This is part II of a talk I gave at Marist College, featuring questions posed by students and my best attempts at answers. You can find the first part here.
How do I find my style?
If you must do something, make time in your life to dedicate to your particular problems. Alberto Mielgo hated that animation was dominated by talking animals, so he set out to experiment with a new type of animation for adults. Lucian Freud tried to capture flesh on canvas. What is your problem?
If you’re worried about style, nothing will un-worry you, but I promise that the question will eventually burn itself out. Just keep chugging along with the work you’re already doing. And read this, too.
How do you find and build connections with prospective clients?
As a commercial artist, your ability to land clients is a direct reflection of how well you can solve your clients’ problems.
In the beginning, you will only have the vaguest ideas why clients would hire you. So take a guess, and build your portfolio around your best guess. If you make a lot of logos, your shop should probably sell logos to clients without one. Don’t spend too much time agonizing over your portfolio—make a solid effort, and start sending it out to those clients who might need your skills.
One suggestion: if you’re starting out, it’s a good idea to get a job in your industry first. This will give you a direct insight into what clients in your industry are looking for, and what tools you should be learning. When the time comes to jump into freelancing, you won’t need to guess—you’ll know what clients need you for.
As you send out your portfolio to potential clients, keep an eye on the things you’re naturally good at. Maybe you’re really into the technical side of things, where most just focus on aesthetics. Maybe you’re a good writer, or your work is wonky but funny. As you sharpen your portfolio with your particular talents, clients will get a clearer and clearer sense of where you can best operate in their pipeline. This all means an easier time landing work.
How do you prevent burnout, especially as a freelancer setting her own hours?
There are three lines of defense. The first is controlling your time. The second is knowing when and how to stand up for yourself. The third is spending time on problems that you find interesting and worth solving.
Now, the first part is the simplest. If you don’t know what’s on your plate or how to control the time available to you, the temptation, especially if you’re anxious or ambitious (or both) is to accumulate as much on your plate as possible and drown in it.
That’s fun to do once or twice, but it’s hardly a long term approach. So introduce a schedule for yourself. Cal Newport is my favorite resource on this topic, and starting with something simple like implementing a monthly, weekly and daily schedule is good enough.
You want to start chipping away at the vagueness around how it is your time is spent. Don’t get too insane about it, either—schedules are mental structures we impose on life, which is ever-moving and can never (thankfully) be captured by our brains. All systems break down at some point, but some control is better than none.
Second, you need to know when clients or bosses are asking too much and you need to know when to push back. If you’re starting to feel confused and resentful about the amount of work you’re being asked to do, stop. Ask for clarification and renegotiate your fees or scope of work if necessary.
There needs to be clarity on what it is clients need from you. Some clients are great at providing that clarity, and some aren’t. In case of the latter, the onus falls on you to ask questions and get clarity on the scope of work before you begin.
Pushing back feels scary, especially if you don’t have a lot of work going on otherwise. But if you push back with good reason, clients will develop a respect for your time and work. You’ll spend less energy being resentful and more energy doing work you’re actually being paid for. Remember, clients pay for the energy you spend on their projects, not the energy you spend on resentments and worry.
The third line of defense against burnout is to spend time on problems you’re interested in tackling.
Most client problems are not your problems, so they’re boring. The way clients deal with your boredom is to throw money at you; enough money to motivate you to take on their problems. Most people will not do their jobs for free.
There’s nothing wrong with this. But it’s good to be under no illusions about what client work is. You’re solving other people’s problems in exchange for money. You’re chasing other people’s goals and it’s tiresome to do it constantly. There’s always a strain there.
On the other hand, there are certain problems in your creative work that do naturally interest you. You’re don’t have to motivate yourself with external goodies to get going. Always carve out time for these interests. I would go a step further and say prioritize these interests, ahead of client work.
Once you see the important but limited role client work plays in your life, it will fall into its natural place in your life. And you won’t burn out.
Should I be a freelancer?
It depends on your skills and your temperament.
You might like the focus of a studio job, where the work is steady and you get to apply a very specialized skillset on projects with large teams. On the other hand, you might prefer working on your own steam on a variety of projects, dealing with different clients and styles. If it’s the latter, freelancing can be a great path for you.
You should also be aware of your skillset. If you don’t have much interest or experience in making your own website, writing your own copy, reaching out to potential clients and negotiating and dealing with contracts and invoices, then you should probably not freelance. If you want a steady paycheck more than you want to deal with the variety of challenges freelance offers, you should get a job.
The best freelancers are those who don’t jive well with externally imposed structure and who are willing and capable of making their own path. The worst freelancers are those that expect to be cared for and nurtured, much as they would in employee/employer relationships.
You naturally lean toward a certain skillset and temperament. The best environment for you is one in which you can allow those natural inclinations to act.