Mélanie Johnsson

Journal

Stories from behind the scenes...

Freelance life Q&A

 

Question:

How do you decide to push yourself to do a creative career that you feel drawn towards, but is scary for you? I feel like I have to look for someone’s permission to make art (and make a career out of it), and be good enough, and give myself permission too. Is there a way to move past that? 

Answer:

I think the only permission you need to make art is your own! You’re the only one in control here, you’re the one that gets to decide what happens in your own life. You’re the maker of your own path, and you should definitely follow your gut, no matter what. I personally don’t follow a plan, I just listen to myself and always go for the things that I’m most draw to. So anything that feels right and organic, I’ll jump into. It doesn’t matter if you think you don’t have the skills yet, you will build your skills and confidence over time. I know it’s scary at the beginning, you probably are only thinking about the million things that could go wrong…So instead, take a piece of paper, and write down all the things that could go right. Dream big! Write down all the things you want to do and how you see your creative career unfold. You’re not taking any risk in dreaming big and thinking about what you’d truly want to do in your life. 

I’m not going to lie, building a career in a creative field is tough. Nothing happens overnight. You will have to work hard. And you will have to stick to your guns. I think it’s really important to write down your values now, and stick to them over time. It’ll make you grow the right way and avoid you getting lost when you start working for clients.

So, I think you should go for it! You might have to do a job that pays the bills on the side at the beginning, but don’t ever stop doing things you love, go ahead and spend hours on Photoshop making cool stuff and don’t forget to share it, even if you think it’s not “good enough”. If it comes from an honest place, people will always appreciate the authenticity. Just be yourself, have fun and engage with people!


Question:

How did you get your first contract/client as a freelance designer?

Answer:

I first started freelancing in the UK back in 2015, after having worked for a year as a full time graphic designer for a british luxury travel company. I had done some freelancing when I was still in France, but also a lot of traveling around the world, so I don’t really think about my career as a freelancer having started before 2015. So, four years ago, I quit my full time job and just went for it. I knew I wanted to be my own boss, get my own exciting projects, work on a lot of different things for a lot of different people and basically do what I wanted. When I quit my job, I didn’t have any client to work for. I remember meeting with a few different agents from some London-based recruiting agencies to try and get some little freelance gigs at the beginning. I did get a few of those - mostly very boring - graphic design jobs that allowed me to not stress too much about money while I was experimenting on the side. I went freelance for the freedom to do what I wanted, so it was very important to me that I’d spend a lot of time painting, drawing and making stuff that I loved. Around that time, I also started sharing a lot more of my work online and on Instagram. I got very lucky as one of my ex-coworker recommended me to a wedding planner and that’s how I got my first few contracts to design and illustrate bits for weddings. Simultaneously, I got discovered - I think it was through social media and word of mouth! - by the senior designer at Browns Fashion and got a lot of work for them too. The work I was creating for Browns Fashion was mostly lettering and collage, which was super exciting. I definitely got hired to do a lot of lettering at the beginning of my career. Over time, I developed my illustration style more and I’m definitely getting more illustration jobs nowaday, which is amazing.

When I was starting out, I did reach out a little bit to people, but I think what really helped was sharing the work I was doing and building a community online. I still get a lot of work through Instagram today, so I think it definitely is a powerful tool for anyone looking to develop their career. The important thing to remember is that you have to stick to your guns and create from an authentic place. Don’t just share whatever you think people will like. Make the work you love and want to get hired for and share it online. Likes and follows don’t matter much…I got a lot of jobs when I didn’t have a big following and some really talented people out there don’t have a big following, but they’re still amazing and super successful. Don’t look at social media as a gauge to see how good you are, just see it a useful tool to share your work and build connections.

In terms of reaching out to people, although I am now very lucky to be at a place where brands and people directly come to me, I still very much like to reach out to people who I admire and want to work with. If I love a specific brand and think we would be a perfect match - and if I’m not already super busy - I will definitely send a nice email to introduce myself and let them know I love what they’re doing and I’m here if they ever want to collaborate. There’s no shame in asking and introducing yourself! When I was living in South Africa, I connected with a lot of South African brands this way and worked on a few lovely illustration jobs. It was super fun and very rewarding!


