Sunday Mailbag

January 4th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Do you ever have a client give you a vague job proposal, then ask for endless changes once they see something on paper?

A: Yes, of course. That may happen if you do not take steps to make sure it does not, specially if you recognize that you have a client that might be a problem in that regard. Sometimes that is impossible to spot, but usually you can sense it coming right away.

Part of an illustrator’s job is to solve a visual problem, so you can expect in any job to do pencil sketches and sometimes to explore ideas. However a client needs to come to you with a reasonable idea of what they are looking for… a clear definition of the ‘problem’ they want you as the illustrator to solve visually. The best client and art directors have either a very clear concept of what they want or can communicate their needs very clearly, so you go through minimal trial and error looking for a solution. Some clients, however, may have almost no idea what they want and expect the illustrator to just blindly swing around in the dark until they manage to hit something. These are the worst and moist frustrating kinds of jobs. I try to either avoid them or to make the contract limit the revisions or charge individually for concept drawings.

That is a bit of a sticky problem. Illustrators are supposed to do sketches and an art director may have no idea how many it might take and doesn’t like being limited to “two revisions” or something similar, especially if they’ve never worked with that illustrator before. It also can be a bad reflection on the illustrator to demand such limitations as it might be a signal to the art director or client that this illustrator has had problems in the past with having to do a lot of revised drawings… which might indicate they aren’t too good at communicating themselves or they are just plain unprofessional. On the other hand you can end up with a nightmare job if you don’t impose some limitations.

Here’s an example of one of the worst problems I’ve ever had of this nature. The job was a product label design done for a U.S. based design firm on behalf of a South American food packaging company. The product was packaged “chunks” of some kind of fish and the label was to incorporate an illustration of the company president or some person of importance named Pedro. “Pedro’s Fish Chunks” or some such was the name of the product (can’t remember for sure, this was a few years ago). I was told to draw Pedro standing holding a plate of the fish fillets. Here is the finished image:


Seems pretty easy and straight forward, right? You can’t tell by the art, but it took over TWENTY revised sketches to make them happy. Twenty two, if I remember correctly. The changes they asked for had little to do with the caricature… I had that right with only one revision. It was all about them just “trying out” different things and having me draw and draw and draw. I had him smiling, then licking his lips, then in a chef’s outfit with hat, then in a fisherman’s garb, then holding a spatula, then with the “thumbs up” then… well you get the idea. It got way out of hand. Finally I went to the design company and said I was doing “conceptual work and branding” that I was not being compensated for. I was hired to draw a guy holding a plate of fish, not brainstorm a corporate product identity. I was given some extra money and eventually we finished up the project. I have no idea if the art ever was used on a package or not.

That’s just an example of how art directors or clients who do not have a clue of what they want might expect the illustrator to fish about (pun intended) until they happen to catch something they like. That’s a bad way to approach a project. That is not an illustration job but a conceptual design and branding job, which is more work and more money.

When working with a new client I make sure this does not happen by asking a lot of questions about what it is they want before I agree, quote a fee or prepare a contract. If I get some bad vibes that they want to do a lot of visual brainstorming I up the fee and separate “conceptual work” from the final illustration work in the pricing. In other contracts I will just include the phrase “reasonable revisions” as being included in the scope of the job. That doesn’t really mean anything, but if I feel at any time the revisions are becoming “unreasonable” I can point out we are reaching that point and it’s amazing how quickly a client will suddenly decide we’ve got it and to go ahead to the final when they are faced with the prospect of having to pay more for further revisions.

The bottom line is that in any new client/freelancer endeavor there is always an element of the unknown and some basic faith you must have that both parties are professionals and will act accordingly. Sometimes you get burned, but sometimes the other party got burned in the past by someone else and is also gunshy. My philosophy has always been once you agree to a job you follow through to the end (don’t burn your client), and your best recourse in the event you get the short end of the stick is to simply never work with that client again.

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!


  1. Mark Heng says:

    Holy smokes, what a nightmare. Thanks for the story and advice!

    • jtk says:

      I am replying to this comment. WordPress has changed their entire commenting routine in 2.7 – I did not knwo this 🙂

  2. Michael Garisek says:

    very informative and timely, I have a story too, I was ready to strangle the guy.
    Your info really gives me some ammo for my next encounter
    Thank you

  3. what great insight, i just went through something similar. i’m pretty new to the whole commission thing, and unfortuneately it wasn’t as formal as it should have been. and i as you said, i got roped into conceptual 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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