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I grew up in the roughest parts of my city.  Sometime I had a hard time – I got into fights, hung out with the tough kids and the drug dealers. I also surrounded myself with the religious, the bullies, the smart kids, and the artists. I had a wide range of adults to look up to who either lived in fear or ran their lives by faith. I have been lucky to be exposed to such a wide range of people.

I have come to realize that navigating through all the different experiences these folks brought me, caused me to develop a large amount of empathy. I believe empathy is a skill and can be learned and that for any aspiring artist or illustrator it can bring a lot to the table.

As a freelancer, how do I use empathy in my daily practice? It’s complicated but  for this blog post I think we can break it down into two broad categories – empathy for my client and empathy for my audience.

Empathy for my client

Having been a creative director, I’ve learned how frustrated project managers, art directors, and creative directors feel with the “me” attitude often displayed by new artists, illustrators, and musicians. I’m generalizing, but my experience has been that many in these categories believe that the boss owes them something, needs to give them more credit, or generally make them feel good. As an artist trying to get eyes on my work I can understand that feeling.

I empathize with both groups, but as a freelance illustrator it’s my job to first empathize with the client, my boss (for lack of a better term), not ask them to empathize with me.

There is a series of questions I ask myself, almost automatically before I send out every email or make any phone call.

Have I stepped into their shoes? Do I have enough information about their needs and wants? Are they too busy to deal with me or would they like a bit more chatter? Do they want me to be a bigger part of the process? Do they need my expertise more than they realize? Is there experience with me excellent or am I pushing certain subjects too hard? Do they understand my solutions and more importantly are they interested in the solution I have presented?

As everybody I work with is different there is never a common answer for these types of questions. Each client is unique and so the practice of standing in their shoes is required for each and every one.

What if I’m wrong?

I often am. The one trick here is that I err on the side of service. I try to stand in their shoes but always with an attitude of service. That way, they still get treated with the respect they deserve.

Empathy for the audience

I was working for a firm on a project that was intended to cast youth gangs in a negative light. I received the script and after reading it many times came to the conclusion that if it was produced, the kids watching it would see gangs as cool. The script highlighted the parties, independence, and power of gangs. The people who had worked on it thus far had never been attracted to such things and automatically saw them as negatives. My experience growing up in a tough neighbourhood saw the attraction immediately and red flags went up. I explained to the team the problem and we hastily made adjustments, showing that gang life is oppressive, dangerous and selfish.

The audience for this script was teenage boys who already have mixed messages coming at them everyday about what it takes to be a man. We knew that if we talked down to them and didn’t treat them like adults, who could make their own decisions, then the production would be a mockery instead of an influence.

In the end, by empathizing with these young adults, we created a production that the sponsors were proud of, and the audience shared with their friends. The target group was taking it seriously.

Empathy comes from being in someone else’s shoes and if done right will naturally develop through the creation process. With deadlines and budgets it sometimes feels like it gets in the way, but we need to balance constraints with the needs of the audience.

How to practice Empathy

The easiest way to practice empathy is to listen and then respond with follow up questions that speak to the need of the person in front of you. You are not trying to convince, you are trying to understand, and there is a big difference.

Another way to practice is reading fiction. Scientists have proven that people who read a lot of literary fiction have more empathy, due to the fact that they are able have a greater number of experiences and understand how different characters respond to those experiences. See this link for more.

Reading literary fiction improves empathy, study finds.

Finally, do not pretend to know everything about the people you are dealing with. Everybody is complicated and full of opposing ideas. While you may need to set them into orderly categories, which is a natural brain activity, you must also be willing to adjust. People respond to situations and activities differently depending on mood, stress, health and past experiences. What you see today in a person or group of people may change in the future as they grow and learn – just like you.

In the business scenario, try being a client and hire somebody to help you solve a problem. Take time during the process to figure out what makes you happy, or irritated during the experience, this has helped me immensely.

Any other suggestions out there? I think people would love for you to share them. Please feel free to comment below.


About Michael

Michael Grills Illustration is located in Calgary Alberta Canada. The business was established in 2005 and since then I have been collaborating with design agencies, editorial, publishers, video directors, and game makers from all over the world. As well as doing art for illustration fans.