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.

Quick thoughts about the illustration business and storyboarding

I have the impression that the market for illustrators is large and diverse. Books, magazines, movie posters, product packaging, t-shirts, vehicles, and websites are a few areas we can create illustrations for. Agencies can even build multi-million dollar advertising campaigns based on the works of a single illustrator.

Some areas, however, seem to be a bit more saturated. For example, this may apply to children’s books after reading articles and speaking to colleagues. But even that shouldn’t stop us from going all the way in if this is our passion. Apart from that, there are still other areas which we can enjoy.

Children’s book illustrators, for example, could also offer storyboards. They are skilled at freehand drawing and creating entire series of illustrations. They usually can visualize quickly. That skill is necessary for creating storyboards. Storyboards are a daily tool within the creative industry, whether for commercials, game apps, or movies. Speed is essential here. Advertising agencies might call in the morning and ask for a storyboard for a pitch at noon. A fast and reliable illustrator is precious.

PS: Personally, I’m not very comfortable with storyboarding. You can find a little anecdote about this in my last post.

As freelancers having a side hustle is the best we can do. For ourselves, our business, and for our clients

Having a business besides freelancing is the best we can do. For ourselves, our business, and for the clients.

Being a freelancer as an illustrator, web designer, or translator means earning a living with commissions from various clients. Our goal is to generate the commissions that suit us and that appeal to us. We want to develop and improve in our profession and eventually be happy with what we do.

Pursuing a side hustle can be a valuable asset for freelancers in this regard. Having an extra pillar of income can give us the freedom to say No.

At the beginning of my career as an illustrator, I accepted every possible request. On the one hand, I had the time, and, on the other, I desperately needed the money. So I took a storyboard assignment from a big advertising agency without hesitation. And I did so even though I was aware that freehand drawing was not something I was particularly good at. It was a nightmare. Neither was I fast enough, nor could the quality of my loveless drawings meet the client’s expectations. Nightshift, after nightshift, I tried to get the best out of it.

The final result was finally acceptable. But the road to that point was arduous for both parties. It should be clear that the agency has not contacted me again to this day.

Being able to refuse requests is essential for our business, so we can concentrate on offering what we like most (and, therefore, usually do best). But above all, it’s about fairness to the customer. Who wants to hire an unmotivated freelancer who only accepts the job to be able to pay her rent? A well-paying client has the right to the best version of us. Anything else borders on theft.

Let’s hold the urge to spend too much energy on an inquiry before we get a concrete order confirmation

Some customer requests are particularly exciting. For example, when it comes to soccer-related illustrations, I’d love to get started right away with the first sketches, even before all the conditions are clear.

But despite all the euphoria and confidence about working with a client, we must not underestimate the time and work we invest even before the first brushstroke. Email correspondence or calls alone can sometimes take hours in total. There are questions to answer, joint, binding schedules to set up, fees to negotiate, and sometimes, additional requests like, “Tomorrow, I’ll present your portfolio to the team. Could you help me with that by…?”

Carefully clarifying this framework in advance is essential and part of freelancing. However, let’s be sure about what and how much we are willing to invest before reaching an agreement, so we don’t waste our and the client’s valuable time.

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. Others can’t see what we see by telling it with words.

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, while the other person has no clue at all. We can’t understand why she does not recognize it. It’s so obvious! When we finally remember the song’s title, enlightenment strikes, and she goes, “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 client and me a joint basis for discussion.

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.

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?

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.