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Whether or Not to Take on an Assignment

Getting an email from a prospective client about a new gig is always exciting. However, before accepting any assignment, it’s important to take a step back to consider some things—there may be budget issues, rights issues, or a whole host of other matters that need to be addressed. The following checklist will help you determine whether an illustration job is worth taking on or should be politely declined.

Dates

Look at all the proposed dates for the project. Not just the final art dates, but the sketch dates as well. Are they appropriately spaced out in order to give you enough time to finish the final art to an acceptable level? Is the timeframe realistic or is the client asking for the world and expecting it by 5pm that day? Also take a look at your own schedule and see how this fits in with the other projects you’re most likely juggling. There’s no shame in being overbooked so, if it seems impossible to squeeze in the assignment and do a good job of it, it may be better to turn it down. After all, a poorly-done rush job isn’t going to do anybody any favors. However, dates are often flexible. If you’re too swamped, try to suggest reasonable alternatives in order to take on the job. The client just may be willing to accommodate you.

Potential Man Hours

Try to estimate, realistically, how long it will take to actually do the whole assignment, remembering any reading you’ll have to do (for instance, you might have to read a whole manuscript to illustrate a novel cover), conference calls or meetings that may have to be attended, multiple rounds of sketches, final art, revisions, and any other projects you’ll have to turn down while working on it if it’s a longterm commission. Once you’ve gotten a handle on the estimated hours, weigh them against the fee the client is proposing. Sometimes, those numbers might look good initially, but when you’ve done the math, you realize you’re barely making minimum wage. In that case, you should negotiate for more money or very seriously consider whether or not the illustration is worth pursuing.

Pricing

Piggybacking off of this, pricing is going to be another big issue you’ll want to review. Is the fee the client’s offering for the work, man-hours, timeframe, rights, and usage acceptable and within industry standard or is it far too low to even entertain? Do you feel good doing the job for the price they’re suggesting? The topic of pricing is, obviously, very big and complicated so we’ll talk more about it in the future, but for now we’ll just assume you have a basic understanding of what an illustrator charges. If the client’s budget is too low (or nonexistent), then you’ll have to negotiate with them to get the fee up to an acceptable amount. If they can’t get it there, then this assignment probably isn’t worth taking on.

Rights

Another thing to look at are the rights that the client wants. Different industries will ask for different kinds of rights and you should feel comfortable with what you’re giving away for the proposed fee. For instance, a book cover with a budget of $3,000 for US English rights sounds pretty good, however that same book cover and fee for an all-rights buyout (or Work For Hire agreement) is not as enticing. Rights and dollars should be firmly aligned. The more rights that are being asked for, the more money you should be getting. If the rights the client wants don’t square away with their suggested fee, that would be a red flag that something’s not kosher. In that case, ask if they can come down on some of the rights or negotiate a larger fee that’s more reasonable for the usages they’re trying to get.

Interest in the Assignment

I know it’s hard to believe, but illustration isn’t just about deadlines and sweet, hard cash. There’s also the personal engagement factor. And that’s definitely worth considering because you could make a lot more money doing something else. So, if you’re going to be working on an assignment, it should be one that actually interests you to some degree. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to be jumping over the moon about everything that comes your way, but you’ve got to at least have some enthusiasm for the assignment—whether it’s simply the challenge, the exposure, or because it’s got a horse in it and you’ve always wanted to draw one. So, if the assignment comes in and it bores you to tears, feels like something you’ve already done a zillion times over and are sick to death of, or just doesn’t seem like your cup of tea, that’s definitely a consideration. If you can’t find some reason to get excited about it and your income stream is steady, then it may be a project you want to consider passing on (or, at least, see if the client is open to other ideas).

Ability to Execute Successfully

I’d also consider looking at your ability to actually do a good job on the assignment. Sometimes art directors will commission you to do work that really isn’t what you typically do. Either it’s because they can’t find the right person and you come kind of close to what they’re looking for if only they could tweak you this way or that, or other times they just aren’t seeing your work in the same way you are. Whatever the reason, there will be times when an assignment comes your way that you’ll feel completely ill-suited for. Now, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t push yourself to try new things or take on jobs that help you grow into new directions. You definitely should do that. But, if a job is so clearly not something you can execute well, there may be no point in taking it on. As I’ve mentioned previously, bad work isn’t going to do you or your client any good. In those instances, carefully think about whether you’re just scared of the challenge or whether you know in your heart there’s just no way you can give them what they’re asking for.

Moral Issues

Another thing I’d look at is if you have any moral issues about working on a particular assignment. For instance, you may believe that cigarettes kill and guns should be illegal. Well, if an ad agency comes to you to do a campaign for Marlboro or the NRA, that’s going to be a quandary. It’s perfectly reasonable (and commendable!) to stick true to your values and turn down anything that doesn’t sit right with your conscience.

The Client’s Reputation

Finally, the last thing I’d look at is the client’s reputation—particularly if they’re someone you haven’t worked with before. If there’s any doubt, Google around or talk to other freelancers. Find out if they pay on time or if they’re known for stiffing their contributors. Are they pleasant to deal with or is the art director a jerk who messes with illustrator’s art without telling them and barely responds to emails? Life’s too short to work with people who aren’t going to treat you right so, if it seems like that may be the case with this client, ask them to address your concerns before accepting. If they can give you reasonable answers, great. If not, run away and never look back.

Final Thoughts

There are quite a number of things worth considering before saying yes to any assignment and I believe this to be an all-or-nothing checklist, meaning it all has to be acceptable or the job isn’t worth doing. It doesn’t matter if the payment is great and the deadlines are healthy, it’s not worth doing an assignment if you morally object to it. Likewise, if you’re morally OK with it and the fee is alright, but you just can’t get it done in the timeframe they want, it’s a no-go as well unless you can work out other dates. After all, there’s only so many hours in the day. If everything’s OK, then accept the job and feel good about it. If not, then turn it down, feeling equally comfortable.

Lastly, a quick note about turning down work: when, and if you do reject an assignment, don’t be a jerk. No matter how insulting a client’s low payment may seem or how insane their requests are, always be respectful and professional. Be gracious for having been asked, thank the art director for their time and consideration, and reasonably explain to them why you’re not able to take it on at this particular moment. You never know when the art director might come back to you with a healthier budget, a more exciting project, or a deadline that gives you ample time to do your best work.

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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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