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).
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.
Agents. The holy grail of the illustration career world. The pursuit of and advantages of agency representation is a recurring topic on the blogs and podcasts. And I personally am asked on a recurring basis about having an agent. How did I get one? How is it working out? What is it like being represented? How does it affect the kind of work I get? And so on.
Before I continue, please note, I will use Agent, Representative, and Rep interchangeably. Okay, let's get on with it!
These are all very good questions, and I think each illustrator who has (or had) an agent will have different answers, and each agent has a different way of working between their illustrators and clients. I think they key assumption about agents is that they jettison illustrators into a different league, perhaps the into most elite of them all. The ivy league of illustrators. It is true, I think, that having an agent gives an illustrator an air of success and status. It says to anyone paying attention that the illustrator has someone who thinks they're good enough to sell to their clients and for whom to hustle. It also says that the illustrator is so busy doing awesome work that they have no time to field requests personally. It's like having a personal assistant or a butler or something. Whether or not these impressions are true, they certainly exist, and to this end they probably exist to the agented illustrator's advantage.
As with anything I write about, I cannot write about others' experiences, but I can speak to my own. If you have checked out my about page, you may have noticed I am represented, not by one, but by two agents. So clearly agency representation is working out for me right now. So what does it mean to have these agents, and how are they working out for me? Let me say a little about my situation, with the hopes of demystifying the world of reps a little bit.
Why do I have an agent? I started illustrating as my full time gig in 2013. I had just quit my position as Design Director at an advertising agency. I had been receiving more and more illustration requests, so I knew I had enough demand to justify leaving my salaried gig. I was fully self sufficient as an illustrator in terms of revenue. But most of my work came from local and national (Canadian) clients, which as far as illustration goes, can become repetitive and limiting. I figured that, if I had an agent outside my jurisdiction, then naturally I would start getting more diverse clients from around the world. So when I decided to seek out an agent, this was my motivation — to get more interesting work from a more diverse pool of clients. Today I have two agents, one in the UK and one in New York, and they in fact do bring me work from their regional and respective international reaches. I have been able to work with international clients that may never have heard of me otherwise.
How did I get my agents? I had a few kicks at the can in pursuing an agent. The first time I "tried" was back in 2011, before I had an inkling of being a full time illustrator. I had quit my first design job and was trying freelance (while my wife brought home the bacon). That summer, I made maybe a couple thousand dollars. As far as going solo, it was a failure, and I ended up getting a job again at a local design studio. But during my first solo attempt, a creative director at my the large ad agency my wife worked at championed my work and said I should get in touch with a rep he knew in Toronto. I quickly sent her an email, citing the kindly creative director's reference, with a casual offer to discuss a possible agent/illustrator relationship. Not surprisingly, I never heard back from her. In retrospect, of course she didn't get back to me. I had a very limited and unfocused illustration portfolio, and I didn't even try in terms of the conventional things one might do win an agent's attention. At any rate, I didn't even really know what I wanted a rep for or what that would do for me. I figured it was just one more person looking for work on my behalf.
Fast forward to 2014, just about a year into my second (and actually successful) foray into illustration freelancing. By this time, I had amassed a more impressive body of work from more renown clients. My website was focused, and more purely illustration based. And I had some fancy personal postcards I had letterpress printed, which I intended to use to represent my design and illustration work. I hand wrote, using india ink and a nib pen, to a very specific list of agencies in Europe and the United States. I can't remember how many, but it was fewer than 10. Of these, two, both in London, replied in the positive. A 20% return rate ain't bad if I say so myself. The back story to this, beyond having a more impressive portfolio, is that I did my research. Unlike the first time, I researched tons of agencies and made a short list of the ones I felt most drawn to. I learned the names of the agents, and I addressed them personally in the post cards. In my notes to them, I described how I felt I would fit on their roster and why I thought they would be a good fit for me. Between the portfolio, the nice postcards, the research, and personalized messages to each agency, something clicked. Instead of the disappointment of hearing back from nobody, I instead was faced with the awkward and extremely privileged task of choosing one amazing agent over another — effectively rejecting one agency's acceptance. As for my second agent, they actually contacted me first, and after some back and forth, we joined forces.
