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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
When we receive a new job request as freelancers and have agreed on the general conditions with the potential client, there are only two possibilities for how to proceed: It’s either no or now.
There are many good reasons to say no and even more reasons to start working immediately, as soon as we accept the assignment. In my first post, you will find some of them.
Pressure may boost productivity. Creativity, however, comes from a different place.
For example, when looking for ideas for a book cover illustration or an advertising campaign, time pressure or the pressure to succeed can fire us up. It bundles our concentration. We are focused and don’t allow distractions.
It’s not the case, however, that creativity strikes us precisely because we’re under pressure. Ideas are not born out of pressure but with it.
“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” Albert Einstein
Creative thinking arises from the urge and joy of discovery and creation. It originates from silence, being alone, and spending time with our thoughts. That’s why brainstorming sessions in a group are far less effective than if each participant works quietly on their own at first. We can find compelling examples in the book by Jake Knapp “Sprint – How to solve problems and test new ideas in just five days”.
What we can develop, however, is the ability to access creative, solution-oriented thinking under stressful situations. But this is only possible because we have practiced it before in a pressure-free environment till it becomes an unconscious habit (thinking of Mr. Miyagi: “wax on, wax off”).
Three weeks after I decided to start this blog daily, I signed up for the online publishing platform Medium. I began publishing writings here daily as well.
The difference until today, however, is that the texts I publish on Medium have already existed for three weeks. They are the same as on my blog—just delayed.
Because of this delay, I immediately noticed a positive side effect. I read the old texts with a fresh perspective. Mistakes, too complicated phrases, and inconsistencies immediately jumped out at me.
I have kept this rhythm until today. The temporal distance is good for writing. It allows me to optimize the texts without much effort. Who knows where else we might use this strategy?
1. the first hour of the day belongs to me
2. start immediately with new commissions
3. never miss a deadline
4. embrace constructive criticism
5. never repeat cooperation with a client who shows no respect
6. save as much money as possible
7. save the name of a new contact on my phone so I know who is calling
8. when working with an advertising agency, always ask who the client is
9. never work without a backup (Time Machine on Mac)
10. Remember: I am not my work
When I decided to start freelancing as an illustrator over ten years ago, fear was a constant companion for a long time—the challenges of making a living doing what I love most seemed enormous.
After turning down a permanent contract with a global fashion brand and thus financial stability, I started from scratch. I had no personal illustration style, no portfolio, no contacts, and of course, no clients. All I had was my savings, which would only keep my head above water for a few months with a modest lifestyle, on the one hand, and my dream, on the other. This dream had stuck, and it would not let go of me now.
During these months, I woke up several times sweating and breathing heavily. In my dreams, I had given up on my goal. I found myself in a job interview or the office at one of my past jobs. It was a nightmare. That doesn’t mean that working there was a nightmare—quite the opposite. But the feeling of having given up my deep desire made me panic.
Those nightmares, and the fact that my savings were melting away over time, really chased me out of bed to my desk early in the morning. Who knows if I could be living my dream job as an illustrator today without that good dose of anxiety?
Looking back, I appreciate the pressure and value it for the future. Feeling fear can be a sign that we are right on track. It means we are serious, and it matters to us. Instead of paralyzing and blocking us, what scares us now can give us the last bit of motivation to get exactly where we want to go.
When we were at school, we read books, learned different subjects such as math or languages, and did the sports we had to do. School education is a foundation. It’s where we first learn about our strengths and interests.
But when we graduate from school, a new chapter opens. Perhaps it is the most important in our life because now we begin to set the course for our future. It is crucial to be active, take up the reins, be curious, and break old habits, which open up unimagined paths full of adventure. To conquer these, we just must not stand still but keep moving.
The school conditions us to deal with things that do not touch or interest us, however helpful they may be in our lives. From now on, it’s 100% about us. We don’t read what we’re supposed to. We read what we want. We still continue to learn every day, but we focus on what excites us. We occupy ourselves with the things that are important to us, that make us happy, and that gives us a sense of purpose. We try out everything and remain open to the unexpected. And above all, we find the courage to stop doing things if they don’t enrich our lives. A conscious no gives us the most valuable currency we have— time.
