As a designer, there are a number of ways you can earn money. Whether you choose to work as an employee for a large company or go out on your own and freelance, there’s a lot of versatility in design that enables you to find a source of active income that works for you.

But while these straightforward approaches to earning money as a designer are considered to be mainstream and effective, there are also other ways to introduce additional revenue streams into your life – namely with passive income.

What is passive income?

Passive income is an alternative source of revenue that can reduce your dependency on active income, popularly known as “earning money while you sleep”. While this type of income is associated with minimal labor and effort, it usually requires an upfront investment of money, resources, and time.

The truth is, nothing is truly passive. It takes quite a bit of time and devotion to create passive income. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t achievable. As they all require a well-thought-out strategy and hard work, it’s recommended to start working on passive income ideas in your downtime. This lets you scale up your earnings while still having your active income as a safety net.

The very basic way of earning passive income is index fund investing. While there’s always some risk involved with investing, long-term holding of index fund shares is relatively safe. But I don’t want to spend too much time on that, as investing always requires a decent amount of capital to get any sufficient income.

Another thing to note is that freelancing has no potential to build a passive income no matter how good you are. So I wouldn’t really discuss that here – however, it is a great way of earning money making design. Let’s talk about what we can do with our time, so it would work for us in the future.

Selling digital assets

Selling digital assets is a sensible way for designers to earn money on the side without worrying about expensive startup costs. It’s something that has worked well for me and other designers - but it does come with some barriers.

It’s worth noting that the market is highly oversaturated. This doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t get involved - it just means that you should be really thoughtful when positioning your work as different from other designs out there. Expect lots of competition.

Digital assets are a broad category. It includes various creations ranging from a set of icons to texture images to a complex design system. If you design something that people want, this counts as a digital asset! Any tools and resources that allow designers to work better or faster. For example:

  • illustrations
  • icon sets
  • templates for Webflow
  • plugins and scripts for Figma/Sketch
  • mockups
  • 3D-objects
  • flowchart builders
  • presentation templates
  • patterns

The more successfully your product solves the designer's tasks, the more popular it will be. One day I got tired of cropping faces from photos in Unsplash for user avatars every time, so I prepared a pack of avatars in three sizes. I posted it on Behance, Dribbble, and Twitter. So far 4k people have downloaded it and I got $74 in tips. Yes, it's a tiny thing - but the product itself is also small, I spent no more than a day on it. Anything can be a product or a tool.

UI kits or design systems are a great example of a large market. Studios are buying them to set up product development processes, improve quality, and reduce time costs. UI kits are also in demand among junior- and mid-level freelancers. Their main use case is to get the project done in time and with a nice UI.

Five years ago when making UI kits was my main source of income, I was earning about 1,5k a month on average and it took me about a year to get there. When I stopped actively promoting existing and publishing new digital assets, I still had a somewhat consistent income for at least a couple of years.

I learned that the nature of work wasn’t really making me happy and I felt that my potential for financial growth was very limited. That’s why I eventually got back into freelancing and later into a full-time job at a company.

There are several sites where you can sell your creations. Some of the most popular ones include UI8, Creative Market, and Envato Elements.

Teaching outline

Teaching online can be quite lucrative if you’re prepared to put in the work beforehand. Teaching requires you to possess a high level of knowledge in your field while being comfortable instructing others.

But if you’re prepared to put in the hours and consider yourself an expert, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try to get involved with teaching online.

Teaching online allows you to work from the comfort of your home. You can pick and choose your hours and make your schedule suit your needs. It’s a great thing to take up in the evenings or on the weekends.

You can utilize existing platforms such as Skillshare and LinkedIn Learning or simply start building your own audience. If you’re looking to generate a large following, it’s recommended to get yourself out there as much as possible. This means actively posting on relevant social media channels or featuring as a guest writer for high-performing blogs. The more that people see you as a trusted authority in your space, the more likely they will be to learn from you.

Selling Merchandise

Selling merchandise is especially popular with the graphic design community. It consists of both print-on-demand services as well as material you ship out yourself.

While selling merchandise used to be associated with the continuous hassle of shipping out your products, the modern age has now allowed many designers to earn a passive income without getting involved with any aspect of printing or shipping. That service is built in for them.

You can sell your designs on t-shirts, water bottles, notebooks - pretty much anything you can sell online. If you choose to sell your designs via another platform, you’ll earn a commission any time someone purchases a product containing your design. This is a great way to earn money without having to get involved in the shipping process.

If you want to cut out the middle man and stock these products yourself, it will require more of your time, money, and resources. There’s always the possibility that you’ll stock something that doesn’t sell. But if it does, you’ll earn significantly more than had you partnered with a third party.

Writing an e-book

Writing an e-book is very much a hit-or-miss experience. While some e-books quickly scale the charts and become best sellers, others hardly sell.

The good news is that it’s easier than ever to become an author these days. You can work with various companies to sell your content in the form of an e-book without having to pay costly printing charges. Anytime one of your books sells, a third party will print your material. It really is that simple.

An e-book layout itself could be a nice exercise and design challenge. It allows you to have fun and get creative while learning how an e-book should be structured. Take inspiration from other e-books out there and try to create something different.

Don’t feel limited to writing just about design. While this can definitely feature as a selling point of your book, people are also interested in your overall journey. The jobs you had before design. The rejection you experienced. The process of moving countries and experiencing new roles. Now’s the time to think outside of the box and create something that people want to read. If your e-book doesn’t add value, it will be hard to sell.

Building a membership community

Membership communities charge users a monthly or yearly fee in order to access premium content. This can stem from a successful blog, a popular following on social media, etc.

The key here is distributing content that people are happy paying for. This could include in-depth tutorials, downloadable resources - pretty much anything that’s useful for a designer looking to further their career. The more polished and professional your content looks, the more likely you are to secure a loyal following.

While this isn’t the type of thing that will do well overnight, it does prove to be an attractive passive income option if you build up a large community that pays recurring fees.

Passive income for designers

If you’re looking for new ways to earn money as a designer, try looking into one of the methods listed above. But remember - earning money while you sleep doesn’t happen overnight. Be prepared to put in the work beforehand and find something that works for you.