business

handcrafted commitment

from the U.S. National Archives

Humans are visual creatures. Read me a statistic and I’ll forget it before I’ve finished my coffee. Show me a graph, an illustration or a photo that conveys the same point and I’m far more likely to tuck it away in my frontal lobes.

We’re hardwired to absorb ideas through images — and that’s why film is such a perfect medium for storytelling. Thanks to available bandwidth and increasingly inexpensive, high-quality cameras, more and more people are learning to harness the emotional power of documentary-style video.

A recent favourite is the Made by Hand series produced by the Bureau of Common Goods, a Brooklyn-based film and digital content studio. Made by Hand is  “a short film series celebrating the people who make things by hand — sustainably, locally, and with a love for their craft.” The two videos currently available online feature Breuckelen Distilling founder Brad Estabrooke and knife maker Joel Bukiewicz, who launched Cut Brooklyn. There’s also a profile of beekeper Megan Paska in the works.

Lovingly captured in black and white, the films explore how Brad and Joel each began, and what drives their work. The images are absorbing, no question, but I especially appreciate how the creators address struggle and challenge head-on. We never assume that their businesses sprang up overnight. Joel failed, cut himself, and misjudged the market along the way. Brad fought to get non-believers on board, namely plumbers and cranky landlords. These details contest the tired “investment-banker-turned-cupcake-baker” narrative that emerged during the 2008 recession and still plays out in numerous publications (especially women’s self-improvement mags).

I understand that many corporate refugees find greater fulfillment by pursing a long-delayed, often handmade dream, but stories of instant transformation ignore two facts:

1. Working with your hands, while potentially satisfying, is still hard work. It will inevitably require repetitive physical and mental labour. In short, baking cupcakes might be just as mind-numbing as crunching spreadsheets.

2. As Malcolm Gladwell suggested in Outliers, it takes at least 10,000 hours to achieve proficiency in your craft. If you’re aiming for mastery, prepare to log many, many, many more.

The Bureau of Common Goods team hopes we’ll be inspired by these stories of handcrafted commitment. I think they’ve achieved that goal.  This series should also remind storytellers (and dejected creators) that every great tale requires conflict. Without struggle, there’s no sense of achievement. And without failure, there’s no reason to keep pushing; no reason to wake up eager and hungry for more.

posted 11 Jan 12 in: art, business, design, inspiration, retail. This post currently has no responses.

the race to zero

consulting the crystal ball

 

In late August, author Ewan Morrison shared his bleak forecast for the publishing industry at the Edinburgh Book Fair. His core premise: If you’re a writer, publisher, photographer, journalist or even a porn star – anyone who earns a paycheque by producing original work for a passive audience – your professional days are numbered.

Yikes.

Morrison begins by predicting that paper books have just a generation left until their inevitable extinction. When 78% of Gen Y readers consume all their news online, for free (according to Bertelsmann CEO Richard Sarnoff), it’s easy to imagine a paperless future. Books as interior décor is not an outlandish suggestion in today’s market.

Next, Morrison cites Chris Anderson’s Long Tail model of niche consumption and his book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Morrison lists eight products and industries that have begun (or nearly completed) the downward spiral to free: home videos, music, porn, computer games, newspapers, photography, telecommunications, and the Internet itself.

According to Morrison, “every industry that has become digital has seen a dramatic, and in many cases, terminal decrease in earnings for those who create ‘content.’ Writing has already begun its slide toward becoming something produced and consumed for free.”

Instead of selling a product or content service, online businesses are selling your demographic profile to advertisers and sponsors. The content is simply what gets you there. Many business strategists now champion paywalls or subscription-based content (a model the New York Times is currently test driving). It seems everyone is filling their bar napkins with charts and scribbles, trying to flip longstanding production models and save the embattled content industries. Morrison, however, suggests all this brainstorming is just busywork:

“… ultimately, any strategy conceived now is just playing for time as the slide towards a totally free digital culture accelerates. How long have we got? A generation. After that, writers, like musicians, filmmakers, critics, porn stars, journalists and photographers, will have to find other ways of making a living in a short-term world that will not pay them for their labour.”

