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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

10 rules and habits I have established for my illustration business

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

Declining 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 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.

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

What sounds so simple and obvious is actually not so easy for everyone. When we talk eye to eye with someone, we have so many possibilities to communicate our concern 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 would 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 us and 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.