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March 04, 2008

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.

Pros & Cons - same as t-Shirts, I’d expect. Examples: DS Buttons, El Boton


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.

Pros: low management overhead. Cons: unlicensed digital files are impossible to control, requires illustration abilities. Examples: Icon Shoppe, IconBuffet, Chalkwork

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.

Pros: proven market. Cons: unlicensed digital files are impossible to control, requires a lot of experience and talent. Examples: Hoefler & Frere-Jones, Mark Simonson

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!

Chalkwork sticker sheet preview

Figure: Preview of Chalkwork icon sticker sheets.

Ironic, isn’t it? Giving away a physical item to promote a digital product? Welcome to this strange new world the internet’s creating.

Update: 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.

March 04, 15h

These look really nice and are definitely a unique idea. Might be nice to throw a sheet in with a purchase as well. Although. I guess the idea is to promote, which if a person is already buying, would seem redundant.

Dave S. says:
March 04, 15h

I can’t lay claim to coming up with the idea of icon stickers actually, I’m ripping off Microsoft there ;)

March 04, 15h

If you’re sticking to ‘pure’ design stuff, have you considered how-to videos?

Pick a number of individual challenges in a design tool (like ‘creating a metallic look in photoshop’) and make a short video/screencast of it. Sell them individually or in bundles.

March 04, 15h

While you’re at SXSW, check out the Lucky Oliver booth for a more grassroots approach to stock photography. I discovered them last year while down there and just wish I had more time to contribute my own photos to their site.

See you down there.

J Lane says:
March 04, 15h

Something that I’ve struggled with as a developer is finding a good source of design elements for a page. Stock photos are okay, but sometimes you want more of an illustrated look.

I hate “web templates” because nothing’s worse than having a site that looks almost identical to another site on the web. I’m okay with overall design in terms of combining elements together to look good, but making each of those elements is beyond my skills (most of the time).

I guess, something like, only with a little more of a web-focus would be cool.

Or hey, if you want to collaborate on a web app or two, I’ve got a couple in mind that I’m working on :-)

Jason says:
March 04, 15h

I also struggled with finding a good source of small design elements for pages, I’m development.

March 04, 15h

Similar to what Denis Hennessy offered, there’s always putting together an e-book. Is it better than writing a book outright?

March 04, 16h

“what are the saleable products one might go about creating?”

knowledge and advice?

March 04, 16h

To fill in the noise those crickets are making, here’s the one example of a blog template that is actually being sold for money:

It’s the only one I’ve ever seen, but it’s not to say that there isn’t some sort of market for it out there. Like you said though, since there are so many free ones, it seems like a difficult market to try to make money.

March 04, 16h

This was an unexpected post. It reminded me of discussions me and my team at work had when others in the organization didn’t understand what we did. Because of this, we did the same thing we always did, but “packaged” it in a way that folks could grasp with a sound bit. Some folks got it. Others didn’t. We felt like we were doing busy work to market or prove our worth. I got the feeling that that was what you were getting at with this post. Maybe I read it wrong.

From my point of view, moving to more physical items is not where you want to go. You don’t create icons, or shirts or buttons or websites. You are a designer in design there is utility and significance. Folks want significance. If you “produce” stuff that can be routinely created, then the routinely created content always races to the lowest cost provider. There’s no business in that.

A designer is much more about story, symphony, empathy, synthesis, play and meaning. You can’t point to those things, sure, but that is the reason for their high priced value. I’d stick with that if I were you.

March 04, 16h

Hmm. I think the whole question (“what products can web designers sell?”) is a little flawed. Web design, by its very nature, is a service. I’m not sure how you can turn it into a product. It’s like asking what products hair stylists can sell. Or architects. (But it’s not 100% impossible…I’ll get to that in a minute.)

That’s not to say you can’t sell icons, or stickers, or photography, or tee-shirts, or any of the other things you mention. You can. But, to me, when you start creating, say, stickers, you’re being a sticker designer, not web designer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.

Dan’s Foamee is one of a very few exceptions I can think of. He is, truly, producing a web design product. But for the most part, the things you’re talking about aren’t really things a web designer can do because of a web designer’s unique skillset, they’re totally separate trades a web designer can learn how to do *also*, and supplement (or even replace) their web design services with.

Again, nothing wrong with that – I think icons, t-shirt, and stickers are awesome! I just don’t really think making them has much to do with *web* design, that’s all.

All that having been said, Dan has proved that there IS such thing as a web design product (even if Foamee’s the only one I know of). I wonder what other true web design products there are to be thought of? To me personally, that’s more interesting than “what can I do to supplement my web design services?”

