Posted 24 April 2019
Written by Lou Bones

The AOI’s Lou Bones: We need to stop treating illustration as a hobby

The Association of Illustrators (AOI) are calling for a revolution in illustration. With the launch of recent campaign, #NotAHobby, the London-based trade association are empowering illustrators to see themselves as a business. As membership manager Lou Bones explains, investing just one hour a day in the business side of your practice can help you take a step towards better financial security. To get you started, she sets out some essential legal and monetary considerations – from putting together a business plan and creating contracts to better managing your time.

Illustration is a huge contributor to the success of the creative industry, but we have a problem. We have reached a pivotal moment, and what we do now as an industry will define our future.

Despite illustration BAs being one of the fastest-growing undergraduate courses in the UK, the emerging talent can get lost in a way that design graduates do not. There is no real emphasis on the fact you will be freelance and are therefore starting a business. Business guidance, financial and legal advice or practical information about fees or how to earn a salary are not provided at university level. This contributes heavily to the majority of illustrators not proactively seeing themselves as a business. This is a worldwide issue with illustrators at all levels so it needs urgent action, which is why we are calling for an illustration revolution!

How do we suggest doing this? Well, it’s simple, but everyone needs to do their part. We are proposing that all illustrators take action by investing at least one hour ideally per day into the business side of your practice. And here’s why...

Artwork for The AOI’s #NotAHobby campaign by Cathal Duane

Illustration is booming, but illustrators are suffering
There has never been a better time to be an illustrator, and the global talent out there right now is mind-blowing! It’s possible to earn £40k to £50k a year, regardless of what areas of illustration you work in, but we don’t want it to take you 10+ years to get to that salary.

You are not just someone who likes to draw; you’ve chosen a career as an illustrator. You are a business and need to take the appropriate steps to ensure that you are at least financially stable.

Very rarely do illustrators understand the true value of their work for a client. They are the reason the advert was funny or successful, the reason why mummy or daddy picked up that children’s book, and the reason why I bought that awful bottle of wine last week (it had an awesome label with a giraffe on it!). Illustration communicates ideas, connects with audiences and makes sales in a way that nothing else can. This is the true value of illustration to the client, and this is the value of your fee.

Knowledge is lacking
Being business-minded often doesn’t come naturally for illustrators. Out of all the creative industries, I’d say they are the most likely candidates to work for free and undervalue themselves. Illustrators can lack client and contract negotiation skills, industry knowledge, and confidence. On top of this, the vast majority don’t understand the factors that go into pricing and licensing.

This means that many are not getting enough work and are not achieving the fees, clients and conditions they deserve. This weakens our community – because more illustrators are coming in and staying at this level – as well as creating space for anxiety to flourish.

“You are not just someone who likes to draw; you are a business and need to ensure that you are financially stable.”

Business education is a must
While many universities produce outstanding illustrators, supported by brilliant tutors and amazing programmes, there is still a shocking number of institutions where students are not encouraged to consider the commercial reality of their work. When we go into universities to deliver our Business Masterclass, it is often the first time that students have thought about their work in these terms.

The majority of illustration grads leave a course feeling lost when it comes to how to monetise their skills; they are not industry-ready. This is unfair on students who have spent years on a course that teaches a commercial art form, often leaving them in huge debt. This lack of support feeds into rapidly increasing mental-health issues.

In recent years, we’ve also noticed a rise in complacency from UK students. There seems to be an obsession with just getting the grade, with little awareness to the fact that it’s your portfolio that is integral to launching your career and determining its overall success. We also see a lot of UK illustration grads following trends or copying other illustration styles – and this urgently needs to change.

Illustrators unite!
It’s great to talk about the issues facing our industry, but the only way that anything will actually change is for every illustrator to take action in their own lives. Every business decision they make affects others – agreeing to copyright assignments; not negotiating your contracts; undervaluing yourself. When you do this, commissioners will expect that of the next illustrator they commission.

Every job needs a contract, and every contract needs to be negotiated. If you don’t negotiate for fairer terms then the client won’t ever expect an illustrator to challenge them. This leaves you and your peers open to exploitation.

