Illustrator Beware

Over the years I’ve worked with many talented and visionary art directors and publishers. Two unique groups of individuals that come to mind are Will Hopkins and Mary K. Baumann of Hopkins/Baumann who designed and art directed Kids Discover magazine, and Susan Williamson of Williamson Publishing. Collectively, both were an absolute dream to work with. They allowed me to flex my creative muscles, yet rarely intervened with my artwork. To reward this Carte blanche, I produced the most thought-provoking and evocative illustration for children that I could possibly muster; all correct and on time.

Things change however. Print publishing was in a conundrum before the recession hit, so the good times are on hold, for a bit anyway. Lately I’ve been forced to seek out other sources of income along the lines of my profession. What follows is an account of what transpired when I was recently contacted by a new client. I include the original sketches and the marked-up revisions. If you choose not to read the entire piece, I can sum it up by saying that 1) design by committee is not an enviable work environment, and 2) giving someone the title of art director does not make it so. I’ll begin…

These are the 4 original “sketches,” though the color version may have been lifted from somewhere, and the other 3 looked suspiciously like they were executed by a very capable artist who quite likely—upon hearing what the client was willing to pay for finished, 4-color art—refused to do any further work (it should have been a clue). There’s also a style sheet of sorts attached, with some innocuous instruction. Each was to be drawn in Illustrator. Click the thumbnails for a larger image.

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The art direction on this piece? “Vector me.”

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So much for the initial step of the project. To make sure we were on the same page style wise, I rendered one of the gingerbread persons and sent it off for some feedback. The client’s notes are in red (with my own subtle commentary).

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I received the following note:
• I changed the two layers you had to one layer (? it only had one layer) and applied the inner glow effect. This will make it so much easier. (for whom, and make what easier?)
• I also changed the red icing to white to brighten him up and a little shadow under the hat to separate the hat from the white icing.
• I know some of the icons have dashed smiles and some have solid so let’s just make it consistent and make them solid. Also on the cheeks I did a solid color and applied the feather effect to it. (So much for simplicity.)

Easy enough, right? I began in earnest on the pages in order and sent them off for approval and/or some tweaking. What I received back was, ummm, interesting.

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I’ve worked on magazines and other types of print media for many years, and always come to expect changes of some kind. I know it sounds funny, but people are only human. Quite often, one doesn’t know what one wants until one knows what one doesn’t want. It could have been an easy round of alts had not the client bypassed their own specs (keep shapes and colors simple, use our color chart, etc.). I began to grow a bit suspicious, and so began keeping alternate versions of my artwork, as these “relationships” often wander back to some previous iterations when the client finds that their ham-fistedness often makes matters worse. I also discovered at this point that the client was opening these images in an older version of Illustrator, causing all manner of odd things (layers, blends) to shift. But I adjusted. Steeling myself for the inevitable, I jumped in to the next round with a little less naivety. Take a look…

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Not sure where the green background came from on this version. Whatever...

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When an art director mentions that something needs more or less contrast, I understand. When an art director says “Don’t get things too close to the gutter,” I accommodate. This hurts my eyes, Tonal sugar dots, and Still aren’t working however are terms that my teachers and fellow students never discussed in Design 101. It was at this point that I discovered (Eureka!) that their color palette and call for simplicity was just a suggestion… kind of like a “reddish” stop light. All was not dire though. I amused myself throughout the project by counting the numbers of different colored pens (by association, people) that were employed on the markups.

Once again, I dove into the work. Two days later I received the following:

Mike, Just a few minor tweaks on a couple pieces…
• gingerbread puzzle: cmas trees in background the two greens need to have less contrast.
(I know but it’s what you asked for.)
• Make the texture more subtle. (There is no texture anywhere, and by the way, what are you referring to?)
•Gingerbread sleigh puzzle: Make the bag in the sleigh green and the green presents red. The bag blends in with the red on his clothes and you can’t tell where one starts/stops. (I know but it’s what you asked for.)
• Peppermint candies: no orange/red combination
• Gingerbread girl: close red coat on dress so you don’t see white stripe running up middle of girl

The artwork finally did go out, perhaps because Christmas is coming up quite rapidly (thank God). I filled out the contract which put $415.00 onto my accounts receivable, and signed off on a project that was a “work for hire only” and essentially guaranteed that I no longer had any rights to the work whatsoever.

I’ll not mention the client’s name here, but it suffices to say that they hired a professional whom they treated like a grade-schooler (with no offense to grade-schoolers). Had they told me what they wanted and left it at that, I would have produced pieces of art that 1) they would be proud of, 2) I would be proud of, and 3) would have done very well in the market, as my 20+ years of experience and countless awards attest to.

Hoping this never happens to you,

-Michael Kline

Chapter Two

A few days later I was contacted once again by this client, so I thought you might enjoy the conversation and the eventual outcome. Just to be clear, I never list the name of the client, and I changed the names of those involved to protect the, ummm, innocents. Their notes are in red, mine in black. Enjoy and learn.

Hi Mike!Are you available for a quick vectoring job? I will attach the style we need
to match to. There are numerous icons just like the ones shown.

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If you are available I will ask Ally to send you the pencils & fee schedule.
Thanks! Genny

Hi Genny,

Depends on the number of items needed and the fee. The last batch (Christmas icons) was way too much work for what XXXXXX was paying.

Let me know. Otherwise, happy holidays!

