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Instagram has changed the portfolio rules – an illustration agent on how to optimise your profile

Jury President for Illustration Kat Irannejad explains how professional creatives can respond to the way art buyers use the platform

Illustration by Lauren Morsley
Illustration by Lauren Morsley

Kat Irannejad is the Co-Founder and Executive Illustration Agent at Snyder New York,  a women-owned (MWBE certified) artist representation and creative production agency. With offices in both the US & UK, Snyder New York reps a dynamic and massively talented group of artists, illustrators, animators, makers, designers, muralists, experiential maestros, and art directors from around the world. Here, Irannejad, who is also Jury President for illustration in the 2021 D&AD Awards, tells us how shifts in the way art buyers use Instagram should change the way professionals present their work on the platform.

Of the many joys of being a commercial illustration agent, having heart to heart conversations with the artists has proven to be both meaningful and enlightening in so many respects. There are the timeless concerns that have bedeviled illustrators and agents alike for years upon years –  keeping folios up-to-date, making sure work is being seen, that it is relevant and commissionable, and how best to avoid burnout. But it’s the relatively new (in the grand scheme of time) invention of Instagram (b. 2010) as a marketing tool that has recently caused the most agita and despair among so many creatives I’ve spoken to. I’m hoping I can sort of “de-program” how commercial artists in particular look at it,  to hopefully remove assumptions around how it should be used, or how it supposedly reflects a sense of self-worth, and to plainly look at it as an extension of one’s portfolio. Simple as. 

It’s understandable, given the influx of (often icky) influencer culture, the gaming of and obsession around algorithms,  to look down upon, be intimidated by, or even totally dismiss Instagram as a platform used purely for self-marketing. Even that term, “self-marketing” can make artists squirm, I know, I’ve felt it myself. But a few years into my observations from an agenting perspective of both how artists and art buyers actively participate using it, I’m here to make the argument (or plea?) that it can serve as the best and most utilized tool with which to have your work seen on a regular, consistent basis and ultimately lead to more jobs.

“Don’t overthink, don’t make it precious – just post”

I’m lucky to work with so many brilliantly talented and smart artists who inexplicably assume a set of restrictive rules around how they’re allowed to use Instagram. Some feel they can’t repost older work, or that they should only post commissioned work. Some get discouraged because a post of work they felt strongly about received a low amount of ‘likes’ so why bother, etc. It’s often heartbreaking to hear- that such talented creators can be completely thrown by this platform, giving it so much power against them (as opposed to taking the power for themselves).

On Snyder's Instagram we repost work constantly, depending on whether  it’s relevant to what’s happening in the world, or based on a mood or noteworthy day, or because it’s just stellar work that deserves to be seen again and shared repeatedly. This is what all commercial artists should be doing – and routinely. Don’t overthink, don’t make it precious – just post. Multiple times a week – post new work, old work, sketches, process/timelapses, behind the scenes, inspiration, case studies, thinking out loud doodles – it’s all 100% good. Consistency is key.

There are always new eyes looking, new followers who haven’t seen the work – and even if they have, sometimes a reminder is a good thing. Even in retagging clients/brands/agencies – it reminds them of the work and perhaps that will lead to new assignments down the line. Or see it this way: imagine if a musician only wanted their song they worked so hard on creating and recording, played once – it defies logic, right? It doesn’t reflect badly on that artist  but it makes the song more accessible to be enjoyed (and ideally even purchased!). If the work is still relevant to the folio and artist, then by all means repost, recycle, repeat, in lieu of holding back if there isn’t brand new work. Show everyone what you do, that's all.

“staying front of mind via their feed, or accessible via a hashtag search is one of the most effective ways of keeping commissioning eyes on the work”

Look at Instagram in this way: it is a place for discovery (by clients) and a place to be discovered (as artists). Commissioning clients are less likely to have a lightbulb moment where they say, “Hey, let me look up this artist’s website once a day,” – or even once a week, year round. It just doesn't happen. But they are likely to scroll once a day, so staying front of mind via their feed, or accessible via a hashtag search – for say, #linedrawing or #papercraft or #portraitillustration, etc – is one of the most effective ways of keeping commissioning eyes on the work, nevermind one’s peers, admirers, and friends.

And yes, hashtags are necessary. On a visit with Instagram a few years back, when I mentioned how I didn't like how hashtags looked aesthetically, and so we were putting them in the comments section (as opposed to the original caption), it was explained to me how much that cuts down on how often posts will be “discovered” via hashtag searches. The percentages dropped dramatically. This is how work gets found, so always bear them in mind and if you don’t like how they look – there’s always nifty visual punctuation tricks that make them appear lower. 

"I’ve been privy to seeing them proactively utilize the saved ‘Collections’ feature in their own Instagram accounts, where they bookmark and save artists and artworks they come across for future reference"

I’ve become quite close to many art buyers, producers, art directors and creative directors over the years, and I can say firsthand how many have found artists specifically through Instagram, and there's no sign of that letting up anytime soon. I’ve been privy to seeing them proactively utilize the saved ‘Collections’ feature in their own Instagram accounts, where they bookmark and save artists and artworks they come across for future reference. I remember being delighted, looking at one of my favorite art buyer’s phone as she showed me her various curated and saved Instagram Collections: “Doodle Artists,” “CG Artists,” “Lettering Artists,”  “Tactile Artists,” "Mural Artists" were just some of them. It was a revelation, but it made complete sense.  

Not so long ago, it was discovery via newsletters, swag, and websites alone, as well as those physically massive books (see. LeBook, Workbook, etc) and, no disrespect whatsoever to them – but now it’s what can fit in a pocket and easily go wherever that commissioning client is, 24/7. Mobility and accessibility are paramount. Commissioning clients will likely scroll Instagram once a day, from home, from the office, from a shoot. The bottom line? Instagram is an egalitarian, free platform that serves as a highly effective marketing and curating tool for creatives and commissioners alike. Ignore the static, don’t make it personal, use it and make it work for you. 

Posting doesn’t have to be precious, try not to overthink it. Instagram is that extended arm of your folio of expressing yourself and your work, for free. Use Instagram as your folio, with updates being essentially seen in real time, while your website still serves as the ‘bricks and mortar’ representation hub of your work and background for deeper dives.

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