Oliver Weiss Design
Oliver Weiss Design

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INFO > Interview with FreelanceSwitch

Art: Interview with FreelanceSwitch
Succeeding as a
Freelance Illustrator

||| Interview: Kristen Fischer

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 circuit.


From: FreelanceSwitch (2010)

FreelanceSwitch is a US community of expert freelancers from around the world. The blog covers a vast array of topics about life as a freelancer. The site has over 400,000 monthly readers.
>SUCEEDING AS A FREELANCE ILLUSTRATOR: Interview with FreelanceSwitch.

>3x3 MAGAZINE: Lunch with Oliver Weiss.

>NEVER STOP GETTING INSPIRED: Interview with PSD Photoshop.

>ELTERN MAGAZINE: Oliver's first illustration was published when he won a contest at the age of ten.

>OKTOBERFEST AWARD: Interview with Münchner Merkur.

>OKTOBERFEST AWARD: Interview with the Oktoberfest.de website.

>OKTOBERFEST AWARD: Interview with music supporter Magazine.

>OKTOBERFEST AWARD: Interview with Illustration Magazine.

ow long did it take you to get on your feet as a freelancer? What were some of the challenges?
     Oliver Weiss: 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.

I 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 living.


Changes 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?
     Oliver Weiss: 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?
     Oliver Weiss: 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.


Reaching out to Clients

How do you get such well-known clients? Is it mostly from agencies, or have you approached big companies yourself?
     Oliver Weiss: 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.

“It is important to have a fully functioning web site that contains loads of information..”

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?
     Oliver Weiss: 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.


Getting out There

What other methods do you recommend for designers and other freelancers to boost their image and get more positive press?
     Oliver Weiss: 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?
     Oliver Weiss: 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 for that?
     Oliver Weiss: 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 his concept.

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 Ahead?

What's next on the horizon for you?
     Oliver Weiss: 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?
     Oliver Weiss: 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. [2010]

(c) 1989–2018 Oliver Weiss Design Up! 
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