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With every other creative career option at her fingertips, versatile Milwaukee-based graphic designer and illustrator Diane Murphy ultimately chose becoming a freelance stock contributor.
With a B.A. in fine arts from Carroll University, a private liberal arts institution in Waukesha, WI, Murphy has been an art teacher, a portrait photographer, a children’s clothing and giftware designer, a muralist, and an all-around freelancer doing logos, print collateral and apparel. She spent thirteen years designing large-scale graphics and signage for a Milwaukee interior design-build company that serves restaurant, educational and retail clients. After breaking out on her own in 2008, she became a self-styled “vector dynamo” who as “TeddyandMia” now makes two-thirds of her income from stock licensing and one-third from freelance design directly for clients, many of whom first saw and bought her work on stock sites. Murphy is one of Adobe Stock’s best-selling vector illustrators, and I was delighted to have this Q&A with her on behalf of HOWdesign.com.
A: When I worked at the interior design firm, although I love kids and schools, I sometimes got frustrated with the limitations in subject matter, so in the evenings I started illustrating other subjects that interested me. When I felt confident enough, I tried 99designs and had great success with logo design competitions. I then branched out more and applied to stock sites. I only draw what interests me now. Lots of retro themes, logo designs, holidays, font sets, and midcentury style patterns are some of my favs. I quit my full-time job when I felt confident enough I could make a living as a stock artist and freelancer.
It’s really just sentimental. And just me. No partner. Teddy and Mia were my Pomeranians’ names. And those names just seemed to fit. My work is lighthearted and all over the place, just like the dogs.
If you follow themes and styles of other contributions that are selling well, it won’t be satisfying. I don’t pay attention to the tab that sorts by “popularity.” I’m not interested in drawing icon sets or landing pages, one after another. And I don’t like flashy, techie gradients. I prefer flat colors, simple textures, and simple compositions. Less is more. If I really like what I create, it will sell.
I started in 2008, and now about two-thirds of my income comes from stock. The other income comes from several good, reliable clients. I also have a contract position with another stock company as a vector reviewer; I inspect files for technical and esthetic quality, and send them back if they don’t meet the qualifications so the artists can make corrections and resubmit.
Versatility has always been part of my plan, and I definitely recommend it for others. I love trying new styles, and it always keeps it interesting. For example, the travel posters. Growing up, my family took many road trips around the county. I’m very nostalgic and started the poster series as a personal challenge. I’ve sold many extended licenses of those.
I upload to the all the major sites and a couple of smaller ones as well. My sales have noticeably increased since the Adobe took over Fotolia. That gives me incentive to keep up on new submissions and continuously offer different and new vectors. With some of the other sites, my sales go up more slowly.
I recently started working with a Vermont candle company, Aunt Sadies, Inc., that uses my state poster images on their candle canisters. I’m negotiating to create original designs for them in the future. A nonprofit organization liked my ’60s psychedelic-style images, like my Earth Day posters, and I’ve been creating posters and other print materials for them ever since.
I try to upload 20 to 30 images every month. I work on several ideas at a time. That way, when I’m stuck spinning my wheels on one image, I can put it aside and work on another. After a break, I go back to the first one with a fresh perspective and can move forward. It’s important to avoid frustration—and you have to to have faith in yourself that the answer is within you. Be patient until it comes to you.
I started by uploading maybe 20 images, and on the third day online I made $11. I was ecstatic. As time went by I added more and more, and when I got to around 400 I consistently made a few hundred dollars every month. Certainly not enough to live on, but I was still working at the interior design firm and my freelance time was limited (but those few hundred extra bucks bought me a lot of shoes). After I left the firm, I worked hard to double my portfolio, and was making $1,500 to $2,000 every month. Adding more stock sites helped. One thing I know for sure, the more you create and upload, the more money you make.
I think of my images as tools for designers to use. The license plate set not only contains the complete character set, but several examples that show designers how the set looks in different color combinations. One way to stand out is to create a series of coordinating images that create a unified set, like the fruits and veggies. Often buyers will download the whole set. In the card series with the lightbulb numbers, I include the complete set of numbers along with the card design so buyers can easily use any combination of numbers.
I don’t use a lot of fancy gradients, meshes, and complicated tools and patterns. I try to keep layers simple and organized. Buyers most likely have many different skill levels. I make my images are user-friendly for all levels.
Set aside regular time to draw and develop images. Don’t try to churn out images for quantity. And don’t follow the herd. The world has enough icon sets. Take time to draw what you’re interested in and you will never be bored. You may not make a million dollars, but developing your artistic talents will eventually bring in enough money, and it’s a fantastic journey. Make sure you list your contact info on your portfolio page so future clients can find you.
The agencies are not going to say they use stock, even if they do. Imagine what the clients would think! The good thing is that they’re using stock, and let’s hope that in time the stigma will recede. I don’t worry about it. Because of online agencies like Adobe, my images are sold the world over. I think that’s pretty cool. They don’t lead to big national accounts, but they do bring me many reliable clients like the candle company, a big carpet cleaning operation, and my favorite, the International Tea Sippers Society.
Thank you for your candid answers, Diane, and Happy New Year!
If you are interested in bringing your illustrations and vectors to a worldwide audience of buyers, sign up to become an Adobe Stock contributor today – it’s free to sign up! A sweet side gig—or possibly an almost-full-time career like Diane Murphy’s—awaits. Sign up now!