First Hand — What illustrator Michael Driver learnt from a rollercoaster ride with money
It’s not your typical graduate tale: Michael Driver wrapped up his degree with a load of press and an inbox full of potential commissions. Selected as an It’s Nice That Graduate in 2015, he’ll be the first to admit that he hit the ground running as a freelancer – landing work with Apple, The Guardian, Washington Post and many more. But last year, struck by an unmanageable tax bill, he was left wondering how he’d make enough money to live, and decided to take on a job in a supermarket. Fast-forward a few months and he’d landed something of a rarity in the industry: an in-house illustration role at Culture Trip. He talks us through his journey with money and his biggest learnings in that time.
Michael’s Earnings CV
This was the year I graduated. Being part of competitions meant that I got quite a lot of press.
This year I landed a big commission with Penguin that had a lot of eyes on it, leading to more work.
Although this was a relatively good year, it was at the end of this time that I encountered major financial difficulties and went to work at Marks & Spencer.
This is the year that I’ll have worked at both Marks & Spencer and at Culture Trip.
Despite earning more, this has been the rockiest year as I had to pay my next tax bill upfront. The bill came at a point where I had a serious lack of work, so I had to eat into my savings to be able to pay rent and live.
Talking about money helps
Transparency around money helps others gain confidence in asking for more. I don’t mind talking honestly about it, because at the end of the day I don’t think it really matters that much. Illustrators and designers don’t tend to earn loads of money; this isn’t really an industry that people gravitate towards for monetary gain.
Many of my European friends don’t mind discussing it, but Brits are really bad at it. It’s a point of contention in the industry; nobody wants to say how much they’re getting paid for anything. I’m lucky to have benefited from having friends who are my age and in a similar place regarding freelance work – and who are open to talking candidly about money and jobs from time to time.
The lack of transparency in what we are and are not paid is allowing new graduates, who are unrepresented or not a member of The AOI to be taken for a ride by bigger corporations, as there is little to no frame of reference.
“[Talking about money] is a point of contention in the industry; nobody wants to say how much they’re getting paid for anything.”
Learning to invoice
Soon after I finished my degree, I was announced as one of It’s Nice That’s The Graduates. This meant I was getting offers for illustration work almost immediately, and decided to go into freelancing straight away. On top of that I was just really grafting: reaching out and contacting as many people as I could.
Despite it being a great first year, there were still low months and times when I was really tight for money. One of the reasons for this was that I didn’t know how to invoice properly. Payments didn’t come in on time, and I didn’t have any security in case anything went wrong. With illustration being so dependent on new freelancers, I don’t think my university set us up very well.
‘Camping According to Your Taste’, 2015, created soon after Michael graduated
After a couple of good years as a freelance illustrator, last year I really mucked up my taxes and it became a bit of a turning point. What I didn’t realise was that once you earn over a certain amount, you get taxed for half of the next year upfront. So I was bitten by a big tax bill.
In a desperate rush to make some money, I ended up taking a job at Marks & Spencer. It was pretty weird, and I would see a lot of people I knew through illustration while I was working. They would ask what I was doing, and I’d tell them that I kind of screwed everything up. Occasionally I’d just hide from them.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a side job at all, but for me, it became a real struggle to balance the work with freelancing. I heard about the ad for an in-house illustration role at Culture Trip through a friend, decided to apply and managed to get it.
“In a desperate rush to make some money, I ended up taking a job at Marks & Spencer.”
‘Bravery’, 2018, created during Michael’s financial struggles
I started the job at Culture Trip in July 2018 as a full-time role. The team are happy for its illustrators to freelance alongside the job, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of normal work, which is a massive bonus of being here.
It’s definitely a rare job and was a big change from freelancing, but it now feels like I have a base amount of money that’s enough to live on. It’s also been good for my mental health, gives me structure and takes off a lot of financial pressure. Plus, it means getting to see people every day, and I’ve learnt to focus and use my time more efficiently.
Looking back, in some ways I feel like I was a bit of an anomaly, in that I came up so quick. When people talk about their career trajectories, they often go from a studio-based role or working at bar into working freelance. So it was kind of weird to see my career take a bit of a step back at one point, basically due to complications with money.
‘Cities on the Cultural Horizon’, 2019, created at Culture Trip,
My biggest learnings with money
Make sure you invoice well
I think a lot of people think the job is over once you’ve sent your invoice, but knowing what needs to be on that invoice is really important. Mistakes I’ve made have included leaving off my IBAN or building society number, which I didn’t know you needed.
Billing to the US can also be confusing, as well as the whole process of going through a financial department. This resulted in incidents that made me feel like an idiot in front of my art director. [See Lecture in Progress’ advice on getting paid]
Get familiar with rates and usage
In terms of my freelance work, fees vary enormously. I created 16 images for an American-based magazine advertorial a while ago, and got paid about $15,000. But then I’ve also been paid as little as £60 for a spot illustration (a really small one, to be fair) for a UK-based tech magazine. But normally, base-level illustrations are probably about £250 at the lowest, and then it goes up. I’ve pitched for projects that pay a lot more – I just never seem to be able to land them!
Now, when a job comes in, I can usually tell if the pay is fair just by looking at the usage and licensing information – for example if it’s going to be used on a quarter page, half page, full page or the cover. Then, when it comes to branding and advertising, it gets a little murkier as I have less experience with this, which is where an agent can help.
You can ask for upfront payment with bigger jobs
For larger commissions, I now usually try and get some money upfront. As an example, on an animation project I did for a UK-based publisher, I got paid about £6,000 upfront. This was shared between myself and a collaborator on the project, and basically facilitated two months of rent and living, since it was impossible to work on anything else in this time.
“For larger commissions, I now usually try and get some money upfront.”
I also worked on a big book last year and got paid about £1,500 before I started, and the overall project paid £3,000. But on the other hand, I just did a TFL poster where there was no prepayment. It’s often dependant on how long the job is going to take.
When things go wrong, there are options
When everything went pear-shaped a year ago, it would have been so easy to just give up. But because I’m so focused on making this work and expressing myself, I found another way to keep working.
The full-time role at Culture Trip is quite a weird job in some ways, but I do think in-house illustrator roles are likely to become more popular in the future. This is due to the fact that everything's so content-heavy now, and so many big companies want a strong design and illustration element in their identity.
In terms of side jobs, these can also offer a different challenge alongside your creative practice. I have friends who work as technicians, either in print or as teachers, and it really helps facilitate their careers.
Save, save, save
Something that would have been worth knowing when I started out was the importance of putting money aside after each job. I’ve learnt that you have to be conservative with your money. When you land a job that’s paying hundreds of pounds, you can easily think it’s all yours, but that’s rarely the case – especially when it comes to taxes!
This article is part of a series sharing experiences of earning money as a creative – from successes to failures and everything in between. If you have a story you’d like to share with us, please email us: [email protected]