What do my agents do for me? As mentioned above, my agents bring me work from sources that are outside my natural radius of influence. But even with two agents, about half or more of my work comes to me directly, through people encountering my existing work online or elsewhere. So now that I have work out there internationally, promoting me at no cost, is an agent a costly redundancy? Overall, the answer is no. My agents, both in major creative centres, still have a foot in with huge clients and agencies in cities where budgets are far more open than what I am able to reach. And that leads to a major role my agents play: upping the budgets. While I consider myself somewhat business savvy and not shy at all when at the bargaining table, I know my limits. One such limit is in licensing. Sure, I have the Graphic Arts Guild Handbook: Guide Pricing and Ethical Guidelines, which is an invaluable resource for any commercial artist. But my ability to enforce the licensing, and to truly understand it across all media and industries, is limited. What do I know about the film industry, for instance? I have already been screwed by a major motion picture company for lack of heft in the contract/legal department. But I digress. With licensing, not only are my rights to and ownership of my work protected, but I am able to ask for more based on usage. My agents have a thorough understanding of the licensing world, and know how to ask for more because of it. On the flip slide, they also know when to back down and take the money that's on the table. I have lost jobs by fighting the wrong fight with the wrong client for too much money. But overall, by being in more financially resilient centres, my agents are able bring in top dollar for my work. So an agent gets me more diverse work, they help increase my fees, and they give me a more competitive edge by understanding usage and licensing across all industries.
What don't my agents do for me? One thing I thought for sure my agent would weigh in on more was on the creative. Somehow, I thought agents had at least some creative input that helped steer its creative talent toward some kind of common thread. Or somehow they would coach me to focus and refine my portfolio. But after two years of representation, I can honestly say that my agents have never meddled creatively. They have not even tried or suggested doing so. What I realized is that agents are not creative directors as much as they are account managers, suits. The best kind of suits, with excellent taste, of course. They go out there and hustle, get the work, liaison between illustrators and clients, and ultimately keep their agency in business and food on their table. And I think that's okay.
But though they don't provide creative direction, they do on occasion provide a listening ear and offer valuable insights from their side of things. I can ask questions about what to expect from certain kinds of clients, or what I should expect in the way of fees for a certain kind of project or client, based on their other illustrators. In my experience, an agent does not provide creative direction, but is a wealth of information about the business side of things, and at the worst of times, a sympathetic ear with difficult clients. And for someone that works alone most of the time, having an outside, objective sounding board is invaluable.
How much do my agents charge for their services? My agents typically take a 25–30% cut. If taking a quarter or a third of my fees sounds outlandish, remember they are also upping my fees and bringing me work I would not have previously had access to. They are also doing a lot of background work that I don't have to do: showing my work around, printing my promotional postcards, hosting a portfolio of my work on their site, and doing a lot of the negotiating with the client. I get to be the creative and have less tension on the financial side with the client. For smaller projects with more fixed budgets, yes, the fee can sting. When the budgets are low, however, I have found my agents to be flexible and willing to make it work for everyone.
What is the advantage of agency representation vs. self representation? The two biggest advantages are 1) increased exposure, especially to the agents' respective regional client base, and 2) higher budgets for my work. Aside from that, I have already alluded to the fact that I can focus more on the creative while they take care of the business side of things. In my particular case, a fringe benefit of being Canadian and having representation in the UK and US, I typically get to enjoy the exchange rates, which for these countries' currencies, works to my advantage.
What are the disadvantages of agency representation vs. self representation? It may not seem obvious, but the one thing I miss is the direct relationship with the client. While it is nice to work with a client without having to discuss money with them, there is an element of intimacy and respect that is lost, I think. When I negotiate a job with a client, that develops a sense of trust and closeness that makes both parties more invested in each other's success. I have a more intimate understanding of the client's budgets and needs, and a more clear view of them as a human being rather than just a "client". There is increased empathy. It is easier to respect the client, and the client sees me more as a peer, as a businessperson myself, so it is easier to respect me.
Is the agency/illustrator relationship different today than it was in the past? This is something I can only answer speculatively. My past only extends less than two years as of this writing. But I have heard on various interviews and podcasts that the holy grail-ness of agency representation is not quite what it used to be. Because each of us has direct access to thousands of people by way of social media and other Internet exposure, we are not as reliant on agents to get our name out there. In his recent Q&A episode, Andy J Miller posits that art directors don't rely so heavily on agents as a source of discovery of creative talent. In much the same way that we prefer to discover music for ourselves (rather than anyone promoting themselves to us), he goes on, art directors prefer to discover illustrators on their own, through Instagram, Twitter, Blogs and so on. While I agree that the game has changed, I think that agents can greatly extend our reach. Think about how many opportunities you had by first hand connections, and then think of all the first hand connections your agent has that you gain access to by proxy. But the access we have as individuals to the Internet does level the playing field, and having an agent is more of a choice than a necessity for many illustrators. This puts more power in our hands and helps ensure that we are not taken advantage of. If anything else has changed dramatically in the agency game, I think agents are going more boutique, offering a tighter, more niche repertoire of creative talent. At the end of the day, in my experience, work from my agents brings only a part of my business income. I don't put all my eggs in that basket. I need to be out there every day pushing my work, keeping client relationships alive, and being a positive contributor in the global illustration community.
