I get asked this a lot — how to draw with more personality or style. Truthfully, I don't really know if I can adequately answer this. What constitutes "more personality" or "better style" is a bit unclear to me. But here are some pointers that might help:
- There is no overnight solution to this problem, but understanding what you want to achieve in your own style, or what you admire in others' work, is a good goal to start out with.
- Style and personality emerge from experience and confidence. Just keep drawing. Over time, make an effort to identify what you like or think is working well. Aim to exude confidence in your work.
- Identify artists whose work you would define as having the kind of personality you're looking for. Study them, emulate them, be inspired by them.
- Learn how to draw well by carefully studying your subject.
- Then try drawing intuitively, from memory. Fill in the gaps in your memory with weirdness. Don't try to be realistic — try just doing something new and see what happens.
- A good drawing shows an underlying understanding of the subject or a creative interpretation of it. That is why it is important to draw from real life, because you never truly see things until you draw them. As you draw, you internalize the subject. Then it is easier to draw things like your subject from memory.
- Pay attention to how you feel when you're drawing in different ways. Do certain feelings relate to specific ways of drawing? Do you feel notably confident in certain situations? For me, there is a very specific confidence and joy I experience when drawing in a certain way. When I draw from this mode, I do my best work. This feeling is exuded in my work. Drawings are literally graphs of our souls — soulgraphs. In the same way a seismograph charts movements in the earth, a drawing charts movements in our souls.
- The first sketch is the most accurate and least overthought soulgraph. The brain hasn't had a chance to edit what comes through your mind to your hand. That is why the first sketch is usually the freshest and liveliest. The first sketch may not always be the most resolved, but you can learn a lot from it and do your best to apply it to a more refined and resolved drawing.
- Don't show hesitation in your drawing. You might pause or hesitate off the page, but don't show it in the final drawing — avoid drawing over lines, or doing light sketchy bits as you figure out a contour, for instance. It's okay to do this for a first draft, but then trace the drawing with more confident, singular strokes. This is the trick to making your work look improvised, even after careful planning.
- Share a lot and see what feedback you get.
These are just some preliminary thoughts on the topic of drawing and style. Perhaps I can elaborate on this at another time — or even build a class around it? Have you experienced any of this or come to a similar conclusion? Has any of this helped you find your style a little more? Please let me know.
Being creative means keeping the inspirational fuel source coming. I don't know what inspires everybody else, but for me, it's things that are encouraging, positive, aspirational, uplifting, and so on.
Every few months I encounter a slump in inspiration and motivation. I go deeper into self doubt and cynicism. But my most recent slump was particularly bad in terms of cynicism. Feeling ungrateful, irritable, losing perspective. It was largely due to burnout, having taken on some pretty ambitious and all-consuming projects (which I completed, thank God). But something else was lurking beneath it all and I couldn't quite put my finger on it until one evening at home.
I was watching a political video — a guy I wasn't really a big fan of talking about something I felt was complete garbage. But I was watching to just learn about some issues. But then I realized that I had this precious little time to recharge and here I was watching something that made me anxious and which was not uplifting. I was spending my irreplaceable, unrecoverable time with this guy. There is a time and place for doing this, but I had been doing this a lot — watching lots of youtube videos and following lots of twitter accounts that are very political. The issues are important and I believe it's good to stay up to date on current events and debates, but I was going overboard. Around a quarter or more of the people I was following on Twitter were political types, and in spite of being a minority in terms of quantity, they were inundating my feed with mostly critical and reactionary things. Over the last few months, so much of my day has been dominated by political punditry, whether in the form of podcasts, articles, tweets or videos.
I've heard it said that we are the product of the five people we spend the most time around (or something like that). Given I spend so much time working alone and listening to these things or just seeing them passively in my feeds, the negativity must have been profoundly affecting me.
In that moment, realizing I was giving my time to people whose content was not building me up, I decided to unfollow every political twitter person and delete my YouTube and Twitter apps on my phone. This alone has drastically reduced the amount of encounters I have with the kind of content that was getting in my head. Suddenly the noise of opinions and woeful cries of apocalyptic doom was gone. My attention can now be turned to good things — and it already has been. I've started listening to more positive things online and actively seeking out more visual inspiration — stuff that fell by the wayside in recent months.
