Posted 01 August 2019
Written by Chris Clarke

21 steps to the perfect editorial commission, by The Guardian’s Chris Clarke

If you’re starting out as a freelancer, landing those first few commissions can be a real balancing act. Not only will you be locating the right contacts and working out how to appeal to them, but once you’ve landed a job, there’s a whole world of process and contract know-how to master. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing guides to being commissioned – including opinions from every corner of the process. To get things started, Chris Clarke, The Guardian’s global deputy creative director, is giving us the art director’s view on finding the right commissioners, nailing a brief and laying the foundations for great working relationships.

Before I dive into any detailed advice, I feel it’s only fair to highlight the time constraints and deadline pressures that loom over art directors in editorial. Quite often, we choose talent based on turnaround times as well as the relevance of their working style or chosen practice. There are typically four strands we consider before commissioning someone:

Relevance: Is their style appropriate to fit the tone?
Turnaround: Does the style or approach seem too labour intensive for the timeframe?
Integrity: Has this creative worked with people that we find inappropriate to align ourselves with?
Curiosity: How engaged is this artist? Not only with the field they work in, but culture, news and society as a whole?

With all of that in mind, here is my advice on the things to consider before and during a commission, as well as what to watch out for, divided into 21 steps...

Before the commission

1. Approach new contacts with care
Be friendly, polite and, above all, curious in who you’re approaching. In emails, be careful of misspelled names, too (this becomes reflective of how engaged you are in that person or organisation). Mentioning an interest in the commissioner’s approach or past work can also prove valuable – I personally find those emails very hard to scroll past – and perhaps give a nod to your turnaround ability, as well as the fact that you’re a trustworthy individual. Trust carries the most currency, as it essentially allows the commissioner to relieve themselves of some pressure.

Consider the speed and technique you feel most comfortable with under deadline-induced constraints. In the past, when creatives have shown examples of how they would respond to a particular piece, it goes the extra mile in being able to match them with briefs in the future. On several occasions I’ve taken a chance on someone because of this. Their curiosity, energy and determination spoke louder than the work ever could.

2. Ask for help
Seek out a trusted mentor; someone you perhaps share a studio space with, who can be critical, reflective and honest. They will help to critique your work, add focus to your direction and guide you, based on their own experiences. They will be both your biggest champion when something works out, and a supporting confidant when it doesn’t.

3. Mailers should be consistent, not excessive
This is an important and delicate balance – one that many get completely wrong. An illustrator friend of mine (Leon Edler) once likened mailers from artists to someone handing you a flyer as you run for a flight. This has always stuck with me as a powerful metaphor for the reality behind the scenes.

Art directors are often juggling commissions, working in advance, whilst hurtling towards daily deadlines. It’s not uncommon for emails to be missed, bookmarked and sadly neglected. This isn’t to say the work isn’t excellent; it’s just the timing.

Friendly reminders of your work every few months is really helpful. Interesting, relevant mailers also stick around for a long time – but nothing that feels wasteful (the world is dying, please only produce things that you know to be beautiful or sustainable).

Chris' example of a great mailer: “Laurie Avon created a piece inspired by a Guardian article, and also included a set of prints created around The Guardian's journalistic values. The mailer was coupled with information about the turnaround time required to produce pieces like this.”

4. Timing can be everything
Now, the right-time-right-place scenario is rare but it does happen, and you can be smart with this. Understanding roughly how frequently an art director commissions is key.

On a number of occasions an artist has emailed me something, and within minutes I’ve responded asking if they’re available that day. This means it’s matched the scrutiny outlined above, and is the perfect fit for that project. These briefs tend to be a quick turnaround, where the piece has come in late or been changed.

5. Get a recommendation
Trusted references are vital for commissioners. If your peers have worked with people you would also like to work with, there’s no harm in asking them to put you forward. There will, understandably, be a level of competition between practitioners in the same discipline – but remember, giving someone a step-up may result in a bridge for you during harder times.

