Not A Hobby

The Association of Illustrators recently launched an exciting new empowerment campaign. Established in 1973, the AOI was champion illustrators and support them with their business. The AOI have been campaigning to improve the illustration industry ever since they first began and this time they are calling for a full on revolution. Their new #NotAHobby campaign encourages illustrators to recognise the ever-increasing success of illustration as an industry and use this as motivation to improve their own business.

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Illustration by Cathal Duane

As the hashtag suggests, the campaign aims to better the understanding of illustration as more than just a hobby. Personally, whilst I think of illustration as far more than a hobby, I don’t always act like I do. During this Summer before I enter my final year studying Illustration at DJCAD, my main focus is going to be kickstarting my illustration career. Starting any career is more than a little daunting and I know I have a lot to do and a lot to learn. Luckily, I recently went to a talk by Lou Bones, the Membership Manager of the AOI, which gave me more than a few pointers. Here are just some of the wise words Lou shared…

A Consistent Style Is Key

Having a recognisable style which commissioners will remember is incredibly important. A client needs as good an idea as possible of what you’ll produce before they are willing to invest time and money in commissioning you. This might sound obvious but when you have spent a few years at university being encouraged to experiment it can be hard to identify a set style and edit down a portfolio which shows it. A great piece of advice I learnt from Kate Moross’ book Make Your Own Luck was to only include projects you would want to be hired to do in future. With this in mind, I have curated an illustration portfolio I am proud to share.

Personal Projects Win Clients

Sticking to the theme of portfolio advice, Lou also stressed the importance of personal projects. Projects you set yourself are the best way of growing a portfolio which is tailored specifically to fit your career goals. Treat these personal projects like any other project by setting briefs and deadlines. Any portfolio should clearly appeal to at most 3 different areas of illustration and I’ve kept this in mind whilst planning out my personal projects for the Summer.

Act Like A Professional

If you want to be treated as professional then you have to act like one. This includes simple practises like being friendly but not over-familiar when communicating with clients. Reputation in the design industry is everything so it is also important to be good at time keeping and diligent about details too. Lou Bones gave the talk to to a bunch of us studying illustration at DJCAD and tailored much of the advice to her audience. Being a student and professional aren’t mutually exclusive and whilst the “student” label can feel like comfort blanket at times, it can also prove to be a hinderance to your career. Introduce yourself as a “student” and you will potentially be taken advantage of due to your assumed lack of experience. Simply introducing yourself as an “illustrator” will do just fine.

Don’t Be Too Grateful

Another warning which came with a deep understanding of how creatives think was the advice not to be too grateful. At any stage in a creative career - but especially at the very beginning - you can feel so desperate to work in the design industry that your gratitude can override your business brain. You should never work for free and always remember that the offer of “exposure” is just a modern way of asking you to. Personally, I see how this could be a difficult rule to follow. The urge be seen as a professional illustrator is so strong that I could easily see it persuading me to take on a job which is not financially sensible. This being said, I wholeheartedly agree that it is best for the industry not to so I will try my absolute best to fight the urge.

It’s Okay To Ask For More Money

One of the most surprising pearls of wisdom was that no one ever loses a job because they ask for more money. This works off of the idea that once a client wants you they want you and asking for more money is never going to flip that entirely. Of course, that doesn’t mean you will always get what you are asking for but alterations to the brief - such as changing the specifications of the job for the same budget - or being given a fraction of the increase you have asked for is more likely than a “yes” snapping into a “no”. Having faith in your worth as an illustrator is a key part of being one professionally.

Motion Design Is On The Rise

Whilst some pieces of advice given at the talk were timeless others were very current. For example, motion design is apparently very on-trend at the moment. As illustrators this is useful to know. No one was suggesting that we all change discipline and suddenly start trying to produce full animations but having a gif or two within our portfolios wouldn’t hurt. For a while now I have wanted to learn how to make my illustration move so there’s another Summer goal for the list.

Social Media Is Important

We should all have an Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for our illustration work and be present on Instagram stories as they are what help build the strongest and most engaged audience. I have a funny little relationship with social media. I am only active on Instagram currently and even then it’s rare and all of my posts are planned out in advance. The odd thing is, when I do engage with social media, I really enjoy the positive online interactions it offers. Scheduling time to do so and treating it as a business tool and #NotAHobby is something I need to work on.

You Are A Business

The most important take away from Lou’s brilliant talk was to remember that as an illustrator you are a business. If you want to be a successful illustrator you have to invest as much time and energy in building your business as you would if you were in any other profession. One of the things the #NotAHobby campaign encourages creatives to do is to spend an hour a day developing their business so I’m making that a part of my plan. If you have a slight fear of failure like I do then the thought of treating yourself like a business will seem pretty scary. What I keep telling myself is that it is better to try and fail than regret not trying at all.


Above is just a tiny tip of the iceberg of advice the AOI have to offer on all things illustration and business. Their extensive knowledge covers everything you need to know to work in the industry including information about portfolios, contracts and costing. You can find out more about them an how to sign up here. You can also find out more about #NotAHobby and a list of links put together specially for the campaign here. I feel like at this point I should point out this isn’t a sponsored post. As much as I would love to have been paid to write this, I just really loved the talk!

Finally, this blog post has been far too word-heavy for my liking so before I go I thought I better include some more beautiful illustration work to balance things out. And who better to feature than Cathal Duane who created the AOI’s campaign image (the beautiful, trend gif at the top of this post) . Within his work, Cathal plays with an array of textures, shapes, patterns and marks to created bold, unusually-composed pieces with a real sense of character. Here a few of my favourite pieces from his portfolio…

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