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Lessons as a freelance Illustrator and Designer

Since graduating way back when, I can honestly say that I've made tons of mistakes in my freelance business, I'm pretty sure everyone can relate to that, we're definitely not perfect and I've always struggled with that part of design - the utter perfectionism that we seek or that's required with this job. I've been working freelance for about 8 years, always with a part-time job or something on the side. It used to be my side hustle ( extra pennies for chai lattes) but now it really is my bread and butter ( solidly - I have to pay for groceries). And this year, even though we're only in June, it has been a big year in terms of learning the nitty gritty and learning some really... really hard lessons.

First off, I work freelance alongside lecturing part-time, I've always had a side job, not only has it provided me with a bit more financial freedom but its been great for my mind and health to get out the house, and I love doing something different from my work as a designer/ illustrator. I've been a gardener, nanny, au-pair, hair salon name it, I've done it. Working in this way, is a massive privilege when I know that so many can't, that financially it doesn't make sense, so I am incredibly thankful for my working arrangement. But that doesn't mean it's been easy - it definitely hasn't.

Freelance work is lonely, I don't have staff meetings or colleagues to chat to or rant with, it's just me -alone at my desk, there is no one who proof reads or can be my sound board, so it's sometimes really difficult. My husband works at a big fancy school, and his department had a SWOT analysis, you know those big evaluations that dig deep into your development, and I joked with him that maybe I should do something like, well I haven't, this isn't that - but it's my 'mid-year' review if you want a big fancy title. It might be that I started off this year doing the GoodShip Illustration business course, or maybe it's because I'm getting older but with in terms of growth from a business side, this year so far has been a biggie. The projects that have come along have been so good in terms of learning what to do and more importantly opportunities of what not to do! With every project I do, I learn and build my small lego house of a "business". So instead of a SWOT ( because let's be real - I'm a one man band!) here are some of the lego blocks ( lessons) I've learnt so far this year, constantly trying to build on, and work at.

A illustration of lego blocks

1.Drawing a solid line in the sand with your client: I used to be quite relaxed with my boundaries, answering emails and phone calls whenever, jumping when they asked but this year, I'm trying to draw boundaries around my time, being more conscious of my schedule, my working times and well to be frank, my life. There is a deep fear with this that most of us experience, jumping when the client yells because we're absolutely terrified that they will leave and go find someone else, and I'm slowly realizing that clients who do that, well that's their business and not sure if I want to work with someone who doesn't respect time or boundaries.

So be brave and bold with me as I try to set some boundaries, and to almost over communicate my plans and schedule to my clients. It's a tough lesson, and I'm still learning but in the long run, I know it will be better.

2. Learning to say no: I always tease my eldest sister for being a "people pleaser" but I know deep down that I am one too, and I have never ever said no to a project ( Of course - there has been the occasion where I wasn't qualified for the job in which case I said no. ) but I always say yes. I say yes because of the fear of financial failure. I say yes, because it seems like the right thing to do. I'm young - I need to work on everything, get as much experience on everything and anything! I say yes - because it justifies my decision and status as a freelancer. Even though, I know that these are not true.

This has been a biggie for me, I've actually only done it once this year so far. But there have been two occasions where I should have said no. I'm a freelancer and I'm a designer and Illustrator even if I've only got one project to my name, it's a big confidence thing this, but no matter how small, you are a designer, you are an illustrator. The financial bit is super hard, because let's be real - money is a motivator, it's why we go to work, it's why we sometimes have to dig deep and do what we don't want to do, so of course there will be times where I will take on work for the cash, but I've learnt that you need to be super honest with yourself then, if that it's the motivation for that one project, you have to accept it knowing the lack of creativity and purpose you will experience throughout. It's a sacrifice that is needed, and that's okay to do sometimes!

Saying no to projects that don't align with my own illustrative style and or manner of working, I was recently asked to work on a project with client X, and I was so enticed by the client, it seemed like a cool project but the client didn't research me or my style, in fact I was passed through so many channels of this client's business that the amount of miscommunication would freak anyone out! On our first call together, client X didn't even know my name, where I was based or what I did. Let's just say I should have known... And their vision for the outcome didn't align at all with my style of work and before I knew it, I said yes. Even though, I knew that I would be spending time on something that does not align with my work or add to my portfolio, and that I wouldn't enjoy working with Client X. I should have said no.

Pro tip for potential clients: I love working with clients, it's such a great collaborative relationship but, please have a little look at our work, see what style of work we do and respect that, we respect your vision and project, so please - give us a hand in this!

Saying no to projects that have unrealistic timelines: When I was small, we would always go shopping with my mom, it wouldn't be a slow stroll through the aisles, it was a semi-run/sprint. When we set up camp on holidays, we raced it. When we had lunch, we ate in 15 minutes flat. I was brought up to be efficient, and so it's in my nature to be fast, to do everything a touch faster than most, otherwise well it's just wasting time. My mom used to say that the more you do, the more you can do. In many ways this has been great, I'm really good at drawing fast, working fast digitally and quick ideation but besides being task oriented, it gave me a great work ethnic and resilience with work but also life.

But sometimes, just sometimes it bites me in the behind. Especially when clients come to me with unrealistic timelines, I say yes - thinking I can do this, it won't take so long... but it never ever works out that way! I should just no, let's work to a longer timeline in order to achieve something better and not to be pushed to make fast decisions that lack thorough research and creativity. I am slowly learning to find my own pace - somewhere between German efficiency and sloth.

Saying no to unrealistic, poorly researched ideas: I think this one comes with experience, I used to say yes to these projects for the experience but as I'm getting older and more confident in my skillset ( which honesty time only started last year!) I am learning to say no to clients, to redirect them into different approaches, to really consider their finances and how to use my skills in a more beneficial manner. This has been really nice actually, and I've done it more than I thought, guiding and doing some educating around design, the process and teaching them to think of the bigger picture.

3. Learning to stand up for my myself and my work. When someone emails me and we start the process of working together, I trust that person. I trust them when they say where they are going to use my artwork, I trust them when say they will pay me X amount by X date. I trust you. Hard hard lesson learnt, and I have been burnt so this year, after finishing off the business course from Good ship Illustration, I dug deep into contract writing and have started to slowly implement it with clients because as much as it's a safety net for me, it's a great way to maintain accountability, to stay within the project scope and to have timelines that align. And most importantly, to know where my artwork is being used. It saddens me so when I see my work being used without my consent and without being credited, not cool, not cool.

I recently learnt about the three point approach, and am slowly using when I'm approached by a new client, of course contracts included and all the nitty gritty bits! When approached by a client consider these three things to decide whether you should take the project or not, the client themselves ( yes, I will research you and I will check your work!), the project itself ( does it align with my work, is it something I want to work on, does it contribute to my portfolio or not?), money ( Am I being valued for my skillset? Do I need the cash?) I think carefully about the project - client - cash, if two of the three are 'okayed' then it make sense for me to take on the work.

The Three Point Approach

So there you have my lessons as a freelance illustrator (so far for this year!) no matter where you are in your career, or just starting out - I hope you can learn from my mistakes, from my very hard lessons, save yourself the tears and rants! I'm pretty sure there will be a bucket more by the end of the year! Working freelance is great, it has it's peaks but its also super hard work - you are your own cheerleader, your fellow colleagues, accountant and business partner - it takes time, so if I can help in one small way then happy days! For now, I'm going to have a meeting with myself over a slice of toast and tea!


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