10 insightful lessons from a decade of freelancing: Illustrator Ben Tallon shares his wisdom
A graphic artist, activist, author and hand-painted lettering specialist, Ben Tallon is a man of many talents. He started his career with clients such as The Guardian and WWE, and his unmistakable style has been catching the eye of creative directors worldwide ever since.
The Manchester-based illustrator also hosts his podcast Arrest All Mimics, which focuses on original thinking and innovation. This month, he celebrates ten years of working for himself, so we thought we'd pick his brains on the key lessons he's learned along the way. Ben, it's over to you.
Ten years of freelancing in the creative industry, as an illustrator amongst other guises, has been a game of extremes. Highs, lows, completely unexpected twists and agonisingly inevitable setbacks are all part of it. Here are ten takeaway thoughts from a decade without a job.
1. Keep an open mind
I spent so much time focused on early goals, barreling down the path I’d set like a wild dog that I failed to notice the unexpected things happening right in front of and around me. Creativity cannot be planned and scheduled; it tends to manifest in many different ways and in forms you’d never anticipated, bringing about exciting twists. If you pin too much on things being a certain way at a specific time, the unavoidable deviances will annoy you more.
Three years in, I’d landed two dream clients – Leeds United and WWE. It felt incredible, but it still left me creatively hungry, so I started to lead more with feeling and instinct. Writing, podcasting, lecturing and public speaking happened this way and created greater stability and kept my core specialism of illustration fresh through variation.
2. Get the basics in order
Shoddy emails and lousy grammar, while never intended as such, often come across as rude and impersonal. I receive requests for help and advice, and many of them fail to use my name. It’s a crowded market. Don’t give yourself an unnecessary handicap before anyone has even looked at your work. Be friendly and professional to everyone, particularly in new relationships.
3. Never compare
Comparing yourself to others is dangerous and wasted energy. In this social media-heavy era, it’s easy to feel inferior. But owning your character and unique background in a way that sets you on a unique path is the best way to establish yourself. Being inspired by others is healthy, but the truth is often different from the way we perceive the work and life of another from the outside. Even if it is as good as it seems, we’re all on different paths and timelines, therefore focusing on your creativity and learning is a less stressful way to go.
4. Beware of success
Mum tells all her mates in town how well you’ve done. Students pin your portfolio on their workspace at college, and that creative blog runs a little feature on a beautiful project you did for a cool client. Is that success? You tell me. Success is subjective and only counts if the person in question is happy and energised by it.
A fat salary and a glitzy award can still be the biggest distraction from creativity out there if it doesn’t mirror internal satisfaction and happiness. I see people working crazy hours, suffering stress-related illnesses to deal with large workloads in big agencies, but it’s essential to be honest about whether that’s right for you. Remember why you first wanted to do this and stay true to it where possible. While we all have to sacrifice ideals to make money, the concept of success is a dangerous one if it is detached from feeling.
5. Seek criticism and listen
It never went down too well when I made comments on the projects of others in university critiques because we’re sensitive souls and often vulnerable when we care about our work. But I was always keen to get a fresh eye on my work and wanted to help others in the same way.
I do it more than ever – sending previews of new work to experienced art directors, 1st-year undergraduates and people wholly disconnected from the creative industry for a good range of opinions. Sometimes replies are not what I want to hear, but the vast majority of the time, it will result in stronger work. Share often and don’t be afraid – a single comment can save years of toil.
Roaming beyond my core discipline has been so important to me. The evolution of my natural style has been partly because of taking it to new places, listening to the thoughts of others and fusing it with other practices.
I’ve worked with 3D printers, film directors, electronic musicians, graphic designers, photographers, videographers, actors and more. All the time, I learn more about where my specialism might be applied. This enables me to have fun and generate projects that attract exciting work.
Restricting yourself to your field is fine for some, but for other personalities, it brings about a risk of repetition or diminishing returns. If you have access to other disciplines in shared studio spaces, colleges or on projects, make those connections and work out skill swaps and collaborations that excite you both.
7. Just ask
Many projects have happened simply by asking to do them. By expressing an interest or exhibiting knowledge in something you’re passionate about, you open the door to possibility.
In particular, I remember calling up an art director at The Guardian and asking if I might be considered for the illustrations that supported Russell Brand’s Articles of Faith football column every Saturday. I was told that it was a full roster, but in the event of an opening, I’d be considered. Three days later, I got the call, someone was sick, and I worked on the column for four years after that. There are always people who need your skills and ideas, but if they do not know you exist, it won’t happen.
8. Have fun
We all have to make money. That’s the system we live in. But it’s incredibly healthy to play and experiment without an end game. By merely doing, the most surprising things can happen. I have numerous private Whatsapp groups in which certain friends and I mess around, create characters, mini-projects that sometimes fall by the wayside, but often grow into something interesting without an outcome and the pressures of a commercial brief.
Some are incredibly weird, but weird is healthy. Embrace that inner oddball. My projects enable learning and experimentation, but most importantly, a chance to have unbridled fun. When we’re enjoying creating, we do it more and make significant progress.
9. Lead from the front
What work do you want to do? What gives you pleasure? Are you a specialist or do you thrive on variety? Early in my career, I did a lot of work that paid bills and kept me out of employment agencies. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, but it was necessary. I rarely put that stuff in my portfolio, always leading with work I gave a shit about.
I understood that it was up to me and me alone to build my brand and portfolio the way I wanted it to look because like attracts like. And while I’ve been appreciative of every single commission, I was always very protective of what my style represented, which was a reflection of self.
It’s so easy and widespread for people to work on too many projects they feel nothing for, have no real creative engagement with and in doing so lose the love for their work. Then it becomes straightforward to feel disillusioned and question your ability. Sometimes a job must be abandoned, a portfolio revamped, a new direction is taken, and it’s never easy, but ultimately, all of us are in charge of our path. Remember that.
10. Respect and demand respect
Without doubt, my greatest projects and favourite working relationships have been the ones where the client and I treat each other with mutual respect. I’m a freelancer, so I often work with more prominent agencies, with people who are in lofty positions of power in their day-to-day work.
On occasion, this means they will, perhaps unintentionally, treat you like someone who is working for them, not with them, expecting you to pick up the pieces because they haven’t delivered their part of the work on time, or have too many projects on their plate. But you are the top dog in your business, and it’s important that your schedule, practice and creativity are given the same level of respect.
I’ve been guilty, particularly in my early years, of being so grateful for paid work that I would beg submissively at the feet of any client, putting myself out to serve their unfair needs. But as time has gone by, I am not afraid to state my terms of working together or question a brief or idea that I felt could be better.
I have rarely encountered resistance. I tell them when they need to send me any briefs, assets, feedback for me to deliver on time and they always do. This is not being rude, only professional. It’s the same where the money is concerned. Remember what you’ve been through to get to where you are now. Don’t undersell your craft.
For more information about Ben, visit bentallon.com. Make sure you also subscribe and listen to his podcast, Arrest All Mimics. And, for more insight and freelancing wisdom, grab a copy of his excellent book, Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the Madness of the Creative Industry.