Archive: Nov 2015

  1. 5 Essential Illustration Tools


    This is an article I originally posted way back in October of 2012, but it has consistently been one of the most popular articles on the Design Range, and is probably the most viewed thing I’ve ever written. The plan was to take a look through it and make some updates, but the fact is, what was true then is still true now and these tools are still my absolute go to bits of gear for illustration. One thing I will say though is that the Staedtler Mars Leadholder has really proved it’s worth over the last few years, and so if there’s just one bit of kit I’d say you needed to buy from all of this, it’d definitely be that little beauty.

    Whilst it may well be true that a bad workman always blames his tools, it definitely helps to have the right tools to begin with. As an illustrator you can have all the talent in the world, but unless you have a good understanding and knowledge of the equipment your using you’re really underselling yourself. Now I’m not saying that some of the worlds greatest artists couldn’t create a masterpiece with a stick of charcoal. I’m sure they could. But you have to remember that you’re a professional. You’re not creating art for arts sake, you’re creating it for a client with a very particular purpose in mind, and 99% of them would like that work to be delivered in the most professional manner available. So here I’ve listed the five essential tools you’ll need to forge a career in illustration, I’ve also spoken a little about the products that I personally use, but keep it in mind that every illustrator is an individual and whilst all of these items will make fantastic starting points, you shouldn’t feel chained to them if you’re developing in a particular direction.

    1. The Right Pencil

    Pretty obvious right? Pencils are brilliant, I love pencils, you can draw all day long and then rub out the mistakes like they never happened. Pencils make me look like a genius. Getting the right pencil however is something that takes a lot of trial and error. I’ve met a lot of other illustrators during my careers and read up on many more still, and they all seem to have ‘their’ pencil that just works for them. I can’t remember who it is now, but a while ago I was reading about an illustrator who learned that his favourite brand of pencil was due to be discontinued so he literally bought thousands upon thousands of these pencils, just to make sure he always had one!


    I’ll admit that when I first got started, I just thought a pencil was a pencil was a pencil (I think I may have even been using a few that had been rolling around in my pencil case since school!). However, I quickly learned that pencils can be as diverse as paints and that you really have to get the right lead for the job. I moved on to using a set of 24 pencils, some hard some soft, some thick, some thin, and I learnt a lot from using them. I produced some really great works, but I soon found that a lot of my clients wanted polished digital illustrations, and so creating a masterpiece in lead turned out to be a bit of a waste of time.

    Uni Ball Kuru Toga

    From there I started using the Uni Ball Kuru Toga mechanical pencil, which sold me on the way it rotated the lead as you used it in order to always keep it sharp. As my pencils were now just outlines for my digital work it didn’t matter that I was only using one type of lead and so opted for good old HB.

    Staedtler Mars Leadholder

    Recently I’ve switched away from the Kuru Toga, to the Staedtler Mars Leadholder as it’s been recommended to me by a lot of artists that I admire, and I’m really loving it. The lead is more expensive, but it’s a lot thicker, and somehow feels a lot more natural and fluid (plus you don’t have to worry about it snapping if you press too hard). The downside is that you need to manually sharpen it every time the point get’s dull. The leadholder actually has a sharpener built into it, but with nowhere to put the excess lead, things get very messy, so I strongly recommend purchasing the Mars Pointer Tub as well as it’s just so so much easier.

    2. The Right Pen

    Just like having the right pencil comes down to personal choice so too does having the right pen to work with. Now any illustrator worth his salt will have a whole range of different pens at their disposal for every eventuality, but all of them will have one that they always use, that they couldn’t live without. I’ve heard it said many times before that the best inkers in the world uses brushes as you can vary the line weight. But, with that said, I’ve also been told by Mark Chiarello (Art Director at DC comics) that the one pen he always keeps on him is a Sharpie Fine Point Marker!

