Saturday, November 08, 2008

Starting Over

I'm at the point where I'm starting over, with career, with life, after having been derailed for a few years by a lot of other things. I spent most of yesterday designing and printing self-marketing pieces. I put together two pocket-size portfolios of recent photography, which I can actually leave with a client, along with a sell-sheet and some business cards. I cut my teeth on this kind of design many years ago, so the hardest thing about it is coming up with the ideas, and choosing between possibilities.

I have too diverse a body of work to be able to properly market it all. And one of the perverse things about design is that almost everybody says they appreciate diversity and sideways thinking and versatility, when in fact that's not true. Most clients and managers understand branding—the single logo, image, or idea that captures it all in a nutshell—but most of the don't understand that designers can be chameleons, and change as needed.

How do I market myself to people who want to understand my design career and abilities from a 30-second summation? It's impossible. I almost always have to redact myself, or my image, to suit them; because my full portfolio is so diverse and large, I can only show bits of it, a single body of work at a time. Frankly, what exhausts me about the application process is this redaction; I find it wearying to have to go back into any closets, even briefly, that I have spent so much time and effort getting out of, be they professional, spiritual, sexual, or philosophical. I'm at the point where I'm just going to present what I think is my best work, right now, if only at the moment, and detach from the outcome. No-one cares who you are, for the sake of knowing who you are; the design world is perverse in its focus on superficial branding without having an interest in what lies beneath. But I can say in return, now, that I don't care what they think of me, either. If my work doesn't match your needs, if we're going to butt heads all through the process, then working with you won't be much fun for me, anyway. I'd rather have fun, working, than be paid millions to be miserable. (Who needs millions when thousands will suffice?)

Most marketing and advertising minds get stuck in one mode, or follow one pattern, because, firstly, they don't have time to do a lot of research outside their zone, as their world is very fast-paced; and, secondly, they are driven by the need for security, which is really the need for predictability, which is driven in turn by the economic needs of the dominant consumer culture. This can really skew their priorities, and have a dampening effect on fresh thinking and creative solutions. It is a mindset that resists taking risks, and tends to repeat itself stylistically, even when risk-taking has a proven track record of success. Designers often end up playing nursemaid to the client's, and/or manager's, anxieties, rather than being actively creative. And never doubt that design is a creative profession: a creative pursuit of practical outcomes. The best designers I've known, or studied, have all been a little unusual as people. Some have been eccentric, but they've earned it. In every case, their ideas have come from surprising and fresh places.

I am not the best at selling myself. I know that. I actively resent, at times, the necessity of selling myself. My work is good work, and I believe it should stand on its own merits. If it had a famous name attached to it, some of it would win awards. But I am not a Famous Designer, or even a Famous Artist. So, even though I don't like to sell my brand, I know I have to. It takes effort I'd rather expend elsewhere, which is why I can come to resent the process. I genuinely believe that the quality of the work should sell itself; I genuinely believe that ego has to be set aside in the service of good design. You can pay a great designer well, but they do risk losing their way if they start to get an inflated ego about their work.

I have been reading a marvelous business-story anti-business book, these past few days, which tells the tale of a business that never should have succeeded, and wasn't meant to, but in fact has succeeded on a grand scale. It's an exceptional case, but it has lessons for my own growing DVD business, Liquid Crystal Gallery, for thinking outside the usual paradigms, and for starting my career up again. It's a funny book, too, not a Serious Management Book. I highly recommend this book as an antidote for the usual inside-the-box thinking about business. The book I am referring to is: Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good: The madcap business adventure by the truly oddest couple, by Paul Newman and A.E. Hotchner. The book tells the story of the Newman's Own food product business; which by the way is a food product line I support weekly. My own dietary and medical requirements have pushed me to eat organic and gluten-free, and Newman's Own has been a big help. Plus, it's just damn good-tasting foodstuff.

I keep this book not on my design shelves, where I keep a few other business books in among the design and typography reference books. I keep it in the kitchen, on the cookbook shelves, next to its companion volume: Newman's Own Cookbook (compiled by Ursula Hotchner and Nell Newman, with A.E. Hotchner contributing some history notes). The two books sit there and cheer me up every time I look at them. (I've also given away a few copies of the Cookbook.)

Here are some of the big lessons one can learn from Newman's Own, and which I find applicable to my own starting-over situation, now and probably for a long time:

Newman's Own started with a creative product that they wanted to share, rather than with an attempt to go out and make money. Quality really does matter. They never compromised the quality of their product, they found ways to accommodate it.

They filled a hole in the market, and over time they transformed their market, and created a new philosophy for business. They asked a lot of questions of people they knew. They made a few mistakes, but almost all of those were ones wherein they took somebody's idea about the way things are supposed to be done, rather than trusting their own gut instincts; and they recovered from those mistakes, quickly, by again trusting their guts. If this isn't a vote for trusting your intuition in life, what is?

One thing that I am taking very much to heart from the Newman's Own experience, for myself, is that traditional and time-honored strategies for production and marketing of your product may in fact by totally wrong for your product. All the successful business gurus may have no good advice for you, because their advice matches a paradigm very different from yours.

