Versatility vs style – what makes a successful illustrator?
If you work independently you will no doubt have considered whether or not to specialise in an area of work. As an illustrator this can often feel like the holy grail - the aim is to find a ‘style’ that makes your work stand apart so everyone instantly recognises your work.
Many people use the term ‘style’ but what defines your work is more than just an aesthtic – your niche could also be specific industries you focus on, tailored services you provide or an ethos that runs throughout your processes. Whether intentional or not, your work gives out messages which dictate the sort of clients you attract. We create specialisms and unique styles in order to consolidate, offer tangible solutions and be desirable. We want to inject a unique personality into what we do.
How to find a niche
For most illustrators a unique identity evolves over many years of work and will likely come from a mixture of personal interests and client demands. Initially most of my illustrations were inspired by my love of food. A style of work evolved because I experimented with drawing food and drink using different techniques over a long period of time. I found ways of making my illustrations look life-like without muddying colours in watercolour, or making my work too twee. With the increase in requests for digital work at small scales, I also needed to find ways of simplifying detail and colour without compromising on my drawing. Once I had a body of consistent work I started to find other clients that needed a similar style of work, and then the practicalities of those clients meant I had to evolve again to make my work cover a wider range of subject matter. Styles don’t come overnight, if you ever get one. If you’re looking to develop a style of work, it helps to focus on the subjects and methods that interest you. Use that as a foundation for exploring new things around it. Get feedback from potential clients and other creative professionals on what works and what doesn’t.
Style vs versatility
As an illustrator I am usually expected to provide ‘aesthetics’ based on style. When working with art directors, they select work based on the style of illustration that would attract the right audience or that would visualise a concept more effectively. Illustration work is outsourced because it is appropriate for the job in hand. However, a lot of businesses don’t have in-house art directors or always know what style of work would be appropriate.
A style of work may help you to focus on jobs you find more rewarding, but it could also mean you have to turn down work. Contrary to what you may have been told in art school, a style is not the only reason someone may commission an illustrator. Sometimes I’m referred to because I’m efficient and amicable, other times I’m contacted because I’m listed high on google for ‘food illustrator’ or ‘lettering artist’, other times someone just wants anyone who can draw. A lot of enquiries I simply don’t fit the bill for and I turn the work down. However, the reality of my day to day enquiries are such that more clients need visual problem solvers than they do illustrators. It’s my choice to turn the work down or think a little differently about how I can help.
Can you afford to work in one style?
In a recent survey of over a thousand illustrators, 69% said they do not earn enough to live off illustration alone. For many illustrators there is a need to be versatile in order to survive, or else take on other work to support their craft. This goes against what we’ve been taught – that to be successful we need to master only one way of working really well. In the quest for creative style, there is often an undertone of snobbery against a ‘jack of all trades’ mentality, meaning that those coming into the industry are expected to get enough work from only one way of working. It’s easy for privileged artists to turn their nose up at people taking on other forms of work, but it is also less of a risk for them to turn down work. If your style of work isn’t bringing in the money, how can you ensure you invest in it without compromising on it? Is it better to have a different form of income rather than try to work in too many ways as an illustrator?
Pros and cons
Pros for having a specialism:
• You’re more likely to be well known for something.
• You’re more likely to get an agent.
• You get a beautiful looking Instagram account.
• You get to develop one craft really really well.
• People have a good idea of the outcome of a project will be before they commission you
Pros for versatility
• You can be more experimental and explore other areas of visual communication.
• You can problem solve more effectively for a wider range of projects/clients.
• You can take on projects from start to finish and have more of a say in the outcome.
• You can build a wider community of collaborators and contacts
• You can provide a more personalised service for your clients.
Cons for having a specialism
• You usually have to work in the same way and may risk boredom
• You have to turn down or hide any work that goes against your style.
• You can only work with a limited number of businesses.
• It’s tough to make enough money from one style of work unless you have an agent/well connected family and friends
Cons for being versatile.
• People may find it hard to know what they’re going to get from you.
• Your work may get watered down and lose impact.
• You are more likely to have your work exploited (it’s not as obvious if someone has plaigerised your work because it is not recognisably yours)
• You may be less likely to work with bigger clients unless you are an agency
• You may have too many things to juggle and not become a master in your craft.
Why I love problem solving
Growing up with an incredibly practical dad and not an awful lot of cash, I learnt the importance of solving problems. There is a resourcefulness that comes with having no option to buy new things, and so I enjoyed helping my dad fix and invent things. Instead of moving to a bigger house my dad divided rooms and added in cupboards. Instead of buying a new car we scavenged the scrapyard to find parts for our Austin Allegro (that I helped spray paint a brilliant shade of orange). But my dad’s love of the practical was taken to the extreme when, after hours of his three teenage daughters pruning themselves in the bathroom, he decided to plumb a toilet into a cupboard.
