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Picture this: Design firms and publications tight on staff. Art directors bypassing illustrators because it’s quicker, in the rush of their day, just to grab online stock images. And art directors who do hire illustrators not knowing how to manage and work with them and give constructive, critical feedback—because they never learned how, not from any mentor and not from art school.

The scene couldn’t be more realistic. Still, contrary to the current trend in hiring cuts, many art directors regularly turn to outside illustrators. The best of them team up, put their heads together and knock ideas around. Many art directors, though—especially less experienced ones—could use a little coaching when it comes to collaborating.

So I called five esteemed art directors from four major publishing sectors—children’s books, trade publications, consumer magazines and academic books—to get their guidance. They had a lot to say about how to cultivate the best art director–illustrator relationship—one that only thrives when the creative juices flow and that arrives at illustrations that elicit a big “Yes!” from art directors satisfied with the end result.

Everyone’s talking “collaboration” these days. But what does it actually mean for an art director and an illustrator?

director, design and production, University of Chicago Press, Chicago:
The illustration process is iterative. It’s a conver­sa­tion between the illustrator and the art director—and the stakeholders the art director represents—in which both have equal say. The best collaborations come from a mutual respect for the roles that each inhabits.

How does collaboration benefit the art director and the illustrator?

creative director, Hollywood Reporter and Billboard, Los Angeles:
A successful illustration makes our brand look good; we look smart, creative and original. And it entices the reader back for the next exciting illustration. Selfishly, it makes me look like a hero to my boss. And for illustrators, it gives them a platform to get more work. Other art directors always look at other publications to find new talent.

When would you decide not to collaborate with an illustrator?

Marlar: With news stories, sometimes we have only three days from hiring to receiving a high-resolution image, so I have to tell the illustrator, “This is the story we’ve got, this is the concept my editor approved and this is the illustration I have in mind.” If I give illustrators too much leeway in those situations, they could be off the mark, and there’s no time for that. I’m a realist when it comes to deadlines.

How can you tell before you hire a new illustrator that he or she will be easy to work with?

design director, Children’s Publishing, Chronicle Books, San Francisco:
I look at the illustrator’s client list, and if I’m familiar with any of the clients and their collaborative working styles, then I can assume that the illustrator worked well with them. Also, how the illustrator communicates on the phone and in e-mails can say a lot about how the project will go. I’m looking for professionalism, promptness, enthusiasm, openness, curiosity and a back-and-forth dialogue.

You have to trust the illustrator, but the illustrator also has to trust your understanding of the concept and voice of the publication.” —Shanti Marlar

When you hire an illustrator for the first time, what do you both need to keep in mind?

creative director, The Atlantic, Washington, D.C.: It’s a relation­ship. Like any other relationship, it’s going to have its rough patches. So it’s important to build up that trust, and that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a while to understand how the other works, but once you do, you’re able to produce better illustrations.

What’s most important regarding how you present a project to an illustrator?

creative director and senior vice president, Asset International, Inc., New York City:
With some projects, there are so many nuances and aspects, you could approach it visually an infinite number of ways and get bogged down by too much possibility. So first, I have to give illustrators the right information by cutting through the clutter and distilling it down to a very crystallized idea so they don’t have to go through dense industry-oriented information. Hopefully, they are excited to work on the end result, as that elevates our product.

There’s a fine line between too much and not enough guidance.

How do you walk that line without stumbling across it?

Crooks: We like to give illustrators a lot of freedom to explore ideas themselves, but the image has to work editorially. It’s there not just for decoration; it has to work with the headline and enhance the journalism to help the reader understand the piece. Usually, we send the illustrator a draft of the piece and offer some ideas, and we get back three to five sketches, sometimes six. Collaboration comes in when we give critical feedback from our perspective for an illustration that’s not working. And then we make suggestions: “We’re not sure if this is the right angle” and “Why don’t you try this?” I always say, “If you have a better idea, let me know, because you do this every day.” I’m always open to ideas, and if the illustration works editorially, then I’m going with it.

Shimabukuro: I provide clear guidelines, but I’m not overly prescriptive, or I can miss out on concepts and opportunities that emerge from a more open, flexible creative process. And I make sure there’s a contract that explicitly outlines my expectations of scope, schedule and fees.

Marlar: You can’t micromanage. It can be stifling for an illustrator. And art directors shouldn’t send a sketch as an example. It’s offensive because illustrators have their own vision. They could think that they have to copy what you sent, or they could rebel against it in a way that’s too far off. You have to trust the illustrator, but the illustrator also has to trust your understanding of the concept and voice of the publication.

