Pride in creativity is often actually fear of criticism

“I’m really proud of how this illustration worked out”. I heard this phrase often from my fellow students when they had to present their latest work or designs to the professor and the class. It is a strange feeling to hear this phrase myself, ten years later, from students before I look at their work.

The sentence expresses pure self-protection. In reality, behind it lie the words, “Please don’t be too harsh with your criticism”. Especially as beginners, we identify particularly strongly with our work. I can relate to that. That is only natural. I remember the feeling when one of my drawings turned out particularly well. I would look at it days later and ask myself, “How did you do that?

But over time, we realize that this attitude makes it difficult for us to grow. The ego seeks validation, which inhibits creativity and productivity. We start to understand that we’re not the star of the show. Our work is. Improving and optimizing it is all that matters.

Praise and recognition may feel good at the moment, but we gain more if we seek constructive criticism. It makes a huge difference in our attitude whether we hope for positive feedback or specifically ask right away what we could have done better about our work.

Only the visualization of an idea makes it one

Sometimes we have clear pictures in our heads. Be it an idea, an illustration, or a clear vision of which new table would fit perfectly in our living room. As clear as the images may appear in our mind’s eye, trying to describe them to another person is usually doomed to failure.

The same is the case with music. We ask a friend, What is the title of this song? and start whistling, humming, or tapping the melody. In our head, it’s spot on. But the other person has no clue at all. On the other hand, we don’t understand why she can’t recognize it. After all, it is so obvious! Only when we finally remember the song’s title enlightenment strike, Oh I see… I would never have recognized that.

We are primarily visual beings. Seeing and recognizing comes easily to us. I never explain my illustration ideas to the client. I have to show them. For one thing, when I try to visualize them, I first recognize for myself whether the concept works at all. On the other hand, they give the customer and me a joint basis for discussion.

No one will give us time to inhale. We have to take it

We are all expected to keep climbing in many parts of life. Our society is built on growth. Businesses strive for a higher profit than last year. A soccer team strives for a higher ranking in the coming season than last season.

Each and every one of us also usually strive for more, be it a higher salary, a bigger apartment, or a better cell phone. Lowering our newfound standards is perceived as a step backward, or perhaps even a failure – by others and ourselves. It’s hard to feel comfortable again in a second-hand Nissan Sunny when we’ve driven a Mercedes for years.

But to move forward, we need time for ourselves. To think, to reflect, to survey. We need solitude and tranquility to be able to learn from our mistakes and realign ourselves. Only then will we come back stronger. We sometimes have to take a few steps back to take a run-up.

One thing is sure. No one will voluntarily give us this time—neither our society, Netflix, or Instagram. We have to take it.

Ideas are like tiny stars: the closer we look, the less we see them

It is a phenomenon that only happens in the dark: a faint star will disappear once we look into the night sky and stare directly at it. We perceive its light only when we let our gaze jump and dance around the star. The reason for this lies in the anatomy of the eye.

It is the same when searching for ideas. As soon as we concentrate too much on it, we lose sight of the essentials. Our creative mind becomes stiff and stuck, but that will never work.

Original ideas don’t fall from the sky. We need to discover them. They arise through new connections, and we only find them once we let go and let our gaze jump and dance around them.

1 + 1 = 0

Humans are sensitive creatures when it comes to paying attention. In design, illustration, and especially advertising, the now hackneyed-sounding guideline “Less is more” applies. After twenty years of experience, I can agree with this, too, when conveying messages to the viewer fast and immediately.

Let’s take my Mindshot-series as an example. I don’t refer to the minimalistic, black-white-red drawing style, which is just an inevitable reflex to the attempt to visualize complex content in a concentrated way. It’s about the message.

After hundreds of illustrations and thousands of ideas and attempts, at some point, I was able to realize: the illustration collapses as soon as it is overloaded with information. So the challenge is removing as much information as possible while it still works. Like a chef who is preparing the poisonous blowfish, this sometimes requires meticulous dissection.