What would I advise to anyone looking for an agent? If you are looking for an agent, do your research. Don't apply to every possible agent. Seek out agencies that have talent rosters that really resonate with you. Read through their websites. Look at the clients they're attracting. Look for clues into their philosophies and approaches. When you've found a handful you really want to be a part of, make sure you know why you covet their representation and how you expect it to work for you. Finally, when you're ready to start making contact, you need two things. One, you need a strong portfolio that shows your work well. Your portfolio should be focused and definitely show a sense of your personality. It should not be bland and all things to all people. Two, you need a physical point of contact, i.e. a mailer, or if the agent is local, a physical portfolio or leave-behind that really shows your work. In my case, what I assume worked, was that my postcard was the right format for showing my work. My work is vintage feeling and is influenced by letterpress printing techniques. So having a postcard that is letterpress printed hits a sweet spot. Further personalizing it by writing my notes to the agents in india ink with a nib pen (my go-to tool) was completely appropriate and not at all gimmicky. There was a strong brand, a story the agent could believe. Finally, if you're looking for an agent, remember that they cannot do your work for you. Only you can make yourself a better illustrator. Your agent will champion you, will hustle for you, will be your biggest fan. But it is up to you to push yourself into the illustration stratosphere.
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.
My brand new Skillshare class just went live. If you've ever wanted a more hand crafted and personal feeling to your illustrations, this class will be perfect for you. It's also a great way to get an insider's look at my process. For those who are not on Skillshare, you may enrol using this link and gain free premium access!
Here's a description of the class from the site:
Only real, physical media gives us those imperfections we love so much — bleeding ink, wobbly lines, grainy textures — but how to bring them into our digital illustrations? If you've ever wanted to have a more hand-crafted, personal illustration style, this class will be perfect for you. Illustrator Tom Froese is known for his whimsical, energetic illustrations that combine digital techniqiues with physical textures, linework and hand lettering. Join him as he shows you how to illustrate a postcard featuring your favourite tools of the trade — those things you love to use every day to get your job or hobby done.
Tom will walk you through the entire process, from brainstorming to final artwork. Along the way, you’ll pick up some very handy skills in sampling physical marks and textures digitally using a scanner and Photoshop, and of course, have an insider’s look at his personal process. By the end of this class, you'll have a postcard, which you illustrated, to promote your business or hobby.
Sometimes I work on great projects that don't materialize. However, just because the design wasn't used, it doesn't mean it wasn't good. I'm not saying this is the best thing ever, but I did have a lot of fun working on it. If anything, it illustrates how I go about presenting design work to clients. It's a much more involved process than illustration, with a heavier communication payload up front.
The good folks at Goodforks recently asked me to help them put together a design concept for their client, Six Foods. Six Foods was preparing to launch their latest entomophagic product, Chirps — chips made with cricket flour.
Although personally disgusted by the idea of eating bugs, I thought it was a very cool design challenge, since it is such a subversive food concept, and probably a pioneer in what will become the norm as we clue into the utter wastefulness of our carnivorous diet.
My concept, which was based on the assumption that there was no way around the gag factor of eating bugs for most consumers, was decidedly brash and unapologetic about the product's ingredients.
When pitching my concept, I opened with the above set of images — to demonstrate a Western attitude toward eating bugs. Most images of people eating bugs looked like it was part of dare. You'd have to dare me, that's for sure!
A lot of my own assumptions in this project were based on some great brand strategy research put together by FutureFuture. I was able to put forth this risky concept pretty confidently because the target demographic, their attitudes, and so forth were very thoroughly designed. It was all hypothetical, of course, but design is always hypothetical until it's not. So I came up with three key ideas about this brand that were pivotal in my design thinking, which I presented to the client:
Eating bugs really is disgusting.
Let’s be honest—for most of us, eating bugs is a hard sell. The packaging should appeal to that small set of the population who are predisposed to try something new and who care enough about the planet to put their money where their mouth is.
Instead of saying things to the effect of don’t knock it ‘til you try it, or bugs taste great—we swear which take a defensive stance, cut to the chase by putting the higher purpose forward: “Eating bugs will save the planet.”
Chirps is a platform for social change.
In the same way that The Body Shop stands for No Animal Testing and Benetton spreads the message of diversity and tolerance (both through consumerism), Chirps can become the megaphone for global and social change through mainstream entomophagy.
