How Much Money Do Artists Make: My 2020 Design Income

This is the blog post I should have written last year. So why didn’t I write it?

Because I was embarrassed – it was the first time in 3 years I didn’t meet the income goal I’d set for myself and I didn’t feel ready to explain why.

But a lot can happen in a year.

Which brings me to 2020: I spent a lot of time early in the year reflecting and got really clear on what I wanted to achieve (especially after feeling so unhappy about not meeting my 2019 goal). And from that, I made an aggressive income goal that was nearly double what I made the previous year which quite frankly scared the hell out of me…

I was going to make $75k in gross income in 2020.

Which of course begs the question: Did I hit my goal?

The short answer is: YES.

I actually exceeded my goal, bringing in about $128.5k. But the numbers alone don’t mean anything without some context, so let’s dive a little deeper, shall we?

QUICK NOTE: I am hyper-aware of my privilege and that I’m able to build my business while not worrying about how the bills are getting paid as my husband’s income supports us. And I also know that not everyone has that support ❤️

But as someone who LITERALLY just said in a recent blog post that “There aren’t enough open conversations about pricing our art or our overall income as designers,” I felt it would be hypocritical of me to not be 100% transparent with you about my own business.

Income Does Not Equal Profit

Gross income is a great metric and I think it’s the one we most often think of when discussing income, but it’s not the most important number. To me, the true measure of how well your business is doing is your net income (ie. profit) because if you’re not actually making a profit, it’s REALLY hard to grow your business.

Luckily your net income is simple to calculate: Just subtract your expenses from your total income.

When doing that for 2020, I made a very healthy profit of around $88.5k. And that profit has allowed me not only to invest back into my business in several ways but also significantly increase the amount I pay myself every month in 2021 as a “salary.”

Because for your design business to be sustainable, you can’t always expect to take all the income that comes in for your own personal use; you also need a reserve to pay future expenses and should only pay yourself what your business can afford. It’s actually a topic I’d love to tackle in a future post as discussing healthy finance practices is something I enjoy. But it’s far too much to include here as today’s focus is on income…

2020 Income Breakdown

So I’m sure you’ve heard the advice “you need multiple streams of income” and it’s something I fully believe in, as long as you don’t try to juggle too many things at once.

And for me in 2020, this basically boiled down to three main income streams:

  1. Surface design

  2. Skillshare royalties

  3. Sketch Design Repeat

Now, you may have also spotted a fourth category in the chart – it’s a catch-all for other things that brought in a little income (a combo of affiliate payments, blogging, and a few Spoonflower sales).

But I don’t actively spend time on any of them and together they account for less than 1% of my income, so I don’t really consider them an income stream.

1. Surface Design

Surface design was 23% of my total 2020 income, coming in at about $28.5k. Which at first glance might seem like a small percentage, but the truth is it’s pretty in line with how much I’ve made in past years.

In 2019, I made just over $29k in surface design (70% of my income where I made $42.5k gross).

So even though 2020’s is slightly less than the previous year, given Covid’s affect on our industry, it totally feels like a win to me.

And like every year I’ve been in business as a surface designer, my SD income has come from 3 different income sources:

Another interesting fact is that while I made a lot less from freelance this year (with Covid that wasn’t surprising), I also brought in more money from licensing than any other year in my business so far – almost $15k.

It just goes to show how surface design is a slow and steady build: some of that income was from deals made all the way back in 2018! So if you keep at it and continue to reach out to companies regularly every year, it IS possible to increase your income even if you aren’t making much art (I certainly wasn’t in 2020).

2. Skillshare Royalties

Although I only launched one new class on Skillshare in 2020, Hand Lettering for Surface Designers, it quickly became one of the most successful SS classes. Between that and the influx of new students in January and again in April/May due to Covid, the result was that I earned just shy of $15k from it (a 35% increase from 2019).

NOTE: Although my Skillshare income went up, my earnings per minute went down by almost 20%. This was due to lots of new students in late spring due to Covid receiving a 2 months free trial which dropped all teacher earnings per minute to about 2 cents (previously it was 5-8 cents). This definitely affected my motivation to post new classes during the last half of 2020.

Had I continued to post new classes though, I have no doubt that I could have generated even more income, but by the summer, my focus shifted to providing education on Sketch Design Repeat – which was 100% the right call!

3. Sketch Design Repeat

As I was coming out of my Covid induced brain fog in late spring, I noticed many surface design projects were still on-hold indefinitely. Which made me realize I needed to pivot and focus on something I had more control over if I wanted to hit my $75k income goal as staying flexible is SO important for long term success. That realization was the catalyst for me launching the SDR website in June 2020.

Little did I know when I made the decision to start this website that it would become the best decision of my career!

Not only did it single-handedly allow me to exceed my 2020 income goal because of the success of my first in-depth course, Pitch Your Portfolio (PYP), it’s also been the most personally rewarding experience I’ve ever had.

