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.