13 Pieces of Advice for Freelance Designers & Illustrators


I recently tutored a small group of students about professional practice and kept a mental note of some of the questions I was asked and some of the subjects we covered. I decided to briefly write down my thoughts on each of these as a resource which I can refer students to and hopefully this will also serve as useful advice for anyone else, whether they are freelancing, looking for a work experience placement, or hoping to land a full time agency job.

I have covered each of the topics very, very briefly and as such there is plenty of advice and info missing from my ramblings. I do not advocate to be the font of all knowledge and  I am not best placed to do your thinking for you! Please feel free to read, research, and develop your own understanding of the various things below, and I’d be delighted to hear readers’ thoughts via the comments.

If you find this useful, please let me know!


Know the direction you want the ball to go, and start pushing. The key is not to wait around for someone to get the ball rolling for you.

I come across many students who seemingly get so into the routine of being assigned work by a tutor, handing it in to receive comments and criticism, and then dutifully receiving the next brief, that when they leave education they innocently wonder where the next task will come from. It’s a competitive industry; it’s unrealistic to assume someone is going to come along  and give you a ‘leg up’

Start thinking about the direction you need to go in before you leave education and start working towards that now.


Know your market. Devote some of your time towards researching about how the industry works. There are lots of blogs and books available about the business skills needed to be a successful designer, illustrator, animator, etc. Don’t be one of those students who I get emails from asking the most short-sighted and banal questions which they could easily answer for themselves. Be proactive! Read up on this stuff! If you plan to freelance and don’t understand tax basics or how to keep accounts, then you are lacking much needed skills.


This is a great question to ask of pieces of work that you see in order to start understanding the commercial application of illustration and design. What is the purpose of the work? Who is the target audience? How will it make money or create value for the client/artist? What does it set out to achieve, and is it successful?

Read blogs and look at the work of established creatives – often they will point out the objective of the work they have produced. Getting your head round the commercial application of design/illustration can give you a huge early advantage in your career. Which leads us nicely on to…


I have no formal qualifications in art or design. When I got my first design job, all the other applicants had design degrees, yet I was successful at getting the job. Why? Because I had a portfolio of client work, and they had portfolios of school work.

Once you are able to better understand the commercial applications of the work you want to do, start working on examples for your portfolio. Make up the client briefs if you have to, just make them realistic with the purpose of being a case study to show you understand the application of the work.

I highly recommend the book “Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills” by David Sherwin for generating ideas and improving your skills.


I, like many professional designers, wholeheartedly discourage involvement in design competitions, crowd sourcing, or spec (speculative work) where the final design is to be used for any sort of commercial purposes.

This basically means any endeavour where you are being asked to submit your creative work, time, and experience for free, but with the promise that you may get some sort of reward if your design is ‘picked’, or that you will gain exposure, or a great piece for your portfolio. Sometimes you are even expected to PAY to submit work.

Fundamentally, what it boils down to is this: if a business is asking you to do free work, how much do they actually value your work? Do you really want to spend time working for someone who considers your work and time to be worth absolutely nothing?

You wouldn’t go into a restaurant and ask 10 chefs to each prepare 10 separate meals with the intention of only paying for the meal you enjoyed the most. Likewise it is just as unreasonable and unethical for clients to employ this method of soliciting work.

This process often results in a poor end result for the client, and also it damages and devalues the work of the industry as a whole. Spec work is a widely debated topic and one which creatives and clients alike sometimes struggle to understand fully, so if you’re still not sure what it is, then read up about it. http://www.no-spec.com is a good place to start.

I have seen blogs and other online articles advising young designers/illustrators to initially do work for free in order to get a portfolio together. Don’t do this. It is absolutely terrible advice. Value your work and the time you put into it. If you don’t value your work, you may find yourself stuck with an endless stream of ‘clients’ who don’t value your work either.

Heed the advice of Jessica Hische, author of the wonderful http://shouldiworkforfree.com. Being asked to give your work away in return for ‘exposure’ or ‘a good portfolio piece’ is “the most toxic line of bullshit anyone will ever feed you.”


