Reading what a clients wants.

Getting them to visualize so you can actualize it.

This is a topic I’ve thought about writing about for a while, it came up in a recent class and I thought I should put it down somewhere where I can share it with students in the future.

Most of the time I find that freelancing as an illustrator, clients come to me with a pretty good idea of what they want, but not all of them are great at articulating that. I think it’s part of my job to work it out, ideally they make that easy for me and when the client is an AD often they do. 

But many of my clients don’t work in the same kind part of the arts as I do, or are even creatives at all. It’s actually perfectly natural for not every administrator or manager, or even a musician to be a bit uncertain how to explain to me what they want in an illustration or design.

The skill set arguably is far more part of my tool kit than it is often of their jobs or profession.

The issues that arise from situations like that are the seeds of a lot of horror stories for freelancers, but I’ve found taking a very proactive stance on this front has eliminated most of these kinds of problems. I had a gig doing a Jazz album cover recently that I think perfectly modeled how I deal with it now and makes for a great case study, so that’s what I’m going to share here.

I tabled at a indie music and printfest, the room was mostly vinyl bins and local musicians selling their stuff, with a few craft artisans and small pressers like myself selling books and prints.

One of my neighbours entourage pitching in to help with her record launch at the show had their own Jazz band, they came by my table to check out my books and art and got very excited about the work I was selling as prints asking if I could do something like this for an album cover.

I said of course and asked them about the project, they had been trying to get a designer to do the work but so far were not happy about the outcomes.

I agreed and we exchanged contact info. They paid an advance on the gig, and then soon as my slate was clear I started work on the project.

That began with asking them what they were looking for, and for examples of the kind of images they hoped to have for their own.

They told me “We do not have a clear idea but if I can tell you what we like” and sent me some examples. Not a bad place to start. Here’s what I had..

Album name: Mirage

keywords :
1. Reflection
2. Water
3. Wide shot
4. Clean, minimalist
5. Strange and / or optical illusion

The first four there are all Patrick Watson album covers. The last one of my own pieces from my site.

So based on that, I started working on some preliminary sketches.

Don't get me wrong, this was a good place to be starting from generally.

I did a few and out of them one felt like it was closest to the mark, before I did much more work I ran it by them to see if I was on the right track

Their response was that it wasn’t.

“it is beautiful but don't put any instruments please. it can be more abstract, and can what is reflected in water be a distortion of reality?”

One thing that jumped out at me was the first time clear cut requests about what they DID want had been given, re the reflection being distortions of reality. I both felt like none of the images I had been working on had what they were after, and that they actually had a lot clearer an idea of what that was then they realized.

So I prepared this for them, to go through and see what the responses to the questions were and tell me what that sparked.

Re the patrick watson covers, those were great in terms of showing me a strong idea of the style you'd like! And the elements of magic realism. But they don't indicate subject matter?

I realize you said you don't have a clear idea, but if the requests so far suggest to me you have a clearer one than you maybe realize, just a reluctance to clarify them more, but that still leaves me a bit high and dry so rather than my working in the dark I want you to work with me to commit to a direction before I draw a lot more.

I'm thinking maybe you might be thinking it's nice to leave it up to my creative choice but this isn't personal work, so that's not really what I'm doing. I am drawing for you, and it's not a project i'd be doing if you hadn't hired me? So I need to know what you do want. And my time is limited so trying things out with so little focus is not very practical.

I would suggest trying as a group, or whoever is important to this kind of thing, sitting down and making a loose list of subject matter/things. By way of example, the Patrick Watson covers are:
-A dried flower
-A person laying on the ground, burning
-A bottled decrepit rural industrial landscape made of old transistors and organic materials.
-A caged bird in a too small cage

They all are ironic or literal references to his songs.

So in keeping with that, we can pull from your album? I'm assuming the mp3s you sent me links for are from it? I don't understand enough french to catch all the lyrics so here's some questions about the songs.
With the reflection effect, we have Mirage covered.
What is Chez la Libanaise about? A resto or cafe? Is it a real place or a fantasy?
Soldat de Plomb, is that a led soldier like a toy? Or a human with a lead hart?
And Grande Bleue, the sky? The ocean? Both? Or a mood, sadness?

