Advice — Essential advice on being commissioned, from an animator, a photographer and an illustrator
In the final part of our guide to being commissioned, we get full insight into the creative’s side of the story, with useful tips and tricks that will help you kick off the client process in the right way. Following the first two parts, where we heard the art commissioner’s perspective, and then from the project manager’s point of view, and now we get essential advice from illustrator Alva Skog, photographer Alexander Coggin and illustrator and animation director Milo Targett. From weighing up the visibility of a publication against the money it offers, to breaking down the logistics of liaising with a potential client, here’s what you need to consider before you go tackling those briefs.
Photography by Alexander Coggin for The New York Times, capturing the crowd at the Spice Girls’ Spice Tour 2019
Alexander Coggin, photographer
Since going freelance in 2013, American photographer Alexander has shot for The New York Times, The New Yorker, FT Weekend Magazine, Wired and Vogue Italia, among many others.
Be available and ready to go
My advice is to be very, very available over email. For me, 80% of incoming commissions need to be shot within a week, and often in less time. I've lost commissions because I didn't get back to an editor within two hours. It’s wild but lots and lots of things happen last-minute, so be prepared!
Before starting: Check you have all the information
Great editorial commissions are ones that are firstly logistically thorough: here's the brief, here’s the rates, here’s our publication, can you do it? That usually gives me a pretty good idea of what the commitment will be and, frankly, if the subject or publication is interesting to me.
Next: Decide if it’s worth taking on
The above helps me weigh the capital. Maybe the publication is weak but the rate is high, maybe the subject is killer but the visibility would be low. It's usually a balance between publication, reach, rate, subject or topic, scale and commitment.
“I've lost commissions because I didn't get back to an editor within 2 hours.”
Do you have enough context to begin?
It's essential that the commissioner provides enough contextual cues for you to do good work: What's the angle of the article? What might the headline be? What do you know about the layout? If it’s being published online, how many images are you looking to run?
A lot of the job is lubricated in pre-production. Once I show up to do the thing, I really want to feel like I have all of the information and access possible.
Delivery: Give the client options where possible
Don’t hand in too few images – let the editor edit. I like to over-produce photographs and hand in viable options. Usually I will then star the ones that I think work particularly well. But I think that it's essential that desk creatives also get to be creative, and a lot of this comes down in laying out and selecting the final image(s).
Illustration by Alva Skog for The Guardian
Alva Skog, illustrator
Originally from Sweden, London-based illustrator Alva’s clients have included Apple, The Guardian and The New York Times since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2018.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions!
If there is anything that feels unclear, just ask and the client will be happy to answer. One thing my agent usually does is ask the client if there is a specific piece of my work that they particularly like. This gives me a good idea of what they are looking for, and in turn makes the process smoother.
Explain your ideas
I spoke to an art director once who said that they like when the artist or illustrator writes down their thoughts regarding their rough drafts. While sometimes I still send rough drafts without any explanation, I usually try to write a sentence or two about my ideas and I think this can help the process.
“If there’s anything that feels unclear, just ask and the client will be happy to answer.”
Know your rights with copyright, licensing and pricing
Something to watch out for is if a big company contacts you and you are an emerging illustrator and don't entirely know how licensing or pricing works. If this happens, join the Association of Illustrators (AOI) or contact an agent – even if you are not signed with them – and ask for advice. Most importantly, I’ve learnt not to let them buy the copyright.
Milo Targett, animation director and illustrator
Remember: Your first interaction is a negotiation
It’s worth getting the whole picture when someone gets in touch – remember that the first communication is a negotiation! Sometimes your immediate reaction is to be excited and just agree to the project, but it’s good to get as many details as possible before agreeing to anything. It’s worth writing a checklist of things to ask straight away when you get a new enquiry as it’s easy to forget.
Get a clear brief and deliverables
Find out who the client is and what budget they're working with as well as what the schedule is looking like. You'll then want to see a brief including any initial references they have and details on what’s required. It’s worth locking down what specific deliverables they’ll need and what usage they're looking for.
Check contracts for IP and indemnity
Things like intellectual property rights and indemnity are ones to look out for in a contract. It’s also good to ask how long each round of feedback will take and how many people are involved in the sign-off process.
Ask whether pitches are paid
If you’re asked to do a pitch with creative it’s totally acceptable to ask to be paid for your time; It won't always happen but it’s always worth checking. All of this should factor into the quote you put forward and the amount of time you can put into the project
“Remember that the first communication is a negotiation!”
During the commission: Arrange check-ins
Don’t assume people know how your process works – it’s worth explaining how the project is going to run from your end as people often won’t know. During the process it’s good to keep everyone up to date on progress, but also to stick to agreed check-in points otherwise you risk drowning yourself in rounds of feedback.
Get feedback on work-in-progress
It’s also a good idea to show your progress to other creatives to ensure that things make sense to someone who is seeing the work for the first time. This will help you to fill in any gaps. For me that’s often at the story board and style frame stage.
“If you’re asked to do a pitch with creative it’s totally acceptable to ask to be paid for your time.”
Defend decisions you feel strongly about
Always remember to fight your corner if you feel a certain creative direction is right as people tend to respond better if you have a clear vision for the project. With bigger clients, significant changes tend to be a product of things that are out of your control like internal brand guidelines or another department stepping in later on with new requirements. Still, it’s good to push the creative into a place that is interesting even if it gets reigned in later on.
When unsure, reach out for advice
If you’re ever unsure about a process or decision, speak to people in the same industry as you, and people who are in other ones too. The former will probably have encountered similar situations and the latter may have insights that you hadn’t even considered.