Tools & Tips
Fresh graduate from a textile print course? Maybe an graphic designer oogling Creative Market's promise of millions? Or perhaps an illustrator with so much artwork and no idea what to do with it? Either way, I've compiled some advice on how to navigate this complex world of selling digital products and your artwork. Good luck!
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Back in the day, I used to have a lot of interns under my 'wing'. Later on, when I branched out and started doing purely freelance work, I started getting messages from all these wonderful people I used to work with and teach - asking me one question: how do you make money?!

VARIETY IS KEY

My income is still tumultuous and this is something I had to get used to - one month it's incredible, one month it's laughable. But this is not due to the amount of my hard work or even sales - it's a combination of the effect of the season, availability of opportunities, the global market, the pandemic. Key to a solid income over the year in independent print design and illustration is a variety of sources: you need to be everywhere, at all times. You need to be up to date, alert and out there. Everyone's situation will be different, but here is mine:


CREATIVE MARKET, YWFT, ETSY

Creative marketplaces will normally be the first thing you will start with. This is the fastest way to dip your toe into the massive market of digital resources and see what sells and what doesn't. For myself, this makes up a good chunk of my income and it fluctuates depending on how often I get featured (CM) or which season it is (run up to Christmas is the most lucrative timeslot on Etsy). Some of these will be invitation only (such as YWFT), curated (Creative Market requires an application which they review) or plain open (Etsy or Patternbank). Join any that you think are relevant to your niche and start adding products.


DISTRIBUTION DEALS

By this I mean selling your artwork through an extended commercial license for your client to use or sell forward. As an example, I was recently approached by Canva, which bought up almost my entire shop to feature on their website as available elements to their Pro customers. I was also approached by Pixelbuddha who bought one of my illustration sets for their subscribers.


Big opportunities in distribution deals are also bundles - there are websites such as Design Cuts which puts together massive packs of design good (such as this one that I'm part of right now!) and then sells them at a ridiculously low price. This in turn attracts a high number of sales, so everyone involved makes a decent income from this one bundle.

Unfortunately, I have no way of advising you how to approach these dudes - I was invited to all of the listed. I do however, know that the invitation came from my consistent work and being present on all of the above creative marketplaces - and they routinely check these websites for potential talent.


ARTWORK SALES THROUGH AGENTS

If you're a textile print designer, you'll be fairly familiar with these. Normally, they will take anywhere between 40-60% of your income made through them (with payout showing up within 60-90 days from purchase). Whilst this sounds like a lot, it's still worth trying this out - chances are you hit the nail on the head in terms what their clients need and most your income starts trickling in from these dudes. In addition to this, each fashion print sells for between 200-400 GBP, so making a living out of these isn't so far fetched at all.

Easiest way to approach these will be to monitor their social media accounts - it happens quite often actually that someone is on a lookout to add another freelancer to their team. I'm currently writing up a list of all the fashion print studios I know for a separate post, so keep an eye out!


DIRECT CLIENT WORK


If you are a graduate, this will be a hard one as most clients are looking for experience and an extensive portfolio. It's a hard wall to tear down, but it's just a thing of statistics - if you apply 100 times, you're bound to succeed at least once. You can go through job boards and filter out full time jobs to find the freelance gigs (these websites will depend on the country you're in). I've also gotten quite a lot of clients by way of emailing them even though they're looking for a full timer - and offer then a better, faster and cheaper option by hiring a freelancer.

Another quick way of scouring the market for gigs are freelance job services such as Upwork and Peopleperhour. Beware of looking at other people's fees though as you'll be shocked what some people will offer for a low price. Having said that, a professional client with some degree of understanding how design can change their business will never be afraid to pay a premium rate if it means getting what they want. Never lower your price for anyone.

Most of my clients personally come from Upwork invitations, Fashionworkie (UK) applications as well as by being found on Instagram.


Don't forget to upsell yourself - e.g. if you're working with a womenswear department, ask your client what they're planning for next season or ask for the other department's email. Getting in there by word of mouth is invaluable and doesn't happen a lot - so grab it while you can.


SIDE SKILLS


Another decent income for me is just the 'side skills' I have. This will depend on which degree you did or your industry experience. For myself it's tech packs, CAD work, product development, trend forecasting and sustainability strategies. Trend forecasting is a particularly useful skill in surface design as clients will typically ask for opinion on what to develop.


