This is the second instalment of a series of reviews of my favourite illustration agencies. More information about what makes for a great agency can be found in the first post in this series.
While not strictly New York based (they have Tokyo and UK bases too), Dutch Uncle has an address in the Big Apple, and they represent a number of artists based in the city and its boroughs.
And what talented artists they have! Dutch Uncle is almost the perfect agency, with a goldilocks roster (not too big, not too small) — which includes seventeen illustrators at the moment. The agency aims high too, boasting super star illustrators like Ping Zhu, Noma Bar and Satoshi Hashimoto. While technically not an illustrator, they have BC-based graphic genius Marian Bantjes on their artist roster as well.
One of the most remarkable things about DU is their support for their artists beyond bringing them and managing paid work by "encouraging and supporting their personal development and projects", in addition to helping "coordinate and produce their fine art projects including exhibitions, products and publications.". This may explain the maturity exuded by their roster — these are illustrators who've been around the block a few times and are clearly involved in pursuing more personal, less commercial work. For me, this kind of relationship, where the agency and artist work together to hone and develop their body of work, is an ideal to be pursued at mid- to- late stages of an artist's career.
On the branding and experiential sides, Dutch Uncle comes out on top. Their brand is cohesive, premium, and evokes a sense of restrained cool. Their website is at once no-nonsense and unpretentious. It is super minimal but somehow does not feel vacant or under-designed. It's the perfect crystal goblet through which the talent can sparkle, shine and effervesce. Of course, a nice looking website is nothing if it is unhelpful or misses the main task of giving clients access and insight to their talent and culture. Dutch Uncle has just about the best artist profile design that I have seen. Artists are represented variously by professional portraits or thumbnails. I like that they put the artists themselves forward, beyond their work. It seems like a risky move, but it actually speaks to the calibre of the people the represent. They're not selling twirly doodles for drug store greeting cards — they're selling the best minds and hands in the creative industry.
Clicking into an artist thumbnail from their Roster page takes you to the artist landing page, which large, eye-catching portraits and work images in a carousel, and a synopsis below. Further thumbnails allow you to click into either their rather extensive full bio page or their portfolio. In the latter, work images are shown large, and without superfluous doodads, in an overlaid window box. The only small thing I could pick at is that the image file names are displayed, in a sort of default, clumsy and clearly unintentional look. There must be a setting in their Squarespace panel to hide that or title the images more elegantly.
Their client list has all the usual suspects. As I've written before, the client list of an agency means less to me than the artist list and other experiential and branding factors, since most of the big companies make their rounds to most known agencies. If you've been around a few years, you'll have worked with Coca-Cola and Google and Nike and Adidas, etc.
Their Instagram is nicely curated but has a surprisingly modest follower count, given the calibre of everything and everyone else in their arsenal. I suppose 6.8k followers is commensurate to how often they post, which is about once a week as far as I could tell by a quick scan. They may have been late to the Instagram game, or perhaps they are focusing on building their actual artist's careers rather than garnering likes on social media.
While animation for me (and the entire agency world) falls on the sidelines, I'm impressed to see DU has a specific page on their site showcasing motion work by their illustrators. For over a decade the realms of motion and illustration have become more blurred together, and there is no sign of this trend going away. DU is clearly keeping up with the times, working with mutli-disciplinary illustrators and leading the industry with relevant services and content.
My Final Verdict
Dutch Uncle is possibly the most desirable agency to work for as an illustrator. With a philosophy of developing artists's careers and art practices, they put it into practice by putting their artists and work first (in that order, too). It's rare that an agency acknowledges the life blood of their business in such a selfless way. More than anything, I see that DU values relationships — relationships between them and their artists, but more remarkably, between their clients and the artists. It seems gutsy for an agency to promote their talent by showing a photo of the artists before the work, but then again, it's a huge vote of confidence in just who they're dealing with.
This is my first instalment of what I hope will be a series of reviews of my favourite illustration agencies. At first, I was going to write an exhaustive list of my favourite New York reps in one single post, but it quickly became apparent that this would take forever to both write and read. Instead, I will post one agency at a time, and will for now focus on reps in New York. Why NYC? Because it is indisputably the global centre of the illustration industry.