Put together an online portfolio where people can see your work. Make it easy for people to contact you. Put your contact details in an email signature as well as on your site. If you decide to work under a ‘studio name’ that isn’t your actual name, avoid unprofessional or offensive names. These are all very simple points but I frequently come across designers/illustrators who can’t even get the basics right.


Learn some basic planning and Project Management skills to enable you to plan out any given project you might be approached with. Not only will this help you organise the work, but it will be vital in providing accurate quotes to your client. Use a Work Breakdown Structure to work out what tasks need to be completed in a given project. If you are working to a deadline, then divide up the time and make sure you have enough time for each task in order to deliver the final work on time. Where appropriate, explain your process to your client and give them an indication of when they can expect certain deliverables.

When you complete a project, take a little time to self-review and look at what worked and what didn’t What can you streamline and improve so you can be more efficient next time?


If you find yourself doing repetitive tasks then explore better/faster ways of doing them. A simple Google search might save you hours of work in the long run! Use methods like Time Boxing to control and focus how you spend your time.


Don’t undertake work without a contract – especially with new clients. I cannot stress this enough.

Your contract, or Work Agreement, doesn’t have to be overly complicated, it just has to be a way to formally acknowledge the project description, the agreed payment terms, time-scales, as well as the appropriate Usage Rights for the client (i.e. if you’re being paid to do a t-shirt design, the client should not get usage rights to create prints or stickers of the artwork).

There are lots of resources online and in books to help you put a contract together. Put a bit of time and effort into researching and writing one. Don’t worry that the contract will scare off clients – the only ones it will scare off were the ones who were planning to shaft you! Professionals use contracts; make it your standard practice.


When you’re still early in your career, don’t worry about trying to develop a style. That will come with time and experience. Experiment and try out different mediums. Broaden out. This may be hard to hear but your early work will suck in ways you may not see until you develop an eye and understanding that comes with experience. Just keep working and improving.


Learn how to REFINE your work and ideas. In many situations a simpler idea or concept will be far more successful than a complicated one. Imagine a gold prospector from the Old West – when he is panning for gold, he is sifting out the crap and looking to leave only the gold behind. Imagine a jeweller polishing a valuable trinket or jewel – he is removing that outer layer of dirt and dust to let the good stuff shine through.

It’s far too easy to ‘overdo’ good design/illustration work by adding too much to it. When it comes to refining and polishing, instead ask yourself what can you remove? Look for ways to discard the superfluous and leave behind the core design, message or concept.


This can be a tough one. It is easy to be discouraged when focusing on the successes of others or the mind-blowing quantity and quality of work out there in Internet Land. Do not give in to doubt and distress! There are lots of opportunities out there so keep working and it will pay off. Focus on improving the delivery and quality of service for your clients – you might not be able to be the greatest in your field, but you can still be the greatest to your clients.

When starting out, everyone has to deal with self-doubt and the sneaky feeling that you are ‘faking it’. This is a natural part of being inexperienced so don’t let it get to you. It means you are learning something new, challenging yourself and making the transition from shaky newbie to stalwart professional!


I firmly believe that your attitude to your work, your clients, and your peers can have a huge impact on your success in all aspects of work and life. While being positive doesn’t guarantee you clients, being negative is certainly a good way to make them avoid you. Strong ethics and professional integrity might not seem like they add obvious value to the service you provide. These aspects are in fact priceless and will strengthen your reputation and gain you word of mouth referral work.

Strive to be honest, reliable and professional and be proud of the quality of service you can provide.




Get Inky!

This year Screenadelica is stepping it up a gear, bringing you more than double the number of internationally respected artists, a very specially curated line up of bands over the 3 days but now we’re also offering you the opportunity to learn how to do what we do!

Learn the process of screenprinting art-prints! Gig-posters! Invitations! The basics of this versatile medium and its many applications will be taught by an established and professional designer and print-maker in a friendly environment with plenty of opportunity to ask questions and try out screenprinting for yourself.

This 1 day course will cover the entire process of getting your design ready for print, preparing and creating screens, and screenprinting prints and posters, as well as providing advice and information on areas such as ink and paper choices.

