I received this letter recently, and I thought I should share my response with all of you.
I’ve been told time and time again that it can be hard starting out in design because it’s such a competitive industry. I’ve been trying for a few months now and I’m wondering if I’m doing something wrong? I’ve contacted plenty of people, art directors etc and some of them have been really encouraging, but still, no proper work. I just wondered if you have any tips or advice about how you established yourself. I’m real serious about this and want to do it, but this first hurdle is so hard!
While I don’t profess to know what will work for everyone, I’m happy to share what worked for me. Hopefully this helps!
My senior year of college, I decided that I wanted to live off my artistic talent. At the time, I was working at a coffee shop, where my artistic talent was used only to letter the chalk signs that displayed the latte specials.
While I could make a mean cappuccino, the last thing I wanted to do was spend the rest of my life slinging coffee.
I took a course called “Art, Life, and Money” which was geared towards helping us make art after graduation. I learned about resume writing, artist statements, taxes, and grant writing. More than that though, I learned that I had to be really proactive about art making, and pursuing ways to make that lucrative.
I started to freelance, doing illustration and web design in my spare time. I was still a full time student, and still working my coffee shop job. I knew that if I was going to jump into full time freelancing after graduation, I needed to get myself set up ahead of time. Here are a few things I learned along the way:
Get a website.
It is 2008… if you run a business and you don’t have a website, you don’t exist. Even if you just have your contact info and a brief description of what you do, it is incredibly valuable to be able to tell a prospective client where to find you on the web.
Read my primer, Building a home on the web, if you’d like more tips on how to do this!
Remember to have your contact info, resume, and portfolio in really accessible places! Many people will only give you 2 clicks worth of their time, so make sure that you can reach all the important info in 2 clicks or less.
Many people have taken to joining popular social networking sites, and using their networking pages like a website. While this is much better than having no web presence at all, it’s kind of unprofessional. Anybody can make a myspace page and call themselves a business.
That said, there is nothing wrong with using social networking sites to extend the reach of your work.
Join social networking sites
Social networking sites should be looked at as a free marketing resource. The presence of your business on these sites can only help you to connect with more people. Accept friend requests from everyone. Show your work on your page, and make your website URL prominent, so people will travel from your social networking page to your portfolio. Design your page to look good and don’t post embarrassing photos of yourself!
Use community based sites like flickr or livejournal to move farther outside of your circle and into other groups of artists and designers. Post illustrations and designs to group photo pools and themed discussion communities. Also comment on other people’s work! I promise they’ll come back and comment on your stuff later.
Make friends with craigslist.
You can get work off craigslist. It is a difficult pursuit, but one that will yield results eventually. Look for work locally, but also look for telecommuting work in EVERY CITY. You will run into some great jobs, and some awful ones, but after you’ve got a few clients under your belt, word will start to get around and people will start contacting you.
Talk to people in your field. Make friends with them! If they like your work, they will recommend you to other people. I frequently get work from other designer friends who refer me when they are too busy to take another client. I also repay the favor when I’m too busy!
Also, consider that the people you already know might have use for your skills. Does your great aunt need a portrait done of her dog? Does your accountant need a new logo? Does your best friend need an awesome layout for her blog?
Even if you do some of these sorts of jobs on the cheap, if they tell one more person who gives you work, it is totally worth it!
When you meet new people, make sure they walk away knowing you’re a designer, and that you’re taking clients.
Word of mouth is key.
Go to conferences and events
I’ve done really well with attending events like comic conventions and zine fairs. You can meet tons of other people doing what you’re doing, and share advice and resources.
Get business cards
& hand them out to everyone new you meet! For more info on this read my article on Business Cards.
It’s easy to get noticed when you work with other people. Their friends and fans will now know who you are, and if they like you, they’ll tell people.
Participate in group shows and anthologies
If you see a call for work anywhere, apply. If you don’t get in, no harm, no foul…but if you do, somebody important could see it and offer you work. At the very least, it’ll look good on your CV.
Always keep improving your art. Take classes, study other artists, and just generally make an effort to keep getting better. Make sure your website reflects your growth, so potential clients can see it too!
Don’t give up!
Make a list of the people you will call when you don’t feel like making art anymore. There will come a day when you will get fed up, and it’s really, really important to have a network to get you through.
It’s a super difficult road to travel. Working freelance is almost always feast or famine. You will be working a 60 hour work week for your first year, and yes, you will be living paycheck to paycheck. A great deal of your success will come from being at the right place at the right time. Here’s to hoping you get there! Good luck!
For another perspective on this subject, see Nubby Twiglet’s Life of a Graphic Designer in Training.