14 Mistakes Illustrators Make when Working with Clients
How Your Ability to Collaborate is More Important Than Your Art.
Are you constantly fighting and losing creative battles? Are you constantly frustrated by clients who don’t trust you or can’t seem to make up their minds? Your art might not be the problem. Perhaps you’re just going about the process with too much focus on the art, and not enough on how to communicate with and include your clients along the way. Are you making any of the following mistakes? By avoiding these, you will have more success in seeing your ideas come to life and earning that much needed trust to do your job.
01. Starting Without a Proper Brief
This may seem obvious, but it’s very important to know what your job is before starting any work. The only way you will know your role is by writing up a full brief. A brief is an exercise in learning exactly what your job is before you begin. A brief establishes the purpose for the art and gives you specific objectives to aim for. It gives you a starting point for creativity and the necessary structure to keep you on track the whole way through.
Without a brief, you are blind. It is like going on a long adventure without a mission or a map. You will get lost, or worse. And during hard times, you will not know why you should even bother pushing through.
A brief can be a formal set of questions that the client must answer as a questionnaire, or it can be more of an informal process of piecing together the information over a conversation. In my experience, briefs come together more in parts than all at once. Usually, a client will initiate the conversation by telling me a very quick summary of what they need and checking my availability. From there, I respond with follow-up questions to learn as much as I can about the job before expressing full interest.
It’s a good idea to get as much information as you can before committing to a project. You wouldn’t want to say yes to a job only to find out after that it’s actually not what you thought. You might end up taking on a job you won’t really enjoy, or worse, it might put you in over your head. It might turn out the deadline is too aggressive, or they are asking for more value than they can afford.
Make sure you have a full brief before you start a job. In fact, you should have as full of a brief as you can before even quoting or accepting the job in the first place. A full and proper brief is the only way to do your job right and to avoid pain and frustration later on.
If you want to learn more about conducting briefs, I found this very old article to be surprisingly helpful and relevant today.
02. Not Having Clear Check-in Points with the Client
Before you begin a project, your client should understand what the process of working with you will entail. Sometimes a client will ask me up front, “What is your illustration process like?” The first few times I was asked this question, I thought they were curious about my artistic process, but what they really wanted to know was how we would work together. What were the check-in points during the process? What will they see first? When will they see the final art? What opportunities do they have for feedback?
First you need to know your own creative process and when you feel you most need the client’s input. Then, you can clearly communicate these important touch points to the client. Then, together, you will be able to work these into a schedule, and the client will more patiently wait for these deadlines, without wondering what’s going on over there. You’ll know you haven’t fully communicated your process when they start “just checking in” to see “how things are going”.
While each artist might have different takes on the process, there are really only two main stages: Sketches and Finals. Sketches is when you share your first ideas in rough form. Sometimes these are called Roughs or Concepts. Finals, or Finished Art, is when you present the finalized, ready-to-go artwork based on the approved sketch.
With these two stages clearly scheduled in, it will be easier to discuss Revisions and navigate requests to see work in progress (keep reading for more on these two).
03. Giving Too Many Options
We tend to think that clients expect to see many options. While the creative process does involve throwing a whole bunch of stuff to the wall and seeing what sticks, most of this idea generation happens on our side, without the client. It is not in their best interest to see every good and band idea that comes up in our process. It’s overwhelming enough for experienced creatives to sort though the early ideational work, let alone clients, who are busy doing other things. They may not have much time to weigh in on our every idea. It is a discourtesy for creatives to present more than three options to our clients for a given work or illustration.
When we present ideas to our clients, it should be on us to make sure our ideas solve the problem and do so with clarity. It should also be on us to come in with a strong recommendation. If we present more than just a few options, it signals haven’t quite figured things out ourselves. We are putting it onto our clients to decide for themselves what is best. While this might seem like a nice, collaborative way of working out ideas, it actually hurts the process. On our side, it weakens our position as creative leaders. Showing lots of ideas might be impressive, it’s not very authoritative. On the client’s side, they are suddenly tasked with a creative decision they may feel unqualified to make. This can be stressful where there are multiple options involved. A client may feel pressure to choose something even when they don’t really know why.
