So here’s a not-so-hypothetical question I’d like to put out there: as a designer what are the saleable products one might go about creating?
I mean products in the sense of re-sellable items that appeal to a mass market, instead of services like individual design work sold to a single client. And at the moment I’m biased toward independently produced and sold products. I’ve been thinking about this question quite a bit lately, as might be evident by the icons I built last year.
It seems like everyone else is building a web application of some sort. While that’s becoming a well-trodden path, you can’t exactly slap together a few static Photoshop mockups and convince people to put up money. There’s a heavy coding requirement that a lot of designers can’t handle. Yeah, uber-genius designer + coder types like Shaun Inman can bang out one-man apps like Mint in their sleep. And sure, you can always team up with a talented coder and collaborate. But for the purposes of this post, let’s put aside those possibilities and focus on strictly that which a visual designer is capable of producing on their own steam.
Here are the few ideas I’ve managed to scrounge up thus far:
The big obvious one. With the success of Threadless there’s clearly money in it. People will always need clothes. It’s a safe bet. But it’s also crowded; it seems like everyone and their dog is selling shirts these days, through CafePress or through their own sites.
Pros: services exist to help you get started, probably a safe choice. Cons: inventory and distribution management, finding an audience. Examples: Cottyn, SimpleBits (though it seems to be on hold at the moment).
Also a possibility, but buttons seem like less of a product, and more like schwag. I might be under-estimating the draw of well-designed buttons, but my suspicion is that it’s hard to retire off selling them.
A lot of designers seem to be coming out with their own icon sets lately, and it’s for good reason: icons may be the easiest product to get started with. There’s no inventory overhead, and they’re useful to designers in a way similar to stock photography or type, which both have proven markets. Of course producing good icons is awfully hard to do, so depending on where your talents lie, the barrier to entry might be higher than simply managing overhead.
- Stock Photography
Not only does this take strong photography skills, which (while related) are quite different from design skills, it strikes me as being fairly hard to do independently.
Pros: low management overhead. Cons: requires expensive gear, unlicensed digital files are impossible to control, requires photography abilities. Examples: aside from the now Getty-owned iStockPhoto or Corbis-owned Veer, I can’t really think of any significant independent stock photography providers. They must exist…
I’ll mention this for the sake of completeness, but it’s not easy to crack into designing typefaces (or at least designing good ones) without years of prior experience. The few times I’ve customized type outlines I’ve been fairly glad it’s not my job to do this for a living.
- Re-sellable blog/web site templates
Given the quality free themes for blog software, I think it would be rather difficult to put together a premium template and license it. The market has decided what themes cost: nothing. Again listed for the sake of completeness, but someone please point me to a good theme that someone’s selling for actual cash money, that’s also doing well? I think crickets are chirping.
I’ve seen some other interesting ideas at places like T.26 and their chopsticks packages designed by Carlos Segura (hat tip: Zeldman), and moving a little further out, more traditional products at indie designer stores like Meomi and Gama-Go.
It seems a bit ironic that moving away from the web and into physical products is the most obvious path for web designers to pursue; I wonder if it’s possible to do both? Web-based products? Or at the very least, staying on the digital side as much as possible. I’ve been enjoying watching Dan Cederholm experiment with both digital and web products on top of more traditional products and publications, it’ll be interesting to see how these various ideas evolve over the next few years.
And as for myself, well I’ve already mentioned the icons. I’m not getting rich off those, but I’ve seen a few interesting things happen since launching that I think will encourage me to keep producing new sets for a while. The numbers aren’t there yet, but they’re promising.
One thing I have learned though is what everyone will always tell you about marketing: it’s not enough to have a product, you have to tell people about it, and convince them they want it. So at SXSW this year I’ve got a whole pile of sheets of icon stickers that I’ll be giving away; each sheet features a mixed variety of icon stickery goodness, collect the whole set!
Ironic, isn’t it? Giving away a physical item to promote a digital product? Welcome to this strange new world the internet’s creating.
I removed the word “web” from the very first sentence of this post because I think it was tainting people’s interpretation of what I’m really asking for here. Medium isn’t necessarily a factor, so much as existing skillset. If I had to boil down this entire post to a single question, it’s this:
Hey, I’ve got these visual design skills, what can I do with them that will result in a product I can sell to people?
I realize I also talk about the irony of web designers creating physical products above, but that was meant as more of an aside than the theme of the post. The context of the quoted examples above point to where I’m trying to go with this, and they’re mostly design-oriented items, and not specifically web-related.