So you’ve been commissioned to produce an visual graphic or an illustration for a client. You’ve passed the first barrier, which was to attract a client to award you the assignment and now the assignment is about to begin. And so is the challenge and thrill that comes with the potential of creating a great visual, but how the relationship between the client and the artist proceeds will determine how enjoyable the experience turns out. Now in the end, the client will have their great illustration, but how much worry, anxiety, stress, sleepless nights, extra time, revisions, and blood, sweat and tears will it take to make that happen. Here is some advice to make the process go more smoothly.
#1 Read Your Client Relationship
There are clients that know how to be great clients and there are those that have no idea what being a good client means. And sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which, especially when you are working with a client for the first time, or only once, as many of us illustrators do. It’s very important to learn a few things about your client. It can save you a large amount of time in the long run.
It is important to consider what you already may know about the client. This relates to the circumstances of the commission itself. Will it be a tight deadline? Is the job negotiation difficult? How quickly are you receiving responses to emails and phone calls? How long is it taking to be awarded the job? Are you having any conference calls during the process?
#2 Consider the Assignment Origin
The more levels of people there are between you and the client, the more difficult it will be to get accurate feedback and approval for your assignment. So, working for an advertising agency will present the most difficulties. The next difficult group to work for is a graphic design or media design firm. And the easiest group to work for is a publishing company. If a publishing company hires you then you are working for the client directly.
It is important to know the pecking order for your assignment. Not only to know how to sell your concept, but also to know how much to charge for your time. Sometimes a pecking order can get quite complicated. For instance, a high profile client can hire a marketing and communications firm, who then subcontracts an advertising agency, who sub-subcontracts a design firm, who sub-sub-subcontracts you. I have personal experience in many of these situations.
#3 Get the Right Assignment Input
There is truth in the saying “garbage in, garbage out”. As an illustrator, you know this is spot on when it comes to getting reference for your illustrations, but it is also accurate concerning assignment input. Incomplete, contradictory, biased, or just plain bad input can make coming up with an illustrative idea not just difficult but a waste of time, and in most cases, your time. This can be avoided, but it will require you to take an active role by guiding the input discussion.
It’s up to you to make sure you get the information needed to allow the assignment to go smoothly. And, here’s an insider tip. Your client or their representative will respect you for it, and expects this from an experienced illustrator doing business. Clients tend to place talent such as illustrators, graphic designers, and photographers into a separate non-business box. Even the best clients assume that artists are driven by inspiration and self-indulgence. And to some extent we are, which explains why we have the talent and skills to creatively communicate visually.
Here are some preparatory questions you can ask your client.
Who is the audience for the illustration?
Where will the illustration be seen?
What will be the use(s) for the illustration?
How will the illustration be reproduced and by whom?
What are the production specifications for the illustration?
Are there any objects such as logos, or products that must be in the image?
Are there any color restrictions associated with the subject or product?
Concerning Conceptual Content
What is the purpose for the illustration?
What is the message of the illustration?
What personality, mood, or feeling should the illustration communicate?
How should the audience react to the illustration?
What qualities do you think I bring to the assignment?
Are there any ideas that should be avoided?
Concerning Idea Presentation
Is there any preference for the style of sketch presentation?
How many sketch ideas are expected?
Who will be reviewing the sketch concepts?
Assuming a doctor patient type of relationship with a client will allow you to best diagnose their needs and preferences while giving them a voice in your process. This team building approach creates a comfort level for a client. Another way to look at it is to take a private investigator’s approach to solving a problem. This approach involves researching beyond the word of mouth input of the client and calling on your own experiences concerning the subject of the assignment. You may have personal insight into the subject, audience, or venue for the illustration.
At this point, now that you have a clearer idea as to what the assignment will entail, you should decide whether to accept it based on the type of input you have gathered. Not all potential illustration assignments are suited for all illustrators. Quite often, trouble begins when illustrators agree to take on an assignment that is a poor fit for them. It may be due to stylistic differences, a method of working, a particular subject matter, a time frame, or other reasons.