He says the only solution is to demand that writers and authors (and by extension, all professional content creators) receive a living wage for their work – a figure that’s entirely separate from how much they sell, to whom, and in what format. It’s a wage simply for doing the work and doing it well.

I hate that Morrison’s predictions will probably hit the bull’s eye. But, I just don’t know about the “living wage” argument. We’ve all become entitled consumers who demand top-quality free information and entertainment. At the same time, North American culture is increasingly polarized. People struggle to feed their families while we collectively pay the Kardashian family millions to get their nails done and plan blink-and-you’ll-miss-it marriages. It feels like there’s less cultural space to follow tangents, create for the sheer joy of it, or pursue niche pursuits – unless it will pay off in the free market.

So what do we want from art and culture? What does it mean to create? Who’s responsible for footing the bill? These are questions that keep me up at night.

Maybe it’s time to bring back the patronage system.

What do you think?

posted 6 Dec 11 in: books, business, media, retail. This post currently has 2 responses.

a hunger for learning

George Eastman House collection, 1950

There’s something in the air. Every day I hear about a new conference, workshop, speaker series or educational event — and many of these sessions are aimed squarely at artists and creatives.

Online technology has made it easy to watch presentations long after the seats are empty. At the same time, in-person learning feels increasingly rarefied. We all have crazy schedules and a thousand voices competing for our attention. Taking the time to attend a live event or class (unless you’re earning a degree) is a leap of faith; you want to leave feeling inspired, and at the very least, better informed.

Here’s a sample of the growing number of creative learning events, Vanity Fair style.

1. The elder statesman

We all know and love TED — the speaking series founded in 1984 as a conference for technology (T), entertainment (E) and design (D). Today, there are two annual TED Conferences in Long Beach and Palm Springs, the summertime TEDGlobal Conference in Edinburgh, and a variety of affiliated fellowships, prizes and independently-organized TEDx events. With a mission to spread ideas, TED “brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives.”

TED became a widespread phenomenon, however, when the TED.com site launched in 2007. Suddenly, we all had a front-row seat for the world’s best TEDTalks. They’re free to watch, legal to share and re-post, and they’re very, very addictive. The most viewed talks of all time come from author Elizabeth Gilbert, scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, musician Jake Shimabukuro, and education professor  Sir Ken Robinson, among others.

TED

2. The rebel

Night School is what happens when a distinguished Seattle boutique hotel hosts filmmakers, writers, bartenders, artists, and musicians for salon-style conversations and eclectic performances. Established by curator Michael Hebb and Barbara Malone, co-owner of the Sorrento Hotel, Night School offers a bold mix of creative programming that’s designed to inspire and provoke. Expect to see more of these casual-yet-brainy gatherings at an indie venue near you.

Night School

3. The go-getter

Designer Tina Roth Eisenberg (a.k.a. Swiss Miss) launched the CreativeMornings breakfast lecture series in New York City in September 2009. The free monthly format has now spread to 16 other cities and counting. The predominantly tech-savvy crowd arrives bright and early to hear smart speakers and chug the free coffee. After all, there’s a still a full workday ahead once the applause dies down.

CreativeMornings

4. The local

Here in Vancouver, we’re lucky to have an intimate and increasingly engaged creative community. In addition to our own Tedx conference, we have CREATIVEMIX and a new CreativeMornings team, plus the big industry events, such as the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Vancouver International Writers Festival and many, many more. From Portland to Melbourne to Hong Kong and Copenhagen, I’m sure there’s a similar story playing out in your city. Creatives are hungry to learn — and they’re getting organized.

5. The iconoclast

Tomato, ToMAHto, PechaKucha or PehCHACHka; however you say it, PechaKucha night is a global phenomenon that blends learning with self-promotion in a lively social setting (drinking is encouraged). Launched in Tokyo in 2003 as a forum for young designers to share their work with peers and the public, PechaKucha presenters show 20 images for 20 seconds each and describe what’s up on the big screen.

Some talks are funny, some are dull, and some are downright exceptional. You never know what you’re going to get — and that’s part of the beauty of this fast-paced night out. The concept has ignited in cities and towns around the world. Wherever you are, there’s probably a PechaKucha night in the works.

