The Block

Life — 5 years ago

How To Handle Creative Compromise

Having looked at how to go about getting your first commission, we now turn to a key question for anyone working regular freelance graphic design, illustration, or design jobs – how to avoid creative compromise.


It’s all too easy to spend hours trawling freelancing websites looking for answers, but in our experience at least, it’s always best to talk to people who’ve been through it before. With that in mind, we’ve started a new series to work through some of the most pressing issues facing creatives in our community.


This week, to better understand how professional freelancers handle creative compromise, from setting parameters early on, to pushing back on feedback, and the benefits of having a signature style, we chatted to a duo of illustrators who can safely claim to have found a way to make it all work; enter Jor Ros and Merijn Hos.


Emma Tucker
everpress_avoiding_creating compromise
Original illustration by Nicholas K. Law for the Everpress 'How to' series

Compromise is an inevitable part of any artist-client relationship, but it’s a word that evokes mixed reactions. Too much compromise and the creative no longer feels the idea is theirs, but too little and the client leaves feeling dissatisfied. Finding a careful balance between the two can be a challenge, and is often a source of friction for commercial artists. According to Barcelona-based illustrator Jor Ros, though, the first step in managing compromise is to accept it.

Original artwork by Jor Ros
Original artwork by Jor Ros

The ‘Counter-Brief’

“I understand why it might be stressful for some people – and maybe something you struggle with – but not for me,” he told us. “I’ve made my peace with it. It’s something you have to manage, and you have to be really sure what your position on it is, because if not it can get out of hand and cause you trouble.”

As far as Ros is concerned, where artists and illustrators fall down is viewing compromise as something purely negative. Rather than seeing it as sacrificing your vision, it’s a chance to start a conversation with a client, and he recommends doing this at the beginning of every project.  By making it clear you’re open to discussion, and by establishing boundaries early on, it means any issues can be tackled together.

Merijn Hos photographed by Pierre Zylstra
Merijn Hos photographed by Pierre Zylstra

The way Ros manages this is to create what he calls a ‘counter-brief’. This is a response to the client’s commission, delving into the context of the project, how it was originated, what they’re trying to achieve, and who the graphic work is addressed to. By clarifying these points, says Ros, artists can often uncover potential pitfalls in the brief early on.

Be open to discussion, and establish boundaries early on

“Most people respond to it well, because it shows you’re interested in the project and willing to compromise on some things, but there are also some things you’re not. If both parties understand that it shouldn’t be hard. The problem comes when this doesn’t happen. If you let the client push you from the very beginning, recovering control or getting back on solid footing is really hard because you’ve already given up that position.”

Original artwork by Jor Ros
Original artwork by Jor Ros

Utrecht illustrator Merijn Hos also recommends establishing boundaries early on. “If you do it that way, they see you as more of a professional, and they won’t fool with you later in the process because you know your stuff,” he says. “They tend to take less advantage of you if you discuss the things that are scary to talk about – like budgets or rounds of revisions and deliverables. I think it’s super good to have all that stuff clear up-front before you start a project. I don’t think you should be pushed around forever on an assignment.”

It’s OK To Push Back

And while it’s good to remember that a commission is a piece of work tailored for someone else’s needs, that doesn’t mean bowing down to every request. Both Ros and Hos say artists should pay attention to their instincts, and be ready to speak up if clients’ creative requests are making them feel uncomfortable.

Original artwork by Merijn Hos
Original artwork by Merijn Hos

Hos says that if work is going in a direction he isn’t happy with he’ll make a comment, but that if a client can reasonably explain their request then he’s happy to continue. “It’s a gut feeling,” he explains.

Artists shouldn’t be scared to push back on something

Ros agrees that artists shouldn’t be scared to push back on something, particularly if it’s based purely on personal opinion. He says he ended up dropping out of a recent commission for a major record label after more and more changes were requested with little justification, extending the scope of work beyond the original budget. In the end, Ros received a kill fee, which didn’t cover the entire project but allowed him to walk away with something in his pocket – and without creating work he wasn’t happy with.

Other situations that he feels aren’t worth the compromise are when clients request that artists recreate the style of other illustrators, something he strongly believes is wrong. Ros also advises keeping an eye out for early signs of clients being difficult, for example treating illustrators like machines and expecting changes instantly, or at unsociable hours.

A Signature Style

For some people, developing a very clear signature style can also be a way of avoiding compromise. Hos says many of his clients come to him specifically for his approach, which means he gets a lot more creative freedom to do what he wants. As a more established illustrator, he can now say no if he feels too many concessions are involved. And while that might seem like a long way off for up-and-coming artists, Hos has an encouraging message.

“You don’t want to know all the stupid mistakes I made,” he says. “The things I did for too little money, or rounds and rounds of revisions, but in the end I learnt a lot from it. I think you shouldn’t worry about compromise too much.”

Missed the first article in our ‘How To’ series? Read it here: How To Get Your First Commission

Posted by
Everpress Team