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Did your career path start out in illustration? The path I took in the beginning was pretty straightforward—I finished high school and then went on to a public university, where I studied a year of forestry before being accepted into a landscape architecture degree program. In Malaysia, we don’t really get to choose what we major in if we apply to enter a public university because there are big problems with the educational system. Most people are not put into the courses they apply for. So it’s all down to luck to get the major you pick, and that’s what happened to me. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, only that I didn’t want to be stuck in a lab all the time and that I liked to draw. So, when I was accepted into the landscape architecture program, I was rather thrilled. I didn’t know what it entailed, but I was determined that whatever I learned could be applied to what I wanted to do in the future, even if it didn’t turn out to be in the same field. There is no such thing as wasted learning.

The decision to enter a public university instead of paying up to fifteen times more for a private college was a financially strategic one. I figured that at my age, I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet, so I shouldn’t saddle myself with loads of debt. I remember telling myself, “It’s all right if the field I’m graduating from isn’t where I want to be.” I could always go for a postgraduate degree in a field I really liked—after I figured everything out. The cost would be much less.

And it turns out I was right! During university, I took on a five-month internship at a landscape architecture firm where I gave it my all, came away with flying colors and... I’ve turned my back on landscape architecture ever since because it just didn’t feel right. Instead, upon graduation, I sent resumes to publishers, looking for a job as an editorial assistant to learn more about publishing. I worked my way up to become an editor of a regional architecture and design magazine, all within a span of three years.

Drawing is merely a means to an end, and what you want to say is equally—if not more—important.

How did this editing position lead into freelancing? I was still figuring myself out. I loved publishing and the energy of it, but I was also drawn to illustration, which, at the time, was something I had no idea could be studied. On my trips to the bookstore, I would be enthralled by picture books, illustration books, graphic novels and products that had illustrations on them. I spent hours looking at them, wondering about the artists who made them and the thinking processes behind their creation. 

So, I started a blog about illustration, Pikaland. Back then, I knew so little about illustration. Pure curiosity drove me to talk to and write about all the amazing artists I found online; I wanted to know more about their process and how they got their start. Blogging was really my self study into the field of illustration, a continuous journey that grew organically. There is no magic to what I do, and I feel this is the main reason why Pikaland is still here today—eight years later! 

By the time I had reached the height of publishing, having already helmed and started a regional architecture and design magazine, I wondered where my next challenge would be. Staying in publishing would have meant further honing my skills, but I was very aware of the fact that there was no other ladder to climb. It has always been about growth. And so, I thought to myself, what do I have to lose?

But changing careers was never just a spur-of-the-moment decision. It was something that was done rationally and through much thought. I stretched myself by creating goals and targets for myself to reach. It’s only if I managed to tick all those boxes that I could go on with my plan.

What were these boxes that you ticked off? Before I left my full-time position as a magazine editor, I was already writing on Pikaland, and I also organized a fun, monthly marketing sampler box with artists from around the world. I was able to earn a bit of income, too, through the project. Although I wasn’t making a lot, it gave me the push I needed to consider giving Pikaland a serious shot. I made a promise to myself that once I managed to make a certain amount through the project, then I could start to think about focusing on Pikaland more.

My earnings from Pikaland weren’t enough for my mortgage and bills—I still needed to make up the rest with freelance projects. And so, I started to strategize my exit from my full-time job by compiling a list of people I could contact when I was ready to send in my notice. I also had contacts within various industries—people who, throughout the years, had became friends—and they were very supportive of my decision, even sending me contacts or referred clients. My freelance career was mainly based around writing, publishing, PR and marketing—the things that I had professional experience in—and I also began taking on small illustration projects to explore my skills and possibilities.

Did you find your lifestyle changing upon going freelance? I’ve heard from a lot of people that they experienced a big change in their lifestyle when they first went freelance, but I was lucky because it didn’t take me much adjustment. I was careful with my money even when I had a steady paycheck.

When I started my freelance career, it helped that I was very thrifty and managed to save about fifty percent of my take-home salary each month while I was employed. I didn’t buy a car, which was what my peers were doing. I was using my parent’s ten-year old car. I didn’t eat out a lot because I was still living with family, and even if we did, thanks to having a thrifty dad, we were conscious of our budget. Also, I made sure that I had enough savings to pay off my bills for the first six to eight months as a freelancer, regardless of whether I had any jobs coming in. That was very crucial because nothing is scarier than watching your bank account deplete every month!

