Turning stick figures and translating art briefs into illustrations and vector artwork is a subjective task at best. Often, personal interpretation and cultural preferences shape the final result, a fact that has hitherto demanded proximity of the creative process to the panic button (i.e., onshore and within the client’s comfort zone). But the writing has been on the wall for some time now: illustration and creative services, too, are heading offshore, to where cost is lower and the quality just as good (if not better).

A feline orthopedics project requiring 346 illustrations that landed at Chennai-based diacriTech exemplifies the kind of work that heads offshore. “The author provided us with substantial artwork and references on canine anatomy instead, but there are marked differences between the two species,” said v-p A.R.M. Gopinath, who had to engage a veterinarian to make sure his illustrators rendered the bone structures accurately. The first proofs were submitted three months after receipt of the project; the final pages followed two months later. “Meticulous research and the assistance of subject matter experts enabled us to meet the tight schedule and the author’s approval.”

Said Gopinath, “As a rule, we insist on obtaining the content of the book so that we know the context for the illustrations. It enables us to assess our understanding of the subject matter and to seek assistance whenever necessary. It is in the publisher’s interest to provide as much reference material as possible to help us produce the illustrations—or any part of a project, for that matter—accurately, efficiently and cost-effectively.”

Projects involving illustrations of the human anatomy are common at diacriTech. “We have a sizable library of major medical texts for reference, as well as a full-time health-care professional and several doctors from various specialties consulting for us,” Gopinath explained. There are other challenges. “The lack of medical illustration courses in India hampers expansion of this segment. We have to rely heavily on the experience of the illustrators and guidance from medical professionals. So this time-consuming work does not lend itself well to mass production like the other types of illustration or content services that we handle,” said Gopinath. Pricing is an equally subjective matter. “Each piece of artwork is priced differently, according to its complexity, amount of research required and the author’s expectations.”

Over at Thomson Digital, one long-term art project from an American publisher takes center stage. Said COO Vinay Singh, “This project requires 100 to 150 pieces of art to be produced daily within 24 hours. About 85% are technical drawings; the rest, character-based illustrations. Delivering the expected quality within the short lead time and understanding the client’s requirements are the major challenges.”

For Singh and his Delhi-based team, the initial hand-holding stage is the most crucial. “This may involve understanding the cultural differences, the dos and don’ts, and the stylistic preferences, asking pertinent questions regarding the project, the color palette and so on, and determining the kind of decision that we can make on our client’s behalf. The amount of interaction varies from client to client, usually determined by the complexity of the artwork.” And having project-specific creative teams in place makes the workflow smoother. “Familiarity with a certain illustration style or process translates into consistent quality and faster turnaround,” noted Singh, who also engages subject matter experts for the initial reference sourcing, advising illustrators/designers on project requirements, assessing the final work against clients’ briefs and confirming technical accuracy. “We also dispatch our staff to work with our clients for a specified period. Besides ensuring accuracy, this allows our designers to better understand the client’s products and requirements and to pass on this knowledge to their team mates.”

In most cases, the creative process is as much a learning experience for Singh and his team as it is for his clients. “Publishers are now more comfortable with offshoring creative work. The process that started with the outsourcing of el-hi typesetting projects—with requirements that were midway between composition and pure design work—has now graduated to complex illustration and creative layout.”

At this point in time, the Indian creative services outsourcing sector is still in its infancy. The potential is there, but it needs to be adequately sold to a publishing community that is still jittery about moving offshore.

Note: This is the sixth column in a series highlighting content/publishing services provided by India-based companies.