As creatives, we’re often put to the test of making tough decisions and sacrifices for our work. However, according to Yuko Shimizu, our biggest decision needs to happen at the beginning of our career asking ourselves: “What kind of artist do [we] want to be?” and having a clear picture of what that looks like.
In this talk, Shimizu distills insights from her own personal story of being fired just days before her 99U appearance, gives advice on learning to say no, her thoughts on personal work, and tying it all back to the reality that while we might not win every job or shine on every project, sometimes we can recommend someone who will.
Yuko Shimizu is an award-winning Japanese illustrator based in New York. Her work has appeared on the pages of the New York Times, TIME, and Newsweek, on the covers of DC Comics, Penguin, Abrams and Random House books, on the Gap and Nike T-shirts, and on Pepsi cans.
Her monograph Living with Yuko Shimizu will be published this spring. A Wild Swan, her collaboration with Pulitzer-winning author Michael Cunningham, came out in 2015. She was chosen as Newsweek Japan’s “100 Japanese People World Respects” in 2009.
Hi. Hi, my name is Yuko Shimizu. Yes, that’s my name. I’m an illustrator. Wow, it’s a packed audience. So the reason why I’m standing here today is because recently, I got interviewed by 99U. I say, I don’t do personal work and that got me here. And don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about anything nightmarish. So like, it’s not about that. The reason why I don’t do personal work right now is like, yeah, I’m busy but that’s not exactly the reason. The reason is I explained to them that at this point in my career, I– people know what I do and clients call me mostly knowing what I do and what I can give them. And therefore, when they call me, I can actually do something equivalent of my personal work in professional work. And then they were like, oh, that’s so interesting. Do you think you can share– like, is there any secret you can share about it with the audience? And like, I thought about it and like, actually, yeah, it’s not like it just happened. It just didn’t happen. I have to make decisions and I also have to make a lot of sacrifices.
So yeah, I guess I can share some of that with you so that’s why I’m here right now. And so you already know I just got fired. I just got fired because I was thinking about, OK, how do I organize this talk? It’s a brand-new talk. I’ve never done this talk before and I practiced, like, 20 times before I came here and then I clicked it wrong.
But anyway, this lady– not this lady but this lady’s magazine recently fired me. They gave me a monthly job and I did four illustrations in two months and I got a really nice email saying, you know, thank you so much but we decided to go with another direction. You know, like, things like that happen. It hurts but like, hey, like, for a freelancer, it’s part of our life. And I was really excited to get a monthly job because as a freelancer, that’s monthly stable income, right? Like, one more monthly stable income is great and also monthly exposure of my work to an audience that I’m not familiar with is also great and it’s a great magazine. So like, why would I say no? But then, things were not quite working out from the start because this one got actually be published. It’s I think in the newsstand right now so that’s that. And so they said, like, oh, like, you know, like, it’s a female audience. We want something feminine and sweet and like, you know, like, candy-colored, you know, like something that makes women happy to see it. And then I was like, OK, that is not actually what I’m known for. I can do it but it’s not what I’m known for.
So what started happening is while I was working on these four illustrations, I was always, like, second-guessing. Is it feminine enough? Is it colorful enough? Is it happy enough? I keep finding myself adjusting the bar on Photoshop to make it brighter and brighter and brighter. And so when I got a nice email– this is my reply to them– but a nice email saying, you know, like, they decided to go with someone else, the biggest surprise was not that I got fired. The biggest surprise was I was not surprised because it wasn’t working out. And it was a really– came in a– in a way right timing because I was thinking of how to do this presentation. Like, yeah, let’s go over what I have decided over the years of working in the illustration industry and you know, bring myself to the point that I can do my personal work in the– the project. So here we go with some of the things.
First things first, this is what I did. Like, right at the beginning of my career, I made the decision what kind of artist I want to be and have a clear picture. And because I’m an illustrator, I made some charts that move. So there are two types. There are more than two types but, like, in a big category. There are pop star types in any art, illustration, design, you know, typography, you name it, a pop star type and an original type. So the pop star is Justin and original is Bjork and so, like, let’s– let’s think of, like, different aspects. Money-wise, who makes more money? It’s pretty obvious, right? Like, he had– like, pop star has a bigger demographic. Like, you may know probably than the original but of course, the original– like, if you’re top of the original, you make money but probably not as much as the big pop star that fills the auditorium– not auditoriums, stadiums. Sorry. I’m ESL, OK?
So anyway, then, like, look at the other aspect, respect. What do I want, money or respect? And I decided at some point, OK, like I want– I might not become the most– like, the richest illustrator working today and I am not. There are so many other people who make a lot more money. But I want to be someone who is respected by someone who I respect. That is the goal of the original one. That is the decision I have made. So like, OK, for the– the pop star, don’t even think about the respect part, right? Like, you know, it’s like pros and cons. Everyone has pros and cons. So the pop star has more jobs and probably makes more money, probably have less– less respect, and probably have less freedom because their job is to cater toward what the mass audience wants. And then the originals– and obviously get more respect. You know, probably, there are less suitable jobs. So she’s probably making less money but she gets a lot more creative freedom. And then, I’ll give you a little bit of bonus. If you– if we tried to be the original, there is always someone out there who loves your work because your work is different from some other people’s work and they will go out and beyond and make a project for you and you are the only one who can do it.
