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Industry leaders give their top tips on getting ahead as an illustrator

The Dots


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February 24, 2016 | 10 min read

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The Dots recently hosted an Illustration Portfolio Masterclass at the awe-inspiring Royal Academy of Arts. Some of the UK’s leading agents and creative directors, reviewed the work of talented illustrators from across the country.

Illustration Portfolio Masterclass at the Royal Academy of Arts

Whilst we had them in the room, we thought we would ask them for their top tips on getting ahead as an illustrator. Here’s what they shared with us.

Tips for creating a standout portfolio

Quality over quantity

You’ve put in so much effort into all of your work and it makes sense that you want to show everything. However a strong, edited portfolio is more impactful than a longer one. If you’re struggling to know what to keep in your portfolio read on…

Sam Summerskill (London Director & Agent, B&A Reps) suggests you should, “think of them as like dance floor pleasers. If everybody's like, "Wow, I'm really interested in that." Always keep that in there. Think of other pieces of work that are similar to it. So change and edit it based on responses”. Getting a second or even third professional opinion can’t hurt in the editing process.

Jonathan Hedley (Agent, Debut Art) supported this and added that you shouldn’t “put stuff in there that you're not happy with. You've got to feel confident about what you're presenting to people”. Trust your instincts and you’re sure to go far.

Timba Smits (Creative Director, TCOLondon) summarised it beautifully – “It's not necessarily about the amount of work that you create, it's the quality”. We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

In summary, too much repetition can get boring and make it hard to focus on the really quality illustrations. Just remember, your portfolio is your calling card – not a filing cabinet!

Start strong

Nicola Manuel’s (Artist Agent, Folio) top portfolio tip was to, “always start with a really strong piece. You want to grab their attention and then bring them in and make them want to flick through the portfolio”.

Start your portfolio strong and arrange the best images to go near the front.

Tell a story – show the process

Without overloading your portfolio, it can be really useful for others to see your thought process whilst presenting your portfolio, as Daniel Moorey (Head of Print, adam&eveDDB) explained, “in terms of portfolio, it's good to have a big kind of chunk of images. So it just gives your work a bit of weight. Looks like you've been exploring it for quite a while”. Show how you started with one image, then ended up with another – it’s a great way stimulate conversation in an interview.

Show a variety of work

Still, it’s important to show a variety of work. Don’t add lots of illustrations of the same thing when you could have added one or two – show off your skills in a certain area and move onto the next.

Alex Trimmer (Senior Agent, Folio) put it like this… you need to, “show your best work, that hopefully bridges the most amount of subjects”.

Nicola Manuel (Artist Agent, Folio) revealed the things that are useful to show off in your portfolio – “I'd always recommend having a really good depth of people, figures. Something recognisable really. Maps is always a good one. Icons are very, very strong to have. It shows your kind of complexity and depth of detail”. Daniel Moorey also added that he looks for “full-bleed images and including type is definitely a good thing nowadays”.

Get conceptual

Thing about the why. Having a strong concept is just as important as the work itself. Sam Summerskill’s advice was to, “let concepts drive your work. Anyone can draw a pretty picture, but not everyone can come up with a good idea”.

Advice for getting into the industry


As much as you love what you do, it’s also super important (and fun) to get out and network. Charlie Sells, (Founder / Creative Director / Managing Director, Jelly London) strongly advocated this point, stating that his advice for getting into the industry is to “make sure you stand out. Networking is key. Research your market”.

Basically – going out and being sociable is just as useful as working on your portfolio. Win win.

Showcase your work on different platforms

In this digital age, it’s now easier than ever to get your name ‘out there’ and the more platforms your work is on, the more likely it is you’ll be discovered.

Jonathan Hedley put it like this, “don't just sit in your house and think that the phone's going to call and work is going to come to you. You've got to go out there and find it. Get on as many websites as you can. There's loads of platforms - Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, The Dots”. Be proactive, make it easy for others to find your work and the phone will be sure to ring soon after.

Apply to do projects for people and brands you respect

At the end of the day, we all need to keep food on the table and more often than not will apply to any project But you’ll be more passionate and driven working on project and for people you respect – so stick to your guns! As Ben’s key advice for an illustrator to be commissioned is to, “go for the people that you really want to work for”.

Go see editorial clients

If you’re just starting out Fig Taylor (Portfolio Consultant, Association of Illustrators) recommends illustrators should, “start by going to see editorial clients. Because they embrace every subject matter, and use every conceivable style of illustration. And it's also a very direct process”.

What do you look for in an illustrator?


Whilst you may not shift the paradigm with every piece, it’s important to remember that work should be unique in order to stand out. Sam Summerskill’s top things he looks for in an illustrator are, “being unique, being confident, and ideas. Don’t be afraid of your brains - that's why people want to book you”. Just be confident in yourself and your ability.

Obviously everyone takes inspiration and draws references from their favourite creatives, but putting your own spin on things equally important.

Ben Fraser’s (Deputy Creative Director, WIRED) key point to illustrators was that, “you’ve got to have a specific style” to which Timba Smits agreed, adding that he looks for, “somebody that's - that it's just them”.

Don’t be disheartened if you don’t think your own sense of style is quite what agencies or clients are looking for. Agencies are more than eager to help enhance an illustrator’s specific style, as Daniel Moorey mentioned, “that's what I like to buy into, is that we're using someone's style to the best of their ability”.

In short, be yourself and stick to your own style… and the rest will fall into place.


Being passion and enthusiasm may sound like an obvious point, but it will 100% radiate throughout everything you do. From your work itself to your interviews and put simply - agencies (and clients) are going to want to hire someone who seems like they actually care about what they’re creating. One of Charlie Sells’ three important qualities he looks for in an illustrator is (you guessed it) passion!

If you are looking to meet and get first hand advice from leading Mentors, find out about The Dots’ next Portfolio Masterclass here:

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