learn a little of php..

    • Alex

      Hi Brad, thanks for the comment. Actually both Ruby and PHP are languages – Rails is a framework for Ruby, and there are similar frameworks out there for PHP too – things like CodeIgniter (http://codeigniter.com/) and Yii (http://www.yiiframework.com/) although I’ve not used those so not sure how good they are. There’s a lot of Ruby vs PHP talk out there – in truth, I think the best advice is to try a few tutorials for both and see which language you’re most comfortable with. I personally prefer Ruby because it’s a bit easier to understand, but that might just be my personal preference. The easiest way to give it a go and see what it’s like is to check out something like Rails for Zombies: http://railsforzombies.com/

      Good luck getting more design work – try to add to your portfolio, try to get an invite to Dribbble.com and get involved in the design community, and I’m sure you’ll do great :)