Taking these key ideas, I summarized the concept with a title (Culture Jammer) and a synopsis statement, followed by a moodboard. I put together the moodboard prior to sketching up design concepts. Doing this helped the client see, through existing examples, the gestalt I was trying to tap into. It also helped give me a reference point when creating, to keep me on track.
I'm probably an over-explainer and risk overwhelming my client, but I do so with the conviction that context is everything. Before showing the work, I needed to communicate to the client that I understood the design problem and that my approach was based on such an understanding rather than whim and raw instinct. (Indeed, had I gone on a whim, the design might have looked more like my illustration work, which is not so much designed as it is conjured.) The hope is to surprise the client with the concept, but not to catch them off guard.
First I showed the logo, and then the logo in a mocked up package. To be honest, I think it would have been really hard to pull off this presentation without a good, realistic mockup. It removes all question of how the flat design would translate to 3D surface. To create these bags was embarrassingly easy. I picked up a script from PSD Covers that built the mockups from my flat files. All I had to do was run the sccript!
So what happened? The client said they loved the concept. They were extremely enthusiastic about it, but it was ultimately killed in favour of a more cheerful and accessible one. I can totally understand why they would choose it over this one. To be honest, I would have been surprised if they went with this concept.
Wow. Just read about the Road to 2017 Logo Competition. I know I graduated almost 6 years ago, but technically I qualify because I still consider myself a post-secondary student since I never stop learning!
So I couldn't even wait to make my submissions. The ideas just came to me right away, in a hot flash of creative energy. I really hope you guys like it. Please read the rationales below each concept, as I really think they help bring context to my design decisions.
So above is Concept 1. I've incorporated the two red rectangles from our flag, and then substituted the leaf with the number 150, to show how 150 years can symbolize the many provinces and territories that form our nation, just like the points on the maple leaf do. (My first idea was to have a 150-point maple leaf, but it was hard to get the sense of realism at the same time as making the 150 number come through.) Finally, I wanted to have an overall cohesiveness to the logo, so I extended the first numeral, the one, up and made a subtle tweak to make it both a '1' and a 'C'. I think this serendipitously also symbolizes how different "figures" in our country can work together toward innovative solutions.
The next concept, Concept 2 (above), takes the same concept but tries to work everything into a more compact logo/mark, by placing the word Canada inside the zero. I also added a photo of people's hands grabbing onto others' wrists that really speaks both to diversity and unity that makes up the fabric of our country. I think this one would appeal more to younger people because it clearly shows youthfulness in some of the hands.
Finally, above, is Concept 3. Now, I don't often tell my clients which concept is my favourite (since that could cloud their judgment), but I can't resist. This one really encapsulates the spirit of Canada and the inspires celebration. Lots of dynamic things going on here. I added Happy Birthday to the mix, plus set CANADA in a more human feeling, organic font. The colours more subtly (or without the aid of images) play on the diversity aspect. The 150 is made more grand through vertical emphasis. I thought it would be cool to add a slogan as well ("AND BEYOND") that ushered in the next 150 years quite succinctly. It's optimistic.
Well, I hope you like my concepts. I will be submitting them soon, maybe after a few tweaks in Photoshop! For anyone who doesn't know, the jury for this competition includes these individuals with high standing in the Canadian design community. I'm excited about this highly qualified panel of judges, which includes a seniors care advocate and the Private Secretary to the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, which will be evaluating my design concepts, even if I don't win — it will be great exposure.
Thanks for reading, and good luck to all contestants!
Occasionally, friends, or friends of friends, contact me about a design project they have in mind. I suspect they like my work, but I also think people genuinely like working with people with whom they have a real connection. Referrals are really important in business. It's how I like to find and hire professionals, such as accountants and financial advisors, myself.
Most of the time these conversations dwindle off after I send a quote. Sometimes it's a kindly worded email, something about needing to think about priorities (but they'll definitely contact me later when they're ready), and other times there's no response at all, radio silence. At times I question whether I quoted too high, or whether they were expecting a bro-deal, but ultimately, I think people don't realize how much work goes into the design (or illustration) process. I imagine that some people perceive designers as eternal fountains of creativity and ideas, as though it springs up from nowhere and there is always this inspired, easy-going flow of good idea after good idea, cool thing after cool thing, until we together land on the perfect design.
It's as though design grows like grass, bountifully and perennially. But I'd say it's more like a cherry blossom or a tulip. Something that comes only after a season, a process, that needs to go through the different stages of growth and change before producing the flower. And we value blossoms far more than we do grass. And transitioning people's understanding from the grass metaphor to the blossom is part of the designer's job, although it is hard to get people there without something concrete. Sometimes the most concrete thing I have is a price tag.