To be clear, I still let myself check in on the political stuff, because it's important to stay informed and balanced, but I've put it in its place. And I'm working on bringing the balance thing up a few notches. So much information is going into my person all day — even into my sleep. I cannot fall asleep without something playing in my ear (otherwise I stay up all night thinking about everything). So with all the information coming in and having no time to process it, I think I'm just brewing up a toxic storm inside my soul. My aim now is to give myself ways of digesting and processing the information. One way is journaling. I've returned to keeping a journal (you know, with a notebook and pencil) just to let my thoughts and feelings come to the surface. Writing things down releases them from building up and creating anxiety — the anxiety of having many thoughts without really understanding them. Writing helps me organize feelings, thoughts and anxieties, and that alone somehow creates more room for positivity and creativity.
Another thing I'm trying to do is to let myself fall asleep without the headphones on and just listen to the things going through my head. It's really hard because it's mostly things that make me anxious, but there must be a reason our minds do this when our heads hit the pillow. So I guess I'm just being more mindful of what goes into my head and how I process it.
As for creativity, I've realized it doesn't really do very well on a diet of pure cynicism. A little bit is actually good — critical thinking has always been part of my process. But mostly, creation is about potential and problem solving, and these need to have hope and a healthy disregard for obstacles. The most inspiring people I know are realistic about life and challenges, but they are also profoundly, inexplicably positive. They don't fixate on problems or simply observe them for sport. Most importantly, they are thankful and generous (which are two sides of the same coin). My aim from now on is to allow more people like this to enter into my life, whether online or off, and to steer my own life toward a more constructive path.
The Canadian Design Resource is an incredibly valuable repository of the best of our country's design industry. Todd Falkowsky, the site's founder, and I worked together for a time in Vancouver — he was my creative director. We butted heads a lot then, but somehow we've become friendly over the years, admiring each other's work. So it was a pleasure to give some long answers to his probing questions. Grab a coffee and find a cozy chair and read about what drives me as an illustrator (if you ever wondered).
A couple weeks ago, I received an email from a major company about an in house illustration position. The idea of being employed, let alone an in house employee, wouldn't normally be so enticing to me, but this was different. A hugely influential tech giant, a move to sunny California, an adventure, a pretty glossy comp package. After three interviews, they were ready to fly me down to meet the crew. But something in me just felt like I needed to really consider what was most important to me.
In the end, I realized that, no matter how good an opportunity this was, it wasn't aligned with things that are important to me right now: independence, having total say over how I spend my time and what jobs I take on. Not knowing what's around the corner. Having that constant motivation of not knowing whether I will get another job, nor from whom. There are many other reasons like this, mostly centred around me personally and my career.
The most important factor was less about me, though. My wife just started working again after 5 years of new-motherhood. My girls, 3 and 5, are in pre-school and kindergarten, respectively. They are making friends and are putting their own roots down here. And we as a family have so much community — friends, family and networks — that it's hard to imagine leaving this all and starting over again.
Just because you choose the right thing, it doesn't mean you chose the easiest thing, or the thing that made you feel the most amazing, at least right away.
Personally, I wanted to do it. I love adventure and not knowing what's around the corner. And I would have had the option of leaving the job in the future if things weren't working out. But the reasons to go were all personal, whereas my wife and kids would be left to figure out what to do in a new city, in a new country (my wife without a working visa) to feel at home.
I emailed the company back on Wednesday to tell them my final decision, before they booked my flight and hotel. I felt good about it, peaceful in my heart. But even though the decision was right and has given me peace, I am still struggling with the sense of deflation. For two weeks we were readying ourselves for a big change of life, and I was feeling pretty important. And now it's back to business as usual.
The rain fell a lot harder this week, and the wind blew stronger. And I saw a lot less action in my inbox, and some of my clients seemed to go silent. Some of my clients were more critical and less pleased with my work than I'm used to. Self doubt set in. Maybe I should have taken the job. Maybe I was too cocky. Maybe I'm not as good at this as I often believe. Sure, I've enjoyed some success, but maybe it's coming to an end. Maybe I'm becoming irrelevant. These are the thoughts that sunk into the vacuum that was left when the promise of new things went away.
