Sunday Mailbag

August 17th, 2008 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: How often does a client give you a vague idea of what they’re after (saying “We like you, we trust you – just go with it!”) – and how often are the jobs incredibly specific from the start? Which is your preferred method of working, if you have one?

A: It depends on the type of project and the client’s style of art directing. Most of the time it’s somewhere in between those two extremes.

In general when a client calls with a project they have some idea as to what they are looking for. Those ideas usually involve an explanation of the message the illustration needs to convey, but in somewhat general terms. After all, part of what they are hiring me for is to create a visual solution to get across the message or purpose they want. In the case of an illustration that accompanies a feature article, they will synopsize the article’s points for me and tell me what kind of message they want to convey, then send me the actual article to read as well as layouts showing where they want the images. Here is an example from this past winter:

– Client calls wanting a full page illustration and a few spots to accompany an article in their magazine. The article is about the movie business, and how studio executives are sometimes tyrants and make life difficult for a film’s creative team. They wanted me to create an image depicting studio executives negatively, disrupting the film making process. Creatively they wanted black and white illustrations. the rest was up to me.

– I brainstormed a concept tying in films, a movie set and something representative of many different studios as opposed to singling one out. The first thing that popped into my mind, especially given the black and white format, was an old-time monster movie poster like Godzilla with the “monster” being the studio executive and “Tokyo” being the movie set. After some though I decided to go with a Sci-Fi monster movie poster concept. My initial sketch:

– They liked the concept but not the movie poster look. They wanted me to lose the title and the torn and curling border I was going to incorporate. The second pencil sketch:

– This was approved right away, and we went to final:

That one went pretty quickly, but it’s a good example of they way I like to work. I want the client to be clear about what it is they want the illustration to accomplish, and then let me come up with a solution.

Some clients are micro-managers who literally dictate every facet of the process and image. Those are far less fun and interesting to work on. I like to have more creative leeway to develop my own ideas and ways to get the message across. Frankly I feel that is a big part of what I am being paid for. It’s also more creatively satisfying to work out my own solutions to the problems presented. If what I am told to do is too rigid and detailed, I become little more than an art machine… programmed completely and spitting out the image without thought. Some clients just work that way, especially in advertising and product packaging/marketing.

Some clients are the opposite… they give me almost nothing to go on. Even if they give me the article in question, that does not guarantee I will see the same message they do in the story. This will sometimes work out fine, as I often hit on the key point of the article anyway and the concept roughs I present are in the ballpark. Sometimes, though, I end up wasting a lot of time doing roughs that they don’t like at all as I didn’t understand what they wanted and I have to start over. That’s a case usually of them not knowing what they want and expecting me to furnish a bunch of different ideas to pick from. That is also my job, but it feels a lot like I am spinning my wheels when it goes that direction.

I prefer the client interaction of my example above… giving me a basic direction and then letting me come up with the right idea to make it work visually.

Thanks to Robert and Margaret Carspecken for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here! I’m running low!


  1. cedricstudio says:

    Good summary of the client/artist process. I’ve found that often there is a trade off between how much money I am being paid and how much creative freedom I am given. More of one means less of the other. Has that been your experience as well?


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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