Johanna Basford reveals how important it is to create self-generated projects to win new work.

Your personal work can be more important than that commissioned by clients. This may sound crazy – especially in the current economic crisis when you have to fight and work harder for every job – but while nailing every client project is essential, it’s the variations on your style that comes from self-generated work that will lead to more and better commissions in the future.

This was a theme explored by talented illustrator Johanna Basford, who recently posted a blog entry to her site showing examples of experiments that directly inspired clients. We sat down with Johanna – whose clients have ranged from Edinburgh Fringe to Starbucks – to discuss how best to approach personal work with one eye on future commercial use.

DA: How do you force yourself to do personal work when everything else gets on top of you?

JB: “I use my personal work as a way of generating new business and promoting myself, so it’s important that I schedule in time for it just the same way I do other tasks such as the accounts and website updates.

“Admittedly client work will always take precedent, but if you are canny at managing your time it’s possible to fit it in. I don’t pay for advertising, printed mailers or have an agent, instead I rely on promo projects to sell my skills and win me new clients. That fact alone is a pretty good motivator.

DA: Do you have to think about commercial appeal when working?

JB: “I don’t think it’s important that the work is focused on a specific commercial end point, but that it captures imaginations and showcases something special about my practice. An image that is flexible; has scope to be developed in [many] ways is ideal. It’s a start point, not a final solution.

“Sometimes I’ll create something that showcases a specific style or technique which is new to my folio. These little taster pieces help clients envisage how my work could translate to their project, often they’ll reference existing pieces when we’re discussing a brief and say ‘we need something like this, but with a bit of that’.”


The personal piece Bella led to a commission for the cover of the deluxe edition of the album Someone to Watch Over Me by Britain’s Got Talent winner Susan Boyle.

DA: Why do you create bespoke personal projects for specific clients?

JB: “A custom project shows you have gone that extra mile to win their attention, that you are willing to invest your own time to start a conversation and – in my opinion – is more likely to get noticed than a generic mailer.

“It may be that the work I present to them is nothing like what they end up commissioning, but it’s more important to me that I’ve made that first introduction and get my name on their radar. Bespoke projects are conversation starters, idea sparkers.

“[My advice for doing this is to] be experimental, different and a bit cheeky. There’s no point presenting something similar to what they’ve already seen, so I try to come up with a piece that showcases my signature black and white, hand-drawn style but that intrinsically links to their brand.”


Johanna hand-inked Starbucks cups (above) and sent boxes of them to the coffee shop company’s UK MD and creative director in Seattle. This led to a commission to create patterned wallpaper (below) as seen the Vigo Street branch in London.

DA: Isn’t that a bit like spec work?

JB: “No, not at all. Bespoke projects can open doors to many, many potential clients as well as the intended dream client. My work for Starbucks did land me a commission with them but equally as important was sharing the story of my commission mission as it unfolded and the hundreds of tweets, emails and Facebook comments it generated along the way. I couldn’t pay for an advert that had the same effect. Spec work on the other hand undervalues, disenchants, restricts and cheapens.

"I’m more likely to have afternoon tea with a panda than I am to take on spec work.”

DA: Do clients ask for something very similar to your projects?

JB: “Clients usually pick out elements from different pieces and I develop these to form an illustration that meets their requirements. I don’t think it’s about creating cookie cutter solutions for different applications, more that we select characteristics and use them as the foundations from which to make something new and unique specifically for that client.

DA: How do you ensure clients see these experiments?

JB: “I post them on my website, Facebook and Twitter. For bespoke projects I send the work directly to the client. Persistence, a friendly manner and eternal optimism definitely help. johannabasford.com