Monday, March 10, 2014

Are You Respected For Your Artistic Ability?


What do doctors, lawyers, and CPA's have in common aside from all that schooling? Probably the respect they get for their profession. Sure people often get a second opinion but they don't go to the plumber - they go to another doctor, lawyer, or accountant. 

I've wanted to write about this for a while because it irks me that in our profession we're often not treated as the experts we've worked so hard to become. Let me begin by pretty much eliminating most of the children's picture book editors from my upcoming rant. I've never been treated more like a professional than by my picture book editors. I'm talking about the clients we've had who don't respect our schooling and work experience in freelance illustration. Ever feel trapped by your work? Hopefully this post will help you re-evaluate the people you choose to work for.

I find it really troublesome that we are often asked to make arbitrary, superfluous, unnecessary, and downright stupid changes that ruin compositions by clients that have no art training. It's the equivalent of me telling my surgeon where and how to cut - my attorney what motions to file and my CPA what strategies he should use to save me money. Don't get me wrong - I'm not talking about back and forth conversations about art direction and options to consider before beginning sketches - and I'm not talking about good feedback on sketches or final art. I'm talking about bone headed decisions like eliminating colors that the art director happens to personally dislike. I'm talking about cluttering up good design with extra elements that don't enhance the story or eliminating elements that are important to visual literacy. I'm talking about making content changes based on fear and most importantly the all too familiar "design by committee approach". 

What is "design by committee" you ask? It's when companies (often educational text book or software companies) have multiple team and management members that have to "sign off" on all stages of the artwork before it can be approved and the illustrator allowed to proceed. For instance, the illustrator receives the assignment and emails sketches to his/her art director. The art director isn't respected or trusted to make decisions and approvals either! - the sketches must pass by each team members desk. This sets up a dicey situation for each team member as well. If a particular person in this chain likes everything he or she sees - he or she might feel that he or she isn't doing his or her job by sending it through without changes. Since nobody in this donkey conga line wants to appear lazy they conjure up changes they often don't believe in and punt to the next drone. Sometimes I find myself stifling the laughter listening to the poor art director trying to justify conflicting moronic changes that even he/she doesn't believe in. 

The result is a bunch of sketches sent back to the illustrator marked up like a failing high school research paper. I've gotten them back looking like college football play charts. It's interesting to me that this hasn't been my experience in the picture book world - and picture books cost tens of thousands of dollars more to produce than a few pages in a text book. With my picture book projects I get very thoughtful comments and requests that are sensitive to my intentions and desires. We work back and forth to find solutions that address concerns but it's not dictatorial by nature and there certainly aren't the sheer quantity of rage conjuring idiotic arbitrary "one for the gipper" comments. 

What is it with art? Why aren't our skills appreciated and trusted? Why do people think they can direct a painting when they don't know how to design, draw, or paint? Why do people think they can publish without hiring skilled graphic designers? Graphic design is a science unto itself yet for some reason it seems to be a skill that is greatly underappreciated. I mean am I missing something? Do we hire college soccer coaches who have never played soccer? Do we hire conductors who have never studied music? Do customers go into the kitchen to tell the head chef how to cook the dish?

The answer can most likely be traced back to our schooling. Since it was never taught as a serious subject to all of us beginning in elementary school it is a discipline that is grossly misunderstood by the masses. "But Will, medicine, law, and accounting weren't taught broadly either. Yes, but each of them have a level of mystery that are inherent to each discipline. Art on the other hand is very accessible. We see it for what it is. We can own it, touch it, commission it, clip it, steal it, share it, print it, etc. But does access devalue it's creative process? Apparently so to some.

Lately I have been listening to my client incompetence radar and turning down assignments that smell of the aforementioned disrespect. I love working on a good project with a great art director, editor, creative director, etc. - but life is too short to spend bitter and angry working with people who don't value what I bring to the table.

If you're serious about this business you can do a few things to help yourself and your fellow illustrators. If you find yourself in a situation like I've mentioned you can be respectful but politely challenge decisions if they are contrary to your artistic sensibilities. Don't challenge for the sake of the challenge but if you do - be solution oriented. Try to get what you want by offering another option that achieves what your art director wants while giving you more of a change you can live with. Agree to making some changes that you don't agree with to help you win a few of the the more important battles. The better we are at communication - the better clients we'll ultimately share.