PechaKucha

posted 9 Nov 11 in: art, business, inspiration, media, performance. This post currently has no responses.

meet wendy macnaughton

photo c/o Division of Labor

It all started when my friend Jo-Anne – a gorgeous lawyer who dances Flamenco – sent me a Sunday Book Review sketchbook called “Snacks of the Great Scribblers.” From Truman Capote’s evolving (devolving?) drink schedule to John Steinbeck’s penchant for cold toast and stale coffee, the piece explores what fuelled the words of our most esteemed writers – living and dead.

I had to know more about Wendy MacNaughton, the artist behind the charming illustration. I followed the digital rabbit trail to her documentary series for The Rumpus and lost a good hour on her website and blog. Talk about talent. Wendy backs up her artistic prowess with a tangible sense of empathy and a journalist’s eye for detail. It’s a compelling, one-two creative punch.

Now based in San Francisco, Wendy has lived in Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Paris, New York and East Africa. She earned degrees in both art and social work and has sold used books, counseled survivors of torture, designed humanitarian campaigns in Kenya and Rwanda, produced a film in The Democratic Republic of Congo, and written advertising copy, among other pursuits.

Just over a year ago, Wendy left her campaign strategy job to work full-time as an independent artist and illustrator. She had been toiling away on freelance contracts in her off-hours for several years and the work was flowing steadily. It was time to make the leap. “It felt like the biggest, but also the smartest, risk I’ve ever taken,” she says. “Everyone was cheering for me – but it was really nauseating.”

The nausea is now firmly under control and Wendy is busier than ever. She draws the regular “Meanwhile” column (an illustrated documentary series on San Francisco communities) for The Rumpus, and her work has appeared in GOOD, Edible San Francisco, 7×7, Longshot, Time Out New York, Gizmodo, The New York Times, and Gastronomica. She sells her prints on 20×200 and Etsy (more on that below), and takes editorial and commercial commissions. Wendy has also turned her pen to packaging, site-specific installations, and several books are in the works. I can only assume world domination is next – one sympathetic commuter, musician and library patron at a time.

illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton

1. How has your transition to self-employment turned out?

Super well. It’s crazy. It has been better than I expected. One thing just seems to lead to the next. People always say, “It must be so nice! You’re working for yourself.” But I’m the hardest boss I could ever have. I work a lot. There’s also no distinction between my life and my work. I draw all the time. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, but I’m also happier than I’ve ever been because I’m doing what I love to do. It all sounds cheesy and cliché, but it’s true.

2. What fuels your work?

Just looking at things, like how a line forms in a coffee shop, or the weird ways that women tie sweaters around their necks. The way a woman ties a sweater around her neck has an amazing story behind it. Empathy is critical, and when you look at someone through an empathic lens, there’s a huge story there. It’s never just what you see on the surface. Life is a lot more interesting through other people’s eyes than through mine.

3. How do you balance the different demands of business and art?

I don’t. I’m disheveled. I have all the stuff that would make for organization, but a lot of it’s still in boxes. I’m working on that, and I’ll probably be working on it for the rest of my life.

In terms of the nitty-gritty, I try to keep a file on every client. I’m really good at keeping emails and printing stuff I need to print out. I have a standard invoice that I customize for every client. I make up a contract. I learned a hard lesson recently that I need to bill half [my rate] upfront and half on completion. I wasn’t doing that and I got in a really hard spot. I think a lot of other people have learned that same lesson.

I also have two agents now – a commercial agent and a book agent. It was a challenging decision for me, because I thought I could do a lot of what they do for me, in terms of promotion. Working in advertising, I became good at talking to people and getting new business. Obviously the agents can do it better than I can, and they’ll handle all the business stuff, which will give me more time to focus on my work. So, there’s a tradeoff. They take a large percentage of the money, but hopefully that math will work out for the benefit of my artwork and give me more time to make it.

Are books on the horizon?

I just partnered with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office to create a book of the piece “Meanwhile, The San Francisco Public Library.” I titled it “The San Francisco Public Library in its Own Words.” It will be out on September 15th and available in SF bookstores and online.