Of course, every review must have its criteria. I am hardly an expert critic on anything, but as a represented, full time illustrator, I do have my own opinions of what makes as good agency. For instance, an agency should have strong branding and a clear focus in its portfolio. I tend to favour agencies that have a few high quality artists over the ones that have dozens or even hundreds of pretty good ones. I am less impressed by the quality of individual artists than I am of the overall presentation of the set. But of course, who they represent is every bit important: I'm looking for at least one or two recognizable names, and I give extra bonus points for industry superstars (although not all reps with superstar names meet my other criteria). Good agencies of course show the work of their artists well and give each illustrator a proper bio and profile page. Another mark of a great agency is their demonstration of stylistic and technological freshness: their talent is current and creating good, time-friendly work, and their online experience is up to date. In 2017/18, We can't overlook social media influence either, particularly on Instagram. I'm looking at the follower count, which is an indicator of reach and influence. I'm also looking at the feed itself, particularly how it is curated. Finally, you may be surprised to learn that clients are less important to me than these other things. Most agencies can boast a handful of the big ones — Nike, Google, Penguin, The New York Times, etc. — if they've been around long enough. For me, the most stand-out agencies are the ones who are not just saying they're different, but actually are.
These are my personal criteria for what makes an admirable illustration agency. As I do not count myself an expert critic, I would caution you to take all my comments with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, I do not know how these agencies operate from the inside, nor do I know how well they are doing as businesses. The agencies that impress me most do so for the above reasons, and that's that. Furthermore, it should be acknowledged I myself have a New York-based rep. To make sure I am not showing any bias, I have left them off the table for consideration.
Bernstein and Andriulli
Bernstein & Andriulli is a premiere creative management agency with hands in all the pots: photography, illustrators, cgi, motion, beauty, fashion, and even influence marketing. But don't let their "one stop shop" appearance fool you: they boast an impressive talent roster, including pop art legend Sir Peter Blake, who created the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" sleeve. Among others, they also have the whimsical Nomoco (a personal favourite) and Toronto's own Polyester Studio.
What impresses me about B&A is their strong branding, which is sophisticated and premium, alongside a well designed web experience, which makes finding and viewing individual artists a pleasure. While there are many other reps in New York with similarly diverse and choc-full rosters, B&A do a very good job presenting the work in a way that feels cohesive and well-curated. It helps that their logo and overall branding is straightforward and elegant. Even their international-sounding name pleasantly lands on the tongue.
With an Instagram following in the tens of thousands, it's easy to assume that Bernstein & Andriulli are doing something right. And yes, their feed is delectable. It strikes a great balance in terms of showing work from its many disciplines, and demonstrates an expert curator's skill.
If I have any critique of B&A, it's fairly practical: for all the ease of use in finding artists on their website, finding information about the agency itself is less accessible. They don't have an About section on their page: I had to go to LinkedIn to find their agency statement. Their client list is similarly hard to determine, although specific clients are listed in individual artist bios.
My Final Verdict
Bernstein & Andriulli stand out as the top New York agency in my mind, with a good mix of legendary and fresh talent, a great online experience, high audience engagement, and a clear dedication to keeping with the times. They seem to elevate their artists and their work above any specific merits of their own, as an agency, which is refreshing in this industry. And this is the mark of a confident agency that knows what makes it most valuable — the work and the illustrators who make it.
You know the feeling. You’ve just stayed up almost all night perfecting your illustration. After standing back to admire your accomplishment, you send it off to the client and go to bed for a few hours of sleep. When you wake up and check your email (after a well-deserved sleep-in), you find a long list of feedback from the client. As your heart sinks, your temperature rises. You fume inside, angry at an unappreciative client who just doesn’t get it. All the euphoria of the night’s work evaporates into nothing. You are discouraged, tired, and angry.