(Well, maybe just a little}
Practicality vs aesthetics
So why am I taking about toilets in cupboards I hear you ask? Well, often commissioners of creative work can have the same attitude - it is a solution to something, such as a label design in order to give clear information, or an illustrated map to indicate directions. With every project I take on I am all too aware of the importance of practicality, but if this is all we are considering then there is a problem with the end result. In order to create work that is effective we have to consider the ‘user experience’ - how does this design make someone feel? Would they invest in it? As much as my dad’s toilet solved a problem, it wasn’t entirely, erm, comfortable.
What is good visual communication?
I’m a big believer that good visual communication should consider both practicality, aesthetics and user experience to be successful. You could order the most delicious gourmet meal in the world, but if it leaves you hungry it’s not fulfilled its potential. In contrast you could grab a cold tin of beans to fill your hunger quickly, but the experience could leave you feeling completely dissatisfied. This whole correlation between satisfaction, practicality and desirability is important - there has to be a combination of these in order to be effective. With every project these need to be considered and this is where art direction comes into play - establishing what is needed in order to have the most effective outcome. I have noticed over the last couple of years a decrease in the number of art directors making contact directly, even from very large companies. I am now contacted by junior designers who work under the art director and pass the information on. This means that having ideas and suggestions is helpful when the art director is less hands-on when it comes to commissioning an illustrator.
The problem with versatility
Problem solving means you have to make a decision whether to advise on the best solution for a client over simply doing the work in one style. You have to make a choice whether to offer more versatile solutions for greater effectiveness or to always offer one way of working. Being versatile in approach risks watering down your unique stamp on the work, making your portfolio inconsistent.
The problem with style
Working as a graphic designer for a number of years before freelancing undoubtedly influenced my illustrative work. Having followed rules and brand guidelines, I recognise the importance of consistency, but I often felt I was unable to inject anything fresh and new into the work I was producing. As an illustrator with a ‘style’ of work, you have in essence created your own brand guidelines. Do you specialise in food illustration, knowing you will only ever be asked to illustrate fruit and vege? Ironically for me, on the quest to finding a creative ‘style’ I also lost my creative ‘voice’ which made me seek out broader work.
What sets you apart is more than a ‘style’.
Sometimes people come to me for an illustration and I have to say: I think you need photography here, or I think you need to look at your brand first. Sometimes that means passing work on to someone else, and other times it means taking on the project from start to finish. Creativity by nature is curious. Having a ‘creative voice’ shouldn’t mean abandoning exploration, even if you choose to work in one style. It’s helpful to push your work as far as you can within limitations. When it comes to a client who needs a problem solving, can you suggest ways of helping that doesn’t compromise your work? Similarly, it may be helpful to focus on specific industries, but push your work as far as you can within those limitations. Think about how your ethos and your processes can set you apart as well as an aesthetic.
I found, despite having an obvious style, I still needed to be a better communicator - I needed to be able to get inside the head of the companies that were contacting me and assess whether I could really help them. The more I got an insight into those companies, the more I realised they needed creative problem solvers. They didn’t always know what style of work they needed, but they did care about effective visual communication.
Why I’ve separated my services
I had built up a reputation for a style of illustration and I didn’t want to sabotage a clear body of work that was getting me good work I enjoyed. But I also recognised the need to advise honestly when my work didn’t fit the job and I also knew I had other options to offer. I wanted to be both a problem solver and an illustrator, I just needed to make it clearer what clients were getting when they contacted me.
I made the decision to separate my business into two areas so I could make it clear for clients what services they were getting. If someone commissions me as an illustrator it is clear how the end result will look. If someone commissions me as an art director, I work out the best visual communication based on what I know about the job and client. If you work in lots of styles, think about how you can make it easier for clients to hire you. Is it obvious how you work or is it confusing? Can you create categories or show processes more clearly?
In the end what sets you apart is defined not only by you but your clients. How is your style or your niche benefitting them? How are your processes going to make the job smoother for them? If your style is solely about making a name for yourself, how much depth does the work have? For me visual communication is far more than just an aesthetic – good creative work should say more about who it was made for over who it was made by. I am not overly concerned with winning awards or being a world renowned artist, I am interested in good work that brings something unique.
So what do you think? Should creatives stick to one style of work? Has working in different styles been effective for you? Would love to know your thoughts.