Agile Illustration – How to Create a More Agile Creative Process

As a part-time content writer for B2B and B2C businesses, I frequently cover “Agility” in the workplace. Unsurprisingly, this made me look at the term in a very corporate light. But, having written list after list of tips for businesses to make their practices and workflows more agile, I realize that the framework should do wonders for the creative process as well!

There is no reason why Illustrators shouldn’t benefit from familiarizing themselves with these ideas.

So that’s exactly what I’ll be looking into in this post!

What is Agile?

“Agile” is a term that originated in Software development. It is a label that tries to describe a particular approach for how one can develop and ship a piece of software. Under an agile framework, the product adapts to quick feedback, gets reiterated, and receives feedback again.

The objective of this approach is to ensure that software has already rooted out a majority of problems before it ever reaches the customer. It also makes sure that products can improve much faster. Instead of sitting on an idea for ages and waiting for the leadership team to make decisions, an agile project flow allows each team member to contribute at the concept stage and evolve the project.

Agility in the workforce has spread to many other industries, such as content marketing, video production, product design, IT, and much more.

In fact, 71% of companies are adopting Agile into their workflows.

The framework is largely about how teams interact, and how much autonomy managers give to each individual on a project.

If you are an Illustrator, you might not be working with a team very often, especially if you work from home like me. You might be the only person responsible for the artwork in any given project and only interact with an art director or editor.

But that doesn’t mean core principles of the Agile framework don’t provide surprisingly competent guidelines for Illustrators and the creative process in general!

Here are a few lessons I have learned from considering Agility in a corporate setting that I might just start applying to my creative work.

Ship Early, Ship Often

This concept should not be new to illustrators, especially if you follow popular Illustration Podcasts like the SVS podcast. It is similar in nature to “finished, not perfect”.

The idea is that you learn much more from finished projects than you do from unfinished work, and you also get a great deal more feedback from your audience when you let them see what you’ve been up to. Even if you feel like the level of work you can achieve at this time doesn’t do your idea justice, it is often better to ship it and move on to the next project than it is to spend time trying to finetune one piece of work to perfection.

This is especially important if you are no expert in your creative discipline yet, and improving at your craft is still very much one of your objectives.

In his book “Art and Fear” Ted Orland puts forward a parable about creative work that you might already be familiar with:

He talks about a ceramics teacher splitting a class of students into two groups. One group is instructed to create the best pot possible by the end of the course. They would be graded by their quality. The other group has the task of creating as many pots as possible during the same time. Their work would be graded by quantity. When the teacher compares the quality of pots at the end of the study period, they find that the group that has been creating as many pots as possible has produced better work than the group that has been asked to employ a more perfectionist approach.

It’s easy to see why. With each creative project, we make mistakes and learn from them. We familiarize ourselves with the process and come to anticipate challenges. The Agile approach is all about creating as many pots as possible, and the same can and should be applied to creative work. After a few projects that you shipped despite your hesitations, you will find your work has already much improved.

Creating a Backlog of Ideas

Agile work processes work well in environments in which people have to churn out a lot of content. With an agile approach, teams entertain a great many more ideas during open brainstorm sessions at the start of the design process, before narrowing it down to the options they like best.

By allowing those ideas to stick around and not discrediting them, it’s easier to come up with new products or pieces of content later down the line. The key here is not to start from scratch every time you are looking for a new project, but to give some love to ideas that have been hanging around in your mind for a long time.

When it comes to Illustration, this is helpful because many of us are constantly looking for new portfolio pieces or something to upload to social media like Instagram. No one can come up with great ideas on the spot all the time. By creating a backlog of ideas, you can browse through old sketches and concepts that maybe you just weren’t ready or good enough yet to develop at the time. Starting from a sketch or a concept is much quicker than starting from a blank page.

I don’t know about you, but I also find detailing and colouring much less daunting than coming up with new compositions. With a backlog of sketches and ideas, I might find it much easier to jump right back into the meat of a project and fall prey to artist’s block much less frequently!