The way I see it is that if people feel that the branding process is valuable to their business, and feel like I’m the right designer for them, then they’ll keep the conversation going. Sometimes seeing what it costs is enough to make them reconsider their priorities, and I can totally respect that. On the same token, when someone is not entirely sure what the value of branding is to their business, then it makes it harder to make confident decisions throughout the design process. And that's no fun for anybody.
I am adamant about not doing "free" work. I even quote on pro-bono work, even if the payment won't be in cash. When people understand the monetary value of design, they respect it more. They understand throughout the process that my time and energies are a resource, and they are buying a lot more than a product (a logo, a web site, etc.) — they are buying my attention and concern for their business problem, something I otherwise may not naturally possess.
Good design exists within constraints. We all know that. One of the most real constraints is money. Another is time. Conveying these to potential clients is as important to the success of a design as the ideas and skills that go into it.
Riley Cran and I worked together on a brand while I was still at BRANDFX. Flowerful BC is a brand that promotes local floriculture in the province. The team at BRANDFX art directed and produced the brand, and Riley Cran created the awesome wordmark script.
This week, I was asked to guest lecture for an intro design class at Trinity Western University. It was the first time I ever stand up in front of a class to tell them about me and my work. I taught this very class last year, but teaching a subject and talking about yourself are two very different things. I wanted to talk about more than just me and my work (which I would imagine, without context, could be a bore). So I figured I'd talk first about my thoughts process in general, and then about the process by which I became a designer and illustrator. It made talking about my work easier because there was a story to it. I could talk about it as a part of a larger story. The importance of story is that it becomes easier for others to relate.
For anyone interested, I'm providing a more scripted version of the lecture in two or three parts. Here is the first instalment.
Hello. My name is Tom Froese, and I am a designer and illustrator. I love what I do, and I appreciate the blessing it is to be able to work and earn a living in this exciting field. I love what I do, but it is not always fun. Design is hard work. The struggle to get from blank page to great idea to the final deliverable is a struggle. This struggle is called the process.
If you don't like the process, you will not like design very much. Design is not for people who are impatient, who must have instant gratification. The irony is that most designers are just the opposite. We are designers because we crave the immediacy of the visual. We think we get to shortcut through the maze of abstraction and conceptualization to the concrete world of colour and form.
The truth of the matter is that design is all process. What is process? Process is a period of activity leading to discovery. It begins with a lot of questions, takes you through the agony and ecstasy of finding the answers to these questions, and then realizing that there are more questions, and this activity iterates, hopefully becoming more and more refined. The process is rewarded as the answers become crisper and more tangible, and this is when the process ends.
At the end of the process, you are left with your so-called "deliverable". This is ultimately what the client asked of you and for which you are to be paid. The deliverable might be something like "Build me a website" or "Design me a logo". A good designer will start not with a clear vision of the website or logo, but only with questions. Design that has predetermined results is not design at all — it may be a form of styling or creating, but it is not design. Design process is more like the scientific method in this regard. You have problem statements, hypotheses, predictions, observations, and those kinds of things. For instance, you might hypothesize that by the end of your project you will have a website or a logo. But if you are facing a new problem, although you have guesses at how it will be solved, you do not know for sure. It is in this not knowing where great stuff is to be found. Design is kind of like art and science combined, and it is in the intersection of these two where the magic happens.
If design is art and science, I think it is also in large part faith. Not in the religious or spiritual sense. In order to endure the agony and ecstasy of the process, it is only your faith that it will ultimately end up somewhere useful and good that keeps you going. At 3AM the morning of an important deadline, it is faith, not science or art, neither skill nor prowess, that keeps you awake and forging ahead to the as-yet unrealized breakthrough. But experience, intuition and perhaps a lot of wishful thinking make you confident that you will succeed.
If design is not a process, then design is a formula. It is like science without art. Literally. As science means knowledge, design without process is working only with what you know. You approach all your problems in the same way, knowing how the work will end before you start it. A few times this might be interesting. Most times it will be boring. There is a difference between process and formula. The design process has methodology to it, but it does not lean on predictably repeatable conditions, and it does not hope for predictably repeatable results.
Process is the activity leading to discovery, the acquisition of experience, the development of technique, the collection of observations, the openness to surprise, and the playground of inspiration.
If you have a lot of time and patience, if you want to create things that you didn't know you would or could; if you want to learn more than you set out to do; if you want to try things you never thought you would; if you want to surprise others — and yourself — embrace the process. Even be a designer.