Tu Ha An - Dreamlike & Multicultural Illustration

How did one negative feedback validate my choice of freelance?

Edited by my beloved friend K.L

“How did you know that you would not regret leaving a full-time permanent job to set up your own business?”

This question is perhaps the one that I received most often, from the day I shared my intention to leave a stable, well-paid job, until today, two years after I started out as a freelance illustrator.

The reality is… No, there was not a single trigger, nor a single moment of awakening or of illuminating event.

It was (and it still is) a long process that sometimes I was unsure of what the next step would be. However, it was a process filled with “signs” that help me confirm that I was on the right path.

In this first article of the Lunar Year of the Dragon, I will tell you about one of these signs. Unexpectedly, that sign was actually a negative feedback. But together, let’s look again at how I dissected this feedback to realize that it was indeed the “sign” that let me know that I was ready to take the leap.

The context leading to negative feedback

Before becoming a professional illustrator, I worked in the HSE (Health, Safety and Environment) department of a big company. The story that I am about to tell you took place one year before I resigned.

(To respect the confidentiality of my former job and the anonymity of my former colleagues, some details of the story will be changed, first names of individuals involved will be replaced and/or hidden).

At the time, my department was responsible of distributing a safety booklet to all new recruits at the company, preparing them with all the rules, instructions and tips to work safely.

That specific year, in my department, the need to renew the safety booklet became urgent. However, for several reasons, including the unavailability of the internal communications department, the project remained stagnant.

In the article “How to have more time to create?”, I shared my tips to integrate creativity into my core activities. And there I grabbed the opportunity to suggest my boss to let me do the graphic design and the layout of this thirty-pages booklet. It was an excellent occasion for me to carry out a creative activity out in the open, during my working hours, at the workplace.

The project made progress gradually, and a few weeks later, it was a relief for our department that we could finally send the safety booklet to the reprographics department.

Rather pleased with the final result, our department decided to distribute the booklet to all our colleagues, new recruits as well as current employees, to update everyone at the same time on the new set of safety rules.

Upon receiving the new booklet, C., a colleague from the marketing department, asked Q.,  one colleague in my department: “Did the people from internal communications department come up with THIS?”

Q. replied: “No, our department was responsible for both the content and the look of this booklet.

C. was immediately relieved: “Ah… If so, then it’s not bad for a home-made material!”

I wasn’t there at the time. And like Q., I understood that C.‘s remark was rather a negative feedback on the design of this safety booklet.

Still, I was glad to hear C.‘s unfavourable opinion.

And here are three reasons why this negative feedback lit up my way:

1.   Professionals will notice the difference

Since I was not part of the communications, marketing nor design department, it goes without saying that the company would not pay for a design software license for my mission. Therefore, to make this booklet, I juggled between PowerPoint, Publisher and Paint.net (back then, Canva was not popular yet).

Although my boss and colleagues in my department, several heads of other departments and some other colleagues liked how the booklet came out, I knew myself that it had some limitations due to a production process that relied on non-professional tools

C. also noticed these limitations right away. And C. is a professional in communication, and she saw what I made with the eyes of a professional.

Her remark confirmed that professionals would always see the difference between a “homemade” product and a professional product.

The readers, the viewers, and the consumers may have trouble distinguishing between an image generated automatically by various tools and an original work created by skilled hands. But professionals will always see the difference.

This means that if the quality of my illustrations is up to standard, professionals will be ready to pay for my services.

2.   I am ready to receive negative feedback

C. was a colleague with whom I had a good relationship. And at the beginning she had no idea that the booklet was designed by me so her comment was first and foremost purely about the product itself.

Receiving this feedback via Q. made me feel… normal. By the time I realized that I no longer took negative feedback personally, and that I eventually still saw the limits of what I made despite the positive feedback, I knew that I was ready to become a service provider.

I knew C. was right, but I felt no shame about the booklet neither.

Because, even if this booklet was not the prettiest, it still met all the needs of the “target customers”, using only the existing resources available within our department at the time.

The booklet was built hand-in-hand with various departments, incorporating all the important information. All members of the HSE department were happy to distribute the booklet. Such distribution of course received approvals from heads of other departments. And the beta-testers (our colleagues from different departments) appreciated this new version of the booklet.

That day, I knew I had to keep in mind that when I answer future client requests, the aim would not be to create the most extraordinary work ever created. The aim would be to answer to the customer’s needs as best I could, while adapting to the financial, human, and time resources that are available for the customer and myself.

3.   Do I want to remain “an HSE agent who draws well” or do I want to be “an illustrator”?

That was the question I asked myself on my way home, after receiving C.‘s remark.

I said to myself:

“If I keep working in the industry of safety, I can always impress my colleagues outside the marketing department with my creative visual skills. But I will never be considered a visual professional by real professionals.

If I keep working in the industry of safety, I can always try to create miracles with PowerPoint, Publisher and Paint.net, while upgrading my Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator skills in the evenings or at weekends. But I can never catch up with the real professionals who practice these tools on a daily basis in their projects that are 100% creative.

If I keep working in the industry of safety, I could always jump on opportunities here and there to integrate creative tasks into my main job. But it will never be the priority of my days, my years, my life.”

Three years later, we all know the answer. 😉

The signs reveal themselves only to those who decide to pursue the path

Sometimes, uncertainty can be the trigger for our biggest decisions. For me, leaving a full-time permanent job to become a freelancer was never an easy decision that I am totally certain about, and I am only at the beginning of this adventure.

But I never regretted making this change in my life.

I believe that one should never wait until we are 100% sure before making a change. We can only be relatively sure. There will always be signs along the way to guide us. Some might be more subtle than the others and require more thinking and analysis.

Sometimes, a positive sign can come in the form of negative feedback.

Sometimes, a positive sign comes after a decision that has nothing to do with the actual matter that we are wondering about (like adopting a cat, for example).

However, the signs appear when and only when we decide to take a step forward.

Keep creating!

Tu Ha An

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