Creative Lives — Adam Hancher fills us in on his role as Wonderbly’s in-house illustrator

Posted 08 July 2020 Introduction by Siham Ali
Interview by Marianne Hanoun

In 2016 freelance illustrator Adam Hancher decided to leave his agent and studio and step into the “unknown” after failing to see a viable future. A few weeks later he got a call from personalised book publishers, Wonderbly, as a friend passed on an opportunity and recommended Adam instead. Four years later and Adam still finds himself at Wonderbly working on a range of special projects and particularly focusing on children’s books. We talk to Adam about knowing when to change it up, and batting away the fear of doing just that.

Adam Hancher

Job Title

Illustrator at Wonderbly

Based

London

Selected Clients

Francis Lincoln, Penguin Random House, Puffin Books, Taschen, Roald Dahl, The Wizarding World, Smith Journal, WIRED, The Financial Times, The Guardian

Previous Employment

Freelance Illustrator (2012–2019)

Education

BA Illustration, University of the West of England (2007–2010)

Website
Social Media

Adam

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I am currently working full-time at Wonderbly, a personalised book publishers. I work within the department that is responsible for creating the books. In the past, I’ve worked on a variety of jobs as an illustrator – from editorial illustration to packaging design, advertising and publishing. In the last four years, my attention has been on children’s books more specifically.

What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I pretty much work a 9-to-5. Our Mondays start with a stand up meeting, recapping on what different departments are working on, and our Fridays end with a very laid back company-wide presentation of work, sales reports and research. It’s a chance to round off the week, have a drink and hang out with work friends. Of course over the last few months this has all taken place via Zoom – so I just sit in my kitchen all day.

There will be stretches of time where I illustrate day-in-day out, but once I complete a project my priorities change. I could be asked to support an artist with another book, or to help with a marketing asset. There’s plenty of things to keep me busy.

Inside the Wonderbly studio

How are you right now and how has this period changed the way you work?
The team chat through Slack, same as usual, but workshopping new ideas is difficult via video call. I miss seeing friends at work, but I don’t miss commuting. I worked as a freelance illustrator for years, so I’m used to getting on with things whilst burning through podcasts.

How collaborative is your role?
It’s very collaborative. A project will usually start with a producer, a writer, and an illustrator. We have an art director who oversees all of the books, so he might be there too. Some projects are design-led, so we’ll have at least one designer on that from the beginning. Ideas go back and forth, the candy wrappers from My Golden Ticket are great examples of this. We had some top-notch copywriting, but it didn’t fit our design, so we asked for it to be tweaked. Almost instantly a revised text (that now fits) was sent back to us. This is because we have excellent writers, but also because we’re all sitting together at the same desk. It’s very convenient.

‘My Golden Ticket
’, Wonderbly (2017)

‘My Golden Ticket
’, Wonderbly (2017)

How does the process differ between illustrating a Wonderbly book and a more traditional one?
With a traditional picture book, there’s an idea, then a manuscript (usually), then a storyboard, then final illustrations. With a lot of editing, heartache and hand cramp throughout. That still applies here, but there’s a lot more on top of that to consider. The personalisation mechanic can dictate the structure of the book. For example in The Wondrous Road Ahead, you might choose Bravery, Determination, Curiosity or Honesty, Respect and Kindness. Each value has three double pages and they can appear in any order in your book – so the text and visuals need to be able to work in any order.

The simple cover for Y is For You required thousands of assets, including each letter of the alphabet and special characters (60+). Once you start thinking about the different character avatars available, and the different colours of cover you can choose – it all starts to add up. I will do a portion of this work, but our art workers, designers and engineers work tirelessly to edit, export and organise them. The level of involvement from a wide range of people is the biggest difference when creating a Wonderbly book.

‘My Golden Ticket’
, Wonderbly (2017)

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
After many years as a solo freelance illustrator, I am now very happy to be part of a team. The designers have taught me a huge amount about typography and layout, I get to problem solve with engineers on creative ways to personalise our books, and I’ve learned from our marketing team while helping on photoshoots. If something creative is happening you can probably get yourself involved, it’s a unique role in that way.

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Working on the Little Learner’s set of books has been pretty fun. The books are very simplistic (K is for Key, L is for Lion…), but I had fun inventing unusual interactions between all of the characters. There’s a lineup at the end, it’s like a class photo, that was fun to illustrate.

“Working as an in-house artist allows me to tweak my visual approach per project.”

What skills would you say are essential to your job?
The ability to tell stories, first and foremost. Another one is confidence with drawing and an eye for design. My Golden Ticket is probably the best example of this. I had to illustrate and design posters, as well as candy wrappers, ticket stubs in various different styles, to tell a story. I also know my own limitations. First thing I did on My Golden Ticket was ask Wonderbly to hire a designer (Andreas Brooks) that I could collaborate with on all the things I couldn’t do myself.

Versatility has been key for me. I like to try out new things. As a freelance illustrator you are encouraged to develop a personal brand, so clients know exactly what they’re getting. Yes that works, but personally I felt pigeonholed. I was stuck repeating the same kinds of job, that truthfully, I didn’t enjoy. Working as an in-house artist allows me to tweak my visual approach per project. A book like The Wondrous Road Ahead required a softer, textural approach to the illustration, whereas Y is for You could be bold and vibrant.

