Empathy cards by Emily McDowell





I’m always curious on what to say to people who have gone through cancer – you’ll realise that I asked the same questions in my interview with Matilda Tristam earlier. I’m not the only one who has problems expressing my feelings as it turns out, because Emily McDowell knows all too well the embarrassment and waffling about that happens when you’re around someone with a serious illness.

From Emily’s website:

Most of us struggle to find the right words in the face of a friend or loved one’s major health crisis, whether it’s cancer, chronic illness, mental illness, or anything else. It’s a really tough problem; someone we love needs our support more than ever, but we don’t have the right language for it.

I created this collection of empathy cards for serious illness because I believe we need some better, more authentic ways to communicate about sickness and suffering. “Get well soon” cards don’t make sense when someone might not. Sympathy cards can make people feel like you think they’re already dead. A “fuck cancer” card is a nice sentiment, but when I had cancer, it never really made me feel better. And I never personally connected with jokes about being bald or getting a free boob job, which is what most “cancer cards” focus on.

Emily knows this personally as well, as she was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 24, and was given the all clear after 9 months of chemo and radiation. And through it all, it wasn’t the effect of the illness that made it difficult:

The most difficult part of my illness wasn’t losing my hair, or being erroneously called “sir” by Starbucks baristas, or sickness from chemo. It was the loneliness and isolation I felt when many of my close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say, or said the absolute wrong thing without realizing it.

So if you’re not sure what to say to loved ones who are facing a serious illness – send one of Emily’s card their way. They’re most likely facing an unknown future, and embracing change like never before. These cards help put together words that you would like to say but wouldn’t know how to, eliminating miscommunication and the dreaded I-don’t-know-what-to-say-so-I’ll-just-not-say-anything syndrome. Once that’s out of the way, you can then concentrate on caring for your loved one the way you know how.

See the complete range over at Emily’s website.

Q+A: Starting out as a freelance illustrator in Malaysia – what do I charge?

Hi Amy,

I just graduated from design college, and got offers to do some illustration projects. Since this is my first one, how do you usually charge when you do a freelance job? Do you have any guide or advice? What is the standard price charged by illustrators in Malaysia?

~ Kat (via email)

Dear Kat,

I don’t have a straight forward answer on what to charge as it varies from client to client and also industries. For editorials in magazines, it can go anywhere from RM300 to RM1000 for an illustration (depending on factors I mention below), and the numbers are vastly more different when it comes to advertising.

What helps is getting a book like the Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. The rates on there are a good indicator of what people usually pay, and it’s relatively accurate to assume that USD1 = RM1 in most cases.

There are a lot of factors that go into a tabulation of a fee, such as competition, experience, duration, size, and also ultimately, what you can live with. So here are some questions to ask yourself:


Are you the only one pitching for the job? If you aren’t, think of reasons why clients should go with you. With client work, while it can be complex, most of their decisions will weigh on price (high vs. low), experience (quick/slow turnaround) and also how pleasant you are to work with.


People with experience are able to charge more because of many reasons: they might be quicker, have more knowledge of the industry and what it demands, and also the network that they’ve built. A common strategy for those who lack experience is to offer a more competitive price to build their portfolio, and it’s one I advise graduates. But after you get your foot in the door, it’s time to knock their socks off! Too many people remain unhappy about the discount they give clients that they turn in sub-par work. Turn in anything less than stellar will ensure that your name will stay at the bottom of the pool – along with your price.


How long will the project run for? Is there a cut-off for delivery of artwork? Or are you going to be working on the project for a certain amount of time? This will determine if it’s going to be a one-off fee or a retainer – both of which can have different implication of deliverables.


Always, always know what size you’re going to be working on. The level of detail in an A4 sized artwork is going to be vastly different from an artwork that’s A1 in size. And that translates to more time used, which means more billable hours or a lump sum that takes into account the time you’ll need to spend. Don’t know how long you usually work? Measure, measure, measure. Here’s 10 apps you can use.