Ms. Jen says:
March 04, 17h

Writing this whilst on wifi at Salon Pop, as the purple is cooking in my hair. According to the owner there is only a 10% profit on hair/nail services but a 37% profit on products sold at the salon.

So Dave may be on to something here.

As a non-illustrator (or at least very allergic to Illustrator) I would love to have not icons but design elements in a variety of styles for purchase, a digital version of the design elements books that one can buy.


March 04, 17h

I’m with Jeff here, sorta. I think Jeff more clarified the post rather than contradicted it. If the question is “how can you sell web design?” then there’s not much there, because as Jeff mentioned its more of a service than a product. But I more see the question as:

“Being born, raised & trained as a designer, specifically one who spends most of his time working on the web, what are other things that I can be involved with that allow me to use my skillset to create a marketable tangible product?”

In this case I think you’ve covered most of the obvious ones.

But I think there’s something important that needs to be said. If one considers himself as just a “web designer” and not a “designer” than I think what that person is saying is that they can only do design in raster @ screen DPI. I usually see “web designers” fall into 1 of 2 different categories. Either a) they are a web designer who can code, in which case your products are web sites and applications. Or b) a web designer who is also just a “designer,” i.e, can do design for pretty much any application. In this case the “print” world opens up millions of possible products. Book covers, artwork, posters, print media, clothes, video graphics & thousands more. I think thats an important distinction to make before you decide what products you’d be good at creating/selling.

March 04, 17h

You just need to find a way to tap into a bigger market that needs what you offer. I’m sure your icons are first rate, and that your book was first rate, but after the initial wave of excitement, the royalty cheques will drop off. Your market is devoted and talented, but small.

You need something that people will pay for over and over, and that has (somewhat) mass appeal.

Sounds like your idea of hooking up with a coder is a good bet as long as you complement one another. And as long as there is some marketing skill in the mix. Coder + designer = nothing without marketing consistently and ruthlessly.

That’s the whole Am**y thing about residual income vs trading hours for dollars. As a designer, you get lots of dollars for your hours, but the trick is to continue to get lots of dollars for the work you have already done.

March 04, 17h

Your question is almost paradoxical. By designing a T-shirt, say, or getting into stock photography, you’re moving away from web design. Buttons, stock photos and T-shirts in particular have *nothing* to do with web design. Branching out into those areas, you become less of a web designer and more of a graphic artist.

Of course, regardless of what you call yourself, there are plenty of things you could do: logo design/corporate identity, consulting, illustration…. if you’d rather sell products than services, hats go along similar lines as buttons and shirts. You could write another book or start a webcomic, or rip off Microsoft once more and make *action figures* of your icons. Or if you have an idea for a web application, find someone else to do the coding and do the design work yourself.

Really, it all depends on what you’re good at, what you enjoy doing, and how much time you have.

March 04, 17h

“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 got to disagree here – the topic of ‘premium themes’ for Wordpress has been especially hot the last few months.

Successful themes have been launched by Brian Gardner, Solostream, Adii and the aforementioned Quomunnication.

If you’ll permit the self-link, I’m also launching a magazine-style theme which comes pre-packaged with CMS options (a contact form, feed management, header/logo management and so on).

When done right, the premium themes concept has proven successful for designers looking for other revenue streams or simply looking to push boundaries.

J Lane says:
March 04, 17h

Hey, to take the design elements thing one step further (because I know that’s what everyone’s waiting for), it would be neat to put a bit of a Threadless twist on it (an ongoing design competition). So put together some “requirements” and have folks submit theme packs that include all of those elements. Have the community comment/vote on which they like best. You award the winner with a cash prize and ongoing royalties. Why can’t the Threadless model work in other places?

Dave S. says:
March 04, 18h

@Denis Hennessey - “have you considered how-to videos”

General educational materials are an option for those inclined to teach. I was originally going to list books, and videos would count too.

@J Lane - “I guess, something like”

Stock illustration is tricky; a lot more work goes into each illustration than each photograph. I think there’s a reason why clip art libraries are so horrible, and good stock illustration is hard to find. Not to say it can’t be done, but my suspicion is that no one has figured out a decent way of making money off illustration other than commissioning it.

@Patrick Lauke - “knowledge and advice?”

See directly above re: books/video. :)

Dave S. says:
March 04, 18h

@Paul O’Shannessy - “the one example of a blog template that is actually being sold for money:”

Thanks! I wasn’t aware that existed. Though I’m just now getting to wondering how a premium template provider would deal with the inevitable design rip-off problem, given how often they happen to other sites already.