So, what exactly would such a backlog of creative ideas look like?

My approach would be to create a folder with:

  • Old sketches. Maybe you never had the time to finish these, or something was just not sitting right with you at the time. A year later, you might finally figure out what that something was!
  • Old Portfolio Pieces that could be reworked. Instead of creating whole new portfolio pieces, look through your existing ones! There might be images you still love, but that you could improve by reapproaching them with your more refined skills now.
  • Notes and concepts. Even a quick idea, like a mock book title, could spark your creative juices and get you drawing quicker.

Experiment with a Variety of Ideas

Agile projects often begin with whole teams sitting down to brainstorm ideas. At this stage, no idea is wrong, and everyone’s perspective is a worthwhile contribution. When you have a whiteboard filled with thoughts, you can narrow them down to the ones that really work for your current brief. By letting several minds wander completely free during the conception phase, rather than starting with one concept and actualizing it without competition, you ensure that you get creative, out-of-the-box ideas that will make the end product stand out more.

In the illustration process, brainstorming and thumbnailing your next piece are the ways to ensure an agile creative process.

When you hear a brief, first spend some time making notes on anything that comes to mind and exploring freely. If this helped you narrow down an approach, you should then thumbnail several variations that express that idea. This acts as a visual brain storm, capturing very rough visual notes on what your next piece might look like. Thumbnailing can help you work out of your comfort zone and find more exciting compositions.

Feedback at every Stage of the Project

The last Agile concept I want to discuss is that of iteration.

Agility is all about making frequent changes to works in progress to ensure that they are the best product they can be by the time they are completed. This means taking the time to obtain feedback even at the early stages of the project and incorporating them into your workflow.

Some of my best illustration work has certainly been achieved by posting sketches and early colour compositions of artwork to artist forums and discord servers where my peers might comment and suggest improvements.

Once an illustration is finished, it just isn’t as easy to go back in and make major changes to the composition, even if it would have taken up the quality of the piece by several notches.

Seek feedback, and seek it often to improve your work in increments and keep it on the right track.

In my experience, this even works when you collaborate with art directors on that amazing contract you’ve won! It can seem daunting to send rough sketches to your editors, but they want to waste your time with ideas they don’t like as little as you do. Art directors will often better appreciate your process if they get to be a part of it, and can steer you down the direction they always envisioned. Skipping that step might mean you’ll have to redo a lot more work because your detailed proposition doesn’t meet their requirements, or you’ll restrict yourself and your client to a direction that isn’t the very best it could have been.

Agile vs Waterfall

I have to give credit where it is due – whilst I have been quick to dismiss Agile as corporate jargon, it is an inherently effective approach for creative work especially. This can be highlighted even further by drawing a comparison to the work model it replaced.

The waterfall framework is one in which decisions would come from the top. Leaders decide on a product they think will meet their audience’s needs. They decide on the key features and qualities of that product and pass a detailed brief onto their workers, who don’t get to influence the concept. They just build it. As a result, an initially poor or imperfect idea can take up huge amounts of time and resources to deliver a final product that might have been ill-advised in the first place and didn’t benefit from the input of the experts the company employs along the way.

As self-employed Illustrators, we are our own managers and our own workforce. But that does not mean we can’t fall prey to the outdated Waterfall framework. We are still at risk of trying to find shortcuts and selling ourselves short on our own creativity. We are still prone to deciding on a concept because it is the first thing that comes to mind, and not giving ourselves a chance to fully explore all possibilities. And we can certainly get lazy about asking for feedback and considering other perspectives to enrich our own.

Agile is a call to experiment and explore. Agile encourages us to learn from our peers and not listen endlessly to our inner critic. Agile directs us to shine a light on our work to learn where it fails, and where it succeeds.

Agile is inherently creative.

One thought on “Agile Illustration – How to Create a More Agile Creative Process

  1. Task management software is an easy way to integrate these ideas into your practice. Just having a place to store ideas, current projects and also finished projects together can be motivating and inspiring 🙂 Good post!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s