In his book, The Paradox of Choice, writer Barry Schwartz argues that “eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers”. The pardox is in that, in a society where we have so much choice and freedom to choose, we seem not to be able to enjoy our choices. We end up regretting what we may have missed out on by rejecting other choices.
Presenting too many options to our clients, especially when they’re all plausible, might make it harder to choose any one of them. This is especially true if our options are not distinct enough from one another.
Remembering that our clients are usually part of a larger group of decision makers, each new option we present must get passed around and agreed on by all. The fewer the options we present to the client, the more productive the review process on their end can be.
Limiting options is good for both client and artist. Not only does it make our job easier, but it also ensures that each option we present will be stronger. We have permission to focus on one, two or three of our best ideas rather than spreading our creative energies thin across too many. It also takes the pressure off from having to share ideas we’re not excited about. When we feel we have to make more options for the sake of options, we end up sharing ideas we might not like. In fact, I recommend that if you believe you’ve nailed it in just one sketch, if you really believe that, you should feel permitted to share only that with the client.
We have to ask ourselves, why are we presenting more than one option? Is it because we want to give the client some agency in determining what’s best for them, or is it because we can’t make up our own minds?
04. Allowing Unlimited Revisions
As you are defining the brief and preparing the quote, it’s important to include how many revisions you will include in the process. Revisions can go on longer than you want, and with each iteration, the project risks going further and further off track, rather than closer to the goal.
Revisions are changes that you make to your work in response to client feedback. Our goal when showing clients our work should be to get it right, right away, and for there to be no need for revisions. At the same time, we must be open to the fact that we are not perfect, and the client may not have perfectly expressed or understood their need before seeing our first sketch. So we must build in the opportunity to course-correct along the way.
Revisions happen at two key stages of the illustration process: first, in the Sketches, and second in the Finals. If you want revisions to happen anywhere, you want them to happen at the Sketches stage. It is easier to make changes at this stage, and things feel less precious. It’s an opportunity for the client to have their say on the concept, content and composition, before you go and finalize everything in the next stage. By the time you are sharing finished art with your client, you don’t want them wanting entirely new concepts or configurations. Reasonable changes at the final art stage would be in smaller details, or small shifts in scale and placement of elements in the composition.
You need to be clear that you expect all major feedback to come at the Sketches stage. The client should know what they will be receiving at each stage and what kind of feedback they should be giving, if any, before approving the work.
More to my point: you need to be clear about how many revisions you will allow at each stage. There should be a limit; three is a standard amount. If your client continues to ask for changes past the third round, provided you are truly addressing their concerns each time, you should feel comfortable bringing this up. If there’s a revision limit written into the agreement, there is nothing rude or awkward about flagging excessive rounds.
The purpose of revisions is not just to protect you from having to work more than you hoped, but to help the client to take what you present to them more seriously. When there is a low cost to being sloppy, a client may not be diligent in reviewing what you have sent. They may skim through your sketches and miss out on certain important details. They might assume that if they miss something, they can pick it up in the more finalized stage, where any errors might be easier to see for them. At the same time, having a few rounds of revisions leaves some wiggle room for not getting it quite right at first. In sending both our sketches and our final art, we want to do our best to get it right, but we shouldn’t expect that we’ll be perfect every time.
05. Presenting Unfinished Work
Sometimes a client wants a sneak peek at the work before we have full ideas at the sketch stage, or they want to see how the finals are “coming along”. While there are rare times it’s good to share work mid-process, especially if you and your client are on the same creative team (as with an Art Director), it’s usually a bad idea to share unresolved work.
