Becoming an In-House Illustrator: advice from those who've made it

Image: Getty 

Rebecca Hendin, Sam Peet and rising stars on swapping the studio for an office.

Illustration as a career is often – and understandably – conflated with freelance life.

The hard knock life of finding work, chasing payments and earning a regular income has long been documented on our site, but there is another avenue out there for artists wanting to earn from illustration.

London's Sam Peet is one; political cartoonist Rebecca Hendin has been one; even some recent grads we've profiled have managed to put 'In-House Illustrator' on their CV.

Image: Getty

But how does one get a role illustrating full time for a single organisation? Are such jobs 'unicorns' in the wild? And how easy are they to adjust to after a period of freelancing?

We talked to Sam and Rebecca to find out more, along with nabbing thoughts from Ben the Illustrator and rising star Lydia Hill.

Differences between freelancing and 'in-housing'

Sam Peet has been Senior Illustrator at Culture Trip since last year, starting out as the online publication's editorial illustrator in 2018 after a decade of wholly freelancing.

We say 'wholly' as Sam still does freelancing on the side outside of office hours, making for an interesting viewpoint on the matter, as I learn via a very friendly and informative email conversation with the artist.

"I’m probably busier than I’ve ever been in my freelance life, but I think I’ve managed to get the balance right," he writes.

"(Still) the main issue for me has been juggling my freelance work and my day job. Some of the bigger jobs I’ve had over the last couple of years really have benefitted my career, so turning down work is always hard.

"But working regular weekends and late nights and going into work the next day is a reality that some illustrators/creatives will face going in-house."

Sam Peet for Culture Trip

Sam puts his successful balancing act down to having a supportive agency in the form of George Grace, who understand both his full-time and freelance work loads. When it comes to personal work, though, the ball's entirely in his court.

"Making time for personal projects is difficult when you’ve got a full-time position and freelancing," as he says. "This is something I’m trying to become better at, and although I work on a massive range of projects which keeps me creatively satisfied, I do have a few personal projects that have been on the back-burner for a while that I wish I had a bit more time to work on. But I’ll get round to them eventually!"

Someone who may have time for personal projects is Rebecca Hendin, a freelance illustrator who's done an in-house stint at Buzzfeed. She's also worked at the BBC as an in-house illustrator/designer for BBC Three, in-house illustrator/animator at BBC Ideas, and in-house shifts working for Visual Journalism, the broader graphics department serving BBC News. 

Having built up good relations with the Beeb, Rebecca continues to do freelance work for the corporation, alongside her award-winning political cartoons for the likes of The Guardian. Though having worked across varying departments, Rebecca has found the in-house experience to be generally similar. 

"(It's) generally meant working some version of 9 to 5, either five days per week or a few days per week, depending on the job," she writes in another open and friendly email chain.

"Freelancing meanwhile has no particular schedule, and I fall into keeping weirder, more antisocial hours when left to my own devices. Some days, a workday is from 7am to 4pm, and other days it’s from 10pm to 4am."

Rebecca Hendin

"Another major difference between freelancing and in-house work is the level of human interaction involved," she continues. "I currently have a studio set up at home, so don’t see anyone during the day while working. In-house work tends to mean having other people around.

"That said, freelancing isn’t always like that; I had a desk in a big shared studio space in a previous stretch of freelance life, so there were loads of people about."

But does being in-house pay more?

A good question most illustrators ask, but, as Rebecca reminds, this comes down to personal situation.

"Different in-house jobs pay differently, and different freelancers earn differently. You usually can’t know how much money you’ll be making as a freelancer very far in advance, as it’s constantly changing based on the work you’re doing.

"I find I earn slightly more from freelancing than from in-house jobs I’ve had."

What it's like being an In-House Illustrator

Many artists may wonder if the In-House life is one of artistry and admin, a 50/50 balance between letting your creativity run wild while sticking to certain daily schedules and guidelines.

More pragmatic to consider is that like with any other job, no one employer is the same. The position may be fundamentally unique in offering you a chance to draw from 9 to 5, but not necessarily because it's a kind of Silicon Valley set up, letting you potter around between nap rooms and beanie bags.

"The specific logistics of the work itself will come down to the employer and to the job," Rebecca explains. "Some places will have a heavy-handed creative approach over your work. Others will let you get on as you see fit, and have very little input  —  be that creatively, or even on your schedule.

"Some places will feel utterly creative stimulating every single day, and others will feel depressingly restrictive, boring, and lifeless. There’s no one thing that ‘in-house creative work’ is. The best thing to do is to ask about all these things before starting anywhere – check with the bosses and other workers to learn their experiences of the job."

Also not as discussed, but equally valid, is the artistic growth afforded by these roles. You may not be your own boss, but that doesn't mean you won't develop new skills, or preserve your originality.

"We have solid illustration guidelines to adhere to," says Sam Peet. "Saying this, the illustrators that work at Culture Trip are celebrated for their individual style, and we do have a lot of creative freedom; also our art directors Alex Mellon and Giles Dill are great at what they do.

"There is also a big sense of collaboration working in-house," he continues, "and I’ve had the opportunity to work on the brand style with the design team, work with the product team to create work for the app, the site and social platforms.

"I also had the opportunity to write, direct and illustrate my first animation, animated by the great in-house animation team. Of course you can also get this type of work when freelancing, but since I’ve started working at Culture Trip, I’ve had the opportunity to work on many varied projects that have helped me progress in my career and furthered my industry experience."