@David Weiss - “If you “produce” stuff that can be routinely created, then the routinely created content always races to the lowest cost provider. There’s no business in that.”

Seems to work for movies. And I was going to say the music industry, but, well.

@Jeff Croft - “Web design, by its very nature, is a service. I’m not sure how you can turn it into a product.”

Yeah, see my update to the original post, I think by dropping the word “web” in that first sentence I loaded it with meaning that’s not meant to be there.

Also see Ms. Jen’s comment below yours re: hair-stylists. I think that’s exactly what I’m getting at. Coming up with those 37% profit items that a designer can re-sell to supplement the 10% profit services.

Or look at 37 Signals, they went from service-based company to products themselves. They didn’t package up what they were doing as a service and sell that, they created something else. I’m wondering what the something else is, if it’s not web apps.

Miguel says:
March 04, 18h

In the line of what some other people have suggested, I think that coming up with a website where you could find many different “design elements” to sale to people who can code but can’t design very well (there are some of us out there!) would be a great idea. Sort of like “templates”, but more granular (A “design your own website” if you will).

The problem with such an idea is that in order to attract masses on the web, your product will need to be free. :-( Take wordpress or flickr, for example, they’ve got a sweet product, but it’s all free. How can you compete! The truth is, you’ll either need to find a product that people will be willing to pay OR to find a product you can offer for free, and then use the numbers to your advantage somehow (google anyone?).

By the way, the idea that Jeff and the others bring forth, i.e the fact that a web designer can’t sell products because then they are no longer “web designer”, is, to me, disputing the very notion of an evolving web experience. Who’s to say what the definition of a “web designer” really is… What is the web? What will it be in 5-10 years from now?

In fact, in order to really succeed in your search for a good product to sell, you may need to come up with something that doesn’t follow the current trends and molds. Something that will totally blow us away! But maybe I’m just rambling and it’s not that complicated. Who knows.

Dave S. says:
March 04, 18h

@Rick Hawkes - “As a designer, you get lots of dollars for your hours, but the trick is to continue to get lots of dollars for the work you have already done.”

That’s pretty much my question in a nutshell. Nice summary!

@Darren Hoyt - “When done right, the premium themes concept has proven successful for designers looking for other revenue streams or simply looking to push boundaries.”

I’d be curious to know what successful means in this case. Thanks for more counter-examples, this is a meme that’s totally escaped my attention thus far.

March 04, 19h

Hey Dave-

After reading the your update, it’s all much more clear. Sorry to have misunderstood! :)

I’m not sure I have any great ideas on other designy things one could produce and sell with a skillset like yours that haven’t been mentioned. But, I really am interested in hearing what thoughts people might have on actual “web design” products. I’m not very interested, personally, in making and selling something more “physical,” but I could find myself interested in selling web design as a product, if someone came up with a great idea for how one could do that.

Anyway, sorry to have derailed the conversation a bit…

Dave S. says:
March 04, 19h

@Jeff Croft -

Sounds like you weren’t the only one that was confused, probably my fault for running off to the printer instead of proofreading before hitting that publish button. ;)

If there’s a such thing as a “web design” product other than pre-built templates, I’d love to hear it too. Sounds like reusable pre-built graphic and UI elements, whether those be vector or HTML/CSS in nature (or both), are also something there may be a demand for.

March 04, 19h

“As a designer, you get lots of dollars for your hours, but the trick is to continue to get lots of dollars for the work you have already done.”

That’s the gist of developing high-quality Wordpress themes that generate dollars on a per-download basis. Providing some ongoing support via forums is important though too.

“Thanks for more counter-examples, this is a meme that’s totally escaped my attention thus far.”

No problem – it’s definitely a recent phenomenon, and seemingly one with promise.

“Sounds like reusable pre-built graphic and UI elements, whether those be vector or HTML/CSS in nature (or both), are also something there may be a demand for.”

Todd Dominey quit two very sweet jobs to sell his Slideshow Pro full-time:

J Lane says:
March 04, 19h

@Dave S. - “Stock illustration is tricky; a lot more work goes into each illustration than each photograph. I think there’s a reason why clip art libraries are so horrible, and good stock illustration is hard to find. Not to say it can’t be done, but my suspicion is that no one has figured out a decent way of making money off illustration other than commissioning it.”

Agreed. What do you think about turning it into a design competition? I had a twinge of “ew, spec work”, but it isn’t that at all. The best of the best will be chosen and paid a reward. Work can be re-submitted over and over again until the community votes it to first place.

