30th October 2017 / Insiders Share / by Chia Sihan

5 Ways To Thrive
In An Illustration Career

Korean-born American illustrator James Yang shares how he carved a niche to work with leading brands

Plansponsor Magazine: Looking for answers

I wish someone told me how an illustration career is a series of waves. I thought it was just one giant wave. The first time the wave passed, I freaked out.

There’s no way around it: To be successful at a freelance career in the creative field requires one to be comfortable with discomfort and ambiguity. James is well-placed to share his journey to becoming an established freelancer in his field. 

No stranger to America’s creative and media giants, James has collaborated with many and published his works in more than a few across his career. These include Forbes, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, Newsweek, New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Time Magazine, Wall Street Journal, and his personal favourite, the Washington Post.

In retrospect, a good mentor might have saved James from some heartache and false alarms in the course of building his freelance career.

“I wish someone told me how an illustration career is a series of waves. I thought it was just one giant wave. The first time the wave passed, I freaked out. Illustrators who have a long career know how to adjust from one period to another. If I knew this was natural, it would have been less scary,” he shares.

Smithsonian Magazine: Map Tech
Nautilus: The Year 2050
Detail: Subway poster for MTA, New York

TFCS: Have you always wanted to be a freelancer, and why? How do you overcome your challenges or doubts, or the naysayers? 

James: I wanted to be an illustrator with guaranteed stability, but this didn’t exist.  If you wanted to be an illustrator you had to learn how to be a freelancer. Illustration was the goal so starting out, I worked for small design firms in Washington DC and learned how they ran their business so I could one day run my own.

For some reason I never doubted making it as an illustrator but I’m not sure if this was confidence or a naïve attitude 😀

Freelancing is like baking a cake. You have to follow a recipe and trust it will create a great cake. In my case this means constantly looking at influences to keep fresh, making sure to always show new work through social media or my website, and  attend professional events to say hi to colleagues or art directors. If I do all these things, work comes.

TFCS: What did success mean to you when you were just starting out? And how has the definition changed throughout your career?

James: At the start of my career, success meant being able to pay bills every month with illustration work. The first year riding the bus to show my art to art directors, I remembered thinking the bus driver had a more stable life than me.

Fortunately it has turned out to be a much nicer career than I could imagine. My wife and I are both creative people who freelance and have been able to spend a life making a living doing what we love.

At this point, success means still being relevant and fresh as in illustrator and still working on great projects. The dream, as I get older, is being comfortable enough to work but at a pace where my wife and I can enjoy life.

TFCS: You’re an award-winning artist and have worked with some of the biggest publishing names in the business. Career-wise, is there anything you’ve always wanted to do, but have yet to do it?

James: Fortunately, I’ve had a couple of dream projects lately including a subway poster for the New York Subway system which is in subway cars for 2017.  I would love to have an animation feature with my design or work on creating a look for a whole company. Designing a series of covers for a book series would be fun too.

TFCS: You strike us as an incredibly resilient and positive person. Where do you draw your positivity and strength from?

James: I am religious so this helps some but probably not as much as it should. A lot of strength comes from having a process to keep the career going and trusting this will produce results even when things are slow. I’m also lucky to have friends to hang out with, hobbies to distract, and a wife who takes me to interesting places because she performs globally. Having a balanced life keep things in perspective.

TFCS: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from your years of freelancing, and how long did it take for you to feel that your career has stabilised?

James: The biggest lesson learned is be honest with your clients when something is your fault, and treat people well. Clients will appreciate and trust you. Also, I’m very good at making deadlines so a lot of art directors call because they know I will produce something their clients like and take a lot of stress away from their lives.

My career started pretty quickly and I was illustrating full time after the first year out of school. It took 5 years before I felt like this was a career which could last a lifetime, and I wasn’t just the flavour of the month.

TFCS: If someone told you he/she wants to a successful illustrator like you, what would you tell them?

James: I would tell them they have to love it, they need to be persistent and honest enough to know how to handle their shortcomings. Sometimes the truth hurts but if you use it to learn, you will become a better and stronger artist.

Notre Dame magazine: What makes work satisfying?

James’ five tips for newbie illustrators

1. Create a website with your contact information and skills, so potential clients have a place to visit. Keep a blog with updated news on your site to show clients you are busy.

2. Very basic but make sure to have business cards with your contact information and website. Illustrators like to give postcards at events but I don’t like receiving post cards because they don’t fit in a pocket.

3. Take a basic business course so you learn how to run the money part of your business. If this is organized, it will take a lot of stress out of your life.

4. At the start, marketing and letting people know about you is very important. Join and keep posting on the social media sites which make the most sense for your business.

5. This may sound simple, but many people make this mistake. Make sure you can deliver what you promise as a freelancer. Your reputation for being easy to work with and producing good work is what will give you a long career.

Follow James on Instagram @yangblog to see more of his works.

Norwegian Medical Journal: Mentors

At the start of my career, success meant being able to pay bills every month with illustration work. The first year riding the bus to show my art to art directors, I remembered thinking the bus driver had a more stable life than me.

The New York Times: Comfort Food


Images by James Yang

About the Writer

Chia Sihan

A story junkie by nature, this TFCS scribe thrives on uncovering the backstories of her interview subjects, whether they are heads of corporations or a working Mum caring for a child with a developmental disorder. She finds it a privilege to be privy to these personal experiences. Some of the publications she has written for include the Singapore Women’s Weekly, L’Officiel Singapore, and Harper’s Bazaar Junior. It is this genuine love for storytelling and collaboration that led her to kickstart her journey as a co-founder of The Fashion Collective Singapore. Now the chief storyteller at TFCS, she is particularly inspired by the personal journeys of TFCS Mentors, not to mention their dedication towards the refinement of their craft.

Head over to The Editor’s Journal to read articles contributed by Sihan.

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