Getting Rich From Design?

Many people dream of becoming wealthy by doing the thing that they love. Designers, by and large, get into design because they simply love it. But eventually, the realities of making a living, paying the bills, feeding your family, etc. take precedence over your creative dreams, and you may find yourself taking on clients and projects you never thought you would just for the money.

via Aleksi Tappura

Most designers are under no illusions that their profession will lead to riches – that’s reserved for others who have more finance-oriented ambitions, after all. Or is it? How exactly would a designer make tons of money from design? Is that even a worthwhile or realistic goal? Let’s explore the idea of a designer making an outrageously comfortable living from design, and what that actually means.

Create A Runaway Hit

The majority of single designers who build empires of massive wealth and prestige have done so the hard way: they worked their way up and slowly mastered their craft, then they created a design solution that was so beautiful, elegant, and perfect that it garnered them praise from the entire design community and beyond. Consider the case of Massimo Vignelli and his famous New York City subway maps, or, more recently, Jonathan Ive and his revolutionary designs for Apple. When the whole world is clamoring for more of your work, they are inevitably going to start throwing lots and lots of money at you.

If you have a particular project – either a client project or a side project – that you become well known for, this is the first step towards building your own lucrative empire. Right now, you can challenge yourself to come up with the best ideas that you can, and implement them in ways that will not only please your client, but dazzle them and anyone who lays eyes on your work.

Scale Your Design Firm

Everyone knows that real money lies not in design, but in entrepreneurship. The designer is just part of a team that helps to create a winning product. If you enjoy design, but don’t mind assuming more of a creative director or CEO role, becoming a firm will help you earn much more money.

If your ambition is driving you to make a larger paycheck, then scaling your design services beyond just yourself is essential. There are several options here. Firstly, you could get a partner. A fellow designer to share the workload, or a more “business-type” person to do your bookkeeping, client negotiations, or anything else you might need a hand with, while you focus more of your time on design.

The other thing you could do is create your own brand, under which you manage several employees who handle all of the day to day aspects of providing design services to your clients. Again, it’s more about being an entrepreneur rather than simply a designer. This comes with its own challenges and risks, and, frankly, is a lot more work up front, but the benefits of being your own boss and having no cap on how much you can earn far outweigh any downsides, in my opinion.

Become A Founder At A Startup

This is another popular way to get rich as a designer, especially since the start of the new era of online and technology startups. Here’s how you do it: simply sign on at the ground floor of a startup, have a hand in creating the look and feel of the company’s website, brand, or merchandise, and wait for it to become a million dollar company. Easy, right?

Well, not exactly. Of course this method requires a lot of hard work, and also luck. If you’re serious about working in a founding capacity at a company, you’ll need to hone your Good Startup Detection skills to a fine edge. Look for warning signs and red flags when evaluating a startup. Particularly, pay attention to whether they are genuinely selling a product or service, or whether it’s all smoke and mirrors.

A lot of startup founders like to talk up their big plans, and if you’re not careful, they can bring you along for a ride that goes nowhere. You’ll invest months or even years of your time and effort into something that was only a pipe dream all along. Not exactly the best path to getting rich.

Create And License Your Work

This is an excellent way to become wealthy, and also one of the most lucrative once you learn the ropes. The way to license your designs is fairly straightforward: you approach a company that makes things, and offer them the rights to reproduce your work on whatever they make, in exchange for a royalty (usually around 7-10%). Then, you sit back, put your feet up, and wait for the checks to start rolling in while you work on a new design. There are no other clients or middlemen to deal with, and you don’t have to concern yourself with how the products will get made or distributed – that’s the licensee’s job.

Of course, licensing comes with its own set of challenges as well. For one thing, it’s exceedingly difficult to find a company who will:

  • give you a fair royalty percentage,
  • be appropriate for the type of work you do, and
  • be profitable enough to be able to license your work in the first place.

This becomes somewhat easier once you’ve built a platform around your brand and enough people know your work who will be willing to buy your licensed reproductions.

The best way you can improve your odds of success here is to create a formidable presence online. Interact with people who like your work, create cool side projects that will catch people’s attention, and don’t forget to share your ideas about design and what you do through blogging and social media. If you build a large enough brand on your own, you may not even have to worry about approaching companies for licensing – they’ll be coming to you.

What Do You Think?

Know any rich designers? How did they manage to pave their way to wealth? What are your thoughts on how to reach this elusive goal in this competitive industry?

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