Are you making the most of your talents or could you be earning more from your creative offerings? Mark Ramshaw explains how to sell yourself more effectively, without having to sell out.
Money is a taboo subject for many working in the creative industry, yet anybody who earns money from their design skills must concede that commerce isn't necessarily the enemy of art. If you're working in the design business, there's nothing wrong with applying some good business sense, just so long as it does nothing to compromise artistic integrity or job satisfaction.
When first attempting to increase revenue, it is undoubtedly best to start with the issue of self-promotion, not least because the results are instant and it can be done for such a small outlay. And as illustrator Andy Potts points out, "If nobody knows you exist, they're not going to be able to commission you."
The key weapon in the designer's battle for publicity is, without a doubt, the internet. A website featuring a portfolio, a list of previous clients and those crucial contact details costs next to nothing to set up and maintain, yet has the ability to reach potential clients across the globe. "A site can act like a magnet, drawing attention to your work," agrees Potts.
Of course there's more to getting your name known online than simply uploading a website. To bring in the visitors and raise your profile, consider becoming more active in the online design community. There's nothing to stop you taking a more active approach, via free design portals such as Pixelsurgeon or indeed fee-based sites such as TheISpot.
With a strong web presence acting as a net to draw potential clients in, designers can then complement this networking-based approach via more direct marketing techniques. "Getting hold of a good and relevant client contact list is important," says Potts. "Illustration contacts can be purchased relatively cheaply through places such as the Association of Illustrators. Then, once you have a website, you have the perfect excuse to send regular mail-outs when you update the site with new work."
Once you've comfortably increased your profile it's time to start thinking about how best to distribute and sell your output. Creating custom designs for new and existing clients is all very well, but it's important to remember that options also exist that can expose your work to a wider audience. Stock art remains a controversial area for some, but it's hard to argue with the economics. Who wouldn't prefer to receive multiple payments for a piece of work rather than a one-off fee?
"There are two avenues in stock work: rights managed and royalty free," explains Sam Williams, co-founder of illustration studio Magictorch. "For rights-managed work the buyer gets the exclusive right to publish the work for a set amount of time, whereas with royalty free anyone can buy it and use it as many times as they like."
While rights-managed work carries the higher price tag, Williams says that royalty free can be more lucrative in the long run. "While the artist won't make as much money on an individual sale, the opportunity is there to make quite a bit of money if the image proves popular. We've had experience of both, and royalty-free work has generated us far more money than rights managed."
Williams concedes that design for the royalty-free market has traditionally been frowned upon by many as a bit cheap and low quality, but believes this is changing. "The quality has really improved over the last few years, with libraries such as Getty's Digital Vision pushing for a higher standard that makes for a more attractive proposition."
Designers also need to consider whether to work with an existing library or to set up their own and sell directly. There are a few success stories in the former camp, but due to the level of competition most decide it's easier and more cost-effective to use established channels.
Design for existing stock libraries involves a similar approval process as with editorial-based illustration work, albeit with a more open start point. Williams says that briefs for stock series created by Magictorch consisted of key words and themes: "Working like this requires a change in approach if you're used to a more client prescriptive method but can give you the opportunity to be more self-indulgent."
On the financial side, prices will vary depending on image size, while rates vary from library to library. Designers can expect to receive royalties ranging from as much as 50 per cent down to as little as 25 per cent. The pay-off is that the profile and marketing muscle offered ensures regular use of the image. "This is where stock work really comes into its own," says Williams.
It's not only stock art and fonts that benefit from online retailing. As many leading artists have discovered, the web has created a global shopping village where designer creations can be sold directly to the consumer. Far from feeling like a commercial sellout, such artists often find the creation of art and goods for sale to the general public the most rewarding and creatively stimulating design work of all.
"I started selling prints simply because folk were asking for it," says acclaimed artist Richard May. "I'm flattered that people like my work enough to stick it on their wall."
While May currently sells his art via CafePress and the newly launched 4Wall store, fellow Black Convoy collective member Jon Burgerman has opted to add an online shop to his website, and sell some items directly. Customer payments are simply handled online via the PayPal system.
"The shop is a sideline at the moment, though its rewards are as personally, and sometimes financially, satisfying as work for clients," says Burgerman. "Creative freedom is a big plus, as is reaching a wider audience. It's very humbling to think regular people, rather than clients or companies with expense accounts, want to spend money on your work."
Deciding what to sell - original art, prints, clothing, toys or other collectible merchandise - will obviously be partly determined by where your own talents lie. It's also worth considering how much time, effort and money each product will cost to produce, and indeed how much of a demand there's likely to be.
Although the cost-per-unit will be higher, smaller production runs are generally a good idea, particularly when testing the waters with a design or new type of product. This also allows you to make items 'limited edition', and therefore that bit more collectible. But how can you ensure that people will want to spend money on the items you produce?
