How To Work With An Illustrator | Part Three

Illustration Feedback


Giving feedback is hard.

It’s hard when you actually know what you’re talking about (and know you know what you’re talking about). But now your illustration ready and it’s not quite right. You’re critiquing work that is totally outside your skill set; ill-equipped with the language of the industry—and frig—now it’s someones art? You know what? Actually, this is fine. Let’s just run with it okay? I don’t want to be the one to tell someone their art is bad. I don’t even get art. Nope, let’s just put this on the fridge. Try again next year.

Despite what our fragile office hands might lead you to believe: our skin is thick. We receive feedback all day, every day. That’s the job. People have opinions about art and we’ve heard them all. We basically scan the conversation for something actionable. All that “well maybe this” “I’m not an expert but” “it’s just that.. not big deal.. but..” are lost on absent minds. If it makes you feel better, sure, go for it. But if it’s for our sake, you can probably go ahead and barf all over the work—it’s all we’re listening for anyway, regardless of what you actually say. Jump straight into what’s not working. If you’re not sure, or you don’t have the words to articulate what you’re not feeling, it’s perfectly fine to say that you need some help unpacking it and figure out the next steps together.

The Basics

Gut feelings and first reactions seem to be poo-poo’d in the blogosphere (do people still say that? blogosphere?). Personally, I don’t mind them. Just mention that it’s a gut reaction, and so probably drenched in your bias/tastes, and may or may not be useful. Once you’ve got that out of your system, try to ask yourself questions that are more quantifiable, and steer away from anything that can come down to a personal preference.

Some questions to ask yourself when giving feedback:

Does it communicate what you’re trying to say?
Does it accurately represent your project?
Does it showcase the benefits of your project?
Is it consistent with the other illustrations within arms reach?
Is it designed for the constraints?
Is this metaphor used somewhere else for a different concept?
Could this be interpreted to mean something else?
Is this empathetic to the emotional state of the user?
What feelings does it evoke?
Does it align with the brand values?
Will it last as long as you intend to use it?
Is it what you expected?
Does it feel at home in context with the rest of the project?

Some, uh, less good feedback:

◊ Luke-warm, general approval Neat. I don’t hate it. This could work. Well that’s a new approach. COOL. THANKS FOR ALL THE HELP. I DEFINITELY KNOW WHAT TO DO NEXT.
◊ I asked # of people, and they agree with me. Like, if you need to justify your opinion that hard then how good can it be?
◊ I don’t like it Not as bad as the luke-warm approval, but this definitely needs to be the start of a conversation, not the end of it.
◊ Prescriptive feedback c’mon, nobody likes to be told how to do the thing they were hired as an expert to do—just keep the phrasing to what’s not working instead of what should be done if you can
◊ OMFG did you just photoshop your changes on my illustration?

Try to group all your feedback into one thought out list (or whatever). It’s no biggie to go down a long list and make sure you addressed all the feedback at once. It stinks to keep getting one more thing after you just finished polishing it up and closed the final file.

Organizing your feedback

Yeah so I just told you to put it in one big list, and I’m not going to take that back, but also, your mountain of feedback is crushing me. Help me understand what matters to you.

When I’m giving feedback to my team, I organize it as follows:

On concept:
On execution:
Picky stuff; take it or leave its; personal pref:

That makes it easy for them to parse what I think is important, and what they should do first. It also gives me an opportunity to teach/share some different approaches or ideas without the pressure to use them.

Depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, how high level you’re working and what background you have, you might organize your feedback differently. Just make sure that there is a difference between the things that you think are important, and the things that you just mentioned because I don’t know you saw it and words came out your mouth. It’s also important to provide a hierarchy because more often than you’d think, the last thing you said contradicts the first thing you said.

The Fourth Quarter Quarterback

Giving feedback is hard. Not giving feedback is easier. It’s tempting to sit on your feedback, put it off and not prioritize it. Let everyone work out their feedback and then add yours in after they’re done.

Hell nah.

That’s not how this works. It’s fine to receive contradictory feedback from different sources. It’s the worst. But it’s fine. See: previously mentioned thick skin. Parsing feedback is part of being a designer—it’s what we all signed up for. The more feedback the better, and we will figure out how to interpret it and optimize the solution accounting for (or intentionally ignoring) everyones thoughts and concerns. To hold out on your feedback until the last minute prioritizes your feedback over the rest (and more often than not, your sanity/time over mine).

One way to circumvent the FQQ |fək| is to add structure to the feedback process. That is: there is a set period where feedback is being collected, and a cut off date. To do this effectively, it’s important both the client and the illustrator create to avenues for feedback, and agree that anyone who neglects those opportunities forfeits their seat in the conversation.

Another option is to go around calling your boss a FQQ all the time… What? Yeah, no, my career is going GREAT.

Illustration Feedback: Expert Level

So I separated this part out to say that there is no expectation on a client to provide this kind of feedback, but if you’re still hurting for words to articulate what you’re looking for: this is the kind of feedback that I expect from other illustrators.

On Volume:

Not like volume, like given a bag of milk (#canada) how much milk is enclosed in that 3D space? Volume, like on your stereo, headphones.. Is it loud or quiet? Given the context, the complexity of the space that the illustration is supposed to live on and the energy of the message that the illustration is attempting to deliver, is the dial on the right notch? Is it grabbing the right amount of attention? Could it be simplified? Or is it fading into the background?

