Chopeta C. Lyons
Ten Tips for Talking to Artists

“Can you make it more jazzy? You know, give it a little more punch?” you ask.

Blue Period, Viridian1, with permission istockHe’s inscrutable, intent on studying the image in front of him.

“Maybe some brighter colors?”

He taps the tip of his Bertol #B pencil.

“Okay, so that’s what we want, brighter, jazzier ... okay?” you summarize hopefully, trying to make sure he’s heard you.

But when the art appears, it is just not what you had in mind.

The avatar is too well endowed for your corporate audience. The colors overwhelm the interface; the flash and dazzle of the individual graphics completely detract from the textual content, which is muted, faded in comparison.You told the artist exactly what you wanted. How come he didn’t “get it”?

Working with graphics professionals

For those of us whose talent never burgeoned beyond our kindergarten masterpieces, how art happens is often a mystery. If we are word people, we may find ourselves unaccountably tongue tied or frustrated because we just can’t seem to get our ideas across.

At a minimum, art in instructional materials should not distract from or diminish the learners’ comprehension of key content. Ideally, it should improve performance and/or learning. To do so, it must meet instructional needs that go beyond simple aesthetics. So how do you communicate these needs to your graphics professional? Here are ten tips to help.

1.     Context is king.

Let your artist know as much as possible how the art is to be used. The context affects all three facets of the projects graphic design: These facets are:

  • Treatment -- the “look and feel,” display framework. In e-learning, treatment is often called the Graphical User Interface (GUI) or the skin
  • Individual art – the unique illustrations for specific points within the content
  • Layout – the arrangement of the art in relation to the other aspects of the page or screen display

Figure 1: Three Facets

For each facet, the artist will need different information and direction from you. For example, graphic professionals designing the treatment need to know the overall goal and purpose of the instruction. They also need general direction about size and orientation of any key individual graphics. At the same time, they need to know any limitations based on practical considerations such as bandwidth, budget, branding restrictions, and so forth. On the other hand, the professional tasked with laying out the pages or displays needs to know placement requirements, such as which elements (text, other graphics, icons etc.) must be displayed together, what sequencing is essential, and what elements need to be emphasized or de-emphasized.

2.     Sketch your idea.

Doodles on paper will help you develop your own visual eye and see the idea. A fancy name for this is “conceptualization.” The process is similar to Tony Buzan’s innovative work in the 1970s on Mind Mapping.

In fact, some proponents such as Malcolm Craig in Thinking Visually or Kurt Hanks in Rapid Viz see developing your own actual drawing skills as a way of clarifying thought. Craig, in particular, hones in how to diagram various types of information for better understanding. This technique is obviously helpful for working out relationships of what needs to be included in an individual graphic, be it a diagram, illustration, or even photograph.

In e-learning projects, sketching the layout of a particular screen display, with all its components, can be an enlightening experience for those of us who are perpetual optimists about making everything fit. Trainers and writers who sketch a layout, using the same aspect ratio (vertical/horizontal ratio) as the delivery platform have a clearer understanding of their visual challenges. It’s a lot easier to understand your artist’s predicament when you see for yourself the corner you’ve painted yourself into.

3.     Get the right talent for the job.

As the Table 1 demonstrates, not all artists are graphic designers – just as not all writers are scriptwriters, nor are all trainers instructional designers. Here are a few broad distinctions: Interface designers study human factors and have developed abilities that make them ideal for designing the graphic “face” of a web site or software program. Classically trained graphic designers are skilled in visual problem solving and take abstract ideas and make them visually concrete. Graphic artists execute the design. They are usually specialized in a particular medium -- such as computer, print, film or animation -- and render a graphic exactly to detailed specifications..

Table 1: Roles involved in the production of graphics

It seems obvious, but, if you are hiring, be sure you hire appropriately. Don’t just hire a generic “artist.” He or she may not have the full skill set needed for the project.

