During my last job with a large corporation, people started to get laid off. Many fellow creatives came to me, as they had no idea what they would do if they were let go. I had come to that small city from New York and my experience was varied and impressive to those who started their careers with this company. Their parents had hoped for their own children to work there and eventually retire in the same homey place. They were anchored in this town that held no other industries. Like layoffs in a town that has a steel mill, there weren’t many options to those looking for work.
“You’re creative,” I would tell people before my turn came in the next to last round of layoffs (which is some comfort). “You can do so many things that are creative. If you get pushed out the door, make your own projects!” Then advise them where to go and spend the rest of the day creating a book, or painting a series for a gallery show, or create postcards, greeting cards, dolls and websites. This was usually followed by the persons to whom I was speaking to, to ask about something they obviously wanted to explore; leading to a discussion, usually joined by others as well, on how to achieve it. The dividing line is how badly does one want it?
Take The Initiative!
Tailor (A) gives creative (B) a snappy new “power suit”, SO irresistible that the client (C) hugs the suit (D) causing it to hit paddle (E), smashing expensive vase (G) and wasting a perfectly goof head of cabbage (I). Further destruction reigns havoc (K – P), dousing all competitors with a toxic chemical (Q). Illustration by Rube Goldberg.
I’m a big believer in self-propelled initiatives. It’s how I make a living. Writing for Smashing Magazine is an initiative. Everything is done before Smashing ever sees it. Authors have to come up with the idea, research it for presentation, get the approval and then write it and submit it. It’s initiative. As with what you may perceive as easy to pitch an article, most initiatives are simple!
All of my career I’ve had people come to me to relay that they have written a book and need a cover or images for the inside so they can send it to a publisher. I tell them they don’t need all that. Just send in the manuscript with a self-addressed-stamped-envelope (many publishers have digital submissions on their sites) and the publisher will choose cover designers and illustrators themselves.
Some people smile at the realization that their dreams were an easy step closer. Some didn’t believe me and insisted I design something for them (and draw, because I’m an “artsy-type!”). I look over the pages and tell them it’s an idea that shouldn’t be “set aside lightly”. They smile and then I tell them it should be “thrown with great force” (with apologies to Dorothy Parker). Some people want it to be done for them. Maybe it’s the prompting of a contest or a “might-as-well-take-it” project.
Would you rather be working on a low-paying project that is screwing you up at every turn or invest in yourself with the time put towards your dream project? It’s not hard coming up with an idea and creating the images, code or what-have-you. The difficult part is making yourself do it and then selling it and that’s where most people fail.
One of my recent favorite self-initiative stories was about an injured creative with time on his hands and a need for income. Dave is a designer at the Iconfactory and responsible for the ultimate Twitter icon Ollie the Twitterrific bird; he had broke his foot while playing soccer over the Fourth of July. That meant that the poor guy was relegated to staying off his feet at home. Rather than wallow in self-pity, he decided to use the opportunity to keep himself from going completely Rear Window and offer up his design skills to the large Web community — and successfully so!
Self-initiative is not easy for most people. Working for someone else provides a regular paycheck, security, after a fashion, and someone telling you what to do. No self-motivational projects needed. As one person commented on a past article on crowdsourcing,
“I recently participated in the LG “Design the Future” contest (yeah, I didn’t win)… but rarely do I get the chance to design a cell phone like product… it was a great exercise in creativity and it really let me flex my muscle… and they had some substantial cash prices (first prize was $20,000)… I feel like competitions like that are great for the industry. The rules were pretty relaxed and it really let people go hog wild and show off what they can do. Too often you’re forced to roll with the clients vision. It’s great to have a contest that let’s you be you.”
As I was arguing the pros and cons of crowdsourcing in that article, I just had to reply for his edification:
“I understand your point, but let me play devil’s advocate and explore another option. So you submitted something you really enjoyed designing and it stretched your creativity. You loved your final submission. You didn’t win and the client, I assume, owns it anyway. What if you had designed it but not submitted it and then sought out companies that might purchase the rights to the design? You would have taken a cue to create your own initiative and owned the product rights.”
Was the prize worth giving away all rights to the winner? What would the client have paid a design firm or freelancer to do the work? I’m guessing that the prize cost was considerably less than the one that would have run the company. So, who was the real winner? Which avenue held a better chance for him? The odds of him winning the contest and giving up the idea anyway without winning, or the odds of him being able to sell the design on the open market, or maybe not, but owning it to try again? I can’t say.
Persistence in selling the idea and protecting it can be daunting. Even though, sometimes even an e-mail comes back right away that says, “I love it!”… and a check eventually arrives. (Note: you shouldn’t participate in such speculative design work as a professional in the first place and here is why — Smashing Editorial)
What Will Get You Started?
A tidal wave of ideas or bills (A) will motivate another creative nearby to foolishly open an umbrella (E) in a lame attempt to hold back the flood, causing what looks like a giant earring (H) to fall and pull the hammer (J) so it strikes a piece of metal (K), waking up the baby (L) who must be rocked to sleep (N) by a trained and poorly-paid dog (M), causing the attached backscratcher (O) to tear at your flesh until you decide it’s better to get off your rear and do something. Illustration by Rube Goldberg.
