Networking is a thing, you guys

This post should actually be called "Here's what I learned about illustration from the weirdest job of my freelance career (so far)(Part 1)" but that sounds like the title of a Fallout Boy song.

Recently, I was lucky enough to be involved in an amazing public art project that is now permanently installed at the brand new Johannesburg City Council Chambers in Braamfontein. I say "recently" because the building has only just been opened to the public in the last few months, but I actually got on board with the project in August 2016.

The Trinity Session held a public art competition a few months before I got involved, where members of the public were encouraged to submit drawings that, if they won, would be carved into the totem poles that adorn the inner columns of the new Council Chambers. Once the winning artworks were selected, they needed to be traced, reworked and vectorized so that they could be carved into kiaat totems by an absolutely massive CNC machine. That's where I came in.

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This is a really significant one to have on the books for me - not just because of the prestige of the job, or because of how interesting the actual work was, but also because this project was big and involved enough for me to finally take the leap into freelancing full time. Here are some of the things I learned.

Networking is a thing!

One of the things that gets drummed into you at design school is the power of networking. Go to industry events! Meet creative directors! Hand out business cards! While there is a place for that flavour of networking, what matters more is what happens afterwards. Did you do good work for that client? Were you thoughtful and understanding in your communication with them? Do you email them every so often to say hello and see if they need help on anything? The point of effective networking is to build actual relationships with people you enjoy working with, so that they'll want to work with you again. And, of course, recommend you to their friends.

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I ended up working on the Council Chambers job thanks to a very lucky and roundabout series of events.

At the first Book Dash I attended in July 2015, I met a nice lady named Sarah. She was volunteering there as an editor, and liked the illustrations I was working on for Is There Anyone Like Me? I didn't carry business cards, so I wrote my name and number down for her on some scrap paper, alongside a little quagga face.

 llustration from "Is There Another Me?"

llustration from "Is There Another Me?"

Several months later, I got a call from Sarah. She runs her own independent publishing company, and wanted to know if I was interested in working on the illustrations for a picture book about two little dogs. Was I keen?

If you've ever spoken with me for more than twelve minutes or so, you'll know that drawing pictures of little dogs is my JAM, so obviously I jumped at the chance. I was working full-time at Cerebra, so I worked many a late night and weekend to bring those two little dogs to life. That little book became Charlie and B by Helen Webster, the first book I ever illustrated for money and some of the most fun I've ever had with watercolours. Sarah and I enjoyed working together, and agreed to keep in touch for future projects.

 "Charlie and B" cover illustration

"Charlie and B" cover illustration

In July of 2016, about 6 months after Charlie and B was published, I started tentatively working toward freelancing full time. I had managed to negotiate a part time schedule at my job as marketing manager at CityROCK so that I could take on more freelance work. I made a post on Facebook about it, and also sent out an email to a few key people - old bosses, freelancer friends and previous clients - to let them know I was ready and willing to work. (Would you like to see some more about that email?) One of the people on that list was Sarah.

Not long after sending that email, I got an SMS from Sarah. Her friend Stephen was an artist and he needed help from a designer, was I available? 

Sarah's friend Stephen turned out to be Stephen flipping Hobbs of the flipping Trinity Session, arguably one of the most prolific and influential art collectives currently operating in this country. The rest is history, kind of.

Finally, we arrive at the point. Yes, a lot of this story comes down to luck, but there are a few key moments that offset the whole thing.

What if I had been too shy at Book Dash to speak to Sarah? What if I'd been pushy or flaky or impolite when we worked together, and she'd decided not to recommend me to her friend? What if I'd second-guessed my decision to email her when I started freelancing, not wanting to be a nuisance? What if I'd ignored her SMS about her artist friend, because artists never have good budget?

Good networking isn't just of the "OH GOD PLEASE HIRE ME" variety. It's a constant, conscious effort to be friendly, curious and helpful; and to make yourself such an enjoyable person to work with that people can't help but spread the good word about you.

Of course, when Stephen explained the sheer scale of the project to me, I was terrified. Which brings us to my next lesson: take on projects that scare you. Watch this space!