My partner, Caroline Paul, is a writer, and she and I recently collaborated on a proposal that’s out at publishers right now. She wrote it, I illustrated it. I’ve also met with some publishers about doing a couple other projects. So, yes, hopefully there will be two or three more books in the next couple years. I definitely want to do a book of the Meanwhile columns from The Rumpus. That’s a big goal.

4. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?

There are two – and they’re both great people and friends of mine as well.

The first is Lisa Congdon. She has an interesting background and she’s a self-taught artist. She has great business savvy and has really diversified herself. She does commercial illustration, her own books, book covers, prints, and she does some speaking. She recently had her first solo show at a gallery in San Francisco, which I thought was great. It’s so easy to get swept up in commercial work, so to create an entire body of work for a show at the same time is really impressive.

The second is Jason Polan. He became known for making little books and ‘zines and selling them out of a suitcase in Central Park. He did a series called “Every Piece of Art in the Museum of Modern Art” where he literally drew every single piece in the MOMA collection and made it into a book. Now he’s drawing every single person in New York. Those personal projects have led to so many sales, commissions, and shows. He’s booming. I really respect Jason, because he does many things, but he’s focused on his personal artwork. Companies, individuals and publications ask to use his work, but he doesn’t change what he does.  He’s also a really good drawer.

5. How many revenue streams do you have?

I do a lot of editorial and commercial illustration. That includes magazines, newspapers, and reports. I’ve also done packaging, I have a couple books in the works, and I’ve done environmental graphics, where a company or store pays me to draw on their walls.

Then I make my own work and sell the originals. I make prints occasionally. I also sell my work on 20×200. They’re great. I love them. They work with both established and emerging artists and give them a great platform and great publicity and financial support. Their model is really fair and good for the artists.

I also do commissions. People will hire me to draw something that matters to them, whether it’s a character from a book or a map of a meaningful location. I’ve had a few people ask me to draw maps of their lives, which is an honour. I’ve also done general gun-for-hire stuff, like wedding invitations and other freelance work when I’ve needed to, financially speaking.

6. What is your bread-and-butter income source?

I have a couple big commercial clients and an ongoing branding project, but it’s mostly a lot of editorial work. My bread and butter comes very quickly in small bites. It’s not like a stable loaf on the table. People are throwing slices at me and I have to catch them.

7. Do you have a passive income stream?

Selling my prints on 20×200 is great. I can’t tell you how nice it is to get a cheque every month from those sales, even when it’s for a few hundred dollars. Those few hundred dollars really help.

I’ve also put some prints up on Etsy. I’m testing it out for a few months to see how it goes. Handling the fulfillment is a pain, but it was pretty incredible to list a few prints and make a good chunk of money in several weeks. I was shocked. Everyone around me was like, “duh,” but I’m still not sure it’s something I want to continue doing if I have to manage it all. I do see the promise, though, and I’m thinking about the books in the same way. It’s a lot of work on the front end, and then it would last over time.

8. What tools or financial opportunities do you think artists and creative pros should consider?

The Internet (as ironic as that seems), and I don’t mean social networking. I think now is a really, really great time to be an old-fashioned artist. With all of the hullabaloo online and the bells and whistles and Photoshop-y Illustrator stuff you see, people are really burnt out on the speed. Seeing something online that’s hand-drawn or painted slows people down. It’s like a breath. I think it’s important for artists to think about how they fit into that realm and how they can take advantage of it. How can artists format their work in order to connect with people using online platforms? The 20×200 site, for example, allows people to have art and buy physical prints – and that model wouldn’t exist without the Internet.

I also feel very lucky to be in San Francisco, because there are so many people involved in cutting edge technical and social media stuff. After I read about Longshot magazine on Twitter, I wrote and asked if they needed an illustrator. They said yes, so I went in at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning and there were all these people who hadn’t slept staring at computers. I walked in with my paints and my paper and some brushes and pens and sat down at the table and said, “Okay. What do you want me to do?”

The editors handed me an article to illustrate. I finished the illustration in a couple hours and they were blown away – and it had nothing to do with my artwork [ed. note – yes it did]. It was the fact that someone could create a painting right there and hand it to them. It was a physical object on paper, ready for publication. It was such an epiphany for all of us. It was exciting for them to see something handcrafted specifically for the project right before their eyes, and it was exciting for me to see how valuable that was to people working online. My new business brain said, “Here’s an untapped space.”

