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. “No” is precious for both 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.

As freelancers, we need a daily cut, or we are not free at all

When I decided to go the freelance illustrator route, I quickly noticed the differences between permanent employment. We usually have a commute in a permanent position that we do every morning and after work. This one we can find annoying and a waste of time. But the commute home has a valuable advantage. It makes a clear cut between our work and our free time, which helps us structure our daily lives.

As freelancers, this physical cut is often missing. Often, the place where we work and create is the same place where we eat, watch movies, and go to sleep. As a result, we quickly tend to lose track of time and merge our free time with our work time. In short, we lose piece by piece our life outside work. In the times of Covid, many permanent employees are in home offices, so they have experienced the same thing.

There are simple methods to create physical cuts if we can’t or don’t want to go to an external place, such as a co-working space. A fundamentally important one is to dress for work as if we are going to the office. Maybe not in a suit and patent leather shoes, but not in sweatpants or pajamas. This daily routine affects our attitude during work hours. Then, after work is done, slipping into sweatpants is not only a signal to us that we can leave work behind for the day. It can also feel good and earned, and there’s nothing to stop us from enjoying it.

Fear minus death equals fun

In his book “The Art of Game Design,” Jesse Schell writes about this formula. I read it in my 20s when I was thinking about becoming a game designer. Even though I eventually took a different path, I often think of passages from the book, especially this formula.

Originally it came from the experiential design of roller coasters and thrill rides and is a trademark of Sotto Studios. Horror movies, survival games, and even harmless pranks that scare our friends are based on this simple formula. This brief thrill and adrenaline rush are usually followed by relieved laughter. I think this is because we feel very alive at that moment.

There are always situations that can make us sweat. Even as designers and freelancers, whether it’s before client presentations, harsh criticism of our work, or when we feel that tasks are overwhelming us. In those moments, I try to think of this formula. Despite the external “threat,” we are never at real risk of losing our lives.

It helps me to take things a little easier. Stage fright and the tingling in the stomach before a presentation are exciting emotions. If I can suppress the initial panic and flight instinct, I start to enjoy it. This formula helps me do that because I realize that there is nothing that can really harm me.

Let’s embrace and look for the client’s opinion

Client: “You are the expert. I’m afraid I’m not creative at all.”

A client can tell a programmer, “I don’t know anything about computers, HTML, and website programming.” However, a client cannot say to a designer that he is not creative and that his opinion is not important.

Every person is creative in their activity every day. It’s because everyone searches for solutions every day. In addition, every person also has a sense of visual aesthetics. Even if they do not work in our professional field and struggle to express why he likes or dislikes something.

As illustrators and designers, let’s involve the client. We may be the established experts in our field, but nothing beats a fresh look at our work to make it better. After all, that’s what it’s all about. We want to create the best possible outcome for the project, the client, us, and the audience. 

Some people may be too engaging in the creative process, trusting us too little and constricting our creative freedom. If the reasons are not destructive, there are always solutions to solve this—more on this in another post.

Illustrators portfolio: Tip to boost your visibility

Especially when we as illustrators are at the beginning and want to set foot in the market, we need attention to attract potential clients. There are some basic requirements to achieve awareness. We have a portfolio website, have found our style, and share our work regularly on social networks and platforms.

Another method of doing this is beneficial: We reach people when we make illustrative works on topics they already know. This can be movies, music, video games, sports, celebrities, politics, or the latest news. For example, a caricaturist gets more attention when she illustrates famous musicians instead of drawing her family members.

Reimagining the familiar builds a direct connection with viewers through the element of surprise, and there’s a greater chance they’ll forward the work to friends and family. Perhaps this type of connection is even more promising than the originality and quality of the illustration style.

The magic of agglomeration advantage

Competition stimulates business is an old saying in economics. I had a D- (4- in Germany) in my Abitur in geography. But for some reason, I have not forgotten one thing: The agglomeration advantage. In retail, an agglomeration advantage is an increase in sales through spatial proximity to stores with a similar assortment or a similarly pursued pricing strategy (source: onpulson.com). A street full of restaurants and snack bars attracts the hungry. Even though each vendor is in competition, they all benefit equally.

Can it be a coincidence that some of mankind’s most significant artists lived in the same place in the same era? Names like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, or Botticelli ring bells even to the art philistine. The great masters learned with and from each other. And they were also in competition with each other. For example, Da Vinci found his personal and professional rival in the young Michelangelo. Both of them were commissioned in the early 1500s to each decorate a wall for the Florence’s Council Hall in the Palazzo della Signora with their art. The mere presence of the other will have affected and motivated them somehow. They will have benefited from it. How exciting it must have been to watch these two ambitious geniuses at work in direct comparison. 

Our environment affects us, and we affect our environment. Depending on where we move or who we meet, the place and the people influence our path. For my studies in communication design, I moved to Dusseldorf, the fashion city par excellence. As a graphic design student with a passion for illustration, it’s no surprise that I ended up creating t-shirt graphics for fashion brands like Esprit while studying. 

