Working with clients

There is a site I read called Clients From Hell.  I have experienced many of the things on there. That was mostly while I worked in corporate communications doing newsletters, brochures and mailers. And to some extent, when I worked in publishing.

Years ago, when I was trying to get freelance work while having a job, I had a lot of “Client from Hell” experiences. Most of them came from people that don’t normally work with a creative aspect to their business. A lot of it was working for private citizens and small business. Experiences like those lead me to stop taking that kind of work. It just wasn’t worth it.

For the most part, if you do the work on your end, and cover your self you avoid unpleasant client/vendor moments. For example, have a contract or at least an agreement. For any work under $600, I am fine with an email agreement working out the terms of the project. At the $600 and higher mark, I have a contract which both sides sign.

But honestly, I do enjoy working with clients, because often an open dialog can result in better illustrations.

The first step anyone should take when working with a client, old or new is discussing the amount of work to be done. Lets take a magazine illustration to work with as an example. The editor will either give me some idea’s of what they think, or ask me to come up with ideas. And for these, that doesn’t change the price. What I offer then is the following:

Step 1. Rough pencils. I’ll come up with 3-4 possible solutions for the illustration. If I’m working with an idea they have, I’ll try and do several showing that idea, and maybe a few alternate ideas I had, if they seem good. If I’m providing my own ideas, they tend to be all different. Generally you are given the article to read to spark ideas. For the Asian Carp invasion I was asked to come up with ideas.

The editor sent me the article and a picture of the carp jumping out of the water, to show the kind of behavior they have. The article’s name was “Between a Carp and a Hard Place.” She said she wanted to play that up if I could, and she wanted to keep away from anything that might be alarming like in the picture she sent.

I provided 4 really rough pencils.

Two of the ideas are very similar, the carps driving the car, one has the Chicago skyline in the background, the other an outline of the Great Lakes. The editor liked the skyline in the background. This was probably about 20 minutes worth of work, after giving it some thought, while working on something else. In the agreement we have, she can do the following. Pick one and make some changes to the idea. She could have asked that the carp look more Asian in their face. In fact, she asked that I don’t use the sky in the background, because the art director likes illustrations that have odd shapes, and to make the highest carp in the car, actually flipping out of the car, which is something they do, jump out of the water.

If the editor hadn’t liked any of these thumbnails, and wanted to see a whole new set, in our agreement, there would have been an additional $20 fee attached to the invoice.

Step 2. With those changes in mind I went into refined pencils. I added the carps drinking and food wrappers flying from the car, because one of the problems with them is how they move into an area, and strip it of food, upsetting the ecosystem. Then they move on. So they became party animals in a way. The refined pencils took about an hour to do, and I sent them them two days. In our email agreement, I had 3 days to provide refined pencils. It’s always smart to give yourself more then enough time, you never know what could happen. As I was writing this I got a call from a former coworker, wanting to know if I could do some tech illustration diagrams for a math book. We had talked the week before about this, and now he was getting back with me, and I have a feeling it’s going to be a rush job. Thankfully I am ahead of schedule on my various projects, so I’ll be able to do it.

Here is the refined pencils.

I sent it, and the editor can again make changes before I go into the final illustration. She didn’t have any, and she loved the addition of the beer and food wrappers, she thought it added the right touch to show how the this particular fish is viewed. If for some reason at this point, the editor decided she wanted to go in another direction, to start over, would have been an additional $40 fee attached to the invoice.

Step 3. The step we all want to get to. The Final version. The first two steps took about a week to get through. The whole time, I’ve been thinking about the final version. Working how to approach it, visualizing it in my head. For example, did I want to do the car red? I was considering orange or purple, to be different. But as I started working, it was clear red was going to be a bigger impact, since the background and the fish were going to be soft and cool colors, the red would just pop so much more. The final illustration at this point took about 3-4 hours. I pretty much new what I was going to do, and more importantly, how I was going to do it. I had 5 days to provide the final, and I needed them, because a little project came up after I started, so I had to put this aside for two days. I still delivered it a day early.

Step 4. The editor loved it. I sent my invoice in with the final version. When the magazine comes out, I’ll get a copy of it sent to me, so I will have a tear sheet of the work.

Sometimes the editor will provide lots of reference material, as in the case with the illustration I’m doing for MIT. While it was a lot, it was great, since the idea she had wasn’t fully formed and she was hoping my rough pencils would help her have a better idea if that’s the direction she wanted to go.

She had a list of things that needed to be in the illustration, but no specific layout, that was all left up to me. I gave 3 possible layouts, and we picked one, but pulled in elements from the other two. I then did a revised layout rough, and she liked. She gave me the layout of the text, and I went and did a refined pencil of the illustration, which required having to lose some parts of the illustration, because the text took up more room then we thought it would. We both thought one element should change, and after that I had permission to move into finals.

For Inside Council Magazine, I was given a few paragraphs from the article, and the dimensions of the illustration. I provided 3 rough, all different ideas, they picked one no changes, go to final.

But each with each client, I had the same basic agreement. I will do this, you approve with or without changes, then move to the next stage.

In the past, I’ve been at the point where I failed to lay that out for a client, and ended up with to many revisions. Can we see this part in red? Can you try several different colors? Oh I forgot to add information. Oh I just realized I needed to add something. Since there was no agreement on the amount of work to be done, the number of steps or rounds, or an approval process, and the cost for going outside of that, I had to do what they wanted. What I thought would be a 5 hour project, which breaks down to about $40-50 and hour turns into $5-10 an hour, and no end in site.

Regardless of the client, new or old, never skip the work agreement/contract step. You may go ten years always doing it, and then the one time you think, pffft, I’ve never had a bad experience and skip it, that’s the koo-koo pants client from hell.

I like working with clients, because I like seeing an idea evolve from good to great.  The boating magazine editor liked the car angle, and provided feedback and changes she wanted to see, and I in turn upped it even more, turning a good idea into a better idea, which in turn lead to a great illustration, one that is going in my portfolio.

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