Can you build a business in design school?

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Common challenges for student designers


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:


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.


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.

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.

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:

  • 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.

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.

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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.

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:

  • 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.

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.

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.

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.

Mix it up

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

  • 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.

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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.

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,

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