Sam Peet for Culture Trip

How the hell do you become one?

The information you've all been waiting for. If recently graduating, or working freelance, what tips can you take onboard to help you become in-house at a brand like BBC or Buzzfeed?

For Sam, it was having a consistent visual identity that could communicate content in a direct way.

"Having a solid portfolio showcasing the way you would tackle a wide range of themes and concepts is key," he tells me. "With freelancing, clients obviously commission for an illustration style they like, but if you haven’t got examples of the type of work they want, then you’re probably not going to be commissioned for the job.

"So once I found my style, I tried to do as much work as possible covering lots of different themes. And when I started to get regular editorial commissions, I really found my voice and felt comfortable tackling pretty much any article or theme thrown at me."

When getting his interview, Sam left nothing to chance. With a decade's worth of experience under his belt, he brought it all to the interview at Culture Trip HQ.

"Even the work I wasn’t happy with!" he admits. "I guess the main reason I got the job was the experience I had, the fact I work quickly and that I had a style that translates across a lot of different themes.

"I remember I did a test illustration before the second interview, where I had to illustrate a map based on where I live. I think they literally wanted a map with a few icons of buildings, but I ended up doing a map, nine building illustrations and nine spot illustrations with characters which might’ve been slightly over the top! (I really wanted the job.)"

He sure did. Rebecca's route to in-house was much more roundabout, though.

"In my case, the in-house jobs have been random as to how they came about," she says. "To give an example: I worked for 2.5 years as an in-house illustrator at BuzzFeed. I got that job having email-pitched a series of jokey political illustrations I’d drawn, based on the 2015 UK General Election. I’d also written a humorous article to go alongside the artwork.

"BuzzFeed wrote back to say they didn’t publish the sort of thing I’d pitched, but they happened to be looking for an in-house illustrator and would I be interested in applying? I ended up getting the job."

"That whole combination of events (having made something and pitching it at exactly the right moment) was so random," Rebecca continues, "I’m not sure how anyone could take that as a useful lesson in getting an in-house role. Other than perhaps to say: if you make personal work and it doesn’t have a platform of its own, it can’t hurt to send it around to places that might publish it or find it interesting. You never know where that could lead."

A final suggestion on this issue from Sam meanwhile is know your socials.

"Keep an eye on who is following you on across your social platforms," he advises. "If any agencies or studios are on the list, write them an email and ask whether they are looking for illustrators on the books, or if a studio, to commission for in-house freelancing."

In-House Unicorns

"The only thing drilled into me as a younger illustrator was that in-house jobs are super rare, so not to rely on getting one as a viable career plan. And that myth is true. ‘In-house illustrator’ is a unicorn of a position," Rebecca declares to me.

"For those thinking about getting into illustration, though by no means impossible, I wouldn’t bank my career on being able to get a job doing that."

Sam agrees. "I thought over the years when freelancing that going in-house wasn’t an option for me, although there are more roles about now."

Sam Peet for Culture Trip

Speaking with Ben the Illustrator for a recent video shoot, the artist agrees more positions are becoming available in a variety of fields – not just editorial.

"It's nice to see a lot of companies bringing an illustrator in," Ben says. "Brands need to have continuity for what they do, and having an in-house illustrator will help them with that. I know more travel and tech companies are bringing in people to maintain their systems or style guides."

Meanwhile, Lydia Hill, one of our most promising art graduates from 2019, says she's met many young creatives in the last year who've managed to secure in-house positions straight after graduating, some via interning initially.

Lydia herself worked on a freelancing contract in-house at studio 33 Seconds, working on materials for clients like SkyTV.

"How it came about was pretty casual," she writes. "A lecturer of mine saw a tweet from the junior creative director of the studio saying they were looking for an illustrator and tagged me in it.

"I emailed the studio directly and said I was interested, then went in for an interview and really got along with them. The position required me to have basic skills in drawing, animation and graphic design so it seems having a little bit of variety in my portfolio helped me out."

Lydia Hill

A very helpful lecturer helped Lydia with her career then, but the artist does have some advice for art school establishments.

"I think lecturers should be open to having the discussion of specialising vs. variety. I was encouraged to focus on developing my personal visual language whereas it seemed graduates who secured in-house positions did so by having a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ type portfolio, particularly skills in graphic design.

But Lydia is happy about staying freelance at the start of her career.

"I’ve learnt so much about the ins and outs of running a business and about what type of work I enjoy making which I wouldn’t have gotten from working for somebody else," she says.

"That freedom is useful for a few years in order to try different things, experiment, nail your style, after which you can aim for in-house as someone comfortable with their skills and expertise."

Lydia Hill

One final word...

Even if you're happy being freelance, Rebecca Hendin implores you not to outright dismiss a regular job.

"Even if you think you can’t ‘do creativity’ on cue  — at a certain time of day or on a regular schedule —  consider if this is actually true or if you’ve simply not tried it before.

"And as far as admin goes, there’s less admin being in-house. You can choose to respond to emails only during work hours! You don’t have to chase invoices just so that you can pay your rent! You don’t have to do your own taxes! Unless of course you’re still freelancing on the side.

Rebecca Hendin

"I’ve always continued to freelance, even when I’m in-house somewhere. In which case, LUCKY YOU, you still get to check emails at all hours, chase villainous non-paying clients, and do your own taxes! Joy."

Related: Ben the Illustrator reveals The Illustrator's Survey 2020

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