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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 passive, reliable, and predictable.
It can be freeing.
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 idea of purely 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.
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 are 9 ways designers can generate passive income:
1. 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 your 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.
2. Develop design products that you know will make passive income
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 a passive income for designers is to look at what’s already working in these design marketplaces and improve 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.
3. 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 platforms.
Just create it once, and sell it over and over again. That’s passive income at its finest.
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 a 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 for.
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?
4. 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 kickback.
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 a passive income for designers, but can have nice long-term benefits if you’re willing to work hard and be patient.
5. 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.
6. Build passive up-sells 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).
7. Capitalize on big design trends and tools to generate passive income
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 resources 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.
8. 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 centred 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.
9. Start making curated templates
If you want to get into web design and learn a bit about user experience design, you could join a curated template program like the one provided by the Zyro website builder.
After you join such a program, you use the website builder’s easy to use tools, to create website templates which, once approved, are added to the website builder’s gallery.
You earn a passive income by getting revenue from each template you design and getting approved. Not only is this fairly easy to do, but also serves as a great way to expand your portfolio.
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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