I think you’d lay out guidelines like “must contain a background element (either repeating pattern or large image), a few interface widgets and some flare pieces for use on the page”. You’d be specific about what each set should contain (I clearly haven’t given this a lot of thought yet). I think you could end up with some really interesting contributions that would have good re-sale potential.

Keep it web-focused, all things that you could use in making a site look good. I can’t remember the actual numbers of what Threadless pays designers, but it seemed to me that they were pretty good in terms of percentage and actual prize for winning designs. Designers submitting work could end up with a pretty good return is they win a few, and as the site owner you would get a pretty good percentage of sales.

March 04, 19h

Great post!

I think the most important part in determining what products a creative person can sell, is to focus on things that you’re passionate about. Have an interest in typeface design? Dive in and see what happens. That hobby could turn into a product. For me, these “cottage business projects” have always scratched a creative itch. And they also fuel a certain level of ADD :) But by trying several different mediums, you can see which ones stick and refocus.

Someone mentioned screencasts, which AFAIK hasn’t been explored much by CSS/UI folks. Seems like they’ve been successful for backend programmers (e.g. Rails) and could possibly quite successful for teaching CSS. Very interesting.

The “premium template” thing has always be rattling around as well. For instance, I’d always wanted to expand the Chameleon concept (icons that change color before being purchased) by offering customizable buttons, interface elements and even full templates by allowing the customer to plug in hex values, typeface choices, layout parameters etc. to “build” a theme. At least that way, the end products are somewhat unique.

March 04, 20h

The thing about premade graphics is that people like to make things their own. This is why sites like Facebook and MySpace allow users to customize their profiles. No doubt there’s a large market for premade visuals and designs, but I think if you could somehow tap into the desire for uniqueness you could do well.

An alternate idea: a of marketplace for “visual web elements,” such as icons or templates. People could sign up, upload their stuff and sell it, with you collecting a portion of the sale. Something like CafePress, but with more of a community feel.

Dave S. says:
March 04, 20h

@J Lane - you’re describing Pixish almost to a T.

@Dan Cederholm - “Have an interest in typeface design? Dive in and see what happens.”

That’s certainly familiar. I said for a while that I’d like to get back into illustration. Then look: icons.

March 04, 20h

“People could sign up, upload their stuff and sell it, with you collecting a portion of the sale. Something like CafePress, but with more of a community feel.”

Almost sounds like but for interactive designers. Not a bad idea.

On preview: or like Pixish!

March 04, 20h

@Jeff Croft

I’ve heard of other examples beyond Cederholm’s Foamee product related to the web… what about those toys that are being sold:

a stuffed animal that you purchase for your young one, that has an online ID, opening up a virtual world of some sort online for the kids. They can build a home for the physical product, interact online, and all kinds of things from the look of it.

Sounds like a great idea; I would consider this a “Web-product”(as mentioned earlier). IN this case, they have the best of both worlds: sell the physical product at a great profit, and then get the consumer hooked online. From what I have heard from friends with younger children, these things are HUGE. I can imagine how much more they sell after the kid gets into the website and its world.

Could this model be used somehow for adults, kind of like foamee…but maybe something useful in a different way? Maybe this has already been tried before, I’m not sure…

J Lane says:
March 04, 20h

@Dave S. - Eek. Spec work!

Okay, kidding aside, it’s sort of like pixish, but we’re not talking specific assignments, we’re talking building up a library of general design elements.

March 04, 21h

I’ve been thinking about this a lot with respect to It’s not *exactly* the same thing but the whole idea of “person cards” came about as a physical good to offset the cost of labor involved in creating a unique pixel portrait. 8-12 hours at $100/hour is hard to justify when all you get in return is a 64x96 gif. But what if you got 1000 person cards with it? What if the portrait was printed on a giant canvas? Like an actual portrait (I’d love to do one of Steve Wiebe from The King of Kong).

The unfortunate thing about pixel portraits is that like traditional portraits they are more of a fine art. There’s no money to be made mass-producing a blocky picture of your nephew. Even as niche collectibles (say a deck of playing or trading cards with web or other video game celebrities) I’m not sure the return would justify the initial time investment. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Shane says:
March 04, 21h

Most stock photography (outside of Veer) stinks. At least the royalty-free stuff. I think that it would be a viable business for a designer who could come up with a decent way to do subscriptions with GOOD stock photography, especially business photography.

The business world is increasingly more casual. And the “business casual” stock photography out there is horrible. All the workers are using antiquated computers and much of the photography is done by *cough* designers, who have never seen the inside of a real office.

March 04, 21h

I’ve developed an interest in woodworking lately. For me it was the ability to put a lot of work into something and have an actual physical object to hold in my hand at the end of the day. Great feeling. There are always friends or co-workers who could use some built-in bookshelves (technically carpentry) or other stuff around the house.

