Creative Tips & Resources: Getting started, getting seen

Written by Emmeline Pidgen
Originally published August 30, 2012

Finding a foothold in the creative industries is tough. It’s over saturated, which has it’s pros and cons, but for a budding designer it’s not only daunting, but a lot of hard work to launch yourself into a career.

Just looking around the end-of-course exhibitions at universities you can see the outpouring of creative talent that comes like a wave each year. More and more talented illustrators pouring into the sea of graduates (and self-starters) all bobbing with their portfolios in hand, hoping for their next big break commission.

As I said, it’s tough, but there’s no shortage of tips and advice to help you on your way and get you some work. The main thing you have to remember is not to expect too much, too fast – keep it realistic and don’t feel downhearted if it’s taking you a while to get noticed. For most successful creatives it takes time. You work a part-time job to pay for your hours of late night illustrating. You spend months emailing, promoting, entering competitions and networking but still feel like you’re getting nowhere. You tweet, and blog, and post your illustrations on Tumblr hoping for a flurry of likes and retweets that never come. It might seem hopeless, but it’s not – think of it as planting seeds. Those seeds need time (along with a few other important factors!) to grow into saplings and on into a full blown, flourishing career tree.

If you’ve just graduated, I’m guessing that you’re feeling a little daunted at the moment. The post-grad world is never as easy or glossy as you might have expected in the womb of your uni course, no matter how well they prepared you. The deadlines aren’t about grades anymore, they’re about getting high-quality work to your client, on time and hoping that A: They’ll commission you again, B: That it will lead you onto your next job and C: That you’ll get some rent money soon. You’ll soon start to miss that group support of being in a studio with your peers, and the freelancer loneliness will kick in. In fact, you might be struggling to find any motivation at all.

When I graduated in 2010 from University College Falmouth I had been filled to the brim with professional practice preparation and some great industry experiences (think a week in New York booking meetings with some of the top publishers and agents in the business!) I’m a hard worker, and I had high hopes – so I was all set to go.

The first notable point in my career, or at least a point which gave me some much needed confidence, was at the New Designers exhibition the summer after my graduation. From our course, we each had a board to show off a number of our best illustration works to the hundreds of attendees. I got a lot of interest in my work, with a number of people coming up to talk to me about possible commissions (looking back, none of them did happen though!) and being awarded a Hallmark Cards gift bag because they loved my work so much. Great news for my fledgeling ego. It was also at this exhibition that my first agents spotted my work and contacted me asking if I’d be interested in being represented by them.

My point is, get involved with any exhibitions or events that your uni or fellow graduates are organising. Industry professionals are always buzzing around graduate art shows looking for fresh new talent (think of them as talent scouts) – so make the most of it by making sure your work, professionalism and attitude are tip top from the off set. You never know who might see your work and where that might take you.

Tigerprint have really stood out to me as a company who really take the time to scout out promising graduates and fresh talent. They’re very keen on offering up internships and taking chances on new designers to illustrate greetings cards, wrapping papers, gift boxes etc for some high-end clients.

I spoke to them about this and what they look for in a designer-

At Tigerprint we are constantly searching for new talent that could enhance our already amazing portfolio of design.

Our involvement in college projects, online competitions and sponsoring exhibitions like New Designers gives us a great opportunity to see a great breadth of creatives and the chance to invite them to work with us.  We look for : originality – something fresh and exciting, a strong skill base, diversity, commercial potential, an open mind and a personality to match! (Personality counts for so much, if you can’t talk through your portfolio and get us excited, who will??)

In terms of product type, we look for all sorts so try not to limit your market too much – many graduates that we speak to have not perhaps considered cards as a career, but maybe books, editorial etc but there are many opportunities within our industry, hence I mention keeping an open mind.

Our designers are requested to be on the ball, ahead of the game and challenged, we in turn look for this in future potential designers – are they interested in trends? Do they look at the market and see what the competition is up to? Do they fill a gap in the market place?

Your portfolio needs to cover all of this and more but especially keep it concise!

Do you see a running theme with this and some of the interviewees from the portfolios article? These clients know what they want, and need to see that you’re really on the ball and heading in the right direction with your portfolio. Keep this in mind in portfolio reviews and email correspondence. Show off your passion and professionalism!

I think we’re very lucky to be freelancing in such an age of social networking. I can’t stress how much it’s helped to develop my career in terms of both finding new commissions and having a social support network of illustrators to egg me on.

Building up an internet presence through not only my website, but Twitter, Facebook pages, Tumblr, blog sites and writing articles like these have opened my work up to a huge audience as well as allowing me to make personal connections with industry peers and potential clients.

I’d seriously recommend stretching out your fingers and sending some well-written emails to some blogs who you think might like your portfolio, and who’s audience is similar to that of your work (I’ll write a list of some that featured my work at the bottom of the post, as well as a great guide to contacting blogs for features and Creative Boom’s 72 places to get your work seen!).

Make sure you do interviews, write articles, submit work you’ve done to online magazines and blogs – all this will get your work seen, and that’s the key.

I mentioned just now about Creative Boom and wanted to take a minute to really praise these guys. Founder Katy Cowan has done a brilliant job in creating a hub for budding creatives to get together, get advice and get seen. I grabbed some quotes from Katy about what Creative Boom aims to do for freelancers and how it started up. 