Here's what I know, though: by deciding to go with my heart (not my head), I upheld my integrity and reinforced my conscience. By letting a lucrative offer go, I cast a giant vote of confidence in myself and my ability to keep doing this. By loving my family more than myself, and community more than my career ambitions, I respect myself more. I put my money where my mouth is (or something like that). I chose something that was good even though it was hard.
Just because you choose the right thing, it doesn't mean you chose the easiest thing, or the thing that made you feel the most amazing, at least right away. But it's a temporary sacrifice for something better in the future. There is no divine reward for doing the right thing. A good thing is is in itself blessed. The most important result is inner peace. And I have that, even without having the outer glory of what this job could have been for me.
Instagram, Twitter, social and economic status in general are all useful in their own ways. But they mostly show the outer veneer of what we think we want, what we think will make us happy. Listening attentively to the quiet voice inside (quiet because we drown it out with endless distractions) and letting it ask hard questions, and answering these questions with the most precise, brutal honesty is what, in the end will give us joy.
Clearly, I'm in the middle of feeling deflated. We were gonna do something cool, but in the end, it didn't sit right with our consciences (this was a family decision, of course). I'm proud of myself (one of the few times I will actually say that) for making the best decision. Now all that's left to do is ride out the waves of self doubt. But here is where the real adventure begins: now that I have chosen to stay, I have a new sense of purpose in being here and doing what I do already. The challenge is now to keep growing and evolving, as I have been since I started this journey of being an independent illustrator. The fact that I was even presented with such an opportunity is testament to my success. I know I didn't flaunt my success by declining it (I wanted to make sure I wasn't being cocky like that). I simply knew I had a good thing going, and I'm not done yet.
There are no guarantees and no single path to becoming a full-time freelance illustrator, but there are definite things you can do to bolster your chances. Here are 10 things that worked for me, which I believe apply to all of us.
1. Live in a big city, at least when starting out.
Generally speaking, there are more and better opportunities in larger centres. You have access to museums and galleries, and the quality of work you'll find is likely to be higher simply due to the larger funding larger cities enjoy. And this extends to almost everything you'd need as an illustrator: educational opportunities, the calibre of agencies and studios who will hire you, exposure to good design (in restaurants, coffee shops, public spaces and art, etc.), diversity of people and culture, and so on. By simply walking out your front door, you are immersed in a sea of opportunity, and chances of striking gold increases exponentially with the size and importance of a city.
2. Find your creative community. Reach out to other creatives, especially people with the kinds of jobs you covet.
I'm not saying be a greasy schmoozebag, but it's entirely okay to find out who's making good work and even who has the best jobs, and kindly ask to pick their brains. Most creatives with any level of success are aware of the challenges of "getting there" and are happy to help others up. If someone seems a bit standoffish and hard to talk to, let them brood in their self-importance and don't take it personally — there are plenty others who want to cheer you on.
The most important thing, however, is this: it is relationships, not talent, that takes you far in any industry.
3. Identify work you love, and find out who's making it.
Knowing what you like is a huge clue into who you are, creatively speaking. What kind of work/art/products are you most drawn to? Fantasy? Minimal/designy? More traditional? Skate culture? Vintage kids' books? Whatever excites you to look at, that's the kind of work you're interested in. Your homework is to find out as much as you can about your favourite work starting with who made it. And then find out what else they made, and where they were trained, and see if they wrote anything — and then read it. You get the picture. By finding out the history and circumstances around the things you like, you peel back the mask and find out how the sausage was made. You realize how ideas emerge from things artists are thinking about or their experiences. And you find out who they were influenced by. Work is never made in a vacuum, including yours. Study people are are better and further along than you in their craft and allow yourself to be influenced by them.
