Let’s be the bad guy once, not over and over again.

Saying “no” or asking follow-up questions can be difficult, especially at the beginning of our career. Yet we usually save ourselves a lot of trouble by doing so.

If we are not satisfied with the terms of a job request, let us communicate our concerns to the client. These can be about the budget, the briefing, the deadline, the creative process, and more.

If we don’t address the issues right away, we’ll have to do it at a later time. And then it gets complicated for both sides. After all, we’re already in the middle of it by then, and the questions we didn’t ask blow up in our faces. That can be very upsetting and annoying, especially for the client.

So let’s be upfront about everything from the beginning and insist on answers before we start working. Worrying that our concerns will stress or even scare off the client should not be a reason not to do it.

Are all the issues resolved? Great, we can get on with the project. Have we lost the client through our necessary urge for clarity? Great, we’ve almost certainly saved ourselves a challenging assignment that would have been nerve-wracking and financially difficult due to the inevitable hurdles in the process.

When in doubt, let’s use the big No just once at the beginning, instead of little No‘s over and over again later in the process.

Asking doesn’t cost us anything

This is the German and Italian version of the saying “there’s no harm in asking.” Sometimes it is helpful to remind ourselves when we need advice and help.

At the beginning of my studies in communication design, I was supposed to lecture about a Korean designer. When researching, I faced a problem because I could hardly find any information: only a simple homepage, no interview, and only a few reports.

The whole week I searched desperately for information. Finally, I had to explain to my professor that the presentation would be relatively short. He said, “have you asked him?”.

The scales fell from my eyes. Why didn’t I think of it myself? The possibility was so close? What prevented me from simply writing to the designer directly and asking for an interview? Was it the thought of not wanting to bother, of being a nuisance? Was it awe? Or perhaps the shame of revealing myself as an inexperienced student in front of a renowned designer? I can’t put my finger on the reason, but eventually, I wrote a short email asking for a few questions to be answered.

The presentation was a success. My fellow students were amazed that I had written directly to the designer. So I was not alone with my concerns.

Therefore: It costs nothing to ask. There is nothing wrong with approaching people directly when we have concerns or need advice. We may not get an answer, but we don’t take that personally. However, if we do get one, it is most likely to be positive.

With this attitude, four years later, I contacted countless designers in Australia and Southeast Asia for a meeting and an interview for my thesis. As many as 90% replied, and about 70% were looking forward to my visit. The result was dozens of inspiring and warm conversations that have stuck with me.

PS: there are very few cases where asking actually “cost” me something. More about that in another post.

Let us beware of feel-good-tasks

Bookkeeping, answering emails, and doing household tasks, have something treacherous about them. Once we get them done, it feels good. They make us feel like we’ve been diligent. Giving these tasks a high priority and doing them first thing is tempting. After all, we can usually finish them quickly and without any particular effort. In addition, we see the results immediately: the inbox shows no new emails or our office finally looks tidy again.

However, each of us has a period during the day when we are particularly productive. For many, it’s the first hours of the morning. This is definitely true for me. That’s why I tackle the most critical tasks in the morning. These are tasks that require my total concentration and creative thinking.

It has turned out for me that spending these precious hours on “simple” tasks is counterproductive. Instead, I schedule them for the afternoon, when my energy starts to wane. That’s the ideal time to answer emails, write bills, and clean the dishwasher.

These mundane tasks also have a nice side effect. We can consciously use them as a little motivational boost. If our concentration is at its lowest point for the day, it’s best to pause the important work and go for the things that don’t demand much of us. Usually, we feel good, relieved, and full of energy afterward. Finally, these tasks are off the list, and we can use this inner boost for our essential tasks again.

Standing with confidence and positive energy while presenting

How we stand in front of our audience immediately reflects how we feel: insecure, confident, nervous, on the verge of flight, or joyful anticipation. But more importantly, our stance and posture directly affect ourselves.

A secure and firm stance means that both feet are shoulder-width apart. This automatically means that the knees are pushed through, and the back is straight. Through this stand, completely different energy flows in our bodies. Our voice becomes minimally deeper, our gaze more concentrated. Shoes with a stiff sole can support this, as we are not as flexible wearing them as soft sneakers.

With the firm stand, we give our body and our head the signal: Now it gets serious! We go into communication mode. We are facing the audience head-on. Our total concentration belongs to them, and we start to talk consciously and thoughtfully about what we have planned.

No matter how the audience perceives us, sympathetic, arrogant, friendly, or hardened, there is one thing we do not appear to be: insecure.

Feeling under pressure is a warning shot we shouldn’t ignore

We all know that nagging feeling of procrastination when we put off a job, a study project, or a simple call to the tax office. The task is stuck in our head and keeps popping up, whether we wake up, work, watch a movie, or are at the gym.

The best solution is to just get it done. But sometimes, things get in the way and make it difficult or even impossible. There comes the point when we think about the task and feel more pressure to get it done than we did yesterday. Perhaps the client or professor has asked about the status, or the deadline of the tax office is about to expire.

Suddenly, an uncomfortable heat rises inside us that stirs us up. We should never ignore this moment. It is the last warning shot we should listen to. It means that it is not too late yet… but it will be very soon. Even if our head could suppress or postpone it for a long time to do the task, our subconscious does not.

Find the courage to give ourselves a job title before even starting

By doing so, we are making a few promises to ourselves and the people we try to reach.

For weeks I wrestled back and forth. What do I want? Am I a graphic designer, a T-shirt designer, or a communication designer? What job title or description should I put under my name?

