Design forces Lisa Congdon and Kate Bingaman-Burt hosted AIGA’s Career Tools: Fake It Till You Make It this past Friday. Despite the early hour, the crowd sat up eagerly on the edge of their chairs to hear the strategic advice offered—practical wisdom for aspiring illustrators looking to make their work into a paying gig.
Lisa has a uniquely inspiring story of success, starting her illustration career at age thirty-one after years working with education non-profits. A painting class she took with her brother at UC Berkeley ignited her passion for illustration, and she spent the next six years finding her voice as an artist. In 2007, Lisa went part-time at her non-profit gig and started a gallery and gift shop called Rare Device in San Francisco. Lisa was an early adopter on social media, promoting her work and reaching out to other artists to show at her gallery—one of the first shows she put on was a solo show for Kate Bingaman-Burt and a long-lasting friendship was born.
“Staying engaged with your community is the surest way to getting the work that you want”, Lisa advised us. “If I could encapsulate the secrets to success, it’s relationships with other people in the industry, even outside the industry. Everyone is a potential client or collaborator.” Lisa’s blog, ‘Today Is Going To Be Awesome’ features interviews and podcasts with other artists she admires. “I get genuinely excited by other people’s work … we should be celebrating other people’s good work.”
Lisa also offered advice on personal motivation, comparing a career to an ambitious hike. “There’s this chasm that exists between being a beginner and being legitimate, whatever being legitimate means to you. When you’re at the bottom, that’s when you want to give up. Building a bridge for yourself—I have some suggestions. Continually show up and be super disciplined about that. Because great careers take time to grow” she advised us. “‘Over and over and over again’ will be on my gravestone” she laughed. Her persistence has paid off in spades. One of her personal projects caught the eye of the MoMA, and in 2012 she illustrated their Design Collection for a series of notebooks. Her current client list includes Lululemon, Harvard University, Martha Stewart Living, Random House, and Chronicle Books, among many others.
Wrapping up with a Q&A session, Lisa and Kate fielded a question about pricing solidarity with other designers and artists. Lisa often fields pricing questions from designers she mentors, and offered insights about how to quote on their work. “When illustrators and designers accept jobs and do work for less that what they should be paid, it is not good for anyone. Remember that when you ask for what you deserve, you are doing our industry and our community a service.” Kate added that it was helpful to her to share work space with other designers—allowing her to compare notes on pricing with other designers that know her well.
When asked for advice on growing your personal design or illustration style, Lisa and Kate suggested choosing a daily project that “makes you a little bit nervous”, and challenging yourself to stick with it till it bears fruit. Lisa “would get up everyday and I would ask my agent for assignments … those assignments turned into my first personal projects and contributed to my success. And by success I mean people knowing who I was and hiring me to do work for them. “I now have a client list of over sixty-five, even seventy clients, and that’s all happened in the last ten years.”
Lisa and Kate have mastered profitable design life, and on that morning their success felt contagious. When the session wrapped up, there was a palpable burst of energy in the room—we all realized the power of the group assembled and what the future for design and Portland can look like if we have each others’ backs. Lisa and Kate understand the simple truth: it’s easier to be persistent when you have a network to support you.
Learn more from Lisa at lisacongdon.com! She recently launched a new series of online video classes she is developing and rolling out in 2016-2017. Her first video course is available now: Idea Generation: Expanding Your Creative Repertoire & Finding Your Voice.
Find Kate’s work at katebingamanburt.com. She is also an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at Portland State University, for all you aspiring art students. It goes without saying that you should send her a question or two!
Take Away Strategies For Career Success:
– It’s easier to be persistent when you have a network of designers to support you. Build relationships on social media with other artists and designers to get support, collaborate, and refer each other for work.
– Play the journalist. Behind every artist and designer’s career, there is an amazing story. Follow the work of people you admire, reach out to them, interview them about how they maintain their career momentum.
– Give back to your community and volunteer your time at events like Design Week. Joining committees and boards will energize you and grow your design wisdom exponentially. AIGA is always looking for great volunteers!
-Charge what you deserve for your work. When it comes to a sustainable career, pricing your work correctly is essential. Charging a legitimate fee will benefit both you, and support the design community around you, building value for design skills, and protecting other designers from being undervalued and exploited. Check out ‘Ladies Get Paid’ on Slack as a resource.
– Keep up with emerging technology and portfolio platforms by taking classes either in person or online. It’s a great way to meet people and engage in your design community. Grab a Multnomah County library card and get free access to Lynda.com classes through the library website.
Illustrations courtesy Lisa Congdon
Photos by Darius Kuzmickas
Copyedit by Matthew Miller