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Ben Weeks Illustrator and Motion Designer

Ben tells complex stories with illustration and motion, working with top brands like Nike and AOL. Learn the simple techniques he uses to attract clients.

What’s your background and what type of services do you offer to clients?

I help designers tell complex stories with illustration and motion. I’ve worked with editors, ad agencies, corporate in house, non profits, brand consultancies. The gamut really. I started in 2005 after working at an agency in the UK and finishing my Master’s there. Illustration for me is the visual articulation of strategy. It’s not just about making a picture like most people see it. If I’m working directly with a client who doesn’t have an agency I like to try and go through a discovery and road-mapping phase to help ensure that their investment has a far higher probability of working in the marketplace.

The thinking is definitely much harder to do than the drawing. Coming up with interesting conceptual ideas–people often don’t realize how tricky that can be. The artwork is just where those are encoded. It’s still important, it’s the unique visual language which represents the brand in the marketplace. So it’s a huge responsibility. If it misses the mark we can learn from it. But if it works, it can bring back a yield many times the investment.

I grew up in Ireland and didn’t fit in. I wasn’t good at sports, was terrible at math. Art wasn’t valued as a course. But the one time a year we’d do it, I’d find I had a crowd of kids around me in awe. In a weird way I found it annoying because I’d be lost in what I was doing. But after thinking about it, something I was doing seemed to attract and interest them. And they’d have otherwise ignored me. In the marketplace I think the work has a similar effect for my clients.

picture of ben weeks, illustrator

What motivated you to start your freelance career?

Independence. I can find insights I wouldn’t have found if I’d remained constantly on the clock at an agency. I have time to read and meet with people. To be available in response.

Who’s your ideal client?

Someone more talented than me in a different area. Our work fuses together and becomes more than the sum of it’s parts. These can often be designers who have great vision for where my work can go—as well as budgets that enable us to focus on delivering quality work.

Sci Fi Poster Illustrations for University of Waterloo to accompany their writing about the school’s futuristic research, courses and alumni startups.

What can you tell us about finding clients?

It’s sort of like being a farmer. You have a field. You plant seeds, clear away rocks. Just have faith that if you keep working it—Raising awareness, keeping in touch, following up—that there will be a harvest. Meeting people in person is far more powerful than sending stuff. So opt for face to face interaction when you can. It’s more fun.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced while growing your business?

Managing my own attitude when things don’t go how I hope.

My lowest point was after a slow period early on. I applied at an employment agency. They gave me an indesign test asking for conflicting things. The math didn’t add up so you’d be wrong either way. Then they treated me like a child. I’d worked on Nike, Smith Barney and Aol at one of the hottest agencies of the time. Was hand picked for a scholarship by their founder. Yet they had no idea and assumed I had no value because it didn’t look like I’d be a good production monkey. I left totally dejected and saw one of my former life drawing profs on the street. Which was a weird interaction.

The other thing I have to remind myself of is that it’s normal to turn down or not with nine out of ten projects. One friend who used to work at a consultancy so amazing Facebook bought it—he said that was normal for them. So that made me feel ok about turning down things that aren’t a fit.

The biggest upside is collaborating with people I really trust. My composer John for example or his wife Lillian who is a great animator. It’s such a pleasure working with them. It’s like magic seeing our work coming together.

And Jim Ryce—I did tons of pro bono work with him and we worked so well together, won a lot of big awards. He was a design firm owner but photographs now a lot out in Palm Springs.

One time I had Apple call from Cupertino. Their team was so nice. But their lawyers were very non communicative. They sent a 10 page contract that would have effectively put me at risk for millions even if Apple made a mistake. To buy the insurance to cover that liability (which apple required I do) was one third of my not particularly large fee.

So I hired my own lawyer to amend the contract and discuss with theirs. That was $3k. Apple’s team wanted to work with me, but the legal department never bothered to respond. So one department effectively blocked another’s aims through inaction. I waited for years. And read just about every book about Apple I could find in the mean time. Even the one by Steve’s ex-girlfriend. lol. Oh but, I ended up working with the guy Steve hired to design Apple’s logo. Rob Janoff. I’m producing a documentary on him. And Steve’s wife has a charity I did some strategy design work for. So somehow I feel vindicated. lol.

My dream is to have a look through Steve’s boat (Starck designed it) and to see Rob have some kind of recognition at the new donut building that we can film for the doc. :) He was just paid a small regular salary to make that in the 1970s and it’s still in use.

Artwork for a report on Ryerson University’s graduate programs. Artwork for a report on Ryerson University’s graduate programs.

I really liked your advice to approach finding clients like a farmer, but I’m wondering if there was anything specific that really put you on the map where you tipped over into people calling you rather than the other way around.

With Apple, how we got in touch—I had bought a mailing list where I emailed about 4,000 potential art buyers. Art directors, Designers and so on. I tracked who clicked-through the email to see more of my work. When I noticed a person from Apple had done so, I sent that person a customized direct-mail piece through the regular mail. And the conversations came after that. I couriered a physical portfolio as well at one point.

With the other large brands, typically how we work together is that their ad agencies contact me to bring their campaigns to life. It’s awesome because the agencies take care of all the new business functions. But it can mean I have no contact with the client and no line-of-sight into how good the underlying strategy is or what the political dynamics on the account are. But some clients do come to me directly for special projects. And for others that are smaller I perform similar functions to an agency.

Portfolio tends to be the main reason people work with me. That and reputation. It’s been said that trust is the ultimate form of currency. But yes I do try to meet people, though I could probably do better at that. And I run my own marketing, do direct mail campaigns and so on when I can.

What advice would you offer other freelancers that are just starting out? Any online resources/services/apps/tools, books, or courses you would recommend?

It’s hard to advise specifically without knowing the individual and their aims. Pipedrive is good to keep track of incoming project conversations. When I’m super busy I use it. Twassistant can hire someone in Pakistan with a business degree to help you build a mailing list. There’s so many books out there. Too many to mention. Sagmeister’s “Made you Look” still resonates with me. He shows how hard it is, that he doesn’t have the answers, but has a very nice vision for his work, “To move people’s hearts with graphic design.” Keeping a private journal is helpful.

A loose collection of marks and gestures made within a tightly controlled colour palette. “goop portal” 
Mixed Media on Raw Canvas. A loose collection of marks and gestures made within a tightly controlled colour palette. “goop portal” Mixed Media on Raw Canvas.

Where can we go to find out more about you and your business?