We see the principle every day in advertising. Effective advertising conveys one main piece of information.

A car ad cannot unfold all the benefits of the vehicle on an A4 page or in a 10-second commercial. It cannot show to the same extent how fast, environmentally friendly, safe, economical, exclusive, status-enhancing, and beautiful the car is.

Well-done advertising distills the product’s advantage and conveys it unambiguously. Otherwise, our brain pulls the handbrake on too much information and turns its attention to something else.

To pitch, or not to pitch, that is the question

Yesterday’s post was about the possibilities and benefits of a test phase before the client and we commit to a long-term project.

Today, we’re talking about pitching projects. In a pitch for illustration projects, a client or agency asks several freelancers for the same project, and decides on the most suitable choice after a test illustration.

Usually, pitches will not be paid, which we should keep in mind when considering participation. In the beginning, I sometimes participated to gain experience. And because I had more time than clients anyway. Today my portfolio is expressive enough to give potential clients an insight into my work and professionalism.

I would generally advise against unpaid pitches. But there are exceptions. Whether we want to invest our valuable time depends on the project. My last participation was in 2019 when a Berlin advertising agency was looking for an illustrator for an exciting project: designing the German Basic Law for its 70th anniversary. Several articles, such as Article 1: Human Dignity or Article 38: Elections, would be illustrated in the process. A lovely project that was immediately close to my heart.

The agency liked my Mindshot illustrations, which are usually provocative and, topical, socially critical. They are thought-provoking through visual surprises. But they can sometimes be controversial. The question was whether I could charge this minimalist style with a purely positive and friendly message.

But it wasn’t just the agency that wondered about this. I was asking myself the same question. And so, in this case, the pitch was also helpful and valuable to me. Otherwise, the project could have been a nightmare and agony for both sides.

After the client finally decided to go with my style, I could dive into the project with confidence and a good feeling. You can find the result here.

When the client asks for a test phase, we can say yes, but…

From time to time, new clients ask for a so-called trial or test phase. They want to ensure that we are the right or best choice for their project. In the illustration, a test phase can be in the form of initial, rough sketches or one finished illustration.

Such phases can be helpful and reassuring for both parties, especially if it is a long-term collaboration with dozens of illustrations. A test illustration shows the client how we work, communicate, consider their requests, deal with feedback, and whether we stick to the schedule.
As illustrators, we, in turn, also get an impression of the potential collaboration with the client. Do we receive the briefing and necessary information in time to meet the deadline? Does the client respect the discussed number of revision rounds?
After the test illustration, both parties can exchange ideas, express their wishes and suggest improvements to make the process more pleasant and efficient. It is a two-way approach, with the option to pull the handbrake after the test phase.

Such a phase usually is not necessary for most clients, as we present our work and references in our online portfolio. But if requested, we must be paid for our work, even if a collaboration does not arise afterward.

All our quote distinguishes between pure production and the actual usage fee. Let’s say we charge 1000 € for the creation of the illustration. If the client or we decide against a collaboration, we still charge 1000 €. If, on the other hand, the customer wants to use the illustration, we set the additional fee for the usage rights, for example, 2000 €. So in total, it is 3000 €.

Regarding a test, it’s just fair when the risk is shared. The client only pays for the pure working time and has all the options in his own hands afterward. At the same time, we get adequately compensated for our time and work, with the prospect of a continuing, fruitful, and pleasant collaboration.

Do what you love and don’t spend money

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and yes, from my own experience, I can confirm that financial pressure can inspire creativity and productivity and drive us towards our goals. Many inventions in the history of mankind were born out of desperation and misery.

However, one of my goals is to enjoy life for as long as possible. The stress I feel from lack of money feels unhealthy. Unhealthy for my body and mind.

In addition, we always talk about creative freedom. But how can creativity be free if I depend on it to pay the rent this month?

