A new year is a great time to be thinking about a new direction for your career, and for many people that means a more creative direction. So in this post, you’ll hear from Envato Tuts+ instructor Mary Winkler about the lessons she’s learned from building her career as a freelance illustrator and designer.
Mary Winkler is a regular instructor for the Envato Tuts+ Design & Illustration section, contributing video courses and written tutorials on Adobe Illustrator, CorelDRAW, and much more. She has her own individual style, as you’ll see later on from her work (and from this photo taken with her boyfriend at a Halloween party last year).
On top of her work for Envato, Mary is also a freelance illustrator and designer working with clients like Disney Consumer Products, Imagine Publishing, Vectips, various toy companies, and more. Previously she had a line of shoes and accessories with Apparel Dynasty, and worked as their Creative Director for a couple of years. She lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and studied Illustration at College for Creative Studies in Detroit.
Mary’s Tips for a Fulfilling Creative Career
Here are a few things Mary has learned from her career so far:
1. It Starts With You
Being a professional illustrator and designer takes skill. While Mary went to college, that’s not the only path. But you do have to take the initiative to develop your skills and learn what you need to know in order to be taken seriously in your profession.
“Your career starts with YOU, and if that means going to school or working to build your portfolio and checking out online courses, tutorials, or just drawing in your free time, then do it.”
2. Create the Things You Want to Be Paid For
As you’re learning, you also need to be creating. More specifically, decide what you want to do professionally, and then start creating that by yourself, building your own portfolio so that clients can find you, see your work, and hire you.
“Clients need to see what they can expect from you and if you want to design icons or toys or illustrate book covers you need to fill your portfolio with that content and challenge yourself to learn as much as you can about art, illustration, and design.”
3. Make Connections
If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. You also need to put yourself out there. Work social media, show people your creations, make connections, and hustle for clients.
“Create the things you want to create, learn the skills you want to know, and push yourself to apply for work, hunt down clients and jobs, and make connections where possible in the industries you want to work in. It won’t be easy by any means, but no one will find you if you don’t put yourself out there.”
4. Always Have a Contract
The biggest mistake Mary made early on in her career was working without contracts. If you do that, she says, you can end up not getting paid for your work, or having your work used in a way you never agreed to.
“Never work without getting everything in writing. It not only protects you, but it also protects the client. Everyone gets to be on the same page and know exactly what is expected with a project. Value yourself and clients will also value you. And if you find someone won’t sign a contract, they’re not worth the massive headaches they will undoubtedly bring.”
5. Value Education, But Watch Out for Debt
When it comes to her time in art school, Mary is ambivalent. She learned a lot from the experience, but the cost was “insane”, and paying off the student loans has been a constant struggle ever since.
“Having to keep working and moving and going with student loan debt has been a hard path. I think I would have chosen a different school if I could do it all over again, but I’m glad I made the connections I did and learned what I did at the time.”
And in a way, the struggle has made her stronger:
“Someday I’ll be without these student loans, and better off for having worked this hard and continued to do so versus those who don’t know that struggle. It builds character, as old-timey as that notion is, and doesn’t allow time or energy to take things, projects, or work for granted.”
6. Don’t Wait
Right now, Mary is working hard in her career and is full of ambition, and she wishes that she’d had the same attitude when she first started out:
“I wish, 10 years ago, when I started freelancing as a student, that I had the same drive and ambition I do now. Sure, I was keen to create and work, but it took time for me to develop confidence in myself and design work and really complete projects effectively. Everything seemed to take so long then. I guess I’m just wishing I had all the experience I have now, then, which is silly.”
Planning for the future is crucial in any career, and Mary has plenty of plans of her own. Most of all, she plans “to never stop working, creating, and designing.”
While she loves the constant change in projects and the fast pace of freelance work, she’s also hoping to land something more stable—perhaps something in-house, or more client work in addition to her usual client roster.
She’s also trying to branch out into craft: “Most of my work tends to be graphic design or illustration-related in some way (even if I’m just writing about it), working with clients around the world. This past year I learned how to knit, so I’m working on converting illustration work into knit patterns and little knit creations in my free time, since I love craft work and combining it with my design sensibilities.”