LITTLE BY LITTLE

So I hope you got the gist of it - my point remains that it will be incredibly difficult to suddenly make 3,000 quid off of Creative Market or Etsy overnight. Remember: the key here is to survive by doing creative services. You can get there much faster if you build your income bit by bit from different streams. And most importantly one of these will almost certainly lead to another; selling your products on CM will lead onto getting a distribution deal, working with a client on Upwork will lead to long term freelance work with them and so on. Build your career like a house - brick by brick. And if one of them falls off, don't worry - you still have loads to use.


As always, if you want more helpful posts on how to make $$$ doodling and drawing, subscribe to my email list below! I routinely send out tips, tools, trends and other helpful bits!




Updated: Oct 16, 2020


This is an incredibly long topic I could talk about until I'm blue in the face. I really try not to specialise too much myself, but I seem to have completely missed the moment where my work went into this sort of 'retro-but-contemporary' look. So now I gotta stick with it, because my entire portfolio confirms this theme.

Every other print designer out there will be screaming right now that this is wrong – but this is because most designers specialised by going into a full time job where, naturally, they had the specific position (textile designer, graphic designer, homeware designer etc) and have missed out on being a graduate trying to figure out what the fuck to do with life because there is no more decent jobs out there.

If you decide you really want to work with big companies - this post isn't for you. There, you will be asked to specialise by media, format and even delivery time. This post is for the new age agile creatives; designers transitioning into digital resources and working for smaller clients.


SELLING A STORY


In university, we divide by media; textile, print, product. But in 2020, when you end up freelancing with smaller companies, chances are the same client that asks you to do print design for their socks, will be asking you to help them with rebranding or do their packaging etc. It's like you defacto become the in house geek for all things Adobe related (I've had clients expect me to do motion design even). Don't say no to this work - it will give you the ability to expand your aesthetic and work into different media as well as a glimpse of what it is like on the other side of the fence.


What you're supposed to do is sell a style or better yet, a story that a portion of the audience (potential clients and customers) can relate to. And don't forget - it needs to be a tinge different from everyone else; just enough to give you an edge and makes you memorable. Take me for an example - I sell retro patterns and illustrations with a contemporary twist, so my client's products will be vintage inspired, but always on trend, relevant and contemporary. I'm slowly building a reputation which is two sided - unfortunately, if someone needs a clean, minimalist product, they won't email me (even though I could do this easily and confidently), but if they want something retro & trendy, I'll possibly be the first person they think of. How can you apply this strategy to your own business?


THE DEPRESSING TRUTH


So the above covers the inspiring part. Now onto the actual facts and numbers that should also influence this decision. We are in the time of lean start ups and yet we somehow do not apply this to creative businesses.


Here's some things to reflect upon:

Where in the timeline of your career are you? Are you a graduate with just student work in your portfolio? Or are you someone with 8 years experience who just got chucked out of their full time job in pretty much the worst time ever? The difference is, if you are just starting out, you still don't know who your client is, so you aren't really aware of what your product is. For this end of the spectrum, I really recommend keeping a wide portfolio of print and illustration that can be applied to a variety of products. Test out what sells and what you like doing (50-50 approach) and go into that direction.

If you're a veteran going from full time to freelance, dip into your knowledge of the market to figure out whether it is worth keeping the specialisation you had at your job (e.g. womenswear sleepwear print) or if it's worth branching out.


How big is the market you are after?

Or more importantly, how many designers are in that business? Fashion print for example is an extraordinarily massive market, particularly because high street is buying artwork in incredible amounts. However, there is also an incredible number of textile print designers out there - literally thousands graduating every year, coming into the industry.

Have a good long think about your market, your clients and your competition. If you are going after, let's say realistic botanical floral prints in fashion, chances are you are going to run into some tough competition, sometimes in the shape of massive, well connected print studios with thousands of artworks. Same goes for the 2019-20 trend of burnt orange minimalist organic shapes.


How much time can you spend not being paid a full salary?

This is a very sad, but realistic point. Specialising in a certain look will take time as you will be getting clients slower - so you're looking at a certain time where you won't be making a full salary or covering your costs. Keep this in mind when you're planning your freelance career - if you really want to do small watercolor geos for life, but really need to pay your bills this month - then maybe that's not for you.


YOUR HEART IS NOT SMART

Most designers will tell you follow your heart. I say following your heart is capitalist bullshit trying to sell you the 'dream'. We can't all sit and draw the same thing over and over again and hope someone picks us up and pays us something for our time.

