Whether you are working directly with your client or through an art director, how you present your work will significantly influence the final illustration. Whether in sketches or final art, presenting the right thing at the right time — in the right way — can mean the difference between a good concept being rejected and it being fully realized in the finals.
As an illustrator, I rarely find myself on the receiving end of this transaction. But from time to time I get to commission art from fellow illustrators, and I get to see things from the other side of the table. While it's not perfect, I'd like to think I have a pretty effective process for submitting my work to my clients — one that works for both client and artist. Sadly, I wish I could say the same about some of my peers.
Better Presentations Mean Better Work
Ultimately, we all want to make awesome artwork and get paid. We want our clients to be happy. Along the way, the process can be easy or hard, and there's no avoiding some degree of sweat each time. But in order for a project to be profitable, we need to mind our time. We need to engineer our process to require as few revisions (back and forths with the client) as possible. And if we're all honest, we need to be in control of our own process. We don't want the client calling the creative shots, because at a certain point, they will lose trust in our abilities, and we'll lose ownership of the work. It's in the mutual interest of client and illustrator to have a smooth, well-directed process, where everybody gets to operate from their post of authority. Illustrator = authority in making effective images. Art director = authority in defining the visual problem and harnessing the unique skill of the illustrator. Client = authority in their business and brand.
I believe my process achieves the above goals by being professional, clear, and concise. It also has clear, incremental stages and leaves room at each for improvement. For instance, I never show finished-looking art before I've shown sketches, and those sketches have to be approved by the client before moving into finals. It is far easier to make changes to pencils before too much effort is spent in the execution of the final. There is also far more room to surprise and delight art buyers. Earn their trust with a good concept, and then sucker-punch them in the face with an amazing execution.
Never Bypass the Sketch Stage
My process has two stages: sketches and finals. No minds blown here, right? But you'd be surprised how many times, as an art director, illustrators have sent me finals without sketches. While some might argue that they don't do sketches — they jump straight to the computer or canvas — I think it's risky. It's risky because the client may not like the concept, and then what? Do you make little changes to your artwork, bit by bit, hoping to convince them? Or do you have to go back to the drawing board, over and again, until you please the client? This drains you of your creative energy, and it strips you of your creative authority. With each fumbly revision, the client gains more authority over what should be your domain (creativity) and losing trust in you. It's an inconvenience to them that they should have to spend any time doing what they're paying you to do.
Give the Client Options
Just as important as showing rough work before anything too final-looking is presenting options. You'd be surprised at how often I get just one sketch (if I get a sketch at all). For some simpler projects, one sketch will do, but for most projects, I always present two or three sketches per illustration. This demonstrates my understanding of the brief to the client (showing how I can see the problem in different ways), and it also gives them a chance to participate in the creative work, which at this stage is something they should feel completely entitled to. You may have a favourite concept, but you can almost be sure they won't choose it! The challenge for you is to present a) multiple options, and b) only options you like. There is an unnamed law that states, The client will always choose your least favourite concept. Be sure your least favourite is still exciting to you. On the other hand, by opting out of sketch options for the client, again, you risk losing control of the creative work. The client, not pleased with the only sketch you show them, has to ask you to go back to the drawing board. That's a lot harder to stomach than preemptively giving options, since it's likely they'll want to see more anyway.
Earlier I mentioned how being professional, clear and concise helps me maintain control of the process and my artwork. Being professional doesn't mean you need to wear a white shirt and khaki chinos and sit in a beige room (or I hope you don't). It's actually more likely you will never be in the same room as your client. Rather, simply present your work in a way that shows that you take it seriously, and by extension, that the client should too. I always present all work, sketches and finals, in a branded deck. A deck is a PDF presentation that has a cover page and the actual work to be presented on interior pages. It is branded in that it is consistent in layout, colours and type each time I use it. It can be emailed to clients, or presented on a screen or projector. The cover page should have the client name, project title, stage (i.e. Sketches or Final Art) and date, and of course also include your name or logo on the page. It should look handsome and understated, being sure to let the work speak for itself. The interior pages of your deck should have your sketch or art (obviously), with at least a descriptive title. Finals rarely need describing, but each sketch/concept should always come with a short paragraph that helps the client understand what is going on. Because sketches should be loose, absent of flourish or colour, some verbiage helps point the client's imagination in the right direction. Don't forget page numbers. If you think any of this is overkill, ask anyone who had to present their work to clients before the Internet.
Your sketches should be clear, and the same should go without saying as regards finals. They should be well thought-through, and easy to understand and describe. I actually find many of my concepts either pass or fail at the part where I start writing the little paragraph. If I have trouble describing a concept or I don't like how it sounds, I know I have to go back to the drawing board. As my writing teacher in university would say, if you can't articulate what you're thinking, you don't have an idea. This can apply to concept pieces as well as more abstract ones. If not in the concept, the clarity should be in the intention.
Finally, your overall presentation should be concise. If there was anything I resented in my days as a full time, employed designer, it was the countless options we had to present, as though showing tons of variations and iterations was helpful to a client who has hired us for our creative counsel. First we would present as many as 6 or 7 initial concepts (say, for a package design), and then we would go into dozens and dozens of design options. While I believe it is important to do tons of exploration work, it is not necessary to show the client all of it. Our job is to do the hard work of ideating, and then to curate the best ideas for the client.
I usually aim to show two or three options per sketch. "But you said show options" (says the Jim Gaffigan high voice). Yes, but showing too much process demonstrates a lack of judgment on your part and risks confusing the client (or even making them decision anxiety (I highly recommend reading Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice). Do yourself and your client a favour and step up to the plate as the one to decide. If you need help whittling down all the brilliant sketches you've made, call in a friend, wife, or colleague their opinion. Whatever you do, as a rule of thumb, never show your client half-baked work. There's actually a good chance doing so will derail the creative and take you in directions you really don't want to go.
Now, Go Present Like a Badass!
Aside from your emails, the only face your client sees of you is your work. Whether sketches or final art, your work is your face — an extension of you — and you should take it seriously. While you may actually be in your pyjamas in your studio, dress your presentation up, put a handsome pair of specs on it. Make it look smart. And don't stop at looking smart — be smart too. Clients want to participate in the creative work. Be sure to include them early on so they have the satisfaction and then hand over full control to you in the later stages where you are truly the expert. Present sketches first, and always a few options. Meanwhile, help them navigate the high seas of your creative vision by being professional, clear and concise. By so doing, you will retain more control over the creative process and more ownership over your work. The client will have confidence in you and the work you created, and you have a better chance of ending up with something you're truly proud of.