Charging someone for just materials is a great way to practice and build up your skill set. A guy at work was quoted $4000 for some built-in shelves from a local carpenter. He offered to pay me $2000. Materials cost about $400 and the rest is gravy! Couple projects like that a month and you’re living pretty comfortably.

Having the design background applies right off the bat, and attention to detail doesn’t hurt either. And if you ever turn the hobby into a real business, well, at least you’ve got the web site part covered! :)

Dan Rubin says:
March 04, 21h

I’m with Dan C. about following your interests and passions - if you are a creative thinker, that creativity will spill into anything else you are passionate about (or interested enough in to *become* passionate about).

Typeface design, furniture design, teaching and publishing are avenues I’m exploring of late, to expand into down the road. Also on the list are various experiments in product design (and customization of existing physical products) - as long as it has something to do with design, I know I can get into it.

Looking forward to picking up the set of sticker sheets in a few days :)

March 04, 21h

Brian: The trouble with something like your example, as it relates to Dave’s post, is that it’s a web app, with a lot of programming necessary to make it happen. Dave is specifically asking for something a web *designer* could do with his/her skillset alone.

That’s not to say that product isn’t a great idea – it is. It just doesn’t really answer Dave’s question, because it’s not the sort of thing a web designer could build him/herself.

Aaron says:
March 04, 22h

“And sure, you can always team up with a talented coder and collaborate.”

Maybe that’s your answer. (Hook up with a good coder.)

IMO, it’s easier to license a good app than it is to license good design, simply because it’s a less subjective deliverable.

That said, I know mediocre designers who do well producing shopify templates, myspace templates, content aggregator templates, etc.

Great post by the way. Tough to be 100% service forever.

March 04, 23h

Gah! I keep coming up with ideas that would undoubtedly require a hefty outlay of code. My argument has been that once a platform is in place the whole user focus could be on customisation via purchasing new design components … rather than on improving the platform itself.

Take virtual toys, for example. What if a platform existed that supported virtual points of articulation and facilitated movement and themes/skins. I’d give away the platform, but sell the ‘skins’ as completely individual characters. I know this particular example is probably a half-baked idea that’s been tried and failed a couple of times, but I think you get the idea: establish a platform that facilitates 100% design related sales.

Of course, you could also sell the toys for real. Check out David Lanham’s latest work, for example.

Thinking up ideas that aren’t tied specifically to a application-based platform (and haven’t already been mentioned) are tricky …

Sophie says:
March 05, 01h

One of the obvious things (like icons) would be desktop wallpaper.
Although for computers, they tend to be free, the example of Vladstudio is interesting (membership for high resolutions).

For phones on the other side, creating a service that resizes provided designs to your phone resolution seems to be a service that people (micro)pay for. Maybe it has or will change with new, easier to tweak, smartphones.

March 05, 01h

I think designer toys and posters might be a great choice. The guys at eboy make some great stuff.

Ole says:
March 05, 02h

@Dave S.
Books require more than howto-videos tho, because you need a name or a big publisher for the book to sell. Tho many are free (e.g. Dustin Diaz has some free JavaScript tutorial screencasts), there are people that sell video-tutorials also.

March 05, 05h

You dismissed Blog templates because the markets demands the price to be nothing but…

Is a blog the only thing that requires a template?

Think of CMS providers for the SME market - I am in my last week with such a company - or those popular, off the shelf e-commerce applications that are based on template designs and are for the basic internet shop.

Much of these require custom templates (i.e. designer + code) or acceptance of “poor” templates often with table based layouts. These company’s may be happy to sell your templates as part of a package such that you receive a percentage of the price charged. You could obviously sell your templates independently of the product and maybe charge an exorbitant exclusivity price.

March 05, 06h

So glad someone “high-profile” asked the same question I’ve been asking forever. :) I’ve been kicked a few times for having the audacity to sell a blog template or two so I can tell you I would probably never go back down that route.

However, there are some good suggestions here, specifically by the Dans. To expand on that just a little, it’s my experience that people who genuinely seek to fill a creative or or other personal call will eventually find success in that.

On the other side of the same coin, someone who sets out to make money first and above all else will likely fail because their heart’s just not in it.

Jeff says:
March 05, 06h

What about greeting card sets? Apply your personal design take to holidays, events (wedding, whatever), and even event-less cards.

Post cards seem even easier.

