9 Passive Income Ideas for Designers Who Need More Cash in 2020

passive income for designers - designer sitting on couch in city

Passive income for designers who are willing to put in the work can make business extremely exciting.

Imagine not having to figure out how to get graphic design clients over and over again every month.

Picture a world where at least a portion of your design income is reliable and predictable.

It can be freeing.

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Passive income for designers can mean a nice, low-maintenance addition to their current design revenue every month. Some designers have even mastered the art of passive income so well their entire business is built on it.

Typically, learning how to make passive income as a graphic designer can be difficult, frustrating, time-intensive, and more work than any designer expects.

After all, the term “passive income for designers” seems so dreamy, right? Just sit back and collect a paycheck every month without any real work.

The truth about passive income, for designers at least, is that it takes a lot of upfront work and monthly maintenance, but can also pay huge dividends if done well.

Take, for example, Denise Love who quit her full-time job after her graphic design business selling textures really took off.

Today her income is 100% passive. She makes enough money from selling her work on digital products sites like Design Cuts or Creative Market and her own website.

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If you’re looking for ideas of passive income for designers, then you’re in the right place. I’ve compiled my best ideas from my own experience running a design business plus ideas from some really smart fellow freelancers and compiled all the ideas below.

Here’s 9 ways designers can generate passive income:

Upcycle unused design elements for passive income

As you go about your client work as a designer every week, you undoubtedly have leftover, unused design elements that ultimately get scrapped and discarded.

But thinking strategically about passive income as a designer means instead of throwing away those unused designs, you should consider upcycling them.

How can you upcycle you work to generate passive income for designers?

Designer Ben Brush, has 7 ways he personally turns his unused work into passive income. His ideas include selling them as stock art, turning them into prints, writing tutorials for blogs that pay writers, and more. Read about all 7 of Ben’s ideas here.

Develop design products that you know will make passive income

One of the most common ways of generating passive income for designers is by selling design elements or resources on marketplaces like Creative Market or Design Cuts.

There’s one designer who’s literally the smartest person I know when it comes to building passive income for designers. His name is Dustin Lee.

In one video, Dustin recommends the easiest path to passive income for designers is to look at what’s already working in these design marketplaces and improving on popular items there.

“There’s no special award or merit badge you get for inventing some sort of new product that’s never existed.” Dustin explains. “In fact, it’s probably the easiest way to fail because there’s no way to verify it makes money. Seeing what’s popular on something like Creative Market allows you to confidently make something and see what’s doing well and improve upon that to make money.”

In other words, if you’re going to take the time and effort required to design something from scratch in the hopes that it makes passive income at some point, you should do your homework and make sure it’s something that will actually sell.

Teach what you know as a designer—and sell it for passive income

You may not realize it, but as a designer, you’ve got a giant arsenal of special skills and talents that not many people have—but a lot of people want.

It can be easy, if you spend most of your days hanging out on graphic design blogs or other design communities, to forget that most people aren’t designers.

This knowledge gap provides an excellent opportunity for you to teach what you know via some sort of online course, ebook, or other learning platform.

Just create it once, and sell it over and over again. That’s passive income at its finest.

Sites like Udemy and Skillshare not only allow designers and others to learn just about anything they want, but also lets designers create their own courses to generate passive income.

PS: Want to take an in-depth course on passive income for designers? Udemy’s got one of those too.

Recommend resources to your clients that generate passive income

Another less-common but brilliant source of passive income for designers with clients is recommending certain services to your clients that then include an affiliate payout for you as the designer.

For example, maybe you’re a web designer looking for passive income. Instead of telling your clients they can sign up for web hosting wherever they choose, perhaps you could recommend (or even require) that they sign up with a host that provides quality service and also has a nice affiliate program.

Bluehost, to illustrate, has a nice affiliate program that pays $100 or more for every new client you sign up.

If you’re a WordPress designer looking for passive income, you could recommend sites like HandyWP who would then give you a percentage of your clients monthly fee for the life of any customer you send them.

Since you’re likely recommending hosting, maintenance, or marketing tools to your clients on a regular basis anyway, why not generate a bit more passive income while you’re at it?

Build an audience to grow your passive income

Of course if you really like the referral/affiliate model mentioned above as a way of generating passive income as a designer, then you could take it to the next level by building some sort of larger audience.

Not to spoil the fun here or anything but that’s exactly what I’m doing with this blog post right now (kindof meta isn’t it).

