Most of us involved in creative industries worry about churning out work without a distinct, authentic “style”. It seems we need to establish our artistic voice first before getting hired by art directors and having our work be known.
This thinking is mistaken on at least two levels.
First, we may believe art directors hire us for our distinct voice, but it’s more the case that they hire us because our voice happens to fit within the larger aesthetic of the company they’re working for.
Second, it’s a mistake to believe any style we develop can actually capture our authentic self and further, it’s a mistake to believe we even have an authentic self.
Let’s back up to the first mistake—believing that finding our true artistic style is the key to being successful. We might feel the distinctness of our style is being validated when, for example, we’re hired to do illustration spots for The New York Times. But if we look at a few issues of the newspaper, we’ll start to make out a pattern in the illustrations: clean, colorful and flat. There are variations on that pattern, but all live comfortably within the NYT’s brand aesthetic. Were we hired for our distinct and original style, or were we hired because the art director felt we could work within NYT’s “style”? We’d like to believe it was the former, but if our work wasn’t suited to NYT’s aesthetic, it’s unlikely we would have been contacted in the first place.
Working in an established style isn’t problematic: we actually want to work within popular, established styles because that’s what clients hire folks to do. And getting hired means getting paid. The problem only starts when we stop seeing what we provide clients as part of just one role we play and start seeing the role we play as a reflection of our authentic self. When we believe we are an editorial illustrator or director or animator, we are less willing to wear different hats for fear they don’t correspond with “who we are”.
This generates a lot of stress when, inevitably, we have to play multiple roles to support ourselves as freelancers. We get frustrated when we’re asked to illustrate or animate in someone else’s style, or when we need to learn to work in a different medium as part of a project. We’re frustrated when we have to put on other, inauthentic hats—hats that are not “us”—so we double down and strive to be more authentic by throwing away opportunities that don’t align with what we think is our real artistic identity.
This brings us to the second mistake: believing we have an authentic self that can be expressed only if we can find our distinct style. We can take a look at actors—they play dozens of roles in their careers. In fact, an actor only able to play him or herself are seen as inferior to ones who “disappear” into their roles. Why can’t we apply this thinking to our own work? Instead of picking a role or style and identifying with it as our true self, we might see that instead of playing one role or having one style, we are the capable of continuously adopting multiple roles and styles.
This is a huge relief. Like an actor, we get to play many different roles and forget about them once the project’s over. We can take on the role of illustrator for one project and, when the opportunity to art direct comes up, we can take on that role too, without feeling we’re being inauthentic to the role we’re “supposed” to play. We happily work within The New York Times’s brand aesthetic, and then happily work within some other company’s guidelines. When we don’t identify with any particular role we’re playing, we’re able to see roles and styles as just external designations that give access to specific areas we can explore and create within.
When we shed the need to cling on to any one role, we can wander down many paths opening to unlikely vistas. We’ll still need to work with roles and styles designated to us but they will be like butterfly nets trying to capture a whale—a client might glimpse an eye or a fin but never the totality.
Bringing it back to creative freelancing, I’d summarize like this. When it comes to client work, there is nothing wrong with developing a style or playing a role clients will hire us for. Just don’t be thinking this style or role is a representation of our authentic self.
When it comes to personal work, we can play. We can try on different hats. Hats we’d never wear in front of clients. We see there’s no need to take our roles so seriously, giving us room to play and experiment and risk and build… and if someone happens upon us playing with our many hats and say “wow, you’ve got a cool style!”—then that’s fine too.