Low job requests? Let’s look for patterns of annual fluctuations

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 “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 until the next low.

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.

Freelancers: When the phone rings, let’s pick up!

What sounds so simple is actually not so easy for everyone. When we talk eye to eye with someone, we have so many possibilities to communicate or present ourselves. Mimics, clothing, body language, voice. Even our fragrance sends signals.

On phone calls, our ways of expression are limited. All tools are omitted, except for our voice. To underline our interest in the conversation and convey our concerns clearly and unmistakably, only our words and how we express them remain.

This can be challenging, especially when we go through briefings with business clients, share feedback, or negotiate prices. As freelancers, it can be intimidating, especially in the beginning, even though we’ve waited so long for that first client call.

In the worst cases, we procrastinate until the ringing stops. But we don’t let that happen at all. It wouldn’t be fair to ourselves. We’ve worked too hard to be found, and now we’re letting it slip away just because our heart is pounding faster? No way. Instead, we keep reminding ourselves that the phone is usually only ringing because someone is interested in our work.

To all of you who relate to this, let’s make a promise here and now: If the phone rings, we’ll pick it up. That’s our decision today, so we don’t have to worry about it tomorrow when the phone rings. Who knows what creative adventure awaits us on the other side of the line.

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.

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.

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.

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 they like or dislike 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.

Creative freedom comes from limitations

“We give you all the creative freedom.” If this is the client’s briefing, it sounds tempting at first. The client seems to have blind faith in us. After all, we can do and try whatever we want. We have the license to play. But actually, it means that sooner or later, we will inevitably lose control.

A game in which we can do whatever we want, without a clear goal, is not a game. We need guardrails. Basic rules that limit what we do and think. Only then can we focus our thoughts, dig deep, immerse ourselves in the task at hand and become truly creative. Too much freedom can be intimidating, superficial, and counterproductive.

A tight briefing is like a lighthouse on the open sea at night. How we get there is up to us, but the destination is always there for all to see. 

So let’s accept the client’s constraints and rules to reach his goal. They are what ignite creativity.

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?

Procrastination is not always bad (part 2)

The first part was that the fear of the blank page can indicate being on the right path. It is important to us, so we should pursue it even more. Now we are talking about procrastination as a tool for quality.

Leonardo da Vinci was a genius in his art but a lousy freelancer. He was known for not meeting deadlines on commissioned work and even failing to complete much of it. It got to the point where his father had to do the condition negotiating, knowing how unreliable his son was at work.

But of course, he was never lazy. Doing nothing was as much a part of his creative process as the act of painting itself:

“Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work less, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterward give form.”

Leonardo da Vinci

One day Leonardo da Vinci was discussing creativity with a dissatisfied client. He demanded that Leonardo stop taking breaks. But Leonardo replied that “sometimes it requires going slowly, pausing, even procrastinating. That allows ideas to marinate. Intuition needs nurturing.”

So doing nothing does not literally mean doing nothing. Ideas need time to take hold and mature. That’s why solutions or ideas often come to us during activities that have little to do with the task. The classic “aha” moment is while taking a shower or driving a car.

So we don’t always need to feel guilty when our bodies aren’t working. Our subconscious mind continues to do it. Without our action, however, it will never exist. We must be aware of this.

A tip when working with clients. Let’s not complicate the client’s life and our own unnecessarily. We need a buffer for schedule and fee for just this “doing nothing.”

Book Tip: Leonardo da Vinci – The Biography by Walter Isaacson

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.

Time is not our currency. Expertise is

We are experts in what we do because we are experienced in our field. The more we do, the more original our work becomes and the faster we get results. In short, we are getting better and better.

Therefore, we can’t calculate our fee by the hour. Our expertise makes us valuable to the client – not our time.

Five years ago, I developed about 4 to 5 conceptual illustration ideas in four days. Today, I draw up to 20 in two days. If I calculated per hour, I would be penalized for getting better.

The client hires our service because he has a problem he needs us to solve (illustrative or otherwise). If we present him a solution in two days instead of four, that’s added value. Apart from the higher quality and number of alternatives, we give him something much more precious: time.