When I first decided to pursue a creative career I found it incredibly frustrating that no one seemed to be entirely honest about how to go about getting one. The main reason, of course, is that there is no one set route to doing so and there's no such thing as a seven step programme to becoming an illustrator or a designer. I did, however, promise myself in the early days that should I ever become a freelance illustrator or designer that I would be entirely honest with those just starting out as to just what it's like and how I got here. Admittedly, there are probably many other creative professionals who are way better equipt to dish out advice than me, but then, maybe they are all much less honest than me too. Although I am still very much on a creative journey with my work, I have been working in the creative industry for ten years and I am now running my own business as a freelance illustrator and designer, so if you glean nothing else, at least you know it is possible to do so. I recently gave a talk to some creative students about my journey and I've summed up my main points below with some of my typography. So, here is my advice, for what it's worth...
1. Don't quit.
Surely this point should be at the end, right? You know, once you've tried everything else and reached the end of your tether? Nope. Having an attitude of stickability from day one is the most important thing you can possess, because (sorry but...) there will be lots of failures along the way. Thankfully I now have lots of happy clients, but failure is inevitable in the early days. Your stickability will push you in the right direction. It's important to have a rough idea of what you'd like to do and keep that in your head when times get tough and it's a case of taking small steps towards where you want to be. I have had some pretty crappy jobs (and some good ones too, I might add), but getting a job you hate after being adament you want to make a living doing something creative can seem a little bit degrading. If everyone starts on at you, like, "We thought you were going to illustrate children's books for a living and you're now stacking shelves?" then don't lose heart. I used to go home at the end of my shifts working in a supermarket and draw the funny characters I'd met that day. I have a whole sketchbook full of funny drawings. This was partly my survival, but also a marker that I wasn't giving up on my creative aspirations. If you hate your job then keep your eyes peeled for other opportunities, but try to also find ways in which you can be creative in your current role (or use the experience for a creative project in your spare time). This is all part of your story, and people like to see that in your work.
2. Be nice.
If you've had to endure a job you hate, the one thing you can take from it is how to work with other people. Learning to deal with people will stand you in good stead for working with your own clients one day, should you wish to go down that route. In fact, dealing with people is probably the best thing you can learn - yes, over any creative skill. That doesn't mean you have to be a pushover, but having a personable and positive attitude will attract more clients than anything else. There are plently of creatives who will be in competition with you, but clients may well choose you over someone with better skills if they know you are easy to get on with and deliver work on time. Be polite to people (even those you think are unimportant to you now, you never know what they may become).
3. Get inspired.
Surround yourself with stuff that inspires you. Keep checking out other people's work and see if you can implement any elements of it into your work (that's not to say you should go around copying other people's work by the way, but you can allow it to inspire your own ideas). Try out new things. Experiment. Go to galleries. Travel. Don't get so immersed in your own projects that you can't see what's going on around you. Surround yourself with good encouragers; people who can be honest with you when you're barking up the wrong tree, but who are also going to be cheering you on towards your goals. Avoid pessimists and people who just tell you to 'get a proper job.' There is money to be made from being creative, you may just need experience doing other things first. Connect with lots of other inspirational creative people, not only is this great for pushing your work forward, you may also be able to collaborate on projects or pass work on from time to time.
Lots of people tell me how incredibly 'lucky' I am to be an illustrator and how they wish they could have a career like mine. What a lot of people don't realise is that I work ridiculous hours, and in the beginning I didn't get paid much. Getting a creative career, especially a freelance one, involves a lot of hard graft and is not for the feint hearted. Having a freelance career is not simply about drawing pretty pictures, it's about meeting deadlines, negociating contracts, working late into the night and managing your accounts. It also involves lots of self promotion and connecting with lots of potential clients which can feel like hard work when not many people have time for feedback. For me I feel like my hard work is paying off but it has taken time and often a thick skin. I do, however, feel incredibly fortunate to be doing something I love for a living...
5. Have fun.
You can't work hard unless you have passion. It's important that you love what you do, especially as you will be spending a huge percentage of your life doing it. If projects start to bore you, find ways of injecting fun into them or else change the direction of your work. Your passion will show in the work that you do. My best work is always work I'm passionate about and have fun doing. Make sure you carve time out amongst other projects to work on personal 'fun' things too so that you keep your work fresh and exciting. There's no point in pursuing a creative career if you're not having fun, or else there's little reward for you. Many creative careers take a long time to make decent money and in the early days there can be more time spent doing things like self promotion than actually creating stuff. When you come to do your work, make sure you are getting fulfilment out of it or else make a career change.
6. Wing it.
I have absolutely no clue what I'm doing. Did I just say that? Okay, so maybe I do a little bit but I'll tell you how I got here: I pushed a few doors with my work, worked hard, pushed a few more doors, a few opened, did some commissons and a few more doors opened, and before I knew it I was handing in my notice and starting a freelance career full time. And the more I go on, the more I realise that absolutely everybody is just winging it. Art directors with over twenty years' experience have told me they still struggle with pricing their work, or feel rejected after missing out on a pitch, so it's highly likely that there will be plently of instances where you feel out of your depth, no matter how long you've been doing it for. In fact, if you don't then something is wrong because you need to feel discomfort to reach new ground. Take it as an encouragement that you are more than equipt to work on projects if you believe in yourself and your work – all the other things will fall into place if you put the quality of your work first. Winging it is about self belief - the age old 'fake it till you make it' theory. There's no one set path to becoming an illustrator, it's just a case of getting your work in front of as many people as you can. Take a few risks and just sign up for stuff - apply for opportunities you feel you haven't got a chance in hell of getting because you never know who might be looking at your work. Put yourself out there. Go on, wing it.
7. Be yourself.
People told me I needed to look and act a certain way in order to be successful and it's all a load of rubbish. Be yourself. Don't try to pull the wool over anyone's eyes; be honest with people. People do business with those who are true to themselves; those who are comfortable in their own skin. Try to show more of your personality in your work, it is the best way to make connections with people. What are your interests? Bring them into your work. Anybody can learn new skills, but no one else can be you.
There are probably a million other points to add but each point would probably be a blog post in themselves. Things like: how to do you create a decent portfolio, how do you get your work in front of people, how do you develop a style of work, and should you ever work for free* ...more blog posts to come...
Thanks for reading!
*no, never, don't do it (unless it's for your gran).
You can read more about my recent college visit and why I'm passionate that creative jobs are 'proper ones' on my previos blog post: