Professional conduct for freelance illustrators


If you create artwork or illustrations based on instructions or a client’s brief and you get paid for it, you’re a professional illustrator. So with this in mind (regardless of whether you personally consider it just a hobby or yourself an amateur), you need to treat all of your clients and potential future clients with respect. I’m not saying that you won’t continue to get paying work if you don’t show respect for your clients, but when you don’t you’re damaging the general image people have of professional illustrators as a whole and this does have a knock on effect.

We’ve seen an increasing trend in recent months where freelance illustrators are just letting off a bit of steam by the way of posting rants or comments on their social profiles. This is fine if their privacy settings have to been set up to only allow their actual friends see their posts, but with a good number of illustrators this isn’t the case. Their profiles are public for all the world to see. As a company that promotes illustration and helps connect illustrators with clients, it’s quite disconcerting to see people moaning about clients in such a public way.

The bit that normally riles people up on both sides, when it comes to commissioning an illustrator, is budget and what a client can afford. This is where an illustrator’s professional conduct needs to come into play. It’s quite simple really…

Scenario A –
Client: I need this and have £600.
Illustrator: I’m afraid I can only do what you’re after for £1400.
Client: I’m sorry I can’t stretch to that, maybe next time.
Illustrator: Thank you for your interest.

Scenario B –
Client: I need this, how much would it be?
Illustrator: I can only do what you’re after for £1400.
Client: How about £600.
Illustrator: I’m sorry £1400 is the minimum I charge for this sort of job, maybe next time or let me know if you can find any more for your budget. Thank you for your interest.

Scenario C –
Client: I need this and have £600.
Illustrator: I’m afraid I can only do what you’re after for £1400.
Client: How about £900?
Illustrator: If you can stretch to £1200 you have a deal.
Client: Yes, I can do that.

Scenario D –
Client: I need this, how much would it be?
Illustrator: I can only do what you’re after for £1400.
Client: How about £200?
Illustrator: Thank you for your time, if you have a more accommodating budget in the future please keep me in mind.

Clients either have a set budget for the job or they’re looking to get what they’re after at the lowest possible price. There’s no reason to be offended if they can’t afford you. That’s just the way things are.

How to burn bridges and put people off hiring an illustrator in the first place…

Following any of the scenarios above, the illustrator then hops on Facebook, Twitter or any of the other social networks and shares something like… “Client wanted me to illustrate 4 covers for £200! LOL.” … This status update is public and then gets 200+ retweets or likes, as people enjoy gossip and coffee shop chatter. It also gets 30+ comments from other illustrators saying how disgusting and insulting an offer like that is.

Now, all that’s been accomplished is that the illustrator’s ego has had a jolly good stroking. The illustrator could have made sure their privacy setting were set to allow only close friends to see the comment if they only wanted to let off steam, but many don’t even touch their privacy settings and they post comments like that for anyone and everyone to see. If potential and future clients see the comment it’s not going to put them in their place and make sure they offer proper remuneration when they approach an illustrator, all it’s going to do is leave them with a sour taste and doubts. I wouldn’t say it would be an extreme case either that someone thinking about hiring an illustrator might see that and then decide to hire a professional photographer instead or (heaven forbid) go with stock for their project.

Professional illustrators who make sniping comments like that have a lot more influence on the industry as a whole than they realise. The price range that illustrators charge is so much wider than in other professions due to the uniqueness of the work they produce. It’s not easy for a client to compare one illustrator to another, but they often still do. This means illustrators need to keep themselves in check at all times and not just when dealing directly with clients. By all means let off steam, have a rant and chat with your mates, just make sure it’s in a private forum rather than a public circus.

Positivity breeds positivity; don’t get stuck in a social network echo box for the sake of a like! Showing people what a joy illustrators are to work with shouldn’t just be the task of a few, it should be the default setting for anyone who loves illustration and working in this wonderful industry. Don’t get pulled into the gutter, reach for a higher standard. Be a professional.

Image Credit: Andy Potts (2011) for the Design Week Supplement


  1. I liked this Darren, and I agree with it all. Whether by young or old, noob or experienced, I see these kinds of posts and they trouble me. Clients may be annoying sometimes or demanding or just daft, but so are we the illustrators, they’re our mates and we’re all in it together!

  2. Whilst I agree that one has to remain professional at all times, we do as an industry have to take a stand against low paid jobs. I have done this once as I was so insensed that a multi national huge organisation with its own editorial, published by one of the country’s top publishing houses was offering to pay a quarter of the industry standard fee for a multi-image job. This wasn’t I hasten to add for my own ‘ego’ or for ‘likes’, it was to try to inform and educate younger less experienced illustrators not to take on these jobs for such low fees. As you said, we are professionals and as such should be treated as professionals, not skivvies, we have bills to pay like everyone else. I’d like to add that the enquiring Art Director was responded to in a professional manner and the social media post was professional in the way it was handled as no names or titles were mentioned. I stand by it and have even spoken with the Association of Illustrators, of which I have been a member for 25 years to inform them of the ridiculous fees being offered by some companies at present!

    1. What’s ridiculous to you is a generous offer to others. Of course, if the client were in your home country, then maybe waving a flag for patriotism might work. But we all know how global internet-based art gigs are… getting mad at potential clients or posting rants about a job offer online won’t get you any closer to convincing every artist around the world not to take fee proposals lower than what you would take.

    2. I agree with both of you (paulgarland & CoreSystems), but what we need is better education* and a more open way for illustrators to share their rates and licensing fees with other illustrators without compromising their value in the eyes of potential clients or being undercut with a race to the bottom. Illustrators need to be making a living and clients need to stay within their budgets, not forgetting the unique and a la carte nature of freelance illustration. Pricing and knowing what to charge has always been an issue for freelancers, new and old with a ridiculous number of possible variables on any job. The topic of this post is professional conduct and not pricing though, that’s a whole other kettle of fish which I’d love to address in the future.

      I think the word for 2017 has to be #ridiculous. 🙂

      *I know a few place who are doing an excellent job in this regard.

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