March 05, 07h

I’ve seen some freelance designers do the greeting card things; some as free gifts, some for sale, and it’s seemed to work pretty well. Posters are another great thing. The Hurricane Katrina Poster Project ( is a great example of that - limited edition posters. Admittedly, for a good cause, but I think the idea could work. Veerle’s “design is” poster competition had prizes, but there were a few posters I’d shell out some cash for, but as of now I can’t. So I definitely like the Threadless model for that sort of thing.

As an designer fresh out of college, I’m doing a lot of small freelance jobs that I don’t have the budget to spend a thousand hours doing everything, so I also like the idea of design elements for sale. In the LiveJournal icon communities, there are tons of designers/icon-makers who make resources - textures, layer masks, gradients, patterns, etc for Photoshop that people who want to make icons but don’t know how to make the effects can use. Most of this is free but here and there people offer premium content for fairly cheap and it’s been quite successful.

I think the issue is coming across as offering something useful, versus trying to “cash in”/scam people. Obviously, a successful product that people want will do that naturally, but that’s not always easy to determine.

March 05, 07h

I personally like what Veer is doing with their bags, umbrellas, hoodies, prints et all. I think there’s a good market for wearable design that goes beyond the rather saturated tshirt/button market. People want something unique and perhaps a bit exclusive. I’m not sure that answers your question, but there you go. :)

March 05, 08h

Publishing via Lulu or Blurb is a low-overhead option, at least from a financial perspective. (There’s obviously significant overhead in terms of time and effort.)

For any design shop looking to really dive into selling goods, I think the best approach is the Coudal one. Keep churning out ideas, and act on them when there’s reason to believe it could be a successful niche business. It would certainly require a much greater dedication to selling products you design than throwing a couple of Cafepress shirts on your site, but a couple of t-shirts aren’t going to be the next Jewelboxing. The reward is potentially great if the idea is unique, good and well-executed.

March 05, 09h

I know one of the guys at Joomlashack ( ) and they’re doing pretty well with the commercial CMS template biz.

The web app thing is no panacea. We (three of us) spent nearly a year building Gift Ecology ( ) and it’s hard to generate an audience for such a big-think concept. It would be far easier, but much less fun, to simply “solve a problem.” So that’s one trade-off.

We’re starting another web app project soon (two of the original three founders), also in the “internet of things” space, and are focused a bit more on the market outreach than product design. The product is much simpler, which helps.

Stephanie says:
March 05, 09h

I get my stock photography from SXC: I don’t know how independent they are but there’s lots of good stuff.

March 05, 09h

I started writing a response to this late last night but it got unwieldy and turned into a blog post and I guess trackbacks aren’t allowed.

You can read the post here:

Jist was that I would like to see some of my favourite designers making tote bags for using when I do my weekly shop. The supermarkets in the UK are moving away from plastic bags but while the reusable bags they sell for use are functional they are a bit dull.

March 05, 10h

I tried the T-Shirt route myself, and you’re right about the cons. I think the hardest part is finding a niche that sets you apart from all the other T-Shirt retailers. Not to mention that you need a decent amount of $$ just to get setup.

March 05, 11h

Part of the issue is that designers are almost always applying thier trade to an already-existing product or idea. In other words, design hardly ever exists in a vacuum.

Design’s cousin is fine art, which almost always exists in a vacuum. Maybe you should get into painting?

Jonathan says:
March 05, 11h

Stock photography has actually worked out pretty well for me. I contribute to and http://www.Fotoliacom and earn some decent extra cash from those. Sure there was the equipment expense, but the photography has already paid for it. And now I can be in control of the photography for my own projects and for my clients. ShutterStock now offers stock video as well.

Being a designer, using Photoshop comes as second nature for me. So getting into stock photography was kind of a no-brainer for me.

Shane says:
March 05, 12h

What about posters like

You can also do books, like

or other fun stuff like what these guys do

March 05, 21h

I realize I’m coming a bit to this thread, but I definitely find it interesting. As one of the three creators of DS Buttons I can confirm that buttons tend to lean a bit more towards swag and less towards an acutal product you can sell. I still feel the concept was a strong one and it was a lot of fun to work on. That said, none of us have gotten rich from them although we did make a little money.

It’s an interesting topic, and I don’t have much more to add in terms of new ideas on what just designers can do to make some residual income. I do agree though that you should focus your efforts on things you’re passionate about like Dan Cederholm and Rubin suggested, but I’d add that you should look towards things that have a chance of bringing in some recurring revenue as well. If nothing else it helps keep you motivated to work on the project.

I’ve found things like buttons and t-shirts (with the exception of the big places like Threadless) tend to dry up after the first few months. For example, we made 90% of our income in the first month of sales with DS Buttons. It sounds like the icon business might be a bit more steady, but from my experience the physical goods are a lot more difficult (not to mention stocking the items, shipping, etc.).

