As a freelance designer, I’m constantly thinking of non-traditional ways to earn a living. In fact, it’s truly become harder and harder to describe what it is that I ‘do’ when people ask that routine question. I’m sure many others struggle with this as well… sometimes I just pick one thing and go with that to simplify the conversation, though I’m always left feeling like it’s not a true representation of who I am. The truth is, my life is a series of side hustles that when combined keep me both financially and creatively fulfilled.
My usual go-to answer to the “So, what do you do?” question is “I’m a web designer”. While this is where the largest part of my income comes from, the extent of this is in constant fluctuation. Some weeks I find myself focused on an Illustration project for a client, while others I am completely wrapped up in Interior Design projects for our home rentals and lifestyle brand, The Joshua Tree House. Other times, I get to work on creative sponsored content for Influencer Agencies such as Collectively.
Especially when starting out as a full-time freelance designer (two and a half years ago!), I was mystified by the freelance life. When looking to other designers to see how they structured their businesses, I always wanted to know not just the what but the how. How do I make enough each month? How do I stay true to the work that I love when sometimes the offer of any sort of cash sounds so wonderful?
These are all things I’m still figuring out, but I thought I would break down the areas that I’m focusing on at the moment and how they balance both financially and creatively. I’m adding as much detail here as possible in an attempt to demystify the freelance life, but if you have any questions feel free to reach out in the comments on this post!
My husband Rich and I run a design studio together, where we do UI/UX design for small to mid-sized companies. We typically do full site or app redesigns, and charge a flat project fee for each one. Sometimes we are just doing the design and coordinating with the company’s development team, and other times we do the development as well. Depending on size, the duration of these projects range anywhere from one month up to multiple years (if we continue doing design updates and maintenance for a client). This studio is the largest part of our income, and accounted for about 57% of our yearly earnings last year.
The Joshua Tree House
As we began seeing success with our design studio, we also saw ourselves on the brink of exhaustion. As we took on more projects, we saw our working hours continue to increase. We realized that before we became completely burnt out, we either needed to hire help and expand our team, or come up with alternate sources of income.
After a cross-country road trip in 2014, we fell head over heels in love with Joshua Tree National Park, and the surrounding community of Joshua Tree, CA. We thought, why not buy a place for us to enjoy and potentially get some side income out of it as well? We hoped that it would take some pressure off of our increasing work hours at our design studio.
We got to get our hands dirty with renovations which was not only incredibly fulfilling, but also brought us the side income that we had hoped for. This new side hustle of ours created financial breathing room for our studio that allowed us to take on only the projects we felt truly passionate about. It also allowed us to expand our portfolio to encompass more than just digital experiences, but real life experiences for our guests. We loved it so much that we designed and renovated a second space last year called the Casita.
Our weekly work for the JTH includes messaging with guests, stopping by and checking in with our cleaners to make sure everything is running smoothly, and running our social accounts. While it's not completely passive income, we love the variety of work that running vacation rentals adds to our weekly routine.
Another way that I get to stay creatively stimulated is by creating content for sponsored posts. Collectively is an Influencer Agency that plays an important role in this side hustle for me. When they email me with campaign opportunities and content requirements, I allow my gut instinct to decide if the opportunity is right for me. I'll be honest, I'm pretty picky about what brands I'll work with. If it's a brand I haven't heard of before, they need to be one that I can immediately and confidently know that I would be interested in having as a part of my life aside from the sponsorship.
Once my gut tells me that this is a brand that I'd like to work with, my mind starts racing with creative ways to share their product or service. Creatively, I love the structure that comes along with working with Collectively. I’ve always been a believer that working with constraints allows me to be challenged and come up with my best ideas.
A few months back, Collectively challenged me with sharing the process of creating a book with Blurb Books. Had I not worked on this campaign, I never would have come up with the idea of creating a ‘Field Guide to Cacti’, a book that now many of you have requested that I make available to purchase. I’m particularly grateful for moments like these, when I feel proud of my work (and have the opportunity to make a profit as well).
Working on these kinds of creative campaigns keeps my mind open. Prior to the Blurb project, creating a book of my own was far from my mind. Now, it’s something that I would love to pursue further. I’m excited to see what other projects Collectively will send my way, as well as the exciting and unexpected paths those projects may lead me down.
I went to Maryland Institute College of Art, and drawing and painting have always been a part of my life. Up until a couple of years ago however, it was never something that I earned income from. After doing multiple 100 Day Projects, first #100daysofsfpatterns, and then #100daysofcacti, I started to see more illustration requests come through.
My illustration work is a combination of commissions, licensing, and selling goods with my illustrations on them (such as prints and iPhone cases). I love that this line of work gets me off of my computer, and working with my hands.
Affiliate links are cookied links that allow you to earn commissions on products you share. This is an area we’ve started to focus on more lately with the Joshua Tree House. We’re constantly asked where we purchased items within the homes, and so we recently put together a shop with links to all of our favorite pieces. While this is currently one of our smallest areas of income, every little bit helps!
Another recent side hustle of ours is our 1969 International Harvester Scout. From day to day, Scout is our car and gets us where we need to go (plus its super fun!). But, we often try to view our assets as additional ways to earn income. Since we live near Joshua Tree National Park, we rent Scout out for photoshoots every so often and will drive it around to a few locations. It’s a really fun way to meet other creatives, and get our car payments paid every month!
Along the way I’ve learned that we get to make our own rules. There is no reason to have just one answer to the “what do you do?” question, and we certainly don’t need to find financial or creative fulfillment all in one place. Everything I listed above is my personal concoction to a creative freelance life. It is a blend of what I do, who I am, and where I am headed.
Thank you to Collectively for sponsoring this post.