Artwork for The AOI’s #NotAHobby campaign by Cachetejack

Your Business Plan

Our advice to illustrators is to be proactive and write a business plan! Until you do this, you can’t really understand or start to address the issues that are preventing you from getting where you want to be. I’m going to deep dive into two important areas of your business plan: the legal and the monetary.

These are the risks to your business, and if you do not get on top of them, any one of them can ruin your chances of a long and successful career. These are boring I know, but also essential for confidence and peace of mind.

1. Copyright
Your copyright (the right to reproduce your own image) is your automatic right and livelihood. You must understand its value to the client and protect it. Push back against copyright assignments and protect the rights of your fellow illustrators.

2. Pricing
It is essential that you are licensing your work and pricing accordingly. Fees for illustration are based on the size of the client and stipulations of the licence – the territory and length of time it will be used for, and the exact use(s). The fee reflects the value of your work to the client, the idea it communicates, and the sale it makes!

3. Contracts
Over 80% of all client issues for illustrators arise from either not having a contract or not negotiating the one that was given to them.

If you are getting paid, you are entering into a business agreement, and every business agreement needs a contract. As a member of the AOI, we will give you an illustrator-commissioner agreement to use with every job, which is bulletproof. Likewise, every contract you receive from a client needs to be negotiated so you must read them and understand what they mean for you, and what you are agreeing to.

“Over 80% of all client issues for illustrators arise from either not having a contract or not negotiating the one that was given to them.”

4. Pensions and insurance
Shit happens! You will get old, you will get sick and your business relies on often expensive technology.

Get a private pension. A state pension will not be remotely enough to live on and if you retire at 65, you may still have another thirty years to be living your good, good life, so make sure you are covered. I personally pay 5% of my monthly salary into a pension and strongly recommend investing around the same amount.

As a business, you will also need insurance: Professional Indemnity, Prolonged Sickness, Technology. And if you are working outdoors, onsite or with the public, Public Liability Insurance.

5. Accounting
Register as self employed, and do your accounts monthly. Use an app if you want, but you need to know your incomings, outgoings, and what you should be claiming back on. Keep both a digital and paper record. And put aside 30% of each job so you always have your tax covered!

Artwork for The AOI’s #NotAHobby campaign by Cachetejack

Money Matters

You also need to know what your yearly earnings are, and how long it’s going to take to achieve them. At the very base level you should be aiming to earn between £20–35K per year depending on what areas you are working in.

There are also single illustration jobs that are worth a whole salary in themselves, so this figure can go much higher. Remember, illustration is entirely international but living in certain cities will mean you’ll need to earn considerably more (some cities £5–15K more) just to get by, so relocating – even for a brief period – may be a good business decision. How much you earn is down to you! So work out the following:

1. Financial considerations
Work out what you need to earn to cover your personal survival budget: tax, rent, studio rent, phone bill, internet, creative programs, software, materials, travel, subsistence, equipment and so on.

Ask yourself: in order to earn this, how many jobs do I need to get per year? In which areas? What clients do I want? How am I going to attract them?

“You know what they say, time is money. Being freelance means how you manage your time is key to how successful you are.”

2. Time management
You know what they say, time is money. Being freelance means how you manage your time is key to how successful you are.

365 days a year translates into 31 days holiday, 104 weekend days, and around 130 paid working days. That leaves 100 unpaid full days a year that you should be investing in your business development.

Ask yourself: are you investing enough time, in the right way, into your business?

3. Finding a space
Being an illustrator can mean being alone a lot, which can exacerbate mental health issues, and isn’t great for learning how to read clients and interact with them.

Investing in a studio space can really help your productivity as it encourages an eight hour working day model. It can also provide support from other creatives, and a chance to strengthen social skills, which in turn develops client negotiation skills.

Ask yourself: what could I be doing better for my business? And remember that myself and AOI are always here to help! The AOI is not for profit, and can support you in any and every area of your illustration business – regardless of what stage of your career you are at, or where you live in the world.



The AOI are calling for all illustrators to join their business empowerment campaign. You can check out their Business Strategy Masterclass on May 15, in London; all details here.

Mention Association of Illustrators
Written by Lou Bones
Illustration by Cathal Duane
Illustration by Cachete Jack