The first big client that really helped me switch to being a full-time artist and illustrator was Gizmodo, which is a tech site. The job came directly from working with Longshot. Gizmodo hired me for one month to draw five days a week. They gave me an assignment every day and I had to develop an idea, illustrate it, scan it and adjust it, and send it back to them so it was ready to roll by 6 a.m. east coast time. It was like illustration boot camp.

9. What has brought the most opportunities and attention to your work?

Gizmodo and 20×200 were great. I also created a map of San Francisco for 7×7 magazine and they used the map as the cover. That was big for me, and it created another passive income stream. We ended up printing posters of that map and selling them in bookstores, online, and in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. We just sold out and I decided not to go into another edition or do any more reprints. I’ll draw a new one in the future. But we sold hundreds of those. It was good money for a while, and it was incredibly helpful, in terms of publicity. I still get requests for it.

My focus now is Meanwhile on The Rumpus, which is something that I feel really strongly about. It’s keeping my head on straight about the kind of work I want to do, and it has gotten some good attention.

10. What is the best investment you’ve made in your career?

The time I’ve spent creating Meanwhile. Financially, building a website was a big investment. I had to bite the bullet and work with a web designer and pay what, for me, was a lot of money, but you gotta do it. It’s just so important – and I’m going to be re-designing in the next year or so.

What hasn’t paid off?

You know what doesn’t work? Cold calling. I should have known that. After I quit my job, there was a lull, and that was so scary. I had finished some big jobs and there’s always a lull. You do a big job and then there’s a pause and then more work comes in and then there’s a pause, and I had never hit a pause before. I didn’t have the experience to know that was temporary, so I wrote blindly to agents. That’s just stupid. Getting work is like anything else – you do one thing and it leads to the next. It doesn’t happen out of the blue. There’s nothing that’s less effective and more depressing than making a cold call.

11. What does “selling out” mean to you?

I’m kind of over the idea of selling out, meaning that if a company wants to pay me a lot of money to do something that I think is cool, that’s fine.

If a company wants to pay me a lot of money to do something that I don’t think is cool, then the math gets kind of hard. Is it something I don’t think is cool because I don’t like the idea, but I really need the money? I’ll consider it.

But if I’m asked to do something that I don’t believe in – like I actually think it’s ethically wrong – then that would be selling out. And I’ve done that. I did it when I made this transition. I needed more money to carry me over and I was offered a big sum to work on a project for a company whose practices I don’t agree with. I took it. And it was surprisingly easy, very lucrative and even kind of fun – although I purposely didn’t tell a lot of people about it and felt ashamed when I did.

But, I can see how saying yes to one job like that can lead to another. It can be a slippery slope. Hopefully I won’t have to make that decision again, and if I did, I believe I’d turn it down. But I’m not certain about things like I used to be; there’s all this grey area. I am certain I can do my best work in the world through my artwork, so that’s my bottom line.

Thanks, Wendy!

 

posted 13 Sep 11 in: art, books, business, inspiration, interviews, media. This post currently has 4 responses.

links to love

After dinner at Delancey

Some notable links as we head into the weekend:

1.

I was thrilled to see Delancey get some love in last week’s New York Times. A longtime Orangette reader, I licked my chops in anticipation as Molly Wizenberg and Brandon Pettit built their 40-seat Seattle pizzeria. The slice of Fennel Salami I devoured there last summer did not disappoint. It’s time for a return visit.

2.

There’s a new online magazine on the block. Kinfolk has a dreamy, DIY feel with a Brooklyn-meets-Portland-by-the-lake aesthetic. Extra credit for the mini films scattered throughout the pages.

Here’s a snippet of the magazine’s manifesto:

Kinfolk is a growing community of artists with a shared interest in small gatherings. We recognize that there is something about a table shared by friends, not just a wedding or once-a-year holiday extravaganza, that anchors our relationships and energizes us. We have come together to create Kinfolk as our collaborative way of advocating the natural approach to entertaining that we love.

I wish them all the best.

3.

