Both Hands On The Pencil
Although the biggest portion of our work week for most of us, there is more to a creative freelance career than client work. Client work is what keeps the bills paid and your network active and relevant, but client work can also feel like just a job, sometimes lacking an element of fun or surprise. Personal work and side projects are a great way to add a bit of adventure to your portfolio and when you show you’re excited about these project, chances are clients will pick up this vibe and start hiring you based on your latest personal work.
After I made the change from promoting myself as a graphic designer to an all-illustration portfolio, I came up with a side project to keep creativity fresh and fun. It provided me with fresh work to promote in between client jobs and keeping me in even better control over the style and direction of my portfolio. Ideally, I also wanted the side project to give my network a boost and that’s how I ended up launching a coffee cup illustration trading project I called Drip For Drip (and as I’ve mentioned in this series’ intro, is now the name for my studio also). I invited illustrator friends to make an illustration for a takeaway coffee cup template I created, picking a colour palette and theme each two-cup edition. I then printed and photographed the templates as actual coffee cups including the plastic lid. Besides having a tangible end product, the project also offered a fun way to connect with people. The projects’ side effects were plenty: My clients hiring the illustrators that joined the coffee cup project, their clients hiring me. I’ve been hired to illustrate coffee cups for clients. I’ve done coffee cup doodle workshops. I’ve met people through curating a group show in coffee shops. The project was featured on blogs. And I’ve tried new techniques and tackled new subjects in the coffee cups series that I didn’t try for client work. When you put the hours in to really make something of a side project, it keeps on giving back in the long run. Of course, it is not a guarantee for success or exposure, so it’s best to focus on the creative aspect of a side project first, letting time decide whether the project’s a hit or not. Do the project just because you want it to exist and not because you need it to go viral to justify the time you spent making it.
Focus on the creative aspect of a side project first, letting time decide whether the project’s a hit or not
When you get hired to do client work based on a personal project, it sometimes waters down the art direction or your personal taste in order to fit the companies’ values, identity guidelines or design context. This means the thing that was at first exciting and fresh and something you personally believed in can now have a toned-down outcome and the cycle of needing to be creatively challenged starts all over again. Personal work and client work always go hand in hand and the best way to deal with it is to look for as much overlap as possible. Show your clients the personal stuff you’re working on and treat all client work with the same enthusiasm you have for your personal work. Try convincing a client to be bold enough to go for a new illustrating technique or add a personal angle to a project in the early stage. Make sure there’s time to go back to plan A and don’t be bummed out when you have to kill your darlings. Save those unused ideas and pick them up when you want to do personal work again.
Seeking to collaborate not only with clients but also with friends, both in your own field as well as people with skills different than your own can be a boost socially. It’s also refreshing to see someone else’s work process and the way they handle communication, if only in a non-commercial setting. You’ll find that after you’ve collaborated on a side project, it’s easier to get in touch for a client job with the same person as you have a better sense of their work process and capabilities. Side projects and collabs help make the world smaller and having a project to promote goes both ways: the person you’re working with has something to share with their network as well. And why stop there? You can easily do small bits to help other freelancers by sharing their portfolio updates, or posting about their work, mentioning their social channels et cetera. Treat others the way you want to be treated.
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– Wijtze @dripfordrip