Like me, you might want to get right to business and hit that reply button. You want to explain and justify your decisions and convince your client that the work as you’ve sent it is the best possible solution to the problem. Or perhaps they’ve pointed out an error on your part, and you want to excuse yourself — perhaps it was sleep deprivation, or the client rushed you, or you have a lot of stressful things going on in your life right now. We blame the client for being ignorant. We blame our computer for crashing. We blame the accident of being born “right-brained”, a creative artist who can’t be expected to pay attention to details. This is our instinct — to react to the feedback in a huff instead of responding to it thoughtfully.
We immediately feel the need to be right, and anything that isn’t is not really our fault. And this, not the client feedback, is the first problem we need to face when undesired feedback comes our way. What if, in this instance, you are not right? What if you have more power to overcome whatever is in your way to meet the project goals and deadlines? Client feedback can be annoying. In fact, it almost always is. But the same can be said of anything that challenges us to think or feel differently from what comes naturally. While such a challenge is often uncomfortable, if it met with an open mindset, it can be our teacher and friend.
What to Do When You First Get Feedback
On receiving client feedback, our first task is to check in with on ourselves. Our first instinct is often to react immediately. In my experience, this urge is a palpable feeling, in my chest, somewhere between my mouth and my chest, a sort of negative pressure that pushes against the inside of my skin. Some might just describe it as a ball of anger. When feedback rolls in, pause and try to identify this feeling. I can tell you from my experience, that, as long as this ball of anger is present, I can only respond negatively. Thus, I do not permit myself to write emails until the negative feelings dissipate. Nothing good has ever come out of forgetting this.
1. Step Away
Take a walk, drink some water, or do whatever you do to calm down. While you’re waiting to not feel like you have to break something, put the email away. Defer dealing with it until you’re in a better mindset. If you are bubbling over, talk to a friend, call your mom, or if it's really serious, write about it in your journal.
2. Get it All Out (First Draft)
When you feel better, return to the email and read the feedback carefully. Hit reply and carefully, without pressing send, go through the client’s feedback, point by point, and write your responses. Be as thoughtful as you can be, but don’t hold back from defending or excusing yourself at this point. Simply write your rationale back to the client. But DO NOT SEND YET! This is your first draft, and you still have some editing to do.
3. Filter Out Negativity (Second Draft)
Now it’s time for your second draft. Go through your responses and look for any place you’ve excused, defended, or otherwise justified yourself or reasoned against the client’s thinking. Now ask yourself why you feel so strongly about it. Does your point really matter, or are you just feeling a loss of control? Is the client’s feedback really that unreasonable? Is it something you can at least try, or even try secretly just to prove yourself right? Consider your tone — do you sound difficult or impatient? Or even rude? If anything, simply ask yourself — can you solve the problem or not? The client is not at all interested in your feelings or your life, no matter how difficult it may be. (Seriously). They have a problem that needs solving, and they have offered to pay you money to do just that. No matter how annoying you think the client is, you have to see past their transgressions and look at their feedback as objectively as possible. What is the problem, and how are you going to solve it?
One angle I often take is to make sure the client and I are framing the right problem. So if I get feedback about colour, I might ask what it is about the colours I have chosen that aren’t working. I probe the client to look for a reason, to tell me why. This gets everyone thinking more logically about the problem and often opens up a real, constructive conversation. If the client can reasonably tell me why they need something changed, it makes me feel like I can reasonably accommodate their request.
Of course, some feedback may be unreasonable. In this case, identify that which you feel is out of line. But bluntly saying so will not convert your client to your way of thinking. Best if you ask the client why this feedback matters to them. You might learn something about the project that never came up in the brief. Everything a client says, reasonable or stupid, can give you valuable insights into what the client really needs and into possible solutions.
Perhaps the feedback is annoying simply because it takes the job out of scope. It adds more time to the project that you weren’t planning for. In this case, if the client is asking you to do more than what you agreed to, again, don’t get mad — solve the problem. In this case, you may be entitled to invoke the original brief or scope and ask for more time and/or budget. Don’t charge at the client, simply charge them more (with fair warning of course)!
4. Read it from a Recipient's Point of View before Sending
So by now you’ve 1) calmed down, 2) written unfiltered feedback, and 3) gone back and edited your feedback to be more solution-driven (rather than ego-driven). Your last step is to read through once more, just to make sure you’ve given everything your client is asking a fair shot, at least in your head. Read it as though someone else sent it to you. Is it demeaning? Belittling? Too long? Is the tone friendly? Is it respectful? Does it build rapport with you and the client?
