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Tips and Advice for Freelance Illustrators and Designers from Army Of Cats

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A while back, we saw this awesome blog post from our friend, Graham Pilling (Army of Cats). We thought it was a great tool for all artists and Graham has very kindly let us put it on our blog!

HOW TO GET THE BALL ROLLING

Know the direction you want the ball to go, and start pushing. The key is not to wait around for someone to get the ball rolling for you.

I come across many students who seemingly get so into the routine of being assigned work by a tutor, handing it in to receive comments and criticism, and then dutifully receiving the next brief, that when they leave education they innocently wonder where the next task will come from. It’s a competitive industry; it’s unrealistic to assume someone is going to come along  and give you a ‘leg up’

Start thinking about the direction you need to go in before you leave education and start working towards that now.

BUSINESS SKILLS & UNDERSTANDING VALUE

Know your market. Devote some of your time towards researching about how the industry works. There are lots of blogs and books available about the business skills needed to be a successful designer, illustrator, animator, etc. Don’t be one of those students who I get emails from asking the most short-sighted and banal questions which they could easily answer for themselves. Be proactive! Read up on this stuff! If you plan to freelance and don’t understand tax basics or how to keep accounts, then you are lacking much needed skills.

WHAT IS IT FOR?

This is a great question to ask of pieces of work that you see in order to start understanding the commercial application of illustration and design. What is the purpose of the work? Who is the target audience? How will it make money or create value for the client/artist? What does it set out to achieve, and is it successful?

Read blogs and look at the work of established creatives – often they will point out the objective of the work they have produced. Getting your head round the commercial application of design/illustration can give you a huge early advantage in your career. Which leads us nicely on to…

IF YOU CAN’T GET CLIENTS, MAKE THEM UP!

I have no formal qualifications in art or design. When I got my first design job, all the other applicants had design degrees, yet I was successful at getting the job. Why? Because I had a portfolio of client work, and they had portfolios of school work.

Once you are able to better understand the commercial applications of the work you want to do, start working on examples for your portfolio. Make up the client briefs if you have to, just make them realistic with the purpose of being a case study to show you understand the application of the work.

I highly recommend the book “Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills” by David Sherwin for generating ideas and improving your skills.

DESIGN COMPETITIONS / SPEC WORK / WORKING FOR FREE

I, like many professional designers, wholeheartedly discourage involvement in design competitions, crowd sourcing, or spec (speculative work) where the final design is to be used for any sort of commercial purposes.

This basically means any endeavour where you are being asked to submit your creative work, time, and experience for free, but with the promise that you may get some sort of reward if your design is ‘picked’, or that you will gain exposure, or a great piece for your portfolio. Sometimes you are even expected to PAY to submit work.

Fundamentally, what it boils down to is this: if a business is asking you to do free work, how much do they actually value your work? Do you really want to spend time working for someone who considers your work and time to be worth absolutely nothing?

You wouldn’t go into a restaurant and ask 10 chefs to each prepare 10 separate meals with the intention of only paying for the meal you enjoyed the most. Likewise it is just as unreasonable and unethical for clients to employ this method of soliciting work.

This process often results in a poor end result for the client, and also it damages and devalues the work of the industry as a whole. Spec work is a widely debated topic and one which creatives and clients alike sometimes struggle to understand fully, so if you’re still not sure what it is, then read up about it. This website is a good place to start.

I have seen blogs and other online articles advising young designers/illustrators to initially do work for free in order to get a portfolio together. Don’t do this. It is absolutely terrible advice. Value your work and the time you put into it. If you don’t value your work, you may find yourself stuck with an endless stream of ‘clients’ who don’t value your work either.

Heed the advice of Jessica Hische, author of this wonderful website. Being asked to give your work away in return for ‘exposure’ or ‘a good portfolio piece’ is “the most toxic line of bullshit anyone will ever feed you.”