Illustrator and Hi-Fructose co-founder Attaboy has heartfelt views on the subject: "Here's how to make merchandise desirable: don't sell merchandise. Instead sell pieces of your soul, backed by your life savings and manifested uniquely into physical form. Right down to each and every book, magazine, or sticker - it should hurt when they're all gone."
For those who want to go further than limited edition, there's also the option to sell one-off pieces of art. This enables designers to 'sell pieces of their soul', although the high initial return is mitigated by the fact that all the time spent creating a piece will earn just one payment. Such items can be sold online, or through a third-party shop, but with work of this value and exclusivity there's also the option to exhibit and sell in a gallery space.
"Exhibitions are a great way to widen your audience and create networking and/or collaborative opportunities," says Andy Potts. "It's worth looking around for opportunities to contribute for free into a venture such as Don't Panic or Woodsuch, which might result in a show. Alternatively, you could seek out a group of like-minded people and fund it between yourselves."
Such measures make good business sense, given that the financial burden of renting a whole space is likely to be too great for one person or even studio. And when it comes to sales, physical galleries often demand a cut upwards of 50 per cent. "You need a pocketful of money to rent a gallery, and while it's good PR, organising an exhibition involves a lot of headaches for generally little profit," says Nicholas Dawe, owner of Folio Art agency.
Widen your net
Along with the sale of goods, it's also worth considering how the sale of services can boost your income. This applies to web-based designers, in particular. If you're already talking to a client about creating, revamping or maintaining their website, you're perfectly placed to take things further. By handling domain registration and hosting for a client you can boost profits, increase client loyalty and raise your standing at the same time.
"It's important to stay competitive through the provision of complementary value-added services," says Gordon Adams at web design and hosting company Beetlebrow. "A one-stop shop for design, e-commerce and content management coupled with offerings such as domain registration, email hosting, shared or dedicated website, application and database hosting provides a new level of transparency."
Adams' suggests talking to your hosting provider to see which services you can resell: "They may even want to resell your design services, giving you another revenue stream."
But increasing your earning potential isn't just about the hard sell. It's also about approaching the job methodically, efficiently, and in a business-like manner. Take the way many solo designers set themselves up as self-employed 'sole traders'. While it's the easiest way to get started in business, and ensures the least accountancy work (and therefore the lowest accountancy fees), it's rarely the best option for anybody who is serious about making a living from their art.
"Anyone earning more than £25,000 should definitely be incorporated," says Jon Stocker at accountancy firm Milsted Langdon. This involves setting up a limited company. As well a limiting liability if you end up in debt, it also means you can pay yourself a minimum standard wage, top up your earning with tax-free dividends, and then only worry about paying tax on company profits. "Do this and the more you make the more you'll save," says Stocker. "There are set-up costs, and it does mean accountancy fees are higher - so you'd need a minimum of £20,000 a year to make it cost-effective - but it's both easy to get into and back out of, if necessary."
Consider your approach
Limited or not, it pays to take a professional, cost-effective approach to your work. An ability to set working hours and manage your workload, juggling commissions while making each client feel like they are receiving your undivided attention, is crucial to your long-term success.
"I usually try to balance three or four projects at any one time," says Richard May. "It takes time to develop the confidence to divide your attention without panicking, and it can be quite stressful, but you get used to it."
"You must learn how to say no to a job if the balance between successfully managing a lot of work and losing your own sanity in a stress-storm is to be achieved," adds Potts.
Sensible spending is also crucial in an industry that is so susceptible to seasonal and market trends. "It takes willpower to be frugal, especially if you need to do so after a number of financially successful years followed by a low-earner, but you must be disciplined," says May.
One of the best ways to maximize earnings is, of course, to increase fees. The difficulty lies not only in putting a value on the difficultto- quantify creative process, but also in assessing your own worth in the marketplace and setting amounts that offer the best possible return while keeping clients satisfied.
Potts says he sets a one-off fee for each commission, rather than charging hourly rates. "Most clients have a fee in mind and unless it is particularly low I will generally go with it, otherwise I will try and negotiate a higher fee. If I feel out of my depth when negotiating the right fee I tend to get my agent involved."
Many artists are unsure an agent will actually boost their earnings, or add another financial drain. Nicholas Dawe of Folio Art says that the benefit for artists will often depend on their personality: "Some are fantastic at what they do, but are less suited to dealing with clients. Those with less experience, in particular, tend to be unfamiliar with regard to what to charge."
A good agent will leverage their reputation and contacts to highlight an artist's portfolio. "We promote through various avenues - informing without bombarding. It's important to give good advice, connecting clients with the right artist for their needs," says Dawe.
It's this level of service that provides the real long-term financial benefits, ensuring that, even when paying a commission of around 30 per cent, designers can earn substantially more by signing with a reputable agent.
The pursuit of the almighty dollar doesn't necessarily equate with a decrease in creative control. Ultimately, these suggestions could free you up to spend more time honing skills, enjoying increased job satisfaction, or expanding your business into exciting new areas. Spend it wisely and you may just find that money can buy happiness after all.