Creative work is very rewarding, and working with creatives is very confusing. At least, it can be: I’ve been hired as a graphic designer and performer and I’ve hired illustrators, songwriters, directors and a whole range of specialized others, and I’ve messed up. But as I’ve kept doing it, I’ve messed up less and less, or messed up in ways that aren’t really mess-ups, but really good learning experiences. This guide comes from these experiences and is helpful both for people that have perhaps struggled to work with an artist or for people who are way smarter than me.
Hiring an artist can be difficult, but of course, it’s worth it. I’ve found it easier to navigate the process by remaining objective and being generous and empathetic. It doesn’t have to be tricky territory — it can actually be fun.
But Scot, I’ve never hired an artist before. I’m scared.
First, it helps to acknowledge this fear. As with any transaction, there’s risk involved – especially when hiring an artist, because there are no guarantees. That’s OK. When preparing to spend on creative endeavors, keep this in mind:
Risk management makes mediocre art.
Typically with money planning, we’re taught to control our purchasing risks. Good art can be an escape from what I call “future-proofing:” spending our money to avoid any potential for a poor outcome (like what we do when we buy insurance). Art embraces the excitement of now; it’s about effect. And boring art is worse than hated art. So let it go.
To get a sense of how much people want mediocre art, refer to the chart on the left.
Use money you can afford to lose.
Hopefully you’ve arrived at the place where you know this a gamble, but you understand that you can help your odds for getting something good. You still don’t want an artist’s fee to make or break you. Before talking to prospective hires, look over your budget and preset your ultimate spending limit. It helps to ask colleagues what they’ve spent when hiring artists for similar jobs.
Remember that many working artists will want a guarantee of payment, perhaps a 50% deposit up front and 50% upon completion. They may also suggest a pay schedule for longer projects. Have this ready to go before you begin any conversations.
Now that we’ve faced our knee-jerk fear of hiring an artist, let’s go step-by-step through the hiring and working process.
STEP 1. TRUST
Get comfy with your artist.
Without trust, this is a headache.
When hiring an artist, trust is your top priority. You’ll begin building this the minute you start appraising their work. Don’t just look at the quality and how much you like it: imagine or research how much the client for a specific piece was satisfied. Compare their past work to the project you have in mind. Ask others who have hired your artist their opinions of the past work. You must truly believe that your hire can do the job well.
“Art embraces the excitement of now; it’s about effect. And boring art is worse than hated art. So let it go.”
Remember, everyone has weaknesses. Try to identify the weaknesses and figure out if you’ll be able to work through or deal with them. Say you’re hiring a professional performer known for doing great work on cruise ships, but less experienced on a corporate party stage. If you’re entertaining an important group of business people at a convention, this artist may not be ideal for stirring your party out of endless-meeting doldrums.
Trust also goes both ways, and your artist should also be comfy with you. Little gestures can be very meaningful in building your working relationship. Here are some good ideas:
These aren’t meant as incentives for a job well done, but showing signs of real, unconditional love. Regardless of the work outcome, these gestures will go far to make all your future interactions run smoothly, and your artists will collaborate with you better in an environment where they know they’re safe.
Above all else, do NOT hire an artist you don’t trust to do the job! I don’t care how low his price or how married to your daughter he is.
STEP 2. COMMUNICATE
Form a project plan.
Most people have more goals for a project than they initially think. Get them all out in the open before you even start and then prioritize. You can communicate your goals clearly without inciting any tempers.
Form a contract with a list of clear objectives, and offer constructive constraints. Be sure to cover:
- The reason you hired them; perhaps reference previous work you enjoyed.
- Any and all technical details: the dimensions of a painting you want installed, color schemes of a graphic you want created, etc.
- Describe the audience (if any) that will be experiencing the final piece.
- If it’s important, reference similar works as guideposts.
Some aspects of what you want may seem obvious to you, but you can’t assume the artist can read your mind. Be as specific about the details as possible, covering important pieces while leaving out what may be trivial. Resist the urge to be the creator: You’re not as good as the person you hired, and you don’t know everything that’s going into it. It’s like your parents giving you advice when they just don’t understand your life. Or every bad boss that told you to do things that damaged your ability to get important work done.
Take graphic design (something I’ve done): every visual element can have an emotional and practical impact on the viewer: information hierarchy, usability, readability, weight, color theory, intuitivity, value directives, symbolism and a million more things that he is trying to make work in your piece. If you understand all of these things, you should be a graphic designer. If not, trust your graphic designer to do it. All art is about affecting the audience and there’s a lot more science to it than just “make it pretty.”
“Resist the urge to be the creator: You’re not as good as the person you hired, and you don’t know everything that’s going into it.”
If you have technical specifics that absolute must be done, make sure you write them objectively: replace “a friendly pink color” with “Pantone 2365.” Instead of “a short story,” say “a story that falls between 400 and 600 words.”
Finally, you may find you have emotional requirements for the work. You might want the piece to convey a specific feeling: happy, sad, existential trepidation, etc. The trick is to identify the root of what you want to express and not the device. The artist will take care of that. Give yourself the freedom to enjoy what comes from collaboration. Being relaxed about what someone else creates can be a challenge, but once you get there, it can be a blessing.
STEP 3. AGREE ON THE PLAN
How does the artist feel? Ask them to give you the plan in their own words. Really listen to see if they know what you know and if there are any holes.
Even if you’re not directly involved in all aspects of the project, this is a collaboration. The artist is not doing your bidding: you’re both on the same mission. You play the role of boss, partner and muse, and you’re there to encourage your hire to do their very best.
Feel free to adjust your plan at this stage so that it’s practical, clear and fertile. Take as long as you need to get it all right.
Seth Godin calls this step “thrashing” in his podcast episode “The Shipit Journal” http://www.earwolf.com/episode/the-shipit-journal/
Here’s a link to his Shipit Journal ( http://sethgodin.typepad.com/files/theshipitjournal.pdf )
STEP 4. SET A SCHEDULE
Structure is more powerful than conflict.
The artist might already have a preferable timeline for projects like yours. Find a time to sit down with them and figure out the process. Make sure you’re comfortable with it. Deadlines and mile markers with specific dates can be helpful.
Say you need someone to write you a five-page bio. Here’s a sample timeline:
You should have at least one point in the schedule where you can review the work to confirm that you’re on the same page. If it’s a one-chance wonder — like an event performance, instant mural or hair cut — your initial meeting and contract can be very important to make sure you’re both communicating. Cause when that kind of work is done, it’s done.
STEP 5. ENJOY IMPERFECTION
Warts are good for growth, and good for art.
Giving constructive notes is hard, especially when you’re really close to the work. It’s easy to imagine your project going in one certain direction and setting up a mental image of what is perfect (see demoitis). You can even end up hating a better option. It’s also hard for some people to butt-in on the artist process at all.
I thought it would be . . . pipe-ier.
Luckily, you set up a good plan in the beginning. Now you’ll be able to compare the artwork to the plan and give notes for the things that veer from the plan while leaving your ego out of everything. Right?
Your artist will probably give you a brief of the work when it’s time for review. The artist should describe to you unexpected solutions included in the work and how all the work matches the plan. If not, ask open-ended (not loaded) questions to understand the reasoning of this person that you trust. For example: “We were originally talking about putting the logo on the left. How did you come to this new solution?”
Using an itemized list of notes is much easier for an artist to follow than paragraphs. If you’re not in the same location as the artist, email a to-do list and go over it with the artist in a phone call. Revise the list after the call and resend if necessary to make sure you’re both on the same page.
Don’t seek perfection. Seek the blessings that you didn’t expect. Look at your plan with determination. If you forgot to add something to the plan, apologize a lot and clearly define the goal and its priority. If you’re experiencing demoitis, celebrate the victories, stick with the important parts and enjoy collaboration.
And don’t go insane! If you’re going nuts at this step or any step, get outside help. Ask friends for opinions and help with your communication.
STEP 5.5 (OPTIONAL) TERMINATION
Firing the artist (Eek!)
If you don’t trust the artist anymore, maybe it’s time to end the relationship. Or maybe not. It’s always better to communicate: sit and talk to the artist and figure out how they’re feeling about the work. If your artist doesn’t understand the goals, it can cause major problems. You might be able to revisit your plan and make changes that help you both.
When things go really, really sour, pay the artist for the work they did, thank them and move on. It’s difficult. It’s weird. I’m not going to be able to walk you through fair payment or how to make it end well, but remember that it’s like a breakup. Rarely, one of the people sucked. More likely it was a compatibility problem.
DEALING WITH TRUST ISSUES
No matter how many times I tell you to trust your employee, sometimes you just can’t. Maybe you’ve had an artist pushed on you by your boss, or you don’t have the budget to hire a solid worker. You can’t always get around this completely, but you can jerry-rig the thing a little. Here are some options:
- Hire a creative director or ask someone to do it as a favor. A creative director makes creative decisions, usually without actually creating the work. They can be a buffer between you and the artist and help facilitate everything by talking the talk and knowing how to nudge the artist to make the most of his talents. A creative director is a specific role, but can sometimes be done by low-ego artists.
- Split up the work to specialists. This is pretty easy to figure out. Use your artist for their strengths and find another artist to step in for their weaknesses. This could also be a way of lowering your budget and hiring a more expensive artist. Ask the artist what you’d like others to do (like research, outlining, etc.) and you can take some work load off the artist and save some cash.
- Simplify the project even more. Sometimes, you can turn your current project into a simpler, temporary project that can be updated or replaced at a later date. Not only does this reduce the budget and take some of the weight off the trust relationship, it can also help you learn more about what you really want by seeing one version of the piece finished.
STEP 6. BE HAPPY
Congratulations: You just took a big risk, embarked on a near-impossible journey, and you’re now a producer and a patron of the arts. Not only did you learn a great deal about your own abilities and collaborating, you improved the world by sponsoring something beautiful.
You probably ended up with a different piece from what you had in your head, and that’s great. That’s the point.