The problem with sharing work in progress (often shortened as WIP) is that it risks eliciting the wrong kind of feedback. Given that we ourselves are unsure of our progress in the messy middle, it can be more destructive than constructive to have our client weigh in. Perhaps, not understanding that illustration has an awkward stage, they may actually recoil at beholding its unfinished appearance. Our job as creative leaders is to assure the client and give them confidence we are doing a good job. Just like we have to protect them from a dizzying array of options, we must also protect them from anything that might make them lose faith in us in the process. The existential burden of doubting ourselves and our work in the midst of an unresolved creative effort should rest squarely on our shoulders.
On a more practical side, sharing WIP also also muddies up the tidy revision counting we rely on to make sure the project stays on track.
So what if a client wishes to see your work before you‘re ready? First, you can prevent this by being very clear about what the client will see when. If sneak-peeks are not part of your clear check-in points, you are allowed to say so. One way to word it is in terms of wanting to bring them your best and make sure you have something they can give proper feedback on. Second, maybe there’s a nice half-way solution: if you are working on a series of illustrations, it is often actually a good thing for the client to see some of the set before you go and do the whole thing. In this situation, it makes sense to stage the project so that you provide one or two pilot illustrations, and then once those are approved, you can move into the rest of the set. This gives you a chance to work out how the set without having to do all of it. Even still, while you are presenting a part of a larger project before it’s done, you’re not technically sharing WIP. You would go through the sketching and final art stages of the illustration process for the pilots just as you would with any other project.
06. Not Getting on the Same Page About Style
Whether you are just beginning or a seasoned illustrator, style will be an important part of the conversation. The client will have expectations for style, as will you, so it’s important to be on the same page about it. If you’re just beginning, you may not have a fully developed style, which means style will be a more pronounced part of the conversation. If you’re more seasoned and have an established, consistent style, there will be less of a need to have this conversation.
In either case, it’s important to bring it up at the beginning, before you even take on the project. Ask the client which of your work attracted them to you, and also ask about their creative vision or direction for the project in question.
If the client doesn’t seem to have a style preference, part of your job will be to get them thinking about it, to avoid surprise later. When you don’t know what style to work in or what the client is expecting, there are two possible difficulties.
The first difficulty is that you might find yourself feeling uncertain of your approach as you go into the project. You will lack the necessary confidence to come in with a strong recommendation. Not only are you trying to come up with good ideas, you’re also scrambling to imagine what those ideas might look like, style-wise. You’ll likely spend a lot of time looking through the work of others, perhaps on Pinterest, Dribbble, or Behance, and relying too much on the style and ideas of others than something more original. While sometimes a little inspiration hunting is just what the doctor ordered, there is a risk that none of the styles you latch onto are what the client is asking for; moreover, it’s possible you won’t even be able to pull someone else’s style off.
The second possible difficulty is that the client, not having a clear idea of what style they are asking for, will not be prepared for the style you present. Not having a style in mind, whatever you present to them might just seem off base. Whatever the case, not getting on the same page stylistically just makes it too easy for a misunderstanding to arise, usually when it’s almost too late.
So how do you get on the same page? It’s by asking the client to point at certain works of yours that attracted them to you in the first place. But what if they send you images of illustration styles that are not your own? You can use that as a starting point for the conversation. If you love those styles, and again, are new to the industry anyway, it might be the strongest start you can have — provided you’re not planning on outright copying someone else. However, if you’re like most illustrators, you’ll want to have a go at doing something more original. You can ask your client how comfortable they are with you using their style references as a loose direction but with you providing something more in your own style (or one of the styles you feel most confident about). Chances are that’s what they wanted anyway. Of course, be prepared for a little back and forth as you work out a new style in the middle of a client project.
If you nor your client are certain about which style to work in, I highly recommend scheduling in what I call Style Directions exercise. This would be done at the very beginning of the project, before you do any research or concepting. Here, you’d put together two or three distinct style directions for the client to choose from. A style direction is a collection of images, and sometimes colours and type samples, that together show a clear stylistic vision. Each direction would be on one page. The images would be sourced from a variety of illustrators, to ensure that no single artist is being imitated. The images would together tell a story of the kind of textures, forms, shapes, people, and other stylistic and conceptual elements that you would bring to the project. For instance, maybe one style direction would be called “Corporate Memphis”, and then on that page you would show a variety of illustrations in this style. Another style direction example would be “Printmaking Inspired”, and then on that page you would show what this means using a variety of artists’s images as an example. In both examples, you would also describe how you think such a style would be relevant to the client’s needs. For instance, the “Corporate Memphis” style is well-used in the tech space, so if your client is also in the tech space, you could cite this in your reasoning. But perhaps you want to pitch something a little different to your tech client. In a “Printmaking Inspired” style direction, you might explain how this could help your client stand out in a sea of Corporate Memphis tech art.
