Let There Be Light!
Basics of Composition
First Thoughts when choosing a Costume
The Sun, Part 1
Romancing an Art Directorby Ellen Million
One of my six hundred and two job descriptions is 'art director,' and I've worked with a few of the more official art directors as well. The job comes with a million (pun intended!) frustrations. Some of them are inevitable -- things get lost in the mail, or damaged in transit, or e-mails get accidentally filtered to a spam box. Some frustrations, though, are easily avoided. Here are some tips that will make your art director love you.
Do Your Research
Before you bother an art director with your portfolio, make sure that you are on the same page. Check their submission guidelines, and look at their current publications, and make sure that your art is a good fit before going any further. A very skilled artist once sent me nearly photographic drawings of motorcycles. They were very nice motorcycles, but they were in no way something that fit with the rest of my storefront or the theme of my business, and it was a big waste of time for both of us.
Not all art directors want portfolios, and they certainly don't all want them in the same fashion. Some want hard copies. Some want e-mailed attachments. Some will want to rip your eyeballs out for attaching files to an e-mail. Some art directors don't even want example work, and are only looking for already finished pieces to choose from.
Rare indeed is the art director who has time to hold the hands of their artists and walk through every step of the process individually. To save them from having to do this, they often post FAQ, or send a document explaining what they need and when. Read these documents! Read them twice, and save them someplace safe. Print them out, if you have habitual computer problems. And if you run into questions later, go back and read them, to make sure that your question wasn't already covered. There are often a lot of tricky details tucked away in the guidelines that you may not catch the first time. E-mailing questions to your art director that they've already spelled out answers to is guaranteed to make them grumpy.
In this day and age, chances are very good that you will be required to carry on communication via e-mail. E-mails are easy, almost everyone has access to them these days, and they allow communication to happen quickly. There are several things to keep in mind when you are sending your e-mails:
Include your full name every time. It's likely that your art director is dealing with more than one artist, and it's quite possible they are exchanging e-mails with more than one Fred or Julie at a time. You may go so far as to include your full name in your signature so that you don't have to type it out every time, but be sure to avoid the common error of signing off with your nickname. Most art directors don't keep files based on nicknames, and it's difficult to remember what all of their artists' multiple names are.
On this note, it is very, very useful to include backchat in your e-mail. You don't need to include the entire history of your conversation if you don't choose to, but keep at least the bulk of the last e-mail that you are replying to. This is particularly important if there is a lag in communication of more than a day or two - on either end. Chances are good that your busy art director has been talking with a lot of other people in that time, and juggling several other projects. They will look at your "Sure, that sounds good, but can we do it in purple?" reply and wonder what on Earth you are talking about if you don't include some background.
To increase your e-mail's chances of not getting eaten by a spam filter, be sure to use a subject line. Better yet, if your art director sets a subject line, continue to use that until they change it. Avoid generic subject lines, like "art" or "please respond." Do be fairly specific - "I wish to submit artwork for Such-And-So book" or "Ellen Million - portfolio for review." Check and make sure they don't have a particular subject that they require or request before you send your e-mail!
Keep it professional. Check over your e-mail before you send it for grammar and spelling, no matter how friendly and cheerful your communication has been. Don't use e-mail stationery, or include graphics. Avoid long signature blocks that are irrelevant. Make sure that you've answered all of the questions they asked of you, and if you are asking your own questions, make sure they are laid out in an easy to answer format. Consider giving each question its own line in the e-mail. A string of questions in one paragraph can be confusing.
Communicate frequently. If they send you a query about your status, resist the temptation to 'wait until you have more done to tell them.' I know this temptation - it is strong and leads only to the dark side of the force. Tell them immediately where you stand – this will win you more art director love than sending them flowers, or even chocolate. If you've e-mailed them a question and haven't heard back, do a follow-up. The closer to a deadline, the sooner you should follow up. Chances are good that they are just busy, but it is still possible your first e-mail got lost and they think they are waiting on you.
Art directors have deadlines. There is no real way around this in the publishing world. They must have the artwork by a certain date, or the release of their RPG manual (or whatever) will be delayed. Most larger companies start to advertise their new products before they are actually printed, and if you, as a lowly contracted artist, make them miss their advertised release date, you can probably kiss any chance of working with that company again goodbye.
Most art directors will give you a fairly lengthy deadline, and waiting until the last minute and then having a crisis is unlikely to win a lot of sympathy. But let's be honest - artists procrastinate. Muses are fickle. It take discipline and hard work to force out artwork on spec, and it's as likely as not that sometimes you'll just be behind. Even telling them that straight up, unflattering truth will win you far, far more points with an art director than simply delivering the artwork late. As soon as you know that you are running late, tell them. Ask politely for an extension, before the deadline has gone swishing by, and give them an estimate for when you do think you can complete the work. The more lead time you give them before the deadline, the more they will be able to plan ahead and compensate, and the more understanding they will be.
