Illustration and longevity, an interview with James Joyce

Today, commercial illustrators have to walk the tightrope of doing work for clients in order to earn a living whilst carefully managing their output and exposure to best ensure a long and commercially viable career as an artist. It’s a tricky balancing act, as illustrator James Joyce reveals

The above illustration by Joyce for Varoom! magazine was selected as a Best in Book in CR’s Annual last year

Today, commercial illustrators have to walk the tightrope of doing work for clients in order to earn a living whilst carefully managing their output and exposure to best ensure a long and commercially viable career as an artist. It’s a tricky balancing act. Just because there are some big brands knocking on the door and offering large fees doesn’t mean that those jobs are necessarily right for an artist to take on – for a whole host of reasons….

“A big part in managing your work and your reputation in the commercial arena is making sure you work with brands that you respect, and who in turn respect you,” says illustrator and designer James Joyce who runs his own studio in London and regularly works for well-known brands as well as for editorial titles such as Wallpaper*, The New York Times and, on various happy occasions, CR. We asked him about the concerns he faces when taking on various types of commissioned work.

Creative Review: We’ll get on to producing work for advertising briefs and big brands, but first, tell us about the value for you in the editorial commissions you take on.

James Joyce: Most of the time people commission me to do a piece because they like my work and approach and want to try and inject that into their product or brand or advert or publication. They want it to be recognisable as my work.

When working with publications like The New York Times  or Wallpaper*, they like the look of my work but what I produce for them also has to be clever, conceptual and ideas driven. The bar is raised and it’s always a challenge because the expectation is high – but the value in taking on those jobs is the exposure such titles offer plus the personal development that comes from answering their briefs. In terms of style management, it’s a conscious decision to work with these titles over less glamorous ones and although the editorial fees are usually quite low, the payback has to be in kudos and good exposure which is hugely valuable.

Illustration recently completed for the New York Times

CR: And what about working with ad agencies on projects for big brands…

JJ: There’s definitely big money to be made, but I do occasionally turn down advertising projects for a host of reasons. Firstly the brand might not be a good alignment with my work and would potentially have a negative effect on my ‘brand’ image which sounds egotistical but it’s vital. Sometimes it’s just not interesting enough and therefore the end result wouldn’t be interesting. I definitely believe in the maxim ‘good work breeds good work’ and I always endeavor to do the best work I can regardless of whether it’s for a supermarket in Mexico or a major global style brand.


CR: But what if there’s a serious sum of money on the table, perhaps more you’ve ever been offered for a job before?

JJ: Then there are various questions I ask myself: Does it have potential to be a great project? If no, is it an OK project that might not win any acclaim but isn’t that bad either? If neither interesting or credible, will it be obvious that I’ve done it? Is it going to be around for a long period of time? Where is it going to appear? For instance, if it’s just going to appear in South America and the Caribbean for a month does it really matter? This might sound cynical but I’m running a business and it would be bad business sense to turn down substantial amounts of money for a few drawings. The bottom line is that advertising briefs are probably not always the most creative jobs I tackle, but it’s a necessary part of my business at the moment, and whilst I am foremost an artist I am also a business man. I want to run a successful business and I want to make money to enable me to pursue new ventures.

Oh No, personal work

CR: So money talks and big sums can make you look twice at taking a job on. But when working for an advertising client, you’re fulfilling a brief and also relying on the art director involved to ensure a good result. Is that something you worry about?

JJ: A good art director is pivotal in getting a good end result because they are the ones championing your work to the client and pushing it through. A good art director respects the artist and has the vision and passion to see the project through. But the various levels of approval internally and from the client can make it difficult to police your style.

There are a surprising number of ad agencies that will alter your work without your permission. If my work has been altered without my consultation it’s frustrating because all they need to do is ask and I’d be happy to work together to make it work. A lot of the time now my agent (Breed) requests that I get to approve the final artwork before it’s printed / published.

Joyce designed a Victorinox penknife for Cuts, a project initiated by Wallpaper* (read our blog post about it here)

CR: I know that you’ve had trouble in the past with copycat work appearing that bears more than a passing resemblance to works of yorus. How important is it for you and your agent to police that?

JJ: Yes, I’ve had my fair shaire of problems with certain individuals, brands and magazines copying my ideas, but badly, which can of course have a negative effect on me as an artist if people assume that I’ve done it. I had a recent problem whereby a publication had blatantly copied a piece of my work. Yes I got angry at first but I took immediate action and the matter was settled but it’s still there in print for everyone to see. Sometimes other illustrators produce work that is uncannily similar and I always have to take action because I have to protect my reputation and my livelihood. I’m lucky to have a great agent who is always willing to fight my corner and approach guilty parties on my behalf and to go legal if necessary. Actually, I’ll say this: A good agent is very important in the style management stakes as they can fight your corner if  project is going awry. I have daily contact with my agent and regular meetings to discuss where I’m at and where I want to go, which kinds of clients should I be working with, what kind of work I’d like to be doing and then actively pursuing these goals.


The issues raised in this interview and further insights as to how illustrators can maintain value in their work over time are explored in the feature Style Counsel in the new June issue of Creative Review, out now


The June issue of CR features a major retrospective on BBH and a profile piece on the agency’s founder, Sir John Hegarty. Plus, we have a beautiful photographic project from Jenny van Sommers, a discussion on how illustrators can maintai a long-term career, all the usual discussion and debate in Crit plus our Graduate Guide packed with advice for this year’s college leavers.

If you would like to buy this issue and are based in the UK, you can search for your nearest stockist here. Based outside the UK? Simply call +44(0)207 292 3703 to find your nearest stockist. Better yet, subscribe to CR for a year here and save yourself almost 30%.

More from CR

New HBO True Blood Campaign

BBDO New York has created a new online campaign to promote the release of the True Blood series 3 DVD. Designed to test the knowledge of the show’s greatest fans, the site allows users to zoom into an online film to search out and answer clues related to the series.

Tim Hetherington exhibition at Aperture

Aperture in New York is currently showing an exhibition in remembrance of the world-renowned photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Misurata, Libya on April 20.

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency