Passive Income Strategies For Web Designers

by michael

Finding ways to earn passive income is a growing concern among many freelance designers. I’ve always loved client work, but I have to admit that the pressure of juggling multiple bosses and constant deadlines eventually started to wear me down.

As a result, within the past handful of years I’ve been focusing more plus more on personal projects, and considering ways to make money from them. I’ve sold themes and templates and written an eBook, and I’m now focusing on launching my own job board for designers.

In a previous article for Smashing Magazine, I compared various ways to sell software products online. What I’ll do on this article is not just compare ways in which freelance designers can earn passive income, but discuss my very own experience with exploring these avenues.

And, yes, which will include letting you know just how much money I’ve made!

Disclaimer: This post is approximately my own, personal personal experience. Just because I have, for example, never made much money from ads does definitely not mean you can’t. So, please take this as a “Here’s what I did,” not as a “Here’s that which you should do.”


I was fortunate to become listed on ThemeForest (the biggest themes and template marketplace about the Web) in January 2009, shortly after it launched. ThemeForest seemed such as the perfect way to have an unknown, inexperienced designer to make money: no need for any fancy degree or numerous years of experience — just design something cool and the market will reward you. In fact, that’s exactly what happened. Top designers now gross six-figure annual incomes solely from selling themes, and a few do so despite being relative unknowns within the rest of the design world.

So, the thing that was the result of my own, personal adventure into theme-making?

Overall, it was very positive. First, it solved the problem launch my design career, because my first handful of freelance clients were all people who contacted me after seeing my templates. It was also lucrative: in June 2010, my best month ever, I made $1,248. For per year after that, having not even launched new themes, my existing ones still helped me around $200 a month, with minimal effort on my small part.

The high point of my ThemeForest career.
The high point of my ThemeForest career.

Altogether, I’ve earned around $12,675 from ThemeForest in two along with a half years; nothing to scoff at, especially because I completely stopped supporting my themes about a year ago. So, if selling themes is really great, why did I design the final one greater than a couple of years ago? There are a couple reasons behind this, the main one being that industry drastically changed, and customer expectations changed with it.

Designing a good-looking theme isn’t enough anymore. If you want your theme to become competitive, you must support shortcodes, develop a custom back end and design multiple layouts, to not mention provide excellent support and create a documentation website.

In other words, within the span of the couple years, building themes went from something which you could do on the side to being a full-time job. Because I didn’t want to become a WordPress guru and spend all of my time creating themes, I decided to place theme design aside.

My most successful theme.
My most successful theme.

Theme design, then, is one of the finest ways a designer can earn passive income, but it’s also one of the hardest. By the way, another significant step to consider is that theme design is practical only if you’re in it for that long haul and can reinvest the time you spend on a style into subsequent ones (by reusing items of code, streamlining the process, building a mailing list, etc.).


  • Very lucrative if you’re successful.
  • No need for experience or education, for as long as you have the proper skills.
  • No need to be famous or have a large following.


  • Requires a large amount of HTML and CSS coding, and in all probability familiarity with WordPress or another CMS.
  • Providing good support is time-consuming.
  • You will most likely must launch a lot more than one theme before the venture becomes more profitable than regular freelance work.

Icons And Vectors

Note: I have never released any icon packs, brushes or vector resources, so I asked Vincent Le Moign of Webalys for his thoughts on this market.

“I began to create passive income by accident. In 10 many years of freelancing, I’ve created a small stock of vector graphic elements that I’ve been using repeatedly for interface design. At first, it absolutely was just a couple of Illustrator files, where I pasted GUI elements, such as buttons and icons, to reuse in future projects.

“In June 2010, I decided to produce it comprehensive and consistent, then release it for free. Inspired by Web application frameworks such as Ruby on Rails, the User Interface Design Framework was based around the concept of modularity, productivity and fast wireframing.”

Statistics from your launch of the User Interface Design Framework.
Statistics from the launch of the User Interface Design Framework. Large preview.

“It required a couple of weeks to produce it, without coming to a funds on it, but the feedback was impressive: in two months, 52 000 unique visitors, a lot more than 1000 tweets, dozen of blog posts. Even the godfather of Web design, Jeffrey Zeldman, reviewed it. I was high on a cloud!

“Looking advertising online now, I don’t have any idea why I invested a great deal time doing the work — probably because of passion, and I felt the urge to fill a gap: this sort of tool was missing. I didn’t make any conscious plan, but this really is how my new career started. Seeing this steady traffic, I thought I could build a premium version together with it. A few month later, I launched a commercial pack full of 750 vector icons. Then the special moment happened.”

The Minicons icon pack.
The Minicons icon pack.

“Money begun to mount up in my PayPal account. I remember checking my inbox compulsively to see if the latest emails announced sales. It wasn’t a great deal of sales yet, just several hundreds dollars, nevertheless it showed me the way: that creating a living from passive income was possible. In days gone by two years, the sales gradually went up and reached the point where I could stop working for customers and spend 100% of my time on my own products. In 2011, I launched yet another resource: a vintage vector ornaments pack, which was successful, too. Having two different products guaranteed a more regular income flow.

“I currently earn a few thousands dollars monthly from sales. My income is exactly the same as what it absolutely was when I was obviously a freelancer, but I have the satisfaction of developing my own products. But designing quality content just isn’t enough to produce sales. I actually spend most of my time on other tasks:

  • Creating the sales pages, writing the text, polishing the product websites.
  • Setting up the e-commerce solution. In a couple of years I’ve wasted a large amount of time building the sales process. I switched e-commerce solutions 4 times until I found the perfect one (DPD — almost unknown but highly recommended).
  • Advertising and promoting. I spent a large amount of time and cash finding the best sources of traffic.
  • Improving marketing and SEO, and setting up and learning the way to use products such as MailChimp, Google Analytics, GetClicky, SEOmoz, Curebit.
  • Optimizing the conversion rate by setting up A/B tests with Google Optimizer.
  • To be honest, I don’t provide a great deal of support (a short while a day), but I invest in responding as soon as possible. And That I spent a lot of time writing the documentation (with screenshots) to avoid answering exactly the same questions over as well as over again.

“So if you’re considering creating premium resources, the answer is yes, you can live off of it. But your creativity and designs skills are not the keys elements of success. You’ll need to invest a lot of time to learn and practicing all areas of business: marketing, promotion, copywriting, SEO, analytics, etc.

“Actually, this really is the sweetness of launching your personal products: you’ll become a much better designer not by creating better graphics, but as you will have a full take a look at the business enterprise and will master an entire array of skills. You will call at your customer with new eyes while focusing around the efficiency of your designs a lot more than their outer beauty. And believe me, your customer will love that product will pay out the comission more if you increase their sales.

“On the downside, the marketplace is becoming highly competitive. The same shift that’s taking place with templates is occurring in my market. Competition is becoming fierce, and not per week goes by without a few more icon packs getting released. I mean, which designer hasn’t launched their very own set by now?

“I’ve counted a lot more than 50 competitors who sell icons, and also the number and quality is improving constantly.”

A sample of the Vectorian vector pack.
A sample of the Vectorian vector pack.

“Also, the growing trend of discounted bundles (like on Dealotto and MightyDeals), in which you get a ton of helpful information on a couple of bucks, risks drying up the market. I’m still uncertain if this will convince more designers to incorporate these resources inside their workflow, thus expanding the market, or stop them from buying these packs at the current prices.

“This tougher competition has forced me to spend months this season doubling the number of my icons, from 750 to 1500, and adding variations for various software, such as PowerPoint and Keynote. Also, I’ve improved my other product, the vector ornaments, and paid another freelancer to repair a couple of problems. and I recently paid an excellent calligrapher to create a logo for Vectorian and improve the branding. Expenses and time investment are going up.

“Another problem: I don’t think my designs are as creative or of the same quality as before. I’m so dedicated to creating the content, marketing it and thinking like a business proprietor that I sometimes have less passion for design and fewer creativity.”


  • You already have the skills to generate the content.
  • If you utilize marketplaces such as iStockphoto and GraphicRiver, you don’t must build a website or advertise your products.
  • Almost no support is needed (if you’re writing good documentation).
  • You will expand your abilities and be more business-oriented.
  • You don’t need to write in English (this was a huge advantage for me because I’m French along with a poor English writer).


  • It’s time-consuming.
  • The expectations of quality and quantity are rising. And more plus more free content is becoming available.
  • The companies are competitive; you will need not only great content, but great marketing.