4. Start and maintain a daily creative project that you share online.
The only way to get good at making things is by making things. The things you make at first will probably be worse than the things you make down the road. But you've got to start somewhere. And you probably need some structure around what to make, because the hardest thing is to stare at a blank page with no ideas. So here's something that worked for me: while in art school, I started a drawing blog, posting one drawing every day. I have no idea how many people followed me, maybe 20-30. But this audience, or delusion of an audience, motivated me to do something everyday, lest I disappoint. And as I did this every day, I found a style and a voice to work within, and people actually started to comment on it and encourage me to do more. This was an important way for me to gain confidence as a creator and also prove to people who would hire me that I'm active as a creator. This was back in the days before social media. It would have been so much easier to post on Instagram. You're already a few steps ahead of me in that sense.
5. Work first as a designer.
Very few companies are looking to hire full time illustrators. If you have any training as a designer, start there first. Not only will you actually get a job, but you will gain really important experience as the kind of person who will eventually be commissioning your illustrations. I work with art directors all the time, and it is a huge benefit in communicating with them to understand things from their point of view.
In my own experience, designers are far better at presenting their work. They understand that all good ideas must be sold, clients must be persuaded, and all this requires a level of professionalism and a touch of psychology when presenting the work. Illustrators tend to be more chaotic and less strategic. For instance, a designer would never just plop a screen grab of a logo concept into an email. Instead they'd build a nice presentation deck with a title page, a short synopsis statement, and maybe even a thank you at the end.
Needless to say, if you're the designer, you often have the opportunity to determine what kind of photography or illustration ends up being used in your projects. Few employers are going to discourage you from using your own illustration talent to save them from the cost of outsourcing!
6. Make everything about illustration.
Look for every possible way to make illustrations. On the side, up high, down low — illustrate until your friends start to worry about you.
7. Learn classical art/design skills and disciplines.
People often ask me how I came up with my style. That is an almost impossible question for me to answer (because to some extent, I don't know), but I do know that underlying everything is a foundation of classical art skills: colour theory, drawing, principles and elements of design, and typography. Look at any artist in history and you will see that they first had to learn the rules before breaking them.
Learning, practicing and ultimately internalizing formal artistic disciplines first allows you to create more intuitively, i.e. with more style, later on.
8. Be experimental.
One sure way of developing novel techniques and stumbling upon a unique voice is to experiment. Try thousands of things, waste time barking up the wrong trees. Lots of them. Paint badly, use the wrong tools, download and use free fonts, borrow a Wacom tablet for a weekend, rent a DLSR camera, start a YouTube channel. Write a lot. Make messy work without goals. Design fake logos. Along the way, you're going to learn stuff you could not have foreseen, and it's always the surprises that end up taking us higher.
9. Show your work to others.
Be vulnerable. It's the hardest thing to do, even for me, now. But if you want your work to resonate with other people, I'm sorry, but you're going to have to share it with some folks and be open to their feedback. Don't look for affirmation more than you want truth. When you receive hard or even harsh feedback, do this: 1) stay quiet, don't get defensive. 2) Go away and think about it. Is the feedback even a little bit true? Why did that feedback make you feel that way? Be objective as possible, and accept that you make mistakes and aren't right a lot of the time. But then, most importantly, identify how to improve, and try again. Repeat.
10. Emulate your heroes.
We all start by copying our heroes. And some of us continue to do work in the spirit of others who have gone before us. So don't be ashamed of stealing ideas and being a copycat — at first. When we're just starting out, we can emulate others, and this helps us deconstruct how work is made. But along the way, over time, something happens. We start to inject a little bit of ourselves into it, and we give birth to a new style. Over time, only a skeleton of influence is left, and we have something totally new and our own. But we must always remember to give thanks and pay homage to those giants on whose shoulders we stand.
This list is not exhaustive, but it's definitely a start. If you have any tips for starting out, I'd love to hear in the comments!
Once, when I was just starting out as a freelance illustrator, I worked on a dream project, with a motion picture studio, designing hypothetical books as props for a television series that was in production at the time. Being new to the game, I grossly underquoted. But that wasn't the part I regret.