In all this, it’s easy to think that I’m suggesting that you compromise at the expense of what’s important to you. But what I’m really saying is know what is important — what your non-negotiables are — but also be flexible and empathetic. Your paying client needs you to solve their problem. How will you help them all the while providing the service/product that you are best suited to provide? For instance, if a client seems to want me to do a style that isn’t mine, I kindly but plainly explain that I wouldn’t be very good at it, and I provide references of illustrators who would be way better at it than me. I explain what my strengths are, what value I can add, and then check and double check to make sure they understand that.
We are experts at bringing our unique approach and perspective to a creative problem. Clients are experts at knowing their business and what their goals are. Let them teach you what is important to them, and, having communicated what your value and perspective are, they will better value what is important to you. Some of my favourite projects are those where I received a lot of pushback from clients I respect, or learned to respect along the way. In almost every case, I became a better, stronger illustrator, and understood commercial art from the client's perspective in more profound ways. And ultimately, this gives me a competitive edge and makes me more profitable as a business.
How do you respond to annoying client feedback? Do you relate to this article? What would you do differently? I'd love to hear things from your point of view in the comments!
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.
I do not present multiple design options to clients as one might a box of assorted chocolates — a selection of various iterations in the hopes that one of them tickles their fancy. This is not actually design at all but an exercise in trying too hard to please the client without regard to intelligent problem solving. I call it the machine gun approach. Shoot at a target with enough bullets and you will eventually hit the target. But it does not mean you're a skilled marksman.
In the design process, the machine gun approach is both damaging and distracting. It damages your authority as the design expert and distracts from the purpose of the design exercise, which is for you to learn as much about the problem you need to solve — and then to intelligently solve it.
The commercial artist must be able to distinguish between failure to provide a good solution from failure to convince the client of having done so.
Providing fewer options is not an act of arrogance, it is the mark of a seasoned commercial artist, one who has a vision and a voice and who truly cares about the art. It's not saying "I am the artist and I will only do it my way." It's more like saying, "this is what I have learned about your problem, and this is how I have solved it." If, after a reasonable number of attempts, the design is not satisfactory, it is either because the artist has not learned enough about the problem to adequately solve it, or it is because the client has not learned how the artist works. The artist, if mature and humble, will use each rejected iteration attempt as a means of learning more about the problem. The client too will gain a sharper sense of what they want. Of course, if, at the end of a reasonable amount of revisions the client remains unsatisfied, there may be little they can do. The artist may have failed to solve the problem, or the client may have found themselves unyielding to the artist's approach. They should both move on.
The commercial artist must be able to distinguish between failure to provide a good solution from failure to convince the client of having done so. Some artists are prepared to undergo further iterations, or even resort to the machine gun approach — a runaway train almost certain to be wrecked. Much credit is due to artists and clients patient enough to work through multiple iterations while maintaining a focus on the true problem and continuing to place a high priority on aesthetic excellence.
Fewer options means higher quality options—more time is spent on each. The artist loves them equally and will as gladly pursue the one as they would mourn the death of the other. While a certain level of distance should exist between the artist and their work (nothing should be too precious), a client should certainly not wish for indifference.
Back to the box of chocolates, a client may quite enjoy choosing a chocolate from a readymade assortment, but it will be a momentary satisfaction, with nothing to savour long after the fact. A commercial artist brings their client into the kitchen, and together they discuss what makes the finest chocolates. The client learns about ingredients or cocoa bean origins or whatever (I don't know anything about chocolateries), and the artist learns about the client's tastes. (It may turn out the client likes Belgian truffles when the artist specializes in American candy bars). This discovery process should happen well before options are presented. If all goes well, when options are presented, the client will pay more attention to and more greatly appreciate them. When the final chocolate is perfected and ultimately consumed, the moment of sweetness is eternalized by the client's experience in the process. Their pride of ownership lasts long after the last taste of sweetness in their mouth.
