#TDKTuesdays: Tips in Type

  • Justin Poulter
  • Biff Studio
  • Alison Carmichael

Alison Carmichael, Justin Poulter and Biff chat about starting out in the industry, how they use social media, and their top tips for aspiring illustrators.

Last week saw our first collaboration with The Design Kids for #TDKTuesdays. We teamed up with three of our wonderful lettering artists to bring you a series of talks discussing just what it is to be a successful Freelancer.

Alison CarmichaelJustin Poulter and Biff pulled back the curtain to give our audience an insight into their careers in illustration, all-time favourite projects, and of course, the endlessly satisfying process videos that go into producing award-winning work. The event was sponsored by Hop King and scribed by the lovely lot at Three Blind Mice, who worked throughout the evening to capture each and every pearl of wisdom our artists had to offer.
First off was the topic of breaking into the industry. Just how did Alison, Justin and Biff all establish themselves as illustrators?

Justin: Work hard for your clients, no matter how big or small they are. Reach out to the people you want to work for. Think of your work in a commercial sense and show how it can be used across different media, not just on a social platform.

Biff:  Starting out, it was important to me to be selfish with my work and make what I wanted, whenever I could, because I knew that the work I put out then would be the work I was going to be asked to make.
There’s a lot of trial and error when it comes to finding the right balance and what works for you. Everyone works differently and has different needs. However, it is getting increasingly harder to figure all of that out when social media is so prevalent today. There’s a real problem with comparing your methods to others and thinking “Am I doing it right?”. Chances are you’re killing it. It’s just up to you to have the confidence to recognise that.

Alison: Definitely be sure to take advantage of each and every opportunity. Social meet ups with organisations such as The Design Kids and Young Creative Council provide invaluable opportunities to gain advice, and to feel less isolated as a freelance illustrator. Plus, you never know who you might meet or what advice someone might give you that could help to kick-start an opportunity for you.
Next, we were intrigued to know our artist’s view on belonging to an agency – was an agent something they always needed? If so, why?

Biff: I’ve been with Jelly for around a year and a half now. Previous to that, I managed everything myself, although it was definitely a lot harder to balance my time between the business side of things (finding work, promoting myself, networking) and actually making work. It was and still can be fiddly to find a ratio that works. However, since having an agent, it’s been easier to focus on making things and spending more time on personal work. They handle a large chunk of the promotion, networking as well as sorting out costs and timings. I wouldn’t say I’ve always needed one however. I think it’s really important to grind, hustle, fail repeat on your own for a bit. It gives you an idea of what it takes to be an illustrator, as opposed to the fake social media version.
Justin: Not when I was starting out. Once my projects got bigger, having an agent became very helpful. Especially with the paperwork and initial negotiations.

Being represented doesn’t guarantee you work. Being able to acquire clients and manage them without an agent at first will teach you so much about being a freelance illustrator. Having this experience yourself will let you value and understand exactly how much an agent can do for you.

Alison: I agree, for the first ten years of my career, I represented myself. It was a very steep learning curve, but an important lesson in learning first hand how the design process works, what expectations are in regards to communication with agencies, relationships with the client, quoting, negotiating and getting meetings to show your work.

If you are personable, outgoing and well-organised, it can be a really good idea to represent yourself at the start of your career. Looking back, I think I did quite a good job of getting around all the ad agencies and making as many connections and opportunities for myself as possible which led to my portfolio padding out nicely over time. It does take time though so don’t expect overnight miracles!

However, when admin started to take over, and limit the time I could spend working creatively, I decided it was time to get an agent. Having a good agent means that you are supported, not taken advantage of, and helped when it comes to deciding which projects are good to take on and which ones aren’t. An agent also takes care of the legal side of working for commercial clients which can be a great relief at times when a job isn’t running as smoothly as it should be.
So how did Alison, Justin and Biff get their work noticed, and in front of clients?

Biff: My usual go-to is to send out emails to places that I think my work would suit or to studios that excite me. I’ll write up a very short and sweet email letting them know why I exist, why I’m getting in contact, what I can offer and requesting to come in for a chat. I’ll send a few illustrations along with the email, and hopefully they’ll do most of the talking because time is a luxury for busy London folk. They rarely waste it on reading paragraphs of pointless faff.

Justin: The best way to get noticed it to make stuff! Stand out from the crowd by making physical work and getting that in front of clients. Go and meet with people face to face. Develop relationships! (This is what good agents, like Jelly do!)Alison: Starting out in the industry in 2019 is very different than starting out when I did twenty years ago. Self promotion in some ways is easier because of social media platforms but it’s very easy to make yourself invisible by creating similar work to other artists and blending in to the point where no one notices your work. And there are a lot of artists who are really active on social media so it’s important to try and make your work look original and distinctive. This is much easier said than done but in my opinion, the best way of doing this is to step away from all those platforms which inadvertently might influence the type of work you create, and get back to old fashioned craft.
And so, in the age of social media, the topic of sharing and liking is as prevalent as ever. We wanted to know what our artists’ opinions were on sharing their art, how big a role Instagram plays, and what they choose to share on their online platforms.
As ever, our artists each had a different approach and relationship to social media. They all agreed that it is important to distinguish what the purpose is of sharing content, and that Instagram is a useful tool to share work, but should not be relied on, or equated with an artist’s success. 

Alison: Instagram can be an evil necessity. I’m not a massive fan of Instagram, but it can still be a useful and instant way of sharing my work. I don’t tend to share everything, but I’m aware that clients are looking and sometimes even asking agents who has the most followers – which is crazy – but it does have it’s plus points. It’s important to remember that a lot of what you see artists sharing on social media is not necessarily the live briefs where they have been paid – we share old work, test artwork and personal work – so don’t feel disheartened in thinking that other artists are getting loads more commissions than you, because social media can paint a very pretty picture of the reality!

Your portfolio is the measure of your talent and skill. Your Instagram follower count is a measure of your dedication to your social media which is a totally different skillset. If it makes you feel bad about yourself, leave it well alone – it’s not worth damaging your emotional well being.
Justin: Social media is a great way to put work out and promote yourself, but it’s not the only way. I think it’s important to realise that on social media you are not just competing with other illustrators for peoples attention. You’re also up against cute dogs, memes and everything else that people put up. If you really want to stand out, think of how you can be on a potential clients mind before they’ve scrolled through the feed.

Having likes and followers isn’t a reflection of your work. I use Instagram to show the best highlights, and don’t really feel the need to share everything. Sometimes it’s not the best platform as I’ll often have to wait ages- maybe a year or so- until the client has shared the work, so I’m able to share it too. I don’t necessarily think it’s the best reflection of an artist’s process, as you can’t always show your most current work. But, ultimately it is a necessity as people do always look at it.

Biff: I think if you’re doing a lot of self-initiated work, Instagram is a great platform to share it all on. Try and use Instagram to your advantage, but don’t create things for Instagram- you always need to be thinking; where is this going to live outside social media?
Finally, if you had one piece of advice for aspiring illustrators, what would it be?

Alison: Play around with your process. Playing is the best way to find your style.

Justin: Enjoy the process of creating the work, not just the finished product. I started out as an illustrator, so I’ve dedicated all of my working time to it. I have occasionally done some branding or graphic work, but I’ve tried to be picky as I could afford to when deciding what projects to work on.

Biff: Draw all the time. If you love it enough you can always find time to illustrate.