-mike

These are much, much simpler (see attached, we need to match to a tee). The fee is $275.00 for 24 icons. Ally was out of the office when you had that last job. Normally she makes a lot of the tiny changes herself. Is it worth giving it a shot to see if this time it is worth your while? Also, we have an approved color palette, so you would have to chose from that… I’m so sorry about the last job. I hope we can make it up.
Let me know!G.And Ally has said she will make all your tweaks on this… (to make up for the last disaster)

Hi Genny.

I took a look at the degree of involvement and simply must decline your offer. I would however offer to do these for $850, with one round of changes, and one round only.

I know you are in an awkward position and are only doing what is asked, but the fee XXXXXX is offering borders on less than minimum wage, so it’s not possible.

If this doesn’t go (and I’m guessing it won’t), I really hope you can find someone willing to take this on. Again, my apologies. I do hope you find some quality time for yourself around the holidays, and away from work.

Thanks for asking.

-mike

I understand completely.  Should I contact you on any higher paying jobs do you think? I hope you & your family have a good Christmas. Please stay in touch, Genny

Sure. I still love to draw and hope to be doing so for some time. I’m sorry you’re getting caught between creatives and management. Hope it works out. And I will keep in touch.

-mike


5 Responses to Illustrator Beware

  1. Marvin says:

    In 1970 I worked for a small Canadian printing company. After being hired I was asked to actually create the art department, which was an empty room filled with a drafting table and a lot of greasy machine parts and storage drums.

    I earnestly set about cleaning out the room, painting the walls, ordering supplies. After a week or so of work I actually began producing art for clients. The company printed flexible packaging using flexographic printing.

    After a month or so, feedback from the sales staff on client reaction to my work was very positive. I was settling in and work was going out. All in all it seemed like I had a good thing going.

    The owner of the company moved back and forth between offices in two cities. He would routinely drop in to check on work in progress and then return to his main office on the same day. His inspections were usually very brief, informal on-the-fly events.

    Early on in my tenure, shortly after get the art department set up, he flew in, did a quick inspection. He told me at that time that, he never wanted to see my lunch or any food on my drawing table.

    Flash forward several months. After working on a large project all morning I was breaking for lunch. I had put all the drawings aside on a separate table and parked my lunch bag on the lower lip of the table while I picked up something off another work table. It is important to note that the lunch was still in the bag, not out on the table.

    At that exact moment the owner appeared, spotted my lunch bag on the table and fired me on the spot. I was needless to say shocked, even stunned. Later in the afternoon, I learned that the process camera operator had been sacked only minutes after I was let go.

    I would have understood all this if my work had been lousy, but it wasn’t. I got excellent reviews from our sales reps. Clients would sometimes ask for changes to the art, as is normal but rejections or complaints were very rare.

    The following week, when I returned for my final pay cheque I was advised by our receptionist that I had been replaced by the owners nephew, a recent graduate from art school.

    Idiots and jerks are everywhere. Try as you like, you just can’t avoid running into a few along the road. Some like to just push others around, some are simply to full of their own virtue and ego that they don’t actually appreciate expertise or artistic ability.

    I agree entirely that simply giving someone the title artistic director doesn’t make it so. Artists everywhere often endure the misguided interference of those who ought leave well enough alone. It is the unfortunate price of working for others.

  2. jane Miller says:

    I know that the process can be aggravating. Sometimes the “art directors” are young kids who are flexing their muscles. The direction, as in your case, sometimes is absurd. I once had an art director ask me to make some children 2 years younger! I had no idea how to do this. I could go on and one, but you get the idea. I am sorry that they put you through so many hoops, and paid you so little!
    Hang in there.

  3. Hannah says:

    What a horrendous story, but you’re not alone. If I had a hundred quid every time someone did this to me, I think I’d be a more successful illustrator! I’ve been at it ten years now, and my problem is always the same. I’m too nice. I keep going back for more… glutton for punishment that I am!

    I had one client brief me for a 60 playing card game. They approved the first set of designs I did, which was amazing, but they sounded really pleased. From then on, it went downhill. Once all 60 had been completed they made hundreds of changes resulting in the whole lot pretty much having to be done again. Then after leaving it a month before getting back to me they changed it all again, then after two months… yep… you guessed it. Each time, they kept telling me it was an urgent job, even more urgent than before and that it needed to be published “yesterday” as it were. So I busted some serious guts getting this done. I was even working up until half an hour before I left to catch a plane to go on holiday with my husband and children… at 4am – having not been to bed! In the end, after a the third complete redesign, they sent me a two sentence email:
    “Could you send back all the reference and put the artwork on disc and send it in to the office as soon as possible. We are taking the project in house as we are going through a big rebrand.”

    That was it. No thanks. No comments. No feedback. No further work (there was supposed to be 8 more projects) Nothing. When I sent the artwork in to them they didn’t even email to tell me they had received it. Oh, and then payment took about two months to materialise…. which by some standards is pretty good!

    I’m going to do a teaching NVQ next year. I’m changing career. I need a job with satisfaction, respect and a regular salary. Sadly, I can’t take being treated like this anymore. For every good client you get, you always get one bad one and those bad ones wreck your love of the job. Well, they did for me anyway. I’m hoping to find more satisfaction teaching little ones to read and write. I hope that you have much better luck in the future with your illustration… p.s. I won’t give up illustration. It will become a wonderful pastime and hobby, rather than a gruelling chore!

  4. AnnMarie MacKinnon says:

    I am gutted you had to go through this. It’s so frustrating to hear these kinds of stories and I hear them way too often.

  5. mikey says:

    If not for the economy, I would have never thought to deal with them. And so it goes.

    The shining side of this adventure is that I appreciate even more the people like yourself that were and are so wonderful to work with. Not nearly enough of “you” types around. Thanks for the comment…

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