On Complexity:

The easiest way to approach an illustration is to just straight up draw the thing. An illustration gets refined as elements are removed, and objects or dimension is implied. It’s a challenging piece of feedback to deliver, because there is nothing wrong with the illustration—exactly—but I often try to push other illustrators by challenging there level of realism and complexity. Is there a more elegant solution? Are there pieces that could be removed while still maintaining the essence of the illustration? What reductions could be made to imply an object instead of illustrate it so literally?

On Colours:

Okay so I kind of think that “purple means royal; blue means trust; b̶r̶o̶w̶n̶ ̶m̶e̶a̶n̶s̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶s̶h̶i̶t̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶r̶s̶e̶l̶f̶” stuff is kind of bullshit. And besides, it’s not like we’re picking out a single paint bucket here. It gets a little more complicated when you have the context of the brand, and the UI elements, and the energy a character brings and on and on. With the exception of a red faced emoji, as far as I’m concerned, any colour can be used well, and it can be used poorly—full stop. The challenging piece about delivering feedback on colours, is that it is probably the hardest to separate out personal preference. Yellow still doesn’t really mean much of anything, but it remains someones favourite colour.

Some things to think about when examining use of colour:

Could it be served by limiting the palette? Limiting the palette, or shifting to all warm or all cool colours is an easy way to add subtlety to an illustration — which, at least in the context of product design, is a common ask.

Are the colours too obvious? If everything is exactly the colour I expect it to be, I’m bored. More importantly, it’s not a palette you can claim. People won’t see illustrations in this style and recognize it as yours just by the colours. Don’t make the plant green because you can. Make it purple and draw it so well that I still know it’s a plant—now I’m intrigued.

Are the colours associated anything else? Yeah, so there’s what? like 8 colours? I’m not counting black and white — obviously. It’s easy to stumble onto a palette that doesn’t feel right, but you can’t put your finger on it. Check your era. Got that nice muted pinky orange, teal and maybe throw in a burgundy or a yellow. Oh yep that’s hella retro. Whoops.

On Intentionality:

Mistakes are good. Blemishes give your illustration personality. I love that you made his nose blue and her hand so awkward—but, like, you do know that noses aren’t blue, and hands have five fingers, right? It’s super useful to mention that something feels like a mistake, even if you know it’s not. It speaks to the overall polish of the illustration. Paying attention to the details and making sure that the rest of the illustration looks polished is the most effective way I know to make my style choices look intentional. Check that the bezier curves are smooth; that the objects taper evenly; that the composition is.. uh.. good.

On Composition:

Composition is a tricky one to give feedback on—yes, we all know the rule of thirds and golden ratio, and certainly, they’re a good place to start—but beyond that composition typically gets a pass/fail. It’s good or it’s not, but articulating exactly why is decidedly challenging. As a general rule, symmetrical designs tend to be more calm and peaceful, and can be used to create a sense of formality or protocol. Asymmetrical designs tend to be more interesting, and often suggest action, movement or energy, and can be used to set the tone as more casual or approachable.

How the objects interact is also a major piece of composition. If there are three objects of equal size and visual weight, there tension while the viewer decides what to look at. Using colour, contrast and size, a hierarchy can be created between the objects. They can further be made harmonious by grouping the objects until a relative balance is achieved.

There are two invisible elements that are also used to create a harmonious composition that you can look for: implied line, and negative space. Implied line is the edges of the objects in the illustration, and the lines they create to guide the eye to the focal point. The negative space is the space that is not being used around the object that holds your eye in the focal point.

Some things to think about when examining composition:
Does the composition map accurately to the intended tone and energy of the illustration?
Are the implied lines directing the eye to the correct focal point?
Are the implied lines consistently strong or consistently smooth?
Is the illustration cropped efficiently such that the negative space holds the eye in the right place?
Is there a hierarchy between the elements? 
Are there any shapes/elements that are contradicting the flow of the composition?

On Hierarchy:

We already covered hierarchy of composition—this is just a different angle to come at it. Each illustration should be used to tell a single message. It’s a common mistake for an illustrator to try to force too many ideas into a single illustration. Particularly after the fact, as more feedback comes in, instead of exchanging elements, new ones are often added on top. Consider:

Is there a single message in the illustration? 
Do all other elements contribute to that message?
Are the elements of design (colour, line, contrast, size, space ect) contributing to 
this hierarchy?

On Use of Shape:

To massively over simplify, there are two kinds of shape: geometric and organic. Each has a plethora of ways they can be executed, and even combined. How they interact is what makes your illustration interesting and unique. Use of shape is largely subjective, and difficult to critique. As a general rule, I try to look give feedback around consistency. Are the shapes all being treated equally, and if not, are the discrepancies serving to highlight each other?

Some things to think about when examining use of shape:
Are the shapes (circles, triangles, squares) based on the same dimensions (square vs rectangle)?
Could this be better served to be illustrated on a grid?
Is there the same level of complexity between objects?
Do the geometric & organic elements compliment each other?

On Consistency:

Consistency and attention to detail is the difference between an ok illustration and a beautiful illustration. It’s what makes an illustration feel finished, polished, and like you meant to do everything exactly as it is from the second your pencil (read: stylus) touched the paper (tablet). It’s the difference between an amateur and a professional. A junior and a senior. You can get away with breaking almost every other rule I’ve mentioned (except composition)(sry) as long as you break it consistently.

Some things to think about when examining consistency:
Does the light source make sense? Even if the shadows don’t make sense, do they all not make sense in the same way?
Does the perspective make sense? If it doesn’t, are all objects flattened/distorted in the same way?
Is the line weight being used to emphasize elements in the same way across objects?
Do all elements have the same level of detail? Or are varying levels of detail emphasizing the right objects?

On Character

HAHA KIDDING I’m not doing this one.