No, it was the fact that the contract prohibited me from showing the work on my portfolio (unless it was behind a password-secured wall) and from naming the client. The work I produced was decent, but the association of my work and this major Hollywood production would have been invaluable. At the time I was so excited just to work on the project that I said yes and went ahead. It wouldn't be until after the project was done, with an amazing project that I might as well have never worked on. I swore to myself that I would never again work on a project I couldn't show.
This week I had an opportunity to work on another dream project. For the sake of not singling out anyone in particular, let's just say it was for a very nationally significant project, one that would be seen by many Canadians over time, and one that would last well into the future. It would have been my chance to contribute a tiny piece of me to my country.
By my understanding, the client, who routinely produces projects like the one I was invited to work on, has to run a sort of competition as part of its selection process. So in this case, they had an idea and then opened it up to a small selection of designers; they were invited to create concepts, for a reasonable fee, for the client's consideration. The client would then award the job to the designer of their chosen concept. An additional fee, commensurate to the work involved, would of course come with the package.
When I was invited to work on this project, it was as an outsourced illustrator through a design studio. So my relationship to the actual client was as a third party. The studio outlined the project, including their client's offer (fee) and the requirement for a total transfer of copyright. While it is laudable to offer a fee for what is otherwise speculative work, the requirement off the bat for the artist to relinquish all ownership and rights to use the work felt a little strange to me, especially at the pitching stage. It sent me back to that Hollywood project and really made me wonder about my principles — are they worth standing up for?
Obviously, it is clear from how I am writing this story that I turned the job down. Today, a day after I sent over my email rejection, I still wonder whether it was worth it. One time, an agent of mine said, "you've got to be in it to win it.". He said that when I was invited to work on a book pitch, where I would be paid a small fee to work on a few sample illustrations with the promise of more follow up fees if the book gets accepted and published. In this case, there were no copyright restrictions on the pitch work, but the fees were low for the amount of work, and again I felt I was being asked to put more skin in the game than the client. And sure enough, after taking on the job and delivering the files, I never heard from the publisher. Sure, I retained the copyright this time, but I did not win the project, which shows me that, although "you have to be in it to win it", being in it doesn't guarantee you against losing it. So I have a heightened awareness of the risks involved with pitch work, and in the case of my most recent opportunity, a lot of skin in the game to lose.
While I cannot fault the client from needing to protect their process (probably for political reasons), and while I do laud them for paying all whom are invited to pitch, I still have to consider what my own needs are as an independent commercial artist with limited resources. I have to be strategic about the jobs I take on. Most importantly, every project I create is an advertisement for more work. Every job potentially leads to another. Projects that don't turn out well or which I am prohibited from using to demonstrate my abilities lose their longterm value. Sure I get paid, but I can get a day job if I'm only in this for the money. As an artist, I am strongly motivated by the promise that others will see the work. I make work to be seen. Commercial art is worthless if it gets buried. Working on a project that people may not ever see is a morale-drainer, a party pooper.
All this being said, I may have agreed suck it up and play the long game — had it not been for the real deal breaker: I wasn't told, even after asking, what the fees would be for the awarded designer. So what was already a risky offer became simply a gamble. Who knows if I'll win? Who knows how much I'll be paid if I do? Why on earth would I pour my time and creativity into bureaucratic, committee-driven black hole? No thanks. I'm blessed to have other work that pays my bills and into which I can freely pour myself into, without such restrictions on who and how I can show it. And at the end of the day, this is what I became a commercial artist for in the first place. I love to make things, and then I love to show them to people. I know there are people who will disagree with me on this, and such people are free to take on any project under any terms they wish. As for me, I believe I made a grounded, thoughtful decision that I can live with. And that is one value I hold strongest as an independent commercial artist: the ability to choose and not choose jobs based on my principles. We are not free when we feel compelled by outside forces to do things we would rather not do. We are most free when we operate according to our deepest convictions, even when it means sacrificing the best opportunities.
Creative block is a thing. We feel confident one day, breezing through our work like it's nothing, and then — bam! We hit a wall. No matter what we do, we can't seem to make anything we're pleased with. We can barely even lift our pencil.