Question:

How did you get your name out there to get the jobs to be full time freelance designer?

Answer:

So for a couple of years, until quite recently, I was very lucky to be able to do remote freelance work for a design agency I had worked for back in France. I knew them really, really well and I was doing graphic design and illustration jobs for them and was invoicing daily or hourly the way freelancers do. It wasn’t really fulfilling work but it was relatively “easy” although I never showed any of it online…Not because it was bad, just because it wasn’t work I was doing as me, Mélanie, for a client. It was work I was doing for that agency and they were presenting as theirs to the client. So working for them wasn’t the greatest but it allowed me to not stress about money and focus on picking the right jobs on the side. It meant I could share the work that I loved and wanted to do more online…So I could say yes to the right people and projects without worrying if their budget wasn’t huge. I think social media played a huge role in getting my name out there, but also the fact that I could say yes to the kind of project I was dreaming about. I’ve been really selective with the work I do and I think that helped getting myself known a little bit. Having freelance work with that agency also meant I could say no a lot…I think this helped me build a portfolio of projects I’m really proud of. I haven’t worked for that agency for a while now (and really don’t intend to do it again, ever! It was tough at times…Especially to get paid!) and I’ve been lucky to be able to thrive doing only amazing projects with super cool people. I think the best way to get your name out there is to consistently produce work you love and are proud of, and share it with the world! It’s better if you don’t have to compromise, especially at the beginning…So that’s why working for that agency worked for me at the beginning.


Question:

How do you deal with difficult clients and keep them on board?

Answer:

To be honest, I haven’t had many difficult clients. I think I’m quite good at knowing if I’m going to get along with clients or not from the get go. The first email you receive from a client can give you a lot of information and give you a sense of how they are and how they work. It’s really important to me to work with passionate and kind people, as there’s no way I’ll do my best work if I feel threatened and mistreated. I just like all my jobs to be joyful ventures and I love communicating directly with clients. It’s all about kindness, respect and understanding.

Now that I’m thinking about it, I did have a difficult client once. It’s hard for me to remember all the details of why it was difficult, because I tend to block out and forget bad experiences as a protective mechanism. But in a nutshell, the person was being quite nasty, asking a lot from me under really tight deadlines, not paying on time, and generally being mean via emails. I stopped working with them as soon as I could! But sometimes, when you’ve signed a contract, you’ve got to remain professional and see it through. I did try to gently voice my concerns, but some people just ignore those messages and keep on doing the nasty stuff they do and take advantage. So yeah, I guess I just forgot about them as soon as I could!


Question:

How do you get and work efficiently with abroad clients?

Answer:

Good question! It may or may not sound a little bit crazy, but I almost never meet my clients face to face. Some of them, I don’t even have on the phone! Most of my clients are from all around the globe, with most of them being either in the US, the UK or in Australia. So it’s all about communicating well via emails. I’ve never had issue with that. You obviously have to be mindful of the time difference between countries, so it’s always good to discuss deadines in advance so clients don’t expect you to deliver something overnight. I always ask for a very detailed brief from the client, if they haven’t already sent it, so I can make sure I understand what they want from the get go and also make sure we’re on the same page. I ask as many questions as I need, and if I or they feel like we need to chat on the phone, we can jump on a Skype call! In terms of how I find those abroad clients, it all comes back to social media…That’s what’s great about Instagram, it can link up people and brands that live and work miles away from each other. Most of my clients find me through social media or my website, so it doesn’t matter where they’re based, the Internet makes it possible for us to collaborate! How amazing is that?!


Question:

What digital programme and tools do you use?

