Recently I had dinner with my daughter who, in my expert* opinion, is an exceptionally talented illustrator. After dessert, she confessed to me her concern that there wasn’t a place for her in the world of professional illustrators. I remember feeling exactly the same way when I graduated from college, nearly 50 years ago, and faced a bleak job market. Looking back over a professional career that has spanned more than 45 years (and counting), I want to offer my daughter, and others like her, some wisdom about seeking a career in what seems to be an overcrowded field with no obvious points of entry.
When I was first making the rounds as a young man entering the work world I received a profound tip about job hunting that proved to be true for me and many others: There is always a place for someone with talent, intelligence, a desire to work hard and – most important of all – a fresh approach to his or her craft.
Other qualities define my daughter: she has an unquenchable passion to create art of all kinds, and her work sparkles with intelligence, wit and a unique style. Coupled with her talent, these qualities complete the trifecta necessary to succeed as an illustrator.
So, how does my daughter and others like her find a place in a world crowded with talented, hardworking young men and women?
To begin, everyone who wants to sell their services, whether as a freelancer or a prospective employee, needs to view themselves from the point of view of the consumer. This is exactly the same advice I give to any marketer of a product or service. Don’t make the mistake of viewing the world from inside the bubble of self-awareness. In politics, this is called the echo chamber where all you hear is what you say. Businesses who behave this way are, “legends within their own walls.”
Any honest marketing effort starts by facing the hard truth that the great majority of potential customers don’t know who you are, and aren’t looking for you. Few people walk around thinking to themselves, “Who don’t I know that I should know.” The purpose of marketing is to change this. For the sake of simplicity I’ve boiled marketing communications down to three essential, sequential, components: awareness, relevance and action.
Awareness, means that as many people as possible, not just potential customers, have to encounter a memorable message about you. For a young person just starting out, awareness begins with friends and family – sharing projects and samples through broad reach social media such Tumblr, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram. A website is essential, and platforms such as Squarespace are virtually free.
Relevance, that is establishing a connection with a potential customer or employer, is achieved by populating your website and social media with projects and concepts that reflect current culture, trends, activities and passions – yours as well as others. Popular topics such as food, fashion, travel, movies and technology provide ample opportunity to demonstrate your intelligence, humor and creativity.
Action, which can range from a prospect or customer returning a message to offering a job, is the result of effective marketing. Common factors that lead to action – assuming that awareness and relevance have been established – are passion, preparation and persistence. Of course, you can’t discount luck. Still, as the saying goes, “Fortune favors the prepared.” One reason this maxim rings true is because two crucial elements of preparation are passion and persistence. (A voice from the back of room heckles, “What about quality, expertise, experience and skill?” In the service of brevity, let’s agree that these are all part of preparation, as well.)
Finally – and here’s the clincher – our aspiring artist must clearly demonstrate a unique style. I see many artists who have talent, skill and appear to be hardworking but the portfolios appear interchangeable. Some of this is perhaps the product of working (or aspiring to work) in a “creative factory” (think Disney or Pixar) where a corporate style or “look” influences the art.
To wrap up, perhaps the most direct answer to the question, “Is there a place for me in the world?” is “Yes, once you give people a chance to discover your unique, original, voice.” Before Apple introduced the iPhone no one knew they needed a hand-held, flat-screen monitor that connected to the Internet. Afterwards, they couldn’t live without one.
*What qualifies my opinion as expert? Once upon a time I was a senior art (and then associate creative) director at what was – at the time – the world’s largest and best-known advertising agency. In that role, I reviewed hundreds of portfolios of the top working artists and photographers. I also reviewed the student portfolios of recent graduates hoping to break into the advertising business. I quickly learned to separate skillful execution from genuine imagination, and trend-following from authentic creativity. Not that skill and awareness of trends aren’t valuable assets, but they’re no substitute for real talent.