How to Work Smoothly with a Graphic Artist

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
(This graphic shows the lyrics to a classic Disney Song. Can you read it?)

Whether on a book cover, a website design, an ad, or even a whole marketing barrage, graphic design can either materially increase your book’s chances of getting attention or can leave it unrecognized in the mountain of competitors. This goes for the self-published as well as for the commercially published.

While it is certainly possible for you to do your own graphics, or rely on your publisher, there are also very good reasons for writers to hire a professional graphic artist. Without elaborating on those reasons, in this post I’ll give you some brief insight into the working process of a graphic designer, and give you some pointers on how you as a client can increase the chances that your designer will give you exactly the fabulously stunning image that you wanted on time, under budget, and with a minimum of frustration and drama. There are a number of other websites that discuss graphic design, but I approach this topic from the viewpoint of a writer.

This will be the first of a two-part post. Today’s post will cover Knowing What you Want, Finding the Right Graphic Artist, and The Basic Graphic Design Process. The next post will discuss Money Matters, Tips to Getting the Right ‘Look’ and Avoiding Graphic Design Landmines.

First, Know What You Want.

Knowing what you want doesn’t mean that you can ‘see’ the exact image in your head down to the Art Nouveau font and the impressionist landscape detail background. (If you can ‘see’ the exact image you want in that much detail in your head, then DIY graphic design might be for you.)

Knowing what you want means you know what kind of graphic product you want to produce and what format that product will take. This involves far more than ‘style,’ it involves knowing the nitty gritty of the final product, how big it needs to be, what text it will include, what images it will include. For example:

  • Format–What are you going to use the graphic for–a book cover or a bookmark? A PR flyer or a website logo? Is it one image or does it require multiple images. Do you need different versions of the same image (e.g. a logo at different scales)?
  • Media–Do you want to use your graphic on the web or in hard copy? Graphics for print have to be done at a much higher resolution than graphics for the web. Graphics for the web often have to work within tight filesize limitations.
  • Image Size: Do you know the size requirements (typically measured in pixels for electronic media and in inches or centimeters for print) for the graphic?
  • Ad Copy: Do you already have the finalized text that you want to use on the graphic? Do you have any images (photos, book covers, etc.) that will appear on the graphic? If so, do you have rights to use those images?  Have you considered the size of your graphic and how much text it can hold and still be legible?

If you can answer most of these questions, then not only do you know what you want, but you can explain it to a graphic designer in a way that will make the process run more smoothly for both parties.  If you don’t have the answer to a number of these questions, don’t despair, it just means you should consider hiring a more experienced designer or marketing specialist who knows the ropes and can generate content as well as images.

Second, Find the Right Graphic Artist.

I’m not going to suggest how or where you can find a graphic artist–they are out there, and they want you to find them. (A few informative starting points include here, here, here, or here). The one tip I will offer–if you have encountered stunning graphics on a website or book cover that you absolutely love, then track down that graphic designer.

The most important aspect of choosing a graphic artist is finding one who can provide the services you need and one who you find easy to communicate and work with.

  • Experience/Credentials.  Graphic artists come in a wide variety of experience levels and abilities. Some might be certified in the use of specific graphic design software (e.g. adobe products) some might be members of professional associations. Some might simply do graphics; others might offer content development (they write the text as well as develop any images or logos for your graphic). The bottom line is that the more you know exactly what you want, the more you can go with a less credentialed designer. The less you know about what you want, the better off you are with a more experienced designer. As an example, if you know you want a book cover image of specific proportions, have the exact title, the blurbs, the pull quotes, the isbn number (if applicable), any fine print, and have a good idea of the style of graphic that would suit your book, then what you need is a designer who is familiar with industry standards for that product and can pull all that together into a good graphic package. If you simply know you need a book cover, but don’t know what that requires, then hire an artist who has already designed numerous bookcovers. If you want someone to do more than make a graphic image, but to generate your ad copy or develop a logo, hire someone with marketing (or communications) as well as graphic design credentials.
  • Communication Skills: Whatever level of experience you are seeking in a graphic designer, evaluate the clarity and ease of communication you have with them–whether in person or through email.  Just as in life, there are graphic designers you will find it easy to talk to, and those who will make you feel like they are speaking another language. This does not make them wrong, it does make it potentially more difficult to develop a relaxed working relationship. If you have had several communications with an artist and still have a large number of unanswered questions or worries, then that graphic artist may not be the best fit for you.
  • Graphic Style — Just as every author has a ‘voice,’ every graphic designer has a specific visual style. Look at examples of work done by the designer you are considering hiring (most will have a page on a website with ‘examples’ of their work). If you love their work, then you will most likely love what they produce for you. If you are lukewarm about the style of the designer’s previous work, then you might be lukewarm about what they create for you. Keep in mind, however, that designers can be flexible, and if you are completely clear on what you want, a good designer can produce a wide variety of ‘looks.’
  • Recommendations/Endorsements Just as if you were hiring someone to do some work on your house, check on how a designer’s previous clients felt about their experience. Does the designer have a long list of satisfied clients that is easily locatable? That bodes well.

 Third, Understand the Basic Graphics Design Process.

Just like the process of bringing a book from manuscript to print follows a series of steps, so does the production of a graphic design. Knowing the basic shape that process takes will help you know what to expect along the way.

