Monetizing the design: what I learned after a year of non-stop UI grinding

My 15 insights of successful digital product essentials and how I turned making a design into a steady growing business.
January 2019 · 6 mins read

by Roman Kamushken


I learned a lot!

Results of the year for the UI designer, who didn't have any interesting projects in his portfolio and decided to create his own product for the now popular Figma design platform.
Previously, I've always been skeptical of such posts. But after the year 2018, which gave me experience and wisdom for 10 years, I realised: I just had nothing to say before.

I haven't worked in large companies, haven't arranged design sprints and haven't sat side by side with the cool guys in co-workings. I've been in design for at least 16 years now, I am self-taught, and once I turned out to have not even one interesting project in my portfolio that would work cool and look modern. All my recent years of stable freelancing were the clients with regular orders. They come and go. And 80% of them throw away all your creativity in the furnace later on. As, according to the laws of the market, this number fails after the project launch.

So I really wanted to have my own product. The one that would benefit people who will face similar challenges in the future and would save their time. The one that could be quickly given the desired shape and optimised over time.

I almost didn't notice how the year flew away. The year when I released 7 design assets for Figma, received a lot of positive feedback, collected useful tips and suggestions, realised where I can direct my product further on and eventually got to the website of this design tool…

And that's what I`ve come to realise:

Keep an eye on what's happening in the industry

New tools, frameworks, and web applications appear every day. And along with them there is a demand for something that will help people to be more effective. The design market is developing tremendously and today it is even more interesting than, for example, two years ago. Investment comes and giants with serious technologies fight for the large shares.

And if you follow the market where you work and understand it well enough, sooner or later you will find an idea that can be tested for validity and you will be charged well enough to have the right amount of motivation to go really far. I constantly monitor key western design resources to build my own forecasts: DN, Webdesignernews, Reddit, Producthunt. What do people discuss in the comments? What posts get the most upvotes? All that matters.

You don't have to be a team

We live in an amazing time, when anyone being in any remote part of the planet with a laptop creates something necessary, which people are willing to pay money for. He does it alone, taking advantage of ready-made solutions that are available to everyone. Now there's a global trend on the side-projects, which are launched by individual designers and developers.

People create projects that are of concern to them, gather an audience that becomes loyal and then smoothly implement premium services for $ subscription. That's the way successful projects are born. And only then they turn into teams, moving to the next level. But much can be done alone now, thanks to the cool tools, many of which are made by just one person.
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Hitch on the leaving train

If there is a new product on the market that is of interest in the communities, you may be able to earn with it. For small teams or solo-preneurs like me, that's the most implementable way to the product that makes a profit. This is just my case with Figma: I just understood that it was convenient for me to work in it and I became more effective. I assumed most designers would think the same way and they would need ready-made components to avoid wasting time on pixels. And this idea turned out to be valid.

The designer's workflow has evolved a lot, thanks to a new approach. You just build your own library of components and templates and create new templates for each client quickly and effectively, just adding a new style and color. Over time, your database will have all the elements of the world and you`ll be able to work with a cup of coffee in the second hand :) And my products are just about it.

You will need all your previous experience

If anyone ever asks me, that's the first thing I'll say. You must be good at your job. To create a product, you need to understand the tasks that people will solve with it. You will be able to better understand them, if you have solved a lot of such problems once. This is your experience. And it will be difficult to create a universal design asset (or insert here whatever is closer to your activities) without it.

Over the past 5 years, I've done a lot of production interfaces and various mobile concepts on my regular job. Unfortunately, no project has shot to the stars, but without this experience I wouldn't have been able to do such work in a year.

If the product isn't being sold, you need even more experience

My boss once said, "It's not enough to create a good product. You need to sell it somehow…". This is the harsh reality. Even if you have drawn the best design kit in this galaxy, now only you know about it. And it will take a lot of analytics, experiments and attempts to explain it to people.

This year I have sold several thousand licenses, updated and modified my website 10 times and I still don't stop experimenting with the content presentation. If one day you say "Oh! Now it looks cool" and then in a month or two you don't think "Oh my God, who has written/drawn this rubbish", most likely you are marking time and need to change something. And if your cool product doesn't sell, you need even more experience to get past that dead point.

Sell in your own space

The market of digital design products is developing rapidly and today more and more designers are trying to create something useful for their colleagues. Most of them try to sell their products using only popular platforms, but that's not enough. Almost all known UI marketplaces are full of monotonous color screens inserted into the same phone mockups and in 80% your product will be lost among them.

Designers copy each other and look for ideas not where they should. If you plan to go far, think beforehand about making your own resource the main source of sales. This will at least eliminate the difficulties of choice for visitors because they will choose only among your products inside your space.

