Why Chefs Serve Food on a Plate
Imagine you go to a fancy restaurant and order your favourite dish. When the waiter comes to serve the food, he throws it directly on the table in front of you. No plates, no presentation. No matter how delicious you know the food might be, no matter how well crafted the meal, it appears as loose scraps without the proper context and framing of a dish. Perhaps you’ve lost your appetite.
Now, imagine you’re an illustrator, say, in the 1980s, pre-Internet. You’re working on an illustration for a major magazine. After a day of sketching and picking out your best concepts, it’s time to present them to the art director. You stuff them in your backpack, bike downtown to the publisher’s tower. You ride the elevator up to the art department, march over to where the art director is sitting, and pull a handful of crumpled pages from your backpack and drop them on their desk. Then, you immediately turn around and leave. How would your sketches be received?
…it should go without saying that making great art is only part of our job. As commercial artists, so much of what we do depends on how we communicate about our work and our ideas with our clients.
While I wasn’t quite old enough to be illustrating in the 1980s, I imagine that when it came time for artists to show their sketches, there was some kind of in-person presentation involving crescent board, rubber cement, and onionskin paper. Even as recently as my own art school education (in the mid- to late-2000s) were we required to hand in our work mounted carefully onto stiff boards. Skill was involved, not just in how the art was made, but also in how it was prepared for presentation. So was time. Lots of time. What this all translates to, on the receiving end, is a sense of value. To the art director, it says, “These sketches, these ideas, are important enough to warrant all the effort that went into mounting them and hauling them downtown to show you”.
Thank God for the digital age. Everything happens faster and more efficiently, which is obvious. It is hardly worth pointing out that the process of sketching and sending our work to our clients can happen at warp speed, compared to just twenty five or 30 years ago. I’m happy to say that in my post-graduation career I have never, not once, had to physically present my work. I’ve never had to mount sketches onto boards with glue. And, in my capacity as a freelance illustrator, I have rarely even met my clients face to face.
But in the absence of all this old-fashioned decorum and human contact, how are ideas presented? How do we persuade our clients to choose our ideas?
When I was an art director in the ad world, on the other side of the illustration process, I would often receive sketches as loose email attachments. Even to this day, when I commission other illustrators, I receive sketches as loose email attachments. When I receive unbound, loose work, whether rough concepts or finished artwork I’m seeing for the first time, it signals to me that the work is not valuable. It’s just as though a chef served me unplated food. However good it might be, it’s just not that appetizing.
Illustrators: you are chefs. Your work (at all stages of the process) is your food. Presentation decks are your plates. Every time you send work to your client, it should be presented in a deck. Sketches are the appetizers. Finals are the entree.
The moment you frame something, be it a dirty napkin, a lipstick smear, a 3 year old’s scribbles, or a Picasso, it says, “this is a creative work” and demands more respect.
What is a presentation deck? It’s the digital equivalent of labeled, mounted sketches on crescent board. But it’s more. It’s sort of like a powerpoint-style presentation that you will no doubt have had to prepare at some point in your adult life. It’s a cover slide with title, context, date, and your name. And then a few slides showing your work, with a few words to explain your ideas. And that’s it. Seems simple, right? If it’s that easy, then why have I so often seen loose sketches come from illustrators?
My own education is in design, as is my early career. I was incubated and hatched in the design world, which is far more collaborative and immersed in the business world than the illustration world. Presentation decks are the lingua franca of ideas between creative agencies and their clients. I learned from day one in the work world that all work must be presented in a deck. The deck is the container for ideas and helps build up our case.
There are all kinds of ways to present ideas in design, but it all comes down to clearly showing an idea and using whatever supporting means necessary to give it context. At very least, a deck frames an idea, a sketch, or an artwork as something of value. It doesn’t mean it’s precious, but a frame signals that its content is worth considering above other things for a moment. This is the effect frames have on all art. The moment you frame something, be it a dirty napkin, a lipstick smear, a 3 year old’s scribbles, or a Picasso, it says, “this is a creative work” and demands more respect. The inverse could also be said: a Picasso, unframed, perhaps in a pile on the floor, might be seen as trash or completely overlooked. Context matters. The way our work is presented makes a huge difference in how it is perceived.
Designers seem more likely than illustrators to be trained in the art of presentation. Perhaps, illustrators, whose world may be more separated from the business world, simply have less exposure to the notion of presenting work in a deck. I am not sure. Perhaps illustrators who go through art school were also trained in the art of the presentation deck (please let me know!). But what about illustrators who are self-taught or have come into it by less conventional means? It’s highly likely that anyone learning illustration today, on their own, will have little exposure to client-artist communication (this is one of the huge benefits of having working for a company vs. freelancing at first). Perhaps rightly so, the focus of new illustrators is on becoming a better artist first. But it should go without saying that making great art is only part of our job. As commercial artists, so much of what we do depends on how we communicate about our work and our ideas with our clients. Learning how to present our work, even right down to how we design our presentations, determines how successful we will be. It determines how successful we are at selling our ideas. It determines how successful we are at guiding our clients through the creative process. It determines how successful we are in keeping jobs on track. It determines how others value our work (because it signals that we value it). And yes, it determines how much we can earn.
Illustration is a business, and how we present our work to our clients is a business skill. Everybody eats, but chefs elevate food to the level of a celebration of the senses—they turn the entire experience of food into an art. A lot of people can have ideas, and many people can draw, but illustrators are experts at transforming these things into powerful, meaningful images for their clients. This is our art. A chef’s medium is food, and their canvas is the plate. As illustrators, our media is pencils, paints and pixels, and our canvas is our deck. Yes, our ultimate canvas is where our illustration ends up, whether the cover of a magazine, on a friend’s wall, or on the side of a building. But if we ever hope for our work to find its way to these elevated galleries, we need to frame each step along the way as valued art in itself.
When we show that we value our ideas, our clients will value them too.