AIGA LOCAL HERO
In the first few years of striking out on my own and establishing an independent design studio, my universe was ever-expanding, yet my immediate world felt small, consumed as I was by a new, growing business. A memorable event from those early days was an invitation to speak to a community of colleagues and fans about my process; confirmation that I was doing something truly right! I still hold with these same basic principles and beliefs and have had many more experiences since then. Helping to refine my approach, sharpen my skills, and continue to learn new things.
When I was first contacted by Stephanie Allen and Gary Stamps from the AIGA, after I got over the fact that it wasn’t my brother making some sort of crank call, I was absolutely terrified. I couldn’t imagine why they could possibly want me to participate in this event: I wasn’t really a designer, as I’d never had formal academic training, and I’d spent hours in my past life filling out AIGA Call for Entry forms and submissions for numerous competitions for the serious big shots I’d worked for- I thought, “Yikes! Why me? Some mistake, probably.”
When I got over that initial terror, I realized it was quite an honor to be recognized by the design community and it helped boost my confidence, at least temporarily. I thought: I’m still not making any money after three years, the engine needs replacing on my car, and the Fall shows are around the corner; at the very worst, having my 15 minutes of fame won’t be all that bad.
So then I tried to go along with life as usual, figuring that I had at least a month to work out what I was going to say and prepare a routine kind of slide show of what an audience like yourselves might want to hear, and take pictures of my studio, and concoct some kind of marketing plan to present, and give you an in-depth explanation of my brilliant merchandising schemes.
And then it all became very monumental when I had to consider what really drives A Thousand Words and what really makes the company tick. Which boiled down to my total fascination with still photographs -their mystery and their power, and where they can take you. Everything they say and don’t say all at the same time.
When I moved back to San Francisco 3-1/2 years ago, having spent my entire working life as a facilitator for other people’s dreams and projects, as a coordinator and producer for filmmakers and graphic design studios, I realized that I could re-invent myself, professionally speaking.
So I got a part time job working for Gerry Reis in his studio, answering phones and doing paperwork and I did manage to produce an unusual industrial film for Metropolitan Furniture Company, and I started to write down ideas and try to get some kind of “spiritual professional game plan” going, where I could really figure out what should come next. I diligently tried to get it all down on paper, figuring I could coordinate or produce my life’s work just like I’d been doing for everyone else all those years, with a line-by-line budget and a schedule and a projection of costs, etc...
and just try to get it all organized and set up absolutely perfectly…
.…and then, I did what I really know best how to do, which was to just jump right in and let the current take me.
I had no intention of making books when I first began. I was interested in making something else, also with photographs as the principal design element. I contacted some friends who were in the business of being manufacturer’s reps and told them about my idea. They said, “Sounds good. Make it. We’ll try to sell it.”
Then I ran out of money. I called them back and told them that I was going to design something else. Books. Really photo albums, something which I knew how to make, or so I thought I did, also with photography as the motivating design element, and they said, “Sure. Try it.”
Four were produced and orders came in within a week or two for four hundred. Now it was a business and figuring out how to make 400 was quite different from 4.
So, accidents can and do happen and sometimes they lead you to positive and unexpected results.
In general, you feel like this clumsy but graceful beast that lumbers forward, then seems to fall back, and miraculously you find that you’ve actually progressed from the place you originally started somehow.
You stand in the middle of it all and realize that it moved you and there you are inside of this real big project– your own business- and that everything depends on you, and your strength and tenacity and perseverance and your clarity of vision and there’s no handbook to follow or tutorial and it’s really overwhelming.
You feel so totally and completely alone, certain that no one could possibly identify with or solve your problems. They’re so large and numerous and you alienate all your friends and the people who love you and its your own little world and how the hell did you get there?
Sometimes the signposts along the way are painfully obvious- you make too few one season, you run out. You make extra next time, you have too many. And every time you try to have a studio sale, it’s bad weather or the San Francisco Marathon is running right down your street and they’ve closed off all traffic.
I constantly find myself learning really big lessons, just when I thought I had this or that totally figured out. Something interesting happens though, out of a lot of mistakes, new products are born and materials from one screw-up pave the way for a whole new idea to pop up.
Like paper cut the wrong way for a standard book becomes half the size and printed and turns into a recipe page holder. Or the challenge of reworking new color combinations out of the same cloths left over from the previous season, so as not to have to order more and more materials with a limited cash flow.
I know that a lot of people suggest that if you’re going to start up a new business, that you check out what else is out there...
…and try to spot trends and what’s the latest style, forecast colors, and trends and integrate trips into the market for research as a regular part of your weekly or monthly routine.
For me, the world that I create in my studio can’t help but be influenced by the outside world.
I think if you’re awake and alive, what’s going on around you leaks in anyway, and you catch glimpses of the wonder and simple surprises.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t consider what’s marketable. But you can never really know at the beginning, if you’re thinking about designing and producing an original idea, who your public is and what the product is that they absolutely can't live without.
There’s too many of them, and trying to figure out what their collective taste factor is and what they want is probably impossible and, I wouldn’t say irrelevant, but could certainly be an obstacle as far as letting your creativity lead you.
I’ve discovered that what really speaks to me is significant to my customers and what somehow strikes a chord with them is the feeling that what I produce is really a reflection of myself and that I really care and am passionate about it and they can identify with the images too.
And there’s this instant of recognition and connection, even if we have absolutely nothing in common in real life.
I think that there’s almost a real danger involved in being too aware, too knowledgeable or up-to-the minute about what’s hip and happening because trend is a very powerful thing and it can wipe out clear thinking in terms of following where your intuition can take you.
Those get-rich-quick deals are few and far between and trend can deter you from designing and producing something that people will continue to want after this year’s craze ends.
If it starts getting too maddening, advice I can give– but must always be prodded into taking– is to pause and think abut what’s really important to you in terms of your work and keep in perspective where your small business and your ideas can fit into the bigger picture of your life.
It can sort of center you and make you remember that you get to have this wonderful experience and can make your own hours, which will be longer than any you’ve ever had on any other job, but this time, if you say Blue, it's Blue. Until you're proven wrong, that it was really Red, but it was your decision.
There is has to be a sense of fun in order to keep yourself going, but nothing too haphazard because what you have created is something that people want and its a business now.
I need to feel like I’m off on a new adventure every time I plunge into a new collection, but what I’ve learned teaches that you don’t take off too far from the ground each subsequent trip.
And then you start the whole balancing act all over again- In the Southeast, contemporary means something different than in the Northwest, but that’s what they want.
Items in the line that you priced out two weeks ago and did the price list on are made with materials from Japan and the dollar drops and everything changes.
Hand-made papers from one die lot don’t match the new batch and you need to make a substitution without compromising the so-called “kernel of truth” and the integrity of the design. Maybe they’ll get the “feeling” and they won't really notice that it’s green now.
And then all of your failures and successes for that hour, week, or year build up a kind of momentum and energy on their own and Nature just takes over.