Have you seen this sweet-yet-sad video of a Mariachi trio serenading a Beluga whale ? You must. After all, it’s Friday afternoon.

posted 5 Aug 11 in: art, business, design, food, inspiration, media, music. This post currently has no responses.

café culture

I’ve written before about my love for Monocle magazine. My only complaint? It’s seriously dense. There’s so much good stuff jammed into every issue that it’s tough to finish one in under a month. All the more reason to get a quick hit from the Monocle website.

For example, check out this video tour of four outstanding indie cafés, including one decidedly homespun coffee shop in my own city of Vancouver.

The video is as visually sumptuous as you’d expect from a Monocle briefing, but I’m pleased that the reporters transcend the cool factor to explore how the cafés reflect their respective neighbourhoods. Each proprietor takes a unique approach to serving those addictive beans and the four standouts (in Melbourne, Miami, Amsterdam and again, Vancouver) target very different customers. Clearly, thin-slice segmenting works.

Whatever you create, think about your ultimate customers / clients / buyers / fans / tribe members — the people who immediately “get” what you’re doing.

Make them happy first.

 

posted 12 Jul 11 in: business, food, inspiration, media, music. This post currently has no responses.

do it for 30 days

Jacqueline Cochran / Smithsonian Institution Archives

 

Common pop-psych wisdom holds that it takes 30 days to break a habit. Most people apply this timeline to chucking cigarettes or curbing a guilty PerezHilton addiction. That’s why I love this quickie TED talk from Google’s Matt Cutts, who asks, what could you ADD to your life in 30 days?

Cutts proposes 30-day challenges as a goal-setting technique. Everyone’s got something they want to accomplish, like these usual suspects:

– write a novel (even a bad one)

– run a 5K, 10K or marathon

– cook a healthy dinner every night

Pick your target, do it for 30 days and watch your confidence soar. Even better, says Cutts, time doesn’t fly by quite so forgettably. The month becomes unusually memorable — and small changes are more likely to stick. It’s certainly sound advice for creatives, who always have a couple simmering projects that deserve their attention.

**Oh, just don’t tell anyone about your 30-day challenge. According to Derek Sivers (and a pile of longstanding research), the initial jolt of satisfaction we get from simply sharing our plans with others makes us less likely to do the work and take action.

Now go forth and conquer (but keep your mouth shut).

posted 11 Jul 11 in: art, business, inspiration, media. This post currently has no responses.

meet megan clark

“Success comes from being the exception to the rule.”

These are words to live (and work) by, according to Megan Clark. A sought-after graphic designer and owner of three affiliated businesses, Megan lands firmly in the exceptional category. She’s also developing a busy sideline gig as a keynote speaker, and loves to share her hard-earned lessons about art and commerce. I was eager to get the lowdown on this inspiring woman from Vancouver, WA (the other, less riotous Vancouver, just up the I-5 from Portland). She didn’t disappoint.

When the ad agency Megan worked for suddenly went bankrupt three years ago, it was the kick in the pants she needed to turn her off-hours freelancing into a full-time design firm, Studio M, which she recently incorporated as Clark & Co. The studio offers branding and design services for startups and big-name clients including Simple Shoes, Disney, WebMD Health Services, Nike, Tourism New Zealand, Waggener Edstrom, Razorfish, Levi’s, Holland America Line and Travelocity.

Last year, Megan and Jen Mele also launched hi, friend – an online boutique featuring printed goods and custom stationery, all designed by Megan, of course. If that wasn’t enough, Megan recently unveiled her most ambitious project to date, The Exceptional Creative. Both a downloadable toolkit for designers and a brand-new online hub, The Exceptional Creative (TEC) is built on the principle that when all else is equal (talent, work ethic, etc), the most successful creatives have exceptional communication and organizational skills. They’re professional and they’ve got it together.

Megan’s got big plans for the EC community, but her first product is A Toolkit for Designers, which includes customizable templates, questionnaires, invoices, a client contract drafted by a business attorney, and more. She’s already done the legwork. For designers just getting out of the starting blocks, or anyone who needs to ratchet up their business tools, it’s a valuable package – and it makes you wonder, why didn’t someone think of this sooner?

And when does this woman sleep?

