How to Act Like a Professional Freelancer (Even If You Don’t Feel Like One)

Illustration by Michelle Kondrich ©2017


My name is Jane Doe and I work with the Big Ad Agency. I found your portfolio online and wanted to discuss the possibility of commissioning you to create a large, billboard illustration for one of our clients.

Could you let me know your availability?

Thank you,

There it is. Your first seemingly legitimate email from a large client with a potentially huge budget. Now, how do you make sure that they take you seriously enough to pay you what the job is probably worth?

How you present yourself in correspondence with clients can be the difference between being treated like the professional you are or being taken advantage of. If you let your lack of confidence and experience show it gives them the upper hand in any negotiation.

This is a brief guide to presenting yourself as an experienced, confident professional at even the earliest stages of your career.

Show Your Best – and ONLY Your Best

The single most important tool you have for projecting professionalism is an online portfolio. This might go without saying but no one is going to hire you if you don’t have a central portfolio where they can find your best work. It is easier than ever to create a website that looks incredibly professional (Squarespace, Wix, Weebly, etc.) and puts your work front and center.

Your portfolio is for your best work and your best work only. Art directors are looking at the work itself but also at your ability to curate your own work. If you have fantastic work next to mediocre work, the art director will think that you don’t know the difference. And that means you won’t know the difference when you produce work for them. It can be hard to put work you like on the chopping block, but you have to be ruthless. Don’t err on the side of more work, err on the side of your best work.

What Would [insert name of respected illustrator] Say?

Interacting with clients via email or social media provides us with a great tool for projecting confidence and professionalism. Even if you are filled with anxiety and self-doubt, your email response to a client can be poised and self-assured and the client will be none-the-wiser.

When responding to clients via email, of course you know that you should be polite and write in full sentences. Those are the basics, but if you are having trouble knowing what to say or how to say it try using other illustrators as inspiration. Imagine you are responding to the email as an illustrator that you look up to and respect. How do you imagine their emails might sound?

This, not That.

Correspondence with clients should:

  • Be friendly and casual, not completely informal
  • Be informative and decisive, not wishy-washy
  • Have clear parameters for the scope of the project, not leaving room for interpretation

Level-up with templates.

When responding to requests for a quote, using a template for all of your estimates not only helps you work out the cost in your mind but says to the client, “I do this sort of thing everyday.” You can do it within an email or you can create a document that you attach. This is also a great time to send over a sample contract or Terms & Conditions document.

When a project is finished, most clients will want a clear invoice for payment and, if you have been working for any length of time, you probably already have some form of an invoice ready. A simple, professional invoice template reminds the client that you are organized and prepared from the beginning of a project to the end of it.

There are also a number of invoicing services available. I used one for several years until their pricing structure changed and I couldn’t send them for free anymore. At that point, I figured I should probably have my own anyway. It’s nice to have a service that will keep all of your invoices and client information, though. It certainly makes invoicing much more streamlined.

Some things to include on your invoice:

  • Your logo/name/address/contact info
  • Client name/address/contact info and the name of the person you are working with
  • Line items with descriptions for each element/illustration of the project and the cost for each
  • Total amount being invoiced
  • Due date (usually 30 days from the date of the invoice)

Don’t be afraid to take control of the discussion. 

This is all well and good, but what if they want to *gasp* TALK ON THE PHONE? I can’t speak for all of us, but my shyness means that a client asking to discuss over the phone gives me a jolt of anxiety.

But there is a lot of potential on a phone call. Potential to build a more personal relationship. Potential to have all your questions and their questions answered in a matter of minutes. And the potential to take the lead.

This can take some practice. You have to learn how to use the fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy to sound confidence in your answers. You might be speaking to someone who has never hired an illustrator before or someone who does nothing but hire illustrators. Either way, ask the questions you need answered and sound like you’re ready to hit the ground running with their project.

Bonus Tips for Appearing More Established Than You Feel

  • Some illustrators give themselves studio names in order to sound like a bigger operation
  • Have an “About Me” page on your website to help clients feel more personally connected to you
  • Include a selected client list on your “About Me” page
    • If you’ve been interviewed anywhere, consider a list or page for “Press”
    • If you your client list is tiny, leave it off altogether
  • Be ruthless when curating your portfolio
  • Your contact information should always be easy for an Art Director to find
    • And ditch the old hotmail address with numbers and your high school nicknames. You can use Gmail to have a domain specific email address, which is what I do.

What I really want you to keep in mind is that your clients don’t have any reason to know that you’ve only been doing this for 9 months and that you feel like a total fraud (that’s something that might never go away – maybe a future topic?). They see your work and they see what you project via your online presence and correspondence.

If it acts like a professional illustrator and works like a professional illustrator, it’s a professional illustrator.

If you have tips of your own, share them in the comments!

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Categories: business


Michelle Kondrich is a commercial artist and animator specializing in editorial illustration. She is also skilled at creating animated GIFs, storyboards, and whiteboard animation/video scribes. Her work gives a narrative feel to even the most conceptual ideas and she is passionate about solving problems in often surprising ways. Michelle is the creator and host of Creative Playdate, a podcast for people pursuing creative careers while raising children. You can find her portfolio and the podcast at

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