Ten years ago I started a blog and have spent a decade attracting loyal readers (and new-comers who find us through Google) who trust the recommendations we make.

So, when we link to a resource like Creative Market or Bluehost (like we did above) and people click through and make a purchase, we get a small kick-back.

That passive income allows us to continue generating high-quality content for designers on a regular basis and you can do something similar.

Growing an audience is definitely not the quickest route to passive income for designers, but can have nice long-term benefits if you’re willing to work hard and be patient.

Become an affiliate for your favorite design resources

If there’s a certain resource you find yourself constantly recommending to fellow designers, you might want to consider becoming an affiliate for that resource.

Similar to the two tactics above (generating passive income by recommending tools to clients or a larger audience), referring fellow designers to helpful tools can be a nice way to generate passive income for designers.

For example, did you know you can get an affiliate payout for recommending Adobe products to your friends and fellow designers? Or you can sign up to get paid by Amazon any time a friend buys that perfectly-designed coffee mug you just won’t stop talking about.

In addition, as I’ve already mentioned above, you can sign up for Creative Market’s affiliate program so when fellow designers as for help finding that perfect background texture, you can send them an affiliate link and build some passive income.

Build passive upsells into your current design workflow

One quick win to help generate passive income for designers who are already well-established is to examine your current workflow.

Is there somewhere you can incorporate simple upsells for some extra revenue on each project?

For example, here are a bunch of upsell ideas for logo designers. Number 7 on the list is a fantastic example of a passive-income-oriented upsell: additional rights.

Since defining which rights your clients will receive should already be a part of your initial negotiation, building in passive income can be simple.

With no extra effort or cost on your end, your client can purchase additional rights, releases, or usage permissions around the work you give them.

Other workflow ideas that generate more passive income for designers include offering retainer services after projects are completed or including additional education or maintenance documents (like a “how to” guide for WordPress designers).

Capitalize on big design trends and tools to generate passive income

Staying up-to-date on the latest graphic design trends and most popular tools for designers is a great way to build passive income for designers too.

For example, my friend Ian Barnard is an extremely talented hand-letterer. As his Instagram started picking up, he started noticing patterns in the kinds of questions he was getting from his process videos.

From that, he has released loads of high-quality brushes and grid builders to help other designers excel at hand-lettering themselves.

You might also notice educational trends like switching from Photoshop to Sketch and decide to create a Udemy course, ebook, or other resource to sell for anyone looking to make the change themselves.

At a minimum, you can incorporate Dustin’s advice from earlier in this article and see what’s trending on Creative Market to see if you can improve on it and release something even better.

Build a recurring revenue design business

Finally, building a recurring revenue design business is a fantastic way to grow passive income for designers.

There are a few ways you could go about doing that.

You could learn from my friend Jake who pivoted from calling himself a web designer and charging hourly to calling himself a Creative Director and charging on a recurring basis. His story is here.

Or have a listen to our podcast episode with Chelsea Baldwin who built a $300K/year recurring revenue business on the back of her freelance writing career.

You can also learn more about retainer-based creative businesses from my friend David.

Alternately, you could build a subscription-based business centered around your skillset like Russ Perry did when he built Design Pickle. He now has thousands of customers paying hundreds of dollars each month for his “unlimited” design services.

How will you generate passive income as a designer?

My hope with this article was to get you excited about passive income for designers.

I hope I’ve helped you see that generating somewhat passive income is definitely possible whether you’ve only recently become a freelance graphic designer or you’ve been in the industry for years.


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  1. Hi Preston, Thanks for giving us a hint, These are very helpful but it is always good to get a fresh viewpoint from someone who is helping others. Yeeeah!

    Alex.

  2. re MojoThemes and Themeforest, are the template sales not over-saturated, with fierce competition? I am new to this and I don’t know how to judge.

  3. Thanks for the post,
    I will try these for sure,

    I have tried bluehost, godaddy also but currently I am using affiliate system of webservicespoint.com
    They are providing webhosting at comparatively lower prices with greater value.
    I like their services.

  4. Most of my passive income comes from Campaign Monitor. It’s not much, but the more clients I get the higher it becomes – and it’s so easy for clients to use I very rarely need to provide support.

