Can you build a business in design school?

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Today’s college students are under increasing pressure to have a side hustle — a part-time job that is often related to entrepreneurship. 41% of workers under 35 already have a side hustle. Students today are six times more likely to start a business while in school than they were in the 1960s and 1970s.

Almost every college student could use extra income to offset the rising costs of education, but design students face additional pressures to establish an online creative presence and put real-world projects into their portfolios. With a packed course schedule and limited financial resources, how can you build your business?

Common challenges for student designers

Time

The biggest challenge for many students is just finding the time to work on passion projects during the semester. Starting or fostering a side business— design work for freelance clients or creating products to sell—can take time away from schoolwork or cut into already limited personal time. In the course of my research for this article, I spoke to a student who said of her side business:

This is what I’ve put my free time into. It’s frustrating, because I know it’s what I want to do in the future and I haven’t been able to put the time into it that I’d like to while I’m in school.

Tools

Many students have access to incredible tools at their schools: high-quality inkjet printers, 3D printers, laser-cutters, wood shops, screen-printing studios. But students often lose access to these tools over the summer when they actually have free time to give to their passion projects. Some schools even restrict the use of these campus tools to coursework only, making it difficult or unethical to use school resources for your passion projects.

Money

Many entrepreneurship ventures require a great deal of upfront cash that students just don’t have on hand. Raw materials for physical goods can be costly and need to be stored somewhere. How do you fit boxes of merchandise into a dorm room or student apartment?

Potential Solution: Digital Products

If you focus on creating and selling digital products rather than physical ones, you avoid some of the largest hurdles to entrepreneurship. Digital inventories don’t need to be stored or paid for up-front. You aren’t held to a client-based schedule—you can make things to sell when you actually have free time and roll out products throughout the year. You don’t even have to make totally “new” products—you can repurpose existing assets and artwork from your class assignments. Digital products are also super easy to scale—a single digital “item” can be sold hundreds of times.

The real key to building a business based on digital products is to keep moving forward. Don’t be afraid to put work out in the world before it’s “perfect.” Just because you don’t have a diploma yet doesn’t mean you don’t have great ideas. Digital products support rapid iteration with low stakes. They allow you to throw ideas into the world and see if anything sticks.

Will you be able to pay off all of your student debt selling digital resources in your “spare time”? Doubtful. But you can build entrepreneurial skills, get more confident in your work, and establish an online creative presence for yourself.

What Digital Resources can you sell?

Design Resources

Design resources are assets or digital tools that help designers to work better, smarter, and faster. These resources include fonts, stock photography, icons and stock illustrations, actions for programs such as Photoshop or Lightroom, or brushes and textures for programs like Illustrator or Photoshop, and Procreate.

Design resources are small components of a project, not necessarily the finished file. Consider assets you’ve already made for coursework. A custom font you created for a poster, a set of icons for an infographic, a collection of interesting scanned textures— any of these could be valuable to other designers.

Work with what you have

Take an inventory of past projects and extract potential assets. Reflect on your existing work. Have you ever made your own font, texture, brush or icon? If so, there potential design resources sitting on your hard drive or DropBox.

Inspiration is right in front of you

You may not have a lot of time to generate original content during the semester, but there are a number of quick creative exercises that could turn into sellable assets. Consider the following:

  • Photograph details of the world around you. A brick wall on your block, the distressed floor of the classroom, the texture of the pavement — you could take a weekend or even just a walk and gather enough visual materials to build a design resource.
  • Scan the texture of fabrics and papers you already have. Consider using the details of a sample book from a print vendor or a stained drop cloth from a fine arts class.
  • Turn your doodles into assets. Draw lines or scribbles with a wide variety of materials­ — pens, pencils, charcoal, marker, paint. Scan the lines to turn them into custom brushes, patterns, or textures.