Little Learner’s Series, ‘10 Little Yous’ a personalised counting book (2020)

Little Learner’s Series, ‘10 Little Yous’ a personalised counting book (2020)

Little Learner’s Series, ‘Y is for You’ a personalised ABC book (2020)

Little Learner’s Series, ‘Y is for You’ a personalised ABC book (2020)

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Are you currently working on any personal projects? If so, how do you manage your time alongside other work?
Right now I choose not to take on other work outside of Wonderbly. By the time evening comes around, I’ve done enough drawing for one day. I do try to make some time for looser sketches, technical studies or tutorials. I try to keep learning, but I can be lazy with this. I’m fortunate that I get to work on projects that already deliver creative satisfaction.

What tools do you use most for your work?
Photoshop and Procreate are my main buddies. I’ll work out really loose ideas and thumbnails on paper – and then it goes on to the computer. It’s much more practical for me this way, I can edit things quickly, share things with the team and so on.

Is there a resource that has particularly helped you?
There are so many to choose from. How to Think When You Draw by Etherington Brothers is a good one. Lorenzo breaks down very simple things to look out for when you’re drawing. Even if it’s not your style of illustration I think you can learn a lot from the book. Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder is another one. Love it or hate it, you’ll learn something about commercial storytelling from this book. The Noble Approach by Maurice Noble is a beautiful book describing his work in the animation industry – there’s some valuable wisdom in that one.

‘The Wondrous Road Ahead’ by Julia Gray, illustrated by Adam Hancher
, published by Wonderbly (2018)

‘The Wondrous Road Ahead’ by Julia Gray, illustrated by Adam Hancher
, published by Wonderbly (2018)

‘The Wondrous Road Ahead’ by Julia Gray, illustrated by Adam Hancher
, published by Wonderbly (2018)

‘The Wondrous Road Ahead’ by Julia Gray, illustrated by Adam Hancher
, published by Wonderbly (2018)

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How I Got Here

Do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
I don’t think it’s necessary. What matters most when finding work is your portfolio and work ethic. There are plenty of fantastic illustrators out there who don't have a degree in illustration (or a degree at all).

I’m from a modest background, university was an option for me because I was eligible for maintenance grants and bursaries. It’s worth remembering university fees were about three times cheaper than they are now. I think if I was having to make that decision now, I probably wouldn’t go. I don’t want to seem dismissive of my education, I am incredibly grateful I had the opportunity to attend university. However, who’s to say that you can’t find or create a life-changing environment outside of higher education. Since leaving university, I have learned a hell of a lot more about drawing, painting, designing and everything in-between.

After graduating what were your initial steps?
I graduated from UWE in 2010 and lived in Bristol for a year. I worked weekdays selling floorings and weekends on the front desk at the Royal West of England Academy. During my free time, I tried to establish my illustration career. Slowly I managed to get some freelance work, and then I got an agent who helped me gain some publishing work. By 2012 I was a full-time freelance illustrator living in London – not without its financial setbacks, though.

“Who’s to say that you can’t find or create a life-changing environment outside of higher education.”

What’s been your biggest challenge along the way and would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
In 2016 I decided that I no longer wanted to work as a freelance illustrator. I shared a nice studio with some of my best friends, but work was repetitive, lonely, and most importantly it was not financially viable for the time and effort I put in. I couldn’t see a future in it anymore. I only had vague ideas of what that could be, but I decided to leave my agent, leave my studio, and take a step into the unknown.

A few weeks after this I got a call from Wonderbly, a friend of mine had recommended I do some storyboarding for them as he was unavailable. I had completely lucked out. In the past I may have been hesitant to take something like that on – but I no longer had an agent or studio and I needed the money – so I jumped at it. I’d never worked in-house at this level before so it took a little getting used to, but almost four years later and I’m still there.

‘A Wolf in Hindelheim’ Jenny Mayhew, Hutchinson (2012
)

‘A Wrinkle in Time’ Madeleine L’Engle, Puffin Books (2015)

‘The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold’, Tim Moore, Yellow Jersey Press (2017
)

‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ Harper Lee, Vintage Classics (2015
)

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How important have you found social media and self-promotion in your work?
I don’t really use social media for myself or my work at the moment. I haven’t posted anything in over a year. I find it tiring to curate content to post online once I’ve already spent a whole day at work. I get satisfaction from creating work, but not from sharing it with people. This is something that I really have to get over, because sharing your work is how you stay employed. If you’re as bad as me when it comes to social media, I’d definitely look into getting a good agent to do it for you!

Luckily for me right now, I can afford to sit back on this one, because I have full-time work. If I were to go freelance again, then I would absolutely get more involved with my social accounts. When I worked in a shared studio, friends would pass on jobs and I would send out loads of emails to see if anyone had work, plus having an agent on top of that meant there was always something coming in.

What would you like to do next?
I can see myself doing this job for a while. My priorities have changed since my twenties, I now have a good work-life balance! I enjoy the stability of my job and I’m glad work no longer consumes me. When I have ideas for books or projects, I write them down and save them for the future. I’m happy to focus on life more than work for now.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
It’s important to work hard, but you need clear direction with that hard work. So keep educating yourself. I didn’t spend enough time studying my craft early on in my career. I fell into editorial jobs because they had a fast turnaround and were easier to get. I did enjoy book cover work, but it was all quite repetitive. I thought I would improve simply by doing more work, and I did a bit, but it was slow going. When I stepped back and actually started to think and analyse how I illustrated, my work got a lot better and I began to enjoy it way more.

Research the field you want to work in, talk to people in the industry, if you need new skills then learn them. You might never feel ready for it, but go for the job and if you get it, you can wing it (like I did).

Posted 08 July 2020 Introduction by Siham Ali
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Introduction: Siham Ali
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Illustration
Mentions: Adam Hancher

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