I was recently talking to a younger (and highly skilled) designer who was looking for some advice on a number of topics. His questions were well thought out, concise, and bought up a lot of points I’ve heard over and again from conversations with other designers and artists. I’m writing this post with the hopes that this serves others as well, as I think there’s a lot of universal concerns here. This is written mainly to graphic design freelancers, but I think/hope there’s something here for everyone.
Please do note that these are only my feelings on the industry/life and may differ/align/directly clash with yours. That’s totally cool, everyone is going to have something different to say and that’s what makes this whole topic interesting.
What Commercial Art Is
First and foremost, I want to introduce you to some of the insights I’ve gleaned over the years in terms of what it is that we’re doing as commercial artists. That is to say, producing or rearranging visual and sometimes aesthetic content for other people for money. I want to be as clear as possible because this will cascade into everything else I say.
Commercial Art is problem solving.
Which of course begs the immediate question: what problem are we trying to solve?
As near as I can put it, the problem is that everyone, and I mean everyone, has an idea. They have this wonderful visual idea inside their skull and unfortunately it seems to be stuck there.
As anyone who has tried knows, visual art is extremely difficult. The process of taking what is essentially just a mess of neurons firing off in your head and turning that into a concrete image that looks and more importantly feels like that thought is insanely complicated. It takes thousands of hours of practice to forge the correct mental pathways that get you consistently from concept to execution. A very slim percentage of the human race is willing and able to make that commitment, which would normally mean that visual idea is now forever locked away in their head.
I would like to point out here that this is a universal problem. When people ask what industry needs graphic designers, the answer is always “Yes”. Here’s where commercial art comes in.
As someone who has or is in the process of putting in the hours, you are essentially offering up your uniquely structured mind for rent to help someone else get that idea out into the world. It’s your experience, your skill, and your personality that are generating value, and it’s important to work on all three. Because in addition to the delivery of visual material, which is hard enough, in the commercial art world we also have to consider the process as well.
Work is stressful. Taking the risk of moving your idea from the safety of your head to the outside world is stressful. Hiring someone and giving up the reins of control is stressful. Having to provide feedback is stressful. Deadlines are stressful. Paying people is stressful. Before the client has sent their first email, they’re already freaking out. I cannot overstate how important it is for a commercial artist to be easy to work with. If you can do your job professionally and with a smile, you win. Faux smiles are acceptable, but genuine ones are always preferred.
I have had several jobs where I initially felt I was being overcompensated for a relatively simple task. Later I realized the value I was generating was not, for example, adding page numbers to a pdf; it was that I did so after hours, quickly, and without complaint. The world is moving at a terrifying speed right now and there are a lot of very tired people who are more than willing to pay the dual relief of one less to-do and the comfort of a friendly face.
Speaking of speed, timing is another huge asset to the commercial artist. More qualified candidates with better portfolios have been passed over many times in favor of someone who could reliably get the job done on or ahead of schedule. We can and should always push for quality, but a half-finished design is only that. As a good friend of mine once said, “almost having dinner doesn't make you any less hungry.”
To sum it up, picture the following scenario:
It’s Thursday evening and Bob has just gotten an email from his boss’ boss that simply reads:
I need a presentation ready to go for a conference this weekend. This is to a group of high-paying investors so it has to look as good as it can.
Bob has 1 day to take a crappy Powerpoint presentation and turn it into gold. Bob is a sales manager who doesn’t know the first thing about powerpoint beyond the 12 templates it ships with. Bob also has a PTA meeting that night and can’t afford to watch tutorials for the next 3 hours trying to figure it out.
Bob is screwed.
In a panic, he sends an email to his design contact begging for help.
Take a minute and really try to put yourself in Bob’s shoes. You’ve got this unreasonable request from this alien entity within the organization, you can’t argue, and you can’t solve it yourself. Life is knocking at the door, you have 45 minutes to figure this out. 20 minutes goes by, and your wife is now calling, asking where you are. You say you’ll meet her at the school. Is your stomach churning yet? It should be. Then your email client pings. There’s a message from your design contact.
Not a problem Bob, I’ll get things moving and have a draft for your tomorrow morning.
And just like that, just one friendly email, a couple hours that night, and sending it in the morning, you’re now a superhero. You do the job, it pays well, but the hidden benefit is you are now Bob’s favorite person. Bob will come to you time and again when goofy stuff happens. And if you’ve worked anywhere near an office, anytime ever, you know goofy stuff will always continue to happen. Bob will mention your name fondly to his friends, and one of his friends has an idea for a logo they’ve been thinking about…
It’s been said many times before but it’s always worth restating: You are your own brand.
Even if you have a salaried job in a mega-size organization, you are still your own person. I’ve picked up many commissions for after-hours work from coworkers who enjoyed working with me when we were on the clock. Promotion considerations are real, intra-office politics are real, and people in your office will only really remember 3 or 4 things about you, make sure those are all good things.
It’s the cycle of good service, a friendly attitude, and successful projects that feeds into the next one. I haven’t asked for work for many years; people come to me with their ideas. They come to me because, I hope, they enjoy working with me and trust me with their baby. I’m honored to work with each and every one of them because I know how much it means to them. If you look at it this way, your days can be filled with gratitude for such a wonderful opportunity.
But where does the cycle start?
The biggest mistake I’ve seen people in all walks of life make is waiting. Writers, visual artists, engineers, it doesn’t matter. If you ask someone for the chance to do something, you’re already screwed. Most likely they’ll say no, but even if they say yes you now have your own problem. Chances are if you’re asking for the opportunity to do something it’s because you’ve never or rarely done it before and you’re excited by the prospects. That’s great, being excited rocks.
