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.
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.
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!