Interview with FreelanceSwitch
Succeeding as a
I am always fascinated by a freelancer that dominates his or her field.
For Oliver Weiss, it’s illustration. This award-winning freelance
illustrator from Germany has plenty of insight into securing well-known
clients and also some tricks for surviving the professional award
ow long did it take you to get on your feet as a freelancer? What
were some of the challenges?
I remember mailing out my
first set of illustrations to the largest newspapers and magazines in
the country, and also to a handful really boring-looking trade
publications from fields like medicine, business, and the like. This was
way before the digital age, so everything needed to get xeroxed at a
print store first. Not surprisingly, it turned out that only a handful
of the really boring trade magazines were interested in publishing my
work. To my surprise, working for them proved to be not at all boring.
did manage to get weekly assignments from DIE WELT (“The World”) from my
very first mailing spree, however, one of Germany’s largest daily
papers. This was really quite an unprecedented success, and it paid
really well, too. To be sure, they didn’t want to pay me a lot at first
and sought to obtain all rights at that, but I insisted they pay me the
industry rate they paid for photography, and would let me keep all
rights. Things gradually evolved from there, really, and before long I
was working for dozens of magazines, and, however humbly, making a
to the Field of Illustration
How has the illustration field changed since you entered it, aside
from there being more technologies to create illustrations? What do you
think the climate for freelance illustrators is like?
While I managed to work
for quite a number of international publications 15 or 20 years ago,
this was still very much the exception to the rule. Through the advent
of the Internet, the world has become a much smaller place, of course,
and it has become commonplace to work for clients in Russia, Australia
or Hong Kong. The downside of the whole industry going digital are the
very tight time lines that weren’t all that prevalent back then.
“The downside of the whole industry going digital are the very tight time lines
that weren’t all that prevalent 15 years ago.”
Also, in the old days I mostly lived off reselling licensing rights that
publishers paid for artwork that was already created – you would call it
“stock” today. By comparison, practically everything I do today is
generated from scratch and specifically developed for a given client.
Mind you, the images I made at the time got published only scarcely, so
this isn’t anything like what is going on currently with image stock
archives where the chances are very high of seeing one and the same
illustration all over the place that got pulled from istockphoto or a
royalty-free photo CD.
The bad thing about stock today is that clients get so used to paying
only minimal fees for unlimited rights that professional illustrators
will have an increasingly hard time finding arguments why their
custom-made art is more expensive. The sobering truth is that many
clients can’t really tell the difference. I have been lucky in that
regard so far, but this is the one thing which I guess everybody in the
industry is feeling a little uneasy about.
Other than that, I feel that the market for up-and-coming illustrators
is still quite large. You have to be willing to pull through, of course,
and be ready to grab opportunities wherever they come up.
Did you struggle with time management when you began freelancing? How
did you resolve those issues?
With me, illustration has
always been the most important thing in my life, and when exciting
assignments or commissions that pay bills would start flocking in, I
would usually say yes most of the time, even if that meant working
through the night. In that regard, time management has never been an
issue for me. These days I tend to be a little more careful with my
resources – but only a little... I certainly have learned to say no to
really boring work or work that pays really little.
out to Clients
How do you get such well-known clients? Is it mostly from agencies,
or have you approached big companies yourself?
I hardly work with
agencies but approach clients directly. The worst they can do is to turn
me down. These days, of course, much work comes in through my web site.
Surprisingly, not only the small companies but even the big guys are
always on the lookout for fresh artists that they find online. That’s
why I think it is important to have a fully functioning web site that
contains loads of information.
is important to have a fully functioning web site that contains loads of
Also, there have been many instances in my career where I would show my
stuff to a client, and they would offer me to work on a totally
different assignment instead, or refer me to another party. I remember a
long time ago when I had barely started out I mailed out some stuff to
an in-house publication from a large bank, and while they didn’t have
any needs for me here, they offered me to work on illustrations for a
huge advertising campaign instead. They had their advertising guru take
a plane and meet little old me at some fancy restaurant in Munich, and I
ended up making way more money than I would ever have made had they
hired me to work for the publication that I applied for. This sort of
thing has happened to me many times over in my career.
Give us an overview of the activities you do regularly to keep up
with marketing yourself?