Why did you decide to take on less illustration work? I didn’t like reworking an illustration over and over again. This is quizzical because form and function has always been the forefront of how I see things. And having studied landscape architecture, design and architecture, I’ve further learned how to dissect things visually, asking questions pertaining to how an illustration can be better. It’s never just about pretty drawings and colorful imagery. Illustration as a visual communication tool is much like a writer with her words. You have every imaginable tool at your disposal, but careful editing of your work and being conscious of what you choose to say is equally, if not more, important than the finished product. As an editor, I know that edits are necessary.

But I also know that a part of me can’t separate my emotion from my work, and that is not terribly professional for an illustrator. I realized that my love for illustration can be utilized in other ways that would play to my strengths. I am good at explaining and bringing concepts to life, and I love teaching, so these days, I focus on art direction and teaching. At one point, I also realized that I didn’t have to illustrate for others—I could do it for myself. It was a eureka moment for me.

What are some common questions that creative professionals face? When I was commissioned to lecture illustration undergraduates on the topic of creativity at a local college, I realized that my students had so many questions and—the scariest of all—a shaky foundation of what to expect after graduation. Soon after, it dawned on me that these were the same questions many creative professionals also had, so I built an online classroom for it because I didn’t want geography to be a hindrance for those who are looking to learn. 

Work/Art/Play is an e-class that teaches visual people how to focus on their strengths to create their own opportunities in an ever-changing creative landscape. My vision is simple: I want to give aspiring artists and illustrators a healthy head start to their career, one that can be tailored to their strengths while allowing their own unique story to set them apart. There isn’t a dearth of talent, so I want them to go to the next level—to carve out a space that’s uniquely theirs. 

Marketing and self promotion play a very important role. So does being a good storyteller—now, more than ever. Why? Because there is no shortage in talent or technical skills. There is much more room now for illustrators to be able to tell their own story instead of merely being a hired pen. So instead of waiting to get picked for a project before they can utilize their skills, it’s important that creatives demonstrate their ability to tell stories through images from their own projects.

Are gatekeepers in the field of illustration becoming less important in today’s digital landscape? It used to be that art directors, creative directors and publishers would have to say “yes” before you could start a job. They’re still important in industries like advertising and publishing, acting as a filter for the talent out there. But that doesn’t mean that they’re right all the time!

The fact that the Internet has offered a way for everyone from around the world to gain fans, audiences and clients has made it easier for illustrators to bypass these gatekeepers. In the past, you might have relied on producers and publishers to get your name out there, but now, if you can prove that you have a ready audience and fans, you can approach them directly to work together.

The possibilities are endless, especially if you’re able to leverage the Internet to find and connect with your fans directly. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. Gatekeepers know this, too—they have such a big pool of talent to tap into!

What advice would you give to both beginning and mid-career illustrators? For those who are just starting out, begin a personal project while you’re working or finding work. It can be something silly, or it can be a subject matter you’re passionate about—anything goes! And this might not fly in the face of mainstream advice, but don’t be so quick to say, “No!” when it comes to accepting projects that pay little to none. But I would caution that if you accept such a job, it should be for projects that you’re truly interested in and in which you would like to make a difference. There are even instances when you are able to work out a barter of sorts. It always helps to be flexible and open to new possibilities while showing the world what you can do!

For mid-career illustrators who feel stagnant, it would do you a world of good to take some time to focus on yourself and think about what you’d like to say—instead of just helping to bring other peoples’ ideas to life.

And I’d like to remind all illustrators out there that drawing is a skill—one that can be improved, given time and space to grow. But drawing is not the end. It is merely a means to an end, and what you want to say is equally—if not more—important. Everyone, to a certain extent, can draw. But what can you do with that skill? Whom can you help? How can you make a difference? Be of service to others, whether it comes with a paycheck or not.

In 2008, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia–based Amy Ng founded Pikaland, an online resource for freelance illustrators that sparks thoughts on creativity, illustration and entrepreneurship.


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