But the problem comes from that same lack of experience. If this is new territory, you don’t know what the pitfalls are, you don’t know how hard or easy it is, you don’t even know if you actually like it or just the idea of it. If you don’t have the experience under your belt, you are not ready to accept a serious professional opportunity, no less solicit one. It’s the classic Catch-22 that stalls people out like crazy. But there’s a secret way out of this lock.
Just Freaking Do It.
I want to make wine labels. No joke, I do. I think they’re super cool to look at and there’s a lot of potential for the industry that I haven’t seen yet. Does that mean I’m ready to design a wine label for a company? Nope. Which is why I wrote up a fake wine label with a buddy of mine last Sunday over coffee. We discussed the particulars, made some notes, and now I’m sketching for my very own wine labels. I’ve already found 2 major challenges because I didn’t ask the right questions during the brainstorming. I’m sure I’ll hit several walls on the way.
But this project is for me. If I decide half-way through that I hate wine labels, I can scrap the project and not lose a wink of sleep. If they suck, I don’t have to show them to anyone. If I find one of the challenges insurmountable in my current timeline, I just just give myself an extension.
But if it works out, I will have 4 professional-grade labels that I can post in my portfolio. Given time, there will be someone who sees that and realizes that this is the label they’ve been thinking about for the last 6 months. Or maybe I find myself in conversation with a vintner. Compare these two sentences:
I’d love to try making a wine label some day.
I made some wine labels a couple months ago and I had a blast, you should check them out (hand over business card).
Who are you going to hire?
The benefits don’t stop there though. Designing my own wine labels means I now have complete creative satisfaction, that most precious of mind states. I’m calling the shots so I can make the labels look and feel however the muse dictates. I’m the perfect client for myself to work for.
It also keeps my portfolio fresh. People like seeing new stuff and rarely, if ever, care whether the job was for a paying client or not. If they see you doing good work, they form a positive mental association between you and the road to success. And most importantly, you are sending a direct signal to all potential clients about what kind of work you want to be involved in. If you take a web design job to help pay the bills that month, no sweat. Just don’t put it in your portfolio unless you want more web design jobs.
People like seeing people busy.
I worked with the owner of a highly successful restaurant some number of years ago who told me the story of how she got her start. The very first day, without a single order, this little corner bake shop sprung into action. Anyone who walked in that day would see cookies and pastries cooling on the racks, the owner/baker moving quickly between ovens, mixing up a new batch of dough. Again, no orders placed, but stuff was happening. As she tells the story, her friends and family all put on a couple pounds for the first year because of all the fake orders she was fulfilling to ‘clients’, but fast forward to years 2 and 3 and she was sending more orders out to actual customers than not. Keep going and that hustle and bustle became very real. She was experienced, she had a routine in place, and she had the infrastructure to support a brisk business. When business became brisk, she was ready.
Which brings me to my most important point: WORK. WORK WORK WORK.
This is a weird industry. I don’t mean to be harsh, but if you’re truly looking to have a job where you put in 40 hours and go home, you need to seriously reconsider your industry. Work life balance ceases to have meaning when your work is your life. I do what I do because I would go ballistic if I didn’t. Every day is just as much a giant art-therapy session as it is an actual job. I treat it was the utmost seriousness, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the hell out of it. It’s super important to enjoy this, because it’s going to take as many hours as you can cram into it to get to the level that you want.
And let’s not forget, that goal is a constantly evolving one as well. As a 33 year old I have a completely different idea of what I want to do and why than I did as a 23 year old. It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just different; more focused I would say. I sincerely hope that as a 43 year old I will have yet a different set of goals, and 53, and 63…
My point is that this is a process, it is who were are, it is us. To say that you stop being you when 5pm hits is insanity. Yes, a full day is tiring and life is busy and we have the ten-thousand things of the world to distract us. But if this is your choice then it inevitably will influence the rest of life as well. Remember, the hours are going to pass either way, your only choice is how they are spent. This is in no way saying that choice is easy, but it is yours.
It’s commonly accepted dogma that practice = skill. Malcolm Gladwell can tell you all about that. But the one bonus I can tell you about in putting in those ten-thousand hours is: at some point, you are going to get freaking SICK of doing this.
If I have to draw one more still life I’m going to scream.
Good! This is an absolutely critical point in your development, it is the wall that stops so many would-be masters. But again, this is a stop, not the destination. Because when you’ve filled stacks of sketchbooks, read dozens of articles on typography, and you’ve looked at so many swatches your eyes are bleeding color, you have to ask yourself this one question:
Why the hell am I doing this?
Protip: There is no wrong answer to this question. ‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly valid response.
Protip 2: The answer will change as you do. Thus it is important to ask yourself this question constantly.
Whatever the answer is, remember it. Write it down. Put it somewhere you can see it, because that answer, that ever evolving ‘why’ is the root of your personal style. Style can mean many different things, but for me it is the driving force, the personal vector, that brings you to the conversation and steers your creativity.
I design because I want to help people understand.
I think it’s the coolest moment when someone who was previously confused suddenly has an epiphany and can use their newfound information in a meaningful way. The “AHA!” moment.
I’m addicted to making beautiful things, and I’m addicted to making life a little bit easier in whatever form that takes. If I make a logo design that you are able to associate with a product, great. If I make a illustration that reminds you of simpler times and provides comfort, that’s a win. If I can help you navigate the Hot Mess that is out current information overdriven world, good times.
I want you to succeed at everything and I would be honored to be part of that success.
Art and design as a method of pure communication.
Again, I hope this article helped you reach a greater level of understanding, and maybe got you asking some questions about why you’re doing business and how you can do it just a little better.
Peace, Love, and Badgers,