Master of all trades

With clients expecting more and more from freelancers, learning new skills has never been more important. Dean Evans talks to the creatives reaping the benefits of doing so.

Have you ever turned down a job because you didn't have the necessary skills? Clients are increasingly expecting more from freelancers as new design projects criss-cross different media platforms. It's why many illustrators and designers are keen to boost their creative know-how by trying out new things such as animation, 3D modelling and web design. This typically means jumping in at the deep-end with new software, such as Cinema 4D, Maya, 3dsMax, After Effects, HTML or Flash. But it's not as hard as you might think and the long-term rewards usually outweigh any short-term pain.

Crucially, diversifying to pick up new skills can open up new commercial possibilities. "I've always believed in an on-going education", says illustrator Ben O'Brien, who studied animation at university and originally started his career as an animator. "Around six years ago, I started becoming interested in what people were doing with Adobe Illustrator. So I got myself a copy and dived in to see what could be done. I was amazed. For a couple of months I dedicated all my spare time to learning it inside-out, while at the same time building up a portfolio of illustration work completely separate to my day job.

"I had a few small illustration jobs while working for this studio. But it wasn't long before I made the decision to take this new skill and try my chances with it. So I left my job and started looking for illustration work. My first call was from Airside, which was looking for freelancers with strong Illustrator skills to work on an advertising campaign for MasterCard. Looking back, the opportunity was especially good since it was quite an intensive illustration project - I had to fine-tune my technical skills to pull it all off successfully. Since then I have always worked with Illustrator. It has become my business and my passion."

O'Brien believes that the design industry, technology and client expectations evolve so quickly that you often have to push yourself to keep up. So where do you start? Should you splash the cash on an expensive formal training course, or simply choose to experiment in your spare time? One way is simply to learn new skills yourself. Ask yourself: Who do you want to work for? What sort of projects are in demand? What do you need to know to satisfy the previous two questions? Matt Dent, a freelance illustrator, has already been through a similar thought process, and started by teaching himself how to use Photoshop.

"I realised that I needed to focus on a particular set of skills if I was going to attract the type of clients that I wanted to work for," he explains. "So I started by focusing completely on my personal work. I spent a lot of time working with Photoshop, experimenting and looking at how different techniques and ideas could push my work forward. Now that I feel confident using Photoshop, and after working on a range of projects, I have gone on to learn other programs and skills. I have also taught myself how to use Illustrator, InDesign, Final Cut and Flash, as well as learning HTML and CSS to create my website."

Jeremyville, aka Jeremy Andrew, agrees that by offering more to prospective clients you can set yourself apart from the crowd. Illustrators and graphic designers are a dime-a-dozen these days, so offering a service that embraces more than one design discipline can give you more currency and earning power in the marketplace. Jeremyville has expanded his own skill-set into animation production, which involves "producing a whole ad, from art, to voiceovers, to directing it, and supplying the agency with the finished files." He's also heavily involved in 3D figure design with Kidrobot and is currently working in New York on a new range of toys.

"I didn't get training in these new areas," he told us. "I was never taught animation, or the various aspects of producing an animated ad, I just learnt it as I went along. You can do homework and research on it, and employ freelancers who help you fill in the gaps you don't know yet. There is always an answer. I have always worked like that - I never went to design or art school. I studied architecture, so I have always needed to find my own solutions. It's also more fun that way."

Jeremyville used his new animation knowledge in a campaign for MasterCard New York (McCann Erickson). "It was a series of 30-second spots that we animated and produced," he says. "I needed to work with animators that had to learn the specific way my characters are drawn in the animation realm." All of which brings us to another useful way of expanding your skill-set - collaboration.

"Working as part of a team makes a big difference to your knowledge base," says Sean Farrow, a visual effects artist on the recent The Da Vinci Code sequel, Angels & Demons. "Everyone has had different backgrounds, used different approaches and had different experiences. Most of my best techniques and tips come from working with other talented people. Be a sponge and learn by not being afraid to ask: 'Hey, how did you do that?'"

Chris Malbon, senior designer at McFaul is also a fan of collaborative learning. Sometimes it's the only way. "The past year I have been learning Cinema 4D," he says. "I had to learn it pretty quickly for a job McFaul Studios did with Nokia. The first phase of the job was completed by our sister company, Dropp. But they got really busy, so it was left to me to learn how they did it for phase two! I freaked out a little, if I'm honest. I come from a 2D, hands-on background of illustration and graphic design, so starting to think in all dimensions was a challenge. But with some great teaching from the Dropp lads, it all fell into place."

"We used Illustrator to create flat stroke line work, then used the 3D package to create 3D objects using the illustrations as a guide. We then mapped the line work onto elements, then composed it all in After Effects and Flash for the interactive/ multimedia side of the job, and Photoshop for all the print side. The overall effect is great, it gave the illustrations that extra oomph, and because the people in the campaign were all photographed, the depth of field made it all that bit more 'real'. We have been using it more and more on other projects - it's now just another string to the McFaul Studio bow!"

Dutch illustrator Mark Verhaagen was dunked face-first into an unfamiliar discipline when he was asked to animate a bumper, promo and leader for Nickelodeon's Winternick show. "I had only one-and-a-half weeks to come up with a story, make the designs and then do the animations," he remembers. "Because I didn't have a lot of animation experience at the time, and it was such an amount of work, I couldn't do it on my own. But as I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn new things, I asked some friends to help me out, and we were able to do the project together."

There are some strong themes that underpin the various viewpoints here: don't be afraid to try out new things (you have got to keep learning just to keep up with the industry); remember that clients expect more, so try to deliver more; and learn from other people who have essential skills that you lack. Of course, you can always plug your knowledge gaps by outsourcing. For example, Rod Hunt, an illustrator and chairman of the Association of Illustrators (AOI) is moving into animation, but isn't learning the skills himself. Why? "Working with someone with 10 years of animation experience will achieve better results than me learning everything from scratch," he says. And it's a good point.

Of course, you don't have to work in different places or collaborate with other designers to learn new skills. As Matt Dent has proved, you can still learn a lot on your own. "I would definitely recommend a few websites," he says. "Illustrator Nate Williams provides some great advice on his blog. There are also some really good books that I often look back to, such as Fundamentals of Illustration by Lawrence Zeegen, and Mark Wigan's Basics Illustration series."

But don't get carried away. As Jeremyville points out, whatever technical skills you have, it's your execution of a brief that is what really matters. "I'm a believer in the quick and easy solution, but heavy on creative and ideas and concepts," he says. "You can do the most brilliant ad with a great concept, but with very basic skills. It doesn't work the other way around."