10 Pet Peeves Art Directors Have When Working with Illustrators
Ghosting, Missing Deadlines, and Other Ways to Turn Off Your Art Director
If you want to illustrate for magazines, publishers and advertising agencies, the people you want to please are the Art Directors. Art Directors are the people who scout out and work with illustrators for their projects. Art directors, or AD’s for short, are responsible for finding talent (like you) and for squeezing the best possible result from you! They are looking to you to help them create the right images for the job, which satisfies a specific need. AD’s are middlemen, though. While they have some autonomy in directing the creative, they are part of a larger team, usually answering to a Creative Director and at least one Editor, some sometimes even more.
As I write about the creative process, I am often thinking only about one side of the table—that of the illustrator. That’s why out of five main stages of my process there are only 3 points involving the client. While I think it’s okay to focus on just one side, it’s always important to give the other its due consideration. A little bit of empathy goes a long way when doing business. The more you can learn about the people you’re working with and how to serve their needs, the happier they will be, and the more likely they will call you up again.
To this end, I was pleased to see a great thread come up on fellow illustrator Pete Ryan’s Twitter feed. He asked AD’s to weigh in on some of their pet peeves when working with illustrators; the responses that came in were super insightful, and I wanted to share some of the most important ones. There’s all kinds of things we can do to frustrate our clients, but most of them boil down to what you see here. I’ve listed them in reverse order, from least to most egregious.
10 Being “Too Busy” to Take On Assignment
While annoying for AD’s, this pet peeve cannot always be avoided. Illustrators are often busy, and it’s not always possible, nor preferable, to take on that one extra job. From the Art Director’s point of view, though, I get it: it can feel like a rejection. Maybe it feels like the AD is just making a lame excuse; they just don’t want the job. I know for a fact that “too busy” is one of the top excuses illustrators use when they don’t want a job. In my experience, however, when I say I’m too busy, I mean it. Either way, it’s important that the AD feels respected.
If you are actually too busy, you might actually worry that if you reject the job you will lose future opportunities with this client. This can and does happen, but here’s how you can both set yourself up for a second chance and make the AD feel respected rather than rejected:
- Sincerely express your regret for not being able to take on the project. Assure the AD that you wouldn’t be able to give them they attention they deserve.
- Express your hope to work with them in the future (but only if you mean it). Ask them to please try again very soon!
- Even though you can’t take on the work, you can still provide value: offer to recommend any illustrators you think would be great for the job. You can provide a quick list of 1–3 illustrators that you would recommend. Often, an AD is pressed for time, and this could be a huge help! The bonus advantage here is that if one of your recommended artists gets the job, they’ll hopefully know it was you who put in the good word, and that’s good industry karma right there!
Most important here is, even when you can’t take on a job, you can still show up and provide value. This is the best way to leave a good impression on the AD and to soften the sting of rejection. You are far more likely to get a call back in the future.
09 Being Inflexible with Feedback
Feedback is a huge pain point for both illustrators and AD’s. An Art Director does not want to have to give feedback. In a perfect situation, you would nail the brief in both the sketches and final illustration; the process would be smooth, and the art director can move on to whatever else is pressing for them. And so can you. For illustrators, feedback can be annoying, especially if you feel like you did what you were supposed to do, or if you really liked what you did and felt it needed no further exploration.
As illustrators, we need to get used to working collaboratively with AD’s. We need to listen at every stage and do our best to address the needs stated in the brief in our work. Sometimes we’ll nail it, and sometimes we won’t. When we don’t, we should at least consider whether the feedback is reasonable and whether we can incorporate it. For me, feedback is always the hardest, especially when I feel like I’m the expert on my own art. In such cases, here’s what I do to make sure I don’t come across as inflexible:
- Rather than responding out of frustration (usually through a defensive email), I let things simmer down for a bit. I don’t have to respond right away.
- When calmer, I read through the feedback. I will write out my defences in response, but not with the intention of sending to the AD. As I write, I find that my own arguments are actually not very strong, or I realize it’s just easier and faster to try incorporating the feedback than to write out an argument against it. This process of thinking through my rebuttal actually helps me address the client’s needs in my own way. I remain in creative control, all the while actually serving my client and making their job easier. If their feedback actually doesn’t work, then I have a stronger argument and can express it with more calmness and authority.
- Sometimes I find that talking things through on the phone (or on video call) can really help get everyone on the same page. Connecting by voice and video is a great way to see the human behind the frustrations, and, of course, it’s much easier to work out ideas in real time rather than through emails. A quick, communicative call can be the reset you need to keep going.