It’s allowed me to connect with thousands of artists in our community through design challenges and several free live workshops, but I’ve also supported over 150 students inside PYP – several of them have gone on to find agent representation and gain income from licensing their artwork. The amount of joy I find in seeing what they’ve accomplished is truly indescribable!

Just a handful of the surface design students in our Pitch Your Portfolio course.

Just a handful of the surface design students in our Pitch Your Portfolio course.

Beyond our community, another very meaningful milestone was hiring a virtual creative assistant this fall. I’ve always had a vision of growing my business to the point of needing to bring on a small team and this was the first step towards that. My virtual assistant, Jena, is a dream to work with and many things I’ve done here in 2020, like the recent Surface Design Industry Survey, for example, wouldn’t have been possible without her.

And although this website is directly responsible for me exceeding my income goal which I am whole-heartedly grateful for, my gross income is NOT the metric that matters to me most.

Btw, it’s taken me 8 YEARS of self-employment to hit 6-figures. It just goes to show you that success doesn’t happen overnight and that there’s lots of experience to be gained in the process.

And while some of those experiences will totally suck at the time, they’ll help you a lot in your business down the road. So always remember…

Hidden in every struggle is a lesson you can learn and grow from!

So what all that said, what IS the metric that matters most to ME?

It’s feeling fulfilled and inspired by the work you’re doing, even if it takes 3, 5, or even 10 years to generate an income from it – at least that’s my take!

And that brings me to this year and my new income goal!

Only time will tell if I’ll hit this year’s goal of $250k – which side note, totally freaks me out to share publicly with you – but I know if I stay focused on the plan I’ve built to get me there and keep in mind why this community matters to me, it’s totally possible.

Because I have BIG plans for Sketch Design Repeat in 2021!

Starting with my upcoming new course that launches in February, Artful Pricing, followed by lots of new surface design biz related content throughout the year to keep you inspired and supported.

More than anything though, I want to focus on being intentional with what I put out there, continuing to be honest about the realities of our industry and owning your own business, and enjoy celebrating the fact that I get to help lots of artists (both new and experienced) build their creative careers. Those are my REAL 2021 goals!

  1. Thank you for sharing your 2020 year so honestly. It has made the business more real. I can’t wait to see how you surpass your 2021 goals.

  2. Tiffany Wong says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Shannon! All the best in 2021!

  3. Bettina says:

    Hello Shannon, thank you so much for addressing this hot topic of finances and annual planning. It is so important to approach this area in a very professional way.
    One question: how do you define buyouts in comparison to license fees royalties?
    looking forward to learning more about the survey outcomes. It already gave me good insights participating in the survey.
    Have a very successful new year!

  4. Rekha says:

    This is such a great post! Thanks for sharing your personal story. It validates what I’ve always believed and have been working towards! Wishing you much success for 2021. I love all your content and especially loved PYP!

  5. Thank you, Shannon, for sharing all this information. It is super valuable and I really appreciate your honesty and openness!

  6. Adriana says:

    Thanks for being so open about this topic, Shannon!

  7. Tracy says:

    Love this, and it is so great to see, but it truly is never talked about! Thank you for being honest, and vulnerable at the same time. It has taken me a few years to really find my style, and I feel like I am not ready to start this journey and see where it takes me. Thanks for all your guidance!

  8. Nina says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this! It’s so inspiring to reaf a success story! I’ve become a full time freelancer on the 1st of january this year, so I’m super nervous if I can generate the income I need to sustain a living from it. I know it will take time, but I’ll work on generating ideas for different income sources!

  9. Thank you, Shannon ~ for being so honest and transparent with your financials and goals. It’s so rare that artists share their income details. I really appreciate all this insight and feel a whole lot better about where I’m at with making a living doing something I am passionate about. I feel inspired about planning my surface design income goals ~ which is a new feeling for me, rather than feeling frustrated and deflated. I’m really looking forward to your Artful Pricing course, it’s wonderful timing. I’m also here to cheer you on for your 2021 income goals and appreciate you sharing them with us!

  10. Thank you so much for being so bravely open about your business finances, info like this is so hard to come by, it’s so interesting and helpful!!!

  11. tina Folks says:

    I really appreciate your honesty and willingness to share your professional knowledge!

  12. Judy Buskirk says:

    Shannon, You live the meaning of transparency, and I appreciate it so much! I am planning to take the class in April and will definitely want to be on the waiting list for the August Pricing class. You are a refreshing point of light in the industry.

  13. Lola T says:

    I love your energy and intention, and appreciate you posting this article. I am new to surface design and benefit from the facts about what it takes to make a fulfilling career including financially. I will share your blog with my peers. Thank you!

  14. Asta says:

    I admire your honesty and openness sharing all the facts and actual money figures.

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