However you pitch a style, when it is up for discussion, it’s important to discuss it early on, and always with an eye to how style will serve the client’s needs and fit under the roof of your artistic abilities and interests.
07. Sending Work as Loose Email Attachments
Imagine going to a restaurant where the chef serves their food directly on your table, without a plate. Imagine they just sort of throw it down there and walk away. This is what it’s like when you send your work as loose attachments in an email. This is in contrast to presenting your work in a proper deck, with proper titling and descriptions to help sell and contextualize your ideas.
As an art director hiring other illustrators, I have seen this first hand. To me, sending work as loose attachments devalues it and reflects poorly on the artist. It also makes it more difficult for clients to offer their feedback.
When you present your work in a properly designed deck (usually sent a PDF with a cover page, and each sketch plus description or final illustration on its own page), your work is literally framed in way that makes it seem more valuable. It’s more than a throw-away idea. You developed this sketch and took the time to place it on a nicely formatted page and give it a description.
Sharing your work in a well-labeled deck ensures that those reviewing it understand what it is and what they are to do with it. Imagine you send your work loose-leaf in an email, and that gets shared around on the client’s side. What if the sketches or artwork gets shared around without your little rationale or description? Who’s to say everyone will understand what they are looking at or what you intended? That’s an opportunity for ill-informed, irritating feedback.
Sharing your work in a deck gives you more control of how others are encountering your ideas, and therefore, it elicits more pointed and useful feedback.
08. Suggesting Doubt About Your Work
When presenting our work to our clients, particularly when we are sending our work by email, we may tend to say something like “hopefully this works for you”, or “let me know if you have any changes”. What this suggests is that you’re not certain you’ve made something that will work, or that the client is expected to come back with changes. This may subconsciously prompt the client to find things to nit-pick, or they may feel like they’re supposed to ask changes. But maybe you nailed it —in which case, don’t suggest that you didn’t. Don’t leave the door open to unnecessary doubt. Of course we should leave room for being corrected, or for the client to ask for some kind of adjustment. That’s part of our job. But since we only send work we strongly believe in, we want to encourage the client to go with what we are sending!
When I send my sketches by email, I usually write something like this:
Hello [Client name],
I’m pleased to share with you my sketches!
Here’s a link:[Dropbox link to the Deck PDF]
Please let me know if you have any questions. Once approved, we can move this into the final art!
When I send my finals, I will write something similar:
Hello [Client name],
I’m pleased to share with you the final art!
Here’s a link:[Dropbox link to the Deck PDF]
Please let me know if you have any questions. Once approved, I can send you the final, high-res files!
You’ll see that I remind the client that if the work is approved, we’ll get to the next stage. Implied here is that progress will happen more quickly if we can get an approval. I’m not hurrying anybody, and I’m not saying I am above corrections and feedback; I’m simply giving a short reminder of how the process works.
You’ll also see that I don’t apologize or explain much in my email. Any explanations are usually included in the deck. Since the deck might be shared around by many people internal to the client’s organization, the deck ensures that any explanations will stay together with the work.
09. Starting Before it’s Official
On a tight deadline, it may seem like you should get started on a project right away, even before all the first things like the brief, quote and agreement are set into place. But it’s possible that your work will be for naught once these things finally do come. It’s the client’s responsibility to have a full brief and to supply you with everything you need to do your job first. Until you have an approved quote and an agreement of the scope and terms of the work, you should not feel pressured to jump the gun.