    Pentel Brush Pen

    Personally for me (and I’ve said this before in a few of my illustration tutorials) the  best pen I’ve been able to find out there is the Pentel Brush Pen as instead of having a nib it has a bristles like a brush, meaning that you can still get the difference in line weight, but without the messy ink pots. Obviously I use it in conjunction with a load of other pens (often for much thinner lines), but I find myself using this pen on almost all of my illustrations.

    3. Drawing Table

    Drawing Tables can be looked over by the aspiring illustrator so easily, but let me tell you, the sooner you get one, the better. I spent years illustrating on a flat desk and one thing I noticed in my illustrations again and again was that they were totally out of proportion, the head was huge and the legs were way too short. I couldn’t understand it, everything looked perfect when I was drawing it, but now I’m on the computer it looks all wrong… maybe the scanner is broken? In actual fact I’d been drawing at a weird perspective, and that was why my illustrations looked odd. Think about it, if you’re working on a flat surface then the top of the paper is further away from your eyes than the bottom, but you don’t draw to compensate to that, you just draw what looks right to your eyes, and so when you hold the paper level, everything is out of sync.

    Ikea Drawing Table

    Drawing tables (although they can be) don’t have to be a huge expense, and you really don’t need an all singing all dancing architecture grade drafting table. At Hunting Town I just bought a couple of adjustable trestles and a desk top from Ikea and set the table to an angle I felt comfortable with, the whole thing cost under £100 and it works a charm. If space is more of an issue in your office then you can always opt for a desktop drawing board that can be tucked away when not needed and doesn’t cost a great deal (if you find your keyboard and mouse keep getting in the way, check out this article on how to set up a wireless workspace).

    4. Scanner

    As a professional illustrator, at some point or another you’re going to have to get your work onto a computer screen, I doubt very much that a client will hire you to produce a one off illustration that you can send through the post to them (and even if they did, that makes you an artist, not a designer). Thankfully scanners are pretty easy to come by now as most modern printers have a scan function as standard. Obviously some scanners are better than others and you need to make sure you pick one that scans at a resolution of at least 300 dpi.

     Brother MFC-5890CN printer and scanner

    I use a Brother MFC-5890CN printer and scanner as it actually has an A3 flat-bed scanner built into it which can be difficult to come by and is really useful for illustrators working on large scale projects. In all honesty I don’t have a huge knowledge base when it comes to different brands of scanner, as before I had this one, I used it’s younger A4 counterpart. All I know is that these ones from Brother work very well indeed, and I’m very happy with the quality I get out of them.

    5. Graphics Tablet

    A professional illustrator is a diverse illustrator and in this day and age that means digital. Every day I see amazing artworks created purely on graphics tablets and watch videos of people paint masterpieces from scratch with nothing more than a digital pen. Amazing though this may be, the graphics tablet is not a tool reserved exclusively for the digital Da Vincis of our time, but rather an item that every designer should have in their arsenal. Originally I used a Trust a3 graphics tablet as it was the biggest one I could find for the money I had to spend and I never really took to it. The pen was bulky, uncomfortable and moving it over the tablet felt very uncomfortable. Needless to say it sat at the side of my desk gathering dust, until one day I totally forgot it was even there an put a red hot pan (don’t ask) down on it, instantly ruining it.

    Wacom Bamboo Pen

    As a designer I felt compelled to replace it and instead opted for the much smaller Bamboo Pen from Wacom. The difference was immense and I have never looked back. Seriously if you’re even thinking about purchasing a graphic tablet, just make sure it’s a Wacom, because I’ve used a few brands now and let me tell you – they are worlds apart (Note – the Bamboo Pen I have in the picture is actually a pretty old model, the new ones that are available now are even nicer!). I don’t actually use my current Wacom for drawing any more as I like the feel of real pens, pencils and paper, but I do use it extensively for touching up my line work and for colouring my illustrations. At some point, your mouse just won’t  be accurate enough to do what you want and it’s at these times that a graphics tablet is utterly essential.