Stuff does come up, too. A kind and tolerant art director will understand that. That art director becomes an awful lot less kind and tolerant if the deadline has passed and you have not communicated with them. Tell them - briefly - the nature of the delay and when you will produce the final work. Do not go into gory detail about the exact problem that caused the delay, keep it simple. A death in the family. A computer failure - these are items that an art director may (at their discretion) consider an acceptable reason for missing a deadline. Missing a deadline is much, much more acceptable if the art director knows about it beforehand.
If you realize that you cannot complete the work, for any reason (from a broken art-making limb to a reluctant muse), tell them. Personally, I would accept work again in the future from someone who told me they had to back out two days before a deadline over someone who turned in work two days late without telling me first, no matter what kind of reasons either of them had. Communicating with your art director is vitally important. They have to know what's happening to work with the other publishing departments effectively.
Not liking the work that you've produced is never a good excuse for not turning something in. An art director needs something to fill the space, and the closer to the deadline they are, the lower the quality they will accept. Ideally of course, you will do flawless work by the deadline, but if they had to choose between perfectly executed work and work that is on time . . . they'll take what they can get. Especially since an art director's job may hinge on the fact that they have to deliver on time. If you're in doubt, ask your art director. They may have worked some leeway into their schedule and might be able to work with you a little. I've had one art director absolutely love the fact that yes, I turned in a piece on time, but I didn't like it, so I produced a replacement that they could use within a few days. I made my deadline and proved that I had pride in the quality of my work. Brownie points!
Even very good reasons for missing a deadline can make the difference between getting a second opportunity with the company and having your info tossed to the trash, so whenever possible, meet those deadlines. Remember to allow enough time to send your files. Most deadlines are not 'when you finish the artwork,' but 'when the artwork is in my hands.' And remember that an art director will always love to get artwork ahead of schedule!
Eventually, you'll have the artwork to send. Naturally, you've been a good little artist and met your deadline. Don't ruin it now by sending them the wrong things!
Every art director will have their own requirements. Some will want originals, to do their own scanning from. Most will not. In this digital age, they are likely to want a digital file to print from. They will have their own specifications, but a 50 dpi jpg format file of a bad photo of the artwork that has been compressed twice will probably make an art director grab their chest and gurgle in pain. They will certainly file your portfolio somewhere dark and inaccessible. They need quality files, a high-resolution scan or a photograph at the correct focus with ample lighting. See what format your art director needs, what resolution they want, and do that.
Before you send your files, clean them up. Scanner burn often lurks in corners and along edges. You may not even notice it if you are viewing the file at a small size. Zoom in, check your corners and your edges. If your piece scanned slightly off-kilter, adjust it so that it doesn't look funny. Crop out any rough edges. Delete any spots that came from your scanner glass or from a stray pencil smudge, and adjust the contrast and brightness so that the whites are really white and the blacks are really black. Grayish line art and messy smudges in your file mean someone at the other end has to do cleanup work. The golden rule to remember is that the less work you are to them, the more likely they are to want to hire you again. I'll talk more about cleaning up files in another article.
Name your files intelligently. Some scanning programs will automatically call them something helpful like IMAG00004529.tif. An art director looking for a particular piece in their possibly not very well organized files may have difficulty remembering if your piece is IMAG00004569.tif or IMAG000003321.psd. Use your name and a description or title in the piece. For example: million-streetsigns-illo1.tif. If your piece is easy to find and identify, there is much less chance of it getting lost (in your files too!).
Check and see how they want to receive the files. If they don't want attachments, don't send them! Most companies will have an FTP site, or an upload site that is accessed via an Internet browser. If you have difficulty getting high-resolution files to upload because of your computer or connection, make prior arrangements, like mailing a CD. They may prefer that format anyway. Read the information they gave you and if the file transfer information is not included, ask - preferably well before the deadline so that there are no last minute panics! If you send a CD, make sure you label it, with your name and the name of the project or files on both the disc and the case.
Reaping the Benefits
Frustrating an art director is no promise that they will reject you, of course! Maybe you're a fabulously skilled artist who can provide exactly the look that they want. But, if they're choosing between you and a similarly - even slightly lesser! - skilled artist who follows the instructions to a "T," doesn't require an extra e-mail or two, doesn't send files in the wrong format, and meets his deadlines, guess who gets the job? Following these tips will make the difference between having an art director who tolerates you and an art director who loves you. And an art director who loves you is a very good thing.
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