Of course, there aren’t a lot but then when they decide it’s you and only you who will get it, that’s the bonus. So you have to choose. You know, like, both have pros and cons. You can’t win everything. And then, you have to make decisions and it’s obvious which one I’m, you know, talking about today. So I’m going to talk about the originals. Of course, there are people out there who want to be the pop star. Then, like, you commit to it, then become the biggest pop star, and then make a shitload of money and that makes you happy. So hey, go for it but I’m not going to talk about that right now. So once you become a pro, stop getting influences from people– those people who are in your field. So as a student– I’m sure there are students out here. Students, your job is to copy your influence and then learn from everyone who you love. And then eventually, that will become your own thing. But as a professional, if you did that, you are just a copycat of your peers because people who you were respecting as a student, all of a sudden when you start making money in the field, becomes your peers, they are not your heroes anymore. They are your peers and you can’t rip off your peers. And don’t choose anyone from your own field as a goal of who you want to be. So more chart– chart? Yeah. And then, like, original is like, you know, you get a job and then the original says all these reasons and she can’t take the job. And then what happens– and then, like, OK, then we have to find someone else. And there are all these copies who are not exactly the original but the copies of original and you have gazillions of one to choose from, right? Like, do you want to be that?
You know, like, you want to be that if you become that and you are at the best, the second best of someone? And you know, like, that’s not the happiest life, especially, like, as you heard, I quit my shitty day job to do this and I worked for 11 years in corporate PR. Like, I don’t want to do it anymore so I don’t want to do something other people want me to do. And try to learn to say no. Like, don’t take that project if it takes good night sleep away from you. I’m not talking about all-nighters, I’m talking about the ethics and we have to all make decisions.
Here are some examples of actual jobs and actual companies and industries that I turned down the jobs from. And I’m not telling you to turn those down because it’s my own decision and not yours, you know? And so for me, it’s important that I feel like I did a good job today, you know, I’m happy with what I’m working on, the people I’m working on, and go to sleep well. And so it’s OK to turn down the job because there are always other people who want to take it.
For example, I worked with “Playboy Magazine” no problem. I love working with them. They love illustrators and they’re great. And then, I talked to my peer who’s a fundamentalist Christian and he said, like, oh, no way. I’m never going to work for girlie magazines, right. Like, cool and then we talked to the third guy and it’s like– I’m not making this shit up. It’s, like, for real and they’re all my former studio mates and I loved them to death. And then, the third studio mate is a gay boy and he said, like, no way I’m working for fundamentalist Christian magazines because they don’t believe in my right, right? So like, everyone’s standards are different and everyone has within those three that we will be happy to work for and we will never work for and everything balances out.
And also what’s important is, like– going back to I got fired. And then, I wrote a nice email and I still recommended someone and from the bottom of my heart and it’s, like, really important for me to recommend someone. And I would just brag a little bit. Marcos Chin is one of my best friends and, like, an amazing illustrator. Actually, I got a call recently to do a job for season six of “Game of Thrones.” I got really excited when I got a call and then, wait a minute. I’ve never watched a single show. You know, like, how can I do this? Like, I can’t take this job that– just because it’s cool because all the fans know everything and I don’t and you will see through and it’s unfair.
So I turned it down and I recommend my best friend Marcos because he’s a huge fan and he got it. And he’s happy. I’m happy. You know, again, you can’t win everything but you can help each other. That’s one of the biggest reasons why this industry is great in New York, the design and art and illustration industry. I do what I do. You do what you do. We do different things. So we don’t need to back-stab each other. We can help each other because you are not the direct competitor. It’s a direct competitor in a sense. You are doing good work, I’m doing good work, and then, like, you know, everyone’s great. And I love this about New York and this is– this is happening because a lot of the people choose to try to be the originals. I’m not saying I’m the original. I’m trying to be the original and this attitude is, like, very, very important.
So the big karma point for, you know, like recommending people. Do it. So what can we do to strengthen our personal voice? And the most obvious ones make personal work. Like, hey, wait a minute. Didn’t you just say you don’t do personal work? Yes, I did say that but I didn’t say I’ve never done it. I’ve done a shitload of personal work because that’s what you have to do because you know what the secret is? You get what you show. So if you have jobs you want to get, you have to show what you want to get. And if that’s not in your portfolio, you have to make that. And so those are my personal work drawings and those got me some of the jobs.
