Advice — Practical advice for freelancers from illustrator Michael Arnold
Michael Arnold has been working as a freelance illustrator for the past seven years. In that time, he’s worked across everything from packaging, advertising, editorial and branding – and picked up a fair few lessons, tips and tricks to help things run a little more smoothly. Here, he shares some of his essential learnings – from managing your money and building up a book of contacts to nailing a routine and honing a style.
Managing money is your number one skill
It decides whether you’ll last six months or a year without work. You need to know when and where you have money going in and out.
Try dedicating one morning a week to your accounts. Keep track of what you spent in the previous week and what you’re making each month. If you do this with regularity, money management will never seem that daunting as it keeps you in check.
In my experience, spring and autumn are slow times for work, while summer and winter can be more costly. If you can figure out when your downtimes are, you can plan for them.
“If you can figure out when your downtimes are, you can plan for them.”
In 2017 I didn’t work for quite a few months. it was nerve-wrecking, but looking back, I was prepared for it. The remainder of that year ironically turned out to be one of my most profitable years to date. But even then, larger companies tend to operate on a 90-day schedule, meaning I would wait up to a further three months for those invoices to come through.
In terms of taxes, a good trick is to estimate how much you think you’ll be paying in taxes that coming year, and open up an ISA and store the money in there so that it can earn interest during the year.
A routine will help you create the right mindset
When you’re starting out, the temptation is to only work when you feel motivated – and if you’re working from home, distractions can be plentiful. But remember that you are at a work, even if your workplace is down the hall.
Some choose to rent studio space, but that’s not always an option. It wasn’t for me, so instead I set myself regular working hours, a solid lunch break, a dedicated work area and a ‘uniform’. Being disciplined and creating a distinction between work and personal time helps to create the right mindset.
For the first few years of my career I worked like maniac. I worked all day, all evening and all weekend. I loved it, and it was exciting, but after a while it was exhausting and the work suffered. That’s when I developed a better working routine that split my time between work and exploring other interests.
Emailing can help get your foot in the door
Planning and communication = happy clients
Reliability and clear communication are essential. In the early days, I set myself the rule of always finishing a brief in half the time I was given. This means everything is either finished promptly, leaving the art director with a positive impression – or it gives us time to work out kinks and last-minute changes to the brief.
When initially discussing the brief, I note down a timeline of deadlines for the project: initial sketches, first drafts (then second, third and so on) and finally, the delivery date. A good rule of thumb is to update the client at every new stage of the brief. There’s nothing worse for an art director than to be left wondering how work is progressing, only to find you’ve misunderstood and taken a wrong direction in the work with no time to spare.
If you have any questions, ask early on! It will reflect poorly on you if your lack of initiative affects the success of the work. Similarly, recognise when an idea isn’t working, talk about it and correct it. Sometimes it’s better to start again from scratch than to rework drying clay. These qualities stand you in good stead as a reliable collaborator.
“There’s nothing worse for an art director than to be left wondering how work is progressing, only to find you’ve misunderstood.”
Emailing is the key to getting work
It’s a good idea to be constantly reach out to people. Search for the correct name and email address of the person you want to contact, and send them a brief rundown (two or three sentences) of your work, style, past clients if you have them, and a link to your portfolio. Keep it simple and to the point – eyes glaze over large blocks of text.
Always be searching for contacts. Over the years I’ve compiled a large book of contacts including names, job titles and emails. Twitter and Instagram are really useful ways of finding people through other artists; LinkedIn can also be useful for checking if someone is still at the company you’re interested in.
If you’re already in touch with someone, it can be effective to update them with a selection of new work every six months or so. Replying to the last email in the chain also means avoiding adding clutter to their inbox, and keeping it in the same thread.
Don’t take it personally if you don’t get a response. I once received a job from a client who I had emailed two years previously and never heard from. We work in a pretty friendly industry, and the chances are your emails are read and noted down somewhere. Everybody gets busy, and replying to you might sometimes fall to the bottom of the list.
Managing money is your number one skill
Make sure you’re being valued
It can be easy for established designers to give advice about not doing work for free, but there are times when you might want to. If you do, remember that you have to gain something from that work – if it’s not money, then it should be products, a credit in their promotional efforts or the freedom to try a technique or style you’ve been experimenting with. If they’re not willing to give any of those four things, move on.
With that in mind, avoid designer crowdsourcing sites like 99Designs, DesignCrowd, Fiverr and so on. Those sites undervalue our industry by pitting designers against each other on price point rather than skill. I know this because I did it, like a mug.
“Aim to develop a style of work, not a formula for creating it.”
Develop a style of work, not a formula for creating it
Routine is healthy for your work ethic, but not for your actual work. This is a hard one to describe, but it’s something I see a lot of Illustrators fall into the habit of doing, myself included.
Aim to develop a style of work, not a formula for creating it; there should be hallmarks in your work that are consistent throughout, but not repetitive enough to look as though you’re following the same recipe each time. Nobody wants to see a hundred pieces of work that look like they’ve come off a production line.
Make the work you want to do more of
Target industries you want to work in, and mould your work to target jobs you’d like to land. Clients often won’t commission you to do things they haven’t seen you do before, unless they’re incredibly confident you can deliver it. Identify what sells in the area you want to target and figure out if your work could fit into it. There’s nothing wrong with following trends as long as you aren’t rewriting your portfolio to chase them.