Research the market

Study the market carefully to get an understanding of the types of products that already exist. Be mindful of trends and best practices. What work are you drawn to? What work is showing up in your social media feeds? Watch for opportunities to stand out.

Keep in mind your experience as a consumer of design resources. If, for instance, you struggled to find a specific stock photo for a project there might be a gap in the market. When you download assets from other designers, pay close attention to the way the resources are organized or structured. Are there product example pages? Are there specific conventions to the way files are named? Is there a standard size for stock imagery?

Learn by doing

As with much of design, the best way to get started with design resources is just to start. If the thought of selling design resources intimidates you, try creating assets to share with fellow classmates. If you made as asset that other people in your class admire, share it. Put it up on your personal blog, website, or social media profile and ask for feedback and advice from the online creative community. If you start offering the world free downloads, you can gather valuable feedback from the real world and build a creative following.

Photo by Mockaroon on Unsplash

Printable Design Files

Printables are completed designs or works of art sold as digital files to be printed by the customer. The primary audience for printables tends to be non-designers who appreciate good-looking work.

Printables are generally sized for standard home printing. For a US audience, files are typically sized to fit a US letter (8.5"x11") piece of paper. A variety of file formats can be sold — PDF, jpeg, Microsoft Word, InDesign, etc. Each file typically contains detailed instructions for the consumer. How do they print this? Do they need to trim it down? Can they edit it?

Some printables such as invitations or résumés can contain customizable fields. When this is the case, you need to pay special attention to the structure and organization of your files. Fonts for editable content must be packaged or available to the consumer through a simple and ideally free service such as Google Fonts.

Find your audience

Think about the type of person who might buy downloadable art. Create products with a specific consumer in mind. Friends and family are useful case studies. For instance:

  • Design a résumé for a specific person: a roommate, sibling, or friend. What information will they need to include? What file type would they be able to use? How might they need to change or modify it?
  • Imagine a relative or neighbor needs an invitation for an event. With a specific event and client in mind such as a birthday party, gallery opening, or baby shower, design an invitation that could be easily modified. How can you structure the file so that the user can change it?
  • Create a gift for a specific loved one based on the following parameters: the gift will be 8x10 inches and will be put into a frame. Consider holidays or special events such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, or graduation.

When you create a design with a specific person in mind, you think more realistically about the needs of the client. You’re more likely to design something that appeals to a wider market.

Explain yourself

According to designer Kelsey Baldwin of the online course Etsy on Autopilot, it is important to avoid confusion when it comes to selling printables, especially considering the target demographics.

You need to be uber clear about what a digital product is, and what the process will look like for [the consumer] from checking out…to having the final product in their hands or on their screen. Since digital products and instant downloads are still a little new to online business…it’s super important to clearly communicate to them what exactly they’re getting.

If you list a printable file for sale or as a free download, be sure to state in multiple places that the file is digital, not a physical file. Some customers may not read descriptions carefully and could be confused by mockups. It’s also crucial to explain any special requirements for modifying or printing images. Is a special software needed? Are files password-protected? Is there a recommended printer, paper size, or paper type? The more information a you can provide, the better.

Patterns and Art On-Demand

You aren’t limited to work that can be printed at home. Patterns and art can be uploaded as digital image files and printed on-demand by any number of online services. Print-on-demand consumers may or may not be designers, but they appreciate quality in design.

The “raw material” for on-demand prints can be design work, illustrations, or fine art. As such, it can be a great way to feature work from fine art classes or from personal creative exploration. Any number of pieces can be reproduced as framed art prints, shirts, bags, phone cases, shower curtains, wrapping paper, wall paper, pillows—the list goes on and on. All of this printing costs you nothing up-front—you retain ownership over the work and make a small commission every time something is sold.

Start with what you have

You probably have a huge collection of visual work filling a box in your closet or folders on your hard drive: posters, illustrations, patterns, paintings, drawings. Any of these could be interesting as a design product.