Answer:

I mainly use Photoshop to clean up, edit and colourise my drawings. (My original drawings and illustrations are always done by hand first so I have to photograph or scan them to edit them). I also use Indesign for presentations and any bit of graphic and editorial design I need to do. I don’t use Illustrator too much, as I don’t like vectorising my work. I like to keep the little imperfections in there! In terms of what I use when I draw and paint, I naturally gravitate towards ink and pens because they feel easy and flowy to me…I’ve been using them for years! But I have been trying to experiment and have been painting more with acrylics recently. I think the medium isn’t too important, what matters is what’s in your head! I always say that your mind is the most expensive and important tool you’ll ever own…


Question:

What are some ways to gain a bigger following so that you can live off your work?

Answer:

This is a very interesting question…First thing first, I think you absolutely don’t need a big following on social media to live off your work. In the same vein that you could have a huge following online and struggle to make any money through your work. I see social media as an amazing tool to connect with people and build a community, with brands being able to find you and want to hire you for work as a huge bonus. As an illustrator, I don’t really earn any money directly from social media. I earn a living doing graphic design, illustration and lettering work for various clients in different industries.

Having a big following online means more people might get to see your work so it increases your chance to be noticed by clients. It doesn’t necessarily means they will hire you for work though! Most of my followers aren’t brands looking to hire me, they are real people that I think follow me for a daily dose of colour and inspiration. I don’t like “selling” stuff via social media, I find it nerve-wracking and much prefer inspiring people and giving them food for thoughts when it comes to creativity, mental health and sustainability.

I’m now wondering if you meant to ask how influencers live off their work thanks to a big following online…And how to get a big following so you can get paid by brands to advertise their products or services. I don’t have much experience with that as that’s not something I like to do or say yes to a lot. I am an Illustrator, Designer and Letterer, not an Influencer, whatever that means and however many followers I have. I do know a little bit about social media growth and here’s what I think. Gaining a big following on social media doesn’t happen overnight (or maybe it does once in a blue moon). It takes years to build a faithful and loving community online. At least it did for me. And then, weirdly, once you reach a certain number of followers, things accelerate and you get lots more. I think there is no secret, it’s all about consistency and quality over quantity. You have to show your work, show your passions, show your loves and be yourself. I’m aware that authenticity is an overused word at the moment, but it’s a shame because it really does matter. So whatever you share online, don’t pretend to be someone or something else, just do you. It will take time, but people will start to notice eventually and will fall in love with what you’re doing. On the other hand, I might not be the best person to listen to because I have a love-hate relationship with social media so I might also tell you to quit it all NOW and go live on a desert island without a phone because technology is EVIL!


Question:

Any advice for someone who’s starting a new personal brand on Instagram?

Answer:

I get asked about this a lot and I think there are some tips in the previous question too. I think my best advice is to make sure you know what your values are as a individual or a brand and that it shines through your work. It needs to be obvious to people what you’re about. They need to know what they’re going to get by following you. Is it inspiration? Food for thoughts? Tips? Incentives to act? It’s also important that you stick to your guns. Post the things you love and care about, and don’t worry about the likes and the follows. Don’t delete stuff because it’s not doing “well enough”. Post things you believe in and keep going, no matter what the response is. Also, make a point to interact with your community, however small it is! And always try your best to answer your DMs - except for those that clearly haven’t read anything about you - but don’t give yourself a hard time if you can’t answer to all of them when things get a little crazy. I personally think that if someone really wants advice or needs my help, they will email me. Email is ALWAYS the way to go to reach out to someone (especially for work)! Some people never ever look at their DMs, and I don’t blame them.


Question:

I want to start an Instagram account with my illustrations, but I’m worried I don’t really have a “style”?