The process I am always writing about (which will be the basis of my upcoming book) is largely designed to eliminate frustrating, unreasonable rounds of revisions. It is especially engineered to avoid feedback and expectations that undermine what I consider to be my artistic strengths. A huge part of this is in giving clients a chance to express their direction up front, to get on the same page on as many details of the project as possible before it really even starts. My process also makes sure that both illustrator and client know exactly how many rounds of revisions in sketches and final artwork there can be, and it even details what kinds of changes are possible at each stage.
In my experience, it is possible to avoid almost all unreasonable feedback, especially that which challenges your creative confidence, by being more strategic about what you offer up for feedback, when. Of course, there are no guarantees, and there will always be some bit of annoying feedback or a request for one more revision. Even when things get crunchy, as long as you are demonstrating willingness to problem solve, your art director will respect you and be more willing to work with you in the future.
08 Sending Finished Work as a (or Instead of) Sketch
Part of including our clients in the process is making sure they have a chance to weigh in on our ideas before they get too far along. An Art Director’s job is not necessarily to give you their ideas to work from, but they definitely want to participate in the ideas in some way. That doesn’t mean they want to do all the brainstorming with you or watch you sketch from over your shoulder; it does mean that you come to them with mid-process work so they have a chance to offer direction when it’s going to be most useful.
From the AD’s perspective, it’s far less distressing to give feedback on a pencil sketch than a finished illustration; one feels like there is lots of potential for development yet. It feels open to discussion. On the other hand, a final illustration presented before sketches will feel like a closed book, a done deal. What if it totally misses the mark, or there are some major changes to be done? A kindly AD will only feel bad, maybe even blame themselves, for having to ask you to go back and make these changes.
Imagine you are having a house built for you. Could you imagine if the contractor just went and built and finished the whole thing without first showing you the blueprints? The contractor is the expert in building, but not the expert in what your needs and wants art. Similarly, we illustrators are experts in making images in our own unique ways, but our clients are experts in what their needs and wants are. These are always worked out in more malleable stages of the process, namely pencil sketches.
Additionally, receiving a completed illustration without seeing sketches first shows a lack of thought. It’s like receiving a gift from someone who totally doesn’t get you. The sketches stage is important not just for us as illustrators, to make sure we’re on the right track, but it shows our ADs that we’re making the effort to get to know them; to understand their direction and the needs of the project.
For some, it’s not easy to know how a sketch will turn out in the final without actually doing it first. I actually totally relate to this. Especially when I was new, I actually didn’t know what I was going to illustrate until it was complete. I worked a lot out in the final piece. Showing a sketch would have been unhelpful, since I knew the final would end up way different. In such cases, I just completed the whole thing, but then made a sketch of the final and presented that first. While this saved me no time, it did ultimately keep me looking strong to my clients, and it gave them that much needed feeling of agency and influence when it mattered most.
07 Not Working in the Expected Style
If there’s any reason to have a consistent style as an illustrator, this is it! Art Directors depend on our consistency to do their jobs. Whatever you present on your portfolio (or wherever you advertise and display your work), make sure it aligns with what you want to make. In other words, don’t show the work in a style you don’t want to do. This is a difficult choice for some illustrators, since if we showed only what we really loved, we wouldn’t have much to show at all.
Strange but true: the work I’ve made for the biggest and most impressive names on my client list is often my least favourite. I am proud of having worked for these big names, but not necessarily proud of the work; if I had my choice, I’d rather not make more like it. So I have to balance my portfolio with names that give me as much credibility as possible with work I’m actually excited about. If I had to choose one over the other, it’s going to be the latter.
So what can illustrators do to make sure their work aligns with their client’s expectations?
- Aim to have a consistent style. If you cannot choose just one style, that’s totally fine; just aim for consistency across your different styles. I don’t recommend having 14 wildly different styles, but having 2 or 3 distinct styles that you can actually name and describe can work great. The important thing is consistency and predictability. (I always think about Melinda Beck, who works in a handful of distinct styles, and presents these under separate categories on her website).
- If you intend on exploring a new style, or if you feel that the style the AD is expecting might be different from what you are doing now, have that conversation up front. Ask the AD which of your work attracted them to you. If you feel like your style has developed since that work, explain this to them—and be ready to supply some examples. Chances are your new work still aligns with your older work, and the AD will be on board. If not, it’s better you have this conversation before, not after, you send finals!
