Working with Art Directors

February 20th, 2007 | Posted in Freelancing

An art director’s job, as it pertains to illustrators, is to work with an artist to create an image or images for a project, be it to accompany an article in a magazine, illustrate a book, add visuals to an advertisement or a product packaging. Anytime a client needs a piece of art there is almost always an art director (AD) involved. Basically ADs act as a translator for the client. They translate what the client’s needs are into the artist’s visual language. They have several tasks along the way. First they need to find an artist who’s work is what the project and client needs for a specific job. Then they need to clearly explain what they want done to the artist in a way they can understand. Then they work with the artist to create the image they have in mind via reviews of roughs and direction of the art at various stages, until the job is done. After that they are usually in charge of the final execution of the project, of which the illustration is just part. Magazine art directors are generally in charge of the entire look and feel of their publications, including the layout and design of every page.

Ask any illustrator about art directors, and you will almost invariably receive a roll of the eyes. I think in most cases that reaction is more about the natural need to disparage anyone who seems likely to be telling an artist who to create his/her art than a long string of truly unhappy experiences. Sometimes there is genuine animosity, however. I know an illustrator who has a heavy bag (a boxer’s big punching bag) hanging in his basement with the words ART DIRECTOR written in black marker across it and a very unflattering cartoon face above. That man has anger issues.

Art directors, likewise, sometimes will roll their eyes when asked about illustrators. The stereotype would be that artists are temperamental babies who think our ‘art’ is pure creativity and any efforts to revise or direct our ‘vision’ is paramount to sacrilege, deserving of resistance and anger. I know a few artists who have trouble with that, but that stereotype is no more accurate for real professionals than the AD counterpart of a control freak who saps the creativity and visual excitement out of every job.

Personally I can count on one hand how many jobs I’ve had where the AD was truly difficult to work with. If you treat each job in a professional manner, most ADs respond equally professionally and the relationship is smooth and easy. In the best cases the AD of a project let’s me do my job and create the visuals based on their very clear explanation of what they want. If I understand what the client is looking for, I can usually deliver it without major revisions or need for extensive reworking. Good ADs are excellent at communicating what it is they are looking for, and that leads to a trouble free project. In cases where I am doing more of the ‘writing’, or I am responsible for coming up the content of the image, then it becomes more of an involved relationship with brainstorming at the thumbnail or very rough stage in a search for a direction prior to moving forward on the image itself.

In some cases the AD is more hands on, making many suggestions and revisions to the job along the way. Sometimes this is a function of the AD not being the best communicator in the first place, or sometimes it’s just the way that particular AD works. This is where some artists can run into problems. As easy as it is to say an illustrator’s job is to satisfy the client, we are still doing something creative and that makes it almost impossible to completely separate ourselves emotionally from the artwork. If you do something you really “got into” and thought was particularly successful, it’s natural to be frustrated when an AD wants you to change it. However as a professional, the only appropriate reaction to revisions is to do them without emotional response. In the rare occasion an AD is asking for revision after revision and I feel that they are just fishing around instead of properly communicating their needs, I will require additional payment for excessive revisions. I can only think of two or three jobs where that became necessary, though. Illustrators who have trouble emotionally with revisions on their work, and treat it as some form of rejection, will have problems with client retention and word of mouth work. In short it’s a real career breaker. It’s the rare artist who’s work is so highly demanded they can take the ‘rock star’ approach and make demands on the control of their creativity and final artwork. The rest of us grunts must work with our ADs and clients to mutual satisfaction.

I believe that the most important job an AD has, with respect to their freelancers, is in making the right choice of illustrator for a given project in the first place. Most of the jobs I’ve had that have really gone sour were a result of an AD that wanted a different kind of art style than what I do. I liken it to a party planner in charge of catering who wants Italian food but hires a chef who specializes in Chinese cuisine, and then tries to get them to cook Italian. Good ADs make a smart choice of artist, and that eliminates a lot of potential problems.