Generally, if a creative can’t take on a commission, I will ask for their recommendations. This gives a chance to commission someone fresh – opening up a dialogue with a wider pool of talent.

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“Some illustrators are as much a part of the fabric of The Guardian as the journalists; illustrator Nathalie Lees works across a myriad of different sections with the ability to distil complex narratives into arresting imagery.”

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The Guardian University Guide 2020: “This commission was spread across multiple touch points, including a pack design for students. Illustration by Fran Caballero.”

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“Sometimes, artists The Guardian are in regular contact with send through submissions that are reflective of moments within the news agenda. The above by Dennis Vernooij was so prolific that the team cleared a whole page to display it in its entirety.”

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“This was a supplement on anger. Having a good relationship with your art director is important; Chris notes how the piece above by visual communicator Tomato Košir was only possible because of the trust built up through past commissions.”

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“This Weekend cover by art director Maggie Murphy and illustrator Joan Wong are a great example of a brief that had the space and time to nurture an idea.”

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“The Journal section often requires illustrations to be turned around from anywhere between two and four hours from brief.” (Illustration by Ben Jennings)

During the commission

6. Communicate your progress
Deadlines are essential in editorial commissions, and we don’t often have a backup plan, so keeping an art director up-to-date on progress can be essential for easing tension and giving them confidence.

For a long turnaround, it’s good to send a note at the end of each day (or every couple of days). If it’s a one-day turnaround, sending more updates is useful – for example, a note to say you’re having a break can mitigate any concerns.

7. Ask questions
If you’re unclear about a certain aspect of the brief, from the story to the cultural context (especially if you’re not native to the country it’s based), then speak up. Although you may feel like a burden, having the commissioner explain the brief will help both of you in crystallising the essence of a piece. This then becomes an anchor for you to feel on-brief.

8. Sell your ideas well
Usually, the commissioner is working for someone who isn’t as visually literate, so successfully communicating your ideas is essential. With illustrators, everyone has a different approach to creating ‘a rough’, but adding in just a few words about your concept will help an art director sell your ideas [see an example below].

Comping roughs onto the application is also remarkably helpful. This is often when you see composition adjustments that need refining. It also allows for a dialogue with the art director around typographic furniture placement.

9. Be confident when talking about money
Lots of editorial organisations have set fees they pay for the work of an artist. Previously, this used to be measured by size, but this now tends to be reflective of workload and time constraints.

At The Guardian, all commissions are treated the same, regardless of gravitas of subject or the artist we use. However, the fee will be slightly higher for a one-day turnaround (often the case with commissions for the opinion pages). This is to reflect the pressure on delivery and constraints – knowing that the artist wouldn’t be able to take on another project that day.

10. Be honest about your workload and commitments
If you don’t feel able to complete the commission, let the client know. It’s best to limit damage where possible. Highlighting concerns early on doesn’t make you vulnerable, it makes you professional.

Honesty makes for a healthier working relationship. It’s really obvious to the commissioner when something isn’t a creative’s sole focus, and that’s OK, but it’s a bad idea to take on too much work if it’ll affect the quality. Through transparent conversation, I know about our regular artists’ work and life commitments, and will keep this in mind when commissioning. It’s great to be able to work flexibly around an artist and accommodate their situation.

11. Deliver the best quality possible
Try not to over-promise or oversell what you do. There should be an internal slider of time, fee and amount of work.

If you do the artworking to the standard you want the work portrayed, this will save time on the commissioner’s side – and that will only ever reflect well on you and your integrity. Often in editorial, the print colour profiles will vastly differ; however, preparing your artwork in CMYK (for print) and (RGB) digitally will really help control your desired outcome.

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An example of successful roughs: “Ari Liloan’s roughs communicate in a refined way, with enough detail behind the concept, but still leaving room for interpretation.”

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The final artwork: Ari Liloan’s commission of 3 images for a long-read took 2.5 days in total, from roughs to deadline

12. Have the application in mind
Creating artwork with the user, reader or platform in mind is a great way to focus and refine your approach. It will also shine through when presenting your work back – and might even inspire the art director to go beyond the original brief and use the artwork in further applications.