At the end of the day, our style is our brand. The stronger our brand, the more recognizable we will be in the marketplace. We will be more reliable to our clients. We should never take this branding aspect for granted. When we come to rely on a brand, be that a brand of house paint, toothpaste, our favourite restaurants, or whatever, anything that is too different will feel jarring to us; it will cause us to lose faith in that brand and look elsewhere.
Being creative and adventurous in our style is good. Bold experiments can often yield fantastic results. We just want to make sure our clients are willing to be our guinea pigs.
06 Not Being Detailed Enough in Sketches
This one came as a surprise to me. The AD who listed this one said, “I’m okay with a simple approach, but I’m looking for every single detail to be perfect.” I think it’s a general assumption by illustrators that sketches should be loose. I’ve seen some sketches that look little more than squiggles; if you didn’t have a verbal description along with it and had no concept of the artist’s style, it wouldn’t be very helpful at all.
I’m actually on the complete opposite side of this: my illustrations are always very clear. I often talk about what I aim to achieve in my sketches, what I call the Three C’s: Concept, Content and Composition. I always aim to have sketches that speak for themselves. If I have any description to go along with them, it’s really just to reaffirm the obvious.
This point may seem to contradict (sending overly-finished work). Of course, there is a middle ground between sending completed illustrations and sending half-baked (or worse) ideas or squiggles. Here’s what to aim for in sketches:
- Ideas should be clear and self-explanatory. If you need to write more than a few words in a rationale, you have more work to do in the sketch to bring the idea home.
- There should be enough information in the sketch for the AD to make a decision on, or to offer feedback on. If there is too much uncertainty about what is in the image, the AD may ask for more sketches, or, they may approve a sketch but then ask for changes in the finals which, in this later stage, are much more difficult to make.
- Concept, Content and Composition; these three elements should all be worked out in the sketches. If necessary, you can also include value (variation in darkness/lightness if that helps clarify the 3C’s). Everything else should be left out, including suggestions of texture, colour, line quality, etc.
A sketch is one of those points where the client can and must feel included. This is one of the few points where they truly should have an influence. It’s also where you demonstrate that you have understood the brief and have done some deep digging to find a unique and satisfying solution to the visual problem. Most importantly, from the illustrator’s perspective, an approved sketch is a contract. Once a client signs off on your sketches, you can confidently go into final artwork without fearing significant changes, which can be harder to make at that later stage. Never start finals before you have express client approval on your sketches!
05 Not Sending Enough Concepts
Part of including clients in the creative process is giving some sense of choice. If you present only one sketch, a client may feel like they’re not getting good value. You may come across as lazy or hard to work with. Coming up with a few different concepts is an expectation. If you only present one sketch, you’d better have a good reason.
What are some good reasons for presenting only one sketch?
- When the concept is a foregone conclusion, or when there is no concept. In my experience, illustrated maps are a good example of a low-concept piece. Maps are just stylized representations of geographical information. The point is usually less about an idea and more about being attractive.
- When the illustration is complex. If an illustration is likely to be very complex, and these details need to be established in the sketch, it may be unreasonable to expect more than one sketch. Maps are again a good example. When I do maps, I only present one sketch. There are a lot of steps in just working out the basic structure of a map, and it just doesn’t make sense to have to this more than once. The only exception is that sometimes I will offer some options with specific icons in the map, especially if I feel that having some choice here is important for the client. However, rather than working out what these will be in sketches, I make a point of working them out in writing, in the brief.
- When there is no time. If I’m working on a tight timeline, or if I agree to take on a project when I’m already busy, I will negotiate my way out of providing extra options.
- When I have solved the problem. This is pro territory, but there are times when I have not given more than one sketch option, even though I could have. This is when I feel like I have nailed the problem, and anything else I provide would be for the sake of having options, not because I had more great ideas that were worth sharing. In such cases, I don’t just show the one option without explaining why. I will explain that I think I figured things out with the one sketch, but I am open to going into additional explorations if the AD would like to see more. When communicated well, this can bring the AD more confidence one good idea, and it shows strength and authority on my side. Rarely have I had to go into more sketches in such cases.
An important part of showing different concepts, of course, is showing distinct ideas, not just variations one one idea. In the Twitter thread mentioned above, more than one of the art directors mentioned this as very important.
The most important reason to present multiple options to a client is to help them feel included in the creative work. Second to this is that having a few different options to compare against can really aid in the decision process. As long as whatever you present at this stage helps in these two ways, I don’t think it matters how many sketches you present. The most important thing is making sure expectations around how many concepts will be included are set before the work begins.