Phase 2 -- Presentation
#4 The Idea Presentation
Understand that this is the most important phase in the evolution of an illustration assignment, and it is so important to get it right. The effort you put into your idea presentation will determine the course for the rest of the project. Your client will either feel secure about their decision to have hired you and allow you to proceed with their blessing, or they will have second thoughts, and will try to take over your job of coming up with visual ideas. This will happen to fill in any blanks you left by them not understanding your concept for the finished illustration. Unfortunately, this happens all to often, and it’s not a reflection on the quality of the idea presented, but on the presentation itself. Here’s why.
Even though you did all the necessary research and gathered good input by properly interviewing the client, you didn’t consider the following points when you presented your ideas.
#5 Think Like Your Client
Your client is solely devoted to making the project a success. Their job standing and company status depends on it. So no matter how much you think the client is against you, and “has it out for you”, they don’t. Clients just want a job well done. If they perceive gaps in information caused by a misunderstanding or poor communication, they will step in to fill them, which sometimes results in them stepping on your creative toes. When this happens it jeopardizes the quality of your illustration and the clients overall project. So try to understand how your client thinks. Ask yourself, if you were the client, how would this idea or sketch impress you.
#6 Think Verbally
The number one mistake illustrators make when presenting ideas to a client is thinking that clients are visually literate, and that they had the same kind of background, college training, and personal likes and dislikes that illustrators do. Clients are not visual like you. Failing to recognize this, there are illustrators who have many years of experience in the field that still struggle to sell a concept.
Even if you are working with an art director or designer don’t assume they will pick up on the nuances and clever use of visual elements that appear in your sketches. You have to tell clients what you are showing them.
#7 Make a Visual and a Verbal Presentation
Upon attending an illustration conference, and getting into a discussion about working with clients at dinner, I was astounded to find out that several of the illustrators I was talking with, high profile illustrators, never thought of sending verbal explanations for the sketches they presented to clients. What wasn’t astounding to me was the percentage of revisions these illustrators were asked to do to their sketch concepts by their clients.
Although illustrators are taught not to describe ideas verbally, but to sketch them out, the opposite is actually true when it comes to communicating and selling concepts to clients. Clients with no art background understand the verbal description of an idea better than a sketch of it. Of course it some times depends on the sketch, but remember most clients didn’t take art appreciation or sit through 18 credit hours of art history courses.
As a side bar, it should go without saying that you should not present concepts that 1) you would not want to produce, or 2) are beyond your ability to produce. Remember, while working on the clients behalf, the presentation phase is where you have the ability, and the right, to influence the outcome of the assignment. Even though the client may suggest a certain direction for an idea, it's important to exercise your creative license. After all, you were most likely hired based on samples of work that you produced for other clients, so it is not unreasonable to educate the client about how those examples became successes.
#8 Help Someone Else Sell Your Idea
It is very rare for an illustrator to come face-to-face with the client to advocate for their ideas. In nearly all cases a “middleperson” will present your proposed ideas to the client. And even though the middleperson may be an art director, designer or art rep, and what goes on during that presentation is totally out of your control, you can influence the outcome by providing a “script” for the middleperson. Now, don’t think that you will be able to orchestrate the actual decision, but a written statement about the idea, pointing out visual elements, and explaining your concept and rationale for the sketch, can go a long way to help your middleperson win over a client to your way of thinking, and to approving your idea.
#9 Present Understandable Sketches
Clean well-crafted sketches will strongly support your idea. It’s important that all of the elements in your sketch be well defined. Presenting a refined sketch will go along way towards preventing a request for a revised one. Although us illustrators are familiar with looking at rough sketches, they are too difficult for non-visually trained people to interpret. And, roughs don’t appear to display the time value that a client would expect for a presentation that they are paying you well for. You will definitely want to avoid embarrassing questions about your sketch like “what is this thing over here”, and “is that an adult or a child”. It may sound farfetched, but it happens all to often, and when it happens it is hard to instill confidence and trust in your client. This will lead to a lot of extra work for you.
#10 Leave Emotions Behind
It’s all right to defend an idea as long as you don’t appear to be defensive. Clients will ask you questions about your sketches. It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like what you are presenting. And, they are on your side, because there is only one side. Clients want you do your best. They will evaluate you as much as they do your sketches. They want to know that you are engaged and have a true commitment to their assignment. When you do great work, they succeed and will promote you and your work.
Practicing a well thought out strategy for generating and presenting your illustration ideas will not only greatly reduce or eliminate the need for revisions, but will increase your chances of completing your best work for yourself and your client.