… Till you Hit the Smooth Wall of Confindence

Over-analyzing does exist. It’s when we go through our work again and again instead of taking action. When we go through all the possible consequences in our heads and find new reasons not to take that final step. It’s easier to chew on our dreams than to put them out there for the world to see.

Before I finally published my first website, my illustration portfolio, in 2016, years passed. One more project. Another typographic change there. Once more adjustment in the navigation menu. It didn’t want to end. And yet the site was already ready to go. Or maybe not?

Despite all the frustration, I always notice that constant revising and adapting are also advantageous: What I’m working on simply improves. In the phase that could be understood as over-analyzing, I feel like a sculptor who has put the rough tool aside and now has the fine tool in his hands.

And finally comes the point where there is nothing left to do. Where I realize that any further change won’t make any difference. And when that happens, then … then I go through everything again. In the process, I eventually hit a wall. Not a hard one. It is as soft as butter. It’s a wall of confidence. And when this happens, there is no way back.

Sometimes I wish I would do things more impulsively and faster. Not procrastinating, not thinking, not investing more time. But I also learned not to demonize over-analyzing and maybe even procrastination. Leonardo da Vinci’s words have helped me with this. Perhaps they’ll help you to deal with that guilty conscience the next time you procrastinate:

“Creativity sometimes requires going slowly, pausing, even procrastinating. That allows ideas to marinate.”

Leonardo da Vinci

Say no to clients, but only if…

A confident and decisive “no” can open many new doors for us. The more established and professional a freelancer becomes, the more a “no” becomes his daily tool in negotiations, briefings, or when an aunt’s acquaintance needs a logo for her flower store.

But let’s not use “no” lightly, just because we don’t feel like working at the moment or the client’s request doesn’t particularly appeal to us. Let us refuse if we have a good reason and if we invest the gained time in our personal development.

If we would use it to turn on the Playstation or Netflix, let’s negotiate until both sides have a good feeling and then get to work. Because every project is one more experience. No matter what it looks like in the end.

The Opposite of Love is not Hate but Indifference

That is true in interpersonal relationships, but we can also adapt this in creative work. There is work where we forget everything around us, time, eating, sleeping – that’s what we call passion. We love what we do. For me, it’s drawing or playing soccer.

Between 2007 and 2013, I created hundreds of t-shirt graphics for fashion brands. I loved drawing and painting themes. Collages and photographic pieces I worked off relatively unemotionally. I was indifferent to them. On the other hand, I tried to dodge the task of designing typographic prints whenever I could. The development of statements, “catchy” wordings, as well as the design of the typeface was always incredibly awkward and tedious for me. It was like trying to fold up a gigantic road map. In short: I hated it.

But it turned out that, despite my frustration, I was able to create bestsellers. The aversion was constant, while the quality was increasing.

So just because we hate doing something, it doesn’t mean we’re not good at it. Quite the opposite. Our very dislike can bring a more sensitive view of things. It’s worth a try.

Many Cooks Spoil the Broth

My advertising professor in college used to say, “Finding a good idea is easy. The hard part is to realize that it is one.” This sentence will probably accompany me my whole life because again and again, I experience how true it is.

Teamwork and group brainstorming are often not the best places to hatch ideas. It works best in silence and solitude. Meetings come after that.

It’s like preparing a meal. In Germany, they say: “Viele Köche verderben den Brei,” meaning “Many cooks spoil the broth.” We prefer to do it ourselves. But in the end, it’s the guests who decide how good it tastes.

A quick piece of advice to find our creative voice

Sometimes we see or experience things that touch us particularly profoundly. Well-crafted commercials, for example, can evoke emotions that we never forget in our lives (as well as the advertised product). But it could also be an illustration, newspaper headline, or a simple melody.

When we come across a work we admire in such a way, we can adapt the idea behind it and try with all our might to create an alternative variation of it. Maybe a better one.

It may take days, weeks, months, or even decades, but somewhere between our thoughts must lie our very own brilliant version.

3 tips to maximize productivity as an illustrator

Being a freelance illustrator requires creativity, reliability, flexibility, critical thinking, and the list goes on.

But after more than twenty years of experience, I know that one attribute is crucial for success or failure in this dream job: efficiency.

