I was invited to give a talk at Marist College a while ago to a group of aspiring animators and graphic designers. The presentation focused on three important aspects to a creative life: making money, working on your own stuff, and eventually, making money by doing your own stuff.
Many thanks to Professor Wrenn for the invitation.
Why make money?
The second reason to make a good living in your field is because you need time and space to explore and experiment with your own ideas. And you can only afford to work on your ideas for the long haul if you can first cover essential living expenses.
Working on your own ideas is synonymous with solving the creative problems that specifically bug you. Jenny Saville tries to solve the problem of representing close-up flesh on canvas. Monet tried to capture ever-shifting light. Finding and solving your own unique problems is the path to finding and developing your own ideas.
All this demands time and resources you’ll have to carve out from your day-to-day. So it’s a good idea to organize your life such that you don’t have to worry about rent or groceries. The less of that stuff you have to worry about, the more energy you can spend on your own creative work.
Why should you pursue your own creative vision anyway?
There’s a practical answer and an existential one. Let’s start with the practical answer.
When you graduate from school and get your first jobs or freelance clients, what studios tend to hire you for are your technical skills. You’re decent at Adobe Suite. You can sketch a character and make a walk cycle. In the beginning, you won’t really have a say in shaping your clients’ vision, but they will pay for you to execute their ideas.
This is fine to begin with, but it’s very competitive since there is an increasingly low barrier to gaining technical skills. In five, ten, twenty years time, you don’t still want to be the person just executing a client’s ideas. There will be new graduates playing with newer forms of technology and it will be tough to keep up.
That’s why it’s good to start developing your own ideas, so that clients eventually hire you for those ideas instead of just your hands. It’s easier for someone to pick up Blender or After Effects than it is for someone to come up with original, suitable ideas to solve client problems. Having your own creative vision and methods helps you carve out a niche of returning clients. This keeps you in the game for the long term.
This is the practical reason for working on your own stuff. But it’s not the most important reason. What’s more important is this: if you’re wired to do creative work, you have to work on your own ideas—or wilt. Failing to work on your own stuff can be one of the reasons behind burnout. It’s not burning out from client work, per se, it’s failing to notice a slow hollowing out of the soul.
I found this to be the case two years into freelancing, when I was spending all my time on client work and none on my own work. I was making good money but was dogged by the terrible sense that some deep part of me was being neglected. The more I brushed the feeling aside, the larger it loomed. Finally, the fear of working on my own ideas paled in comparison to the fear of what might happen if I failed to work on those ideas, and I took some tentative steps on my own path. The monster gave a nod and submerged back into the depths whence he came.
Client work is good for the wallet. But an entire day spent designing for clients doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve fulfilled the daily creative output dictated by your wiring. You still need to put time on your own work every day.
How to get hired
The key to being paid for your skills is to play a role that fits into your clients’ businesses. A graphic designer is a role that is useful across businesses. So is an illustrator or a motion designer, and so on.
Here’s the place where a lot of people stumble. No one who thinks they’re creative wants to be pigeon holed into one role. It seems limiting and boring.
And it is.
Nevertheless, playing one role and playing it well sets the foundation for the multiple roles you’ll be able to play later on. You might start out as an illustrator and later branch out into animation and work on movies. Or you might start as a set designer and later decide to write novels. Playing a role allows you to step through a door, which leads to another door, and another.
A quick aside: you’re not the role you’ve chosen, so don’t worry too much about picking the best, most suitable role for yourself. Give the role you’ve chosen adequate space and light to flower, and then, if you want to, switch roles. You are the thing that can play multiple roles and not the roles themselves.
Okay, back to that first role:
Imagine a moodboard populated with the various kinds of work you want to do. Maybe there’s illustration in one corner, motion design in another corner, painting in yet another corner. The problem many of us face is that we want to do all the things on that moodboard, and we want to do them now. That’s a daunting, impossible ask that we constantly poke ourselves with. We do one thing, but we fear we’re missing out on doing this other thing we really want to do.
The key is to expand your timeline. You can do all the things on your moodboard, but you will do them over a thirty, forty, fifty year career. These things unfold more sequentially than people care to admit.
When I was working a studio job, I was making black and white cartoons. When I started freelancing, I broadened out into the world of 2D motion design—vectors, flat colors and shapes. From there, I expanded out a little further, doing broadcast animations and music videos. Still later, I worked on podcasts, TV shows and films.
None of what I’m doing now (including this blog) would be possible without first playing the role of a junior animator at that first studio job. Starting narrow doesn’t limit you—it provides you a role to come into contact with others who will offer you other roles.
