How to Make a Decent Living as a Web Designer


Recently, I had a discussion with a designer in the early stages of their career. They wondered if it was both possible and realistic to earn a comfortable wage ($70k – $100k USD) in this industry. It’s a fair question, given the level of saturation in the field these days.

My reply was: Yes, and yes. A web designer can realistically get to that salary level. But that certainly doesn’t mean that it’s easy to attain.

The following are my observations on what it takes to make the climb towards that “decent” living, based on nearly 20 years as a freelancer. Note that it is in no way a “get-rich-quick” type of situation (of which I’m living proof). However, there are ways to get where you want to go.

Identifying Your Path

Whether you’re an experienced web designer or just starting out, there’s no easy path to making good money. About the only certainties are that it will take a lot of work and a solid strategy. While the former is a universal trait, the latter is often very much personalized.

Early on in my career, I worked extremely hard but had absolutely no strategy to go along with it. I didn’t really think much about the types of projects I took on or considered the potential long-term effects of taking them. The result was that I was very busy yet struggling to get by.

That’s why it’s important to chart your own desired course towards success. Without doing so, you’re leaving things up to chance.

I know, it all sounds great. But you may be curious as to how to start the whole process. Start small and simply.

The main idea is to think about the types of projects you want to work on. That could include anything from what CMS you want to work with to any potential industries you want target. Then, grab a notepad and write down what you think it will take to get you there.

First, determine which skills you’ll need to learn. For example, do your desired projects require knowledge of JavaScript or another programming language? If so, set some basic goals for gaining the knowledge you’ll need.

Next, you’ll want to consider just how to go about getting the types of projects you’ve targeted. That could include marketing, networking and even your pricing structure. Remember that pricing should not only be about the initial cost for a project, but also ways to keep a steady stream of recurring revenue, as well.

Finally, look at your financial picture and make any necessary adjustments. You’ll want to strike a balance between getting paid a fair amount and keeping an attractive price range for potential clients. And, it’s important to take your costs into consideration as well.

Even if what you’ve written down isn’t incredibly detailed just yet, you still have the makings of a plan that will guide you forward.

Look for Stability

If you’re a full-time employee of an agency or a corporation, then you (hopefully) have the luxury of maintaining a steady salary. But freelancers don’t often get that same level of security right out of the gates. To gain a level of consistency, you need to find the right opportunities.

For years, I’ve advised others to look for mutually-beneficial partnerships – mainly because they’ve been a huge help in my own career. In fact, that’s how my freelance business started and one reason why I’m still here all of these years later.

What am I talking about? An example of this type of relationship would be partnering up with a small advertising agency that doesn’t have an in-house web designer. Several of their clients may need a completely new or redesigned website and the agency is eager to send that work to a trusted partner.

By working with that agency, you may just find yourself with a steady stream of work throughout the year. While you may not be paid quite as much per project, you can still create some reliable and predictable income. This is vital for those times when business is otherwise slow. And it also provides a base from which you can build upon.

Of course, some web professionals love to play the role of the “hired gun”, hopping from project to project without any sort of safety net. If that works for you, wonderful. But if that’s not in your personality, developing a few of these partnerships can make a huge difference in your career.

The Side Hustle

Sometimes we find opportunities that don’t fall into the category of the traditional web design client but are still relevant to our jobs. Our industry is quite fortunate as there seem to be quite a large number of ways to boost income.

One such avenue is having a product to sell (and perhaps maintain). That could include WordPress plugins, templates, stock images or just about anything of interest to fellow designers or website owners.

Another possibility is in sharing what you know. This is the path I stumbled upon in doing a good bit of writing. I find it to not only be an enjoyable gig, but that it also has a symbiotic relationship to my daily design work. I write about my experiences while also learning new things that I can use in future projects.

These types of opportunities don’t usually land in your lap, however. It helps to be self-motivated and have a willingness to fine-tune your skills. As you learn and grow, that’s when doors can start opening.

If you’re considering adding a “side hustle” to your repertoire but aren’t sure which direction to go, look for something you’re passionate about. Long before I wrote a word about web design I started my own websites dedicated to things I love (music and sports, among other subjects) without any expectation of making money from them. Eventually, it all led me here.

Finding a way to make a little extra money out of something you have a passion for is rewarding in the best possible way. You love what you’re doing and you’re padding your bottom line. What’s not to love?

Cell phone with a motivation message.

There Is Potential – But No Guarantees

Yes, you can have a long and fulfilling career in web design. And you can make a good living while you’re at it. Still, you aren’t guaranteed anything. When you think about it, freelancers may not even be guaranteed tomorrow.

But the potential is undoubtedly there. Ultimately, it’s up to us to make the most out of our careers. To do that, we need to develop a strategy that points us in the right direction. Then it’s a matter of taking advantage of the opportunities in front of us – some of them being self-created and others being found along the way.

With a commitment and a steady approach, you really can live the life you want.

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