19 Ways to Build Your Business When Work is Slow

Dealing with ups and downs in terms of your work level is part of being a freelancer. Yesterday we looked at ways you can maintain a more stable income as a designer, but for those unavoidable times when you’re just not as busy as you would like, it’s good to have a plan. Just because you don’t have as much client work as you would like doesn’t mean that there is nothing positive you can do for your business. Here are some things to keep you productive.

Improve Your Business:

1. Work on Your Portfolio Site

The portfolio is critical to attracting new clients and building your reputation as a designer. An outstanding portfolio speaks for itself. With the huge number of freelance designers out there, having an effective portfolio is important. However, it’s not just the quality of the work itself that’s important, how you display it can also make a big difference. Designers are getting more and more creative in how they show off their best work, and sometimes the portfolio itself is just as impressive as the work contained inside it. Those who are able to stand out can get plenty of attention from web design and CSS galleries as well as from other designers that write about, and link to, the best portfolio sites.

UPDATE: We recently launched a gallery dedicated to showcasing the best portfolio sites – Folio Focus.

2. Develop a Blog

The single most important factor in my career as a designer has been blogging. While blogging may not be for everyone, you may be surprised what it can accomplish, even if you’re not a gifted writer. A blog can help you to network with others in the industry, improve your name recognition, attract new clients, bring new referral business, draw more visitors from search engines and social media, and even allow you to increase your rates.

As a designer you may be hesitant to devote time to writing and maintaining a blog, but I think you’ll find that the benefits far outweigh the time requirements. If you already have a blog you can use your down time to develop new content, research post ideas, interact with other bloggers, or anything else you want to do to build the blog. If you haven’t started blogging yet, see if your host offers easy installations of blogging platforms, such as WordPress, and add a blog to your portfolio.


3. Network

In addition to blogging, networking has been very important for me personally. Actually, blogging and networking go very well together and improve the opportunities and the results for one another. If your freelance design career keeps you restricted to your home and offer little interaction with others in the industry, your slow time is a great chance to change this.

Networking can take place in any number of forms. You may be a member of a local chamber of commerce that has specific networking events, or you may prefer to network online with designers around the world. For networking online you can set up profiles at places like LinkedIn, Virb, Twitter, Carbonmade, deviantART , and more. Commenting on design-related blogs or niche social media sites can also be a great way to interact and get to know others.

4. Work on Your Marketing Materials

When was the last time you worked on new business cards or other marketing materials? This type of stuff can easily get pushed aside due to a heavy work load, but when things are slow you may want to give more consideration to these tasks. While your marketing materials aren’t going to directly make you money, they obviously can have a profound impact on your end results.

5. Set Up a PPC Campaign

Pay-Per-Click advertising is capable of giving you an outstanding return on your advertising investment. Most freelancers aren’t interested in spending big money on advertising and marketing, which eliminates many options. PPC allows you to cater the campaign to your budget, regardless of how big or small that may be. It’s possible to get results by only spending $50 per month with PPC ads.

Major PPC programs also allow you to target specific geographic regions if you are interested in pursuing local clients. Setting up a campaign can be done relatively quickly, and once it is running you won’t have to do much more than monitor it occasionally.


6. Build a Free WordPress Theme

Designing and distributing a free WordPress theme can bring tons of links and traffic to your site. If the theme becomes popular among WordPress users it could also help to establish your name in the WP design community. Designing a theme takes time, but since work is slow, this is a great opportunity.

7. Design Icons to Give Away

There are a number of skilled graphic designers that offer free downloads of icon sets that they have developed. Although there is no shortage of free icons, good ones will always draw attention. The results can be similar to giving away a free WP theme, lots of visitors and links.

Alternate Sources of Income:

8. Build a Premium WordPress Theme

Building a WordPress theme to give away isn’t the only option. It’s becoming more and more common for designers to shift some of their income from client work to sales of premium themes. If client work is slow, why not pursue another avenue for income as a designer? Of course, a premium theme will need to be worth paying for since there are thousands of other themes available for free.

