Ben The Illustrator Surveyed 1261 Illustrators About Clients, Contracts, & Loneliness
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
In case you didn't know, we at Working Not Working are big fans of industry-wide surveys. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that we're eager to share the latest project from WNW Member Ben The Illustrator: a survey of 1261 illustrators from around the world. Every illustrator, whether you were surveyed or not, should buy Ben a beer for putting together this rallying force for one of the more solitary creative professions. For reference, 81% of illustrators said they work from home, while 79% said they have anxieties or confidence issues that affect their careers. Ben doesn't think the similarity between these two numbers is coincidental. And this survey goes a long way toward establishing a sense of community and unity. The results are equally educational for both illustrators and their clients. Illustrators will likely feel a sense of relief that though they often work alone, their concerns are universal. And clients will hopefully feel better equipped at knowing what illustrators want and expect creatively, contractually, and financially.
Scroll down for our interview with Ben. Among other insightful things, we both give each other some homework. When we asked Ben about the subjects of his casual conversations with fellow illustrators, he replied, "If I’m honest, most of the conversations I have aren’t about illustration. Illustrators love music and films; there are a lot of cyclists, foodies, coffee-heads and pet-owners. Ok, so having written this, I just realised something: I don’t have enough casual conversations with illustrators about building a sustainable career or mental-health... This is a change to be made." As for how WNW can better serve the illustrator community as a whole, Ben tell us, "I’m sure platform users would appreciate advice on how to deal with anxieties or work-related stress. It’s just a matter of offering a certain level of support, so the users know that these platforms are worth investing themselves in, that these platforms are going to help them moving positively in their careers." Here's to Ben "The Illustrator" and the new title he's just earned: "Scene Hero."
What was the impetus behind conducting this survey? A generous heart to serve as a rallying force for illustrators everywhere? A selfish curiosity to gain some clarity on whether you’re doing this whole thing the right way?
Can I say a bit of both? Last year was fairly quiet for me, quieter than previous years. So I did wonder if others were having a similar time. I spoke to illustrator friends and got mixed replies: some were riding high, some were struggling. I decided to go further and see about the wider community, and on the flip side, I knew I could take the info and turn it into something useful for everybody.
What were a couple of the biggest surprises for you in the results from this survey? Maybe a topic where you were part of the minority when you thought everyone felt the same way? Or the opposite?
There were 3 key results, firstly that 81% of illustrators work from home (which can lead to too much alone time and mental health problems). Secondly, it’s that 69% of respondents didn’t think they earn enough to live sustainably, and finally 79% feel they have anxieties or confidence issues that affect their careers. The last one there I was very surprised at, but of course we don’t talk about mental health enough, and it’s difficult to admit (on social media for example) that you’re struggling with work or with your own mental health. I think this has enlightened a few people, especially those related to the illustration industry, that this is an issue to look at and aim to help people in the long run.
Being your own boss in a one-person operation is “the dream” but it can also be quite isolating. Why do you think it’s so important for illustrators to unify and create their own communities instead of just “going it alone”?
I think it’s just human nature. We do better in teams, or gangs, or families, or collectives. We can all be our own boss, but we still need support, or even just companionship; someone who understands your daily work life and can be there through the ups and downs. Illustration is a pretty broad industry, and freelance illustrators come in all shapes and sizes, and most importantly… ages. When I started out I learned a lot from talking to peers who had ‘been there’ and now after 10-15 years experience myself, I’m happy to talk to new illustrators and share my experiences. So we’re all bosses, supporting each other. I also think it’s important to have a lot of communities, but we can’t all unite in one; you need local communities that can meet for coffee. You need communities working in the same industries to share advice. You can have communities based around the media you create with and communities with the same mindsets or personalities.
Are a lot of your friends and the people you surround yourself with illustrators or visual artists? If so, what are the kinds of casual conversations you’ll have about your craft?
Yes! I studied animation in college (in the late 90s) and people I knew then have gone on to animation, film and illustration, but in the past decade (mostly via social media but also locally in the real world) I’ve come to know so many illustrators, and kindred spirits perhaps. Casual conversations (which pretty much always start with the question “what have you been working on dude?”) can be anything from awesome clients to late-paying, tight deadline, tightrope-walking times, throwing ideas around, discussing new tech (the eternal “shall I get an iPad Pro?” question). But if I’m honest, most of the conversations I have aren’t about illustration. Illustrators love music and films; there are a lot of cyclists, foodies, coffee-heads and pet-owners. Ok, so having written this, I just realised something: I don’t have enough casual conversations with illustrators about building a sustainable career or mental-health, as we touched on before. This is a change to be made.
79% of the 1261 illustrators you surveyed mention anxieties and confidence issues that negatively affected their careers, which obviously feels really high. Do you think this goes beyond the generally solitary work of being an illustrator? There seems to be a certain belief that especially creative people are more prone to anxiety and depression…
I think the solitude plays a massive part, but also creative people are often sensitive to things, we just need to communicate these issues the same way we communicate messages within our work. There has been a huge step forward in people opening up, and sharing mental health issues via their illustration work, which is brilliant, Gemma Correll is a great example.
Do you think illustrators are often taken for granted, or worse taken advantage of? Maybe even more so than other creative professions?
I think so many people being freelance opens us up to it, a lot of people have gone solo in their own business straight out of college, meaning they haven’t experienced how the industry can work, and what to be aware of. Animators for example are more likely to start working in a production house, and graphic designers might start as a junior in a design studio, so these guys will learn on the job, while safely in employment. There are so many cases of businesses offering illustrators ‘exposure’ in return for work, or asking for spec work, it’s rife in the industry and needs to stop, it’s taking advantage of individuals. No one asks a builder to do work on their house for free, no-one can go in a restaurant and ask for the meal to be free, but for some reason it’s become a culture to do so with illustrators!
What would you like to see from creative platforms and communities like Working Not Working in 2018 to better serve illustrators?
The two key discussions coming out of the survey are about transparency on pricing across the industry, not just advice given to freelancers, but also discussed with clients; and also the mental health issues. I’m sure platform users would appreciate advice on how to deal with anxieties or work-related stress. It’s just a matter of offering a certain level of support, so the users know that these platforms are worth investing themselves in, that these platforms are going to help them moving positively in their careers.