Lack of money can make you inventive, but it also has the potential to lead us astray. It makes us accept commissions we don’t want on terms that aren’t ours. We begin to throw our principles overboard and, in the worst cases, lose the fire within us with which we started.

We need to protect our dream from these influences. Financial reserves are, therefore, so crucial for self-employed and freelancers. My finance accountant opened my eyes when he explained that most startups and freelancers don’t fail with their businesses because their products, service, or ideas are wrong or bad. They fail because of financial mismanagement (find more here).

A new car, the most expensive smartphone, or a bigger apartment are worthless if they sabotage our passion.

Austin Kleon puts it this way in his terrific book “Keep going”:

“Do what you love” + low overhead = a good life.

“Do what you love” + “I deserve nice things” = a time bomb.

Embracing the good pressure, discarding the bad one

Some projects, be they commissions or study projects, still make me feel stressed and nauseous from insomnia just thinking about them. The pressure I felt at the time while creating was not a good one, not a healthy one. Maybe it was beneficial regarding my productivity and focus, but only because I hadn’t yet learned to activate either early on. Although perhaps the result was convincing, in the long run, the process was destructive. I simply started to work on the project too late.

Bad pressure is the pressure we feel when the deadline is eight in the morning, and we’ve worked through the night until five minutes to eight under intense pressure. We are exhausted, haven’t eaten for hours, haven’t had anything to drink, and are dissatisfied with our creative results. There is nothing we wish for more than to have just a little bit more time (which would have been possible if we had managed to start working earlier).

Regardless of whether or not the client or professor is happy with our work, we have failed — not just because we pushed our bodies and minds to an unhealthy limit. We risked diminishing our enjoyment of our creative work in the long run because of our procrastination and poor planning. For our life, this would be a real tragedy.

We feel a good pressure early. It’s the kind of excitement and nervousness that drives us to our desks to do the work. We’re nervous because we don’t know where the journey is going. Can we meet the client’s expectations? Is there enough time for the deadline? What do I need to get done this week to keep on schedule? Good pressure pushes us right from the start. If we ignore it long enough, it turns into the vicious monster that hunts us through a creative hell.

To serve and help, we first need a good sense of selfishness

By writing down my experiences of more than twenty years in the creative industry and freelancing, I hope that you, who are reading this blog, will find some valuable information.

Maybe you’ll resonate with some of my thoughts, which will encourage or motivate you. Maybe you will find a shared tip helpful and try to apply it to your life. Or maybe you contradict me sometimes, which helps you develop and strengthen your own opinion on the subject.

However, I must confess that helping you is not my primary goal. When I started, I thought it was. But it can’t be. If you were my reason for writing, what would I do if you stopped listening to me one day? Without you, I would lose my purpose for writing.

No, my drive is selfish by nature. Through writing, I try to organize my thoughts and, in doing so, learn more about myself and the subject at hand. Writing gives me structure and helps me verify that my thoughts are indeed the thoughts I think they are. Writing is meant solely for me.

What is meant for you, though, is publishing my writing on my blog. Otherwise, I might write it all in a notebook and close it. The hope and desire to possibly help you through this is enormous. Even though I can only control this to a certain extent, the slightest hope to help you with my experiences is reason enough to try.

So, the drive to write may be self-centered. But it is a healthy egoism. Because only through freedom, impartiality, and independence from you do I have a chance to inspire you. I just have to be aware that I can never expect that. I can only hope and keep going.

Let’s not explain the idea. We need to show it

An idea that works in our head can collapse as soon as we try to articulate it. An idea we can articulate can crumble as soon as we try to visualize it. Only an idea that can stand up when visualized has the potential to work.

When I’m working on a conceptual illustration, it sometimes happens that an idea pops up, and I think, “That’s it. That’s on the spot”. But after years of experience, I’ve learned to be especially aware of these “flashes of genius.”