The seasoned creative professional will know, of course, that the only way through creative block is more work. We can't not do something and expect the universe to realign in our favour. We participate in the bigger picture of whatever it is that feeds us our creativity. Being creative is an active mode of existence, not passive. But that's a truism. The real question is: what kind of work should we be doing to get through our creative block? For a more exhaustive list of ideas, you should check out concept artist Xia Tapterra's timeless post on the topic. For me, however, one method has proven to be effective without fail. It's not really fun at first — in fact it's really, really hard — but it works. And that is what we need — not the absence of effort but a real breakthrough so we can actually make things we (and our clients) are happy with!
Though hard to do, it's actually really simple in concept: plant seeds today, harvest tomorrow. In my case that means sketching a lot, possibly not seeing any value in the work today; then, tomorrow, review all the sketches and look for value you were unable to appreciate. Here's an example I'm going through right now: I have to create 12 large and complex illustrations on a relatively short timeline. That alone is enough to invoke creative paralysis. But the client is paying me and relying on me, so, there's no time for feeling scared. I've got to do this.
Day One: Prepare the Soil
I start by researching the topic, doing some initial studies, finding and sketching from reference images — all without any goals of creating real compositions or concepts at this point. Just download the raw materials to work with, to internalize some of the imagery. This will help me create original artwork from my heart instead of needing any reference images later. My faulty memory will serve me well: I will remember a few essential aspects of the subject matter I need to draw, and then later, not having a photographic memory, I will use my creativity to fill in the blanks. This is where style and originality come from. But this is an aside — I haven't even planted seeds yet. This stage is more like preparing the soil. Let's just say we do this on Day One.
(This has accidentally become a gardening analogy. I'm okay with that!)
Day Two: Plant the Seeds
With the soil prepared, it's time to plan the seeds. This is Day Two. Loaded with new data (from my sketch studies on Day One), however spotty, I have enough information to start actually sketching concepts according to the brief. By the way, at this point, I have a well defined list of illustrations from the client — in this case 12 scenes with people doing various things in Vancouver. At this point, I am thinking about the actual composition and content. Professional Woman Pushing Her Young Child To Daycare in a Stroller. Diverse Group of People Lining Up For the Bus Near The Airport. Etcetera. As rapidly as possible, I sketch these concepts, maybe doing 6, 8, 12, or 25 variations, some half finished, others more complete. The point at this stage is to solve the visual problem (how to communicate the most important idea in the most interesting way). I have no preconceived notions of what the solution will be, so I have to just try and try again until something seems to stick. Or, if I do have preconceived notions, I have to test them to see if they work. At this point, I should not be concerned whether the ideas are good. Mostly, I am just making stuff and feeling quite badly about everything, but trying not to let that discourage me from continuing to make more stuff. And when I've done as many iterations as I can possibly stomach (or when I feel like I've solved the problem as best as I can), I stop. I put things away and sleep on it.
Day 3: Reap the Harvest
Now it's Day 3 — harvest day. Refreshed by a good night's sleep and an emotional break from the anxiety of trying to come up with the best ideas possible, I return to the sketches. I open them all up. Almost without fail, I see things in the art that I didn't the day before. I'm more positive about my ideas and less critical about flaws. Or, I am even positive about the flaws and see them now as strengths. Even if I am not satisfied with anything yet, I have a fresh mind and am better able to self-critique. Armed with a deeper understanding of what works and what doesn't, I can return to the drawing board with more confidence. At this point, I can either choose to go with my sketches as they are (if I am happy with them), or I can make the necessary refinements. I load them into my deck and send to the client.
To summarize, I have shown you how I am able to conquer creative block in my own practice. I have outlined my steps for creating ideas, or at least creating the right environment for ideas. First, I gather and sketch reference materials without thinking about concepts. Second (and often on the next day), I sketch as many rough concepts as I can before I feel either satisfied or exhausted. Most importantly, I don't have to like any of them — and chances are I won't. Third (and again, one day later), I review my sketches, discovering value I was unable to see while in the thick of it the day before. With a renewed mind, I am able to choose the best concepts or refine them further before sending to the client.