04 Not Bringing New Ideas to the Table
As illustrators, we are not just there to add style to our AD’s ideas. While AD’s often provide some direction (it’s in their title!), of course, they haven’t given it the kind of thought that you should be giving it. Your job is to be both the creative hands and the brains.
The most unique and insightful ideas come only after spending time with the story or brief, and then doing the hard work of finding your own angle on it. Editorial illustrators are meant not just to depict what’s on the surface of the story, but to go deep and say something more, or cause the viewer to really pay attention.
One of the most annoying things for me as an illustrator is to receive a sketch from an Art Director. As one illustrator put it, “Please don’t send me a sketch, that is why you hired me—I make the pictures.” While I have come to accept AD-supplied sketches as just starting points, the more important point is that our job is to come up with the pictures! Thankfully, most AD’s recognize this and expect it from us.
Your ability to have unique ideas that go well beyond the AD’s expectations is what will separate you from the pack.
03 Missing Deadlines (and Lame Excuses)
This one, along with the next two points, came up the most among AD’s pet peeves. Deadlines are important because there are multiple people who must coordinate their time to offer feedback and direction on your work. It’s not just the AD, it’s their Creative Director, their editors, and often, their own clients. Showing your work on time is just the respectful thing to do.
That being said, creativity doesn’t always happen on the clock. I have had to ask for mercy on my deadlines many times. Very often, schedules are padded, and there is wiggle room. Simply asking for an extra day or two, as soon as you know you need it, is often all you need to do. The key here is communicating about it with as much time as possible. I think an honest admission that you just need more time to land on some good ideas is a really valid excuse. Whether or not it will be met with mercy, you will at least be respected for your honesty.
Illustrators are good at coming up with excuses, especially where it comes to missing deadlines. As an art director, I’ve been on the receiving end of such excuses, and the pattern often goes like this:
- Deadline comes, and I get no communication from the artist.
- I wait a day or two if time permits. Still nothing.
- I follow up with a polite check-in.
- The artist responds with apologies, often fraught with drama of some kind. Wife has been sick, the family is going through some difficult times, allergies are really flaring up badly, etc.
Of course, who am I to say these are not valid excuses? I can only try my best to believe and be understanding. The problem is that the excuse comes only after the deadline, and often, only after checking in. Why didn’t they just say so earlier on?
If you find yourself constantly running behind, here are some ways to make it easier to meet your deadlines:
- Ask for more time up-front. When projects have short deadlines but I think I could otherwise take them on, I just ask for more time. Usually there is a little wiggle room in the timeline, and the AD would be happy to accommodate you.
- Avoid unrealistic deadlines. After a bit of experience, you will start to get a feel for how long you need to do your work properly and comfortably. Use this as a standard for which jobs you will and will not take on. Don’t fear saying no to jobs with unrealistically short turnarounds. You can always make exceptions (maybe it’s a dream client or you can charge an enticing rush fee), but these should never become your usual. As a slow worker myself, I typically turn down any project that gives me less than 2 weeks. Although I have missed out on some good opportunities, I have never gone hungry for work, or actual food, in my career as an illustrator. Meanwhile I avoid burnout.
- Ask for mercy. As mentioned, it’s okay to ask for mercy in the middle of a project, especially if you can do so before the deadline.
Are you running late on a project? Did you underestimate the time it would take to come up with ideas or complete the final artwork? These are understandable. We’ll talk more about this in the next point (Poor Communication), but really, you’re not doing anybody (neither you nor your client) any favours by not communicating about it before the deadline. Even if you’re going to be late, and your excuse isn’t that great, the least you can do is give your client a bit of a heads-up.
02 Poor Communication
As professionals, there is no excuse for poor communication. I’m definitely guilty of this myself. The busier I get, both with work and family stuff, the harder it is to take the time to communicate with my clients. In the middle of a project, once I get the information or feedback I need, I can get so focused that I forget to simply reply with a “thanks” or “got it”. Many AD’s have expressed ghosting as one of their top pet peeves. All they want is to know the email they sent was received; they want to have a sense that you’re on the case.
I think we sometimes mean to respond, but we feel we don’t have the time to do it well. Our failure to communicate doesn’t come out of disregard for the client but, in a backwards sort of way, it comes from honourable intentions: we want to give our response the proper time. But this is case where it’s far better to just send a quick, friendly acknowledgement.
So by now it’s clear that not responding quickly to emails is poor communication. We have also seen how not communicating around upcoming deadlines can be hurtful for both artist and AD. What else does poor communication look like?