If you feel the client is pressuring you to advance without these important things set in place, this might be a bad omen. Perhaps this client will have unreasonable expectations for you, which are against your values and policies. Depending on the client and what they are paying you, you might be willing to loosen a few of your rules to accommodate their needs. But that should be your choice, and there should be a strong sense that the client intends on tying up those loose ends without too much delay. With larger clients, it is possible that there is some red tape, and that it is actually more productive to just keep the ball rolling. But always know that this comes with certain risks. Exceptions don’t have to become rules.
As we’ll see next, there should be equal weight on both artist and client to fulfil their role in the relationship. If the client is expecting you to do anything that goes beyond reason or fairness, they are showing a lack of respect for you as a professional, independent freelancer. You are not their employee, and they are not your boss! You are two businesses coming together on a common project. As your own business, you get to set your own policies in place, and in so far as they help you do the best job for your clients, you get to adhere to them.
10. Moving Forward Without Client Sign-Off
One of the most important things about illustration is that it’s a dialogue with give and take. You need to take things step by step and not get too far without feedback from the client. For instance, it’s very important that you get the client to sign off on a sketch before you can move it into the finals.
Similarly, it’s important for your client to sign off on the quote and contract before you even begin. Each sign-off is like a little contract that assures you that you have completed one stage and can go into the next without having to go back. A sign-off assures you that the client won’t go back and change their mind. And if they do, it gives you permission to negotiate for additional budget.
Requiring client-sign off, particularly on sketches, keeps a project moving, especially when there is a deadline. As long as there is no sign-off, the project remains at a stand-still. This puts a little bit of pressure on the client to be thorough in their feedback and also prevents them from getting too carried away or being indecisive. Asking for too many changes or being wishy-washy will cost them time.
Don’t forget to factor in turnaround time between revisions and stages. You don’t want to have feedback or sign-off on sketches 10 p.m. Tuesday when the deadline for finals is Wednesday morning.
11. Skipping the Sketches
This is an extension of the previous point, but deserves its own special mention. There is nothing less professional as an illustrator than sharing more finalized illustrations before doing more rough sketches.
Sketches are a key way of making the client feel included in the process. Being able to see at least a few options (if necessary) and being able to weigh in on this earlier stage gives clients a sense of agency and influence over the creative work. Jumping right into more final illustrations can catch them off guard and come across as arrogant.
Sketches are also a way for you to work out your ideas before committing to them in a more final version. If you find it easier to work out your ideas in a more finished illustration, you are not alone. In such a case, it often makes sense to reverse-engineer a sketch from it and present that to your client. It will be more comfortable for the client to give feedback on a rough than something that felt more precious. It will also make you look more pro.
12. Sending Final Files Too Soon
We’ve discussed clearly staging our process, limiting revisions and not sending loose work. And now we’ve discussed not advancing to the next stage without approval of the former. This is similar, but important enough to address as its own point.
One of the reasons we should send our work in a deck is that it signals to the client that it requires action on their part—usually some feedback or an approval. If the client sees our final art for the first time as a loose file, they may see this as ready to go. They may even just throw the file into the final design and forget all about you.
We should never release final, high-res files to the client without receiving their full approval first. One main reason is that they may decide they want changes after we thought we were finished the job. If we send it loose, it’s harder to keep track of revisions, since the file wouldn’t have a version number clearly stamped on it. In this same vein, if you send a final file, loose, that may signal to the client that you believe your job is done and therefore are closed to any more changes. This puts the client in an uncomfortable position if they do have changes. Bluntly, there’s a certain arrogance about sending the files without client sign-off on the artwork.
I have said that the illustration process has two main stages: sketches and final art. But there is a third step, which I would call delivery. After the client approves of the final art, we can then go in and clean up the file and make it ready to use for the client, or whomever will end up receiving the file to place in its final context. Once we have done this, we can deliver the file to the client (usually using Dropbox or some other cloud based file sharing service). This process of preparing the file for final use and uploading to the cloud takes time. We don’t want to have to do it more than once. This is another reason why the client needs to sign off on the final art (as presented in the deck) before we send them any files.