In school, I was used to reading books to the end. This compulsion has been hard-wired into me for a long time. Today, if I start a book and realize after a while that the content doesn’t excite me or is irrelevant, I abandon it. That doesn’t mean it’s poorly written or can’t be of value to other people. For me, it’s not enriching, and that’s ok. The fact that I could decide this for myself without consequence felt unusual at the beginning and took a little while.
The same goes for movies, events, video games, and sports. When we feel something isn’t touching us, let’s break it off and look for the things that won’t let us go instead.
Creativity at the push of a button (if there even is such a thing) requires many years of practical experience. Even then, we can never be sure that ideas will pop out of our heads exactly when we need them.
In my experience, however, simple tricks give our creative minds a little support. We can build triggers into our daily lives that put our entire body into work and creation mode.
For example, I always run the same Spotify playlist when looking for ideas for my Mindshot illustrations. Sometimes I even start with the same song for months (currently Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence by Ryuichi Nakamoto). Most of the time, I listen to instrumental music, like movie soundtracks or video game tracks.
Additionally, when I want to work concentrated and effectively, I go to my favorite café and order a cappuccino and sparkling water. So far, this is my best routine to get work done.
Through such developed habits, we condition our minds. We create a button that puts us on autopilot, just like we brush our teeth when we get up in the morning. It signals to our brain, now it’s time to work.
Inevitably, I am reminded of the famous example of the cow whose mouth fills with saliva as soon as the farmer rings the bell. By habit, the ringing signals to the cow’s subconscious, now it’s time for food, and the legs automatically move towards the jug.
That’s it. I had a good run, but it’s over now. In my first few years as a freelance illustrator, these words crept into my head from time to time. For months, exciting emails would flood into my inbox: client inquiries, interview requests, collaboration requests. I could barely keep up with responding and creating proposals.
But suddenly … silence. The only emails I was still receiving were the faithful spam from some guy named Manuel Franko, who was desperate to give me tens of millions of dollars if only I would click on his link.
Seemingly from one day to the next, the requests stopped. The first two weeks I still enjoyed because the last months had been full of overtime. By the third, I was getting nervous. Still nothing … it seemed like someone had turned off the switch.
Then finally, the redemption. A new request. Then another one. Soon I was busy again, and my worries vanished.
Over the years, I could recognize a rhythm. The months in which I received fewer inquiries had always been the summer months, the vacation season. So it was no wonder the curve went down here before it shot up again in late August.
With that in mind, not only could I calm down when inquiries were low. I could plan with it for vacations, personal projects, website updates, and more.
Because of our inexperience, such fluctuations can cause existential anxiety. Over time, we recognize patterns, incorporate them into our lives, and use them best. The important thing is just to be on the lookout for them.
At one of my first meetings with my accountant, he told me 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. Many find it difficult to internalize that the money in their account is not 100% theirs, but part of it belongs to the tax office. In Germany, you are on the safe side if you set aside 1/3 of your income (excluding sales tax) for the tax office and health insurance.
Wouldn’t it be sad if we had to end our long-awaited dream of launching our restaurant, product, or service just because we spent money on a vacation, a car, or a watch? Money that didn’t belong to us in the first place? Wouldn’t that be unfair, irresponsible, and negligent to ourselves?
And even worse, wouldn’t we be depriving our fellow human beings of the result of our passion? An invention, a film, a product, or a service that might have simplified or beautified their lives?
Especially at the beginning of our project, until we can assess the financial situation more accurately, humility seems to be the virtue with which everything stands and falls.
From my experience, I say that writing down and sketching ideas, be they strong or weak, always has advantages. The more, the better. To see if an idea is good or bad, it usually helps to put it on paper. Once we physically capture it, for example, in a sketchbook, we can let it go. After all, we can recall it at any time. By doing so, we make space in our minds for new thoughts. Moreover, new connections between ideas can emerge at another time. In this way, mediocre approaches often turn into brilliant ideas.
But Stephen King has an entirely different opinion on writing down ideas:
“I think a writer’s notebook is the best way to immortalize bad ideas. A good idea sticks around and sticks around.”
German rapper Sido said something similar. He doesn’t give bad ideas a second chance. If an idea for a beat or lyrics doesn’t catch him in the first few seconds, he drops it and searches for something else.
Each of us will find our method over time. For me, it still helps to jot down as many ideas as possible. However, sometimes I think of Stephen King and Sido. Then I try to filter out the thoughts in my head that seem to stick with me, this particular idea that sticks around and around. Perhaps we would be well advised to pay special attention to these.