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So, You Want to Start a Design Business?

August 14, 2012

One of the most frequently received emails that comes through my inbox is, “How do I start a Design Business?“. In the last month alone I’ve gotten fourteen letters from different people regarding starting a business. I replied to one or two of them individually, but as the emails just kept coming, I decided that a blog series would be a better answer to that question.

As I started writing the post, I realized that there was more that I wanted and was willing to share than I would normally put in one post. I’m going to cover different aspects of how I started my businesshow I built my portfolio, resources I use and places I frequent, as well as a handful of other information that might be helpful to someone who’s just getting started.

Now, let me also so this in advance going into this series. I’m not going to be sharing coding secrets or CSS or shortcuts that I may or may not use in my design process. There is a ton of information available on the internet and I’ll be offering resources and links to other places that can get you started with your learning. It would be foolish for me to give away freely everything that I’ve worked to learn on my own or to give away information that was shared with me out of confidence from other designers.

Why did I start designing online?

How to Start a Design Business

When I started designing my own blog, I was still on Blogger. I published my first blog post in August 2008 and fell into the habit of blogging quickly after. It wasn’t but a few months into my blogging career that I decided that I needed to step it up and customize my look. Despite contacting other designer, I’ve been designing my own site ever since.

Designing is a creative outlet for me. It gives me a sense of control and creative freedom. I can manipulate what is essentially a blank canvas and mold it into something completely different. It’s a rush for me just like painting, sketching or drawing is for any other artist. It’s something that I do every single day in some way, shape or form.

I moved myself to WordPress in January 2011, and I couldn’t get enough of the tech side of designing (CSS, PHP, HTML…). I knew at that moment that designing blogs and websites was something that I wanted to do full time. Being a military family, working for myself also offered more flexibility and it gave me the chance to still be at home with my kids.

How to Start Your Design Business

There’s a big difference between pursuing design as a hobby and making a business out of it. There are lots of things to consider and think about when you ponder starting a web design business. It’s not really something that I would recommend jumping into headfirst. Keep in mind when reading these posts that this is what has worked for me and for my business. Other designers might have different advice for you, but this is how I would get going. I design primarily for WordPress, so many aspects of this series will be targeted more at designing for them.

1.  Choose a Platform for which you want to Design.

For me, I knew that I didn’t want to work with Blogger at all. All of the sites that I admired and enjoyed browsing through were built and powered by Self-Hosted WordPress. After over 10 years in business, I have expanded to offer both WordPress and ShowIt design as well as branding material and logo creation.

You don’t have to limit yourself to only WordPress. Lots of designers work with an assortment of platforms—any combination of Blogger, WordPress, ShowIt, and Squarespace— allowing for more clients and services. Start where you feel comfortable and work your way up.

2.  If you decide to design for WordPress, choose a platform to design with.

This somewhat coordinates with number one. When I started out, I knew that I wanted to build my site using the Genesis Framework from StudioPress. One of my favorite designers Lauren from Restored 316 Designs created many of my favorite sites using Genesis. I loved their Child Theme Selections and variety of options. There are other themes as well, but I’m partial and choose to only work with Genesis. I’ve had nothing but fantastic experiences with them and their team.

3.  Learn as MUCH as you can.

Once I chose my theme, I realized that I didn’t know a whole lot of anything about CSS or coding. I made my mind up that I was going to learn. I spent hours in the StudioPress forum reading and studying. Most of what I learned in the beginning, I learned through trial and error. I did a lot of Googling and searching. I broke my site at least 50 times before I ever got ready to launch my design.

If you’ve played around with html in Blogger, jumping into CSS won’t be as big of a deal. Once I got going, I realized that I knew more about what I was doing than I thought. If you’re looking to dive right in, check out W3 Schools for a few basic resources for getting started. They cover basic and advanced CSS and can teach you pretty much everything you might want to know.

If you aren’t about the coding, consider designing for a platform like ShowIt. I personally made this jump in 2019 because of the ease of design. As far as the appearance goes, ShowIt offers a ton of flexibility. It’s a fun tool to play with and a great way to make your business completely your own.

4.  Find Yourself a Mentor.

This one isn’t a must, but I can not stress how helpful it was for me to have someone knew the business to help me out and offer advice. Some people may be kind enough to offer advice for free (like I’m doing now) and others may charge you. If you’re serious, I recommend learning from someone who’s already been there.

I’m generally up to answering questions and have offered hourly business start-up training before. There are also workshops and coaching sessions provided by a variety of different resources. If you opt to purchase your theme from StudioPress, there are tutorials galore in their forums.

5.  Just Start Designing.

In the next post I’m going to talk more in detail about building your profile and how to acquire clients. However, for now I want to leave you with this piece of advice:

Just start designing.

Try to Design for yourself.
Design test sites.
Play with designing logos.
Use different color schemes.
Experiment with fonts.

Whether I’m tinkering with code or playing with new fonts and colors, I’m always designing something.

You will only get better with practice. Just like a photographer has to shoot daily to get better, you will need to design daily. Create a site where you can break and fix your site to see how far you can push it. Even if you never use the designs you’re playing with, you can always take screenshots and use them to get your portfolio started. At this point, nothing you do is going to be wasted.

6. DO NOT book a Client until you’re ready.

This is one thing that I can’t stress enough. I know that the key goal to being a blog or web designer is to gain clients and build your business. However, designing for clients (more specifically clients that you don’t know) before you are ready is only going to stress you out. Take some time, practice on your test sites, and get the feel of what you’re doing. Nothing is more stressful than having a client that you don’t know desire a layout or a design that you don’t know how to create. Trust me.


Was this helpful at all to anyone who has thought about or is thinking about starting their own business? In the coming posts, I’m going to talk about Portfolio Building, Pricing, Growing your Business, where I find design inspiration, and a handful of other things that I keep mulling around in my head.

If you have a specific question that you’d like me to answer, feel free to leave them in the comments or shoot me a message. I’m going to try to answer everyone’s questions, so don’t hesitate to send them to me!

  1. tea says:

    Hey I wanted to know what font do you use for this blog ?

  2. […] loved this post that Courtney shared about starting a design […]

  3. […] anticipated part of this little series I’ve put together. Most of you were interested in the why I started a business post and several of you messaged me with thanks for posting more about the legal aspects of being a […]

  4. […] was completely blown away by the response that I received after my post last week on starting your own design business. I knew that there were many of you who were interested in getting started, but I had no IDEA that […]

  5. Kimberly says:

    Oh, I love this!!! I am really excited to read the next post in this series, because those are all questions that I have had since pursuing design. Thank you for this!!

  6. Amy says:

    Great post!! I was probably one of those 14 emails..haha. Sorry! 🙂 Excited to see the rest of your posts in this series!

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Courtney Kirkland is a Sacramento, California photography and design business. Since 2008, Courtney has passionately provided beautiful, meaningful documentary-style photography and intentional, high-quality design.  Value and celebrate the beautiful, messy, and uniquely-special moments of everyday living.