By providing many design options to a client, you may luck out on something they like. Or you may not. Either way, it places too much stock in their arbitrary preferences (and your ability to strike them). Instead, put more effort up front to learn about the client's problem — and make it obvious to the client that this effort is being made. As a result, you will be able to focus your creative energy into fewer, more intelligent options (perhaps two, or three at most) that the client will appreciate more. They will trust you more because you are demonstrating a professional degree of restraint and vision. If, after three or four revisions, the client is not satisfied, understand that there is no single correct solution for a given design problem: you may have adequately solved the problem, but the client for whatever reason does not agree. Collect your kill fee and walk away.
Design is not like a box of chocolates. It's like that one mind-blowingly awesome chocolate you can never forget.
Buyers of commercial art should understand that time plays a relatively minor role in how it is priced. Yes, time and money are related in my overall fee structure, but I do not price a job based solely on the time it will take. In fact, time is sometimes so minuscule a factor it should almost be ignored. There are some (but not many) jobs for which I get paid hundreds of dollars that I complete within an hour. Does that mean I make hundreds of dollars an hour? No. When somebody pays me to make art for them, they are paying for the art. They are paying for the art and everything that comes with that package: my unique approach, the process by which the art is made, my time researching and sketching, and for every instance in which the final art will appear. I may spend a long time or a little bit of time making an image, but that image may spend a lot more time making my client money.
What is the value of my illustration to your magazine, book, package, website, menu, or whatever? How easily is what I do replicated? How valuable is my perspective and style to you? How can I help your thing, whatever it is, stand out or feel a certain way? If you’re honest with yourself, after answering this question, you might find it easier to walk away and use a stock image or take the job in house. That’s okay. I want to work with people who truly need me, or at least, who really want what I do. These are the kinds of clients that motivate and inspire me. If this sounds entitled, in a way it is. I’ve worked hard to develop my art and craft, and that is part of my value. If my fees include what I mentioned above, they also include my years of experience and hard work. Am I entitled to asking for more? As long as I'm in demand, the answer is yes*. Am I entitled to expect more every time? Probably not. There will be times that I need to accept jobs that frankly undervalue my work, but that’s business. A highly controversial feature of the rideshare program Über is surge pricing. While I do not jack my prices higher when I get busier, I do make compromises when things are slow. The value of what I do rises and falls with the market. I think that’s fair. To deny even low paying jobs during slow times would be hubris. To not ask for what I'm worth when times are good would be undercutting myself and my peers.
There is a lot of talk about our rights as commercial artists, whether designers, illustrators, or whatever. Rights to fair pricing, rights to ownership and control of our original art and intellectual property, rights to our “trade dress”, etc. I’m not deriding the notion of rights, but I think we can get all fired up about our rights and forget the real issue: what is our work worth? What we are worth is an entirely different question! Everybody has the same rights, but not everybody has the same value. I worry less about fighting for my rights as a creative, and worry more about having actual value and making sure it is understood and respected.
Some of my larger clients require that I sign a contract. A typical clause will indicate that my relationship to them is that of an independent contractor and not as an employee. (This means I pay the taxes and do not collect company benefits.) I couldn’t be any happier about this arrangement. I am not an employee of any company, and as such, I do not work by the hour. Whether a job is easy or complex, the company pays me to create something that helps them meet a business objective. Yes, if a job requires me to stipple a giant mural, time will naturally increase in importance in the quoting process. Or if it requires that I spend time planning a curriculum or being onsite, then there is a clear relationship of time to value. Similarly, if a job is killed and the image will not end up being used, then my time must be compensated in a kill fee. But ultimately, I add value to a client’s project by doing what I do best: offering my perspective and applying my creative voice to their business problem or objective. Excited to help and affirmed by a fair agreement for payment, I can start putting in the time. But my time is not my product. Time does not equal money.
* A healthy sense of entitlement on one hand, and gratitude on the other, should not be mutually exclusive. I always try to uphold the highest regard for my clients and work my butt off for them regardless of their budget.
Have you entered an awards competition lately? How'd that go? What does it mean to enter, win and lose these competitions, specifically as illustrators? How do they benefit us personally and as an industry?