    So there you have it. Hopefully if you’re already a professional illustrator you have the bulk of these items already squared away, and if you’re just starting out make sure these feature highly on your shopping list! Once again though I want to point out that whilst the products I’ve recommended are what I use, and think very highly of, they may not be the absolute best choice for your particular style, so keep on searching and trying new products every chance you get.

    If you want to know more about the equipment I use to design check out the resource page where I list all the awesome stuff I use to create illustrations day to day.

    Just so you know, the product links I’ve included are totally affiliate links so I get a small commission (at no extra cost to you) if you decide to buy any of them. These are all products that I own and I’m recommending them because I find them genuinely useful.

    Photo Credit to Nalini Prasanna
  2. How To Make Your Business Look Like An Agency


    I don’t know about you but I check out my competition regularly. I also check out the bigger agencies in my space and over the years I have wondered how I could get to their level and present my company like an agency.

    Over time I have realised that some simple steps have helped me (and now you!) achieve this goal.

    Decide What You Want

    First I think most of us think big is good when in fact it isn’t always. Large agencies like any other business have identical problems to you. They need to make payroll, fill their pipeline with profitable work and make sure that their costs do not exceed their expenses.

    Large agencies and any other type of business have identical problems to you.

    It took me an several years to bring my company to where it operates like an agency, but without the baggage of an agency. Here is what I did and still do to provide agency level service to my clients. Interestingly little of it is down to creating amazing designs.

    Responding Like A Professional

    I presume you consider yourself to be a professional. When I started out I must confess the quality of materials and consistency of how I dealt with customers was often inconsistent.

    Developing a consistent repeatable process for onboarding clients is something that you should ruthlessly work on.

    The first of these is how you answer queries and provide quotes and proposals.

    If email is how you mostly get inquiries then think seriously about developing an autoresponder to your emails.  If you are not a fan of auto responders then consistent cookie cutter reply each time. When you are contacted then make sure this personable, friendly email is received right away.

    I can’t keep track of how many customers we get purely they never got any reply. Having an auto responder or immediate style reply makes sure they feel engaged and you have started the process with them.

    If you have collected their phone number then call them within 24 hours. I often call within 30 minutes of receipt. Responding quickly does not make you look needy it makes you look professional.

    responding quickly

    Having had a conversation or even an email trail, it is then incumbent on you to deliver a proposal to them outlining what you are going to deliver.

    A lot of us use Word to develop our proposals. I abandoned Word several years ago. Word sucks for creating proposals. I now use two methods for onboarding clients.

    First I use Bidsketch a tool for creating proposals. There are several cloud based tools like this for creating proposals really easily and quickly. I am not sure about you but 80% of what I deliver is pretty much the same for the 2-3 different types of offerings I deliver (website design, eCommerce or design).

    All of these tools allow you to create proposals using boilerplate text that you can customise to your needs. Bidsketch also has a killer feature that emails you when your client opens the proposal. How cool is that! So when they open it, I get notified and and I send an email soon after asking if they have any questions.

    Secondly I have a designed brochure which shows my onboarding process, timeline and some testimonials. I use this as a follow up to reinforce how I work and to showcase the team. Even though a lot of this information may be on your site already it helps to put it in an easiuly readable package and continues the engagement process at the same time

    All of the above may seem like a ton of work but once you put it in place you will reduce the amount of time you spend working to get customers by a 30-40% percentage.

    Getting Paid

    You should never ever ever ever start a project without a deposit. I always joke (with a slightly bitter smile) about how I could buy a new car with the amount of projects that I started and never got paid for when I started out as a business.

    When people pay a deposit they see that the project has started

    I typically look for a 30-50% deposit for projects (depending on the scope of the project). I then stagger these payments over the rest of the project. When people pay a deposit they see that the project has started and there is a payment schedule.

    When I look back at why I didn’t get paid in the early days I now realise that providing work without getting a deposit gives the impression that you are just doing the work for free and and that the project isn’t real or live.


