We live and we learn: some reminders for the creative species

I first thought about writing this article 4 years ago, when I was freshly welcomed into the Visual Playground family. But I thought, as one does, that maybe my list would be perceived as patronizing or (hopefully) redundant – as it was supposed to mark mostly common sense advice. As part of the team for two amazing editions of the festival (Visual Playground 2016 & 2017), and as an illustration & design consultant/agent/curator, I am still surprised to find out many of those basic good practices are more than often overlooked even by established professionals. I am limiting my observations to the local community, of course.

“Call your chickens to you using their food call. A short, high-pitched “tuck tuck tuck” sound is chicken code for “I’ve found food, come check it out!””

So I decided to compile a (first, non-exhaustive) list of recommendations after all. Here goes:

1. Invest in a portfolio website/platform.

The online portfolio is your main business card: one handed to the entire planet. It is also proof you are taking your work seriously. Proof you’re a professional.

Also: the point of a business card is to give out some basic info about you, in order to be contacted. Like a phone number and/or an e-mail address. Who in the world thought contact forms would ever be a good idea?
(Actually, it depends: if you never want people to get in touch with you, I get that, I truly get it :), it is a good idea to replace your contact info with a contact form – guaranteed silence.)

2. Curate your work.

I know we all get attached to the stuff we make, we see our work as our baby, it’s just how we’re made. But evolution (and an optimistic view on the world) teaches us we slowly but constantly improve. Ourselves. Our work.

Archiving work is like archiving ourselves: you know that shame you drown in whenever your parents show old photos of you to all your extended family? Or worse: when they post them on your Facebook wall?

Beginnings are not always lame or shameful, and it’s only sane to accept them as a part of ourselves, of our history. But you wouldn’t attach a photo of your 12yo self to your CV today, would you?

So, yes, select and keep in your portfolio only the work that best speaks about the current you. And, for the love of dog, please update it constantly (constantly means more than once a year, preferably). You HAVE time.

3. Show your work.

Social media, the necessary evil. Update it once or twice a week to show you’re alive (it depends on the flow of your work, though/or the need to actually promote it). Do not, I repeat, do not replace your portfolio website with an Instagram account/Facebook page. These are only adjacent tools. They’re like pubs or coffee shops: you go there to find out about the world and tell the world about yourself. You go there to meet with friends and have a chat. But your website is both your home and your office. Take good care of it.

(Because social media accounts are vulnerable and perishable. How often do you back-up your Instagram account? How often do you back-up your list of contacts?)

4. Humanize your professional presence, but not too much.

Because there’s just too much to do, too many online accounts to update, many of us can’t properly juggle with and between them. That is justifiable. The too-muchness haunts us all.

The more I live and the more I see, the more I become an advocate for keeping the personal life out of our professional presence. Check out your privacy settings, and think about your audience before you post 527 photos of your cat/puppy/baby/self. There were many situations in which, in lack of a professional portfolio, I had to look up artists’ & designers’ work on their social media accounts: the timelines were messy and tiring and, even with the best intentions of recommending them forward, I decided not to.

Because the way you manage this part of your life says a lot about your organizing skills, about your discretion principles, about your impulsiveness or reflection capacity. Keep it clean.

There’s a lot of text around here, so I thought I should insert a disruptive photo of a pencil box I got from Vlad last Christmas. I love Roz Chast. I love pencils.

5. Prison is bad, mkay?

Don’t shut down the world around you. I know, as a freelancer, we tend to isolate ourselves a lot. To stop the noise. But don’t forget to take time to discover what’s outside (outside of us, of our home, of our fluffy comfort zone). We put ourselves into our work more often than we think. Let’s become better us, then let’s do better work.

6. Check out other people’s portfolios.

Learn from those you admire.

Don’t copy.

Of course there’s no such thing as originality. We’ve been playing the same notes for so many years now. But the more we take in, the more we can mix and the more we can give back. Sometimes it comes out of us as art, sometimes it’s just poop.

7. Sending out your portfolio.

You’re excited. You’ve discovered a new gallery/agency you like and you decided to send them a sample of your work.