All materials will be provided and no previous experience of screenprinting is required but would of course be helpful. This course is best suited to graphic designers or illustrators wanting to learn how to translate their work into screenprinting, or for those who have already started out in printing and want to improve their skills.

The course is run by Graham Pilling a graphic designer, illustrator & printmaker living and working in Leeds. He has been producing screenprinted work for 6 years, specialising in screenprinted concert posters for bands and record labels. You can see more of his work at www.armyofcats.com

The 1 day course will cost £50 including all materials. The course is also limited to 6 people per class and will run from 10.30am til 4.30pm on the 15th and 16th of May. Please advise which day you would like to book.  Email Gary@screenadelica.com to confirm your place.

PLEASE NOTE – the Tuesday is now fully booked!

Screenadelica 2012


Last year was great and this year promises to be even better – with a bigger space and more artists exhibiting work.  This year’s Screenadelica will feature:


For more information, check out the Facebook Event page, or the Screenadelica site.




The Rag Factory – 16-18 Heneage Street, London, E1 5LJ
11th-13th May 2012

Opening hours
11th May opening event -18.00 – 21.00
12th May – 11.00 – 18.00
13th May – 11.00 – 18.00

INK & PAPER is a major exhibition of gig posters by some of the world’s best poster artists taking place May 11th-13th off London’s Brick Lane at The Rag Factory. One of the first shows to feature many of the UK’s current crop of poster designers alongside some of the best from Europe and the US, INK & PAPER will feature a vast array of limited, screenprinted gig posters for bands across the musical spectrum.

I can’t stress enough how important this exhibition is going to be. If you have even a passing interest in the modern resurgence of gig posters then you’ll know that the popularity of the medium is certainly a little more widespread in the United States, where events such as Flatstock originated. Though these shows happen in Europe also, and more and more people are aware of the wealth of amazing talent residing in Europe, we have yet to get a show or exhibition together here in the UK which shows so many international high profile poster designers from and artists together in one room. It simply hasn’t happened before.

For me personally, this exhibition is a great way to celebrate how far along the enthusiasm and appreciation for this art form has come in the past few years, especially here in UK.

The work on show will be some of the absolute best around, and many of the artists will be there in person to meet and chat about their work. If you are in London (or nearby) please make the effort and come and have a bottle of Brooklyn with us, it promises to be a great weekend!

Featured artists include: Adam Pobiak (UK/US), Brag Collective (UK), Comet Substance (CH), Damien Tran (FR), Dan Stiles (US), Diego Mena (UK/ES), Drew Millward (UK), Fugscreen Design (US), Graham Pilling (UK), Guy Burwell (US), Horse Design (UK), Jacknife (UK), Justin Santora (US), Kate Prior (UK), Lil Tuffy (US), Luke Drozd (UK), Mara Piccione (NL), Petting Zoo (UK), Sean Mort (UK), Switchopen (UK), Telegramme Studio (UK), Tiny Little Horse (IRE), Tom Lacey (UK), Twoducksdisco (UK), Michael Cowell (UK), Monkey Ink/John Howard (US) & WeThreeClub (UK).

For more info see www.ukposterart.com or email info@ukposterart.com

Ink & Paper is brought to you through the generous support of UKTI, British Underground, and Brooklyn Brewery


HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast poster

For those unaware of the work of HP Lovecraft, he was an American writer of horror and weird fiction and is one of those individuals who sadly did not find much popularity while alive but developed something of a cult following since his death.

The HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast is something I’ve enjoyed listening to since its inception. It’s hosts, along with various guests, discuss the stories of Lovecraft and talk about the good, the bad, and the sometimes terrible!

They will be recording a live episode of the podcast in Leeds, and this is a commemorative poster I’ve designed to go along with the event.

View the full set of process photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/armyofcats/sets/72157629738362551/

For those unable to make the live show in person, you can purchase a poster from the AoC Shop.

New Businesscard

AoC Business Card

This is the businesscard I designed specifically for SXSW/Flatstock. People go round collecting so many, I sometimes wonder what they do with them all…  I wasn’t initially sure how it would be taken, but in the end I received nothing but compliments on it, and it certainly resulted in a couple of sales. Good times.

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