I can still remember when Carbon first accepted among my websites into its advertising network. I was overjoyed! At last, I would be able to dip to the river of cash that flows into Internet advertising! Of course, I didn’t expect you’ll earn a salary from ads alone, but I thought it could be a nice supplement — say, a couple of hundred dollars a month.

If you’ve ever run any kind of ads on a website, you understand what’s coming: my first payment must’ve been for something similar to $5. So, yes, Internet ads are no fun — unless you bring in a massive amount of traffic (or in the event you plaster your website using a massive quantity of ads).

My first ever ad spot.
My first ever ad spot.

Since then, I’ve joined Fusion Ads for my blog and joined Yoggrt for The Toolbox (both ad networks are part of BuySellAds). To give you some numbers, The Toolbox gets about 20,000 uniques a month, which is not huge but nonetheless decent. This converts to $30 to 60 per month. My blog is just a little more productive (probably due for the higher click-through rate), and I’ve succeeded in pulling in $100 or $200 in extremely good months whenever a handful of my posts went viral. But the typical may be around $50 to $100.

Altogether, the total from advertising will come in at around $600 over six months. So, as far as I’m concerned, ads are a good method to pay to get a meal to celebrate the weekend, however, not much more unless you opt to turn into a full-time blogger.


  • Does not require any work.
  • Joining a respected ad network gives your website cachet.


  • Pays for any meal, if you’re lucky.
  • Did I mention that you probably won’t earn anything?


Writing an eBook (or plain old book) might seem relatively easy. After all, we all know the way to write, right? In fact, I’d state that actually writing the ebook is not the hardest part. Sure, developing a good writing style takes years of practice, nevertheless the truth is the fact that individuals will forgive clumsy writing if you’ve something valuable to say. No, the real operate in writing eBooks is as to what comes before and following your writing.

Before writing the first word, you must come up having a good topic and, more importantly, develop the relevant skills necessary to create you an authority on the topic. Simply compiling existing knowledge might work to get a blog post, nevertheless it won’t fly whenever you ask visitors to give away their hard-earned cash.

Consider writing an eBook only when you’ve a number of numerous years of experience below your belt and feel ready to distill it into a book. And please don’t result in the mistake of thinking it’s over once you’re done writing. That’s actually if the real battle begins: selling your book.

My eBook’s landing page.
My eBook’s landing page.

How will people find out about your book? What reason will they need to buy it? Why should they buy yours instead of competing books? These are the types of questions you’ll have to face.

If you want to relax your chances on a personal website, have a page from Jarrod Drysdale’s book (pun intended), Bootstrapping Design. Drysdale not only create a website for his book, but also used a email list before and after the launch to promote it by broadcasting sample chapters and asking his audience various questions. I did my far better to promote my eBook by generating a landing page, writing guest posts about it and holding giveaways.

Another good strategy is always to target a niche. This is finished . that I did by focusing specifically on user interface design for startups, and Matthew Butterick also achieved it with his Typography for Lawyers book.

Last however, not least, I strongly recommend partnering track of websites such as AppSumo and Hyperink to open up distributions channels for the book and to create new revenue streams.

Sales started strong but have slowed to a couple per week.
Sales started strong but have slowed to a couple per week.

Writing an eBook proved to become great for me. I had a great launch, making about $8,000 inside the first a couple weeks alone. Since then, sales have slowed considerably, but I did manage to make another $6,000 inside the four months since the launch. In my case, the true secret to earning more was partnering track of AppSumo and Dealotto, which both brought inside a couple of thousand dollars in extra revenue after the initial boost from the launch faded away.


  • Almost no support needed.
  • No technical skills required.


  • You need to have something to say.
  • A lot of promotion is required.
  • The marketplace is competitive and crowded.
  • Sales will quickly dry out after launch.

Software As A Service

Building a business requires a ton of work and commitment, but unlike freelance design or, say, mowing lawns, building a software-based service of some type takes away the 1:1 relationship between your efforts and your income. Some services charge only once, as will be the case with job boards such as Authentic Jobs and my very own Folyo. But, of course, the cash cow of passive income is subscription services because they enable you to anticipate your cash flow and create a steady income stream.

