Photo by Cris DiNoto on Unsplash
The thing about being creative types, philosophers and bohemians in a largely capitalistic world is that we are continually faced with the tension of expressing our art, our soul, our spiritual gift to the world while somehow finding a way to survive. Monetization (making money from our art) or subsidization (having someone else donate) becomes necessary at some point.
True, not everything needs to be monetized and we live in a real world of people and interaction on multiple layers – physical, emotional, and spiritual. Not everything can or should be reduced down to currency. However, if you are looking to monetize your passion, this as an incredibly useful way to look at it.
You have to attach something to the art – a product, a service or an experience.
I learnt this principle from Gary Vaynerchuk, watching one of his gazillion videos. He is talking to this young man who is riffing off about the things he wants to do, the heart behind his brand, and how much he wants to impact people and so on. To do this, he needs to find money to execute. In response, Gary asks if there is something tangible attached to it. If he wants funding, is there an object that can be invested in?
Having feel-good ideas are fun and wonderful. Talking about them and sharing them can be very enriching and fulfilling.
But if you are in business, especially if you are a mission-led business seeking to change the world, or an NGO tackling much needed social work on behalf of humanity, you must respect this principle. You have to clearly understand what your idea is – your goal, your purpose, your mission. And this idea must become tangible as product, service or experience.
You cannot ignore the laws of the market place, unless you plan to loot or steal the money. Think about the places your purpose and people’s desires/needs intersect, and play in that space. Connect your work to value in people’s lives.
As nice as it is to exist in our little creative bubbles indulging in artistic revelry, if we will succeed as artists or creatives, we must relax our romantic ideas of a utterly free rein creative life and link our art (the essence of our creativity and passion) to a tangible thing. Your art, your brand needs a vessel. Put your thing into a container that can be invested in or purchased.
Think about music. Musicians make music, and sell the recordings and merchandise (product), or sell skills (service) or shows (experience). There are multiple ways of creating tangible things that express your idea. Attaching your art to an object allows you to share the art. Now your audience can take with them a tangible piece or object that will bring them back to the heart of your art every time they interact with it in any way.
And that’s win-win all round.
There is only one success. To be able to spend your life in your own way.
– Christopher Morley
We are surrounded by success porn. From Facebook to Snapchat, the digital sphere is littered with quote cards spouting off generic success platitudes and motivation. You know the ones, the images of the suave guy in the impeccable suit and nice watch. Or the flawlessly shot Instagram gym model showing off her perfect abs and toned body.
I like to look at it as what I call ‘priming’. When I sit to design, one of the first things I do is to pull up my favourite sites and browse for inspiration. I spend time looking at beautiful things. It primes and stimulates my mind to think in the same vein as my inspiration and helps me know what my benchmark of quality should be.
That’s what success porn does, or should do. It is a burst of inspiration, a certain smug satisfaction, a ‘hell yeah! high five! let’s get it’ sort of moment. And it’s good. Sometimes you need that spark, that reminder.
The main problem with success porn is that you can get that hit of self righteous dopamine so many times that you begin to feel satisfied without actually doing any work.
It is easy to brainstorm, and research and learn. It makes us feel good, like we are taking actual steps. And granted, it is a first step in the process of getting what you want. But consuming content, no matter how good, whether it be Gary V or Tai Lopez or Grant Cardone or whoever your guru is, is not the same as doing the work.
The path to success is the steady consistent grind, the work, the fears, the tears. It is not as sexy as success porn, but it is the thing that actually produces results. And there are a lot of things unique to your circumstance that you would have to navigate with your own wits and common sense as well as all the tips and knowledge you have gained from your blogs, podcasts and videos.
The second subtler problem with success porn is the narrative that success looks a certain way. Success for millenials in general falls in the same boxes – a great job, a great startup, lots of money, gadgets, travel to exotic places, self care, romantic love and baecations. All of which are absolutely wonderful pleasures.
But the thing with life is…it is life. It is varied, it is complex and it is nuanced. Success has to be something you define for yourself. You don’t need to subscribe to an idea of success. You just have to find what you like, what you believe, what fulfills you and be committed in the pursuit of that. That is what success is.
“Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essential’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days.”
– J.K. Rowling
I believe there is nothing more important than being creative (after food, shelter, etc.), and being creative for you. There are ideas placed in you that need to be birth, because doing so will give you experiences and gifts you could not otherwise comprehend, and they will touch the world in ways you could never imagine.
But the business of life can be very distracting. In between all the chores, the jobs, the social obligations and the daily hum of life, it is incredibly easy to lose yourself and your true desires. You hum along doing things and then you wake up with decades later wondering where all that time went and beating yourself up for actually accomplishing very little of your true goals.
