Creative Curmudgeon Commentary 2.1: Starting up

It’s only my second “Creative Curmudgeon Commentary” and I’m already in trouble. My goal is to keep these at about 300 words apiece – a page’s worth – so they’d stand a reasonable chance of being read but there is so much to say. It’s tempting to just forgo the idea and let you stay hunched in front of your computer playing “World of War-Crack”…but I can’t do it. Altruistic to the end, I am compelled to at least try.

As usual I have a story, which starts like this:

It had been a particular stressful critique. The weather had been extremely hot – it was a summer class – and it was getting close to the semester. There was an unusual profile in the student’s grades. Most of them were doing well – A/B range but there were two or three who just dragged bottom the entire term. Lack of talent wasn’t the issue – the three of them just had a fine artist mindset which applied to deadlines, work habits. Classroom decorum and dress/grooming. It came to a head as I was talking about clients and the need to relate.

One of the three – a young lady whose tattoo coverage qualified her as a walking graphic novel interrupted me and said “I don’t have to worry about that. I’m only going to have cool clients”.

I bit my tongue and went on with the critique, mainly because I didn’t have time in a four hour class to adequately cover the subject…but my mind’s eye kept picturing how this young lady was going to look four years from now as she struggles to pull her sleeves down over her arm tattoos as she asks “Would you like fries with that?”

We all start our careers with visions of days packed with creative activity but as a successful freelance design professional you will spend 25-30% of your time with business and administrative tasks. Including clients, cool or otherwise. They are what keep you in business but your instructors rarely if ever talk about “dealing” with them – but without clients you freelance art career is just a form of playing with yourself. 

Working with clients boils down to two major activities

  1. Finding them
  2. Working with them

The client situation is both good and bad. There have always been more artists than work available but ever since art became a hip career choice about 25 years ago the ratio has tipped heavily in favor of the clients. AIGA conducted research in the late 80s and early 90s and determined that there were at least 100,000 working graphic designers in business at that time in the United States. Now, think of all the universities, colleges and art schools churning out design graduates every year – and all of us old guys? We’re still there!  The situation is rapidly becoming something like trying to get ten pounds of fertilizer into a five pound bag.

 “But wait – what about the Internet?” Yes, the Internet and web-design has created a bundle of creative work opportunities but those opportunities are just as assessable to designers in Estonia and Pakistan as they are to designers in Elmwood and Pittsfield – and they’ll work for 30% of what you have charge just to keep the lights on.

At the very basic level there are some clearinghouses for freelance work on the Internet like eLance and Freelanced that I’ve either had some personal experience with or know people who have. What I have heard/experienced has been good in terms of getting paid on time but the rates are usually very low (again, the guys in Estonia and Pakistan)

When I was first building my client base I would cruise book-stores, news-stands and comic/gaming shops looking for product that was adorned with art that I knew I could “do better than” .  I’d surreptitiously copy as much contact info off boxes and covers as I could, go home and use long-distance information and the telephone to get more specific information so that I could then mail off a small packet of samples.  Then I’d settle down for a protracted game of telephone tag with the art director.

Ah, art directors. A vanishing breed. Back then freelancers usually only had one person to sell themselves to – the art director. Sometimes an editor if you were dealing with book publishers but you didn’t have to wade through the swarms of people that you have to deal with now. It seems like every decision today is made by a committee and not only does that complicate things, it makes for a terribly oppressive homogenization of styles. One of the things I loved about the seventies was the incredibly wide range of styles in illustration and design – which was art-directed to extinction by a combination of  committee decisions and an  over-reliance on computers .

At this point you’ve probably gotten a change-of-major declaration form and are preparing to kiss art good-bye in favor of  business or education… but it’s not all bad. There still is a way to elbow your way past all the other creators and build a solid design business.

The secret?

Work really, really hard.

Kind of a let-down, isn’t it? It’s the truth though. Computers are to the design world what Samuel Colt’s revolver was to the Old West: the Great Equalizer. Without the need for highly developed hand-skills  everyone can have a finely crafted product in a very short period of time…but that “everyone” works both ways. The other guy has a computer too – and can have all those neat ding-bats and graphic devices too.  

I believe the following story involves Nolan Ryan but I may be wrong. Regardless – it happened one night while a promising teen-ager baseball pitcher was practicing. He was tired and wanted to go out partying with his buddies. He asked his coach – who was also his dad – if he could break a little early and to his surprise his dad said ‘Sure, go ahead”

But then he went on: “Just remember though that out there somewhere there’s another kid who also wants to be a professional baseball player, only the difference is he’s willing to stay a little later, throw a couple more pitches and hit couple more balls that you are willing to do tonight. He’s willing to work just a little harder than you…and he’s going to grow up and kick your butt.

Ryan put his glove back on and kept practicing.

3 thoughts on “Creative Curmudgeon Commentary 2.1: Starting up

  1. Yes, work really hard. The second and third secrets are who you know and how different you are from everyone else.

    Great Ryan story – I might have to steal it when my kids get a little older.

  2. “How different you are from everyone else” Wow, that’s grist for about 1000 words or so. There are so many ways to “be different”; your style, your timeliness, what subject matter you favor and/or excel at – and so on. I have made it a point to have a very distinct “different” style and I have found that it is a two-edged sword. When you’re popular you have to turn away work ( unless there are Chris Gunn clones swarming around) but when your style falls out of fashion it can be very tough to make a living.

  3. Reblogged this on David R. Deitrick, Designer and commented:

    I wanted to rerun this entire series but I can’t figure out how to re-post something that has already been reposted once. I reran CCC1 in 2019 to if you REALLY want to read it feel free to wade back in and find it. For now I’ll just start with chapter two…or the first half of chapter two to be precise. Whatever. Have a great weekend.

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