Let's start by focusing on the positives. Awards competitions showcase the best work and make it accessible to everyone. They raise the bar, and stimulate the drive toward excellence. Also, importantly, it allows illustrators to receive recognition from the people who properly understand what they do: their peers and heroes. The rest of the world might appreciate illustration but not at the level we do, and not in the same way. Because our people get it, their esteem has more weight than the general public. Sorry, moms, but you'd love us even if we were terrible.
Now, naturally, competitions have winners and losers. And for the majority of us, not winning sends us to a place of doubt and even disillusionment. And let us not mince words: not winning means losing. We lose confidence. We lose joy. We lose those hefty entry fees. But doesn't this make winning all the more meaningful? When we win, we win a huge boost in confidence. We win elation. We make many returns on our investment as our work becomes enshrined in print and online annuals. We get to add the phrase "award winning" before "illustrator" on our bios. When we win, we earn a sense of accomplishment, and we gain a distinction. Distinction can only exist as an exception. Our rarity as winners increases the value of our work.
When we lose in a competition, we do not know the true nature of this loss. We do not know why we lost, how we lost, or how close we were to winning. And this is the problem with awards competitions: in not winning, we have no idea how and why we fell short.
It's easy to fall into the trap of hinging our worth on winning or losing though. Winning means that our work has been validated, but not winning does not make our work invalid. We did not succeed in pleasing a particular set of judges with a particular set of criteria and personal factors we cannot possibly be aware of. When we lose in a competition, we do not know the true nature of this loss. We do not know why we lost, how we lost, or how close we were to winning. And this is the problem with awards competitions: in not winning, we have no idea how and why we fell short. I have yet to enter an awards competition that offers any kind of feedback to its entrants. Non-winners must languish in darkness. It's like when we send a text to someone we like and have to wait forever for a response. Our assumptions run wild, and it can wreak havoc on our sense of self worth. Perhaps, for some, entering is just a shot in the dark — no biggie if they don't win. For others, the entire universe hinges on the results. And within this range, we will each experience different levels of despair and self doubt. Unfortunately, many of us forget that not a winner is does not equal not good enough.
We must remember that a competition's purpose is to elevate the craft, not to ensure personal happiness or to validate an illustrator's existence. And it is completely the entrant's risk to enter work. Like any sport or game, there is a natural selection process, where the best come out on top — over everyone else. Most of us can't be on top all the time. We must be willing to accept the feelings of loss that may come when we don't.
It's okay to feel disappointed, even to experience momentary existential despair if we don't win. But I do believe competitions could widen the benefits of entering to all participants, winners and losers both. I have no idea how entry fees work, but is it too much to expect some feedback? At the end of the day, we're all paying a lot to enter — this makes us customers. From a customer service standpoint, awards competitions are the real losers! It would be helpful, for instance, to have a list of judging criteria and how our entries measured up against it, almost like a grading sheet. Or perhaps all entrants could receive a voucher for a portfolio critique with one of the judges. Or at very least, is it too much to ask for a copy of the annual we competed for? A 10% discount?
For me, the benefits of participating in competitions, so far, has outweighed the risks of losing. While I have not won every entry, the process does make me think of my work on a different level and drives me to do better work. There may come a time, after repeated losses, that I must decide to focus my efforts and resources on other ways of being part of the illustration community. Or it may help me redefine who and what my community is. To be honest, my work has received more recognition in the design community than in that of illustration. And this is unsurprising for someone who identifies more as a commercial artist than an illustrator. It may by that I want to be in with the illustrators, but maybe they're not my people after all. Who knows?
From a personal standpoint, I strive to make work with more artistic merit — something I believe the illustration industry has a unique ability to recognize. Winning an illustration award, for me, would mean that I can make images that are original, interesting, and significant. That is not a bad thing to strive toward. But even if I never win an illustration award, I will never let that stop me from doing what I do. I can only assume that, as long as people are paying me, and as long as I feel joy in the creative process, I'm doing something right.