Creating good ideas is neither instantaneous nor easy. Like gardening, it requires work to create the optimum conditions, and above all, patience. Creative block is a hard thing to go through. It creates real anxiety and can send us into the abyss of despair if we let it. But for those willing to put up a fight, to do the hard work of being creative (someone who creates — does — things), a reward awaits on the other side.
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!
Back in 2015 I went to a branding conference and wrote about it here. You can read about it if you want. But the premise was that there was a lot to learn by going to an event with creatives who are outside of my illustration bubble. There are also some business advantages to making friends with people who are more likely than your fellow illustrators to hire me!
Last year, I finally went to ICON, a real illustrator's conference. That, for sure, ended up being my favourite conference for all kinds of reasons. I should definitely follow up on what has transpired since then. If there was an ICON every year, I would have planned to go there this year too. But since ICON is a bi-annual event, I had to find a new conference to attend this year. And out of all the conferences that most interested me, Yeah Field Trip came out on top.
Yeah Field Trip took place at the end of February, in the cold and unexpectedly snowy mountains just east of LA. Now, Yeah Field Trip bills itself as a conference for "artist entrepreneurs", and under that category I most certainly fall. But it is mostly a conference for photographers: most of the attendees are photographers, and most of these are wedding photographers. On the surface, there couldn't be a less relevant creative profession for me than wedding photography. It's not that I don't admire and appreciate the line of work, but from a strictly business perspective, it's not likely that I will be working in the wedding industry. My work is decidedly commercial, and in many ways, it is anti-photography (in that people choose either photography or illustration for commercial work).
So why on earth did I sign up for a trip I knew was not for people like me? Well, for one, I took to heart their "artist entrepreneur" language. I had the sense that they were looking to expand the scope beyond photography and more into a broader category of creativity, and I felt that I could be a voice from the frontier. The idea of a pan-creative conference, where commercial creative disciplines could cross pollinate appeals to me. Designers, photographers and illustrators have a lot to teach each other. Perhaps the most important things to learn are the things we don't even realize exist. I'm not talking about learning about f-stops and new portrait lighting techniques. It's more about about going with an open mind, with no specific questions, and just seeing what happens when I go hang out with a bunch of people who are decidedly not like me.
A huge component of my decision to attend YFT was just this: going somewhere where who I am and what I do doesn't matter. I have less credibility and fewer bragging rights, and certainly a less relevant repertoire of conversation topics to bring to my fellow attendees. Not that I feel like a big deal at illustrator conferences, but I can at least expect to meet people who care about what I do, and I can expect to find mutual admiration. Instead, at YFT, I went with the question: what happens when I take myself far outside my comfort zone?
For five days and four nights, I was faced with a lot of discomfort. Some of it directly related to being an outsider, and some of it more incidental, such as being away from my wife and kids for so long. The most striking thing about the trip for me was the feeling of vulnerability and insecurity. Back at home, in my daily life, I am actually pretty confident, happy and comfortable. I am surrounded by people who know and love me, and I don't feel the need to vie for anyone's attention. I don't worry about whether people know what my accomplishments are. If every I feel unsociable, I can hide in my studio or in my cozy, quiet house. I don't experience much loneliness or of not being needed. All these essential needs humans have that I take for granted. And for some reason I deliberately jettisoned myself far outside this for almost a week. And the feeling of vulnerability and discomfort that I felt was in fact what I had sought.
One of the most important questions I left asking myself was, What matters most to me?
The best way to summarize my experience was about halfway through the trip, when my wife asked how things were going. I said I wanted to hide. She seemed sympathetic. I followed up by saying "I came to feel this way". As all artists know, feeling is essential to creativity, and complacency kills it. I went there to unhide from my feelings, these feelings that were deep down inside me, buried underneath all the comfort and safety of my day-to-day back home. Perhaps that is a lot to ask of a conference that actually feels more like summer camp than a spiritual retreat. But it was the perfect recipe, for me, for teasing out real feelings (something that is hard to find when things have been going well for so long). The recipe was: lots of people I didn't know, whom I couldn't assume cared about what I do, or who I am, and somehow try to make meaningful connections and share meaningful moments. In another word, empathy. This is probably more about travelling in general than any specific conference, but being outside the safety and comfort reminds us how it feels to not have these things.