There are, for example, other ways to publicize a product than expensive advertising. Be creative, use networking, make friends everywhere, be engaged rather than aloof. Your love and belief in your product matters. Your love of the process of getting the product out there matters. (I struggle with this aspect more than any other, as I've mentioned.) If you build it, they will come.

The quality of the product matters more than the name on the label. This is why Newman's Own succeeded while Frank Sinatra's attempt to compete with his own spaghetti sauce failed utterly. This is why a relative unknown can succeed, because the product is good, and they care about it. This gives me hope.

So, here's my attitude:

I will continue to market myself as a designer, illustrator, typographer, graphic artist, etc., because I have years of experience in those fields, and they're not hard to drop back into. If I get the occasional design or graphics gig, terrific. If people wonder what the hell I'm doing in small-town Wisconsin rather than the Big City, I have a story to tell them, about why I moved here year a few years ago, to care for my aging parents. They'll understand that I'm starting over again; or they won't. I can't control that, so I can't afford to waste time worrying about it.

I will do my best to stay with the positive attitudes about quality and caring that Newman's Own has demonstrated. I will do my best to be positive about what I have to give, rather than ambitious about what I personally want. Even though I've been burned out on live-in caregiving, and I occasionally wonder when it will ever be my turn to be cared for, I know deep down that giving back to the world is what makes the world a finer place; no matter how you give, or give back, or where, or when. I pay things forward when I can't pay them back. And I'll forgive myself for being unable to retain this attitude, on my worst days; because I know I can restore it, come better days.

I will do my best to enjoy the process of marketing myself. I have to say, spending all day yesterday on making those little portfolios, and on designing a sell-sheet, was mostly fun, and in the end I had a tangible product to put out. I will continue to do my best to enjoy the process. That is the area, as I've mentioned, that I have identified a known weakness. Knowing about it, though, means that you can compensate for it; that you can watch out for its effects, and do your best to overcome them.

So reading Shameless Exploitation has been inspiring. It's right there on my shelf in the kitchen, ready to be picked up again, whenever I need a kick in the pants.

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7 Comments:

Blogger Frank Wilson said...

This resonates, Art. When I was much younger I found I could do nothing to promote my poetry because I wasn't interested in "playing poet," dressing a certain way, parroting fashionable views, reading fashionable writers. So I did the poetry for myself and my friends and earned my living as hack. In the arts especially a lot of people get well known because their talent is really for self-promotion, while others of far greater talent languish in obscurity because they not only have no talent for promoting themselves, but also a distinct distaste for it.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Frank, and thanks for the comments.

I think you're right that some people do a talent for self-promotion. When I lived in Madison, WI, some years ago, there was this one busker who was everywhere on the main streets. He was well-known all over town, he was absolutely the worst musician or singer of the lot, but he was well-known locally, with CDs even, because he was so relentless about self-promotion. He spent a lot of time on it.

I know that's what I need to do, more than ever before. I just find it really daunting. I can do it, but it's harder work for me than it is for others, probably, because I just find it so challenging.

I think I do have a distaste for it. I know I need to get past that, somehow.

11:24 AM  
Blogger Lee said...

An interesting post about matters which I've ignored - self-marketing - and mostly ignored - self-promotion, for reasons similar to Frank's, but I'm no longer so sure quality exists in a vacuum.

3:22 AM  
Blogger Rachel Fox said...

"almost everybody says they appreciate diversity and sideways thinking and versatility, when in fact that's not true"

You are so right! The poetry business is as guilty of this as any too!

4:44 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Lee, and thanks for the comment. I'm curious, though, what you mean that you're not sure that quality exists in a vacuum. Can you add to that?

Rachel, I was sideways-thinking of the poetry biz when I wrote that. I agree with you.

I wonder if part of the problem is that people are so accustomed to having to make snap decisions, that they simply don't want to get into nuance and versatility because they don't feel competent to judge it. Laziness? Being too rushed most of the time? Who knows.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Judith Fitzgerald said...

After reading nearly half my fave peeps in the world in these comments; and, after reading their wise observations, I guess I really only wanna say:

I have no doubt that, once you decide to do *anything*, Art, it's gonna happen, one way or t'other, Brother; you're a gifted man; and, yeah, irresistible, too; that's why I have unconditional faith in you and anything you plan to do.

Have no idea why I know this; just know that I do; but, I think the best years of your life are staring down the heavenly sights of the future directly at something-special you!
p.s. I'd say G'Luck; but, we both know I really mean G'Love with two thumbs up, My Fearless Soar-Above Abso-Deffo Darlin' Dove :) . . .

1:07 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Judith. It's appreciated. I'm certainly ready and willing for the best years to begin here and now!

I spent most of today working on more self-marketing pieces, and going out and getting them printed. I'm putting together little photo sample portfolio books, little things I can actually leave with a client. I have several ideas on how to spread these around, and they're hopefully unique enough to catch someone's attention. They're also very cheap to produce: bless you, modern printing technology!

11:43 PM  

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