FOLLOW-UP ON JANUARY 8 2018
I found this amazing article about the inner workings of the Communication Arts judging process, by Ryan Anderson. This is really helpful to know for both winners and non-winners alike — it brings some much needed context to the judges' decisions.
The crap work you offer in exchange for crap fees will ultimately crap on you.
Good, Fast and Cheap. You can have any two, but not all three. Or so the design industry guru types say. It's an old standard, a design industry dogma, that you're going to hear many times before you're done art school or after you've watched a few designer talks.
You can have good and fast, but it won't be cheap.
You can have good and cheap, but it won't be fast.
You can have fast and cheap, but it won't be good.
The logic of the first is that if you pay me enough, I'll do good work and turn it around in short order, prioritizing it above all other projects. I'm able to afford the sudden shift in priorities and the risks this entails because of the higher compensation.
The logic of the second is that if you can wait longer than usual, I'll do good work and not charge you as much for it. I'm able to put the time in for something good at a discount because I'll fit the job in the free time I have between other jobs. I don't have to prioritize it above others, so it's less of a hit to my schedule and cashflow.
The logic of the third is that you can have the work done quickly and affordably, but it won't be of very high quality. Because you're not paying me a lot, but you also need it quickly, I will by necessity rush it and ignore certain details, prioritizing a form of functionality over any nuance or beauty.
I think some call this aphorism the Designer's Holy Triangle. I don't like that name very much, but let's just go with that for now. While I think there is a lot of truth behind this law, it's not actually very helpful in the long run. Yes, for rush jobs I charge more, and for jobs that will be really really good, I estimate that they will take a lot more time and require higher fees in return. But in reality, nobody wants to produce crap work, and if you're anything like me, it's almost impossible to deliberately do something of inferior quality.
One thing I dread is making stuff that I will later regret. It is almost always the case that I regret something about my work after I'm done. But I can at least stand by the fact that I tried my hardest. My work is precious to me, and I care about what happens to it when it goes out into the world. I don't ever want to see something I intentionally made crappy on Pinterest — or any other place — with my name on it.
I believe that making crappy work for any reason will only hurt your image in the long run. You may not show it on your portfolio, but Google might show it in an image search. Whatever happens, that thing you made because you took on a job you actually didn't want will be seen by others, and some will know who did it. And that's something you can't afford in the absence of infinite time and attention.
You may not love everything you've ever created. But you will not grow by creating deliberately crap work due to a budget. The choice is yours — choose to make good things and find other ways of leveraging the compromise. Maybe the client won't pay for a rush job, but perhaps they will give you other benefits. Perhaps they'll include your name in the credits even though they weren't intending on having credits at all. Maybe they'll mention you or blog about you. Who knows — look for a way to sweeten the deal for both of you. But don't make crappy work, not for you nor anybody else. Your time is limited, and so is other's attention. If they see only your crappiest work, or even just one crappy piece, that will speak louder than you might want or expect.
If anything, the "Designer's Holy Triangle" is pretty passive aggressive and reeks of entitlement. I've never heard this good-fast-cheap axiom spoken out of goodwill toward the client. Like people who declare themselves as "taxpayers" in a sentence*, the sentiment often comes with a whiny, holier-than-thou sense of entitlement.
Should you find yourself faced with the choice to do fast and cheap work, you probably don't actually want it. It makes no sense to take on work that will drain your creative energies and steal time from your more profitable jobs. It also makes no sense to have to explain to your client that you're going to do a crap job for them because of their crap budget. If in fact you do want to take on a champagne job on a beer budget, you probably see it as a good opportunity and a worthwhile sacrifice of your blood, sweat and tears. In such a case, playing by the good-fast-cheap rule would be self-sabotage.
Granted, there may be varying degrees of good in your service and product. There may be some features that come at a premium. But your name goes on every thing you produce, and you want to be sure that all are worthy of your logo — your seal of approval. When you go to buy a car, you don't expect to get a Lexus at a Toyota price, but you know both are good quality products with favourable reputations. A client may not be getting the Lexus version of your work, but the "Toyota" they drive off the lot will still be a vehicle of your reputation and brand. You should always be able to stand behind your product. You and your clients should be able to confidently declare that you do not make crap work. Because not good is not an option.
