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George Ledo
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Now that I’ve described the six phases of a typical design project, and discussed sketches and drawings, I might as well cover how to work with an outside designer.

Contrary to what seems to be a popular belief in the magic field, we don’t need to do everything ourselves: write, direct, choreograph, design (sets, lights, costumes, props, advertising, and so on), stage manage, perform, build, and schlep all the stuff around. It’s okay to use outside sources. And they don’t need to be “magicians.”

If you want to work with a designer, the first step is to select the correct one: pick somebody who specializes in what you’re trying to do. A graphic designer will be very good at “flat” artwork, but may not be very good at three-dimensional design. An industrial designer will probably be thinking in terms of how to manufacture the prop. These people are very good at solving specific problems, but you need to be careful that the design doesn’t overpower the prop’s ultimate purpose. A theatrical designer will be thinking in terms of how to use the prop on stage. An interior designer will be thinking in terms of decorating the thing.

A few years ago I had two illustrators working for me, both of whom worked in "good ol'-fashioned" pencil, ink, and paints. They had totally different strengths and interests. One was outstanding at free-form, cartoon, and fairy-tale stuff, but had a problem with three-dimensional pieces and was terrible at architectural elements. His use of color was awesome. The other one was very good at illustrating real pieces and was starting to get comfortable with architectural stuff, but his cartoon work wasn’t all that great. Both had a wonderful sense of humor and were a delight to work with. It was a real luxury to have them available to work on what they were good at, while watching them improve at the other stuff.

I’m mentioning this only because designers and illustrators are like any other professionals. They’re better at some things than at others. I’m a set designer; I can design a mansion for Daddy Warbucks, or a Fifth Avenue apartment for a Neil Simon comedy, or a castle for Dracula, or a spaceship for technologically savvy geckos, but I couldn’t decorate my own living room if my life depended on it.

The best way to pick a designer is simply to talk to a few, look carefully at their portfolios and who they’ve worked for, and discuss the project’s goals, deliverables, timeframe, budget, and payment terms. We are used to being turned down for jobs as well as to turning down work that doesn’t match our skills or interests, and we certainly don’t take it personally. It’s okay.

Let’s go into this a bit.

The project’s goals are what you want to accomplish. You need to define this before you talk to a designer. You need to think about what you want designed, the general style, the overall dimensions, how it’s going to pack, and so forth. You may need just a color rendering or a model, or you may need that as well as construction drawings. The more information you have up front, the better your initial discussions will go.

The deliverables are what the designer will prepare for you: sketches, renderings, shop drawings, models, or whatever. You need to define this and agree on it during your discussions, and certainly before asking for a quote. Generally, designers understand that the work they do for a client belongs to the client and is considered confidential; however, you’ll want to discuss this up front as well.

The timeframe is when you need the work completed. Most designers will want to break down the deliverables into phases: initial sketches, revised sketches, final drawings, and so on. Define this up front too.

The budget is how much you want to invest in the design work as defined above. Some designers work strictly by the hour, and some quote by the project. One area where people get in trouble is when a client changes direction halfway through the job and expects the designer to re-do the work and not charge for it. This is nonsense. A few revisions along the way are to be expected and built into the price, but changing directions will require more money.

What I like to do is define the job in writing, beginning with a statement of understanding (“This is what I thought I heard; is this what you thought you said?”), and then describing the deliverables, timeframe, and other variables. Then I propose a lump sum fee for the work as described, as well as my payment terms. Finally, I state an hourly fee for additional work such as more drawings, changing directions, and moving the deadlines closer. I also like to include a termination clause in case either of us decides to stop the work prior to completion. Once we agree on all this and sign the proposal, we have a contract.

When a client asks for any of the additional work described, I let them know in writing that it is additional work and give them an estimate of how much it will cost. If they sign this “change of scope proposal,” then we’re golden. Otherwise it’s back to the negotiating table. In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve had only a couple of real problems, and they’ve been relatively easy to resolve.

Price is one area where you truly get what you pay for. A student or part-timer may give you a lower price, but the work may not be as good as that provided by a professional. On the other hand, an individual or small firm has lower overhead than a large firm, so their fees may be lower simply because of the multipliers.

The payment terms are how the designer will bill for the work. An up-front deposit may be required, or payments per phase, or any combination of these. Just make sure both of you understand and agree to the terms.

My final comment here – okay, it’s more like my professional advise – is to not get hung up on whether the designer is a “magician,” or whether you’re revealing secrets. Designers, especially theatrical and industrial ones, are used to trap doors, mirrors, forced perspective, and all the rest; it’s all just part of the job. We don’t care. If you want to, and will feel better, ask for a non-disclosure agreement.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

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