Answer:

This is really interesting and something I know a lot of people worry about. If you scrolled all the way back on my Instagram, you would get to a point where the things I posted a few years ago looked completely different from what I do now. I evolved and refined my style over time and it is still evolving now (and hopefully it will never stop evolving that’s what makes art so interesting). My point is, social media helped me develop my style because I never got scared of showing the work I was doing, no matter how good or bad I thought it was. Ok, I was still curating what I was posting a little bit, but I never gave myself a hard time about it. I’ve always seen social media as a way for me to see my evolution and see where my interests lie. I love looking back and see what shapes, colours or things I was into two years ago and sometimes cringe at some weird lettering or illustrations. But this is good! This means we all change, evolve and get better at what we do, and I think using social media as a platform to test, try and experiment is great. The need to share can also sometimes push us to create more, which will only makes us better. There is no secret, the more work you produce, the better your work will become. So, don’t worry about having a “style” yet, you will develop it over time. It doesn’t matter if your feed doesn’t look perfect from day one (whatever that means), what matters is that you are posting the stuff you’re making, consistently and with love.


Question:

How did you separate home tasks from work before you got your own studio space?

Answer:

That’s an interesting question! I actually never had an issue with this while I was still working from home. I worked from home for around three and a half years and it always worked for me. I actually really loved it because it meant I could work whenever I wanted. I could wake up very early and jump on the computer with a hot tea before sunrise, and I could stop for lunch and cook something, or I could go paint some stuff over the weekend while still in my pyjamas. I think working from home is pretty cool and I am actually quite good at focusing on work and ignoring any home task. But I do love a tidy house and a tidy studio. I guess what helps is when you have a room that’s dedicated to work, so you don’t have to worry about the rest of the house, and you can’t really get distracted. If you can’t have another room to turn into your studio, I’d say you have to make sure the space you create for yourself and for work is really immersive and lovely. Try having a specific spot/table/corner dedicated to your practice, and make it look amazing and inspiring. Try to avoid changing spots all the time and avoid the sofa too (or the bed!). I personally feel like it’s important to have a physical space where you know good things are going to happen, where your mind is going to feel comfortable being creative and making stuff. Does it make sense? I know a lot of people get distracted and start doing the dishes or hoover instead of working. To be honest, I think that’s fine too. When you work in a creative field, you’ve got to listen to your mind and follow the flow. If your mind is telling you that it needs everything to be tidy to come up with something cool, then listen to it. Of course, you have to know when you mind starts taking the piss and only wants to watch Youtube videos for two hours instead of doing something productive. I guess you have to find the balance and learn what works best for you as a creative human being.


Question:

How to make a portfolio and get experience?

Answer:

This is an easy one! When you’re starting out, you have to MAKE a lot of work. Make something everyday. Experiment, play, try new things and enjoy the process. When you’re building a portfolio, you need to focus on creating the work that you love and that you want other people to hire you to do for them. Develop your skills and your creative voice and start thinking about your values. It’s also really important for you to develop any passion project you might have. Firstly because you have to follow any passion you have - we only have one life, we might as well do all the things we dream of doing! - but also because passion projects can and will bring you work. Real work where you get paid to do what you love. I’m going to tell you a story to illustrate this. After I graduated from art school back in 2013, I traveled to Chile for six months. I had a lot of free time to draw, paint and photograph all the lovely places I visited. I traveled all around Chile, saw beautiful things and met amazing people. While I was still out there, I decided I would create a book about my trip, filled with collages, photographs, drawings and obviously, stories. I have always been drawn to books and editorial design so I was super excited at the idea of doing this book. And so I did. When I got back to France a few months later, I printed around 30 of them and sold a few. I cringe a little bit when I look back at them now, because I’ve obviously evolved style-wise, but I’m so happy I did this project for two reasons. First, it’s an ode to my trip to Chile and something I can look back at and it will always be there to remind me about my trip. Second, I’m pretty sure it helped me get my job in England! I would have to ask my ex-boss (Lou, if you’re reading this, let me know if I’m right) but when I interviewed to get my first and only full time job in London, at a luxury travel company, I showed this book and explained all about it. I think having done something related to travel and filled with photography showed that I was passionate about these things and was willing to create this kind of content on my free time. I wasn’t waiting for the opportunities, I was creating the stuff I wanted to get paid to create! Which I eventually did with that awesome job. So basically, do the stuff you love now and share it…People will eventually notice!

