How to Be a Profitable Online Graphic Designer

Rob Nightingale 12-12-2014

Graphic design is a notoriously difficult business to succeed in, but more designers than ever before are taking up freelance work. These days you’ll need an edge to maintain profitability in your business.


By 2020, 50% of the American population are expected to be freelancers. As this freelance industry burgeons, so too do the number of graphic designers within it making this notoriously difficult online career path even more of a hurdle-laden route than you might anticipate.

Fortunately if you’re a graphic designer struggling to turn a profit, there are myriad options available to you. We’ve detailed just a few of these ideas below, and would love for you to add your own suggestions to the comments too!

Land More Clients

Profitable Graphic Designer

There are a plethora of online platforms designed to match qualified freelancers with potential clients. Although many designers may shudder at the thought of competing with other designers charging as low as $3 per hour, with the right pitch and impressive portfolio, there are plenty of designers on these platforms charging $150+ per hour.

Obviously, getting to the point where you’re able to charge what you’re actually worth will take some time, but by taking on a few initial small projects, such as low-budget logo designs, you can quickly build up some positive reviews and example designs to showcase your talent, thereby increasing your hourly rate.


A few of the more popular freelancing sites for graphic designers include the following. I’ve purposely left out Fiverr as it’s incredibly difficult to make any decent money if you like to take time to provide your clients with what they really need:

Design Contests

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Although this may not be your natural choice, if you’re a skilled designer with some spare time to ‘risk’, and are looking to build up some examples of your designs, occasionally checking out sites like 99Designs can pay $249 for logo designs, $599 for web designs and so on. This may not be enough to justify your time as there is no guarantee the company will pick your winning design, but you may think it worth considering.

Make Money From Your Unused Files

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You probably have hundreds of old designs lying around (icon sets, Photoshop filters, fonts, themes, logos, web designs, photos, texture packs etc) that have never seen the light of day. Instead of leaving these files gathering dust, why not put them to work for you by selling them on marketplaces such as the following (ensure you’ve retained the rights to these designs first!).

Many of these marketplaces have exploded in recent years, making competition fierce, buy by ensuring you have some unique designs, detailed descriptions and help files included with your designs, you stand yourself in good stead for making a few passive sales.

If your designs end up selling well, who knows, you could end up making your entire living from selling graphic sets on these market places!

Write a Book

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As a designer, you have unique skills and a unique take on certain topics. By gathering these thoughts together as a book or ebook, you not only create a passive income stream, but also build your reputation as an expert in your field. If you publish on Kindle, use Kindle Direct Publishing. If you go for a print book, there are several print on demand services The 4 Best Online Print-on-Demand Book Services for Self-Publishers Self-publishing has never been easier than it is today. Here are the best print-on-demand book services that'll help you create and sell your book online. Read More available.


If you’re unsure if this could work for you, read about how designer Nathan Barry made $6000 in one day when he launched ‘The App Design Handbook‘.

Sell Your Prints

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If you have unique, commercially viable designs (especially illustrations), have you ever thought about selling these as prints using sites such as DeviantArt and Etsy? By selling products such as posters, canvas prints, wallpapers or even mugs and mouse-mats, you can pretty quickly add another income stream to your repertoire, and get more people seeing your designs.

Guest Post On Other Blogs

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Guest posting (on sites such as WebAndDesigners) is a fantastic way to have your name seen by as many potential clients as possible, while continuously growing the number of inbound links to your own site (thus improving your SEO ranking- some tips on that here How to Blog For Search Engines Without Becoming a Content Mill Read More ). By writing detailed articles aimed at solving very specific problems you can position yourself as an expert (or even the go-to person) in your niche, which will in turn enable you to up your rates and become a more profitable designer. Oh, and if that’s not reason enough, some of the larger design sites will also be willing to pay you for a well-written article, too!

Form Strategic Partnerships

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By having a strong portfolio in certain areas of design (for example, ebook covers, landing pages etc), you place yourself in a position to partner with other relevant companies who have easy access to your target market. For example, if you design album artwork, you can set up partnerships with independent record labels to receive more work from them. If you specialise in high-converting WordPress themes, partner up with SEO specialists, copywriters and consultants to they can recommend you to their own clients.

Changes To Make Within Your Business

Now that we’ve spoken about different tactics you can use increase revenue and add a few more income streams, there’s also plenty you can be doing within your business to improve your profitability.

Reduce Expenses

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Are there any additional services you’re offering your clients that are costing you time and money, but not adding any real value? Are you offering five redesigns when just three or four will do? Are you signing up to membership sites or paying for magazine subscriptions that you don’t really need? By removing all unnecessary temporal and monetary expenditure, you naturally increase overall profits per hour.

Utilise Your Past Clients

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As an established designer, you likely have a list of past clients that may soon be needing a designer. Add the email addresses of these past clients to a Mailchimp or Aweber email list so you can easily keep in contact with them. Send monthly updates, keep them updated with any blog content you publish, let them know if you’re running any special promotions, or simply reach out and ask if they have any design work coming up. By keeping these past clients familiar with your name and work, you’re more likely going to be the designer they go to when they do actually need some work doing.

