Six Steps to Successfully Partnering With an Illustrator

Sample Illustrators' Work

I can’t draw.

Well, that’s not entirely true. At least not the way I once could and certainly not the way an illustrator can. Developing a style, a methodology, a great idea and bringing it to fruition takes a lot of passion and talent. And patience. That’s why I’m happy to partner with someone from this group of gifted folks whenever I can.

I’ve been fortunate to work with wide range of illustrators, not just in style or personality, but also locale. The UK has been a hotbed of talent for my needs, but I’ve worked with folks as far away as Japan and as close as, well, across the office (see Vaughn Fender). The digital age and FedEx have made it easy to go global for a great piece of custom art.

I’ve also been fortunate to have 99% of these collaborations work out really well. I gather from colleagues and friends in the design industry that I have an impressive track record (Watch, now I’ve probably jinxed myself).

So, that got me pondering: What is it about my process of commissioning an illustration that is so successful and enjoyable? I’ve distilled it down to the following six steps:

1. Reading and re-reading Seems like a no brainer, but the first thing I do, is read. Close the door, shut off iChat, e-mail, iTunes and read. I really try to understand the subject matter of the story/article/brochure. Sometimes it’s a piece of cake, other times it requires serious dissection.

2. Research Now that I understand what’s to be illustrated, I start the research. What kind of style am I looking for to best articulate this piece? What sort of mood or tone? Is there a particular technique that has this story written all over it? Out come the file folders full of tear sheets (Yes, illustrators still mail self promotional materials. If I like their style, they go in the file. Not so much, in the recycle bin.). I cull through those, then head for the Internet. I have a collection of illustrators’ reps sites bookmarked, as well as an ever-evolving list of links to individual artists’ site. I search for that perfect group of potential partners high and low. Not only am I looking for style and technique, but does this artist seem to be conceptually strong as well? I always want someone who can bring strong ideas to the table. The client and I may or may not have some preconceived notions of what the illustration could be, but there’s a great possibility that this new set of eyes could see the piece in a totally different, amazing way we haven’t, and I want and welcome that.

When I find one that fits the bill, I grab a cross-section of samples of their work, check out where they are from and went to school (more out of curiosity than anything else), and their contact info. I will use these samples to present to my client. I usually present five to nine different illustrators to my client. This may seem excessive, but it’s not. I’ve picked a group of people that, based on their samples, I’d be happy to collaborate with. Then, I have the client pick their favorite—their “AHA! that’s it!” illustrator from the group, as well as their second and third choice. From time to time, illustrator #1 may not be interested in the subject matter or willing to work within your budget and illustrator #2 may be swamped with work and is not taking anything else on within your time constraints. So having strong options is important.

Note: This step can take a long time, but I feel this research is critical. Really finding that perfect group of potential partners is key, as is articulating to your client what you like about this group and what you are looking for in their work as it relates to your client’s project.

3. Honesty This is a two-part step. It falls into two places in the process. First, when I contact the illustrator, and later when they send along their sketches.

I usually make initial contact with an illustrator by email. I feel more articulate this way given I have got a lot to say and I like the “paper” trail (plus calls to Japan get pricey).

In this email, I’m as clear as I possibly can be about the client, the subject matter, the scope of the project, the timing and the budget. Whenever I can, I include the exact budget number right then and there. If you don’t want to do a full page illustration for $600, that’s fine by me, because rarely is there wiggle room so I’d rather you know right away. I’ve found the more upfront you are, the less time and energy wasted by all parties involved. And, at least in my experience, the more willing the artist is to take it on.

Second part of honesty comes at the feedback stage. Picture it: The sketches arrive in my inbox. There’s a little knot of excitement in my throat, pulse quickens, open > file. Perfect! Brilliant! OMG awesome idea I’d never thought of! Ew, that doesn’t work. WTF is that supposed to be? Hmm. OK, some really great ideas, some not so hot, but plenty worth sharing with the client. At this point, I reply to the illustrator simply “got them, some good stuff here, will share with client ASAP and get back to you.” All of which is true and it keeps the illustrator from wondering if you like any of them. I’ve been fortunate to never receive an email full of duds. I’m sure this happens (again, perhaps jinxing myself).

The client and I review the sketches together in detail. I’m honest about which I like and why and which should be nixed right away. I ask the same of the client. Most times we find that “AHA!” concept. That’s not to say there aren’t often adjustments to be made. And those adjustments, I concisely and honestly relay back to the illustrator. No wishy-washy, “well, we like it but, it’s just not quite there. Something has to change, but I’m not sure what.” It’s: “Let’s go with idea #1, but the woman’s nose is too big. She can’t be wearing pink and the dinosaur should be biting her shoulder not her forearm. More emphasis please on the skyscraper than the dinosaur.” The illustrator appreciates the concise, direct feedback and this makes the round of revisions far less painful for all involved and gets us to final artwork a whole lot quicker.

4. Background information Once the parameters of the project (read: schedule, budget, scope) are agreed to, I put together as much background information as I can for the illustrator. I want them to have as much insight into the subject matter of the piece as possible as well as some understanding of the client. Generally I provide a quick overview of the client: who they are, what they do; any specific thoughts they have on the piece or the subject of the illustration, likes or dislikes they have, colors that can or can’t be used (NO PINK is a popular one in the circles in which I travel). I provide links to their website, as well as the examples of the illustrator’s work I’ve shared with the client so they know the pieces from their portfolio that resonated with the client. I send external links that I’ve found useful in understanding the subject matter of the piece. In the case of clients that commission illustrations often, I send PDFs of previously produced pieces so the illustrator can see the project as a whole, finished piece and get a feel for where their illustration will be appearing. And, I send any ideas I may have for the illustration.

5. Sketches, sketches, sketches Seems pretty self explanatory, but I always emphasize my desire for a lot of ideas. In pencil. Or pen. Or crayon. However the illustrator wants to work is fine with me. I have noticed a trend where some illustrators are jumping to the computer and delivering more final looking art sooner and sending fewer sketches. I try to respect their process and any time constraints related to my project, but it’s important that I see the exploration and thought process. If I send any ideas I have for the illustration, I hope to see those (if the illustrator agrees it’s a good idea), but I also want to see their ideas as well (See Research). A variety of good sketches result in the best concept chosen, the idea well flushed out, and minimal rounds of revisions, which makes everyone happy!

6. Appreciation at and after approval When that final artwork arrives, I’m giddy. I’m excited to see it and to dive into laying out the piece it belongs to. I immediately share it with the client for final approval asking for a reply as soon as possible. As soon as I hear they love it, I let the illustrator know just how pleased both the client and I are. This goes a long way. A collective sigh of relief is taken knowing the illustration was well received and well done, plus who doesn’t want a pat on the back for their hard work! As soon as I’m done with the layout, I send the illustrator a PDF so they can see how their work and our idea has come to full fruition. Often, I get a response quickly from the illustrator about how excited they are to see it in place. Finally, I make sure copies of the printed piece find their way to the illustrator in a timely fashion. Illustrators appreciate the look, touch and smell of freshly printed materials as much as designers.


Illustrators shown above, left to right and top to bottom: Mark McGinnis, Edward McGowan, Daniel Krall, Kate Hindley, and Susy Waters Pilgrim

Taylor Design Blog

By Hannah F

Senior Art Director