When it comes to clients, it’s all about trust

When a client hires freelancers, be they web designers, art directors, translators, or illustrators, they are looking for anchors for safety hooks. Usually, the client does not know the freelancer personally and wants to work with him for the first time. Of course, this involves risks for him. It’s about quality, reliability, speed, flexibility, openness to criticism, friendliness, and positivity.

Once these values and qualities have been conveyed, the subsequent price negotiation is the most minor step. What good is the most beautiful work of art to the customer if it is not delivered on time for the printing deadline? Leonardo da Vinci regularly infuriated his clients by putting them off for years or never starting or finishing orders.

Contracts or no contracts, especially when international collaboration, where litigation is complicated, building trust is crucial. The portfolio is our digital front door. Our business card. We signal here to potential clients that they are in good hands with us through the following points:

  • Clarity: What do we offer? How can we be reached?
  • Professional presentation of our services, e.g., low-resolution pictures on our homepage, does not show our exceptional attention to detail. Illuminated photos of our work, on the other hand, do.
  • About us-page: A portrait photo, a few words about us, and images of our workspace give the client additional insight and a face to the work, emails, and voice on the phone.
  • Listing of clients and agencies we have already worked with. One completed client project shows that we can reliably bring projects to completion.
  • Recognition: Whether internationally won awards, online interviews, or local newspaper reports. Every recognition testifies to our professionalism and seriousness.
  • Testimonials: Words that are worth their weight in gold. Quotes from customers about a successful collaboration are the ultimate confidence builders.

Other ways to build trust:

  • A blog or vlog with additional behind-the-scenes insights and creative processes.
  • Behavior on social media: how and what do we write under our posts? How do we formulate comments and answer questions?

„We need to tell a story!“

Whether it’s an insurance company, a manufacturer of gasket rings, or a designer of handmade jewelry, when it comes to marketing, the topic of storytelling quickly comes up: “What story can we tell about our product or service?“ The answer is that we don’t need to find a story. We already have one: our own.

Continue reading “„We need to tell a story!“”

“Do you have a second?” questions are a lie

Every one of us knows these questions and has certainly used them before. “Can you print that out for me real quick?”, “Will you take a short break with me?”, “Can you write him back just briefly?”. Whenever someone asks us to do something like that, we know it will never be quick, short, or brief. Both sides know that even writing a “short” email takes time and that printing something out can lead to complications, for example, when the printer cartridge is empty again.

But that is not all. “Do you have a second?” is a distraction vortex. If we are pulled out of our work, we lose our flow. Just as we lose momentum when a slow truck moves into the passing lane in front of us. We have to work our way back into it later, which takes time and energy. We always lose significantly more than “one second.” 

In their well worth reading book “Make Time,” Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky write about how minor distractions create much larger holes in our day. They call these events time craters and explain how to prevent them and protect ourselves from them.

Quick hack to organize emails: using keywords

To have important emails quickly at hand later, we can include keywords that we can then enter into the search. For example, in price negotiations, we often send several versions of the offer until we have agreed on a fee and the rights of use with the customer. Keywords such as “clientname-finalestimate” help here. Other possibilities are “projectnamehiresfiles” if the print data has been sent or “database” if the contact is to be entered in the database later.

These keywords can stand below the signature in light gray or in white font if they should not be visible to the contact.

Emails are risk-minimizers

From my experience as an illustrator, most communication with clients is via email. And that’s a good thing. The written record, starting with the inquiry, the individual process steps, and the data transfer, gives both sides the necessary security for smooth cooperation.

It forces us to think in a structured way and quickly shows which points are still open or incorrect. Especially at the beginning, all basic conditions must be clearly formulated, such as illustration style, scope, rights of use, and deadline. Even before it goes into pricing, establishing these points is crucial for the client and us. They are our location coordinates to keep track of where we are and where we are going during our journey together.

Emails are our joint diary on this trip. A documentation of our collaboration. The client and the freelancer keep each other updated and agree on our next steps.

Phone calls and Zoom meetings are great for quickly exchanging information or discussing more complex issues. However, most misunderstandings and mistakes hide here. Discussed points are forgotten, and things are understood differently. That is simply human. Therefore, we take notes during every call and announce that we will send the customer a short email with the discussed points after the conversation. In it, we ask for a quick confirmation that everything has been recorded correctly.

We secure ourselves and our work steps. At the same time, we also give the customer security. This is so important for cooperation. He feels transparently kept up to date and can devote himself to other tasks with complete peace of mind.

The designer is a chimera

He is an artist, craftsman, and salesman in one, and all three “beings” feed on one essence: creativity.

The artist in him has learned to ignite the creative fire. However, the designer’s task is now to tame and focus on this fire. Only in this way can he aim laser-precisely at his customer’s problem and solve it.

The craftsman in him has the task of using skills to turn the inner world of the designer inside out. He is constantly improving his skills and looking for new possibilities to accomplish this. He experiments, changes, fails, frustrates, and keeps trying.

The salesman in him has the task of presenting the work of his two colleagues to the world. He looks for creative ways and opportunities to reach people who will benefit from the work.

A designer can only consist of these three beings. If he lacks even one, he is not a designer anymore. He transforms himself, for example, into a free and independent artist, an art dealer, or a master craftsman in his own business. However, all of them make a living from creativity, just as the designer does.