The illustrator is not an artist. She is a creative service provider in a fast industry operating around the clock. An illustrator can create the most brilliant work. But if she can’t deliver it on time for the print deadline, it has failed in its function.

For young, motivated illustrators who dream of making a living from their drawings, I’d like to suggest three tips to increase efficiency dramatically.

Digital image editing programs – Whether it’s Photoshop, Affinity Designer, or Procreate. Here you can prepare all illustrations from the first sketch to the final print file. Even if you work analog with pen and paper, the programs help you to quickly fulfill change requests or offer the client several color variations, for example. Scan, adjust, and send.

Graphics tablets – Drawing and navigating the screen and programs becomes more effortless than using a mouse. It doesn’t have to be the largest and most expensive tablet. DIN A5 format is perfectly sufficient for starters. At first, it’s about getting a feeling for the new way of working. After all, it is unfamiliar to look at the screen while drawing. I still remember the first two days. I thought I would never be able to handle it. But then it went fast, and I’ve never used a mouse since. Wacom, for example, offers a great selection and excellent quality.

Shortcuts – The sooner you get used to shortcuts in programs, the better. The time we save with you is enormous—a real booster for our productivity.

Instant joy vs. earned happiness

Instant entertainment is just the push of a button away, whether it’s Netflix, YouTube, or Playstation. They all have something in common. They give us immediate joy and fun. We don’t have to do anything to get it except turn on an exciting series or pop in that new game.

Yet, I always notice, especially over the days off between the years: This media is like fast food. The more I consume, the worse I feel afterward. Not necessarily physically, but because I notice how quickly time has flown by. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a relaxing movie night with friends or my wife. But as soon as I overdo it, entertainment systems turn into pure time thieves.

Creative work, on the other hand, feels different. Before starting on a new illustration, whether for clients or myself, resistance always gets in the way first. Sometimes in the form of an annoying little stone in the shoe and sometimes in the form of a massive, fire-breathing monster.

But no matter how big the resistance seems, it vanishes the moment I start. That doesn’t mean that only happiness kicks in from this point on. Frustration and panic are often just as much a part of the creative process as a pleasant and relieving “aha” moment when I’ve conjured up a good idea or a beautiful image composition. Pure joy during creation is rare and comes in waves. However, when one catches us, carries us along, and takes us to new heights, the feeling is almost certainly far more fulfilling than any Instagram reel or video game.

Breaks are boosts

No matter how much we love our work, we sometimes need a little time off to come back even stronger. For example, I love playing soccer but can’t do it for eight hours straight.

Illustrating is my greatest passion. I enjoy drawing every day, yet sometimes, I force myself to take a break for several days or even weeks. Then, I try to do things that have less or nothing to do with drawing. For example, I program and tweak my portfolio website, do the accounting, experiment with my concept for a fictional video game, or write texts like this one.

In my experience, I only realize how good this break actually feels as soon as I take a step back. Let’s consciously switch off our passion now and then so we can recharge. Otherwise, it may suffer from our ambition.

Planning the workday like a hike

When my friends and I plan a hike, we always look for routes with a particular highlight at the end. That can be a great lookout, an abandoned castle ruin, a waterfall, or a restaurant. That is our goal, our reward, and our motivation.

This concept can be applied to the workday. Whenever I have a highlight of the day in mind that I am particularly looking forward to, I work in a more structured way, faster, and am less distracted. That could be my son’s gym class, a soccer game with friends, or a TV evening. Setting a definite highlight is an ideal motivation and productivity booster. Without a daily goal, the workday can quickly drift uncontrollably into the late hours.

When the goalkeeper comes out to catch the ball, he must have it

In football, there is a golden rule: if you, as the goalkeeper, decide to intercept an opponent’s cross, you must catch the ball. If you step out of the goal and underestimate the height, an opponent can easily head it into the empty goal. When this happens, it is a classic goalkeeper’s mistake. For everyone in the stadium, you are to blame, not the teammates, not the coach, not the referee, and not the hole in the pitch that prevented you from making a good jump. You alone made the decision, and you alone misjudged. It’s your fault.

As a freelancer, I often think of my time as a goalkeeper and see similarities. When I accept a client’s job, I must get it done. No one cares if I have a “creative block,” if the kitchen in my apartment is flooded after a burst pipe, or if I catch the flu. If I don’t meet the deadline, the responsibility is all mine.