It would be nice if I didn’t have to be. If I could just call the client right after, get their convinced and enthusiastic confirmation, and start executing the project. I would save the client and myself so much time.

But what if the idea fails on paper? What if, for example, the provided color palette is unsuitable for that particular idea? If I underestimate the final format and dimensions? If elements don’t work together the way I thought they would? Or if, on reflection, the idea is simply not original enough? Then I wouldn’t be able to avoid a humble phone call telling the client, “Sorry, that was a dud. Everything back to zero.”

Instead, let’s put our ideas through their paces by creating a visual prototype. In an illustration, that might be a sketch. In a commercial, the creative director and intern might perform the spot. When it comes to movies, a “treatment” is needed.

We have to put the idea into a form that we can actually show and present. Only then can everyone involved see if and how well it works. Everything before that is Russian roulette.

Let’s use more ways to gain money like the seniors in Ogimi, Japan

The Japanese village Ogimi is called the “village of longevity” due to the high percentage of centenarians. (If you want to know more, I recommend the book Ikigai-The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García & Francesc Miralles).

“One hundred percent of the seniors we interviewed in Ogimi had a primary and a secondary occupation. Most of them kept a vegetable garden as a secondary job and sold their produce at the local market.”

Ikigai by H. García & F. Miralles

As freelancers, these seniors can be our role models. As illustrator, for example, in addition to commissioned work, we can sell paintings and products, give local workshops, or offer online courses. There are plenty of opportunities, and who knows where and to whom the additional financial pillar will lead us?

If I’m not nervous about a project, I get nervous

Creative service is not an exact science, whether it’s creating illustrations, an advertising campaign, or a corporate design. Uncertainty resonates throughout the creative process. At the end are questions like: Does the illustration, the ad campaign, or the logo convey the intended message at first glance and unambiguously?

No matter how often we go through it all in our heads, the truth always emerges when we present our design to others. Therefore, personally, a basic sense of nervousness is part and parcel of every project. That helps me stay focused, effective, self-critical, and objective in the service of the client.

When I think of a commissioned project, and I don’t feel nervousness but a sense of calmness, all alarm bells immediately go off. That’s when I get too confident about, for example, the deadline or the illustration idea. The rude awakening occurs at the latest when I sit down at the desk and notice that the execution takes more time than planned or when the idea in my head doesn’t work as well as I thought once it’s on a sheet of paper.

The nervousness that cost me sleepless nights in my studies and the early days as a freelancer has become a well-dosed motor for creative work over time.

When we feel close to a solution, we usually are. Let’s keep digging

Sometimes there is such a feeling of certainty. Like when we are searching for our keys, and we are sure that we haven’t lost them. They must be around here somewhere.

When I’m working on an idea for an illustration and start inspecting my rough sketches, I sometimes think: the solution is here somewhere. I don’t know what’s missing or what I need to connect to make it work, but the idea isn’t far away. Those are the moments when I need to keep digging.

There’s an opposite certainty as well. It feels like a roadblock. It just won’t go any further, even if I stare at the sketches all day. Then it’s essential to let go and head in a completely new direction.

Finding the value in our work: Let’s not sell ourselves short

That is not meant to sound like well-intentioned advice among friends or family to empower or motivate each other. As freelancers, figuring out the market value of our work is a concrete task.

We can keep several factors in mind and observe them constantly: How high is the demand for our service? How quickly can we deliver? Is there a measurable added value for the customer due to our service? What is our reputation? How do we convey our experience, professionalism, and credibility to build trust?

We can never quantify this value precisely to the cent. After all, a car dealer would never consider pricing a car at 23,742.29 euros but, i.e., 25,000 euros. However, what we can work out and set in advance for any price negotiations is a red line, a lower limit for our fee. Once we have established this, we can gratefully and confidently reject requests below it.

In the long run, our goal is to steadily and reasonably raise this red line with the help of our gained experience and expertise.