I was inspired to put fingers to keyboard to try and articulate/rant about what I perceive to be an increasing problem within the world of editorial illustration. Namely, the devaluing of illustrators and other contributors and the propensity of many publishers to encourage their designers to use cheap, often bad, stock photography and illustration rather than commissioning fresh work. All in the name of cost saving.
Who am I to talk about this? My name is Paul Wootton and I live and work in London, UK. I began working in digital format as an illustrator around 25 years ago and during that period have been lucky enough to work for hundreds of publications ranging from BBC Focus to Which?, Maxim to PopSci and Financial Times to Time magazine. I have had my work published more than five thousand times with subject matter ranging from information graphics to editorial scenarios, from scientific and technical to humour and much more. I work in both 2d and 3d producing a number of styles using all the usual illustrative digital tools.
Whilst I continue to get plenty of work doing illustration for annual reports, window displays, point of sale, advertising and customer publishing I have noticed that a combination of the recession of the last few years and the advent of tablet publishing has pretty well killed off the editorial market for most of the illustrators that I know. Designers that I have known well for many years grimly proclaim ‘sorry mate our budget has been slashed again’, and, ‘we can’t afford to commission any more’. The designers themselves find that their jobs are becoming less and less rewarding as their ability to create pages and spreads with little or no money has come to be expected. Often the magazine designer is asked to produce illustration work themselves that is often not that good – its not their fault, after all they are designers and often not illustrators.
Now I recognise that when there is an economic downturn such as the one that we are currently experiencing that budgets will get cut. I have experienced two earlier recessions in the 1980’s and 1990’s, both of which were tough but didn’t seem to affect the creative markets in the way the current situation has. The avaricious way in which many publishers have embraced the ‘slash and grab’ mentality during the last few years truly beggars belief. I know of two cases where illustrators have been employed on a permanent basis for years and have just simply been informed that there hourly rate has been cut in half. Another was just made redundant having been told that the designer will have to ‘fill in the gap’ left by the poor illustrator. Of course, if a magazine has no money and their circulation is dropping then they have no option but to cut back, many have gone out of business entirely in recent times. I do however challenge whether cutting back on the quality of content in a given publication is the best way forward. Surely publishers need to make their publication stand out from the rest by giving it the edge. Some continue to do that but the overall trend I believe is for quality to suffer as a result of poor commissioning policy.
sorry mate our budget has been slashed again
When the tablet ‘revolution’ got underway I, along with many other image creators that I know anticipated an enlivening of the illustrators fortunes, after all tablets require engaging content, animation, brilliant graphics, right? I quickly had my illusions shattered when one of my clients, who shall be nameless, for whom I had produced a series of 3d model cutaway illustrations of spacecraft asked me if I would be interested in doing these same models as animated cutaways. Of course, my interest was immediately engaged until it became obvious that they wanted what was going to amount to nearly three thousand animated frames rendering for the same price as a quarter page illustration! “No way “, I said. They had the temerity to turn around and ask me if I would give them my 3d models so they could do it in-house. I couldn’t believe my ears. I, of course, politely refused. They then tried to persuade me that my 3d models were actually contractually owned by them as they had commissioned the original illustrations. I made sure that they understood that this was certainly not the case and these assets were my own, simply contributing to the final image that they had asked for. They backed down. The next week the editor glibly announced that they had managed to get an illustrator to work for free!
There have been many discussions fuelled by the Association of Illustrators and DACS about the miserable contracts that illustrators and other contributors are expected to sign as a matter of course, signing away all global rights in perpetuity for what can often be a miserly fee. Just the other day I looked at one such contract which not only had the usual ‘sell your soul’ clauses but also insisted that the contributor had 5 million pounds worth of professional indemnity insurance to ensure that the company was covered for any kind of litigation that may ensue from the publication of an illustration. I don’t know of many illustrators who could afford this kind of insurance and still be able to keep a roof over their heads and continue to eat! The contract was sent after the rush job had been completed. No mention of this beforehand. I crossed the clauses out that I disagreed with.
All of this makes for a pretty gloomy outlook for the potential editorial illustrator. All is not lost though. Thankfully editorial is not the only route that an illustrator has to making a living. Design studios, advertising, B2B and web publishing all provide opportunities to the professional image creator, especially if you happen to have a wider range of skills such as motion graphics and 3d or a killer style.
Would I go into illustration now if I was just starting out? Probably not. Too much competition and too few opportunities make image creation a hard nut to crack for the beginner. For those of us who have old contacts of a bygone age things aren’t too bad and we continue to make a reasonable living, but are probably not getting rich!
I’d be interested to hear the thoughts and experiences of others in the trade.
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