4.     Collaborate or direct?

Sometimes you want your artist to just take a graphic and “pretty it up.” Other times you may want a graphic designer to work with you collaboratively, as an equal partner in design, to become your translator to the language of visual images. Hire appropriately and let your graphics professional know HOW you want to work right at the beginning. We hear reports all the time of instructional designers disappointed when they see the completed art. “She just reproduced my pencil sketch, only cleaner; she didn’t add a thing!”

In such a situation, if you let the graphic designer know that you are relying on her as a partner to come up with creative translations of your idea, the design process will go much more smoothly. Which brings us to the next tip.

5.     Don’t just use words.

Talk, draw, use examples, but don’t rely on words alone. Remember, artists are picture people.

Conversely, recognize your own limitations: you may need to see an image before you will know what you do and don’t want. The creation of art for instructional purposes is often iterative, moving from rough design idea through various stages to the finished piece. If you know that you are particularly weak in visualization skills, prepare your artist so that he doesn’t waste time creating a camera-ready illustration if you are not ready for that stage. You both may need to discuss some roughs instead.

So what is a rough?

6.     Learn the basic terms.

Terms such as roughs, camera-ready, comps, dummies, and shot list have specific meanings in discussions about artwork. Table 2 provides some of the definitions for these common terms. If a graphic designer tells you that she will supply you with marker comps, don’t be surprised when you see some simple sketches. If you expected detailed illustrations, you’ll think she’s misunderstood what you wanted. If you are collaborating with your designer to realize a visual idea, be prepared for plenty of roughs, dummies, and mock-ups at the beginning. Any good bookstore will have plenty of offerings -- such as Robin Williams The Non-Designer’s Design Book or Linda Lohr’s Creating Graphics for Learning and Performance -- that can get you started learning “art speak.” Table 2: Common terms used in art development

7.     Be specific.

"We want the art to be “edgy!”

Does this translate to Art Deco? Post Modern? Cubist? Does it mean saturated reds placed in proximity to true blues in order to make the art to jump? Neon colors? Does it mean zig-zaggy lines and edges? Does it mean…?

We’ve even heard of one artist who started tracking all the vague adjectives used by earnest writers and clients eager to communicate their desires: Jazzy, punchy, cool, edgy, young, and retro top the list.

To get an idea of how difficult taking direction from such abstract statements can be, try this exercise.

Enlist a friend. Then, each of you, individually and without comparing notes, find an example of a graphic that represents punchy. After you both find one, compare them and see how well your ideas match up (or don’t) in terms of colors, shapes, contrast, type font and type size.

As another illustration, look at the graphic below. This sketch and the exact same instructions were given to two graphics professionals. The instructions were written and no additional information, verbal or written, was provided: “Create a jazzy version of the diagram in Figure 2 for a PowerPoint presentation on the reimbursement process for pharmaceuticals.”

Figure 2: Sketch of a Graphic idea

Now look at the results:

First, Teresa Lee's rendition.

Figure 3: Teresa Lee's rendition of Jazzy

... and then Mark Palmer's.

Figure 4: mark Palmer's rendition of Jazzy

Although the professionals who created these have a combined 30 years as working graphic designers, the illustrations are drastically different, not only in style, but also in execution. Uninformed whether their role was to be as collaborators or merely “hands” (tip #4 above), one tended to “stick” to the script, the other tended to offer a design translation. In sum, without knowing more of what the clients/writers wanted in terms of context, content, or emphasis (tips 1and 6 above), the graphic designers made their best attempt. To avoid this guessing game approach to the “style” you want, give the professionals as much detail and information about color, style, shapes and so forth that you can provide.

8.     Better yet, use examples.

You can make your explanation extremely specific and help eliminate misunderstanding by providing examples. The more you can show, the more you can eliminate wasted effort.

At the risk of stereotyping, artists will in general respond better to sample pictures than they will to verbal descriptions of an idea. So if you have a look in mind, go hunting through periodicals such as Communication Arts, Print, or Graphic Artist as well as glossy magazines targeting the general public to find samples that represent the look you want. However, be sure to indicate to the graphics professionals that these are “ideas” not specifications, or you may wind up with the problem described in tip #4 above.