What you can live with

Some people need money right away. And some people don’t. I’ve personally done projects for free (mainly for charities) and I’ve gotten so many word of mouths and new projects from it that it pays forward many-fold. You’ll hear a lot of people say “don’t do things for free”, which is rather true. But what I advocate is to listen to yourself instead. A lot of people have worked for free (and have kept quiet about it) for a chance to break into an industry. It’s become a dirty little secret that the term working for free is an invitation to unnecessary vilification. Don’t listen to others. Only you know if it’s something worth doing – and if you’re doing something for free, make sure it’s your choice, not that you were co-erced into it. Strategy, long-term thinking and a focus on building relationships are things that will lead to more opportunities down the road, instead of just a one-off transactional affair. Here’s a great article to put things into perspective.

And as a bonus, here’s a brilliant article on how to land your dream job.

Lastly, here’s a personal tip for you: when someone answers your questions via email, remember take 2 minutes to follow up with a thank you. While I’m always happy and willing to dispense advice, it would be nice to get a reply! Communication is a big part of being a freelancer and you might just find yourself losing out to people who take the time to hone their PR skills. Make it a point to say thank you whenever you can. After your interview/meeting with clients/when you get your cheque. Write a thank you note/email. Make sure you follow up. I didn’t think it was necessary to mention it at first, but I think it bears reminding from time to time because it makes a world of a difference and it’s a learning opportunity for young graduates everywhere.

It’s always the little things that matter.


Do you have any tips you’d like to offer Kat or advice on what to look out for in terms of pricing? Let us know in the comments below! Also, if you’d like to send me a question, get in touch with me right here!

Artist interview: Lim Heng Swee of ilovedoodle

I want to introduce you to Lim Heng Swee, whose illustrations for his brand ilovedoodle has made him a bit of a celebrity within the Threadless community and on Etsy. He’s proof that it doesn’t matter where you live (he’s based in Malaysia) to be able to succeed as an artist – especially when you know what success looks like. I originally interviewed him for my course Work/Art/Play, and I wanted to share this interview with you because he’s one of the most inspiring and generous artists I’ve ever come across. I hope you’ll enjoy the interview – and feel free to send the link to this article to your friends!



Hi Heng Swee! I find it really interesting that you’ve created a name for yourself through illustration. Tell us a little bit about yourself!

Hi there! My name is Heng Swee and I’m an illustrator based in Malaysia. I studied mechanical engineering but within a few months after I graduated (and took on a job as an engineer), I quit and became a full time artist because I wanted to just draw.

How did you get your start? Did you study art before?

I didn’t study art – I studied to become an electrical engineer, so I’m a self-taught artist.


Tell us a little about how you arrived at where you are today.

In the beginning, I didn’t know anyone who needed an illustrator, so I flipped through a few magazines and newspapers and saw that none of them had any illustrations in them. So I studied what they lacked and came up with a proposal to each of these publications, and drew a few strips and illustrations for them to show them what I mean, and to show them what my style was like. I got a lot of jobs that way when I first started out. If you’re just starting out, this is a great way to vet clients because when you do the work first, they’ll know what to expect and will not ask you to change your style to suit them because they can see offhand what it looks like.

You are famous also through your Threadless submissions. Can you tell us how it all began? 

I was searching for opportunities for illustrators online as I was about to move to the UK for a one-year working holiday, and wanted to be able to still draw and make a living that way. When I found out that you could earn money illustrating a t-shirt, I was sold – the prize money back then was a big amount: USD2,000 for the winner. I came up with ideas and submitted my work diligently. I created a lot of illustrations on Threadless!


You project “Doodle Everyday” was a big hit – can you tell us the reasons behind it?

