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What Art Directors Want from Illustrators

Illustrators sometimes complain about their working relationships with art directors. But, did you know that art directors occasionally have their own gripes about the illustrators they commission? Other than doing amazing work, there are some universal things that art directors want from illustrators engaged in a project. From my own experiences behind the table, these are the things I think most would agree on:

Meet your deadlines

Deadlines are incredibly important and it’s vital you make them. When you miss a deadline, that affects so many things you may not be aware of—and it makes the art director look bad. If, for some reason, it appears like you won’t make the deadline, let your art director know ASAP so that he or she can strategize how to deal with it. The worst thing you can do is just blow through a deadline without addressing it.

Follow directions

Please follow directions. Please read the entirety of the brief. If the composition is supposed to be 5“ x 5”, 450dpi, CMYK, please don’t turn in work that’s 3“ x 7”, 150dpi, RGB. Provide bleed if asked for. Make sure that you’ve actually illustrated what was requested instead of ignoring the direction completely. Give the art director exactly what he or she wants.

Give art directors more than they expect

Even better, give the art director more than what he or she wants. Art directors are looking for you to take their concept and make it more awesome, more engaging, more, well…more. If you’re not feeling their idea, execute it anyway. Then, provide some alternate solutions that you think are stronger. Occasionally, those ideas actually get chosen instead!

Provide multiple sketches (the tighter the better)

Unless there is a very specific concept or idea, please give multiple sketches—a minimum of three. It’s hard to work with just one sketch because, oftentimes, there are great things going on in the variations that can be combined to form an even better piece. Or, if that one sketch is entirely unsuccessful, that puts your art director in a bind and wastes more precious time as you all scramble to come up with an alternate solution. Also, please provide sketches that are as tight as possible. It makes the work easier to sell to the higher-ups and can make the possibility of revisions far less likely after final art is turned in.

Be collaborative

Please be easy to work with and open to ideas from the art director. Be flexible. Oftentimes the art director personally may not agree with the changes they’re requesting of you, but they have a boss to answer to. Turn the challenge into an opportunity to do something better.

Make the art director’s project feel like a priority

Art directors know that you’re working on multiple assignments for various clients. However, each art director should feel as though the project you’re working on together is your top priority. Do what you can to make the art director confident that you’re giving their project your full attention and not crapping out sub-par work just to get it done so you can move on to your more important pieces.

Don’t stray too far from your sketches

Getting sketches approved can be a laborious process for an art director. If it’s a book cover, for instance, that requires an editor, a sales team, an author, a publisher, and a creative director to sign off on it. Once they do, they’re expecting to see exactly what it is they agreed on. If you deliver final art that’s too far off from what was approved, it can be very problematic. So don’t stray too far from your sketches. When in doubt, send a work-in-progress to your art director and ask if it’s too far off or not. They’ll let you now.

Don’t disappear

Finally, please reply to emails promptly. Please don’t miss your deadlines and then not answer your phone for days as an art director tries to call you, frantically wondering where your final art is. Communication is the key to this business. Keep those lines open.

Final thoughts

These are things I’ve experienced personally when working as an art director and I think represent a good cross-section of experiences I and other friends of mine in the biz have had. Of course, most professional illustrators already know this stuff and are a dream to work with. It’s for those who don’t, though, or those just starting out, that this should be considered. Also, while I’ve talked a great deal about what art directors want from illustrators, you better believe there are a lot of things illustrators want from art directors. Come back next week where we put the shoe on the other foot and see the reverse side of this discussion: what illustrators want from art directors.

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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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