You can go even further. Several sites such as or istockphotos provide access to watermarked thumbnails of commercial art, stock photos and illustrations. If you can do some of the legwork and locate the exact images that you want, the artist spends less time on scavenger hunts and more time focusing on execution of the idea.

9.     Know the points of "no return."

Within the specific production process, different techniques are used to guide the direction of the art. In advertising and publishing, documents such as design briefs, treatments, or art specifications are used to provide direction and reduce the possibilities of misinterpretation. In general, even if you are the sole designer in a training department, your art development goes through a sequential process that takes the initial ideas closer and closer to realization. At each step, a direction is taken and it becomes harder, lengthier, and more wasteful to start over. For example, a miscue on the overall style for the “look and feel” is much easier to rectify if caught at the early design stages through roughs and comps than it will be after all the actual backgrounds, buttons, icons, and thematic graphics have been created.

If you are not already acquainted with the art development and production process used by your graphics team, talk to them about it. Find out, before hand, the consequences of changes at each decision level, and about “points of no return.”

10.     There are no absolutes.

Every element is relative. As those who wear green to make their eyes appear more blue intuitively know, colors are not absolute. Colors change their color when placed adjacent to other colors. You may remember seeing variations on Joseph Albers’ famous squares to illustrate the relativity of color.

In Figure 5, the two center beige squares are truly the same size and hue. Yet, when you stare at the graphic, the square on purple appears more tan. The square on yellowish background has a pinker cast.

Figure 5: Homage to Albers Homage to a Square

Color combinations can also affect the appearance of the size of the object. Even though these two small squares have the same dimensions, the square on purple appears to be larger and closer to the viewer than does its identical twin on the other side.

For fun, you can explore other examples of how a color “changes” depending on the color of its surrounding at

Colors, of course, are not the only aspect of a graphic that can change based on the other elements of the design. Edges can be softened or sharpened depending on where they are placed, on their color saturation (and if viewed online, their phosphorescence), and on their relationship to other shapes.

And indeed, there’s truth to the old adage: “The frame is as important as the painting.” A heavy “frame” can diminish the weight of elements within it. A bold blue frame can turn true reds to orange… the list of these relative values goes on. So remember that your artist is dealing with relationships – of hierarchy, contrast, proximity, and color. We remember one trainer who insisted that all cueing arrows had to be red – only to be disappointed that her red arrows didn’t stand out at all on the background she’d chosen of bold saturated oranges, yellows and ochres.


Here, then, are the ten tips for communicating your graphic needs:

  1. Context is king. Clarify how each graphic is to be used and provide information and direction accordingly.
  2. Before talking to the graphics professional, sketch your idea for your own understanding of what the art needs to do.
  3. Get the right talent for the job.
  4. Determine how you want to work with the graphics professional. Does the artist function as your “hands” or as a collaborator helping you translate an abstract idea into effective visual?
  5. Don't communicate visual ideas with words alone. You may think you have been perfectly clear verbally, but chances are a sample or sketches would have helped.
  6. Learn the basic terms that artists use. The artist may tell you what he will be showing you, but if you don’t know the language, you might have erroneous expectations.
  7. Be specific about the style you desire.
  8. Use examples to better illustrate what you want.
  9. Understand the art production process and the points of no return.
  10. Remember, in art there are no absolutes. Color, shape, and emphasis depend on relationship to the other components of the display.

These ten common sense tips won’t make you an artistic genius, nor will they even substitute for a good class in graphic design. But they will help you to provide your graphic team with more of the information they need to better realize your ideas.

Remember: the more you can help them to see, the better they can make you look.

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Originally published July 2004, Intercom pp. 11-15. © 2010 Chopeta Lyons

» Ten Tips for Talking to Artists
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» Picture Perfect: Selecting Graphics for Instruction -- What makes a graphic effective? 2/16/09
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» Good Screen Design Basics - Arranging screen elements to maximize learning 1994