Andy dunn says:
March 06, 01h

Stock photography is becoming really saturated to make any decent money out of it. The mass photo sites like istockphoto, have millions of images that sell for less than $5.

I guess you have to have some very unique photos, or at least a lot of them.

Nat says:
March 06, 13h

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. It lead me to create this: . And I have to agree with your comments about buttons. While I’ve sold a bunch, I’m not exactly ready to quit the day job on my button income. It’s been a fun experiment, though; I haven’t really put a ton of effort into it, but it’s something I’d like to take further eventually.

March 08, 19h

Lots of good ideas here in the comments and in the article.

I think that selling CMS themes is a good business model that will continue to grow. Its been popular with Joomla for years and will migrate to Drupal eventually. Its already occurring in Wordpress. Someone else mentioned that your also purchasing support when you purchase one of these themes. So, its a product with a service attached.

I’m personally interested in selling educational items. So, teach people web design or graphic design. Books and ebooks have been mentioned. Creating a small group of paid members for a site where they learn web design would be cool. Of course this isn’t a product, but rather still a service.

Educational videos are a product though. is a good example of this kind of business. If you find a market that isn’t being served that needs the material then go for it. Lynda can’t cover everything. Lullabot is coming out with a Drupal DVD for example and Lynda doesn’t cover that.

March 09, 15h

Re: Stockphotography market “being saturated”

Having spent the last 5 weeks creating storyboards using istockphoto imagery, I can say that there are massive opportunities here.

Stock photography has it’s cliches, but if you can improve on them or add a twist on them then your product will be hot. Also, there are plenty of holes in the catalogue - e.g. I needed imagery based on OHS and ergonomics - if they could be filled I’m sure you’d see a quick return.

March 09, 19h

Custom apparel still has a lot of appeal. But I agree that Cafe Press is a tough way to go. And keeping your own inventory is tough too. I recently dealt with Custom Avenue ( think I’ve found pretty cool solution.

10% commission. It all works on iFrames, so it really can look like the art and design tool is on your site. You can create your own art work, and link to their design studio and allow the user to add their own wording etc. to “customize” the design.

Greeting cards are a cool idea, sold in packs and allowing the buyer to customize a few lines of text. They are pretty easy to get printed too.

March 09, 21h

Icon stickers for sale is definitely an idea worth pursuing. Think about ratings icons, and labels and stuff that people can throw onto physical goods. Stores could use these labels on their goods to mark them for users.

Jan Beck says:
March 10, 03h

Create Coorporate Identities ;)

March 10, 09h

I have a buddy that won a Dot Net Nuke skinning contest a couple years ago and he’s been banging out skins ever since. DNN really seems to be developer driven and most skins look like they were created by developers - not designers.

He makes templates which can be easily colour co-ordinated (like Sir Cedarholm’s icons) and also makes one-off skins for businesses that don’t want to go the template route.

While it’s not for everyone (I can see it getting boring after a spell) he’s good at and make a comfortable living.

If I had the next big idea, I’d be downstairs in my studio banging it out - not telling you about it - that’s for sure :)

Faryl says:
March 10, 21h

I may be a little late adding my two cents - but I wanted to add a vote for vector design elements - as well as icons. I tend to go to for my graphics, and find it particularly challenging to find vector graphics which meet my needs that have corresponding icons available to tie everything together.

As for CMS templates - one thing I’ve considered doing is focusing on designing headers (I guess somewhat splitting the difference between design elements and creating full templates).

Another option I’ve been exploring is, in lieu of blog templates, focusing on some of the other website development software tools. The non-code-savvy (or less code-savvy) crowd using options such as rapidweaver and sandvox (I’m not familiar with any similar windows software) are also building template-based sites. I’m a CSS novice, and my understanding is that the coding might be offensive to a purist’s eyes/sensibility - but you’d at least be able to influence the quality of the design!

None of those areas seem over-saturated to me. Regardless, since you would be also bringing your name/brand to the table, these would be premium/”boutique”/”designer” products.

From your blog, it sounds as though you enjoy creating - so I’m also adding my vote towards pairing up with a developer. We need more pretty applications in this world! Perhaps widget design?

(A lengthy response - because I think there is so much potential - thanks for indulging me!)

- Faryl

March 11, 09h

The funny thing about stickers is that I always find myself budgeting them. So, rather than stick them all over the place, I pile them up in anticipation of the penultimate sticker receptacle.

