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Is Doing Design on the Side Worth It?

Is Doing Design on the Side Worth It?

Even if you work full-time at an agency or in-house you probably still get people inquiring about whether you do freelance work. Choosing to be a designer means not making a ton of money, so these side projects can be a nice way to get a little extra. But is it really worth it and where do you draw the line?

Opportunity Costs

How much is your time worth? And are you willing to make a little money but take on more responsibility that may tie you down?

When you work after hours your clients still need to contact you. So are you willing to take phone calls on the weekends and at 8 or 9 at night? Most clients don’t and shouldn’t care that they are interrupting you during your personal time if they cannot reach you during normal hours. Because personal time is work time when you take on side projects.

The other thing that bothers me about some of my ongoing side jobs are the extra responsibilities. Because I know how to design websites that means I somehow know about email problems or even care about a client’s email problems (I don’t). When dealing with small business owners they often have no one else to turn to so they turn to you. Are you making enough money to want to deal with these types of issues? If not either drop the client or set some boundaries.

Setting Boundaries and Being Selective

The first thing to do is find out how and when the client will be contacting you. A client willing to communicate via email is best but if it means several emails per job, phone calls or in-person meetings may be better.

When I first started out I would take just about any project but now I am fairly selective. Here are just some of the projects I won’t take:

  • Client designed it and wants you to develop or “fix it up”
  • Client argues or complains about my rate
  • Client wants me to finish a project another designer started
  • Trade of goods or services (you have nothing I want, except money)
  • Work from Craigslist (no good jobs have every come from there that I’ve ever gotten)
  • Clients that always have emergencies (hard to tell which ones these are but fire them when you do find out)
  • Scatter brains and flakes
  • People with business ideas I know are going to fail (surprisingly this is a big one)

The best clients are the ones who pay on time, no matter how bad the work. So if a client is late to pay even once consider giving them the boot. You aren’t running a charity for small business.

Which brings me to my favorite pastime, collecting money…

Collecting Money

Even with a contract, if you are working on lots of small projects, collecting money is going to be a pain in the ass. It just is. One thing I’ve learned is that if a project is a $1000 or under, make them pay upfront because people know you aren’t going to spend the time to take them to court for such a low sum of money, so they just plan on never paying you from the start. I hate collecting money but it is part of the job.


We tend to not think about it but there are actually a ton of costs involved with doing web design. Chances are if you are only doing a little bit of design work on the side the costs will probably meet or exceed your earnings. To do any type of design work you need to have a decent computer, which means dropping $1000-$4000 every couple of years. But software can cost almost as much or more. Adobe Creative Suite is the biggest offender but we often forget about our:

  • Text editor (Espresso $79, Coda $99, BB Edit $49, Sublime Text 2 $49)
  • Font licences (adds up very quick)
  • Operating Systems (Lion upgrade $30)
  • Hosting and domain registration costs
  • Storage and File Transfer (Transmit $34, LastPass $12, YouSendIt $109.99, Dropbox $99, backup drives)
  • Business cards and any other print material you create

Yah, there are a ton of free options out there for some of this but the best ones tend to cost money.

Of course the great thing about doing a little bit of side work is that all of these things can be used as tax write-offs. So your income during the year may be lower but you get some cool toys and end up getting some of that money back at the end of the year.

What Else Could You Be Doing WIth Your Time

A pretty obvious one, almost anything. It just goes back to how badly do you want a little extra money and is the time spent making it worth losing out on some other activity.

How Else Could You Be Making Money

This is one I often think about. We are never going to get rich working for an hourly rate. There is only so much time in the day and we have to keep our rates competitive. I don’t always love doing side work but it can be hard to find anything else. What other methods of making money are out there?

Website maintenance can be very lucrative, especially if you charge monthly and not hourly, but do you really want to be at your clients beck and call? With maintenance there is no telling when it will be needed. You could have five clients with an urgent update all needed the weekend you are going out of town.

You could outsource the work but some of it only takes 15 minutes of actual work like changing store hours or adding a couple photos. But you still have to log into the CMS or ftp program, change the files, re-upload, and play email tag a few times. So it may end up being more like an hour or two wasted with 30 minutes of billable time (hence billing a set fee and not by the hour).

Selling products is another idea but there is a lot of risk involved. Not necessarily monetary risk, but it can take a lot of time to develop a product. If it doesn’t sell you just wasted your time. For designers the usual things to do are: create web templates, t-shirt designs, photography or stock graphics et cetera. The best thing to do is let someone else sell it for you, even if the return is a lot less because dealing with shipping or dealing with customer complaints is absolutely no fun.

There is also the trap of trying to make money with affiliate programs or ads on your websites. But honestly it seems like 90% of the people who try this fail and the handful who do it right probably took years, making no money, to figure it out.

One thing I’ve found to make a little extra money is guest blogging. A number of design blogs pay per post and as long as you know your stuff they should take your submissions. It isn’t going to get you rich but it is a little extra in your pocket and you don’t have to deal with clients. Just write your article about a topic you know about and get paid.

Another one I’d like to try is teaching one of these days. Not that it pays very well either and the hours probably conflict with a 9-5 job but the personal growth aspect may be worth it.

So ultimately I don’t have a good answer for this. If you know of one let me know.

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Couchable is a web design blog created by Tyler Herman. Not really updated anymore because I'm busy doing freelance design work and busy launching my little WordPress theme shop Real Theme Co. You can read a little more about my at my personal site