I have a few simple guidelines for working with art directors that both facilitate a smooth and successful completion of a job, and ensures that I create a reputation as a professional that ADs can be confident in working with:

  1. Ask questions- Don’t be shy in asking a lot of questions about what it is an AD wants. Not all ADs are great at communicating the purpose and needs of a job. The better you understand what they are looking for, the fewer problems the job will have down the road. Make sure you understand what the message you are communicating is. Also make sure boring specifics like borders or bleeds, image shape (if it needs to work within a particular layout), placement of any type or other elements and such are covered. Whenever possible I ask to see a mock up of the layout the image will be used in.
  2. Get the revisions done at the earliest stages possible- Nothing is more frustrating than when you’ve moved past the rough pencil stage and have already done a tight final pencil or, worse yet, have finished the final only to be told you need to make more revisions. Some revisions, like color changes and perhaps execution issues can only be seen and resolved at later stages, but as far as content and drawing/composition/design goes, that should be worked out in the rougher stages. Once I get approval to go on from these stages and I sense some possible uncertainty, I will ask if the AD is sure it’s time to move to final as changes after this point become a lot more difficult.
  3. No emotional responses to revisions- Jack Davis has always been my idol in the freelance illustration world. The man is a consummate professional, and treats his sketches as mere visual thoughts on paper. He discards them as easily as anyone might discard an idea they have that isn’t working and moves on to the next one. That’s exactly the attitude you need to have when working on a job. Sometimes easier said than done. I’d be lying if I haven’t had the occasional frustrated moment when some sketch I think really has life and energy is changed or discarded in favor of something I don’t think is nearly as successful. That’s when I bite my tongue and go into cool pro mode. It’s just a job, after all.
  4. Deliver as promised- ADs usually have lots of projects going at once, and need to multitask to keep things moving. It’s terribly unprofessional to tell someone you’ll have pencils done on Wednesday and not deliver until Friday. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but always do your best to keep such promises. If possible, always use the “Mr. Scott” method when promising delivery of stages of a job… if you think it will take you two days to get to a promised stage, tell the AD it will take you three. If they ask for it sooner, tell them “aye canna break the laws of physics, Cap’n!” If they still want it sooner, charge them more… Mr. Scott never thought of that, or he’d have had his own starship in no time.
  5. Treat deadlines seriously- Some ADs take the Mr. Scott approach to deadlines, meaning they ask for the final art by the 15th but they would still be okay with production if they didn’t get it until the 20th. You can never assume they have that kind of cushion. I’ve occasionally called and asked an AD if it would be possible to extend a deadline by a few days, but I always try and avoid that and am prepared to do what I need to do to meet the original deadline if that is not possible. Nothing is less professional than blowing a deadline.

I’ve been lucky to have worked with many excellent ADs over the years, particularly at MAD. The entire art staff there really knows what they are doing, and head art director Sam Viviano worked as a freelancer with MAD for many years before taking the art director position. His direction and that of the editors has never failed to improve the final results of the pieces I have done for them, and I have learned a great deal from them in the process. That’s a rare but welcome relationship.

Finally, familiarity breeds comfort with respect to ADs. If a job is from a new client I have never worked with there is always a certain amount of extra caution and care taken with the project as neither of us knows exactly what to expect from the other. Once you’ve worked with a client and AD for several jobs, expectations become known commodities and the surprises and troubles are fewer and far between. That’s why ADs tend to like to work with the same artists more often than not, and why repeat clients are worth their weight in gold.

It also reduces the need for punishing a heavy bag/art director effigy, which your knuckles will undoubtedly thank you for.


  1. Kirk says:


    Oh so true on all acounts. I have been an Art Director since 1991.

    One thing that crops up that can make the Illustrator РArt Director relationship difficult is the Art Directors?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ Bosses (Client). If there is a poor working relationship there and/or bad communication, it will filter down to the AD and Illustrator. Often when the boss says we need to have illustration work done, I need to barrage them with every question I can think of to make sure I use the right illustrator and that I have a good grasp of the concept we are trying to achive with the illustration. As you said , the right illustrator for the right job is the key to it all. If things go wrong with the process, the Art Director can catch you know what from their bosses.

    Then the Art Director needs to have the assertivness to keep the process under control and fair for all parties concerned. As you said, communication is the key. I have no problem with an illustrator asking for a bit more time if it is needed. If I have flexablity in the schedual, I will always give it to the illustrator. It is easier for all parties concerned to work with the know then the unknown.

    Really enjoy your work and your blog. Great on both accounts. Thank you – Kirk

  2. Tom says:

    Thanks, Kirk. Great point about the client being separate from the art director. Magazines, for example, have publishers and editors that the AD is answerable to. Often the visual language is not the strong suit of these people. Also, in some cases the AD is also a freelancer… I’ve done many jobs for magazines where the publication is produced through a design firm for a separate client, and the AD works for the design firm, not the client themselves.

    Thanks again for the kind words about the blog and my work!


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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