I don’t really have a
single best strategy that I manage to keep up for any given time. While
a year or two will go by without writing a single letter or email to
prospective clients, there are times where I do little else for a week.
I would go crazy if I forced myself to sticking to some kind of
itinerary, such as sending out a newsletter every Thursday – and you
have to be careful to not go overboard with your clients, too.
While I have been able to survive without letterheads or business cards
for the greatest part of my career, I have developed a habit over these
past few years to get illustration brochures and postcards printed every
now and then, and to send them out to prospective clients. It seems
somewhat out of place in this day and age, but while many an art
director will never read your email, they might not shy away from your
printed brochure that they can keep filed. I have managed to get hold of
some of my biggest clients through sending out brochures.
What other methods do you recommend for designers and other
freelancers to boost their image and get more positive press?
Have something to show!
Many freelancers, I find, spend too much time calling out for
prospective clients without having anything to offer them. It helps
trying to picture yourself on the part of the art director. What the art
director doesn’t want, apart from receiving mass emails, is to have you
call them up and tell them how great you are, and that you would like to
show it if you only got the chance. You have to think the other way
around – develop something first, and then try to find folks that are
interested in your stuff. The best bet, quite generally, is to establish
a good relationship with a handful of editors and art directors, and
everything will work out from there.
What's your typical day like?
I will get up relatively
early, start the water boiler, take a shower, make coffee, and try to
wake up while taking care of my emails. Often, short-notice assignments
or queries about running projects have come in overnight, and need to be
addressed first. I then usually get right to work on some illustration
project. I also try to do away with at least a handful of nasty office
stuff items each day, such as tracking invoices, filing paperwork,
making backups – or keeping my workplace less messy, for that matter.
Whenever possible, I try to finish a project once I have started it, at
least with stuff I do for magazines. I have so much work coming in that
I would get into trouble otherwise. A typical day will go by relatively
quickly, and I typically manage to get a handful of projects off my desk
during the day. Whenever possible I try to go out for a bit, but that is
not always possible. By the same token, my habit of working very late is
not always easy to get rid of, but I am getting there.
|“My habit of
working very late is not always easy to get rid of, but I am getting there.”
Your work was recently recognized by American Illustration, the annual
industry contest. Do you enter a lot of contests and what are your rules
I have won occasional
awards in contests over the years but have only started doing that
somewhat more regularly after winning the Oktoberfest design award two
years ago for which I was invited to take part in. I once read about the
architect Mies van der Rohe who allegedly, when asked by his students to
comment on a specific idea or model, had this nasty habit of remaining
silent while looking at the piece. Needless to say, the student who was
totally confident about his work only a minute ago would get really
nervous and all. But on a positive note, in trying to explain his
concept to the master he would stumble across all the incongruities with
Obviously, such demeaning behavior from the
guy-who-thinks-he-knows-it-all totally sucks, but there are certain
analogies with taking part in competitions. You won’t get anyone to
critique your work but will end up getting an award only if the jury
thinks your work is worth it, however arbitrary the reasons for their
choice may be. I guess contests are a way of seeing where you stand with
your peers, and to critically analyze your work – is it good enough, is
it art, is this what I really want and feel comfortable with, that sort
of thing. I think this helps you in becoming a better artist, and
staying true to yourself. Of course, one shouldn’t take contests too
seriously either – if your work never gets selected that doesn’t
necessarily mean that you are a bad artist.
What's next on the horizon for you?
I’m in the process of
seeking to expand more into the American market. I do work for quite a
number of international clients but feel that my whimscial art is more
“American” than anything else. Also, I am looking to get a little more
into fine art on the side, and to author illustrated books.
Any advice for illustrators looking to break into this field?
Love thy profession. I
think illustration needs to be the one thing that you need to be very
sure about. You shouldn’t be second-guessing, but you should want it so
bad that you don’t really see any way of spending your life without it.
Face the fact that rejections will become a major part of your life.
Keep in mind, though, that working as a full-time illustrator is not an
inspiration-driven pastime, but also a means, in the long run, to pay
bills and afford a living.
Also, love thy clients – they are your friends, not your enemies. Nobody
likes to work with fancy divas insisting on their artistic integrity
when it comes to making changes, meeting deadlines, and showing
diligence. Sell yourself – but don’t sell yourself. Be nice, and the
world will be yours.