Build your own design projects

Matt Lambert
5 min readJan 31, 2020


“If you build it, they will come”

Ok, they might not come if you don’t finish it but always keep building! One of the most important things you can do to continue improving as a designer is to build your own side projects. Do them to focus on areas you enjoy and want to explore. You might have an idea for a product or business that you want to try out. Another excellent reason for side projects is to focus on where you need to improve. Don’t forget they should be fun and they don’t have to make money! They could be a tool to make your life easier, many startups began that way. They also don’t have to be digital. I love to paint for inspiration and to relax.

Why should I do them?

If you are a recent grad, having side projects in your portfolio is better than fake school projects. When I review portfolios, I rarely put any value in school work. If this is a junior designer, I want to see if they have some initiative. Have they put the work in to build some projects on their own? If so, I love the work ethic but I also know they will have run into some problems they had to solve to finish the project. In school, you are often insulated from real-world design problems. When you build your own products you are effectively earning real work experience.

Accelerate your experience

When you build your own projects you wear all the hats. You’re the designer, developer, product manager, marketing and the janitor! By doing all these different things you will start to figure out what works and what doesn’t. These lessons you learn on your own projects can then be applied to your job. It means you’ll catch on faster at your first job and be able to provide valuable insight earlier. With that will come trust from your coworkers and that leads to influence. The path to becoming an expert lies in the projects you do outside your regular work.

Show me the money

Gaining experience isn’t the only reason to do side projects. You can also get paid. Whether it is a one-time payment for designing a website or ongoing passive income. Making this money on the side can help to support you while you look for your first job. It can also help to sustain you if you’re in an expensive city. When you first start out, you’re not going to be making the big bucks so every dollar you can earn helps. Doing one-off jobs are great for quick influxes of cash. Yet, I’d encourage you to focus on passive income and setting up the infrastructure required to earn it.

What’s passive income?

Passive income is work that you do once and get paid multiple times. In a design context, this is usually products or services you can sell. An eBook would be an example. You write the book and launch it and get paid every time anyone buys it. You don’t need to do any work to maintain the book aside from maybe some marketing. Perhaps in a couple of years, you write an update. If you’ve built a good network of followers though, you can depend on a monthly income from these types of products. The key is to keep building your library of products and releasing fresh goods.

Starting your first project

Make sure you pick something you’re interested in learning more about. Don’t pick something to just make money. If it’s not a subject you are passionate about, you’ll likely end up abandoning the project when things get tough. Once you have an idea, pick a format. A few to consider are website, app, eBook, and templates. Now that you have an idea of what you’re going to build you need to make a plan. Figure out what the end vision is and then work backward to figure out all the steps you need to take to make it a reality. For this, I like to use Trello to help me organize my thoughts and everything that needs to happen. Once you have a rough plan in place start working on your idea! Your plan doesn’t need to be perfect. Don’t get stuck in polishing the plan but never actually working on the idea. Things will change as you go, adjust the plan accordingly.

Where do I sell my product?

If you’ve created a product that you want to sell, there are several ways you can do this. If it’s a digital product like a template, you can sell on Creative Market, GraphicRiver or ThemeForest. If you are new to this world, I’d suggest going with Creative Market as that’s the easiest one to get your products on. If you’re creating an eBook, build yourself a landing page website to promote and sell the book. You can use a service like Gumroad to accept credit cards and get paid. There are tons of tools out there for selling your products, here are a few in more depth.

Selling on Creative Market

This is the first place to start. Go and sign up for an account and you can upload your first product on day one. With this platform there is no review process, so you can post whatever you want for sale. Once you have your files for your product together, you’ll need preview images and a good description. You can set your own price and then start to promote your products. One great way of doing that is by building your own website and featuring your products there. Creative Market is great for all types of templates and design files. The ones that do best there are typefaces and website templates.

Selling on GraphicRiver

GraphicRiver is like Creative Market with a couple of differences. First, to get your products on GraphicRiver they must be approved by their team. This can be tough until you get your first product approved. If you are getting rejected, take a look at how you can improve your product and put in the work. They are good about giving you tips on what you need to do to get approved. Additionally, GraphicRiver has been around the longest and has the largest user base. I’ve had more sales here compared to Creative Market.

Selling on ThemeForest

This platform is owned and operated by the same parent company as GraphicRiver. The company’s name is Envato and they have several marketplace websites where you can sell different products. GraphicRiver is primarily graphic assets, where ThemeForest sells themes and templates. If you can code, building products for ThemeForest can be very lucrative. Take a look at some of the most popular files and you’ll see what I mean.

Building a service

Up until now, I’ve mostly talked about building products. Another option for you would be to build a service. An example of a popular service right now is podcasts. If you were to start your own podcast, you could distribute it on a platform like Patreon and charge your followers a monthly fee for access to it. Once you start a service you can easily add more value to it with different types of content as you go.

Building your own projects should be a habit you continue for your entire career. They are an excellent way to build experience and earn extra cash. You may even find you are so successful at this that it becomes your full-time job. With design, the skies really are the limit for how you can make a career.

Want to learn more?

This is a free sample chapter from my upcoming book Direct Design Career Advice. Head over to my website to learn more about the book. It's the total guide to starting and growing your design career.