Getting over yourself: Seven tips to get through a job gone wrong

When the best foreseeable outcome is simply surviving...

David Palumbo 

This is going to seem unfair, but you can not count on your client to be the level headed voice of reason when a job takes a wrong turn.  Hopefully the client will recognize the problem and do their best to keep things moving forward, but you need to do your part as well.  Often the problems may arise because some clients are not very good communicators to begin with, in which case you are going to be doing the heavy lifting to reach a result where everyone is happy.  A job which has derailed is a painful experience that is bound to happen from time to time.  Here are some questions to ask yourself and truths to remember that will help you get though those bad times:

1. Never answer an email angry
Let’s start there, unless you are ready to torpedo the whole job.

2. Ask yourself: “What aspects of this are my fault?”
This might seem like a bleak place to begin, but I think it is one of the most critical areas to look at as honestly as possible before you can correct the situation.  Put aside all the grievances which you have with the problematic client and simply ask yourself: “have I done what I aimed to do?  Have I done what I was asked to do?  Have I executed this job to my quality standards?”
Most of the time both the client and the artist share some responsibility in a job gone south, though some times it is heavily weighted to one side.  If you step back and see that, indeed, you have short changed the job in some respect, you need to own up to that in your own mind so that you can make it right.  The degree to which you bear responsibility should reflect in the extra effort you are willing to put forward to correct the problem.

3. Identify the unresolved problems(s)
I have a theory: Bad art directors dictate a solution to a vague problem.  Good art directors clearly communicate the problem itself.  A good art director respects the expertise of their artists to find appropriate and interesting solutions to their problems, so they don’t really need to do anything other than make you aware of what those problems are.  If we are holding up our end, we must be worthy of that trust.  Good art directors know that an illustrator is not just a pair of hands, but a creative individual who is trained in solving visual problems.  
When faced with an art director who does not operate this way, it becomes our responsibility to extract the true nature of the problem so that we can solve it correctly.  Even if we still follow their dictated solution, we can do it much more effectively if we understand *why* we are doing it.  I’ve found that I often come up with better, simpler, or more elegant solutions when I understand why I’m being asked to do something and hopefully the art director will be receptive to this.  When an artist can propose their own solution, it almost always better fits to their strengths and will give a better outcome.  Working blindly off of client dictated instruction is more or less just groping around in the dark and often it does not fully satisfy the concern.  It is an inefficient way to solve a problem at best, so try whenever possible to get more relevant information.

4. Remind yourself that the client wants for the image to succeed
It can be easy to forget this when you are being asked to make changes which you don’t agree with.  Usually this feeling of sabotage indicates that you have not yet understood the unresolved problems or the art director does not trust/agree with your opinion on a better solution.  Of course the client wants for the image to succeed, that is why they are paying you to make it.  You don’t have to like the feedback, but it is always ALWAYS worth reminding yourself on a job in trouble: we are all on the same team.

5. Acknowledge that it isn't personal
I find that most jobs which end up in trouble fall into two categories.  The first are the result of poor communication.  Assuming that YOUR communication has been good (has it?), you can still end up dealing with a client who gave specific information and now they are contracting themselves.  The client wants aspects of a final changed which were present in the approved sketch.  The client gives very minimal briefs and then incredibly nitpicky feedback on the final.  The client asks for a change and then says “oh wait, I meant I want you to do the opposite of what I asked you to do” (true story).  This is frustrating for obvious reasons and these are the sort of time wasting situations that are typically justified in seeking additional fees for additional work.  When a client with poor communication has to start paying extra for their own mistakes, they generally figure out what they want a whole lot quicker.  I expect some fine-tuning with most any job, but not heavy reworking after approvals.
The second source of many troubled jobs is that the client picked the wrong artist.  That sucks, because that artist is you.  When it becomes clear that this has happened, your only choices are to walk or to try and navigate through to the other side.  Often the mismatch can be subtle and not fully mature until late in the process.  After all,  if I am so obviously not the right choice, I probably would not have accepted the job at all. The painful part of this is that the client just doesn’t understand why you are not giving them what they expected and you can’t understand why the client does not like what you are giving them.  It is very easy to take it personal. 

As professional illustrators, we like to believe that we should be able to handle anything.  Any subject, any tone, any problem.  While that should be true overall, the reality is that we are *best* at being ourselves and working towards the solutions which we find exciting and interesting.  If, for example, you are bored with conventional fantasy tropes and want to explore strange or unexpected takes on the fantasy genre, you are in for hard times if your client is producing a product rigidly set in a classic traditional fantasy universe.  If you are pushing your work to a stylized and graphic direction and the client wants highly rendered hyper-realism… problems.
Understanding that, early on, there was a fundamental misunderstanding as to what you do and what the client wants is one of the most frustrating conclusions for an artist to reach.  This is a case where you probably can not make yourself and the client both happy.  But it isn’t personal.  It does not reflect on your skill, ability, or value as an artist.  It only reflects on your appropriateness to that job or client.  Walk or see it through to meet the client’s needs, those are your choices, but don’t take it personally.
6. Comfort yourself that, once your commitment is met, you never have to work for this person again
Sometimes our clients are beyond just difficult.  Sometimes they are wrong.  Sometimes they are rude.  Sometimes they are morally offensive.  At the end of the day, the joy of being a freelancer is that you never have to work with someone if you don’t want to.  One of the greatest pleasures (and I’ve only had this pleasure once but it. was. sweet.) is telling a formerly abusive client that you are busy now and will be busy indefinitely, thankyou for your interest.  On the rare occasions which I find myself pushed to this point, it is a comfort to remind myself that ultimately I can put this person in my past and never deal with them on a professional level again. 

7. Know that a job done well is always to YOUR benefit in the long game
This is really the ultimate conclusion.  No matter how much a struggle, no matter how low the rate was, no matter how much you dislike the art director, you are a professional and every job is a building block in the ever growing structure of your career.  If you let your emotions get the best of you and refuse to deliver your best because you don’t like an assignment or client, you are only hurting yourself.  If possible, make every piece into something you would be proud to show in your portfolio.  If the job is forced in a direction where that is not going to happen, you can still conduct yourself as a professional who does their best to get the job done right.  That is something worth taking pride in and any opportunity to prove it is at least worth that much.  Sometimes jobs go wrong, but these experiences teach us better who we are and who we want to be.