13. Accepting Every Job
Ideally we should be very selective about which jobs we take on. We should prioritize fit over profit. Every time we take work we’re not excited about, that’s time and energy we could be spending on something we actually want to do.
I get it; there are times when we have to take what we can get, especially at first. But as much as possible, we need to have a strong sense of who we are as artists and the kind of work we want to do—and stick with it.
Entering into client-illustrator relationships is like dating. Imagine someone who was so desperate for companionship that they dated everyone who came their way, even when they weren’t even all that attracted to them. Such a person may never be lonely, but they may not be all that happy either. With such an indiscriminate approach to dating, they may even endanger themselves. Not all company is good company. A more healthy situation would involve two individuals who respected one another while also being independently whole. The act of coming together is based on desire and respect, not an imbalanced or co-dependent condition.
We know how important it is to have standards when looking for mates and dates. If we’re aiming to be illustrators, we’re probably in it because we want to actually enjoy our career. It’s not about quantity, but about quality. One of the key ways to ensure an enjoyable career is by valuing fit over profit.
I have turned down good opportunities many times in my career When I perceive a misalignment between me and a potential client, I would rather lose out on a bit of profit than suffer through a project I’m just not into.I’m not afraid of missing out. By actively rejecting the wrong opportunities, I’m actively setting myself up for the right ones.
I’m not saying I don’t make compromises. There are times when you have to take the good you have and not hold out for some imaginary “better”. But we have to have a standard to hold all opportunities against. That is how we get better while getting better opportunties.
14. Accepting Vague Direction and Feedback
We should never feel we have to read our clients minds. If we don’t know something, and that something can’t be found out from anyone other than our client, we must ask them. If the client is giving us an incomplete brief, it is on us to guide them into filling in the blanks. If in their feedback they are not being clear about what they want, we need to lead them to more specificity.
I sense that many illustrators tolerate vagueness and a lack of clarity from their clients, and that they suffer for it. Perhaps we fear that if we ask too many questions, we’ll appear as unprofessional. Beginners, not knowing all there is to know about the process, might assume we need to figure absolutely everything out on our own.
Don’t wait until you’ve done all the hard work in sketches or finals to learn what your client really wants or meant. We need to help them define things like the problem, purpose, needs, and such, in the very beginning. And when they tell us there’s something wrong with our work (which is fair), we need to ask them what and why. “This isn’t working for me” is common but insufficient feedback. You can respond by asking, “What is it that’s not working?”. If they say “I don’t like that green.”, you can say, “Could you please elaborate: is it this green or all greens? What is it about this colour that isn’t working? Do you have colours you’d like me to work with?”. Questions like these give the client an opportunity really think through their reasoning, and perhaps give you more helpful direction moving forward.
It’s not always their fault. Sometimes it doesn’t occur to clients to tell us their needs and preferences until they see something they don’t like. It happens. Our job is to make sure we get our clients to say what they are thinking and say what they mean, and to get at the root of what we are being asked to do.
As creative leaders, we should become good at interpreting feedback and applying it thoughtfully in our work. Our job is not to simply do what we’re told but to understand the real need behind the demand—and to see how we can address it from a place of strength.
Let’s be honest. Most of us get into illustration because we want to make art for a living. Few of us get into it because we want to work with clients or run a business. Like it or not, though, running a business and working for clients is as much a part of the job as art. Artists that we are, however, we make the mistake of seeing clients as obstacles, getting in in the way of our creativity rather than being the reason for it.
We have to acknowledge that working with our clients is the only way to make good commercial art. The better we are at working with clients, the better our work will be. Clients are not the enemy.
That being said, learning to work with clients as artists is a bit of an art in itself. It’s possible to be an excellent illustrator but not so good with clients. If we ever feel our best ideas are being sabotaged, it’s entirely likely that it’s more about how we set up the client relationship from the beginning, and how we stick to the script the whole way through. Even a mediocre illustrator can enjoy a long and successful career if they can figure out the client and business part.