  • Initial Contact: You contact a designer, reach an agreement, and discuss the design you want.  The better a rapport you can establish with the designer at this stage, the more likely you will get a fabulous graphic that is just what you want.
  • Design Development: The designer takes the information you’ve provided, develops a rough draft (often called a mockup) of your graphic, and sends it to you for comment.  The graphic at this stage is roughly equivalent to a ms draft sent out for critique–in a developed state, but certainly not final. From this point, the design process consists of a number of two-step feedback cycles.
    • Step 1. Feedback:  You examine the draft and let the designer know whether or not you like the mockup.
      • If you would like changes, the designer moves to Step 2. Revisions/Corrections.
      • If you are happy with the mockup, the designer will move on to the Delivery of Final Design.
    • Step 2. Revisions/Corrections: The designer revised the graphic based on your comments, and sends you a second draft submission for further feedback (back to Step 1)
  • Delivery of Final Design.  When you’ve reached the end of the feedback/revision process, the graphic designer will finalize your image and deliver it to you in the proper file format and size for your product.

Things to keep in mind during Design Development:

  • Honest and Informative Feedback is Critically Important: The more specific you can be with your criticism of the mockup graphic, the better. If you don’t like it, say you don’t like it, but be specific about why. If it’s brown and you hate brown; if it’s too busy and you like simple; if it’s too artsy and you wanted traditional–tell the artist, in whatever terms you can use to get your point across. Likewise, if you love it, explain what you love as well as what you would like to see changed (for example you like the background but think the font is too flowery). That way the graphic artist can focus their time on changing what should be changed, not searching for a whole new approach.
  • Number of Feedback/Revisions:  There can be more than one round of feedback and revision. If there are more than three rounds (unless it is for a very complicated graphic product) it is usually an indication that the feedback is not giving the designer a good idea of what to change in the draft.  One thing to watch for to make sure things are progressing–the changes made in each subsequent round of feedback and revision should generally become more detail-oriented and less large scale. For example, on the first round, you might be asking the graphics person to try a different background, change some of the text, or move an image from the bottom to the top. On the second round, you might be correcting typos in the ad copy, or refining the alignment of text.

I compiled this advice from years of moonlighting in graphic design, including most recently, my experiences as the Writer Unboxed Advertising Guru. I consider myself a writer, however, more than a graphic designer. I know a number of members of the WU community are far more credentialed and experienced in graphic design–and I encourage them to add their thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.


About Jeanne Kisacky

Jeanne Kisacky trained to be an architect before going back to her first love--writing. She studied the history of architecture, has written and published nonfiction, and has taught college courses. She currently fights valiantly to keep her writing time despite the demands of a day-job, a family, and a very particular cat.


    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      Thanks Vaughn! Here’s to hoping that the need to use this particular information is in the near future for you.

  1. says

    Thanks for the useful advice. It is absolutely essential for self pubbed authors to hire a good graphic designer who is on the same page and can translate the author’s vision into an attractive and appropriate book cover. Thanks for this great post.

  2. Kristy Condon says

    I’ll add that it’s always a good idea to keep clippings or samples of other designs you love as examples to provide to your hired designer. As a writer you may not know exactly what your ten favourite book cover designs have in common, but a good designer can sometimes take one glance and immediately understand patterns in your taste and know what direction to go in. And even if you do know what you like, it’s not always easy to describe if you aren’t familiar with the design lingo required to explain.

    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      Excellent advice! This is definitely one case where showing can be a whole lot better than telling. Thanks Kristy.

  3. says

    I’m a writer with a graphic arts background and I do all of my own cover work. Having done work with clients in the past, I can say that the most important thing you can give your designer are examples of designs that are similar to what you have in your head.

    As writers, we know it’s tough to thoroughly describe something we see in our minds. We usually spend hours, if not days, working on descriptions for stories. Now, that that same level of description and try to condense it into a simple email or phone conversation. It’s going to be tough to do.

    If you can give examples of things you like, the designer can get a feel for what style you’re going for, and each of those examples is worth more than 1,000 words. Once you get those examples and the designer comes back with a comp, follow Jeanne’s advice to keep that feedback specific. “I don’t like this” is the worst feedback you can give. Be specific: “I don’t like how the background draws my attention away from the foreground.”

    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      Excellent reinforcement that the best way to get a design you like is to keep track of other designs you have liked. Thanks Brandon.
      Also, since an increasing percentage of design work is done with only electronic communication between client and designer, know that you can keep your ‘samples’ as electronic files, bookmarks to websites, or as hard copies.

  4. says

    One thing I would add is to always ask that the original design be done at high resolution. It’s easy to go from high resolution to low resolution, but the opposite is almost impossible. If you’re getting web graphics done, this is always something to consider.

    You should also clear up beforehand whether you’ll get a copy of the “layer” or working files. In most cases you are purchasing finished work and the designer is well within their rights to not release these files to you (or to charge a hefty fee for them). This means if you need to make changes in the future, you either need the working files or you need to go back to the same designer.

    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      Great point. A low-resolution file can’t be made bigger without it getting all pixelated or grainy. But a high resolution file can be made smaller, without loss of clarity and so can be used more flexibly.
      Also a good point on the ‘layered’ file, and I’ll hope to cover this in more depth on my next post.

  5. says

    I’ve been considering hiring an artist to design a book cover for my novel so this post really came in handy. Thanks