I’ve had many creative ideas over the years – podcasts, books, clothing lines, stores, events, blogs, and magazines. It’s a long list I know, but not a lot of them have come to fruition. I hated that I would kick off the year with all these ideas and projects I wanted to get done, and then six months in I would be completely lost in the sauce, entirely busy working on clients or friend’s latest schemes, chasing down opportunities to make a buck. I was so consumed with everything else that I never pushed my projects forward enough.
To be honest, I did not understand what it took to get things done. But after multiple dead ends you start to learn a thing or two. For the past 10 months, I have been working consistently on my creative projects and pushing them towards completion. I know this is a long road, and its still early days, but I thought I’d articulate the mindset and tools that are enabling me to finally actually do the work I have in my heart to do.
- Stay awake
It is so easy to fall asleep behind the wheel of life. Urgent and pressing issues can crowd the truly important to the dark recesses of your mind to be randomly stumbled upon one day. You have to stay awake. And by that I mean you have to always be focused on your actual personal creative goals. It has to be a priority and something that is on your mind daily. Never lose sight of it. Write it somewhere you can see it, and engage with it every day.
- Think long term
Rome was not built in a day, and neither will your project. You have to be in it for the long haul. If you are trying to build a creative life that sustains your soul and your pocket, understand that it is going to take a while. Make peace with that.
- Focus on the process
If you are going to get any worthwhile creative work done, you have to respect the process. This is going to mean working on your projects daily or at least weekly. You are going to need to take consistent action over a long period of time – creating, learning, tweaking, editing, fixing, scrapping, restarting, etc. It’s a process; learn to enjoy it.
- Be realistic
There is nothing like ambitious timelines to excite you then ultimately defeat you in the creative journey. Be realistic with the amount of time you think it will take to get your project done, and then add more time to it. Things always take much longer than you’d expect.
- Protect your creative time and space
You absolutely must block off a portion of time for you to work on your things. That means phones off, Internet off, put on headphones, close the door. Deep creative work demands nothing less than your full attention and energy. That means being inaccessible sometimes and turning a blind eye to the other thousand things vying for your attention.
- Just make
As creatives we tend to be both very egotistical and fragile. We have high hopes and standards for our work. We wonder if people will like it, we fear being judged. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about the work. Right now, your job is to make! Focus on that.
Everything I have just said can be summed up in one word – Commit. To get your personal work done, you must commit to getting it done. That means making a firm decision to get it done no matter how hard or tough the road may be. It means discipline. It means giving up excuses and doing whatever needs to be done.
I heard the above quote from a Tai Lopez podcast sometime in 2015, and it stuck in my mind ever since. It even made it to the little pile of post-its I keep on my desk covered with odd notes and scribbles. It reminded of me something I heard Marc Ecko say back in 2012 – that the phrase ‘Artists and Instigators’ was a more apt way to describe what startups and entrepreneurs do. We get stuck sometimes on the nuts and bolts of creating businesses and launching brands, managing teams, balancing books, developing markets, we miss the essence of what these activities are, or what they should be. Which is making something we believe should exist to communicating an opinion, a point of view.
That is the true allure of being a designer for me. It is the chance to make something, the ability to offer my take / perspective on an idea, a product, a service, a business that wakes me up in the morning eager to get started.
I watched a talk by Sasha Strauss on ‘branding in the normal’ last week, and he so elegantly distilled the essence of what a brand is. As a matter of fact, the idea he put forward is the founding conceptual framework behind all the great institutions of our time – religions, nations, and so. The core of brand is this – there is the idea, and there is the belief around that idea. Religion has the idea that there exists a god or gods. The belief system in relation to this idea, i.e. how we interact with and behave because of this god or gods is what makes different religions appeal to different people. The Virgin Group takes on multiple markets and products but the core ideas are business, products, and services. Their belief is that business should be fun and that customer service is the most important thing a great company can have.
I don’t know what your motives are for getting into business if you are an entrepreneur, but the best businesses and the most creative works of art succeed because they have a point of view. There is something they believe in, and they stop at nothing to birth a world that expresses that. It might be in the way they treat the customer, it might be in the way they do business, but they believe something.
That goes double for the freelancer, the creative, the solopreneur. You got into this because deep down, you want to create a specific kind of life; you want to do something remarkable. You became an entrepreneur, to make something specific happen. There are a multitude of people doing the same thing you do – designing, writing, photography, coaching, etc. What will separate you from everyone else is the same thing that makes you unique. It is your DNA, it is your opinion, its your point of view, it is what you truly believe. Don’t hide away from it; don’t dumb it down to fit in. Embrace that and recreate the world in your image.
This is a slight rant on something I have been experiencing in the past few weeks.