  5. As for selling photos, one pretty good service I use is ImageBrief (www.imagebrief.com/r/baIDfr). This is not a microstock service and requires from the photographer to actually apply for matching briefs with photos they have. You may expect to be contacted from time to time with a request to submit a particular image from your portfolio. On the bright side, winning a brief gives one a decent amount of money and the photographer retains full control over their images (unless they go for Royalty Free brief, which they don’t have to do). It’s easy to use service and in its standard option it’s free of charge.

  6. Wow, this is a long thread which is cool since maybe I can get a little feedback here. I was searching around for Graphic Designer Affiliate Programs since we just set one up. We sell Trade Show Displays (from small to large) and over the years have worked with a lot of Graphic Designers and at their request actually created this program. It seems like a win-win since you have the relationships and we provide an affiliate commission for the referral. I noticed that there is a big emphasis on ‘passive income’ like affiliate links. We don’t offer this *yet* since we are much more hands-on and the sales process isn’t as simple as adding to a shopping cart and checking out. That being said, the average commission is also much larger because the average order size is much larger. Does anyone have any suggestions for me on how we can successful build this out and benefit the graphic designer community?

  7. Great tips, I’ve just recently started a blog (www.seancoady.ca) and this post offered some great insight.

  8. Hello everyone,
    Thank you for offering the chance to write here some letters, it´s very kind from your side.

    I would like to comment something and perhaps, if you think that´s adequate, obtain a feed-back from you. Sorry for typing so long text, excuse me.

    In the field of Design, Illustration and Graphic Design, sometimes the relationship between designer-licensee is not always easy or fructify as it should be. Recently, I was in the Middle-East and East Mediterranean Countries. One company that works mainly exclusively for the National Patrimony and Museums of one of these countries. Asked me to create something for them, offering me the bases of what they would like to have. Something classic, classy, but modern at the same time, something that will have to deal with the actual situation of the country, their values, their colours and at the same time actual, trendy and passionate. Something with history and not only a aesthetic value, also an emotional, historical and of course, commercial one. They want to use it in high quality production of items destined to the international market.

    I was working in the project for more than 6 months, exclusively for them, reading, travelling, doing proofs in different textures, colours etc…( all hand-made previous the digital work ). That, as you might know means hours and hours of work, time and inspiration.
    When everything was done, I just called them and travelled there to show them my idea, a nice power-point, and all the designs of this idea, printed in paper, fabrics and of course, digital to could see the details and explain the why of them.

    They loved the idea, loved the designs and suddenly, all the stuff of the company and the director told me they want it. They want to purchase it. They didn´t wanted to put a price to my ideas, because each author has a feeling and a price…so kindly asked me to price them
    So we had a 2nd interview and we spoke about money.
    I told them that I wanted a X quantity of money per each drawing, and if they took the whole collection of 15 unique units, they should only pay me 10.
    They told me that they are thinking to use them and create 15 different items with my designs and sell them in exclusive stores of the National Museums and Patrimony.
    After that 2nd interview, they kindly asked me please to give to them the copy of my idea, some designs of paper and some fabrics to could discuss the idea with their CEO and chief ( due the Government should also say yes to these kind of projects ). And they will turn back them to me the next day. And will send to me an informative detailed e-mail in 5 days making another offer and explaining to me detailed the % of revenue etc…

    At the next day, they didn´t called me back, didn´t answered my calls, and didn´t replied my e-mails. I was in a hurry because I should take the plane to my country…so after a whole day waiting…I left.
    Passing the 5 days they told me to wait for, I didn´t received any informative e-mail, just and only at the 7th day one tiny e-mail saying ¨we are sorry for not having contacted you previously, but we were in a hurry and we will do later on¨. So I replied to it kindly and showing my expectation for what perhaps they should say to me. And why they didn´t turned back to me my printed fabrics, paper designs etc…

    One week later after this e-mail, they send to me another tiny e-mail saying such as this
    They want to purchase 8 of the 15 drawings
    They want to pay me ( I said X price per each ), so they propose X/3 price for the whole collection.
    It means, if I said 2500$ per one, they answered 825$ per the whole collection.
    And about the % of the revenue…they said that 2% ( two per cent, not twenty or eighteen that is want I was thinking about. Online I get in between 10% and 25% ).

    Of course I got very angry and sad, because that is not what we talked about months ago and in my interviews there. But now they already have the idea and the drawings ( not the digital detailed shape of course ) and I´ve heard that, having the soul and the ideas…someone suggested that…well…a copy is not difficult to do…

    What can I do ?