Sometimes, it is easier to make the next product

You may come to this unless your patience expires ahead of time. 20% of products give 80% of profit. If you have already made several products, it is likely that a small part of them will generate the lion's share of profits. All the rest are the products, after which you made another attempt, because there is no point in trying to revive the dead. If after several attempts, you don't see the figures that suit you, this direction should be paused and a new one should be explored. You may be the only one in front of the monitor, but nobody forbids you to do business like you're a big company.

Make it look like you're an organisation

The market of digital design products is developing rapidly and today more and more designers are trying to create something useful for their colleagues. Most of them try to sell their products using only popular platforms, but that's not enough. Almost all known UI marketplaces are full of monotonous color screens inserted into the same phone mockups and in 80% your product will be lost among them.

Designers copy each other and look for ideas not where they should. If you plan to go far, think beforehand about making your own resource the main source of sales. This will at least eliminate the difficulties of choice for visitors because they will choose only among your products inside your space.

Set high standards straight away

You can't create something other than a quality product, otherwise there's no point in trying. Once you release such a product, you will be watched by people and it will be the beginning of your good reputation.

High standards aren't a lot of perfectionists, it is the approach of the developer who knows the scope of his product implementation and can test it in these areas before releasing it. For example, the search for bugs was difficult for me, but everything fitted its places when I started using my products for their intended purpose. And I didn't immediately learn how to create design kits, with the components thought-out three steps ahead. Users bought them, I began to receive positive feedback and soon realised that this is the reputation that moves a quality product like a shadow.

There is always something to improve

The main advantage of working on your product or brainchild is a constant evolution. Both yours and that of the essence you are working at. Therefore, there is no such a stage as "Well, that's enough!". That's not enough, because tomorrow another team of designers will make it faster, better and will even release it for free. In my case, I could always optimise typography, colors, workflow and the product itself in the end, especially when I tried to look at the results of my work objectively. Therefore, I am sure that there is always something to improve.

Customers will tell you what to do next

I think that's one of the most important insights of the year. Although it has long been known to everyone and many echo this, but you understand its importance only from your experience. Listen to your customers! It often happened with me: after the release and a short break I asked myself the question "Ok, what shall to do next?". And then the next day I received a couple of letters from satisfied customers with some requests and all the questions just disappeared.

Now I have extensive plans for next year and only because I've received some important messages in December and never hesitated to get more information. Your customers will tell you what to do next…

Start posting and creating a loyal audience

One of my mistakes was that I started doing it too late. I should have asked for an invite to Dribbble much earlier or started to understand the specifics of creating cool presentations on Behance. However, at that time I didn't have a product and I would hardly understand the importance of creating an audience. Again this proverbial "better late than never."

Now I am fully aware of why almost every I day generate content in the social networks, write articles and create videos. Indeed, nowadays the competition is high, it is not easy to gain subscribers. But this is what motivates me to experiment with graphics and text more to be able to come up with a new direction and interest people with my content. And if you analyse the information correctly, the number of likes or comments to your posts will become an indicator of interest in your ideas.

Find your specialisation or niche where you're good at

Nowadays, the design is very versatile and has many directions. You can be an expert only on mobile applications or on illustrations. Maybe you're more a design system architect than an artist. Or you prefer to create animations in interfaces. Understanding and deepening your specialization helps you stand out from the crowd and create niche products as you begin to better understand the niche issues of your loyal customers.

So, I am very inspired by the fact that enterprising illustrators are beginning to think in a component way. They pre-draw the characters in different angles and states, and then you make a scene like a puzzle yourself. Think about whether this approach can be applied to your specialisation in design? Maybe this is the next good product…

Surround yourself with people who growhack their projects

In such a company you can always get feedback and a lot of points of view. It doesn't matter what industry these people are in. Any person busy with their own business solves problems every day. And someone's algorithm for solving a difficult situation may well suit you, you will only adapt it.

Surprisingly, over the past few years, three such people have appeared next to me. One of them has an online store selling cool dishes, the second one is developing a network of nail salons with his wife and the third one has recently shot into the starts having arranged a state project. And I am glad that I had the opportunity to ask them questions, show the results of my activities and receive feedback.

Realise your advantage

Design sphere is the same competitive environment as the rest. The tip of the iceberg has long been captured by strong teams and 20% of top designers on Dribbble receive 80% of all orders. The rest is divided between us — those who started much later. But no one has the right to tell you that it is impossible to climb higher. If you realise your advantage, it will help to maintain motivation at a high level.

Once, and it wasn't so long ago, I was very afraid that someone could repeat my developments. But after I realised what I was good at in my brain, I felt much more comfortable working and less afraid. I just see that a minimum of designers is so deeply picking at each pixel :) And I just like it…
Thanks for reading this. I will be glad to hear your personal design insights for this year in the comments. I wish everyone to find your source of inexhaustible inspiration next year. Written and made with love for my family.

What's next for 2019?
We're already experimenting with ReactJS for Material Desktop System to let you develop web applications without a hassle and use perfectly shaped components and templates. You can preview the demo yet and interact with the buttons.
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