How not to brief an illustrator

Early in 2016 I decided it was time to start teaching creative writing again.

I’d taught a few years earlier and loved everything about it—the connection, the conversations, the sharing, reading, writing, coffee! Heaven.

This time though I wanted to commit more fully, and build something for my students that was rich and supportive.

Something with staying power. I wanted a proper writin’ school. And I wanted to gather a tribe—foster a community.

First things first.

Being a children’s author I decided that my first priority would a really cool illustration. (Ahem.)

I wanted something that captured EXACTLY what was in my head. Something that would convey my vision in an instant.

But my vision was cloudy. And I couldn’t for the life of me come up with a name for the school.

With all this in mind (ie  nothing) I contacted my friend, author/illustrator Gus Gordon.

Gus and I had done two books together (Sing, Pepi, Sing! and Haggis McGregor and the Night of the Skull Moon), and although Gus lived in Sydney and I lived in Melbourne we managed to catch up every year for dinner and a chinwag.

But this couldn’t wait. This time I got on the blower, called him up direct.

‘Gus,’ I said, ‘I want to start a writing school. Would you draw me a logo?’

‘Sure,’ said Gus. ‘Have you got a brief?’


‘Any ideas?’




‘What’s the school called?’



I could hear the desperation in his voice. He was too kind to say, Jen, you’re every illustrator’s nightmare.

I had to think quick.

‘I love how you draw ducks,’ I said. ‘I particularly like this duck…’space-duck2-small

I can’t recall the rest of the conversation. I think I said something about loving the palette in this illustration. But that was it.

That, as they say in the business, was the brief…

Basically, I left poor Gus to float about in space and come up with whatever took his fancy.

A few weeks later I received an email with the illustration/logo attached. The attachment was labelled ‘girl and duck’.

It was a Eureka moment. Girl and Duck! OMG! I had the logo AND the name of my school!

girl & duck

The girl, who looks remarkably like moi, with her curly hair and high forehead, was perfect. The expression on the duck’s face? Priceless.

Plus the girl is holding a book. A book? I mean, sheesh. I LOVE books!

All this and he even managed to sneak in some collage.

The wooden stool is snipped from a 20th century Sears catalogue. (Gus collects divine collage materials. Have a flick through his award-winning picture book, Herman and Rosie, and you’ll see what I mean).


There really is no moral to this story. Except to say when starting a new project surround yourself with good people.

Also, don’t be afraid to jump in.

Don’t wait for the ‘perfect’ time.

Let your passion lead you, make those calls, talk to those people. Trust the creative process.

And, if you’re drawn to a duck quacking in space, go for it.

PS Here’s the cover of Gus’s latest  book. You guessed it. It’s about a duck!



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12 Replies to “How not to brief an illustrator”

  1. I love this, Jen! And your final line reminds me so much of a line from a favourite Things of Stone and Wood song: “If you see a strange door to your left, then drop your things and run for it!”
    Best of luck with Girl and Duck; it looks marvellous.

    1. Oh! Thanks, Meg! I do remember you mentioning that you like ducks?? Or maybe it was Gus you like? Either way I’m glad you enjoyed the post and thank you a trillion for leaving a comment. PS I loved things of stone and wood. now you’ve got me singing, happy birthday, helen! xx

      1. I am indeed a duck-fancier (they seem to waddle into my work with some regularity). Though Gus isn’t bad either, of course. Glad to have rekindled your TOSAW flame!

  2. Oh Jen, I get it. I had a similar experience starting up Story Box Library. I contacted Gus completely out of the blue and he was keen to be involved (despite not knowing me from a bar of soap). As for a brief, I had very little (like you, not even a name), and we finally came up with the exploding box that is on our home page, with Gus contacting his illustrator friends to use some of their wonderful characters too. It’s a winner, and all of our design has evolved from the exploding box, the Story Box Library owl (he’s a bird man, clearly), and finally the red logo. The man is a genius! I adore your advice, aspiring authors would be lucky to work with you.

    1. That is so brilliant, Nicole! I love your logo and i understand totally how a logo can set the entire tone. Gus is such a darling and so generous. I LOVE working with him. One day I’m going to pin him down for a picture book! lol. Btw, i’ve been meaning to contact you. I’ve been trying to renew my Storybox subscription but keep getting locked out. Should i email you? can you message me on facebook? xo

      1. Happy to renew it for you (gratis) – send me an email to remind me (nicole@storyboxlibrary.com.au) and I will do early next week. I have my eye on Clarrie x

  3. Quack quack quack. Here at the duck pond. Thanks Gus! Great illustration. Kinda glad she’s not floating in space.

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