Things I’ve Learnt: Practical Advice for Freelancers

Michael Arnold
Mar 4, 2019 · 7 min read

Every piece of advice I’ve read about freelance life has been utterly useless; with the exception of a few most have been meaningless phrases and generalisations. Here are some things I’ve picked up in my 7 years as freelance Commercial Illustrator. This was originally written for Lecture in Progress and was edited down for clarity, my original version was a lot more abrasive which I’ve decided to post in it’s entirety here, hopefully you find it somewhat informative.

1. Money

Being in control of your cash is the number one skill you need to know. It decides whether you’ll last 6 months without work or 12 months without work. In 2017, from January to September I didn’t work at all, not a whiff and it was nerve wrecking. But looking back I was prepared for it, this was the thing I was most anxious about happening and I survived it fairly comfortably because I had been in control of my finances. The remainder of that year ironically turned out to be one of my most profitable years to date but even then, most larger companies will operate on a 90 day schedule meaning I would wait up to a further 3 months for those billings to come through. More important than the work is knowing when and where you have money going in and when and where you have money going out.

Monday morning should be your accounts time, keep track of what you spent last week and what you’re making each month. If you do it each week, it will never seem that daunting and will keep you in check in the following week. In my experience Spring and Autumn are slow times for work and Summer and Winter are expensive times for costs. If you can figure out when your downtimes are; you can plan for them.

Side Note: 5th April is the end of the tax year and this is when you can submit your Self Assessment Tax Returns, the actual deadline is the following January 31st (if you file online, which you should be doing because it’s easier) however I think it keeps everything a lot more organised to file your return that April. Bear this outgoing in mind. A cute trick you can use is to estimate how much you’ll be paying in taxes, open up an ISA and store the money there to earn interest during the year.

2. Routine

You are at a work even if you are workplace is down the hall. If you’re starting out the temptation is to just work when you feel motivated, and if you’re working from home the distractions are greater. Some choose to rent studio space but that’s not always option, as it wasn’t for me — instead I set myself regular working hours, a solid lunch break, a dedicated work area and a ‘uniform’. Create a distinction between work time and personal time to be in the right mind-set to work and be disciplined about it.

For the first few years of my career I worked like maniac, I worked all day, all evening and all weekend. I loved it, it was exciting but after while it was exhausting and the work suffered. I started to develop a better working routine that split my time between work and exploring other interests. These days it goes pretty much like this: Monday 8am-5pm — accounting in the morning, Tuesday-Thursday 8am-5pm, Friday 9am-2pm, Sunday evening — plan for the coming week.

3. Reputation

I pride myself on my reliability and communication, in the early days I would set my self the rule of always finishing a brief in half the time I was given. My reasoning was: either everything is finished promptly, leaving the Art Director with a positive impression or we give ourselves time to work out the kinks and last minute changes to the brief. Either way I intended to make myself a frictionless person to work with.

When initially discussing the brief, lay down a timeline of updates for the project not just the final deadline. Initial sketches, first draft (second, third etc.) and final file dates should all be offered with reasonable time at the end for changes. A good rule of thumb is to update the client at every new stage of the brief. There’s nothing worse for an Art Director than hanging around wondering how work is progressing with no update only to find you’ve goofed, misunderstood and taken a wrong direction in the work with no time to spare.

Ask the questions you need to ask, it reflects poorly on you if you’re lack initiative affects the success of the work. Similarly, recognise when an idea isn’t working and take the initiative to communicate and correct it. Sometimes it’s better to start again from scratch than to rework drying clay. These qualities stand you in good stead as a reliable collaborator.

4. Getting Work

The secret to getting work is the obvious and boring answer: email. There’s no other trick to it really, just constantly be reaching out to people. Search for the correct email address and name of the Art Director, Producer, whoever and email them with a brief (2/3 sentences) rundown of your work and style and past clients if you have them and a link to your portfolio. Keep it simple and to the point, eyes glaze over large blocks of text.

Over the years I’ve compiled a large book (actually two books stapled together) of contacts, including names, job titles, emails and occasionally gender if the name is an unfamiliar one. Every 6 months you should have some new work to update them with, reply to your last email whether they’ve replied or not so as not to clutter their inbox. Don’t take it personally if you receive no response. I received a job once from a client I had emailed 2 years prior and received no answer from, we work in a pretty friendly industry and chances are your emails are always read and noted down somewhere. Everybody has shit to do and replying to you is probably bottom of the list.

Always be searching for contacts, Twitter and Instagram are really useful ways of finding people through other artists. Linkedin is trash, it’s only use I’ve found is checking someone is still at the company you think they’re at.

I’ve heard a lot advice given about ‘never doing free work’ but that’s nonsense. It’s very easy for established designers to preach about never taking on free work but the reality is you will probably have to. It shouldn’t be that way but it is. You have to gain something from this work, if it’s not money then it should be free products, crediting in their promotional efforts or the freedom to try some technique or style you’ve been experimenting with. You have to gain something from this work. If they’re unwilling to give any of those four things, move on. The lucky few who get picked early on as students at CSM or wherever else can skip this part but for the rest us this stuff takes time and we’re all the better for it.

However, with that in mind don’t ever work for Designer crowd sourcing sites like 99Designs, DesignCrowd, Fiverr etc. Those sites undervalue our industry by pitting designers against each other on price-point rather than skill. I know this because I did it, like a mug.

5. Style

Keep a routine in your work ethic but not in your work. This is a hard one to describe but it’s something I see a lot of Illustrators particularly fall into the habit of doing, myself included. You’re aiming for a style of work not a formula for creating it, there should be hallmarks of your work that are consistent throughout but not as if you’re following a recipe each time. Nobody wants to see a hundred pieces of exactly the same work that look like they’ve come off the production line, you’ll lock yourself into fewer and fewer client possibilities. It appears as one series of work with no further scope for anything else.

Target industries you want to work in, I see no problem in moulding your work to target jobs you want to work on. I originally only started creating abstract works as a way of attracting advertising clients, my thinking being that this type of client is always focussed on expressing a feeling and emotion which abstract compositions lend themselves well to. Clients often won’t commission you to do things they haven’t seen you do before, unless they’re incredibly confident you and they can deliver it. Identify what sells in the area you want to target and figure out if your work could fit into it. There’s nothing wrong with following trends as long as you aren’t rewriting your portfolio to chase them.

Side Note: I’m not a fan of using mock-ups to show personal work. Only use mock-ups for real products you work has featured on but couldn’t get photographs of, just show the flat artwork. Posters, pitches and UX are the exception.

A lot of this is common sense but I feel it’s often ignored because in it’s obviousness it seems daunting. Nobody is born talented; you have to work hard to be talented.

Here are some design books that I own and love to get you inspired:


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