We’ve worked on our professional focus. We’ve been talking to our existing network looking for opportunities to collaborate or we even landed a project in a rare reply to a cold email. That means we now actually have to get started on the work, not only the creative part but also — and even more importantly — the project management. From the initial contact or brief through rounds of feedback to wrapping up the final files. Some projects require only three emails back and forth, other times there’s a more finger-on-the-pulse type communication. This is the part where you can make the difference, where you can turn a client-hires-illustrator situation into a relationship.
A client contacted me a while ago to discuss a quick editorial commission for a newspaper. In general, newspaper deadlines are tight, in most cases a week for the supplement and weekly features, and a couple days or less for anything in the daily paper. This particular job was due the next day, the reason being they started the project with another illustrator but found them unwilling to follow the clients’ feedback on the final artwork. This meant the already short deadline was approaching even quicker, on top of which I had the limitation of being asked to avoid proposing sketches similar to the initial illustrator’s ideas. In the end, the art director and I managed to get a decent illustration to press. I am mentioning this project not because I want to show off how well I did in a short timeframe, but rather focus on the illustrator that was asked for this job before me. What commercial illustrator refuses to make changes to the artwork? There are exceptions, and there’s also something to be said against taking on a project that another freelancer started, but in any case a good rule of thumb is that whoever is paying has a say in the looks of the final product. Even if it means the final artwork isn’t completely or at all in line with your personal vision or taste. It’s unlikely that that illustrator is going to get another call from this newspaper again.
In a commercial context, you have to put the relationship before your creative skillset, style or idea. Of course, in a healthy client — freelancer relationship there is room to defend your creative choices, and clients should have a certain level of trust in your style and skill. But in the end, your client is a creative professional just like you, their opinions matter, and they know what they’re doing. When the client puts the hammer down and asks you to make changes, you make changes. Knowing when to push your ideas and fight for a certain direction and when to hold back and listen to the client depends on the project, the client and ultimately, your relationship with them. If you keep communication clear, open and professional from the start, there’s no reason to have a project pulled away from you when it comes down to the final steps.
Embrace the fact that you’re working with a living, breathing person who has ideas, opinions, skills and experience
It can be frustrating to see a project take a different direction, but if you look at the bigger picture it’s always a better outcome to do what the client asks and save the relationship in the long run than to be stubborn and lose the client altogether. If you don’t like the stylistic outcome or art direction decisions, you can always choose not to promote the project on your portfolio and social media. When you realise this job is essentially two people working together on the same thing you can start to think of feedback, corrections and revisions not as a negative but as a positive: Both you and the client want to make good work, the best possible work the two of you can make. Their feedback is not to delibarately slow down your work day, it’s their valuable part of the recipe you’re both cooking up. Embrace the fact that you’re working with a living, breathing person who has ideas, opinions, skills and experience and who picked you to work with.
On a final note: sometimes projects do go bad and sometimes it’s not your fault. In any case, it is important to have a clearly outlined contract negotiated with the client where you agree on the number of rounds of feedback, usage license, and a kill fee. All these points are part of a healthy relationship just as much as being nice to work with, keeping your deadlines and being flexible. When you’ve done your homework setting up a contract, a deadline isn’t a punishment, it’s a finish flag. Both you and the client are working together making the best you can do before the time’s up.