Before I started on Doodle Everyday, the only place where I submitted my work was on Threadless. I’ve done a lot of illustrations that were picked by the community in the 2 years when I first started, and it helped me build up my style through the experience I garnered there (the voting, comments, etc). But after 2 years of working on the Threadless platform, I began to feel that I was producing work according to what the masses had wanted, instead of what I wanted. So I started Doodle Everyday as a form of  daily challenge for myself to try out different ideas and themes, instead of merely thinking about what the customers at Threadless would want. I had a lot of exposure from that project – it got picked up by a few major blogs, including Swiss Miss. It was a period of major growth.

How do you come up with ideas for your illustrations?

I always like to think about things – often time mixing things together to form something new. For example, one minute I would think about a penguin, with it being black and white – and then I’d try to link it to something else that might share the same characteristic, which brings me to a piano, with its black and white keys. So then I try to combine these two together in a way, and figure out what do they have in common? What sticks out? That’s how I came out with the “Choir for Antartica” print. I just love to inject a sense of humor into my work.


Your Facebook page has more than 80K likes! Can you tell us how that happened?

It all happened organically – but the major growth was due to the Doodle Everyday project that I started in 2011. People signed up to get regular updates and to see what new doodles that I posted up.

Where do you sell your goods? And which outlet has garnered the most sales for you? Is this your main income stream?

So after illustrating for Threadless for 2 years, I discovered Etsy. And I was blown away by the opportunities that it offered artists. I had never ventured into print before, but after seeing how prints were selling pretty well, I decided to open an Etsy shop to sell my prints. Prior to that, I had to depend on winning the Threadless competition to make sure that I could support myself. With the Etsy shop however, I could have a regular income because I could now get my work printed up – I didn’t have to win a competition, and I didn’t need to be picked by anyone. The Doodle Everyday project has created a lot of illustrations that I could use for different items.


Do you print your items by yourself, or do you use a 3rd party service? What’s your advice for those who don’t know where to start?

I use my own printer to print, as I felt that using 3rd party services was unreliable in Malaysia. With this I could control the quality of the print as well as the type of paper that I could use. I did a lot of online research into which printer was the best, and I couldn’t get good quality archival, acid-free paper here, so I order mine online.

I saw that you also went into licensing – how is that working out for you?

It’s working out great – licensing isn’t my mainstay at the moment, but I have gotten offers for work from China and Hong Kong through being seen online.


How do you determine your licensing rates?

I usually go by my experience with Threadless (they now offer royalty instead of a prize money) – but it also depends on the scope of the project. I also refer to the book The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines.(via Amazon)

What sort of marketing efforts have you put into promoting your work? What has worked and what hasn’t?

A lot of my work has been through word-of-mouth and through referrals and repeat buyers. I haven’t been actively promoting myself, aside from regular posting on Facebook and updating my blog. I find that having fresh content up on a regular basis really helps to drive interest back to my work.

What would be your advice to other artists out there in carving out your own future and success? 

It’s really important to start with what you want out of all this. I like to share this story about a Mexican fisherman, which goes along something like this:


(Taken from http://bemorewithless.com/the-story-of-the-mexican-fisherman/)

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked.  Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna.  The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “only a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos.  I have a full and busy life.” The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”

“But what then?” Asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part.  When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”

“Millions – then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire.  Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”


The story above goes hand in hand with a TED talk I watched about how Stephan Sagmeister brings his ideal retirement life into his current schedule, by taking an extended time off from work every few years to rejuvenate himself and to create a well of information that he could tap into for the following few years. And it goes on and on, like a cycle. He doesn’t believe in the concept of retirement as finite, or something you can only enjoy at the end of a grueling work life. It has to be hand in hand, because work is so engrained in our lives – it takes up a big part of our time, so why shouldn’t it be enjoyable at the same time?

So my advice is to know what you want, and spend your time planning your work, schedule and environment to mirror what it is that you want in life. For me, it was always about drawing – so my choices, and the path that I choose has got to align with my goals of being able to draw.


You can see more of Lim Heng Swee’s work through Etsy, Threadless and on his website.