Your idea. Your dream. No one will do it for you. Even if you have to work at something non-creative — use the money to live, but make your dream the priority. Crappy job gets in the way of your dream? Find another crappy job! They’re everywhere and except for the slaughterhouse idea, they won’t drain your creativity. Have the idea? Now set your plan. Just like your previous boss who had always made projects go around and around, it’s finally time to make your own plan, knowing it will work better, and make it happen!
First, research who your customer is. Using Web sources or going to stores are the best way to find out some helpful examples of consumer habits (yes, marketing people never leave the office, they rely too much on figures supplied to them). See what people are buying and talk to them. I used to go to stores that carried products made by the company for which I worked for, and watched what people bought or didn’t and asked them why.
I would smile as I approached them, excuse myself and explain what I was working on and gathered their opinions. This is probably why my products sometimes sold very well. Know your consumer base!
Also, figure out costs and how you will cover them. You may need a loan or investors. What website and functionality will you need? Packaging, having stock, shipping, advertising, taxes? Is your dream project for you to start a business or do you want someone else to produce it? If you are producing it yourself, you can get a business loan, but you are about to take many, many risks. Get legal and financial advice next. It’s well worth the money and will give you the final tally of whether or not this will be your dream or nightmare.
If you are creating something to pitch to a company for their purchase or licensing a property (certain photos for calendars and cards, for instance), there are a similar but different set of rules.
Start with the idea and marketing, create a style guide and/or presentation. A friend of mine wanted to publish a graphic novel for a pitch for a property she was trying to sell but couldn’t afford upfront fees for an artist and writer and printer, so I told her to use a WordPress blog to post her promotional material that she already had and that would give her a great presentation — the easy way.
Research which company you think would want to take on the project. Again, go online or to a store and look around. Want to really impress potential clients? Ask the store’s permission to set everything up; take videos of shoppers and their answers. What better way to produce proof of a need and then give clients the means to fulfill it!? Let your imagination run wild! As with the man who was so excited by the contest he entered, stretch yourself creatively.
Found the perfect prospect? Do your research and find the people you need to reach. There are many business networking sites. Search the company and find people and their titles. Get addresses and phone numbers. Call the receptionist and ask her/him who is the head of marketing or if they have an R & D contact person. If they don’t know, ask to speak to the secretary of the VP of marketing. Maybe she/he can get you closer. Also, use your network. Do any of your contacts know someone you are trying to reach?
Sounds difficult? It isn’t really; just keep in mind that it takes a lot of persistence, patience, as well as a good sense of humor. Once you lost one of those, you won’t make it.
A Non-Disclosure Agreement Is Standard
While feeding yourself (A), the spoon pulls the string (B), flipping a piece of drilled iron into the head of a parrot (E), who is knocked unconscious and knocks it’s beak into a bowl (G) which spills parrot food into a bucket (H) that sets of fireworks (K) inside your house with a razor sharp sickle (L) attached to it, cutting the string (M) and forcing you to remember the paperwork to enforce your rights by smacking you in the face with a contract repeatedly! Illustration by Rube Goldberg.
It’s standard to either have your own Non-Disclosure Agreement or pick up a copy of Tad Crawford’s book on contracts and forms. Bigger companies will insist on using their own. Bigger corporations, to their own detriment, usually have no access point for outside ideas. They are afraid your idea may be something they are working on and they will be sued down the line. Middle-sized companies will just tell you they happen to be working on the same idea. Document your contacts and submissions well.
I was recently told over a dozen product designs would not be used. I later heard the products were available in every catalog world-wide. Did they think my price would go up if I found out how well the work did? You bet it will! Keep your expectations high (expect the middle to low high) when negotiating. A recent question came in from an artist in Mexico who ran across a sleazy representative in the United States who was basically ripping her off for one of her licensed characters. She had jumped at the chance because it was her first time working in a licensing arrangement. I hope she followed my advice.
As with any business transaction… think! Anyone who rushes your decision is up to something. Do your research and see what you find.
Bless The Web And All Who Surf It!
Extended and dangerous hook (A) catches old fashion sign (B), causing electrical shorts that start a fire and the boot to swing back, kicking the football (C) over the goal post (D) and into a colander (E) which tips the watering can (G) to soak the creative’s back, pants and shoes, which will lead to misunderstandings and new nicknames. The string (I) pulls open the cage (J) allowing the bird (K) to go to eat the worm (M), as the bird had been starved in retaliation for all the Twitter fails, causing the shade to be pulled down (N), which reminds the creative to mail that proposal in his pocket. Using theiWeb only takes half the steps. Illustration by Rube Goldberg.
The Web holds a billion of possibilities. As I mentioned about my friend who built a blog, rather then going through the costs of print, you can hardly lose with a great idea and the ability to bring it to life on the Web. With e-commerce made so easy, how can you not have a site that sells something? At least most of the people I know have a Cafepress or Zazzle “shop”.
When I first started with web design, back in the days when processors ran on mud and sticks… and fire, which was new, I put up sites for my infamous chili recipe, one for each of my kids, a site for toy collectors, and it went on. Why? The Web was young and there were probably only 73 sites live and forty of them were mine!
Use your down time. Partner with friends and split the rewards. Ever hear of a group of social outcasts who got together and created something called “The Onion?” No? I haven’t either, but I do hear good things and that they crawled their way up to be, I believe, the number one humor site in the world. It must have started with an idea and someone’s dream.