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What Happens When You No Longer Like the Direction of a Project

Reader Wijtze Valkema writes in with the following question:

I was wondering if you ever run into the problem of having a project going in a direction that you don’t really want creatively, and how you deal with these projects. A project that sounds fun at first and just right up your alley in terms of style, but after a couple proposals the project turns into something you’re not happy with, or even think shouldn’t be known as your work. Do you quit? Do you finish it? Do you ask having your name removed from the credits? Does it hurt your style and name when your name is credited to a project you feel isn’t ‘you’ anymore? Does it hurt your relationship with the client when you quit half-way or finish it but want no name credit?

Unfortunately, this is all too common of a problem. One of the things that separates illustrators from fine artists is that we have clients that need to be pleased. And clients, sadly, can sometimes be wrong.

If you’ve reached an impasse where the client is making you do things to your art that you’re no longer comfortable with and the client is adamant that you follow that direction, my first instinct is to say just go ahead and do it. Projects will come and go and not every illustration will turn out to be successful in your eyes. But, at the end of the day, it’s important to please the client. So, if they’ve sucked all the joy out of it, just bite the bullet, get it done as quickly as possible, and move on. It’s not the end of the world.

I would also suggest keeping your name associated with the work. Really, unless it’s for some major campaign, what damage could it do? You’ve, hopefully, done plenty of illustrations in the past and will do plenty more in the future. A couple of jobs here and there that you’re not totally psyched about won’t be the end of the world. Also, it’s pretty dramatic to ask for your name to be removed. It would definitely ruffle some feathers with your client.

Remember, also, that you don’t need to promote the illustration. You don’t have to put it on your website or tweet it or anything. Most potential clients will never even see it unless you draw their attention to it. So there’s not much to lose in that regard.

Now, on the other hand, if it’s that important to stick to your guns and not fulfill their requests, you’ve got a couple options. If you have an agent, this is one of the things they’re great for. Ask your agent to step in and talk to the client for you. They may be able to succeed where you can’t and they can also be the bad guy instead of you. The second option is to quit. Of course, quitting midway through a project is a last resort and will certainly not be viewed well by your client. So, you have to weigh whether or not you’d be OK with never working for this client again, because it will be a strong possibility.

All-in-all, though, just keep in mind that as much as the art belongs to you, as an illustrator, you’re here to service the client. They may occasionally be wrong and unwilling to listen to your expert knowledge, but they also pay your bills.

Illustration by Wijtze Valkema.

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Neil Swaab is a freelance illustrator, art director, author, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He's an instructor at Parsons the New School for Design and the illustrator of the New York Times bestselling book Middle School: My Brother is a Big, Fat Liar by James Patterson and Lisa Papademetriou. His new authored and illustrated book, The Secrets to Ruling School: Class Election, comes out this September from Amulet Books.

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