In 2010, I got a huge and shock when my work showed up front and centre on the cover of Design Week magazine. Still a print mag at the time, this went out to many thousands of people in the creative industry, and I must have sat staring at the issue on the newsagent shelf for a good while, my mouth and eyes wide open.
There’s one big reason why that happened. I got my work in front of the right people. It’s not a complex science, it’s not particularly difficult and it certainly wasn’t the best piece of work in the country, not on that day, not on that month. I’ve always felt like something of an imposter in the world of design. As an illustrator, I feel particularly ill equipped to turn the head of an art-director with let’s say, 20 years’ experience, who probably knows about typography and layouts. But it never stopped me. One thing I was cast-iron certain of is the fact that if I did not do whatever it took to get my work in front of the right people, it would never be seen. So what did I have to lose?
There’s a misguided belief that some of us are raging extroverts and to us, the gift of gab comes easy, but in my eight years in the game, it seems plainly obvious that none of us love the promotional side of our work. Even those who can talk are often doing it with the reluctance of a thirteen-year-old doing homework on a summer evening. What I always understood was that no matter who the person I needed to contact (most of the time I did not know), my chances of landing a job, feature or recommendation would be manifold if they did not have to come and find my work. If one morning, they received an envelope, with a sample of my work, an email with a familiar name and professional, friendly tone or a phone call to check in and update them on my goings on, then all of a sudden, I was on their radar, even if just for a hot second.
Online today, there are so many portfolio sites, hubs, blogs and apps, spilling over with astounding talent. I know that if I sit back and expect people to sift through all that to get to me, they are almost certain to be tempted by the work of another en route. Some dirty little Gollum-like creature will hiss and lure them over to their rock-pool with inky or pixelated fish and I’ll never even know they were trying to find me. But if I leave the woods, enter the domain of the people who can give me what I need, then I stand alone, just for a moment. It not only makes life easier for said people, but also shows desire, initiative and professionalism.
In 2010, I’d started a music project with Dirty Freud. He reviewed independent gigs on the Manchester music scene while I offered record covers and gig poster designs. We created the project to crowbar our own way in through the toilet window of the music industry. It paid off and we would get access to events beyond our reach - if we were just a writer and an illustrator working alone, this would have been far more difficult prior to our unison. This is how we got talking to Don Letts, who gave us permission to write up our conversation for the project website as an exclusive interview. I scurried away with my loot, created a portrait illustration, uploaded it and started to share with people who would love Don’s fierce passion and punk attitude. One of those people was the then art-director of Design Week who had me illustrating a column in the magazine. I told him all about the music work we were doing, knowing he was a huge music fan and a fan of Letts. One week later, I received an email from the editor, telling me they’d like to cover my new project as part of a feature on designers working in music. Being featured alongside Sir Peter Blake’s Sergeant Pepper album cover for The Beatles remains a career high, but shortly after, Sam called to tell me that it would be the lead feature and he’d love to run my Don Letts portrait as the front cover. The satisfaction from the end result was huge, but the fact all of this had been engineered through persistence, belief in my personal work and simply sending the idea to the creative press superseded that triumph. It’s a proactive trait I continue to utilise to great effect.
In 2017, the competition is even more fierce than back then and sadly, without dragging the work in which you believe into the spotlight, the chances are, it’ll fall through the cracks and into obscurity.
Ben Tallon is a freelance illustrator, author of Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the Madness of the Creative Industries and host of Arrest All Mimics, the Original Thinking and Creative Innovation podcast.
He works with WWE, EMI, Channel 4, The Guardian and The Premier League among others.
Want to hear from Ben? His recent podcasts will resonate with freelancers and creatives looking to hear from likeminded leaders in the industry. Visit: https://soundcloud.com/arrestallmimics