Freelance life can be stressful. Clients and cashflow are two of the most anxiety-inducing aspects of running any creative business, whether you’re just starting out or a seasoned pro.
Here’s how it goes: at first you need clients. Then you need more clients – after all, if your sole source of income disappears, you’re in trouble. Once you’re established, you’ll want fewer but higher-paying clients, which come with their own set of risks.
Whatever stage you’re at as a freelancer (or studio owner, for that matter), clients are your lifeblood. So how do you win more work? And what’s the best way to get your skills in front of the people who count?
We asked successful freelancers to share their secrets – and we also asked leading creative agencies and commissioning editors for insight into what they look for when it comes to hiring freelance designers and illustrators. Read on for their top tips, tricks and techniques for winning more work…
Your portfolio website is often the first place potential clients and commissioners look. If it isn’t clear that you’re talented, experienced and for hire, then it’s game-over before you’ve started.
“The greatest chance you can give yourself is to have a clean, clear and easy-to-navigate online portfolio – whether that’s a bespoke site, digital PDF or Behance page,” says Victoria Talbot, deputy creative director at London-based creative agency Human After All.
“When we commission freelance creatives, we’ll already have a clear idea of the direction and aesthetic of the project at hand, and the areas of expertise needed. So whatever the discipline – from animators to PowerPoint designers – I like to see a clear vision and sense of style, and I want to gain a firm understanding of that creative’s skill set.” [Image: Human After All, delve weekly film service]
A good agent will bring in new work by actively promoting your skills for you. “Email is my number one resource for finding new talent – whether it’s via emails from agencies promoting their artist’s work or individual illustrators emailing me directly,” says Kathryn Brazier, deputy art editor at New Scientist magazine. “From those emails I’ll bookmark their websites according to style.”
“I like to see multiple examples of a style,” she adds. “New Scientist features are generally complex science so I’m always on the lookout for artists who can interpret a brief conceptually.”
Behance, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest – there are a plethora of platforms out there. Identify which channels your target audience use, pick the most relevant (you won’t have time to be active on them all) and concentrate on managing each properly.
New Scientist’s Kathryn Brazier highlights Twitter and Behance as two of her best resources for finding new illustrators. “I follow a variety of illustrators, designers and illustration agencies, and have found a lot of interesting artists through their posts,” she says.
“My tip would be to have a website that’s updated regularly, choose a social media medium that works best for you and post your work as often as you can. Follow people who’s work you admire and tag your posts with whomever you’ve worked with.” [Image: Daniel Stolle for New Scientist]
READ: How to create a cult-like following
“One of the best things I ever did was get involved with trade magazines,” says graphic designer, illustrator and typographer Steven Bonner. He spent several years honing a successful freelance career before joining design and branding agency D8.
“I went through a period of doing a lot of editorial illustrations and tutorials for a number of design magazines, and I found that not only do they put your work directly in front of people who may be in a position to hire you in the future, they give you reasonably free reign to experiment with your work, making for a more varied and commercially attractive portfolio. My portfolio grew quickly, which meant I could revisit potential clients every three or four months with new images to share.”
“The usual method for a freelance designer or illustrator to get on our radar would be to send in a portfolio link, or a PDF via email, but as you can imagine this happens a lot and often they can get lost in the noise,” says Grieg Anderson, co-founder of Glasgow-based design studio Freytag Anderson, which was recently voted Scottish agency of the year.
“I always look for people who take the time to craft something, print something or make something. Sending something tactile tends to get more attention and forces the recipient to look away from the screen. It doesn’t have to be expensive or have high production values. Design on a budget often makes you think more creatively and creates the most impact.” [Image: Freytag Anderson for Fraher architects]
Networking is one of the most effective ways to spread the word about your services and build your profile. Nothing beats a face-to-face meeting, so attend local creative events, national conferences and any relevant meet-ups nearby.
Breaking onto the speaker circuit is a quick way to position yourself as an expert, but there are myriad opportunities as a delegate too. If talking to strangers makes you nervous, try identifying a potential contact and sending an email or tweet beforehand, introducing yourself and saying you’d love to say hi at the event.
“It’s important to budget for self-promotion as part of your business: you have to ‘speculate to accumulate’,” advises award-winning illustrator Rod Hunt, who’s built a reputation for retro-tinged illustrations and detailed, character-filled landscapes. “I budget up to 10 per cent of my turnover a year for marketing, so as your turnover increases you increase the investment proportionally and expand your reach.”
Rod recently produced a 28-page, full-color brochure – essentially a complete portfolio in a book – which he sent to 3,000 clients around the world over a 12-month period. “It was an expensive exercise but it’s proving to be fruitful; just one job can pay for everything and more,” he says.
“I buy a mailing list for the contacts from Bikinilists, and the Association of Illustrators (AOI) also produce affordable client directories, which I’ve used in the past too. This way I have up-to-date contacts so I don’t have to spend my valuable time researching thousands of names or keeping the list current.”
“You might be the best illustrator in the world,” he continues, “but if clients don’t know about your work, you won’t get commissioned.” [Image: Rod Hunt, Expansive Cityscape]
Put together a list of brands, agencies and businesses you’d like to work for. Set up a spreadsheet detailing the name of each potential client, a possible contact and – most importantly – a few notes on potential opportunity: what are they not doing as well as they could be? How can you help?
Think broadly: which industries and sectors use freelancers with your skills? What are your peers doing? And keep an eye out at all times: would your local bar benefit from better branding or a cool new mural? Does your in-flight magazine commission freelance illustrators? This should be an active list that continues to evolve.
When it comes to contacting each prospective client, don’t just say what you can do for them: show them. If you think your favorite magazine missed a trick with its latest cover, mock-up your concept and email it to them. Maybe a huge sports brand has released a set of bespoke illustrated kit, but you know you could do better – the possibilities are endless.
If you can save your client money, improve their service or make a key process easier, they’ll quickly start listening. And if you can prove it, even better. Take Norwegian designer Ida Aalen. She’s started user-testing ideas before a pitch. As she recently told net magazine, she managed to convince a client to redesign their sign-up form by minimally mocking up her concept and user-testing it. Armed with relevant statistics showing the benefit to the client, she took stakeholders by storm during the meeting.
It’s all very well winning new clients, but the fastest way to lose work is by not being organized. Failing to deliver on time is a disaster, so make sure you have the right tools and a consistent creative process in place so that you can work as productively as you can.
When it comes to the right tools, we can help. Our pro brushes, actions, fonts, layer styles, mockups, smart PSDs, logos and vector art are designed to speed up your workflow, and come packaged with handy tutorials and time-lapse videos to show you how to get the most out of each tool. (Also, if you buy two RetroSupply products, you can get a third product of equal value for free.)
We’ll be bringing you more insight into how to work faster and more efficiently with our products over the coming weeks, so stay tuned.
A good way to find new clients is to bookmark a selection of relevant jobs boards and check them regularly for new projects. AIGA, Dribbble, Behance, How Design, Juicy, Smashing Jobs, Krop, It’s Nice That – there are all sorts of options. If daily checking isn’t your thing, look for a service like Working Nomads that you can subscribe to.
“All of the usual advice people give is worthy, and will yield results, but it’s important to understand that clients don’t have the right brief on their desks waiting for your email or phone call,” points out illustrator Steven Bonner.
“If you’re polite and keep people informed of what you’re up to, you’ll be in their thoughts when the right fit comes along. Don’t score people off your contact list if you don’t get a job right away,” he smiles. “I’ve had clients give me their first brief years after the first contact.” [Image: Steven Bonner]