- Lacking in tact. Tact is being sensitive to those around you in a given situation. For instance, when talking to an art director for the first time, bringing up budget right away, before anything else, can seem a bit rude. This would be untactful. Good communication means being equal parts human and business.
- Not establishing expectations up front. Almost every challenge of a project can be made easier, if not completely eliminated, by being clear about expectations up front. If you need more time, ask for it up front. If you want more budget, ask for it up front. If you don’t include more than 3 rounds of revisions, explain that before you hit go. Just as it would be unfair to play a game without knowing the rules, it is unfair to ask a client to engage in your process without explaining your “rules”.
- Ghosting. Ghosting is the ultimate in poor communication. Ghosting is the ultimate F-you, even if you didn’t mean it that way. Whether it’s a response to an initial tire kicker or saying “got it” when a client sends you feedback or a request mid-project, just sending a quick and friendly response can make a client feel seen and heard.
Everybody’s busy. You’re busy, your AD is busy too. But we should never be too busy to acknowledge someone’s effort to reach out. Poor communication comes out on top as the most common pet peeve among Art Directors. While it may not be the most offensive, it certainly makes things harder for everyone else involved, and it definitely corrodes at your reputation. As visual communicators by profession, we should make it a part of our job to be good communicators with our clients.
01 Being a Jerk
The number one crime of illustrators, according to Art Directors, is being a jerk. Whether that’s in how you respond to feedback, or your tone in conversation, or in the lack of care and concern you express in your emails to your client, you can be certain that, if you’re a jerk, you will not be hearing back from them in the future.
Again, I have been guilty of this. Sometimes I lose respect for my client. I forget that behind the “client” title, there is a human. I lose perspective and momentarily believe the art is all about me and my own artistic fulfilment.
I’m a firm believer in having a strong position as an artist. I think it’s important that we have a backbone and are not afraid to push back on ideas or feedback that we don’t believe in. But there’s a kind way to push back, a way that respects others and doesn’t make you out to be a prima donna.
I have had to suffer through some pretty difficult projects and some pretty difficult clients. Most often, the clients turn turn out to be fine as people; they’re just annoying to work with. I have good friends whose company I enjoy but whom I find annoying to work with. Obviously, it’s easy to remember to treat my friends with respect; it’s much harder when I don’t really know the people at all, which is usually the case with my clients.
What’s at stake for being a jerk? You will definitely leave a sour taste in your AD’s mouth, and you will not hear from them again. And you never know—word might get around, depending on whom you offended.
Honestly, almost all the above crimes can be forgiven if you’re a nice person. But being mean or entitled on top of it all really leaves no room for redemption. Even if you are momentarily unkind, it never hurts to apologize. I have had to make apologies more than once. I’ve screwed up by forgetting to respect my clients, by making them feel small, or at least by passive aggressively giving them less shine than my other clients. But the moment I realize this, I make sure to turn the ship around; if necessary, I actually address it and apologize.
Why are illustrators jerks? I think it usually comes out of a defensiveness of our art. We feel protective of our ideas or our style. Instead of aiming to solve the problem, we become the problem. Like I said, I am all about protecting our ideas and pushing back when we believe it’s right. It’s just that we don’t need to push back so hard. In cases where we feel threatened, it’s important to step back, ask questions and listen. See if we can read between the lines in what the client is saying or asking. See if we can demonstrate to them that we understand the need, calmly get them to see things from our perspective. If all else fails, we can at least just step back even further and know that the project will be over sooner if we just make some compromises, and we can walk away with our reputation and respectability in tact.
The good news about these pet peeves is that they are all one hundred percent avoidable! I know we all make mistakes as illustrators. I am certainly guilty of some of these. In some cases, I even commit these “crimes” on purpose—not to be a jerk but because I have actual reasons. Not all of these are deal-breakers, except the last two: poor communication, and being a jerk. All others, while they can be distressing for AD’s under pressure, they can at least be made somewhat more tolerable through good communication and kindness.
Of course, we should all aim for much higher than just not being a jerk. And even mediocre artists can meet deadlines. What sets great illustrators apart from the rest is not only their talent as artists, but as problem solvers and people-helpers. The pet peeves expressed by Art Directors and summarized above are, together, an expression of the kind of illustrators we don’t want to be: self-involved, uncreative, unhelpful. Unfortunately for AD’s, these faults are seen far too often; fortunately for us, it makes it all the easier for us to stand out and get in their good books.