Brogno: The art director mediates between the illustrator and the publisher. The images have to meet the publisher’s needs, the schedule and the overall publication’s vision—it’s the art director’s job to help the illustrator deliver on that. You have to be a bit of a taskmaster, but too much oversight can stifle the illustrator. So you have to know when to assert your­self and when to step back—there has to be a balance. The art director also has to understand what the illustrators’ needs are and how each works, including what kind of support they need from the art director to do their best work. So the art director plays several different roles—psychologist, coach, cheerleader, taskmaster—and the key is knowing which one is needed at each stage of the process.

There’s a fine line between too much and not enough guidance.” —Soojin Buzelli

How do you give constructive criticism to an illustrator?

Buzelli: If “constructive criticism” means “art direction,” then I do that during the sketching and ideas stage. When the idea doesn’t work, I list reasons the image is not reading correctly. I don’t provide the artist with a solution. Instead, I point out why it’s not working. Then I redirect the artist to the original, intended message of the image. Hopefully, that steers him or her back to where we need to go.

What’s crucial for illustrators to keep in mind when collaborating with art directors?

Shimabukuro: There’s some anxiety at the beginning of any collaboration. The art director may worry that the illustrator doesn’t meet the primary stakeholder expectations. The illustrator could worry that the art director is too demanding and force the illustration in an unappealing direction. Clear, ongoing communi­cation about expectations, along with awareness of and respect for each other’s needs, will ensure that the process goes smoothly.

Brogno: Number one is open communication; I can’t stress it enough. Art directors understand the creative process, so it’s fine if the illustrator is struggling; we just need to know. If they go MIA, there’s no way for us to know what’s going on, and we can’t help. If the illustrator tells me he or she feels stuck on a spread with no idea of what to do next, we can bounce ideas off each other. The illustrator needs to know when to ask for help and when to work independently. And if a schedule has been set, it’s our expectation that illustrators stick to that as much as humanly possible. If they can’t, they should communicate why. Art directors juggle many projects at once, and illustrators need to be sensitive to that.

Marlar: The worst is if an illustrator knows she or he might not make the deadline. Most of the time, I have a few extra hours, so just tell me. I like a constant back-and-forth through e-mails. Also, if I have changes and write to them saying the dimensions have been changed, for instance, it’s great if they reply quickly saying, “Got it! Revising now.”

Crooks: Just be cool about it. Understand that everybody’s got a job to do; everybody’s trying to reach a goal.

And when the illustrator’s goal is to create the most successful image, what should she or he keep in mind as a collaborator?

Crooks: If an art director asks you to do something you’re not comfortable with, either you have to be able to deal with that and keep pushing back with your own ideas or say, “I can’t work on this anymore.” There have been only one or two cases in my four years here at the Atlantic when illustrators insisted on doing it their way, with no concern for my concerns, and that’s when I cut them off. Then there’s the person who you know is going to get grumpy but will give you an awesome illustration.

Buzelli: It depends on the relationship between the art director and the illustrator, but I pick artists because I trust their judgment. Once you’ve listened to your art director, listen to yourself. Sometimes when I work with new or young illustrators, they try to create something they think I’d expect. No. I’m looking for fresh and different, not typical. I hired you for your unique voice, so you tell me what is good. Don’t give me a solution you assume I want, making me think, “Crap, I have to do it.” Don’t send any sketch that you don’t want to go to final. And don’t second-guess yourself by giving too many image choices, either. It makes me think you do not trust your own judgment.

What are some challenges you’ve encountered when working with illustrators?

Marlar: Sometimes they just never get it. We’re on different planets, and I can’t get them on my planet. If an illustrator is too much of a fine artist, he or she may not want to do what I need done. I respect the creativity of illustrators, but in the end, it’s a job, and I’m paying them to reach the goals I outlined in the assignment.

When collaboration with an illustrator is really working well, what’s most satisfying for you about this working relationship?

Brogno: I really enjoy the individual relationship I have with an illustrator and figuring out together what he or she needs from me to make the best book possible. When we’ve each played our roles, it’s almost like being a midwife. We’ve birthed a project together. In the end, that’s a really great feeling.

Marlar: It can be really fun, especially if the illustrator is open to taking a chance by trying something new. If I trust the illustrator’s skills and he or she trusts me to portray the art with respect and not change or ruin it by overdesigning it, then we can create something that will surprise both of us, something we’ve never seen before—something new in the world. ca

Claire Sykes (sykeswrites.com) is a free­lance writer in Portland, Oregon. She is a member of the exhibition committee for Blue Sky Gallery, an internationally esteemed photography gallery, and is a Roving Reviewer for the biennial portfolio-review event Photolucida, which takes place in Portland.

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