1. Tell me more about The Exceptional Creative.

I first came up with the idea last summer. I was co-directing a program for entrepreneurs, and we were focusing on products. I kept thinking about how I was working and what I could offer to other designers, and someone pointed out that I work differently from many other creatives. I’m very Type A, kind of a control freak, and pretty darn organized. Then I thought, “How can I offer what I do naturally and spent the past five years creating to people who are just starting out?”

I created a toolkit for designers – particularly entrepreneurial designers – that includes invoices and client contracts and other necessities. I developed the product first, but then I needed a way to introduce and launch it. I was asked to speak at a university and when I was working on my presentation, I came up with the phrase “the Exceptional Creative.” I wanted to share with students the idea that if you want to get ahead as a designer (or in any creative field), you have to act differently. You have to be exceptional and be the exception to the rule. That’s when all the pieces came together and it became a platform that I’m very passionate about.

2. What was the most challenging part of building it?

Just getting it done. I had a hard time staying motivated, and I think it was because there weren’t clients tapping their toes waiting for it. There was no deadline. So, I asked a couple people to create a core accountability team for me. I put together a timeline and asked them to hold me accountable. They didn’t have to review all the materials at each checkpoint, but I wanted them to keep asking me if they were done.

Simply keeping up the momentum from the first spark of an idea and that initial excitement through all the tedious tasks was really challenging. But, there are an increasing number of designers working on their own as free agents. The more that number grows, the more people are going to realize that they need to get their business tools in order. This really drove me to finish the toolkit.

3. How will you help people understand the need for these tools?

I’m offering a free download that outlines the client experience, and I think it’s really enlightening for designers to see the stages that they should be taking their clients through. It helps them realize that these tools can save considerable time and energy, given that they go through the same process with every single client.

Personally, I didn’t realize that I needed a lot of these tools and documents until I made mistakes because I didn’t have them – especially the client contract and some of the disclaimers in the invoices and estimates.

4. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?

Anyone who is working on a national level and has a publication, a speaking circuit of some sort, and still does studio work is intriguing to me. Someone like Seth Godin, who has created an empire for himself, is really inspiring.

Locally, there are some great people who fit that description. Frank Chimero is someone I’ve been following for a while. He’s a Portland designer who does illustration work for large corporations and magazines, but he also writes. He’s publishing a book, he’s got a fantastic blog and he also sells his studio art. That diversity is really smart.

People who have a diverse business model can express their passions in a lot of different ways – and it’s obvious that regardless of the medium, they have something to say and will find a way to say it. Those are the type of people who get my attention.

5. How many revenue streams do you have?

Currently, four. In my studio (Clark & Co.) I work on project and hourly rates, plus I’m often hired as a contractor for other branding and advertising agencies. Then there’s product sales from hi, friend and The Exceptional Creative. I also created some online business templates for INKD.com from which I receive commissions.

6. Tell me more about your passive income streams.

Building hi, friend took a lot of time upfront, but now the product sales can be considered passive income – except for customizing wedding invitations or any other personalized stationery design. Now that it’s launched, TEC offers straightforward digital downloads. That’s a completely passive stream. The business templates for INKD.com are also passive income. People can purchase the identity systems online and I receive a commission.

7. What is your bread-and-butter income source?

Ongoing clients. I work with a lot of startups at the beginning of their journeys that return to me as regular clients. I have a client who just spoke at a TEDx event in Silicon Valley and is featured in Wired magazine this month. We first worked together at a coffee shop a couple years ago. So, my bread and butter is people who’ve had a good experience working with my studio and decide to come back. It’s a lot more efficient to keep your current clients happy than it is to try and get new ones.

8. Talent aside, what’s been the secret to your professional success?

I really think it has a lot to do with being responsive. Everyone can learn how to be responsive. Acting differently from what people would expect from a designer is the biggest reason I’ve succeeded, in my opinion.

Acting differently? What does that entail?

Communicating well. Knowing how to write, how to speak, and how to pick up the phone when email might not be the best way to talk something through with a client. And if something does go wrong, which it will, you make it right – whatever it takes. Even if you make no money on the project, but your client walks away feeling like you treated them well, that goes beyond talent. It’s easy to be selfish and get wrapped up in your cash flow and forget that you need to be generous and selfless to stay afloat.