When negotiating deadlines with our clients, let’s always include a time buffer just in case life has other plans.

All pros start by selling themselves short

As soon as we decide to take money for what we love to do, a new era in our life begins. Often this is the step from a casual hobby, from an amateur to a professional mindset. Suddenly it’s all about delivering, meeting expectations, deadlines, and much more.

The fact that we usually sell ourselves short at the beginning is inevitable. That’s because we misjudge the workload due to lack of experience or endlessly tweak the design out of insecurity before presenting it to the client. Or maybe we’re just happy to make a little money doing what we enjoy the most.

When I decided to go into illustration, I quickly realized that my prices were too low. But at the same time, I realized what I needed to work on to change that. With the increasing quality of my work, an optimized working process, and a focused, sophisticated online portfolio, I would be able to raise prices confidently.

So it’s all about working on ourselves first. The best part is that with the increasing quality of our work and the courage to share it with the world, people will take notice and eventually hire us. And that’s so much more pleasant than knocking door-to-door and making uptight sales pitches.

Let’s be a good boss

As we move into freelancing from permanent employment, many things change in our lives. One fundamental shift is that we no longer have a direct supervisor. We work directly and, usually simultaneously, with several clients. That means that all responsibility lies on us from now on.

At the same time, we enjoy the freedom to work on what, when, where, and how long we want. Unlike permanent employment, we have almost complete decision-making control over our working day and develop unprecedented powers when it comes to maintaining or growing our business.

However, as Stan Lee writes in Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.” That is true first and foremost for ourselves. We love what we do. Otherwise, we wouldn’t last long through the additional tasks and struggles of self-employment. Besides the actual creative work, we make the acquisition of clients, conduct tough price negotiations, fight existential fears, and do the paperwork for the tax office. Without passion for our profession, our motivation would fade. It is our drive. But this passion can quickly turn into an unhealthy obsession. Overtime, night shifts, and weekend work creep into our daily lives while we neglect physical health.

Let’s take the time we need for ourselves, exercise, take a walk, and spend it with our family. When we make mistakes, let’s not be too hard on ourselves. Let’s allow ourselves a nap when we need it and leave the business cell phone at home when we are on vacation. Let’s be the boss we’d like to work for ourselves.

Seeing without knowing to get great ideas

To be able to orient ourselves in the world, we develop prejudices. Not in a harmful sense. But in order not to lose ourselves in the unfamiliar. We judge a situation based on our previous experiences and decide accordingly. These pre-judgments are like a template through which we see the world.

That’s helpful when visiting another city, learning a new program, or on our first day at a new job. Our experiences give us a sense of security and guidance.

However, this skill gets in our way when it comes to developing ideas. Children are much freer in this respect. We, adults, look at things in a biased way. A coffee mug is for drinking, a chair is for sitting, and a pencil is for drawing. Period. Or maybe there are other options? If you were born in the 80s like me, you know, for example, that there was no better tool for unwinding tangled tapes from audio cassettes than the pencil.

Let’s look at things through a child’s eyes as we search for ideas. Children are unprejudiced. They have no template yet, no bias. They look at objects they encounter from all sides. They twist, turn, play, and try all sorts of things with them. They discover.

Seeing without knowing is something we can learn again. Only when we can break away from our established prejudices do we recognize new connections because new connections are what make ideas original.

Once again, about “less is more”

My post 1+1=0 was about not overloading our work with information. Otherwise, we lose our audience. Be it illustrations, blog posts, or advertisements. In the meantime, two more examples caught my eye.

The movie Terminator 2 was a revelation to my 13-year-old me. It was the only movie in my life where after the credits rolled, I rewound the VHS tape right away to watch it again. I could almost speak the dialogue simultaneously.

One day when I held the DVD in my hands featuring a 17-minute more extended Director’s Cut, I couldn’t wait to watch it. Seventeen more minutes of Terminator! A childhood dream came true.

But the disillusionment was huge. The additional scenes were strange to the point of disappointment. Not only did they seem unnecessary, but they pushed the Terminator character in a different, almost ridiculous direction. Since then, I only watch the original cinema version. Again less was more.

I found another example in D&AD’s The Copy Book. Jim Durfree writes about professional writing:

“When you get your copy to the point where you’re really, really happy with it, cut it by a third.”

Jim Durfree (advertiser, copy writer)