    If I agree, is just to sell myself for nothing and disrespect my art and values.
    If I don´t agree, they will copy them now that they have it.
    And Legally, even I have the copyright of each of one and uploaded them on-line in my private web and others, not showing to the public, I do have a copyright for each one…but I can´t fight legally against a government.

    Any idea of how to handle the situation previously answer them ?

    Thanks for your kindness and I apologize again for this long e-mail.l

  9. Great post. I sell website hosting along side my services to local clients, which has helped build a successful client base. I’ve been tempted to create themes to sell on places like mojothemes, but I worry about the saturation and income it may or more not bring for the effort that goes in to it.

    At the moment, website hosting is my only way of passive income and it doesn’t require much time to maintain. So it gives me the time to focus on creating great digital experiences and branding for new and existing clients.

    Besides website hosting, is there any other avenues that require less time that you know of?

    One other thing I do offer my clients is monthly website maintenance. But not everyone seems to go for it.

  10. I’ve had pretty good luck with zazzle, They have great SEO and keywording with the search engines to get your products seen and found, and you can set up a nice professional looking shop for free. It’s good to keep up with whats trending – that will really help your sales, (current events, topics, prepare ahead of time for holidays). Sometimes its also a matter of just doing a design better than someone else has done 🙂 You’ll notice there are many of the same sayings, just differently designed – many choices – make yours the best – make it stand out and a best seller! 🙂

  11. I have both a Zazzle and RedBubble account and I prefer RedBubble. It had prints, posters, T-shirts, hoodies, iPhone cases and stickers. With one high-res design you can add it to multiple if not all products in a single upload! You are also given a store of your own for free if you choose.

    I have set up my payments to be a specific amount and when the profits reach it RedBubble send me a check!

    Zazzle may have more products, but you need to always have new designs to be on te top of the search results. It then becomes a job in itself.

    At RedBubble the top result are of the best selling designs. So some of the designed I made 6 years ago are doing quite well!

    Thank you for the great tips!

    1. Hey Hector, didn’t know about RedBubble, but the concept is pretty much like http://www.society6.com

      Some awesome and kinda famous designers/photographers have opened shops on Society6 so there’s a lot of traffic there

      Anyway, thanks for the share!

  12. While not completely passive, I create hand-carved rubber stamps and sell them on etsy. Creating the graphics for the stamps is a really great creative outlet, plus I like the technical aspect of carving them.

  13. I’m trying to build a design powerhouse with designing and fashion. My passive income sources are my blogsite http://www.cocoalafemme.com, my design site http://www.BridgetFields.com, Shopstyle, Amazon Associates, Zazzle, and Etsy other than that I’m on sites like Pinterest and Wanelo (new site check it out ladies) that direct traffic to the PPC/affiliate sites.

  14. I sell my photos/digital collages on http://www.zazzle.com. It’s not much money (though I don’t promote it as much as I should) but it’s a great feeling to log on to my e-mail in the morning and see “Your product sold!” notices. One example: I am English, live in the US, sold photos of Paris, France, to Australians. Gotta love global trade! (sometimes… but that’s another story…)

    1. That is great, it appears you can sell almost anything on Zazzle. How is the copyright with t-shirts and stuff. Say I used a vector image I created of Bruce Lee on a t-shirt, would that be allowed? Has anyone had any success with graphic novels?

  15. Great article, I was just thinking today that I like my mix of freelancing with some direct client work… but that I needed to generate more income. The perfect time for me to come across your ideas. Thanks.

  16. I found this to very helpful. I will try to implement some of these techniques in my arsenal. Thanks alot designers!

  17. Some good ideas there Preston.

    I do a lot of print design so I met with some printers in my area and organised trade print rates which allows me to add a small margin. It’s easy to sell print to someone who’s already come to you for design, it allows me to offer a complete service and make things easy for my clients.

  18. Thank you for this article!! I’ve been struggling with this for awhile and this article gave me many ideas. Now…to just find the time to do them. 🙂

  19. Not being a fan of direct advertising on personal blogs, I’m going to look into sites like Zazzle for selling some of the designs sat in my sketchbook, particularly t-shirts and posters.

    Affiliate links also appeal to me but I’m not sure how to go about setting these up. Is there a blog post/guide that you could direct me to that explains the ins and outs of becoming and being an affiliate? If not, perhaps you could write one? 🙂

    1. Bit late to the post, but it’s worth looking into the Amazon Associate program. I’ve been using it for a few years now. Easy to set up. Easy to receive payments.