I started out in this design/design business thing self taught. I learned to use the software and I’ve been sloughing away at it ever since. In the 7-8 years I’ve been doing this, I have probably designed up to thousands of pieces and artifacts – logos, mailers, flyers, websites, etc. Over time I have gotten good at delivering visually pleasing work quickly and within the chaotic constraints of the typical client service business.
For most creatives, the most exciting part of our work is the actual creative part, making the thing, the logo or the booklet or the poster. Many times I have fallen into the trap of becoming nothing more than a tool for the client, a pixel pusher. Do this, do that, move that there, without much regard for my opinion or ideas on what works. That was entirely my fault. I did not understand the value I brought to the table nor could I communicate that effectively.
In the chaotic landscape of client services, things tend to be frantic. Everything is always due yesterday. There is often not a good enough understanding of the connection between design output and business objectives. Design becomes a last minute exercise quickly producing pieces of communication without any form of strategy or intent.
This is a mistake.
Sure you can get a nice looking design out of a competent designer working this way. But creating design that actually works, design that clarifies your intentions and aims your efforts, design that sets u up for greater success beyond the project at hand, that is something else entirely. That is the love child of good process and talent.
The Design Method outlined by Eric Karjaluoto in his book goes as follows: Discovery – Planning – Creative – Application. Newbie designers and most clients are happy jumping right into the creative. However they miss out on the many benefits of engaging the first two steps.
Discovery allows you to fully understand the problem at hand, it gives you context. Ideally, the designer should be able to immerse himself/herself into the world of the client and understand how the business works, what the problems are and how the audience interacts with them. Discovery has the benefit of helping the client understand what’s really going on with the business. Are there gaps in the communications? Do you understand what you really do? Do you understand what you are selling? Do you have objectives, and do you know how you are going to achieve them?
Planning helps connect the insights from discovery to the nitty gritty of execution. It provides a plan of action of what needs to be done, targeted to whom and by when. It gives purpose to your efforts and ensures you don’t waste time going down rabbit holes.
Respecting the process transforms a simple brief for a website for a bus company to a holistic communication solution geared at increasing online sales. Instead of just a website, the client is steered towards adopting online marketing, referral campaigns and developing e-commerce solutions. A directive to design new labels for a budding craft beer brand now turns into the task of the defining and refreshing company brand in light of their new investment, offerings and aspirations. Instead of just labels, the brand is rewarded with a deeper understanding of itself and a roadmap for handling communications moving forward.
Rushing through the design process to the production bit might be satisfying in the short term, but you miss out on a ton of value left on the table in the long term.
Over the past few years, in my quest to become a better designer, I have been faced with two related ideas – the need for a good process, and consideration of the larger context.
A good process allows me as a designer to work in a way that is systematic. It helps me walk clients through the project from start to finish. I am also able to cover all the important points consistently, and the process allows me to build consequentially. Stage 1 provides a foundation of understanding around the project and goals, the next stage builds a framework to organize execution, and so on, until I get to designing outputs that are firmly rooted in insights and strategy.
As a designer, every design, every action taken sits within a larger context that will ultimately influence the success or failure of the project. If one jumps directly into design trying to make something cool and aesthetically dope, we end up with nothing more than superficial solutions. To have real impact, the work of the designer starts way before he puts pencil to paper or opens up that blank Photoshop canvas.
You have to ask yourself, ‘what is the client trying to achieve?’ – More sales? Increased awareness? Or are they simply trying to communicate to a specific audience? Considering the intent of the design project increases the chances of designing something appropriate and on target.
Engaging in this exercise can seem very time consuming. All you want to do is jump right in and do the fun stuff. But the step back is crucial. If you can define what the brand you working on is all about, who their audience is, what their key messaging is and their objectives are, you can set out a creative strategy framework that would allow the brand to be deployed beyond the specific output you are presently working on.
As an entrepreneur or business person, you may find yourself in need of a design output – a logo, a profile, a brochure, a website, or a full CI (Corporate Identity). It would do a world of good to clearly define your brand first. Your company or product sits in an ecosystem with multiple competitors, multiple audiences and numerous external forces. It is important to define clearly who you are, what you do, why you do it, who you do it for and who should care. It is important to know what is unique about you and the value you bring so you can consistently speak to that and with every subsequent release of communication you can reinforce your brand and build equity over time.
Understanding your brand and intent has the powerful effect of helping to direct your efforts in the day to day running of your business and its development. With a clear sense of who you are and what you do, you know how to focus your operations and work in line with your brand and maximize your returns. You won’t split your energy into pursuing things that seem interesting or opportunistic but are out of brand character. It will help you build a stronger more focused business over time.