Winning high profile work in the design world is easier than you think. After all, the industry is little more than a big, hungry machine, looking for fresh talent to fuel the creation of new styles, looks, trends and fashions, which are themselves devoured by an increasingly image-savvy public. All you have to do is feed the machine.
Before you can feed the machine you have to get noticed, and one way to do that is to get your best work onto the array of creative portfolio sites out there. IllustrationMundo, Behance Network, Depthcore, YouTube, MySpace, deviantART, Flickr, ConceptArt.org, CGSociety and many others are all pursued by creative directors who, to continue the analogy, are charged with steering that big design machine.
It's an open secret in the design industry that creative directors want to discover new talent. In fact they crave it like nothing else. Discovering new talent brings them kudos, adds variety to their daily work, and ultimately makes their projects better. Adam Jenns runs the successful London-based motion graphics house Mainframe, and has worked with a range of talented image-makers such as Neil McFarland, Will Barras, Dan Capozzi, Serge Seidlitz, James Taylor, Pomme Chan, Jim Stoten, Si Scott, Dan Mumford, Steven Wilson and Nicolas Tual.
While Mainframe usually goes through agencies to connect with established talent, Jenns also searches the portfolio sites to find new illustrators and animators. "I tend to use IllustrationMundo, Pictoplasma and Mojizu out of habit. Quite a few people send me links to work on sites such as DeviantART and Flickr, but I tend not to trawl these sites when looking on spec," he says.
Dirk Barnett is the creative director of Blender magazine in New York, and he too is always on the lookout for new talent. His colleague, Blender art director Rob Vargas, is a big fan of IllustrationMundo. "I use IllustrationMundo all the time - very useful - for no other reasons than the amount of illustrators, and the search engine is pretty good," says Vargas. "Also, k10k.net. They have a pretty limited amount of links but they curate it so everything on there is interesting."
Barnett continues: "We spend countless hours researching online for new talent. I find that design blogs can be the best source, like FFFFOUND. Quite often, I'll follow links from one illustrator's site to another one, and so on and so on, until I stumble across something amazing. That's how I found Yulia Brodskaya's site."
Yulia Brodskaya is an up-andcoming illustrator who creates lavish paper constructions, and Barnett employed her to draw an opening spread when Blender recently covered Kelly Clarkson. He's also recently collaborated with Weapon of Choice from Vancouver, who designed the Blender Display font for the magazine, as well as Sergio del Puerto of Spanish outfit Serial Cut.
"As an art director, I'm always hunting for the next great thing, but more importantly, people who haven't been hired by 20 other magazines, which is really hard," says Barnett. "If I see another illustrator's work in GQ or Esquire, I will tend not to hire them, because it's already been done. I want to work with stuff that is fresh, new, undiscovered. Our Movies column illustrator, August Heffner, doesn't illustrate for any other magazine - but of course as soon as this article comes out, that will change!"
Talking to Adam Jenns, Dirk Barnett and Rob Vargas, it's clear that there's a psychology among creative directors that would be foolhardy for the young creative to ignore. Being out there and getting your work seen on the design community sites and blogs is critical, but being everywhere and puffing yourself up too much can cause them to ignore you. Jenns imparts some great advice: "If your work is interesting enough to be considered for a big client job, the work will do the shouting and you shouldn't need to. Clients love to feel like they have discovered you, so don't pretend you're head of a big studio as they won't believe you - or, indeed, take you very seriously."
At just 19, Limerick-based design wunderkind Jonathan Wong has won both international recognition, and work from Mazda and Hewlett Packard. He already understands the art director psychology that Jenns and Barnett are referring to, and warns against showing off too much: "Don't intentionally make work just to get client jobs. Recently, I've seen a lot of work popping up done using Nike and Nokia products that wasn't actually commissioned by them. It's a fun thing to do, but if you're serious about landing these big jobs then just do your own thing and focus on your own unique style, because that is what essentially is going to land you a big client. Make work for you, because you are essentially your most important client. If you aren't getting joy from the work you are producing, then who will?"
Wong's advertising posters for the Mazda 4 Zoom Zoom range have been used across the Netherlands and he considers this job to be his big break. He puts it down to having his work up on sites like Depthcore, where he's a prominent contributor. Lately, he's found a new creative networking muse. "Right now I'm very much active on Behance," he says. "It's a great place to post work and have it seen by other creatives, not only in your own area of expertise, but in others. It constantly features various projects around the community, and if yours is chosen, it's a nice bit of exposure because of the sheer amount of people visiting that place daily."
Another Behance user is the illustrator Tatiana Arocha, who rates the site as its interface is easy to use. After emigrating from Colombia to New York, she has also moved from motion graphics and directing into illustration, and hasn't looked back; she's now represented by agents in New York (Andriulli), London (CIA) and Berlin (Upper Orange).
Portfolio sites are great for seeing what other artists are doing, getting inspiration and critting each other's work. But because potential clients are using the site as well, there's a constant undercurrent of competition. Arocha has the experience of curating an online gallery, Servicio Ejecutivo, featuring work by other artists. She puts this experience to use on Behance, and as a result the organisers of the site have highlighted her work in articles about artists who use the site. "I think one's priority should be to create and do the work that you love, not worrying about being noticed. If you put all your energy into what really inspires you then people will start paying attention. You just have to love what you do and then the rest comes into place," she says.
The rest certainly came into place for the German concept artist Michael Kutsche when he uploaded his work to the CGSociety site 18 months ago. As a result, he now works on feature films and is currently on a project for Pixar. The organisers of CGSociety featured his images in the CGChoice category on the homepage, and that's how it all started.
"After I got my first Choice award I was literally overwhelmed by the nice feedback from the community. In a short amount of time the number of visitors exploded, I got interview requests from CG-related magazines, and people started to feature my stuff in their blogs. I felt like an invisible man becoming visible," says Kutsche.
"It was one year later when someone at a big visual effects house in LA saw my stuff on CGSociety. As a result, I went to work as a character designer for one of my favourite directors, Tim Burton, on his movie Alice in Wonderland."
There aren't many better examples of young artists landing their dream job via an online portfolio site. Later, Kutche's work was shown to another director, Andrew Stanton, and now he is working on Stanton's film John Carter of Mars, at Pixar. It's due for release in 2012.
A similar level of passion is alive and well in the work of Owen Morris in Cardiff, Wales. Morris is the creative force behind GodMachine and Dead Metal Clothing. He'll modestly tell you that he hasn't had his big break yet but, being an old skater, working for Birdhouse, KR3W and Bravado is like a dream come true. And alongside the skateboards and associated clothing is the music of skate culture - another perfect outlet for Morris. Known for its musical bent, MySpace has proven to be a great milieu for work and contacts.
"I don't really know what I have done to stick out from the crowd - right time, right place maybe," he says. "As for advice on getting known, I would say what the mighty Horse Bites told me: 'Ask bands if you can do some stuff for them for free.' There's no better advertising than a band on the road that already has thousands of fans."
Whether it's through MySpace, a portfolio site, or just via plain old email, Morris uses whatever means possible to contact people and initiate conversations. He says: "Never be afraid to ask people for advice, or help, or work. I recently got attention from a magazine by sending this email: 'Hi, I do the drawing and the bearding, and I have fresh crayons. Do the looking at my stuff here: www.godmachine.co.uk'. I got a great response - and work."