    2. Hi Paul

      Did you sign up with Zazzle? I’d love to know how you got on if you had a go at selling some of your older designs online.

  20. Great article. I’ll have to try web themes once I get better at coding/webwork.

    In my opinion photography can be shaky since a lot of designer’s photos don’t come close to professional photographers’. If you can do it, go for it, but selling photo prints isn’t the easiest thing to do as a designer.

    I have sold digital art prints before though. I also provide photoshop resources, namely brushes that artists and designers can purchase a commercial license for.

    Threadless is also another option for hosting and selling graphic t-shirt designs. There’s some pretty amazing designs there.

  21. Hey Preston,

    Apart from all rest that you have mentioned I would say maintaining a blog, designing t-shirts, developing an app and affiliate work is really going to generate great income as one my friend who is awesome designer use to do these. I will recommend him your blog and this post, have already bookmarked this page. You know people/professionals like who share their thoughts and knowledge helps learning professionals like us a lot. We are keen to learn as much as possible about web, seo, designing and development. Lots of thanks to you! Please keep sharing.

  22. I’ve had a little success with Zazzle. Particularly over the period of the UK Royal Wedding earlier in the year. I continue to upload designs, a couple a week in the hope of bringing in a reasonable passive income.

    I like Zazzle because it’s pretty easy to set up and there are some good customisation features when you start digging.

    Steve – Destinys Agent – http://www.zazzle.co.uk/stevesm2010

  23. I have found most successful sales on vectors that are original and have concepts that people can use on any graphic application. concepts like communication, business & family. I think there is too much web elements on stocks, so is better to try something different.

  24. Thats great article. I am already working on some of these ways and you indicated some easy earning ways for designers.

  25. Another way to get incomes, for designers who love vectors, is to sell illustrations, backgrounds and logos in stock websites. The one I recommend is http://www.istockphoto.com

    There are may others, you just have to look for it!

    1. @Marco Javier,
      Thanks for the recommendation, Marco. I totally agree. I’ve made a little extra cash selling extra vector files. I have especially found that people are interested in buying vectors that are web elements like buttons or icons that they can change the color of easily.

      What vector sales have been most successful for you?

  26. Im a Photographer-Designer venturing into freelance and I’m just loving the feed from Millo. I’ve really made any money through selling Pictures, but I’m glad to focused on that point and I shall make an effort to do so.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. @Abul Kalaam,
      Glad you’re enjoying the feed here. Thanks for the support and the kind words! I wish you the best of luck!

    2. Did you go to school for photography? What kind of camera do you recccommend for an amature photographer? Thanks Happy New Year

  27. I personally love Zazzle to sell merchandise. You don’t have to stop at T-Shirts. I’ve sold posters, binders, shoes, hats, postcards, buttons…O and T-Shirts. 🙂

    Building the “store” is super easy, and they have templates for all your products. And you can link your Zazzle store to your FaceBook page. I had a photographer friend that had her stamps picked up by the Post Office from her Zazzle store. Quite nice. 🙂

    1. @Amanda,
      Thanks for the recommendation! Of all the merchandise you sell, which do you find is the most successful?

      1. Comparing Cafepress and zazzle. I have found much better results through the zazzle store as you get a single store for all your products for free, unlike cafepress where you have to pay for a premium store to list everything together (otherwise it is a single store for each of your products)

        Best sellers for me are tshirts and pin badges.

        You can’t just sit back after loading the designs and expect to get a steady income from them, you still have to market the products and let people know about them to get the traffic going there.

        I found setting up a little storefront on my website which is populated by a feed of the zazzle store works well for converting site visitors into customers.

    2. Thanks for the tip Amanda. We purchased a laser cutting and engraving system a year ago for use in prototyping. We discovered many uses for it since, one of them being products we can make. I have been exploring how to get something up that we can have customers go to for sales. We have been a service company since 1995 and this is a new direction for us. Checking out Zazzle. Do you have any thoughts on Etsy?

    1. @Mike,
      Thanks for adding those sites and tips, Mike. Much appreciated since I’ve never ventured out into that sort of thing. Maybe I will give it a shot. Have you every tried them?

  28. Why you choose MojoThemes and not ThemeForest? Is MojoThemes better or you have another reasons for that?

    1. @Alex,
      Great question! I have been very impressed with Mojo Themes because of their ability to make me feel like a friend and business partner instead of just another designer who submits work to their site.

      Have you tried either of them? What do you recommend?

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