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GET THE BASICS RIGHT

Put together an online portfolio where people can see your work. Make it easy for people to contact you. Put your contact details in an email signature as well as on your site. If you decide to work under a ‘studio name’ that isn’t your actual name, avoid unprofessional or offensive names. These are all very simple points but I frequently come across designers/illustrators who can’t even get the basics right.

DEVELOP A PROCESS/WORKFLOW

Learn some basic planning and Project Management skills to enable you to plan out any given project you might be approached with. Not only will this help you organise the work, but it will be vital in providing accurate quotes to your client. Use a Work Breakdown Structure to work out what tasks need to be completed in a given project. If you are working to a deadline, then divide up the time and make sure you have enough time for each task in order to deliver the final work on time. Where appropriate, explain your process to your client and give them an indication of when they can expect certain deliverables.

When you complete a project, take a little time to self-review and look at what worked and what didn’t What can you streamline and improve so you can be more efficient next time?

TIME SAVING TOOLS

If you find yourself doing repetitive tasks then explore better/faster ways of doing them. A simple Google search might save you hours of work in the long run! Use methods like Time Boxing to control and focus how you spend your time.

CONTRACT / WORK AGREEMENT

Don’t undertake work without a contract – especially with new clients. I cannot stress this enough.

Your contract, or Work Agreement, doesn’t have to be overly complicated, it just has to be a way to formally acknowledge the project description, the agreed payment terms, time-scales, as well as the appropriate Usage Rights for the client (i.e. if you’re being paid to do a T-shirt design, the client should not get usage rights to create prints or stickers of the artwork).

There are lots of resources online and in books to help you put a contract together. Put a bit of time and effort into researching and writing one. Don’t worry that the contract will scare off clients – the only ones it will scare off were the ones who were planning to shaft you! Professionals use contracts; make it your standard practice.

DEVELOPING A STYLE

When you’re still early in your career, don’t worry about trying to develop a style. That will come with time and experience. Experiment and try out different mediums. Broaden out. This may be hard to hear but your early work will suck in ways you may not see until you develop an eye and understanding that comes with experience. Just keep working and improving.

REFINE YOUR IDEAS

Learn how to REFINE your work and ideas. In many situations a simpler idea or concept will be far more successful than a complicated one. Imagine a gold prospector from the Old West – when he is panning for gold, he is sifting out the crap and looking to leave only the gold behind. Imagine a jeweller polishing a valuable trinket or jewel – he is removing that outer layer of dirt and dust to let the good stuff shine through.

It’s far too easy to ‘overdo’ good design/illustration work by adding too much to it. When it comes to refining and polishing, instead ask yourself what can you remove? Look for ways to discard the superfluous and leave behind the core design, message or concept.

DON’T BE PUT OFF BY TALENT OUT THERE / DON’T WORRY ABOUT FEELING LIKE A FAKE!

This can be a tough one. It is easy to be discouraged when focusing on the successes of others or the mind-blowing quantity and quality of work out there in Internet Land. Do not give in to doubt and distress! There are lots of opportunities out there so keep working and it will pay off. Focus on improving the delivery and quality of service for your clients – you might not be able to be the greatest in your field, but you can still be the greatest to your clients.

When starting out, everyone has to deal with self-doubt and the sneaky feeling that you are ‘faking it’. This is a natural part of being inexperienced so don’t let it get to you. It means you are learning something new, challenging yourself and making the transition from shaky newbie to stalwart professional!

BE HONEST, BE POSITIVE, HAVE INTEGRITY, CELEBRATE QUALITY

I firmly believe that your attitude to your work, your clients, and your peers can have a huge impact on your success in all aspects of work and life. While being positive doesn’t guarantee you clients, being negative is certainly a good way to make them avoid you. Strong ethics and professional integrity might not seem like they add obvious value to the service you provide. These aspects are in fact priceless and will strengthen your reputation and gain you word of mouth referral work.

Strive to be honest, reliable and professional and be proud of the quality of service you can provide.

You can follow Graham on Twitter. We advise that you do. 

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