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Art Student Dilemma

It’s graduation year at art school. Classmates believe that focusing solely on their craft will lead to success, and the money will follow. Is that true? Well, I found that the key is to know your value as a creative.

“Real artists don’t talk Money. We talk Craft!”

It’s a common notion amongst art students, and while it’s not entirely wrong, it’s also an unhealthy and naïve thought.

As a freelancer, not addressing clients’ needs can lead to dissatisfaction and lack of payment. As an employee, simply following the script can result in a mediocre story, and as a director, not explaining unconventional creative decisions can cause clients to worry. It’s essential for creatives to identify and communicate the value they bring and deliver on their promises, rather than solely focusing on their craft.

Creative work is only sustainable if we grasp its true value, and engage in open and honest discussions about monetary compensation. Yet, many artists steer clear of “money-talk” due to their lack of understanding of the value of their services. It is also common for graduating art students to ignore the possibility that their hard-earned skills may not be in demand in the real world. Unfortunately, it’s a form of avoidance that doesn’t solve the issue.

Let me explain.


Knowing Your Value as a Freelancer

When I started out as a freelance 3D generalist, I focused on my craft and found myself struggling to find the balance of what works for my creative soul and clients. My internal push for rendering realistic images with believable imperfections wasn’t necessarily aligned with my client’s needs. “Realistic” wasn’t what they were looking for; “Flawless”, “Clarity”, “Perfection” are often words that sit much better with the rest of their campaign messaging.

If I don’t address the needs of my clients, they won’t be happy paying me, and I won’t feel good accepting payment for work that didn’t meet their expectations. I realized that grasping the worth of my work hinged on my ability to understand my clients’ requirements.

Knowing Your Value as an Employee

When I was a junior storyboard artist, I focused on my craft and found myself drawing panels exactly as the script says. Sounded like a responsible thing to do, but the stories fell flat. I changed my approach and arranged for discussions with the director to break down the script, to ensure logical plot, interesting character arcs, conflicts, emotional beats etc. before I pick up my pencil. Worked like a charm!

I’ve come to understand that my value as a story artist goes beyond just creating panels. It also includes my ability to identify and address higher-level issues within the story.

Knowing Your Value as a Creative Director

When I was a creative director, I focused on excellent visual storytelling of the commercials, and at times, clients worry about less conventional creative decisions. It’s not the client’s fault if I didn’t help them see why it’s important for their product messaging.

I understand that it’s my responsibility to educate clients about why certain creative approaches are more effective for their messaging; to address their underlying concerns. Again, I realize this is the value I’m providing our clients.

So, where lies the problem?

As creatives, we often believe that conflicts in a project arise because non-creatives fail to comprehend our perspective, and that it’s their duty to take the initiative. But doesn’t this attitude come across as entitled? Instead, why don’t we make an effort to bridge the communication gap by speaking their language and taking the lead?

And the solution? You guess it.

In hindsight, it’s plainly obvious that we as creatives need to know our value proposition regardless of whether we’re a freelancer, an in-house artist or a creative director.

Negotiating price, salaries, and articulating the value of our work to and for our clients – these need to be seen as part of our work. 

Focus on Understanding the Value you can provide

See, real designers communicate the value we provide to others, and deliver on our promises. As a creative, understanding the value of your work is being responsible to both yourself and the people you work with. You’ll find it easier to justify prices, salaries, and your clients have an easier time understanding what exactly you are here to help with.

So, take the time to determine the value of your creative work and communicate it to your boss/clients. It will lead to a more fulfilling and sustainable creative career.

How to Identify & Determine Your Value

Here are some questions to help you find your intrinsic creative abilities:

  • In past group creative projects,
    • Where do you find yourself most comfortably contributing?
    • Which contributions helped to propel the project forward?
    • What did you do to align every party involved in the project?
    • When people turn to you for help, what type of questions do they usually ask?
    • What are you naturally good at?

If you’re ready to dive deeper into understanding your value as a creative, this article is a good place to start: Understanding Your Value as a Creative: You Need to Know This.

If you’re already self-aware, but still struggling with managing projects and clients, consider adopting the approach of viewing yourselves as creative partners with your clients – this is the approach taken by Masonry Studios and it may be effective for you.

Ronald Fong

Author Ronald Fong

A CGI animation director and educator who blends storytelling prowess with visual finesse, shaping his expertise in the creative realm. From technically-driven 3D animator to founder of Masonry Studios, he navigates challenges, shares insights, and empowers the next generation of creatives through tutorials, talks, and business wisdom.

More posts by Ronald Fong

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