Collaborate Your Way to Creative Growth

By: Alex Clauss

Not too long ago, when I was first starting out as a freelance designer and illustrator, I found myself in a bit of a pickle. The initial working-from-home honeymoon wore off, and new contracts were fewer than I’d hoped, so I was spending time alone thinking. The existential dread started to creep in. I yearned for the feedback, critique, commiseration, and inspiration that I used to get from my old day job as a graphic designer. But there I was, alone in my office (aside from the snoring Maltipoo in the corner) with no one to turn to. So I hopped on Twitter, DM’ed a bunch of artists whose work I admired, and convinced some of them to join a Slack chat group to talk about life as a creative. I called it Pretty Picture Club.


Today, Pretty Picture Club is a lot of things. It’s an international illustration studio, an artist support group, an ongoing illustration project, and a resource for creatives. At its core, everything we do with PPC comes from a place of positivity, education, and community. I’m immensely proud to be part of it and honored to have watched it evolve organically over the past year. None of what we do would be possible without a huge amount of collaboration across timezones and continents, though.


As far as artists go, I’m firmly positioned on the technical, organized side of the scale. I see a lot of value in creating a clear process to follow for any given task. But all of the well-intentioned planning in the world can fall apart once you’re actually out in the trenches, so I want to share some practical advice about collaboration culled from my experiences along the way.


Look for obvious, untapped ways to engage with other creatives.

A lot of the best opportunities to collaborate are right in front of your face and don’t require a grand scheme or huge timeline. DM that artist on Twitter whose work you like and suggest collaborating on a project. Remember that design lecture you went to last week? Reach out to the speaker and tell them how their talk impacted you. Make a zine about a topic you love and put out a call for submissions. The rapid speed of communication online makes short, casual engagements super easy. Most people love when someone asks them something like, “Hey, what’s going on in your creative life?”

Remember that design lecture you went to last week?


Pretty Picture Club started this very way. A little gumption on my part in the form of some Twitter DMs eventually led to the formation of an actual illustration studio. Think of every potential interaction with someone around you as an open door to new opportunities. If you’re not engaging, you’re walking right past dozens (or hundreds) of open doors!


Think about how you can help others and do cool stuff. Don’t make it a numbers game.

If you’re technically-minded and at least a little bit nerdy like myself, it’s very easy to look at a situation and try to gamify it in your head. If I talk to X people, I should get Y number of new design contracts. When it comes to collaboration, be aware enough of your own predispositions to do it from a place of genuine creativity and altruism. Anything extra that results from a collaboration is a bonus, not your end goal. Meeting others, learning, and making cool stuff IS the point! If you’re approaching people with an ulterior motive, it’s very obvious (trust me — this is coming from someone who gets a lot of solicitations from salespeople, agencies, and so on).


Pretty Picture Club’s first collaboration was our monthly themed illustrations, and to this day it’s what we’re most known for. It’s the simplest kind of project, but it really works for us. Each month we have a broad theme, a palette of no more than 6 colors, and a due date. The work we’ve made in this format has helped us round out our portfolios, brighten our social media feeds, and attract new contracts.


Celebrate and embrace your differences.

It would be really easy to write off collaboration with a certain artist, designer, or crafter because you decide their style or medium is too different from what you do, but in doing so you might be missing out on creating something great! If everyone you collaborate with works in exactly the same style and medium as yourself, do you really stand to learn very much? Try to see differences as a fun challenge rather than an impediment.



Pretty Picture Club has a Slack group where we talk shop, and in that space I’ve learned so much from both a technical and a creative standpoint. Because people in our group have different areas of expertise and are at different stages in their careers, there’s a massive treasure trove of information to tap into. We keep an open forum, and anytime a topic or question comes up, we just roll with it!


Be open-minded.

When I started Pretty Picture Club, I just wanted a place to vent about the struggles of being a freelance creative. I had absolutely zero notion or expectation that it would turn into an actual studio, doing actual paid work for companies out in the world. Have an idea of what types of collaboration you want to do, but do your best to remain open-minded about what things may come from it.


Some of my most lucrative career opportunities have grown from the strangest places, like converting a PSD file for someone whose brother ended up being an entrepreneur in need of lots of design and illustration work. If not for me lending an ear and a moment of my time, those prospects would have never manifested.


There’s power in numbers. Use it!

Whatever collaborative effort you decide to embark upon, use your newly-extended social reach to your advantage. Are you working with a programmer to design an experimental website? Well, now you have their entire online follower base in addition to your own to share that project with. Due to whatever shared interest brought you and your collaborators together, some of their followers will also like what you’re doing, too! It’s a great way to cross-pollinate and introduce your work to new people.


In Pretty Picture Club we make a point to cross-promote projects that members are working on, whether they’re tied to the studio itself or not. A quick @ mention or retweet costs you absolutely nothing but can expose your friends’ work to tons of new people. I’ve had multiple cold solicitations from new clients solely from a single illustration getting shared by enough people. Obscurity is your greatest enemy, so work to get as many eyes on your work as humanly possible!

If you don’t want to run a collective or studio, that’s totally okay! There are so many chances to collaborate with others. As artists, we have a tendency to constantly look inward for inspiration, motivation, and critique. The point of collaboration is to force yourself to cast that gaze outward, no matter if it’s in a big way or a small one. Keep an open mind and a generous heart. Offer your time and your expertise to help others the same way you’d like to be helped. Be humble and willing to learn from those who know more than you. Use collaboration to grow as both an artist and a person.


Alex Clauss

Pretty Picture Club

Smile :)
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