9. Design Templates to Sell

In addition to selling WordPress themes, you could also sell HTML/CSS templates. Even though a higher percentage of websites are turning towards CMS, like WordPress, there is still a sizeable market for premium templates. You could sell the templates through you own website or through a marketplace like Templamatic .

10. Work on Sites that You Own

You may already have some sites of your own that are currently, or have the potential to, produce income. Many freelancers are turning to blogs and other design-related sites to use their abilities and knowledge to establish a secondary income in relation to client work. If you don’t currently have any of your own sites, I would encourage you to look into the possibilities and see if it interests you. It can be very rewarding to work on something different, and something that you personally own. Being able to do things the way you want, instead of the way a client wants, can be a nice change of pace.

11. Create Graphics to Sell

Talented graphic artists also have the opportunity to earn supplementary income through sales of images/graphics/vectors. Stock photography and graphics marketplaces provide an easy way to start making some money in this way. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever be able to make a full-time income, but when your client work is slow why not try another method?

12. Write Tutorials for Other Sites/Blogs

If you enjoy writing and teaching, you can also make some additional money by developing tutorials for other websites. Many websites and blogs will pay writers to publish their tutorials, and the money can be quite good in some cases. There are tons of sites that offer design-related tutorials, so consider contacting some of them to see if they are in need of new writers.

13. Write a Book/E-Book

While most of us spend the majority of our days online, it’s still nice every now and then to pick up a book and learn something new about design. If you visit your local library or bookstore you’ll see books from some very talented writers and designers. Depending on your skillset and your level of experience, writing a book may be an option.

If you like the idea of writing a book, but getting published and writing a few hundred pages is more than you want to deal with, there’s always the option to develop an e-book on your own and to sell it through your website. The costs of developing and selling an e-book are minimal. Either option here will require some time, but if you have some available you may want to give it a shot. If you’re successful, this can be an excellent way to build your name and your reputation as a designer.


14. Brush Up On Your Skills

As designers we all need to be constantly improving our skills and developing new ones. The industry never stands still, so we shouldn’t either. With lots of client work it can be difficult to find time for learning (well, you’re probably learning through your work, but maybe not what you’d most like to learn).

If you have some down time in your client work, pick up a new book or read through some online tutorials. Maybe you want to learn a new language, improve your Photoshop skills, or study a particular style of design. Any type of improvement can help you to become a better, more talented designer. Decide what you would like to improve on and take the time to pursue that knowledge.

15. Study Other Types of Design

There’s so much great information available online about web design that many of us tend to stay trapped in that little box of design blogs and CSS galleries. Outside the online world of web design there are tons of different types of design that can all be related or used somehow in our own web design work. Maybe you have some interest in interior design or print design (magazines, newspapers, etc.). Now would be a good time to learn a little bit more about a particular aspect of design, and who knows, maybe it can help you to become a more creative, more talented web designer.


16. Catch Up On Paperwork

The details and finances of freelancing can be a real headache. Not many of us like dealing with invoices and taxes, but we still have to do it. Sometimes be organized in these areas takes a back seat to client work, so when you’re slow take the time to get caught up and develop a system that can keep you more organized going forward.

Give Back:

17. Do Some Work for a Non-Profit

If you’re looking for a chance to use your skills for good while you don’t have a busy schedule full of client work, consider doing some work for a non-profit organization for free or at a low cost. This may not always be a good idea because some will take advantage of the situation, but in general you will get a great sense of accomplishment through helping a worthy cause that interests you personally.

18. Mentor Another Designer

Another way to do something helpful without asking for anything in return is to spend some time mentoring and helping a younger or less-experienced designer. All of us could use some help from an experienced individual at some point, so you may enjoy being the one that gets to help someone else to take the first steps in their career.