35 comments:

  1. When I did commissions, I used to purposely sketch the client's bad idea somewhat badly, and then sketch my good idea somewhat more nicely. Usually they would pick my good idea. They wouldn't notice the difference between the nicety of the sketches; instead they would go for the nicer, neater one. You can also do that subtly with color. Make their idea clash. Make yours harmonize.
    Theresa

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    1. Ha! great idea! I've done the same...I think it's a sign that you are about to create an artless piece when you have to purposely make it crappy.

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    2. Some people can't visualize, so they don't know that their idea won't make a good image. You cannot tell them it won't make a good image, you can only show them. Show, don't tell is a motto that writers live by, but it's also very useful for artists. :^)
      Theresa

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  2. Just got off the phone with a magazine I have worked with for years. Same situation. The AD is in a hard spot because the editor wants something ridiculous- three separate scenes, same figure repeated in all three, plus extraneous junk. I countered with the idea of combining the two most closely related scenes, making a more cohesive single scene. The AD saw the wisdom in it and signed off on the idea, so now I get to do one cool scene, with one figure, more drama, more direct, less work. It's a win win. I think the biggest thing I have learned is to not let emotion cloud your discussion. If you get defensive, a lot of times you lose. Be rational and matter of fact. You are the creative one- show them why they should trust you.

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    1. Spot on Greg - sometimes we have to be the grown up!

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  3. I had a teacher in art school who, when he sensed that a client was asking for changes for the sake of asking for changes, would intentionally put minor errors in his illustration. For example, having four fingers on a character. Then the client would point out his error, and he would say, "Wow, I'm glad you caught that!" Then the clients' meddling tendencies would be satisfied and my teacher could get on with the rest of the drawing.

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    1. Kelley- I've done the same thing! I should have included it - so funny :)

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  4. Good post as always.

    I knew I wasn't long for web design when a client nixed the color I'd chosen because, "I had an unlucky golf bag that color."

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    1. I have a group of friends who used to work for a company where their boss forbid them to use purple in any illustration...first sign you should quit - "thou shalt not use purple!"

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  5. If I've been given a set of instructions on a design and I know it won't work - I still go ahead and present the design asked for. However I do another mock up with some idea or ideas from their starting off point and other elements that DO work together and present them all at the same time. The client (after seeing all the elements they chose which don't work) so far see that their choice didn't make the statement they were hoping for and chooses one of the options I had offered instead. Many clients sometimes ask for a font with other design elements that just don't go together. Instead of arguing - let the design speak for itself and bring what does work at the same time.

    For illustration - the same holds true at times, but I totally understand what it means to feel like you're not hitting the mark when you would like to take out elements that aren't holding up to the composition and aren't allowed to simply because of client choices.

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    1. I used to do this too but now I guess I'm getting to old or impatient...it seems like such a waste of my life to work on designs I know won't work...I try to talk my way around or out of their bad idea...I've probably lost clients for working this way though...

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  6. Fantastic content Will, thanks for posting. Really enjoyed the comments too. Thanks guys.

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  7. I've thought recently about this same type of thing. Maybe I was being overly sensitive but I noticed it in the difference between the terms "smart" vs "talented". If you're a skillful Lawyer, Engineer, Physician etc. you're often referred to as being "smart", but if you're a skillful Artist or Designer, it is said that you're "Talented". I'm not saying it's bad to be called "talented", but I believe it reveals a difference in the way people view the arts. Being smart implies that what you're doing requires analytical thinking, careful decision making and hard work. Being talented implies that you've been handed a gift at birth that has effortlessly blossomed into a skill of making pretty things (slight exaggeration, but you get the idea). I believe that skilled Illustrators, designers, and creatives of all kinds are incredibly Smart. Their job requires analytical thinking, careful decision making, and hard work. On top of all that it also requires passion, creativity, guts, patience, and a thick skin. Thanks for the great content Will. You're pretty dang smart!

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    1. Thick skin is a must (even though it still gets to you sometimes)! I agree about the talent part – we may have been handed some god-given gift, but in order to be successful as an artist, we have to work our tushies off!

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    2. Wow Todd! Great insight - this could be a blog post all by itself! You're right - they think we're savants but definitely not smart....son of a...wow!

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  8. It's so true - I feel this every day, and have felt it the whole time I was a graphic designer in Corporate America! Talk about demeaning! I had a group I was doing work for in a financial institution and this is what I heard from them after presenting a layout for a brochure I had worked on all week:"I know you probably just slapped this together - it looks like a cigarette ad. I've been to the Art Museum, so I KNOW art." I will never forget those a-holes. I have turned down so many projects from those I get red flags from, like, "why don't you work something up and then we'll see if we can work together?" Um...NO. In the words of Mike Monterio, F-you! PAY ME!