Great job on the stickers, they are by far the most interesting thing I acquired in Austin. It was awesome to meet you at SXSW; if you’re ever up for a trip to the beautiful state of California, let me know.

March 11, 13h

Check out the scrap booking section at your local walmart. These icons could make some good money there.

Groningen says:
March 13, 04h

I’ve also been walking around with the idea on how to monetize my design skills. For now i’m focusing on designing Wordpress themes, but in the Netherlands there is just a very small market for these products.

March 13, 12h

Lets focus on the question at hand:

“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?”

When it comes down to it, design skills are service orientated and dependent in nature. They completely rely on someone saying (for example), “We are going to produce and sell a portable music playing device. But hmmm… what should this device look like?”

That is what “designers” are for.

The money comes from the person who knows what product to sell to people, not the industrial designers, illustrators, graphic designers, etc. who design it… because let me tell you there are plenty of people who can make something look pretty.

I feel like your question is basically asking, “Hey, anybody have any good ideas I can rip off?” And I understand that was not your intention, but please realize that the people who do know the answer would never tell.

This is why companies pay for market analysists aimed at answering the question “What can we produce vs. what should we produce?”

Dave S. says:
March 13, 12h

@Chris Hoffman - “I feel like your question is basically asking, “Hey, anybody have any good ideas I can rip off?” And I understand that was not your intention, but please realize that the people who do know the answer would never tell.”

I’d have thought the 67 previous comments suggested we’re having a discussion, rather than I’m outsourcing production ideas I can profit off of. I’m not the only one wondering this, and clearly I’m not the only one willing to share ideas. Wasn’t that obvious?

Mal says:
March 14, 16h

Hi Dave

I haven’t read all the comments, so I don’t know if anyone has suggested this yet… but maybe you should consider designing skins for Second Life or (or any of those other 3D sites).

I have a mate who designs various skins for (mostly car skins and houses) and is making US$50 / day from sales . (Not a heap of money but she just does it for fun , she’s not a preofessional designer.) Apparently, if you install There’s 3D software, you can design new objects for that space and sell those too.


March 16, 06h

It looks like are soon opening up their design partnership process, which might present another attractive option for turning your work into physical products.

Looks like a standard revenue sharing model.

jez says:
March 17, 02h

>> 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. <<

That’s one of the best points you mention there mate. I have thought about ways as a designer to add some extra income, too but getting money from themes is not the way to go. looks kind of like secondlife, I am really surprised your mate makes 50$ a day worth sales based on that… love your site, keep it up, jez

Christian says:
April 08, 18h

What could work? Something where your design-skills are persistently needed, plus are the basic product itself. But does such a thing exist?

Magazines/Newspapers are more about the content, with which comes a hell lot of work one undoubtedly can’t handle

T-Shirts & such are nice, but with threadless, spreadshirt and the likes in mind it’s probably the biggest competition and not quite the solid ground

What else is out there?

A very basic thing as a designer … we’re whores. If people want something they’ll try to get it from us (for the lowest price possible, most likely).

Everything else belongs to artists, I fear.

Design, no matter which kind, is always a “virtual, non-material value”. Of course there’s independent fashion designers and furniture designers, but they are, just as the designer teaming up for a web application, bond to another profession and their basic products are goods of daily needs - furniture & clothes.

Why is this? Because to design means to make something existing beautiful, not to make something in the first place. Design is not a product. We put a design onto products.

Natalie says:
April 15, 07h

I’ve seen some people making money selling wordpress templates. Well, not exactly “selling” wordpress templates because they distribute it for free but they embed links unto the templates to sell. People make around $90-120 per template. Not exactly big $$.

mjcpk says:
April 30, 14h

Physical products are a non-starter in my opinion. Unless you can come up with a new product and start a trend then you’ll probably end up doing a lot of work outside of your core areas of interest just to make it work.

Design is a service, that’s true, but all you really need is a way to make it return more than a one off fee. Templates etc are low level stuff that wont be bringing in revenue a year from now let alone ten.

My suggestion is to start a little design collective with a few others to widen the disciplines represented and offer premium level design services to promising startups in exchange for shares. The startup gets professional quality work at no immediate cost at the point where they really need to develop their brand identity ( a complete package including website, logos, print advertising etc would be a big win for them ) and you get investments that MAY appreciate to many many times the value of the work done.

This has an element of risk but it isn’t intended to replace your day job but is more like a lottery ticket with more favourable odds! Most startups will fail, some will produce steady income and the odd one will go nuts and make your fortune.

For my mind the greatest benefit of this scheme is it keeps you doing what you do best at the highest level, not supplementing your pay by pimping haircare products to your customers.