Get Away:

19. Take a Vacation!

If you have some down time in your client work, enjoy it! Most freelancers don’t get enough time away from their work, so take this opportunity to have some time to yourself or with your family. Time off is necessary for all of us and it can often re-fuel you and give you some new energy when you come back to work.

Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design, a popular design blog.
  1. July 23, 2008

    This is some really useful advice, I think the points about Brushing up on your skills and learning other design skills are the things that I’d most like to be doing. Freebies are a great use of time and really can drive some great traffic and some interesting opportunities your way. Will we be getting any freebies from DesignM.AG?

  2. Steven Snell
    July 23, 2008

    Hopefully, but none are in the works yet.

  3. July 23, 2008


    Great list! I think some of these things, like working on your own site and brushing up on your skills, should be things you make time to do even when you are busy.

  4. July 23, 2008

    I love the last one…

  5. July 23, 2008

    Great post! You give some really practical advice for when we have some downtime as designers.

    I like number 19 the best!

  6. Steven Snell
    July 23, 2008

    Apt Design,
    Good point. Especially with continued learning and development. With just a portfolio site I don’t think it’s necessary to constantly tweak it, but certainly improving your skills should be a priority. It’s just much easier to do when you have some spare time.

    Tiger and Frank,
    I think that’s everyone’s favorite!

  7. July 23, 2008

    In relation to #19 Here’s a recent guest post I made over at Just Creative Design: http://justcreativedesign.com/2008/07/16/freelancers-inspire-yourself-vary-your-work-environment/ – Some might find it useful/inspiring.

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  9. July 23, 2008

    I love the last one too 🙂

    Great advices! All are true and I’ve done some from the list.

  10. July 24, 2008

    Great Site. Keep up the great work.

  11. Steven Snell
    July 24, 2008

    Thanks for leaving the link to your post.

  12. Pingback: 19 Things to Do When Business is Slow: Pay Per Click Advertising

  13. I personally use yahoo search marketing to advertise T35 Free Web Hosting, and it has done very well. I don

  14. July 26, 2008

    Friday I was searching for sites related to Marketing and specifically marketing plans templates and I found your site.

  15. July 26, 2008

    I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this site but this page offers good advice for those individuals that freelance in any field–such as me for voiceovers. Thanks!

  16. July 30, 2008

    I get bored of all theses articles as a long time reader of all freelances resources.


  17. Steven Snell
    July 30, 2008

    Yep, most of this stuff could apply to any type of freelancer. Glad it can help.


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  19. July 31, 2008

    Great post, number 19 sounds great!

  20. August 1, 2008

    Great post. I’m starting my freelance career and this will definitively help me. Thanks for the article.

  21. August 2, 2008

    Great ideas. Another one i’m working on today (under update your marketing materials) is creating a Thank You card that i can send out when i get referrals from people. you can get them printed pretty cheaply on vistaprint. An inexpensive way to be gracious and to get your name in front of people so they remember you.

  22. Steven Snell
    August 2, 2008

    That’s a good suggestion. Thanks.

  23. August 28, 2008

    Good article. I wrote a similar one a few months back – 26 Things to Do When Business is Slow


  24. December 8, 2008

    Point 5 is a good one. I’ve see campaigns work for $50, just have to make sure they are run correctly.

  25. January 30, 2009

    Some interesting ideas and a great read. You have inspired me to get to work. : )

  26. August 1, 2010

    Love the last one, “take a vacation” you know as soon as you decide on that you’ll get loads of leads come in!

  27. August 15, 2010

    Thanks for this inspirative post 🙂

  28. August 26, 2010

    This is a productive list of things to do. I’m going to make a short list under the 6 or 7 topics you mentioned that seem relevant to me and then post the list in our workspace to serve as a reminder.

    Thanks, Steven!

  29. March 20, 2011

    Very useful advice! The first ten or so is just what I needed! Thanks

  30. March 30, 2011

    Thank You fpr this informative Article.

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