    Tagging along with getting paid you need to immediately get an invoicing package. If you are using Excel or some spreadsheet package then this is again time consuming and woefully inadequate for sending out professional branded invoices. Again there are tools like Freshbooks that can really help here and reduce the amount of time you need spend messing with the Excel to create invoices.

    Sending prompt invoices needs to be a huge part of your weekly process. Don’t be afraid to hit send with an invoice, these packages will make it easy and your clients will realise that you are a real business and not a guy wearing flip flops in Starbucks. If you do work from Starbucks then using these tools will help anyway!

    Growing your Team

    If you want to get agency level work then I am 100% sure that you can’t do it all yourself. You need to spend time chasing prospects, managing customers (see more on this below), marketing and project managing existing clients.

    I used to spend a ton of hours struggling with getting even the most basic of designs right before moving to development. It was a lot of fun but when I mapped the hours spent to what I was getting paid I realised that it was often a loss making exercise.

    About 4 years ago I reached out to a number of designers to start helping me with design and it transformed the quality of what we were producing. I now have a virtual team of 3 designers I use all the time. I rarely open Photoshop these days as I use these guys all the time now for design. The quality of what we have produced since has soared and I can now charge more for the higher quality of end product.

    The quality of what we have produced since has soared

    I can now take on more projects and don’t spend hours sweating over stuff that the design guys can do in an hour. You may love what you do; design, web development, or whatever but if you want more customers then you need to allocate time for sales, networking, and meetings. If you are bent over a task all day you will find it practically impossible to grow.

    I am not suggesting hiring anyone. Reach out to a counterpart in your niche and suggest partnering for your next project. You do the dev they do the design. Agree a rate and price your proposal accordingly.

    I have had guys on the team working practically full time for the past 3 years and the results have been great. I can bill a little more as our quality of design is far higher and I can turn more projects.

    Getting New Customers

    The idea that agencies have a hose pipe of new customers pouring in is more of a pipe dream than reality. I had a great conversation with an agency owner recently and when I asked him where most of his work came from he told me that it came from his existing client base.

    You should allocate time every week to reach out to two or three of your existing clients

    As freelancers we tend to deliver projects and move onto the next prospect. This is a mistake. You should allocate time every week to reach out to two or three of your existing clients. It can be a call (I recommend this) or an email. Meet for a coffee. Don’t use the time to sell, in fact avoid this.

    Keeping in your customers minds means that they will either think of you for new projects or refer you to others. A large percentage of our work comes from existing customers from just using this method.


    I call this section the magic as I am not sure what you do specifically. But one of the huge misconceptions that I now understand is that the people doing the best work don’t always make the most money. That agency you dream to be may do amazing work but they also do good enough work for tons of clients.

    Concentrate on delivering just enough to your clients

    If you are to take any piece of advice from this article in growing your customer base it is to concentrate on delivering just enough to your clients. Sure make it’s high quality and portfolio quality but please don’t over deliver, please don’t add in nice to haves, please deliver what you said you would and nothing more.

    The biggest misunderstanding and mistake I used to make was that my customers in the initial years wanted a design and development masterpiece. This is far from the case. They usually want form and function that looked well.

    You may argue that you should do your utmost to deliver best in class. Well I tend to disagree with this. Yes deliver a great piece of work. But if you want to get more work from this project then your focus should be on great communication with your client, excellent project management and keeping in touch post project.

    You will rarely if ever hear your customer say

    “Wow what an amazing color choice and look at how amazing the CSS is”

    You are more likely to hear from a friend associate of their calling you to say

    “John gave me your number and was very happy with the project you did with him”



    Your new thought process when you wake up in the morning should be asking yourself the following questions.

    1. What is my current prospect pipeline? What am I doing today to improve how I onboard?
    2. Are my proposals convincing, easy to read, clear on scope?
    3. What are my open invoices? Who do I need to chase?

    Then get doing the pretty stuff.

    Good luck!