It's true, friends. Even the best struggle with creative dissatisfaction. And I mean other creatives, whom I consider the best, not me. On the spectrum of creative career success, I generously plot myself maybe at a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. But others, who are doing so much more, who have more years behind them, more of a reputation, and more accomplishments than I — these people struggle just as much as you or I do.
Take, for instance, Lisa Congdon. In a recent interview with Andy J. Miller on his Creative Pep Talk Podcast, she and Andy described the condition of never feeling quite satisfied in their careers. The way she put it: "you never arrive". Whereas you may have envisioned your older, more experienced and successful self feeling ever more confident, your decisions being ever more solid and indisputable, and your feeling of satisfaction after a job done, quite the opposite is true. It's always a struggle. Art directors want to make changes you never felt necessary. You have to take on projects that you're not that excited about. You have to steel yourself before reading every email back from a client after sending another revision. Okay, I added this last one on, but it's implied (I think) in the conversation between these two lovely people.
This Lisa is quite clearly a leader in our field, with hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram, an impressive lineup of speaking engagements and interviews, and an ever active, trendsetting creative body of work. She's good. And she talks about these struggles that I even now deludedly tell myself I may soon overcome.
In perhaps a most selfish way, I am relieved to hear that even the best struggle. I don't want anybody to have a hard time, but I do feel encouraged that I am not doing anything particularly wrong. If you're working as a commercial artist, making art and making money by so doing, you're going to have struggles. Even massively successful artists feel like failures much of the time. What can be so encouraging about this to someone like me, who is maybe a sophomore in the career sense, or for that matter, for the juniors out there? Is this what we have to look forward to — stress and struggle? It is encouraging because I think the struggle is only one side of the artist-for-a-living coin. As we all know, there are two sides, and the other side, we can surmise, is satisfaction. The necessary opposite and byproduct of a satisfying creative career is struggle. As with almost everything in life, nothing truly good can exist without effort.
Is this the curse of those first archetypal humans we know as Adam and Eve? Was there ever a Garden of Eden, where good things were good in their own right and without suffering? We humans have for thousands of years understood that if pure, untoiled-for joy ever existed (or if it exists today at all), it is not accessible to us. It is guarded by a flaming sword, we are ever banished from this paradise of free and effortless comfort. Effort and toil are the necessary conditions of our species.
For every benefit we enjoy, there is a cost. We can have food, but we must till the soil, plant, water, harvest and preserve it. We can have health, but we must exercise and be disciplined in our habits. We can have community and family, but we must put in the time to contribute to truly be a part of these and to enjoy the comfort and security these bring. To become a good and successful artist, we must put in the time to become skilled in our craft. To become a successful business, we must treat our clients like the gold these relationships actually translate to for us. Often, at our hardest moments, this is against everything we have inside us. We would rather dismiss them (that's putting it lightly) and move onto less bothersome work.
The cost of doing business as an artist is that our own will, our pride, our ego has to take a walk. It does not mean that we are giving in to mediocrity, or losing control of our overarching career trajectory. It simply means that, within the relationship, there needs to be some give and take, and sometimes, that give is hard to do, and the amount exceeds what we are willing to afford.
So clearly, I am talking about two different kinds of struggle: on one hand, there is personal satisfaction with our work, and the amount of effort that it takes to do it at all. On the other hand, there is our struggle to work for and with those on whom we depend — our clients. But the struggle is necessary because of the reality of human relationships. We must learn to give and take.
Of course, this give and take is a dance. We hopefully get a feeling for what we can actually afford to give and what we need to take. We will get hurt and hurt others along the way. But if we can see this struggle — like all struggle — as an important by product or even intrinsic part of the process, we can accept it, work with it, and even let it work for us.
I know my train of thought here is a bit mixed. I am talking on one hand of creative dissatisfaction and toil, and on another, of dealing with the blows to our pride that clients often deal us. But it is all struggle, it is all work. Perhaps, what I am getting at, is that we can try to see all of this as part of the job. Not simply necessary evils but simply existential realities — the kind that we must either accept and work with or else be defeated by.