It should be clear that I wouldn't have gone to YFT if all they had were photography workshops and photographer keynote addresses. One of the most enticing things about the event was that a sizeable portion of their workshops were more on the life and metaphysical side. While I did join in classes like Photography 101 and Colour Correction for Portraits, I expected to get more out of such classes as Discovering Beauty Through Pain (Ruthie Lindsey) and Life is Magic, Death is Magic (We Are The Parsons). My intuition was right. The latter workshops were intensely meaningful, poignant reminders of what is most important in life; they were also a call to reevaluate the very reason I do what I do as a profession. It seems so obvious, but one of the most important questions I left asking myself was, "What matters most to me?".
Of all the workshops, Life is Magic, Death is Magic was the most life-altering for me. I was interested in the workshop mostly out of intrigue by the speakers, We Are the Parsons, a family-based wedding video studio. My interest was not so much in their trade, but that these world-renown creative professionals have eschewed social media. Don't we all at least sometimes wonder if it would be possible to get off social media, to escape the online rat race? Don't we all have a secret desire to jump into the void of social media death and for once be free? So I was eager to hear how these people did it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they didn't really teach me anything I didn't already know. In fact, their presentation was largely borrowed content, including a clip from the film The End of the Tour and another of Louis C.K's Forever Empty bit on Conan O'Brien. Through their various media clips, quotes and personal story, I was simply reminded that we are wasting so much of our lives staring at these little screens in our hands. It sounds overly simplistic, almost trite. But what gave gravitas to their presentation was that they are living out their principles, not just talking about them. They curated an atmosphere of attention and reflection that exposed my deepest convictions about how I spend my days, my life. And often, this is all we need to reconnect with our deepest selves, and by extension, with our fellow brothers and sisters on this wet rock we call Earth.
Personally, I reconnected with my feelings. With feeling things, in a way that can be so alien when you have a life that you feel you are in control of. I have my routines, both at work and at home. Work at 9 am. Home by 5:30 for dinner with the family. Kids in bed by 7pm. Saturdays at home, Sundays at Church. Professionally, creatively, it's harder to say whether this trip gave me a boost. I didn't improve as an illustrator nor did I learn any new techniques. However, there was one shining moment for me, the lone illustrator at the wedding photographer conference: doing bad portraits on the last night. My friend James Moes thought it would be a good idea to set up an impromptu portraiture station at some point over the event, even going so far as to buy me some art supplies in LA on his way into the mountains. I kept those supplies on my person throughout the conference but was never quite sure I could naturally work myself into the flow of the weekend's activities. But after a few days of letting go of control and self-consciousness, I decided, on that fateful last night, that it was now or never. I grabbed James and said I was ready, grabbed two chairs (one for me, one for subjects), and James hyped me up. In minutes, I found myself drawing new friends and strangers, and a long line of willing subjects waiting for their turn. I can't tell if it lasted 30 or 45 minutes or longer, but it felt like forever. And the drawings were terrible. But it was for me a satisfying culmination of the trip, where I found a place as an illustrator among photographers. I had built that bridge, and at least in part, answered the question, "what happens when I go hang out with a bunch of people who are decidedly not like me?".
p.s. In another, deeper sense, I shared a common experience with these photographers. Unlike illustrators like me, who can hide in a studio and literally never actually meet my clients, photographers have to build a real, physical, personal connection with theirs. Drawing realtime portraits requires similar interpersonal engagement. I have to sit there and look at the person for as long as I'm drawing them, and they just have to sit there looking back at me. It's intimate in a way I am not used to. If there's anything that makes me squirm under normal circumstances, it's being watched while I work. So it's extremely vulnerable. I have to create this thing and show it to someone right away. I have no time to edit or polish it up. I also realize how much pressure there is on photographers to represent their subjects in a positive, flattering light. There were definitely a few drawings I did that night that were possibly unflattering. It was all in the spirit of fun, but I was nervous about offending people. They may love it or hate it, but once it's made, there's nothing I, nor they, can do about it.