What Freelance Designers Can Learn From Michelangelo?

Doing graphic design on a freelance basis can seem tough sometimes. The client is always offering helpful “suggestions” and “tips”, and complaining about deadlines while at the same time your invoice always seems to get lost under a pile of paperwork or involve a cheque that takes three working days to clear.

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And sometimes, as you’re looking over an email saying “Loved the website, but could you please give it 30% more pizazz?” it’s easy to cry out “I bet Michelangelo didn’t have to put up with this!”

Well believe it or not, he did. And there’s an awful lot you could learn from him (although not about personal hygiene). So, here are the top five things modern graphic designers can learn from one of the old masters.

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DGJ_3219 - Noah (the flood) - Adam and Eve (forbidden fruit)

Creative Commons image source

Your First Job Is To Fix What The Last Guy Screwed Up

Usually when you get brought in on a job the first thing the client will do is show you what the previous was doing. It will probably be a mess, and you’ll end up spending a couple of days trying to clear that up before you can get anywhere near starting on your own ideas.

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Another project that started this way was Michelangelo’s David. That block of marble had been sitting unfinished for around 35 years before Michelangelo got his hands on it. Two previous sculptors had started work on it, but it was still, for the most part, a big block of marble.

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A number of artists were brought in to pitch for the project, including Leonardo Da Vinci, but eventually it was the 26 year-old Michelangelo who managed to win the church over.

Be Confident Enough In Your Vision

There come times in every job where the client well tell you to do something that you just flat-out know is wrong. What you do in those situations depends largely on whether you care about getting your cheque and getting out, or doing a good piece of work (it also largely depends on whether your name will be at all attached to the project).

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Michelangelo famously got into huge rows with the Pope over the Sistine Chapel, until eventually the Pope caved and let the artist do what he wanted. The end result was one of the most enduring works of art in all history. Sometimes it’s worth reminding your clients about this kind of thing.

Your Best Work Might Not Be Your Favourite

That said, you may find that you produce your best work when you’re doing a job you hate. For instance, that Sistine Chapel ceiling we were just talking about? Michelangelo hated it. Painting was just a massive bore for him. He much preferred making sculptures of huge naked men.

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He was quoted as saying, “The more painting resembles sculpture, the better I like it, and the more sculpture resembles painting, the worse I like it.”

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And yet he took on the Sistine Chapel job anyway, because it was a job from the Pope, and in those days the Catholic Church was the only name in “sculpting giant naked men” work.

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However the arguments that Pope Julius II and Michelangelo had weren’t entirely about the nature of the painting. They were the same arguments you are probably having right now with the client whose garden furniture website you’re designing.

Yes, the client will always be complaining that the work isn’t being done quickly enough. The freelancer will always be complaining that their invoices haven’t been paid yet. This was the same argument Michelangelo had with the Pope. It’s probably why the Sistine Chapel ceiling has, even now, has it least one angel doing the Renaissance Italy equivalent of giving someone the finger.

Beware A Change in Management

Of course, even if you manage to fix what the last guy did, get on well with your client and even, somehow, get your invoices paid on time, there is one danger that can hit any freelancer at any time and it is potentially devastating.

After the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was completed, popes came and went, and it wasn’t long before one pope, Adrian VI, took a look around the cathedral and thought “There’s an awful lot of giant naked guys on the ceiling for what’s supposed to be a church.”

He had planned to have the whole lot scraped off, but fortunately, for future art historians, he died before he got the chance.

I’m not sure what lesson you should take away from that fact.

Sam Wright is a freelance writer who works with Brand Republic and some graphic designers who for some reason all call him “the Pope”…