Baby's First Commissioned Illustration

Nextbook.org home page, May 22, 2007

After all my whining and demanding of assistance, I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know that I finally commissioned my first illustration, and it is now online, live, in brilliant RGB:

This hot, hot pixel-on-screen action was produced by the multitalented and genial Aaron Artessa, whom I met at the club. It’ll be on the home page for only one week, so see it in its glory while you can. Next Tuesday, it will be replaced by the fruit of my second go at working with an illustrator.

The rock I've been under

view from under a rock

In case you’re wondering where in tarnation I’ve been, the answer is “chained to my desk.” Man, this whole “job” thing is really cutting into my blogging time.

For a while there, I was cranking out a shocking quantity of ads and posters and booklets and thumbnails and Quicktime clips. Now our two “festivals of ideas” are behind us, and the website redesign has finally gone live, and I’ve been settling down to trying to make reasonably attractive images for the new home page—they’re much larger than they used to be, which makes my job simultaneously easier and more difficult. (I can’t work around totally crap images as easily, but I also don’t have to crop good images in painful ways to fit a cramped horizontal slot.)

Some tools I’ve been leaning on lately:

I’m sure there are more gadgets I’ve forgotten, but these are the first that come to mind.

Also: bless ye, all Flickr users who not only offer Creative Commons licenses allowing others to share and remix, but who also tag your photos. There is some great stuff on Flickr, and my job would be absolutely impossible if it weren’t for youse guys.

Photo: Pinnacles-30 by Ken Conley; some rights reserved.

An illustration project unfolds

origami gecko

Art director–turned–illustrator Penelope Dullaghan, whose name I previously knew only from Illustration Friday, has a series of five posts up at Sessions.edu’s Notes on Design blog about The Unfolding of an Illustration Project.

So the way it starts is usually with your assignment. And you get this little sensation in the back of your brain that makes you think: “Boy, an illustration would be perfect for this!” (I agree, it would!) And so you set out to look for the perfect illustrator for the job.

. . .

Then you tell us about the project: timeline, your ideas, the client’s ideas, (or that you have NO ideas… we can help there, too), the budget, etc. And we’ll be pleasant on the phone and say yes, we’d love to work with you. (See, aren’t we nice?)

She gives a brief walkthrough of the process for a typical job. Too brief, in my opinion, but better than nothing, for an ignoramus like me.

I guess I’d like to see something like a series of checklists—“What you need to figure out before you contact an illustrator. How to help illustrators help you. How not to be the client from hell.” Optimized for short attention spans and messy desks.

I’ve got my own hunches and SWAGs, of course, but surely somebody has already rounded the corners off this wheel, no? Is it in the GAG guide? Because I sure don’t have one of those. Is it worth having? My impression of that book has always been that it’s for designers who work in Fantasy Land. Like, I’ve never met anyone who actually gets paid what GAG says is the going rate for stuff, and I’ve gotten absolutely blank looks whenever I’ve tried to refer to what they say is called trade custom. Does this perceived lack of relevance merely reflect the seedy circles I’ve been running in? Should I be sleeping with a copy under my pillow?

Photo: Origami Gecko by /kallu; some rights reserved.

Excuse me—which way is the art at?

And speaking of directing art, tell me your trade secrets!

  • Where do you go to find free or nonspendy photographs?
  • How do you get ideas for photographs to illustrate stories that are, let’s say, totally and completely nonvisual? Are there tricks you use when you’re wholly uninspired?
  • How do you find that photo that you know exists but that’s just refusing to come up, no matter what keywords you use to search for it?
  • Where do you go to find illustrators?
  • How much guidance do you give to illustrators—to what extent do you just let them do their arty thing?
  • Do you generally deal with agencies or go directly to the artists?

We’ve mostly been using Creative Commons–licensed Flickr images, Associated Press photos, Photofest, Mary Evans Picture Library (which doesn’t seem to work with Firefox on the Mac—grrr), cheap stock places like iStockPhoto, behemoths such as Corbis and Getty, and specialty archives such as USHMM. I’ve recently started trawling through the listings at PhotoServe, but I haven’t yet used anything from any of the agencies I found there. I’d also somehow never heard of the mega-agency Jupiter until last week.

We haven’t hired any illustrators yet, but we’d love to. Some illustration agencies I’ve been looking at are CIA and Riley. Also, the DrawMo! del.icio.us dump. Any advice or recommendations are welcome (the only illustrations I’ve ever commissioned in the past are maps for fantasy books; I’m not sure that’s the look we want).

Heeeeelp meeeeeee!

What does an “art director” do?

Beats me. I’ve never worked with one in my life, but now this is my job title, so I’m trying to figure it out. What do you think it means?

My job so far seems to break down as follows:

  • 60 percent art wrangling, for print and Web. This includes photo research, chasing down permissions, cleaning up and sizing art, making more-or-less templated graphic doo-dads, and assembling stuff into online galleries.
  • 30 percent layout, which is to say, picking up templates (or tracing PDFs, when files aren’t handy) made by someone else, for stuff like invitations, postcards, business cards, and a sixteen-page semiannual magazine. There’s a single house font family and a very narrow house color palette, so very little “design” enters the equation. Print production and distribution management for same.
  • 10 percent Web, um, review. We’re in the final weeks of a relaunch, so we’re looking at a lot of new page designs. I’m neither designing nor managing; just mostly trying to help with quality control.

I’ve done this kind of work in the past, mixed in different proportions, under titles like “program associate” or “program director” or “webmaster” or “managing editor.” It’s not like my title matters to me—I’m going to do the work that needs to be done, regardless—but I do suspect that other people have expectations of what an AD does or knows how to do, and I have no idea how my skills and experience relate to those expectations.

Have you ever been or worked with an art director? What does the title mean to you?