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    1. I think the older we get the better equipped we are to avoid these kinds of clients and bosses - you just can't win against stupid.

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  9. Love the illo, Will. I feel like that right now. Devoured and trapped inside the illustration monster. Hoping to be spat out the other end soon. Glad to know I'm not the only one.

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  10. Can I add to this brilliant and spot-on rant ? ... also consider the fact that our own friends and acquaintances also have no respect for our skills.
    As a former graphic designer I can certainly relate to what you are saying. The type of clients I usually had to deal with knew exactly what they wanted and good design was not it.
    Though I have made the choice to pursue illustration instead, I still like to make myself useful for friends who need the occasional design. I am always quick to volunteer and have give them 4 or 5 totally separate very thought out designs and count on them picking one and then tweaking it to their liking within a couple of emails, I end up dealing with days and days of complete overhauls that change good design to crappy garbage. It usually turns into a complete awkward mess. I hate that they take my offer of free help and then make me look like I know nothing in the end as I can't even proudly show anyone what I have done.
    I vote for some respect for artists and designers too. It's very hard to make all the hundreds of tiny decisions that lead to a great design. It must make them feel great to come in and make like two decisions that totally make it 'theirs' and totally ruin what we were trying to accomplish.

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    1. As I read your comments I couldn't help but recall the failures I have had helping friends and small clients with their projects. I finally realized how I could make it work for me. A few times I said, "ok, but I'm a professional - so you need to recognize the skills I'm bringing. This means I respect what you're doing and I leave you alone and you do the same. If I'm going to help you with your project you have to agree to allow me total freedom. You can't even make a suggestion. This is how I will work for you. You're going to be temped to think I'm being a jerk for making these demands but you have to understand that art is created by an artist. If I'm to be the artist you have to let me create.... Most of the time we never work together and both go our separate ways - happily!

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    2. Oh my goodness yes! So many people/friends want you to work for free, and then tear apart your designs you do. I had a very bad experience with this. I did a logo design (and other promotional art) for free, and they didn't listen to me on what would look good. And without even telling me they went with their own poor design in the end, meanwhile I had poured a lot of time into it, and was personally invested in the company as well, so it was a slap in the face on multiple fronts that they didn't even use it. All my work was for nothing, and the resulting logo looked terrible, and I had to see it all the time. A little respect would be nice. I learned my lesson though, I don't work for free.

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  11. Absolutely wonderful post and comments. I've only rarely not "shined" at work, because a work ethic is very much a part of my world view. But one unsuccessful bid had been as a paste up artist at a company with four bosses. There is no hell (and you can't win, so why try?) like the committee art thang. It is one of the reasons I now work for me, myself and I. Though I do get the occasional naysayer (someone today told me they didn't care for the blur of my drawings, and I can understand, though at this point I can't DO much about it, it's not only the style, but the way I see). People either take it, or leave it. The boss is moi and I'm satisfied, it's time for the next project. And yah, I do think it's a part of that "old" thing.

    Agy

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    1. I love your can do attitude Agy - don't change! :)

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  12. Based on my freelance advertising experience, it's not so much that clients, committees, and corporations disrespect our skills, it's that their money and emotional investment literally OVERRULES our knowledge and skills. The 'suits' tend to have a fanatical allegiance to their brand/product as it's what feeds their family, pays for their car, house, and golf club membership. They care more about the assignment than we do so they feel perfectly entitled to order changes, regardless of what the 'lowly freelancer' thinks.

    This would explain why there is so much bad design and illustration, not to mention crappy TV shows, movies, comics... any medium where too many fingers can and will get into the pie.

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    1. I agree with everything you wrote and I also believe you described some of the disrespect I was talking about. I don't think it has to be blatant and directly from person to artist...and I don't think it has to be conscious to be considered disrespect. Those same entrepreneurs have a lot riding on their health too but they don't grab hold of the scalpel and start cutting where they think the cut should go.

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  13. I don't respect you for any ability, Dad.

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    1. Of your meds again Aaron? I'll drop by the pharmacy on my way home... :)

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  14. I believe this clip from the movie Amadeus communicates the same point as your article. I watch this as therapy sometimes after one of those no respect moments. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_UsmvtyxEI

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