In terms of gaining experience, that will happen through you working on your own projects and also obviously whenever you start working for anyone. I would not advise getting non-paid internships, as I believe anyone can bring value and hard work to a company and it deserves payment. No one should work for free! (Except if they decide to do it and/or it’s for a cause close to their heart).


Question:

What are your ways to find client work?

Answer:

I am lucky that clients actually come to me and I get to decide if I want to work with them or not. I do sometimes email brands or people that I absolutely love to see if they’d like to collaborate, but that’s quite rare. Cold emailing people really works though! I’ve had jobs this way. You just have to make sure that you’re a good fit for the brand…Anyway, I think what’s really important is to make sure you’re sharing and showing the work you want to be doing. Whenever someone sees your work, they need to know straight away what you’re all about. So it’s important for you to know what your values are. Clients and brands usually like to work with designers and illustrators whose values are close to theirs. Obviously, they have to love your work and see how it could apply to their project, but sharing the same values really helps. At the end of the day, clients really want to enjoy working with the designer or illustrator they choose. They want to have a good time too!

So, let’s have a few bullet points to show various way of getting client/freelance work:

  • Recruitment agencies: You can get some freelance work to get you going this way. I did this for a few months when I was starting out and it really helped me not stress about money while I was creating the work that I loved on the side!

  • Online jobs boards like The Dots or If you could or Behance (I’m sure there are plenty more!)

  • Social media: More and more designers and illustrators are found and hired through social media. Hence the important of sharing your work on there and showing people what you want to be doing! Be consistent and post your work, but don’t overthink it if you think it’s not “perfect” enough. Just do your thing and enjoy the process! Don’t forget to follow brands and people you love and interact with them. You really never know what could be around the corner for you.

  • Word of mouth: This starts happening once you’ve done a few freelance jobs already. It shows the importance of always working hard and going 120% on each project you work on. Going the extra mile will always win you more work. It goes without saying that being talented and skilled isn’t enough, you have to be a lovely human being too! People don’t like working with assholes twice. So stay polite and make sure your grammar is top-notch.

  • Your website: I think it’s important to have a lovely website that reflects your personality and showcases your work well. It doesn’t have to be crazy original, it just needs to be easy to navigate and show whoever is visiting it what you’re all about. Beautiful photography is always a plus! You want your work to be presented in a professional way.


Question:

What do you do when you’re facing a creative block?

Answer:

When I was younger, I’d usually start by being really mad at myself and feeling crap and useless. After a couple of hours guilt-tripping, I would realise that all I needed was to step away from the work and go outside to do something I love. Sometimes all you need is a breath of fresh air. We all face creative block at one point or another, and it’s important to learn how to handle it early on. The first thing you should do is not give yourself a hard time. Your mind works in mysterious ways and you can’t force creativity, you have to welcome it in when it comes your way. I got better with creative block after reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, which really dives deep into creativity and the art of following your flow. So nowadays, if I do feel less inspired, I just step away from it all. I’m lucky that I live by the sea and can surf, kite surf or simply go swim whenever I like. Being in the sea really helps me reset everything and I usually feel much better and much more creative after having been in the water. You have to find the thing that makes you feel alive and helps you reset that creative mind of yours. It could be taking a long walk in the park, or hiking in the mountains, or listening to music with your eyes closed, or even meditating or doing yoga. It has to be something you love and that makes you feel like everything is going to be alright in the end. It needs to help you put things in perspective. Another thing I like doing when I feel uninspired is to draw or paint with no result in mind. Just let my hand go wild and see what I come up with. It doesn’t have to be pretty or even something finished, it has to be done for the pure joy of creating something out of nothing. It’s all about finding that joy again, the joy of making stuff for yourself first.


 
 

Hope you enjoyed this beast of a Q&A, let me know in the comments below if you have any more questions and I’ll make sure to create another Q&A soon!

Have an amazing day,

Mel x