The obvious challenge in building a software service is always that it requires technical skill, which you might not have access to if you’ve got a design background. It’s not the finish of the world, though. You could locate a cofounder, outsource the project or even learn the skills yourself. And you don’t must go all out right away. When I speak with non-technical founders, I often notice that a preliminary version of their idea could very well have been achieved using a simple WordPress blog.

If you explore a bit deeper, you’ll realize that opportunities for monetization are everywhere. For example, WordPress has numerous membership subscription plugins. Even MailChimp lets you charge for newsletter subscriptions. By thinking away from box and combining existing services, even a moderately technical person can get yourself a minimum viable product out the door.

I launched Folyo (a website that can help startups find great, vetted freelance designers) about a year ago:

Folyo, a personal job board for freelance design projects.
Folyo, a private job board for freelance design projects.

For the first couple months, I ran it as a simple newsletter of job offers, with a Wufoo form for submitting projects. There was no back end, no database no user accounts! This was enough to validate the concept also to motivate me to create a real app. So, I found a Ruby on Rails developer through a Hacker News jobs thread and paid him about $3,000 to develop a working app (a process I cover in more detail on my blog).

Meanwhile, I had been learning Ruby on Rails myself, so I’ve since taken on a part of the development myself, outsourcing the remainder to a buddy in return for some design work. Was it worth it? While I haven’t any doubt I will be earning more if I was focusing on freelance work as opposed to Folyo, I’m still very happy that I made a choice to launch my own, personal project.

I currently make about $1,000 a month from Folyo, that is good enough for starters person with minimal costs after one year. More importantly, every day spent working on Folyo makes it a bit better and increases the website’s value (unlike with client work, where working on a single project doesn’t enable you to with the next).

Of course, when I’m working on Folyo, I do hardly any actual designing. In fact, my time breaks down something similar to this:

  • Email and support: 20%
  • Blogging: 20%
  • Coding: 40%
  • Miscellaneous tasks: 10%
  • Design: 10%

So, if you’re thinking of launching your own service, take into consideration that it probably means spending much a shorter time designing.


  • Theoretically, it can be lucrative and also enable you to get bought out by Google or Facebook.
  • The work is quite motivating.
  • You have the freedom to create anything you want.


  • You will have to step way outside of your comfort zone.
  • The chance of failure is high.
  • At the end of the day, relatively little designing is involved.

Lessons Learned

What did I study on all this? And what would I do differently if I could start over? Well, something I realized may be the importance of building a network. You must locate a way to get connected, whether it’s by being a famous designer, writing a blog, building a Twitter following or, ideally, doing all might more.

Of course, a lot of great designers focus simply on doing a fantastic job and don’t concern themselves too much using the rest. But maybe these designers went along to a great art school and kept in touch using their classmates. Or maybe they attend design meetups regularly. One way or another, you can bet that most successful designers conserve a network, even if they don’t realize it.

Blogs and Twitter are simply the digital equivalent of this. Making it entirely on your own is very hard, so the earlier you commence cultivating these relationships, the better.

Related to this, possess a strong identity. Try to stand out from your crowd, and ensure people know whom you are. You can achieve this by cultivating your own style, being involved in high-profile or viral projects or, what I think will be the best way, launching your own personal projects.

Visual Idiot’s humor at work.
Visual Idiot’s humor at work.

If you would like to find out how it’s done, look no further than Visual Idiot, who converted his great design skills and weird sense of humor right into a job at GoSquared, despite no one around the Internet even knowing his real name.

This may sound obvious, but the reality is that projects that help make your network or identity are not often the most lucrative ones (actually, they usually don’t cause you to any money). So, it’s tempting to consider that high-paying contract to design a pharmaceutical company’s intranet, as opposed to spend a couple days building a silly JavaScript that replaces stuff with pictures of cats.

But guess what? Nobody outside of Big Pharma will ever see that intranet’s beautifully crafted pixels, but that cat website might go viral and lead to thousands of people suddenly becoming mindful of your existence.

To summarize, the main lesson I’ve learned over the last handful of years is to possess a long-term view and purchase yourself, not chase a quick buck.

The plan is rather simple, then: create a network, cultivate a powerful identity to ensure the network knows which team you are, after which come up with a product you can market to it.

Of course, each step usually takes a couple years. I said it was simple; I didn’t say it was easy!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: