A beginner’s Guide to Commissioning Illustration

Illustration: Marcos Farina

Whether you’re working at a design or ad agency, or running your own business, commissioning some bespoke illustration for the first time may seem like a daunting prospect. This is a detailed guide to the general process, which should make things as smooth as possible. While I’ve written this specifically with clients in mind, it could also be a useful read for illustration graduates looking to land their first commissions and unsure of what details they should have locked down before starting a project.

Illustration: Marcos Farina

The Initial Enquiry

You wouldn’t believe how many emails land in my inbox with little more detail than “we have a great project for your illustrator, are they available?” It’s probably worth saying right off the bat, that many professional illustrators will be working on more than one project at any given time, so if I was to field that question over to them, 9 times out of 10 I will be met with a response along the lines of: “maybe, what for?” So my suggestion would be to spend a little bit of time, just giving us a very rough outline of the project.

The more detailed your initial enquiry the better, but we understand that sometimes you just need to know if this is a possibility before going into any more detail. Let us know how many illustrations you need, and how busy or complex they’ll be. Do you need 3 simple spot illustrations, or 10 densely populated street scenes? And let us know your deadline, even if it’s just a rough estimate.

With the basics locked down, we can probably give you a much more confident yes or no, and we can all move forward knowing where we stand.

The NDA

We’re asked to sign Non Disclosure Agreements all the time, and this is totally fine. What is not ok, is when we find other clauses within the document, particularly relating to the assignment of rights. We will never sign something containing a copyright assignment without knowing fully what the brief is and who the client is, so this should NEVER be included in an NDA.

Illustration: Marcos Farina

With that out the way, we need a proper brief, here is what we need to know:

The Origination

How many illustrations?

What of?

What are they for?

Do you have any reference images? This could either be photographs of what the illustrator needs to draw, or references of the style. A lot of illustrators work in a few variations of their own style, so it helps if you can pick out images from their portfolio that you like. You can of course include some references to other artists’ work, but be careful of including lots of images from a single other illustrator. We’ll probably wonder why you haven’t commissioned that other illustrator instead and the artist will feel uncomfortable at the idea of copying someone else’s work.

How big will they need to be? Just little icons for a website, or a billboard? What are the dimensions? If you have specific requirements, such as vectors, make sure you state that, there are surprisingly few illustrators who work in that format (side note, if you’re not sure what a vector is, do some research…. no we cannot provide a handmade watercolour painting as a vector).

Do you need a layered file? This is something to watch out for, a lot of illustrators will quite rightly be reluctant to hand over a layered file. A layered file does not automatically give the client permission to chop up an image as they like without the illustrator’s permission. If you ask for a layered file, we may ask you what you plan to use it for, perhaps you’re planning to animate it, or use elements from the composition separately.

How many rounds of amends will you need? Typically I will ask a client to limit to 2–3 rounds of feedback within a given budget, that’s enough for some pencil sketches, a colour rough, and a colour final with some tweaks at the end. Then if the project requires more rounds, we can top up the origination budget further down the line. If you think you’ll need more flexibility for some back and forth developing ideas, you can ask to include more rounds of amends.

Do you want to leave the brief quite open? Some illustrators will jump at the chance to input their own ideas into the project, but many illustrators are wary of this and prefer the structure of a prescriptive brief. Be prepared to pay a little extra… a client may start out not having a strict idea of what they want, until they see the initial sketches and realise what they don’t want, so it’s guaranteed to be a more lengthy process.

The Licenses

Licenses form a crucial part of an illustrator’s income, so it’s important that all illustrators make every effort to limit licenses to what is absolutely necessary. The practice of handing over ‘full buyout’ licenses only serves to de-value the industry, and make the profession unsustainable.

A license is typically made up of three parts; time, territory and media.

  • How long you’ll use the illustration for?

6 months, 1 year, 5 years, in perpetuity.

  • What territories the illustration will be used in?

UK, US, Europe, Global…

  • What media you’ll be using?

Website, Online advertising, social media, email, brochures / flyers, POS / in store, direct mail, internal comms, out of home advertising (posters and billboards), digital OOH, merchandise, packaging, press advertising, TV ads.

Alternatively we can specify a limited license. If you’re printing a brochure, and only intend to print 2000 copies, we can limit the license to the print run, then if you decide to re-publish the work a few years later we can quote for another top up to the license.

This may sound obvious, but the bigger the license, the more expensive it will be, so if you ask for a full buyout (all media, global, perpetual and exclusive license) thinking it will be simpler, don’t be surprised if the quote comes back as rather costly.

Copyright assignment is a whole other kettle of fish and is incredibly rare and very expensive. See my previous article for more detail on that.

Contracts

Most clients will have their own contracts to send us, which is fine, but if you don’t have one of those, we have our own general terms and conditions which we can send to you. Always make sure you have an agreement in place covering things such as termination fees, payment terms and who owns the IP.

Illustration: Marcos Farina

The Working Process

Once all the terms are in place, we’ll introduce you to the illustrator and you’ll be in contact directly to get on with on the creative side of things! Your feedback should be organised and delivered in batches, instead of drip feeding small changes as and when. You should also be as upfront as possible regarding when you’ll be able to feedback, if you need more than a day or two, you should let the illustrator know so that they can get on with other things.

Illustration: Marcos Farina

All illustrations by Marcos Farina.