And then, do we want to focus on a place? Do I keep the mountain from the first sketch maybe? Or should we focus on a figure? Or both?

I don't know if you noticed but the patrick watson covers all focus on dead things, or trapped things.

I don't get that as a theme for your album, the mirage/reflection/distortions are more what you want. But as I asked before, the question i'm left with is mirage/reflection/distortions of what? And are the reflections positive/happy/romantic? Or dark/sad/negative?
The music has some elements of all of that, but we don't want everything on the cover, too confusing. So which moods should dominate?

I like the general idea of distorting the reflections, but what kind of distortion in the reflections? Warping like water but still the thing being reflected? Or a transformation? Something into something else? A person being reflected by a flock of birds for example? A woman into a led soldier?

Ok, hope that helps you guys, If you have more than three on the list you come up with, rank them so I can get an idea of the things you're the most into seeing? I might not be able to use or fit them all if there are many so that would help. But if you can, narrow it down to just a few, three is a good number when it comes to composition.

I don't want you to dictate the art exactly, but this would save us a lot of time and me a lot of extra work on preliminary sketches if we can narrow the focus of WHAT i'm illustrating. Then it's just how and getting the details right, and the how I think we've sorted already with the conversation so far.

I tend to be a bit verbose, but what i’d point at as the takeaway here is that I tried to narrow down and focus for them on each of the reference points they had given, to get them to tell themselves the story of their own album cover so that I could save myself drawing and guessing time.

I asked them about songs that would be on the record, about the themes they had directly expressed to me but also I saw in the music or didn’t see but wanted to know about, and in the PR material they had sent me already.

The key thing here is to be friendly and collaborative about it, but basically you’re analyzing your client and their work much like a psychologist would, trying to get them to uncover the things for you. I could shoot in the dark to try to get there but they didn’t have a ton of cash and I didn’t have a ton of time.

So getting them to do this work instead of my just guessing is much more effective. But they don’t necessarily know how to do this work, while I've spent decades learning to parse symbols and tell stories with images, so it’s on me to do for them what I do for myself when it’s my personal work. Ask them the kinds of questions I ask myself when I'm stuck.

Here’s what they came back to me with.

You were right, thinking about it, we had a much clearer idea than what I told you. Here is what came out.

General theme : Love impossible to reach

A man on the edge of a lake at dusk at the foot of a mountain looking at his reflection in the water but it is not his reflection that we see in the water. It's a woman, the love he never had, his great love. She is in the port in a strange city. We do not have to see the face of the man but we would like to see the one of the woman The water can wave because the guy and the girl could touch the water (the same hand because it's like a reflection) but at the same time it's as if they were trying to touch each other, to reach each other.

Now that, is a clear cut job outline! Night and day from what we started with, which wasn’t bad but a bit of a hunting expedition by comparison.

If you handle this kind of thing well it’s not a problem to push for the client to do more work, it does not have to be the source of conflict it can be in some of the behind the scenes stories you'll hear, and they tend to feel more like a proper collaborator too. These guys thanked me for it, and loved the final art I came up with for them.

Every gig is a bit different, you’re going to have to work out how to handle each separately rather than have a fixed process, some clients are great at articulating what they want, and then will go and change their minds when they see it.

In those cases just make sure your job agreement includes clauses that cover how many revisions they got on the flat fee, and when you start working on a hourly rate. I don’t mind ever doing revisions, so long as I’m being paid fairly for it.

But when the client is unsure or unable to articulate what they are looking for, it’s going to fall to you to trying to draw out that information. You can do it by drawing lots and lots of drafts of the roughs, but before I clock too much time doing that, I like to do this first.

For me, it helps keep the drawings I do generate feeling fresh and spontaneous both in the doing & the results, and saves a lot of unbilled hours in my experience.

The client here was the band Le Trio BBQ, a great local group. They are fundraising for a tour here right now if you’re curious about their music!