In and out of college, I developed many interests. To survive in the marketplace, I needed to serve a niche. That was clear to me from the start. As an all-rounder, it would be difficult for me to be successful and, above all, happy.

Sergio Ingravalle – Illustrator

When I called and recognized myself as an illustrator, my life became easier. Even though I had already done some illustration jobs by then, this step was precious.

An illustrator illustrates.

He doesn’t create corporate designs, program websites, or layout magazines. He creates images. He draws, paints, cuts, glues, doodles. And that’s what I did from then on until people who visited my homepage could clearly see what they could expect from me.

Competitors: Rivals or partners in crime? Our choice

Let’s face the truth. There are countless artists, illustrators, designers, musicians, and writers out there. Just take a look at Instagram or Youtube. We are inundated with people and fantastic talents working in the same field and who are more successful than we are. Each one has his own story, vision, views, and skills. But part of the truth is that countless clients worldwide are willing to work with us. There are enough opportunities for all of us. 

Continue reading “Competitors: Rivals or partners in crime? Our choice”

Sharing our creative work should become a new habit

If we want to reach people and create new opportunities with our creative work and ideas, we have to share them with the world. There is no other option.

We need a dose of courage to do this because suddenly, our work is no longer just in our drawer. People see them, can evaluate them, or ignore them. We have to get used to that, especially at the beginning. Achieving this helps if we build sharing into our daily routine.

So let’s make a practical and realistic plan. A simple calendar will do. On which day do we share what and where with the world? If we stick to this plan long enough, it will soon become a habit, and we learn to break the initial resistance every day. 

Clients pay us for the process, not the outcome

Working as a creative requires courage. A writer doesn’t know how his book will end when he writes the first page. An artist doesn’t know what her painting will look like when she starts mixing the colors. Even the most experienced professional cannot guarantee that his next work will be a masterpiece.

The final result is written in the stars. To charge for creative work, therefore, requires even more courage. The outcome is intangible, and its impact is initially hard to measure. We need confidence in ourselves, a form of self-awareness that makes us realize that we can only influence and control the process. We are paid for finding the idea, not for the idea itself.

Where do our clients spend time and hang around?

Asking ourselves this question is crucial to our business. If we are an illustrator or a designer, our clients are usually advertising agencies and publishers. To make them aware of our work, we have several options.

Social networks are one. But who are we really reaching on Instagram? Are our followers really potential clients or mainly students, fans of our work, family members, and friends? Even though fans can turn into clients now and then, we should be able to answer this question.

It gets more concrete on platforms like Behance and Dribbble. This is where designers of all kinds publish their work. Someone looking for a professional illustrator or book designer is more likely to find someone here than on Facebook.

At design conventions and award shows, we mostly meet fellow designers instead of new clients. Giving talks at local events may be more effective.

To see where our target group stands out, we can simulate their view and path. Let’s imagine that we, as an illustrator, go on a search for a suitable illustrator for our project ourselves. We observe and register all our actions in the process: What search terms do we enter? Which website does our search take us to? Which platform seems most promising?

We have to walk in their shoes to see where our customers stand.

Saving money to keep the power of saying “No”

Last week’s post was about how “No” is a tool for freelancers. But to use it confidently, we need savings, a financial cushion that keeps us independent. It’s harder to say “No” when bills are piling up.

The freedom to say “No” when requests or price negotiations don’t suit us is fundamental in the long run. After all, we’d instead work on our portfolio or personal projects than accept a project request we had doubts about from the start.

Therefore, let’s set aside enough money to allow us to use “No.” This is only fair to clients and to us.

If we need more information from the client, let’s ask

Requests from potential clients can vary. Some are detailed and precise, while others are concise and sparse on necessary information.

If we lack information to provide a quote or to confirm our availability, we are not afraid to ask. These can be questions in the illustration: How, where, and how long will the illustration be used? When is the deadline? Color or black and white? What is the print run, or what size is the format?

If in doubt, we ask several times until we have all the necessary details to make a realistic, transparent, and binding statement. Let’s prefer to be a little demanding initially rather than again and again later in the working process.

In general, these questions are a sign of professionalism. However, it can also happen that our counterpart reacts impatiently or even annoyed, and cooperation does not arise. In this case: Congratulations! If it already fails at basic things, we have most likely saved ourselves an energy-sapping, time, money, and nerve-consuming collaboration.

The precious power of using “No”

For freelancers and self-employed people, “no” is a powerful tool, like the computer, the Internet, Excel, Photoshop, pen, and paper. We use it, for example, when we don’t feel comfortable with a project request or when we’re negotiating prices.

Over time, we become more confident in using “no” because we can justify it with our experience. We learn to use it at the right time and realize that it does not imply any personal valuation, neither when we say it nor when we receive it.

We see it as an adjustment, similar to when someone on the street asks us if he is on the right way to the train station. If he is going in the wrong direction, we reply “No” and show him the right way. An honest “No” is precious for all sides. Let’s use it.

Our portfolio should convey our passion, not all our talents

Our portfolio should only present the works that we like to repeat. Especially as beginners, we tend to show everything we have created. We should definitely resist this. Especially if the response to one of our works was strikingly positive, but we felt little ambition and passion about the work itself. Being good at something does not obligate us to do it for life.

Goethe says, “I can’t get rid of the spirits I called.” If we are not careful, we find ourselves doing years of work that do not fulfill us. Our hands may do it well, but our heart longs for something else. This will not make us happy.