Artist Tips and Career Tactics from Designer Agnieszka Szuba

Agnieszka Szuba is a creative designer based in Colchester and London with a special focus on (and love for) illustration. Her interview below covers important online platforms for artists, the value of working for a design agency, tips on finding clients, advice on creating work that meets clients needs, and practical insights on running an online shop as an artist. She also recommend quite a few helpful resources.

You have a very robust presence online (with profiles on LinkedIn, Etsy, Society6, Facebook, Behance, Pinterest, DeviantART, and your personal website). Which channels yield the most professional opportunities for you? Which are the most useful? Are there any that are not worth your time?

Agnieszka SzubaInspired by your question, I Googled myself. OMG…

Well, that’s a good question. I am actually getting quite a lot of invitations to sell or display my illustrations in various online stores or galleries. I usually write a “no, thank you, please redesign your website first” email in reply. That’s my criterium to judge the gallery or store. Other factors I consider include the quality of works already presented on a site, how professionally a gallery or store is managed, how the user profile looks, how well the gallery or store is promoted, and how present it is online (mostly in social media, forums, discussions).

Definitely stores like Etsy and Society 6 are brilliant. They offer wide target audience and good neighbourhood. Pinterest is fabulous to promote your name and work. It works better than any ad. Images are being pinned, shared and the brand awareness is rising (yes, an artist is a product with its own branding; unless we make people aware of our existence, and unless we persuade them to purchase our art by carefully, creating, branding, and selling a product, we will not get any decent results).

Pictify: yes, go for that.

I must say DeviantART was once fabulous, but as there is such an enormous amount of images uploaded and no approval process, you can actually find 80% of its content to be rubbish and only 10% of it to be good art. Unless their policy changes, I would not consider joining DA if I already weren’t there.

There are also professional websites where you can show your portfolio. Behance, as it is linked with LinkedIn, is definitely one at the top of the list.

The Creative Finder is a paid for service and didn’t do much magic for me, but the neighbourhood is inspiring. :)

Creativepool is a fab place to find out about companies in need of a freelancers. It is a good place for hunt for permanent jobs, too.

Facebook? Well, this is obvious. And compulsory. Probably the best promotional tool invented in human history.

Twitter? No, thank you.

Your magazine designs are gorgeous. How did you get started with your first clients? Do most designers in that field get work through referrals, or by reaching out to magazines directly?

Well, I actually started from getting a job! First in Warsaw, then in London. And that’s what I would advise to any designer or illustrator. There is no better school of design and working on the projects than an agency. Forget in-house design teams, go for a creative agency instead. Team work, variety of brands and products, deadlines, techniques, media… you will not get the same and at the same level while being a freelance designer. At an agency, one benefits from developing discipline, interacting with the team, working with clients and suppliers, and most importantly, learning from more experienced colleagues. It is a priceless experience.

I have decided to become a freelancer because of family circumstances. I loved agency work so much that I would not consider freelance work otherwise. Now I have to find my clients myself. Most of them are from referrals. That is the best way to get a project if you are an independent professional. Then, of course, you can contact potential clients and offer them your services. That’s how I get most of my agency work – email, then a friendly chat, and then I am invited to work in the office on particular project. Once you build up regular clients, you can feel more comfortable and plan on work coming in. The danger is getting lazy and ceasing to promote yourself, as clients tend to change freelancers, loose projects, and get less busy.

How do you get most of your work as an illustrator?

I try not to live from illustration only. Illustration is something intimate; it’s a private, quiet process, like writing or playing music. I do it to express myself, rather than to earn money. I love creating book covers. I work on regular basis with a few publishing houses. I get album covers to illustrate as musicians or labels simply find me online or hear about me somewhere from somebody. Very often, illustration is just a part of a project. It’s natural; it’s an integral part of the design. Most of my designs are something half way between a pure layout and an illustration.

Do you find it difficult to adapt your style to the needs of different clients? What do you do to ensure that the work you produce is the type of art they were hoping for?

No. :)

I work in various styles! I use traditional artistic techniques as well as tablet and pen for digital painting, and I create vector images too. I try to invent a different pictorial style for every single project or client that either develops their brand or accompanies it. I do not trust the illustrative skills of an artist who limits himself or herself to one stye only. Yes, such an artist can become very popular with art that is sought after just because of the style, but such cases are rare.

A natural part of creative the process involves reading a brief. Do not worry, I never do that. Instead… I read my client’s mind! That’s the magic! I simply know what they need. Yes, I do present initial ideas as pencil sketches, and sometimes I present moodboards as well. That is always helpful, especially if the illustration is done as a watercolour or in any other traditional technique that does not allow Command+Z to be used. Checking with clients early saves time and confusion.

Also, I am fully aware that my clients employ me or ask me for help because they trust me and need my expertise and talent. In fact, they know I may better understand their needs than they do.

Do your Etsy and Society6 shops contribute significantly to your income as an artist? What tips would you give to other artists/illustrators who are considering art sales as a source of additional income?

Not at all. You would have to sell at least 20 pieces of work A DAY to make a living out of it. Provision in such shops varies, i.e. in Etsy I must cover printing and production costs. That means I order a print only if it is purchased from me. Prints and shipping costs are high. I would say that having an online shop is just something additional. I never considered it as a main source of income, anyway.

What are your favorite online resources as an artist (e.g. resources that help you sharpen your skills, trade tips with other professional artists, find new opportunities, etc.)?

Adobe website. Love it! Pinterest. Design Week. Creative Review. Facebook pages and other designers’ profiles. Online portfolios! LinkedIn discussions. Designspiration and other similar websites. In fact, I woouldn’t have the time to read all of them. I tend to read their regular updates on Facebook and sometimes I spend a whole evening just learning from others.