Creative Boom was established in July 2009 to support, celebrate and inspire creative freelancers and firms all over the UK and beyond. It was an idea I had after realising the amount of talent that was being left undiscovered out there, and I wanted to do something about it.

You see, I’m a trained journalist and run my own PR firm. I’ve got the skills to raise my own profile and attract new customers but not everyone knows how to market themselves. That’s how I hope Creative Boom helps.

We have articles in our ‘magazine’ section to tell the world about different freelancers, organisations and agencies. We have a directory where people can get listed and found. We have a jobs board. We share people’s work. And then we offer extra support by writing tips articles to provide essential creative advice.

Apparently, because we have so many monthly visitors and a big following on Twitter, whenever we ‘share’ things, the person in question always sees a spike in web visits and many have told us that our help has led to new business.

This is essentially what we’re trying to do. Help others to become successful in business.

It’s doubtful you’ll get far in this industry without really focusing on building relationships with your creative peers. It’s all about supporting each other, cross promoting and sharing knowledge. Networking is so important, digitally and in the real world. Meeting people who have had different experiences in their career and sharing your ups and downs will help strengthen your own illustrative practice, and it’s fantastic to make bonds with people in the same metaphorical boat as you- freelancing can be very lonely sometimes! Why don’t you try banding together and organising an exhibition or collaboration – Hey! maybe even go the whole hog and start a collective? Using each other’s talents, secret powers and contacts will ultimately benefit you all – raising your profiles all round and showing potential clients that you’re easy to work with and a good old fashioned team player.

Now, I’ve touched on this before, and it’s a delicate subject which ignites flames of anger in some creatives: working for free, with the promise of exposure. You won’t believe how many ‘clients’ come forth with the glimmer of a fabulous commission but then drop the bombshell of “Oh, well, we don’t have the budget to offer payment to illustrators, but it’s an opportunity for some great exposure!”. It raises some particularly difficult morality issues if you’re starting out and don’t have any other offers of ‘real work’ on the horizon. It’s oh so tempting, and yes, I’ve been tempted into it before – mainly so I have something with a bit of direction to work on. But I have to say in a awful lot of cases I regret it – none of those promises of exposure ever delivered and it seemed like a bit of a waste of time, I could’ve been working on something I really love for my portfolio.

The main problem with clients seeking out illustrators that will work for free is that often they know there always will be illustrators willing to work for free. Post-graduates in this exact situation, like I was, and like you might be now. You’re waiting for commissions and will take what you can get for the exposure and practice – it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it does become a problem when clients stop giving out paid jobs because they can prey on the newbies. Just look at these offers with a skeptical eye, weigh up if it’s really worth it and make sure you’re not undermining yourself for future commissions.

Of course in some cases working for free isn’t a bad thing at all. I’m very passionate about using my illustration work to help others through charity. It feels great to be helping others, gets you working to a brief and (without sounding like a cold-souled businesswoman) does often bring in good exposure. I’ve used my work to raise lots of pennies for some great charities in the last few years – I suppose most notably I’m very proud that I raised over £1000 for charity by auctioning screenprints of a clean up support illustration I made following last year’s London riots, and I’m currently working on some illustrations for the 2013 ‘Snowflake Ball’ in Ottawa, raising money for three great charities. It’s good to share the love!

One aspect of freelancing I often get asked about is how to go about contacting agents, publishers or art directors. It’s a tricky subject, and of course there’s no set technique. Different publishers obviously want to see different things – it’s just all about appropriating your work for your intended commissioner and understanding what would make them tick.

As a general rule: keep it concise. That means with both electronic correspondence and good old fashioned snail mail. Most potential clients won’t want to be bombarded with high-res email attachments that crash their computer, or a envelope overflowing with hundreds of print outs, stickers and business cards. Just select a few (say maybe 3-5) of your most appropriate examples of work and for email attach them as 72dpi, low resolution images – and via post put together a ‘tear sheet’ (see an example of one of mine here) or a few keepsake items (say, some nicely packaged, gorgeous postcards).

In terms of writing, stick to that same concise rule. It’s likely that your intended commissioner will receive an inbox full of emails like yours per day (not to discourage you!) – you don’t need to write in the exact details about what grade you got in your degree, or every single one of the fabulous clients you’ve worked for. The point is fore-mostly getting the client to actually look at your work.

So keep the text short and sweet, be polite and professional, but get to the point. Explain who you are, what you do and why you think your work is appropriate for their audience. Do your research and look at what sort of work they commission, use this knowledge to your advantage! I’ve found it has often broken the ice to exchange a few meaningful words on Twitter beforehand – yes, yes, I know a lot of people will scoff at this and think it’s unprofessional – but in my experience it has worked, again this is going back to that building human relationships idea.

In the end that’s what it’s all about. Publishers are just people, as are the art directors for those huge magazines, CEO’s of advertising corporations, your dream client is just a person and so are you. It’s inevitable that some people will listen to you and others won’t, that’s just the way of the world. It’s worth noting though that people like to connect on a human level and will be more willing to work with someone who’s friendly, easy to work with, positive and modestly confident (but of course with that all important element of professionalism.)

Just keep check of the way you present yourself in the creative realm, consider your actions carefully, support others and above all don’t give up – if you put your all into it, you’ll get there in the end. Enjoy the journey along the way!


A freelance illustrator creating advertising, comics, picture books, chapter books, book covers, and editorial illustration from a cosy studio in the North West of England!