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A Brief Guide to Briefs

February 25, 2016

Some guidance for authors producing artwork briefs

The relationship between author and illustrator has not always been an easy one, and there have been some well-documented disagreements. The artwork created by John Tenniel for the Alice adventures was placed under extreme scrutiny by Lewis Caroll (Charles Dodgson). Tenniel is recorded as saying: ‘Mr. Dodgson was no easy man to work with; no detail was too small for his exact criticism.’ Despite the ultimate success of Tenniel’s illustrations, he would have no doubt agreed that the best authors to work for are the ones who give detailed, unambiguous instructions, and so leave little room for misinterpretation.

In the world of academic and educational publishing the aim is not often to create ground-breaking visual masterpieces, but simply for the illustrator to interpret the author’s instructions to produce artwork that is understandable and attractive. It is in everyone’s best interests for the communication between author and illustrator to be as clear as possible.

Creating the brief

Artwork briefs are traditionally the way to communicate the author’s wishes to the illustrator, and it is worth taking the time to look at the creation of these briefs to ensure that they are produced in such a way as to ensure the best possible outcome.

An artwork brief and the artwork itself being created from the author's instructions.

There are certain instructions that should always be given to the studio or illustrator producing the artwork along with the briefs. These should include font details, line weight and colour preferences.

It sounds obvious, but remembering whether the book is going to be printed in colour or black and white is worthwhile. It is not uncommon for Wearset to receive briefs that assume the presence of colour when the book is actually going to be printed in
black only.

Avoiding assumptions

One of the things the author should remember before writing a brief – and this is especially true for new authors who are less familiar with book production – is that it is highly unlikely that the person creating the artwork for the book will have expert knowledge of the subject concerned. At Wearset we produce illustrations as diverse as diagrams for the construction industry, anatomical illustrations for medical publications and cartoons for early learners, to name but a few subject areas. Given the time constraints on any project, it is not always reasonable to assume that the illustrator can acquire significant knowledge of the subject he or she is illustrating. For this reason it is often best to assume the illustrator has no knowledge of the subject whatsoever. Even if this is not the case, by adopting this attitude when creating the briefs, the author can avoid many pitfalls; it is much better if the illustrator spends time creating the artwork rather than sending queries to the author, often via the publisher, trying to clarify instructions.

A range of artwork produced by the studio at Wearset.

Authors may also be unaware that the illustrator, in many cases, will not have the manuscript in front of them to refer to as they create the artwork. This is not such a problem at Wearset, where our integrated workflow means that all files are readily available to various departments, but when artwork is separated from the manuscript or is to be produced before the completion of the manuscript, the context in which the artwork is to appear is lost. Therefore all relevant information should be present on the artwork brief.

What to include

These days most briefs are supplied to the studio or illustrator electronically as Word documents. However, although authors may be familiar with Word as a text-processing tool, they may struggle when using Word to create graphical elements. Sketching on paper, scanning the resulting image at a reasonably high resolution, and then placing it in a Word document is still probably the best way of including a visual element in a document. Using Word’s limited drawing tools can be extremely frustrating for an author and can often result in undecipherable briefs, especially when different versions of the software are used.

Most illustrators would say that visual references are more preferable to written instructions. The internet is a fantastic resource for quickly finding an image for the illustrator to use as a reference that can then be included on the brief. Alternatively, a weblink can be provided. But be aware that weblinks can be broken; a copy of the actual reference image is usually the best option.

Figure numbers and/or captions that correspond to the catch lines in the manuscript should be clearly marked on the individual briefs.

Authors should also be encouraged to remember sizing instructions. A highly complex diagram of the inner workings of the Hadron Collider will be next to useless if the only place available on the page to position it is in the margin.

Try to visualise how the final illustration is going to appear on the page.

And finally, but perhaps the most fundamental question that should be asked before the brief is sent out: is it legible? An author may be able to read his or her own handwriting, but can anyone else? Ideally, the briefs should be shown to someone who is unfamiliar with the author’s handwriting to make sure that labels and other text can be read.

In summary, the key things to remember when producing an artwork brief to be followed by an illustrator or studio are:

  • Assume the illustrator has little or no knowledge of the subject you are writing about.
  • Don’t assume the illustrator will have the manuscript in front of them when they create the artwork.
  • Include appropriate references and style guides.
  • And make sure it’s legible!

Some of the important features to include on an artwork brief.

A little time and attention spent at the start of the briefing process to ensure these simple rules are followed can make the difference between a fraught and frustrating process and a smooth and successful one. We can’t promise to produce iconic images of the stature of Tenniel’s, but hopefully, at Wearset, we can make the commissioning and production of illustrations a happy experience for everyone concerned.

Stewart Miller

The Cheshire Cat by John Tenniel.


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