9. What’s not worth the time and energy?

I’ve been reading a lot of Seth Godin’s recent books, like Linchpin and Poke the Box. He describes how you can have the best idea in the world, but unless you actually execute it and let it out into the world, it’s not worth much. As designers, part of our training is to pay attention to detail and keep pushing a project until it’s perfect, but at some point you cross a line and the things you’re perfecting don’t really matter. It’s more important to get it out there – whether it’s for a client and a deadline or a personal project. Get it out there and let the world interact with it.

As Godin says, “Anything beyond good enough is called stalling and a waste of time.” Part of me is offended by this, but deep down I know it’s true and agree completely. In this mindset, perfection is what’s not worth the time and energy most of us spend working toward it.

10. Where do you stand on the “selling out?” debate?

I have to make a living doing design and making money is the point of business, but the reason I do what I do is because it helps people. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. If helping people doesn’t satisfy anymore and I do it just for the money, I will have sold out. There are days I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of that line, but then I get a shout-out from a colleague, a thank you note from a client or have a meaningful conversation about the work I’m doing and I remember what it’s all about.

11. Any other advice you’d like to share?

Find a mentor. Whether it’s an informal relationship or it’s someone you hire as a coach, find a mentor. Mentors can make all the difference; I know they have for me. I also have a lot of colleagues that I consider mentors. I like to collect mentors.

Also, respond to every email – even if you don’t have the answer. Just say, “I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out for you.” I think people can hide behind their email. I consider unresponsiveness a sin. I think it’s really horrible. I make a rule to respond to every email, unless it’s spam. It’s a super practical detail that can have a huge impact. The times I’ve run into trouble with my clients is when I haven’t been in contact with them often enough.

Thanks, Megan!

posted 6 Jul 11 in: art, business, design, inspiration, interviews, media, retail. This post currently has no responses.

cinematic storytelling

photo courtesy Mission Workshop

My jaw hit the keyboard when I saw these stylish videos from Mission Workshop. Based in San Francisco (in The Mission district, naturally), this hip company creates gear and apparel for cycling, travel and urban designophiles. Their bags are sleek and can withstand the abuses of bad weather — or a little bad behaviour.

Check out this gem, shot on the streets of Paris, no less.

The objects, the music, the cast, the cinematography — they all communicate, wordlessly, the Mission culture and target customer. The video also presents a pretty appealing day-in-the-life. Oh, and it demonstrates how useful that messenger bag would be for spinning around town. This is a commercial, after all.

Strategic content shows the world what your work is all about. Pick a medium that intrigues you, whether it’s photography, video, blogging, social media, newsletters or some combination of several formats. Use it as a creative playground and tell your story, your way.

posted 10 May 11 in: art, business, design, fashion, inspiration, media, retail. This post currently has no responses.

back in bloom

Whew. I just wrapped several big, highly technical projects. It’s satisfying to emerge from a dark tunnel and I’m happy with the finished products, but I’m also feeling a little burnt out. Drained. Empty. In fact, my head is a test pattern.

So, I started thinking about what builds (and re-builds) creativity. In her classic book, The Artist’s Way (What? You haven’t read it?), Julia Cameron describes creativity as a deep well that needs constant filling. In order to enjoy that blaze of inspiration, you must actively seek new fuel for the fire.

Straightforward, right? But it’s not always easy to do. Our culture prizes action, results and measurable gains. We’re supposed to stay constantly in motion, striving earnestly toward a series of lofty goals. I love juicy projects and daunting to-do lists. I’m happy when I’m in hot pursuit of something big. But, I also know creativity requires regular pruning to stay healthy.

And here’s where I had a moment of (admittedly primitive) insight. It’s not wasteful or indulgent to spend time seeking inspiration. Getting immersed in music, magazines, books, galleries, dark bars, forest trails, complicated recipes and long conversations is, in fact, part of my job. It’s essential. Editors, clients and readers will be bored silly if I’m dried out. I owe it to myself and to others to keep that well filled.

I’d love to hear how you get and stay creatively engaged. Please spill your best secrets!

posted 18 Apr 11 in: art, books, business, inspiration, media, music. This post currently has one response.

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