There are different rules for sending out portfolios, it depends on each institution’s curation/subscription policy. But there are five rules that should come in handy whenever you’re too excited with yourself:

rule 1: Make sure you’ve read the subscription policy. If there isn’t one, go wild and try your luck.

rule 2: Not too wild, though: make sure your portfolio fits the profile of the institution and do mention the reason for sending it over. Don’t be a spammer.

rule 3: Nobody likes big mail attachments and I can’t lie! If you decide to attach images or a presentation file (.pdf?) to the e-mail, do resize everything. Don’t ever send e-mails larger than 4mb. And 4mb is a lot, actually.

rule 4: If you’ve sent an unsolicited application, do not expect a reply; nobody owes you anything, unless you have a signed contract or you’re in a relationship with them; as we receive tons of e-mails on a daily basis, it’s almost impossible replying to them all and also do some work and also live a little; the lack of a reply can have a multitude of reasons behind it, but the most common is, indeed, “not interested”. Never take it personally. Just do your best work. People will find out about you.

rule 5: Don’t be pushy. Aggressive behavior is never appropriate.

8. Rejection is neither bad, nor unfair (most of the time).

It just feels bad and unfair. Because you’ve put too many hopes and too much energy into something you were not actually ready for, or, who knows, maybe it wasn’t ready for you. Or, quite r-a-r-e-l-y, but it happens: just bad luck, asynchronism, Mercury Retrograde, ugh (somebody else got there just before you did – like all those theater tickets that vanish before I manage to add them to my basket).

Learn from those who were not rejected. Don’t hate them.

If you think of taking a stand against an admission result, think twice. Most often it’s just an anger rush you might regret later. Of course, if you can contest a visible omission, an infringement of the terms and conditions of a competition, something palpable, quantifiable, definitely go for it. But if you just think it’s unfair and you don’t personally like the results and you are way better than anyone selected (or better than someone in particular), then silence would be a very decent behavior.

9. Discretion first, public rage later.

Address directly the person (agency, client, institution) that acts inappropriately. Express your concerns and complaints and wait for their answer. If the answer doesn’t come in a reasonable period of time or if it’s disrespectful, ask a lawyer what’s the best course of action you can take. Then go public. Here in Eastern Europe we tend to be very impulsive when we’re angry, and most times we lose more than we win.

10. Don’t trust your mom.

Moms like everything we do (as long as it is not illegal, I guess :)). They’re not reliable feedback sources. Neither are our fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts or uncles, boyfriends or husbands. Unless they work in the same field as we do. They usually don’t.

Support from our dear ones is very important, extremely important. But don’t take likes and hearts and “look how talented he/she is” as professional feedback.

Go to feedback sessions, portfolio reviews, talk to people from the community, ask for honest evaluations from people you admire, when you get the chance. And, most importantly, try to apply some of the advice you get.

11. It does not matter whom you know.

It matters what you do (and what, not who, you are).

Every single time I was in the position of judging an admission or a public contest, there were a few cases of the usual: “I have this talented friend”, “Hey, I’ve submitted my project too, wink-wink!”.
In this context, here’s a kind reminder: friendship doesn’t matter. Good work and common sense will do. And common sense is knowing there’s no way this approach can work: it’s not even funny, it’s insulting. Yes, we’re humans, thus subjective, but the criteria and the judging quality (justifications, votes, notes, formulas) in every event I’ve been a part of were as professional as could be.

As I was saying, many of these seem so obvious, but my latest experiences taught me they aren’t. I will continue this list, but for now it should do.

tl;dr: Do good work, better work, the best work and also try to be a decent human being.

Now: One way to review your work, to catch up with fellow artists and designers, to feel free to learn and have fun, to create and meet some inspiring people is participating in classes, workshops, talks and events that bring the outside world a little closer to you. Being in touch with what’s happening and seeing what the most appreciated people in your field are up to can only contribute to a better sense of where you stand and what you can do to become even more awesome. Because becoming is a long game of doing. Talent is not on the list. So:


If you’re an illustrator or a graphic designer (Romanian citizen over 18 years of age), you should really try to APPLY to this new series of workshops: 8 days of learning from wonderful people, top minds and hearts from this colorful industry, coming to Bucharest from all over the world. The line-up is incredible and there are only 24 spots available for the time of your lives. It’s not an overstatement, it’s just an honest feedback received from the people who’ve attended the previous editions of this hybrid festival-talent-camp-learningdom.

If you have a passion for graphic design and illustration (or you’re a beginner), the team has something for you too: a two-day conference starring the artists and studios invited to share their niceness at Visual Playground. No admission test here, just grab your tickets (there’s a limited number of tickets available, the “I have a friend” situation does not work here either, when it’s sold out, it’s sold out).

If you love well done things, things done with a lot of love, if you want to take pride in supporting a local team trying to help the visual education around here, if you’re an agency and you can think of a client who’d share the Visual Playground values, the NGO is currently looking for trustworthy partners and sponsors. Get in touch 😀

Also: follow their updates on Instagram & Facebook!

To be continued ^___^


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