  • Try showing your work on several different types of final objects. Maybe you have a painting that looks great on a canvas but you never thought of it on a pillow or shower curtain. A number of print-on-demand websites offer free mockups that show your work in new and different contexts. If you aren’t sure if a pattern or image makes sense as a product, experiment! You may be surprised by the results.

Mix it up

You can continue to grow a body of work by updating and expanding what you already have.

  • Make alternates with different color options. Maybe a potential customer loves your print, but is looking for a green pillow to match their bedspread. A wider variety can meet the needs of unique consumers.
  • Expand on an existing project or asset. Go through old projects and look for something that could become a series. This builds not only inventory for an online shop but also expands projects for your portfolio.

Follow the guidelines

To sell work that will be printed by a company or consumer, you need to pay close attention to the guidelines of the given platform. When it comes to image quality, save digital work at the largest possible resolution. Physical work should be scanned in or photographed as large as possible as well.

When uploading final files, pay close attention to the maximum and minimum sizes required by platforms. It’s important to watch for other guidelines such as color space (RGB vs CMYK) and recommended bleed sizes.

For unusual or specialty products that require work to match a template, take the time to make sure the work looks good. Scale, color, or density of patterns may need to change. Cropping of work may also need to be adjusted on a case-by-case basis.

Photo by Cater Yang on Unsplash

Concepts

Common in fields such as industrial and product design, concepts are ideas that can be sold to a company that goes on to make the real thing. Design programs with strong emphases on product or concept can establish relationships with companies that solicit ideas from outsiders. Graphic design concepts could include ideas for books, games, stationary, or apparel. When you sell a concept to a “real” company, you could see your work on store shelves and build a powerful portfolio piece. Many companies are interested in fresh new ideas from design students.

Selling concepts may sounds easier than selling the products themselves, but it can be incredibly complicated. The design concepts need to appeal not only to the consumer but also to the business buying the idea. These businesses receive pitches every day. Coming up with an original, money-making idea can be like finding a needle in a haystack. Depending on the specific category of your concept, more or less upfront work may be required for a strong pitch.

Study up

Before approaching a company to sell an idea, you need to understand what that specific company is looking for. Do your research to get a sense for what already exists in that company’s product line and the lines of the company’s competition. Spend some time visiting online and physical stores to understand the market before you solidify your own ideas.

Lean on university of department relationships

It can impossible to establish your own corporate relationships during the short frame of time you spend in school. Universities and design departments can establish relationships on behalf of students and build institutional knowledge. If a faculty mentor is the point-of-contact with a licensing company, he or she will start to understand what works and what doesn’t work and can communicate that to students. Companies with relationships are likely to offer advice and specifics about what they are looking for.

Strike a balance

There is a fine line between a concept that is too vague to be meaningful “it’s a mousetrap, but like, better” and a concept that is too rigid “it’s a trap for a mouse that is between 4.5 and 4.75 inches long weighing no more than one ounce”. On the one hand, ideas should be thorough enough to make sense and appeal to the proper audience. Sketches, prototypes, and “sell sheets” can be highly effective tools. On the other hand, the best concepts are fresh and should be acted upon quickly. You can’t always expect an idea to be on hold until you graduate. How refined does your idea need to be? It depends on the company, the target audience, and the product category.

Kickstart it

Some product concepts like books or games can be promoted directly to the end-consumer on crowdfunding sites like kickstarter, indiegogo or even patreon. If you can show evidence of an interested audience, it’s much easier to get a company to invest or buy the idea.

Develop a sell sheet

For ideas that are complicated to prototype or create, spend a little time designing your pitch. According to product licensing expert Stephen Key,

Good sell sheets make people think right away, ‘Oh, I get it.’ Really, your sell sheet is just an advertisement — a way of relating the big benefit of your concept in a way that is immediately understood.

Graphic & Interactive Designer, Assistant Professor of Instruction at Tyler School of Art and Architecture

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