Like for example, like “Rolling Stone,” I got it because I did those personal works and I did these and I got those. So, like, it’s important. Like, sometimes, clients are very, very simple. They need to see to give you that job. So if that’s not in your portfolio, just do it and then start from the personal work. OK, but everyone here is, like, really busy, right? Like, what’s some other options, you know, like something I can do on an everyday basis? And it’s a little bit academic but I got this as a project during graduate school. Write a detailed essay about an ideal day exactly five years from now. OK, like, trust me, it’s good. Morning till night, wake up till the time you go to sleep, write the detailed day, as detailed as possible, about your work and about your private life– include it. And you can’t just write, I’m going to be working on a kids’ book. No, you have to write about, this is a kids’ book about blah, blah, blah. Who’s the writer? You know, how many pages are you in? Like, what medium you are using, who’s the publisher– detailed as possible because if you don’t set the goals, you can’t achieve the goal. And that was one of the biggest advice my professor gave me and I made a chart. That’s a mini me and– and he stressed on the importance of the high goal setting.
So if your goal’s high, you work really, really hard. You might not get to the top but, like, you accomplished a lot. Your goal’s low and then you just– hmm, like, I didn’t even work hard and I got there, right? So like, you– if you set your goal high, that’s how much you work. So you really have to set your goal high and start from writing your, you know, goal setting. And take a least one small risk every single day. I’m not talking about jaywalking or anything. I’m sure you jaywalk but do something like 5%, 10% in your job, anything you haven’t done. And so you are a little bit nervous but you’re a little bit excited so it’s not repeating yourself every day. So like, let’s say 10% every single drawing. Maybe I will do 10 drawings in 20 days, 30 days. And then within a month, like, I’m in a whole other level, right? And then, it’s like small things every day will take you to a completely different position. And when you look back and your work sucked before, then you’re on the right track.
By the way, that’s my very You will never see it anywhere and you will never see it again but it sucked so hey. If you have a client who’s, like, very generous and lets you experiment, take advantage. So I had a client right at the beginning gave me a job almost every week. And budget sucked and then the deadline sucked but– so they didn’t care what I did. And I used this– I mean, as long as it’s publishable, I mean. So like, I used this to experiment anything that I wanted to do. Some came out great, some came out not great, but I learned so much and I thank them to death. And how about charity work? There is no money. And then how about a project that was low budget? And I’m not talking about people who can pay a budget but not paying. Like, don’t work on that job. I’m talking about, you know, friends, small companies, coffee shops across the corner– I’m talking about those. And use those because no money means creative– total creative freedom. And if they don’t pay and try to art direct you, you have to say, uh, uh, honey. It doesn’t work that way. Practice that. Practice that because it’s very important.
And then, the opposite is also– oh and it’s a good karma to do the charity work. This I did for [INAUDIBLE] and then, like, they raised money. I was happy experimenting so like, everyone’s happy. It’s a big karma point. And also, the opposite is true. This was my biggest paid job I have ever done probably and it was a nightmare because they made me do 50 revisions. So when there is money, there is a catch. Sometimes we have to do it because we have to pay our bills. It’s OK. But like, use those charity work, not paid work, as your, you know, like– like a ground to do something innovative and new. So you know, when I was like– while I was getting angry at that job that I did five years ago, put your FU into work because anger is a good motivator.
So I’ll give you some examples of what kind of anger that I used. I was always told my work will never fly because it’s heavily influenced by comics and comics are not art. And look at me now. I’m doing this job mostly because that’s the reason. So hey, you have to stick to what you believe in and you have to stick to what you love. The bottom line, you bitch to your friend and your problem goes away, it’s not a problem. It’s OK. Bitch to your friend. If you bitch to your friends and family and every one and it doesn’t go away, that’s a huge problem. You really have to change and do something about it. And so another example, graduate thesis– I was told, it’s too weird. You’re not going to get jobs. OK but like, I kept going and this is my first job from “Playboy” and this was my very first magazine spread job. So hey and icing on the cake, I got a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators– thank you– which was the– the first-ever recognition I got from illustration. Well, time is running out so– OK, so like, why did I go to art school? Because I was scared of people who went to art school because I went to school in business undergrad and I wanted to go to art school and I couldn’t. So I was always, always self-conscious for 11 years when I was working and the only way to change that is to go to art school. So I went and then that’s me when I was 20-something in the office. So stable job, you know, like, good decent income– how did I let it go? Because I met this guy, my last boss, who was completely mentally abusive and I went to hit the rock bottom and I was really angry, crying in the bathroom. And that let me finally decide to quit my job that I had for 11 years. And– thank you. Oh my god, like, I’m over time. I have to finish this. OK.
So I went to art school. It still continues. All my classmates are 18. I was 34. I was like, fuck, you know, like, I’m so old. But then if I’m double their age, if I work double the time, I can get anything accomplished, right? So like, I feel like if I didn’t go to art school late and that motivated me to work, I don’t think I’m here now. So like, I’m really happy I actually started late. And then I recently got this really nice note on my Facebook page.
So hey, if– you know, like, if I’m able to motivate any single one person in this audience, I think there is a meaning and reason for me to be here. So I hope you can take something out of this and thank you so much.