13. Take criticism on board
This is not to be confused with plain criticism. If it’s constructive, it will open a dialogue to discuss and develop, often leading to a better result. If the important ‘constructive’ is missing, it’s subjective, and ultimately becomes a fight. When faced with the latter, if you’re able to, take a step back and probe a bit deeper – often you find that the actual change is very slight.

It’s worth noting that the job of a good art director is to diffuse the often-confused and contradictory feedback from an editor (or commissioner), and be the bridge between you and them. Their feedback should be clear, constructive and concise, with clear actions.

14. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion (without being difficult)
This will almost always earn you more respect from the commissioner, and often make them scrutinise their own approach. I would much rather work with someone willing to challenge my preconceptions than not. There’s a reason why certain art directors want to work with you: They value your approach, your style and, importantly, your opinion.

15. Bear diversity in mind
This shouldn’t even need to be said, but make sure this is considered within your work. This doesn’t just account for gender, but also representation of various ethnicities and disabilities.

Things to watch out for

16. Limit misunderstanding with feedback
When working with a creative I’ve never worked with before, I always make time for a call. You can gauge a lot in their tone of voice, and I’ve been told this helps the artist distil the changes, whereas an email with a lot of feedback can appear overwhelming.

17. Beware vague briefs
Make sure you really understand what deliverables are being asked for. This helps prevent being taken advantage of, and avoids the goalposts being moved as the project progresses. If extra work is added, don’t be afraid to ask for more money. There needs to be mutual respect, so additional work needs to be fairly negotiated.

18. Check for kill fees
You shouldn’t need to ask for this, but kill fees should be part of your contract with the commissioner. We have a kill fee, which we only apply if the work doesn’t make it past the initial rough stages. If, for whatever reason, the work is fulfilled and then spiked, we still pay the agreed fee. There’s no reason why the artist should suffer because of a mistake on our end.

19. Be aware of re-use and buy-out terms
This is slightly different for editorial than commercial applications, but if the work is used beyond its agreed purpose, this should be negotiated as re-use. Buy-outs are different, in that the artist has given over the rights of the artwork in perpetuity. This is delicate to negotiate, and if you don’t have an agent to help, I would strongly recommend resources including the AOI for illustrators, the AOP for photographers – or simply the advice of someone you trust in your field (see step 2).

20. Avoid plagiarism
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? No; not when it’s taking money away from someone else. Asking an artist to replicate work, style or approach happens sadly more often than it should. Plagiarising work, or directly copying elements, will ultimately damage your reputation and limit the chances of step 4. So be confident in your style, and trust your own direction.

Sometimes (although not something I endorse) another artist’s work will be used in a brief. This is often a dead giveaway that you might be a second choice, which is OK – although a little insensitive of the commissioner. When it’s not OK is when they ask you to replicate it. That’s an immediate red flag.

21. Unpaid work and free pitches
You wouldn’t expect a plumber to fix your sink for free, would you? Our industry should be no different. The more we work for free, the worse our industry is exploited and ultimately devalued.

My general rule is to only take on free work if it nurtures something you might be missing from your day-to-day, or it contributes to getting more commissions in a different style. It should be enjoyable, challenging and exciting. This is not to be confused with collaborations, where both parties have an invested interest and equal footing.

Understanding what makes you and your work unique is really valuable. It helps focus where you’re putting your energies, and lets you build on the nuances that make your work special. It allows art directors to find the right projects for you, and the right tone to align your work with. It speaks volumes about who you are and how you approach a subject. The world of art directors is a pretty tight community, and we often share artists’ details and bounce ideas off each other.

It’s important to have a trajectory of where you see yourself in years to come, and to not be hard on yourself when it’s not going to plan. That focus, coupled with energy and curiosity, will get you there – even if you do take a few detours along the way.


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Written by Chris Clarke
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