So you wanna be a designer...

As mentioned in my previous post, there have been a few common threads in what we’re hearing from aspiring designers. Like:

“I don’t know where to start!”
”I wish someone could just walk me through it!”
”I need to learn about grading…”
”How do I know if my idea is worth doing?”

Now, obviously I recognise that personal support and coaching is valuable, or we wouldn’t be offering it. But this does make me want to shout from the rooftops: Go to Ravelry! Ravelry is your friend!

Because while the one-on-one conversations I’ve had were certainly enormously helpful – especially in terms of encouragement and motivation – I also learned so much from discussions in the Budding Designers and Designers groups, in particular. Also, I still spend a lot of time hanging out there; enjoying the chat, learning, and sharing what I’ve learned when I can. So really, my top, number one, solid gold advice is: go join those groups. Stick them at the top of your home screen. Browse through old threads, start new ones. You won’t be laughed at or ignored. You’ll learn stuff. You’ll have fun and make friends.

(Okay. This comes with a disclaimer: my experience may not be the same as yours. They are largely white groups, and I understand that not everyone can take the same welcome for granted. But I do know that the general group attitude is supportive, and the mods – group mods as well as the Ravelry Powers That Be – genuinely care about making the space inclusive.)

I’m pretty confident that anything a new designer wants to know, they can find in those groups (or in a resource linked to from the groups). And yet, I can’t help myself, I want to set out what I’ve learned on my own blog. A little “where what how” thing. So here goes with a short series of long posts (I’m wordy), in which I do my very best to walk you through it. None of what I say will be groundbreaking or revelatory; you can certainly find all of this discussed on Ravelry. But maybe my little summary will be helpful.

But first things first: what do you want to get out of it?

Before anything else, I encourage you to think hard about what you’re doing this for. Because it’s a lot of work, and unless you’re very, very, very lucky indeed (as well as talented, strategic and hard working), it’s not going to let you quit your day job. There are also a lot of reasons not to try to monetise your hobby; the stress of commitments and marketing and all that can really suck the fun out. That said, obviously, I enjoy it enough to carry on, and sloooowly I have seen the financial return creep up to a point where it isn’t quite such a ludicrous waste of time. So I’m not trying to discourage you. But I do want you to manage your expectations; and being clear on what you want to get out of it can help with making decisions about how to handle various factors.

Start by checking out these stats on what designers earned on Ravelry in the month of January 2019. Of course, many designers also sell through other platforms, and for a few Ravelry is their worst performing sales channel; plus there can be earnings from books, magazine publications, kits etc. For a newbie designer, though, Ravelry sales are probably the most relevant. Look at that spreadsheet. Ten percent of all designers on Ravelry (all who sold at least one pattern in the month) earned more than $250 in January, which is actually pretty encouraging, when you consider that the figures include a fair number of designers who have just a handful of patterns listed. But 70% earned less than $50, and that’s in Ravelry’s busiest month. Only a fifth of designers made more than $100.

Let’s make it personal: I’ve been selling patterns for five years. My output has been slow and extremely varied. I’ve had a lot of patterns that interested basically nobody, and a handful that I considered very successful. In 2018 I released three patterns, not counting a shawl club design (not then offered for sale on Ravelry). For each of the three release months, plus the Gift-A-Long, I earned reasonably well – the lowest was €229 after discounts, the highest €586, my biggest month ever. (Oh, and the worst performer happened to be the one that had taken by far the most time, and cost the most in tech editing. I barely covered my costs with that one.) Every other month, sales hovered around €20-30, and my Rav total for the year was just over €2,000. Before expenses.

(If you’re thinking at this point, what is SHE doing offering mentorship?! – it’s a fair question! I don’t consider myself a successful designer, but I do consider myself a good one. I know how to make quality patterns and I know a lot about the different aspects involved, especially the technical production side since my professional background is in publishing. But I’m not a marketer.)

We could talk all day about what I could be doing to improve those numbers (a lot, if I had the time and energy). I don’t imagine I’m doing as well as I possibly could be at this stage, and if you’ve got great Instagram game plus time to keep bringing out new designs and/or reasons for customers to return to your store, you can certainly do better. But also, this is my best year yet; in general each new release keeps doing better, and while that’s good news for my future, you should probably – not necessarily, but probably – expect to earn less in your first few years.

And after that? Well, the sheet does show a handful of designers earning a decent amount! But those top ranks are rarefied indeed. Consider Andrea Mowry. Her designs are gorgeous, Zeitgeisty and very professional – but on top of that she has model good looks and hipster style, a husband who really knows his way around a camera, and access to beautiful photo locations, all of which adds up to the “I want her life” factor that drives a lot of Instagram followers and indeed pattern sales. I really don’t mean to denigrate her talent. But there’s a lot that contributes to success beyond great design, which is of course essential.

Bear in mind, too, that it has always been hard to make a living as a designer. At least 12 years ago, pre-Ravelry, I read an interview with Debbie Bliss in which she said it was “impossible” to make a living from design, which is why she started her yarn line. Now, “impossible” is too strong. Woolly Wormhead, for instance, supports her entire family of three from pattern sales alone (but that’s largely because they live very, very cheaply). But most full-time designers need other income streams, such as teaching or tech editing.

So what does that mean for you?

For me, understanding the financial realities has helped me to keep things in perspective. I know that my low sales are a fair reflection of a difficult market. I also know that I could boost those sales, but it would take a lot of work – on marketing as well as increasing my output – and I would still never earn anything like a reasonable hourly wage. And that’s okay. For me. I love the process of putting together a pattern almost as much as I love the actual knitting (because I get to use all my publishing skills, and that’s just plain fun). I don’t love marketing. So I focus on doing the fun part and on getting satisfaction from seeing people knit and enjoy my patterns, not from the sales numbers.

For you, it might mean a similar approach (treat design as a hobby, not a business) – or it might mean the opposite: putting your energy into building the business as much as creating the designs. There’s a lot of fun to be had in that too, and plenty of support and guidance available.

It could also mean a different strategy. You could focus on designing for magazines or yarn companies; that gives you a set fee, plus the potential benefit of having photography, tech editing etc taken off your hands. Often you get to sell the pattern after a set exclusivity period, too, although sales in that case are usually not as high as for a pattern launched on Ravelry. Or you could produce self-published books. Hunter Hammersen’s business is built largely on books, as is Woolly Wormhead’s. That is a much bigger project than putting out individual digital patterns – it’s definitely a business – but very possible, and potentially very rewarding. Oh, or you could focus on working with yarnies to create kits; kits can do extremely well if sold in person at events, etc.

See, there are plenty of options. There are different ways to make designing a viable income stream; or to enjoy designing just as a hobby. If you want to design, go for it, and I’ll be cheering you on. Stay tuned for more blog posts (they’ll be in the “PIF design school” category on this site) with less expectations management and more practical tips, on all the nitty gritty of the whole dang thing. It’s fun!