Narrow Down Your Niche

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Oftentimes, when you offer a larger array of services, you may be able to approach more prospective clients, but you’ll also have a much lower conversion rate than people who specialise in a very specific niche. For example, if you’re looking for a design for the cover of your new book, are you more likely to go with Joe Bloggs the General Designer, or a designer such as Scarlett Rugers, who’s a specialist in professional standard book covers for self-published authors?

By picking a niche that you either have a passion for, or in which other people just aren’t doing a great job, you can easily become the go-to person in that area, create a massively impressive portfolio, and work on truly mastering your very specific craft in order to be able to charge much higher rates than most other designers. If your clients know what to expect you should have a higher conversion rate, and also be able to market your services much more effectively.

Encourage Referrals

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When you have set up that email list for your past clients, feel free to use it to ask for referrals. The more referrals you receive, the less money you spend acquiring each client, and thereby your profit per project increases.

Personally, I don’t like to offer incentives for referrals. I would rather people choose to refer their network to me based on the standard of my work and customer service. So, focus on providing your clients with as much value as possible, and let them know that you’re taking on new clients, and would be grateful if they mentioned your name to their network if they think your work was good enough. You’ll be surprised at how many new clients you can receive simply by asking.

Learn About Your Worst Clients

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Often, you’ll find that your most demanding clients are the ones that make you the least profit. Learn to identify these clients so that in future when someone wants to work with you, you can easily tell whether the project will actually be worth your time, or whether you should decline and wait for a better opportunity. This is arguably something that comes with time.

Concentrate On The Important Work

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Various parts of your work will likely be repetitive tasks, or tasks that don’t make full use of your valuable time. Whether that be collecting information from clients, ensuring contracts are signed, developing more simple aspects of designs, marketing etc. If your time is better spent elsewhere, consider either outsourcing some of these tasks How To Become Super-Productive By Outsourcing Your Day-To-Day Tasks Get more done in a day. By learning what you can outsource, plus a few 'best practice' tips for delegating your day-to-day chores, you too can become super-productive. Read More on a site such as Elance, or automating these tasks by using online forms, automated emails etc. By removing these non-profitable activities, you can spend your time on things that actually make a profit.

Stop Charging By The Hour

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When you charge by the hour, you’ll find that the more proficient you get, and the more streamlined you make your processes, the less you’ll get paid even though the work improves! Start taking into account the full project, what it’s worth to the client, and how long it will actually take you, and base your design quote on this, rather than on how long the design will actually take.


It’s all too easy to keep saying “yes” to every opportunity that comes your way as a graphic designer, but to really make your business more profitable, you need to start thinking about your processes and marketing in a more strategic way. You need to ensure that you value your time accordingly. You need to make sure you’re making the best use of your time.

There are obviously plenty more ways you can make your graphic design business more profitable, but I hope these few approaches help.

Do you have any tips to boost profitability?

Image Credits: Graphic designer Via Shutterstock

Related topics: Freelance, Make Money Online.

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  1. Rishabh Gupta
    December 14, 2014 at 3:25 am

    Agreed, if you are designing something for someone and that, that "something" has some value for his/her business, you must ensure that your valuable design gets paid off (unless you are picking up designing just as a hobby).
    And on the same note, two similar time taking design works might have different value preposition for the client, so its a designer's job to evaluate the value of his/her design, not in terms of the time being consumed but as per the value it has for the customer.

    • Rob
      December 15, 2014 at 1:06 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Rishabh! I definitely agree that where possible, projects should be based on the value to the client, rather then the hours it takes, but this is often a very difficult leap to make for freelancers. Do you have any advice to people who should be shifting over to this way of thinking about their pricing?

  2. Saikat Basu
    December 13, 2014 at 6:55 am

    Nice post Rob. The same advice pretty much applies to us writers as well. How do we continuously upgrade our skills? Is it better to be a generalist than a specialist? What are the niche areas one can take advantage of? For instance, I recently learnt about hand lettering and the example of Sean McCabe (, a graphic designer who turned his hobby into a profitable business.

    • Rob
      December 15, 2014 at 1:05 pm

      Thanks Saikat! Yes, the same pretty much applies to writers too, though I think writers have a little less options, as articles etc are rejected and whatnot, and there's (often) not much left to do with those article in terms of driving revenue, but they could always be published (or sold) elsewhere, or simply used to grow the writer's influence.

  3. MamboKid
    December 12, 2014 at 8:06 pm

    What a stupid headline. If I were a profitable designer, that suggests someone is making money off me. What you mean is how to profit as a designer. Wake up your headline writer and ask him or her to find the editor.

    • Rob
      December 15, 2014 at 1:03 pm

      Although I did not write the headline, 'profit-making' and 'profitable' are synonyms. For example, on, a correct use of the word 'profitable' is "Beekeeping can be a fascinating hobby, a profitable sideline, or a full-time occupation".

      A profitable sideline = a sideline which generates profit (in this case, for the bee-keeper)

      A profitable graphic designer = a graphic designer who/that generates profit (in this case, for the graphic designer)

      The possessor of that profit need not be stated, yet the sentence remains correct. Unless I'm missing something here?