This also has nothing to do with money (yet). At the very base of it, we are designers and the sole point of what we do is to design for people and the community. You painting and moaning about how 'nobody values or understands you' is not helping you. People don't value design they can't relate to or it doesn't give them anything emotionally. It is you, or rather us, that need to learn from feedback and needs of our clients and customers. And lastly, no it's not about money - it's about your survival. You need to make at the very least enough money to cover your bills and hopefully a holiday once a year. The point here isn't to make millions from a design business, but to build a sustainable, smart business. So when you're deciding how to specialise, what style to go with - forget the heart. Think objectively and ask yourself; does the world really need another monstera print with a burnt orange flower? I mean, really?


As always, if you want more helpful posts on how to make $$$ doodling and drawing, subscribe to my email list below! I routinely send out tips, tools, trends and other helpful bits!

Updated: Oct 16, 2020


Have you ever failed at something and thought 'God, I can never tell anyone about this'? Because I have, countless times - and now I've decided to share all of these so you don't feel embarrassed when you get there (you're welcome).


LET'S DIVE IN


1) I thought I'd automatically be accepted. Because y'know - I'm an actual TRAINED designer with a BA and MA in design, so I'll surely stand out compared to all of the amateurs trying to get in? Wrong. CM gets hundreds of shop applications every day and I ended up being rejected four times before I was allowed in. Every time I got rejected, I got more determined and the key to success ended up being a proposal that included the first products I would have uploaded, should I be successful in my application. So CM doesn't want to look at your entire portfolio - they want to see what you'd sell and how.


2) I resented everyone on the top. I thought all of these people who are making a 'passive income' uploaded their products and then they fucked off to their beach house or whatever, whilst the money rakes in. So wrong. These guys are super involved in their products, they update them all the time, reply to messages and check in with their customers, etc. I learnt from my mistake as well as from how these guys work!


3) I tried to make fonts. Oh dear. So I've known Creative Market for years before I joined it as a seller and most of my purchases included mock ups and fonts. So naturally, I thought - I'll make fonts too! Wroooong. Surface designers and illustrator differ from your traditional graphic designer so much and where this shows the most is our complete inability to work with fonts like they do. Graphic designers see things in perfect composition, ratios, they appreciate the symmetry of things like it's their second nature. Meanwhile, we usually like things a little bit more wonky than perfect, and more otherworldy than clinical.


4) I underestimated all of my skills and talent. Continuing on the above tangent - I kept looking at how other people make money (which, whilst I'm at it, you don't see on Creative Market anyway, so it was all assumption at that point) and thought 'oh, I should do/change that', inclusive of my horrific let's-make-fonts escapade. For example, I noticed a lack of human touch in seamless patterns if the product came from a graphic designer that does mostly fonts or templates - and it seemed so obvious to me (example 'oh, just offset this little layer to give it some depth' or 'just redraw that circle a bit wonky so it's more organic') but they seemed oblivious. It's because they didn't go through what I did (and I didn't go through what they did) so they couldn't possibly have my skills in some of these products.


5) I thought everything would sell equally. Oh, sweet Jesus. The difference between my best seller to my lowest selling product is a literal monetary canyon. There is a lot of factors that you cannot possibly account for when making a product, amongst them being a season, trend, current average spending, relatability, usability, if you get featured or not. It's okay if something sells incredibly and something doesn't sell at all - we all experience that!



6) I thought having a freebie in the newsletter will get me a lot of $$$. Er, no. I had the chance of having a freebie in the lot for Free Goods Monday newsletter and the difference between these two experiences was stark. In the first, I was on CM all of 2 weeks and had about 5 products. My freebie was downloaded 42,000 times, but I made less that 100 USD in the whole week that the promotion was running.

Second time around, I had 16 products with a wide variety of price and category. My freebie was downloaded 27,000 times, but I made just under 400 USD in 48h that it went live. Ironically, a lot of those sales came from my product Autumn Inks, which was a freebie first time round!


7) I didn't take in account the statistics. So, in true designer form, I kept trucking along with my 'I'm a designer and I know better', all the while ignoring a really important part of the CM seller interface that gives you info on where your customers come from. Once I started taking this into account (e.g. most of my views comes from people clicking 'more from this shop' and search within my shop page, so I realised the key to sales will be diversity and number of products to browse).


I hope this helped a little bit to show you what it's like to be a seller on CM - and remember, fucking up isn't a bad thing. I also wrote up a similar post, but based on my fails of selling on Etsy, which you can find here!


As always, if you want more helpful posts on how to make $$$ doodling and drawing, subscribe to my email list below! I routinely send out tips, tools, trends and other helpful bits!