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Big Ideas

Jon Burgerman on Every Designer’s Nightmare: The Client Wants Everything Redone at the Last Minute

The 2018 99U Conference theme is about overcoming creative challenges, so we’re asking our speakers and breakout session leaders to reflect on a pivotal pressure-cooker moment and share how they navigated it.

The delight and whimsy of Jon Burgerman’s illustrations can be spotted everywhere from an Instagram-sponsored show at the Tate Modern, to the walls of Apple stores, to his children’s book, Rhyme Crime. Burgerman will be hosting a breakout session at the 10th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 9-11 in New York City. Since our 2018 conference is all about overcoming creative challenges, we asked Burgerman to share how he navigated a recent pressure-cooker moment.

“My publishers had signed off on the final version of my book, How to Eat Pizza, and my brain was sipping a beer, lying on the sofa, and cooling down with a self-congratulatory glow. That little switch in my head that said ‘picture book for April’ had turned off.

Then, I received news that one of publishers wasn’t happy. The book needed to be completely revised in time for an important book fair in two weeks.

Wait, hadn’t they read any of the previous drafts?

It’s not my fault!

It was a real shock. But it would be awful to turn up at the book fair with a story with no ending. I had to rewrite half a picture book in two weeks.

There was no time to be annoyed. Normally, everything is slow and delayed in publishing; no one expects you to deliver the pages when you say you will. But here was a solid, no excuses, if-you-miss-it-you-might-as-well-not-go-to-the-book-fair deadline.

I was of two minds as I tackled the challenge. One was: This is stupid. I should just put my foot down. Everyone had access to the drafts, they should have voiced their concerns earlier. But then, I thought: What the hell do I actually know? I should listen to people who actually work in publishing. I’m lucky they’re even allowing me to make a book.

Jon-Burgerman, Rhyme-Crime, Book, Illustration, doodle

How to Eat Pizza will be released in the U.S. this fall; Burgerman’s latest book Rhyme Crime will be on shelves in April.

Rather than fight the issue—which would have been futile—I tried to understand where the publishers were coming from. They wanted the book to be more ‘Burgerman-y.’ I didn’t really know what that meant, but I was probably the best person to resolve it.

There’s no magic spell. I just worked really hard. I swallowed my pride, opened up my sketchbook, my computer, and my brain and went about it.

I learned that even when a book is ‘finished’ that doesn’t mean it’s finished. Always keep good documentation of your drafts. Organize everything clearly, so if you need to look up old notes or artwork you can find them quickly.

Trying to understand the root of the problem is key to tackling it. Often, we only acknowledge the changes themselves and not the thoughts that prompted them. Once you can frame the issue for yourself, it’s much easier to solve it.

And lastly, keep an open mind. In the end, everyone wants to make the best thing possible. Sure, publishers want that ‘thing’ to sell—and you know what— so do I.”

See Jon Burgerman along with more creative leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists at the 10th Annual 99U Conference.

More Posts by Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. 

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