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10 Bits of Advice for Navigating the COVID Market for Self-Employed Illustrators

The pandemic is affecting everyone; consumer and provider. Whether you are an established medical illustrator or a new graduate, you may be stressed or uncertain of the future market in science visualization. Many illustrators already work from home, so the transition of states' stay-at-home orders wasn't a big lifestyle change. Although business may seem okay as of right now, we've learned from previous shifts in the economy, the way companies will conduct business is going to change. You can prepare yourself for this upcoming change. Here are 10 bits of advice to ease your worry and help you prepare for the post-COVID market in science visualization.

1 Anticipate Customer Spending

Current projects that were approved before the pandemic are currently moving forward. The budget has been established and approved. Illustrators and animators seem to have work at the moment. But the spending will slow down. Why? Because the leaders in the industry are cautious to proceed and will wait to see what others will do. For example, no live classrooms will affect how publishers plan the following year's new editions. Will they spend all their budget to digitizing current publications? Educators often used images from the internet claiming fair use for education in live classrooms. But what if they are now distributing these powerpoint lectures? As an illustrator, how can you aid them with visuals and offer secure ways to view digital content without worry of redistribution? Every large corporation will be affected by a dip in the economy, whether through reduced spending, cutting roles, or prioritizing projects. You need to think ahead; what are the future demands in spending and where will spending be reduced. Chase after the projects that will have budgets.

2 Check-in with Contacts (Non-Aggressively)

Don't email your established clients asking if they anticipate any work for you in the upcoming months. Your repeat clients know where to find you. You don't know the situation of the company or its employees; they may be stressed out, about to lose their position, or changing roles. If you want to send a friendly email, keep it short. Check-in with your contact, ask how they are doing, and say you are ready whenever they are. If you have a close relationship, you may ask to meet for a virtual coffee to chat about what are his/her thoughts about the what the company is planning for the future and offer some insight in your field as well. Don't just check-in with your clients, but also with your professional colleagues. Not only will they appreciate your friendly gesture but you can gain insight on their specialized niche: are things slowing down or picking up? Often professional turn to their friends first if they have overflow work. Your recent email will remind them you are available if they ever need subcontracting.

3 Widen Your Net

If you do mostly 2D illustrations for publishing and rely heavily on publishing; it's time to widen the net. Either you can look for 2D illustrations in another category: research scientists, private corporations, healthcare industry; or you can expand your skill set to include a wider range. If you have some down time and always wanted to learn how to do 2D animations using Photoshop, watch some YouTube tutorials and create a sample animation. Try to anticipate the market change and keep your skills relevant to those needs. Have you noticed many customers are moving to online only - meetings, conferences, demonstrations, and training? Get ready for this increased demand in online communication.

4 Acquire New Contacts

Sometimes we become complicit with the amount of work we have, rely on repeat customers, or hope others will find us through passive marketing. You must actively search for new clients. Even if your workload is maxed out, you don't know what the next few months will bring. Don't stop marketing yourself and reaching out to new potential clients. Even if they don't have any work for you at the moment, they might remember you and call when a project arises. If they do have work for you and you are already maxed out, there is always subcontracting. Work out a timeline, maybe their project can wait a few months. Keep a running list of companies you have contacted, want to contact, and keep adding to this list. Researching which customers that will be a best fit for your services is part of the process of making worthwhile connections.

5 Active Marketing

How up-to-date is your website? When is the last time you uploaded new images? Have you written a blog post recently? Do you track analytics on your web page? Sometimes revamping a site takes a lot of energy and time. Commit to small steps everyday; post a new image once a day for two weeks. Look into SEO optimization for your website. And most importantly regularly check analytics to see if any of these strategies are making a difference! Are you on social media? That is free advertising! Post often and use hashtags. You never know when a potential customer is browsing the internet for a specific image, such as Müller glia in the retina, and they come across your post and end up contacting you for a license. Get you work out there, just remember to add a watermark or copyright line to protect it from infringement.

6 Be Active in Your Niche

If you are part of a professional organization of artists, be active in the message boards. Oftentimes, professionals overwhelmed with workload will ask for help subcontracting on the message boards. They may be discussing future trends and predictions. Even non-professional platforms such as social media or online portfolios, like Behance, can connect artists to other artists. Be friendly. Find artists that inspire you and follow them. Be an active member in posting thoughts, ideas, and new illustrations. A rising tide lifts all boats.

7 Look for Freebies

Students were able to download a FREE subscription of Adobe CC, through their university's weblink during the remote learning of spring 2020. Look for other companies offering extended trial subscriptions of software, special discounts, or monthly payments. Adobe was offering Captivate for free to educators in spring 2020. If you want to begin playing around in 3D software but don't want to purchase Zbrush, try the free ones first like Sculptris or MeshLab. Check your local library, often they offer free access to online tutorials like Linkedin Learning for free to library card holders. Look for free webinars to expand your knowledge and skills. Pay attention to experts through these webinars and see what are they predicting for the future market.

Experimenting creating a neuron in free 3D software Sculptris

8 A Virtual Market

If you haven't noticed, the market is moving to the digital and virtual space. Companies are hosting online meetings, online and virtual training, online conferences, remote demonstrations, and digital handouts. Follow the Blue Ocean Strategy, what services can you offer during this transition and for the predictable future market? Can you help develop online courses using Adobe Captivate or Articulate? Can you license your illustrations to physicians hosting telehealth services? Look for the opportunities this pandemic can bring. When markets shift they often never go back to the way things used to be. Stop chasing out-of-date projects and prepare yourself for a digital and virtual future.

9 Accept Projects You Normally Would Not

I often tell my students, "Is it worth your time?" when determining their rate for a project. When requests are steadily coming in, you can turn down a project that won't meet your quote. However, if you notice a gap in work, sometimes it is worth your time to take on a lower paying project. I suggest offering a "new client" or "COVID" discount clearly marked on the invoice so they understand any future projects will be billed at a higher rate. All experience is good for growth, even if it is a bad experience. You learn from mistakes and often discover a new technique or workflow. Every hour spent inside the software of your choice is an hour of skill advancement. This is also an ideal time to expand your services to areas you want to explore. If you have never done epub, for example, you may offer to help a client with their epub project. However, the learning curve will be on your own time. You may need some help from a professional colleague pricing out the quote, but ultimately you are gaining valuable insight and experience even if you make little to zero profit. You'll be prepared for the next project with your newly established knowledge.

10 It's Okay To Not Be Okay

Everyone is handling the pandemic differently. If your top priorities are self-care or family care, then you can ignore all my advice and tend to those needs. If you are currently working in a mediocre position, there is no need to rock the boat. Ride out the storm and attack the next steps towards your professional growth when you are ready. You will not succeed professionally if you are not handling the stresses of life personally. This pandemic shall pass. There are hidden opportunities that will lead you down your next career path. Take on only as much as you can handle (and your financial situation allows). Many companies will be slow to start new endeavors. Once they start spending again, you will be ready and recovered to proactively go after those new projects!

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