Prioritize skills that companies pay for
Once you’ve picked your one role, you can start looking at job boards and figuring out exactly which skills you’ll need to develop in order to get hired at studios you want to work at. If this is your first role in the industry, look for “junior [insert your role here]”. The job descriptions will tell you exactly what skills that studio will pay you for.
If you’re looking to be a junior motion designer, the skills might be After Effects and a 3D package. Look at a few of these descriptions and tailor a curriculum to get yourself up to speed on those skills. Needless to say, you also gear your portfolio to only show pieces that reflect the skills in your chosen role.
This approach helps focus your attention on what skills to prioritize learning, but also helps you know what skills you don’t need to learn. Especially when starting out, it’s tempting to try learning all the skills in a scattershot fashion. A little bit of this mixed with a little bit of that.
But it’s often the case that you need to know less than you think, but of the things you do need to know, to know them at a reasonably deep level. A company hiring a junior motion designer might only require you to know After Effects and Illustrator, but you should know those two pieces of software fairly in-depth.
In the beginning, keep those job descriptions in mind and learn only what you need to know. Dabbling in a multitude of tools will not showcase your skill, nor hide your inexperience. Focus on the few skills you know companies will pay for, and learn them well.
Prioritizing the skills you’ll get paid for doesn’t mean letting go of the other things you want to learn. It’s just a way to focus. First get the skills that gets you the money, then wander through the landscapes of whatever else interests you.
All this has been about making money and getting hired for your skills. Let’s take a trek on the dark side of the moon:
How to pursue your creative vision
If you’re in school right now, you’re busy with school work and it’s hard to balance the other creative work you want to do with the work you’re obligated to do. When you graduate and find work, you can just replace your school obligations with your work obligations.
There will never be a time that will magically clear itself of obligations and become available for you to pursue your own creative work with. So it’s a good idea to decide right now to carve out and protect some amount of time every day or every week that’s dedicated to your own creative work.
To recap, the reason you want to pursue your own creative work is twofold. The first is that you don’t always want to be the person clients go to when they have a vision they just want someone to execute. This is a great first step, but you want to become someone whom clients come to for ideas and an original vision. In order for that to happen, you’ll first need to find out what your vision is. And that takes time, energy and experimentation to find out—three things you must negotiate for in your daily life.
The second reason, if you remember from earlier, is a subjective one. If you’re creative, you’re drawn to things you don’t understand and that you’re curious about. You’ll wither if you don’t step off the ledge and experiment with new ideas. It’s part of your DNA. Reject that, and you’ll be rejecting a living part of you. And that living part of you will not appreciate being neglected—it will make its needs known in unpleasant ways, if you are not proactive in giving it constructive outlets.
So how do you carve out that time? You schedule it. Time not scheduled is will run right out of your hands and down your pants if you don’t capture it and put it to work.
Schedule your time with something simple like a weekly planner or Notion. First, figure how many hours in the week you’ve already committed to your client work and everything else in your life. Look at the time you have left, and then parcel out those hours throughout the week, dedicated to pursuing your own work.
Treat the time you’ve scheduled for your personal work as if it were a job. You have to show up for a job, no matter if you slept poorly or you don’t feel like it or whatever. You might not have the energy to do an amazing job that day, but the minimum is showing up for your shift.
A note on personal work: use it as a counter-balance to the narrow role you’ve set yourself with client work. When working with clients, be specific in your role, deliver on time and charge what your work is worth.
In your personal work, be vague in your role, work on a piece for ages and seek no profit. Here you try out alternate roles and ways of working. If your client work turnaround is six weeks, tackle a personal project for six months. If you work off a screen all day, try something more tactile instead. This is the yin to your day job’s yang.
The client work you do is all about fulfilling purposes: to make money and to make clients happy. The personal work you do is all about purposelessness—following your interests and problems and seeing what happens. This is the ground from which springs multitudes of ideas and processes that will slowly cohere into your creative vision.
Getting Paid for your Creative Vision
If you want to eventually marry the personal work you’ve been doing with your client work, you can start feeding your personal work as an option when clients come to you for ideas. For example, if you’re presenting a set of creative approaches to the client, A and B can be the solid but safe approaches the client is after, but C can be your own creative approach, pulled from your own ideas and style.
This creates a positive cycle between your client work and your personal work, and the two will influence and strengthen one another.
So there you have it. This is the way I’ve approached my creative work and some of these ideas might be useful to your own path. Make money, do your own work, then make money off of your own work and do more of it.
Part II of this talk is a Q&A.
You can also find the resource list for this talk here.