Holy crap, my first blog in post in… a really long time. I’ve been busy and I’ve been lazy. I’ve been focused and I’ve been distracted. But here I am. Damn, I’d like to promise that I’ll start writing on a more regular basis but, let’s be honest, I’ve promised that a couple of times now (at least to myself). But here we go again…
For the second year in a row, I’ve helped a friend out who teaches journalism with the assignment he gives to his students, Adopt a Designer. He matches each student in the class with a designer (or a photographer in my case) and we answer a bunch of question. Oddly enough, I’ve never asked what the actual assignment is nor have either of my assigned students ever sent me their final project just to see what it ended up looking like.
Hmmm, Steven, you should tell the kids to let us know how it turned out!
Anyway, even though I don’t have a freaking clue what the project is or how/why my answers are being used, here’s how it works: the student sends me some questions via email and I answer. This year, because of the change in the focus of my photography (moving toward commercial and hybrid photography), his questions seemed really on point for me and I really had to think about the answers I wanted to give him. In fact, anyone who either earns an income from their art or wants to should think about the same questions. Granted, maybe not every question can be answered by someone who isn’t a working pro, but you should still take a stab at answering them for yourself.
Steven, as always, thanks so much for letting me be a part of this exercise and, one of these days, I am showing up to your classroom and taking over a lecture or two. Probably should wait until you have tenure, though! And, this year in particular, thanks to Tyler, for asking the questions and making me think.
So here’s what he asked and how I answered:
How did you get started in graphic design?
So, I am actually a professional photographer with some background in design (specifically UI & information design and typography). I started about 15 years ago and did so pretty much out of necessity. I had been doing some part time work and needed to update some marketing collateral. It was horribly done so I undertook the effort to redesign it. That’s where I first really learning about basic design principles and typography. When I became a professional photographer about 8-10 years ago, I transitioned a lot of those skills and continued. Whereas a designer may refer to “layout”, we refer to “composition” but it’s essentially the same principle at work.
What’s the best part of your job?
That answer really depends on how I am feeling. There are times when I really love working with clients and there are times when I wish clients would disappear. Taking the “bigger picture” approach, I’d say it’s the satisfaction of when I finish the creation/printing process. The whole creative process is fun and rewarding, blah blah blah, but when all of the work and vision is manifested in the print I am holding, that’s always rewarding and enjoyable.
What’s the worst part?
Sales. It’s okay to earn an income (remember those words for your entire life) and you should be charging for your work. But, there are a lot of potential clients who feel that your work should be done on spec, or donated, or given away because they don’t have a budget. So, believing in both yourself and the quality of your work is critical but, as a creative, it’s hard to articulate that to someone and make the sale.
How are you inspired?
By being in an artistic and noisy environment. The worst thing for me when I am starting a new project is to sit in a quiet room. I need to be surrounded by creativity, noise, and color. Even though my particular style is very strong in a minimalist aesthetic, I still like to be enveloped in sights and sounds. It’s amazing what having a couple of cups of coffee in a busy Starbucks can do for my thought processes and artistic insights!
Also, I like visit galleries (online and in person) and see the works of others. And I certainly don’t limit myself to other photographers. I routinely look at potters, sculptors, painters, etc. Currently, I am finding myself very inspired by the work of minimalist Origami artists.
How much time do you get on projects?
That all depends on a few factors: is it a personal project that I am doing to build/update a portfolio? Is it a personal project for a gallery or showing? Is it for a client? I rarely run out of time because I am emphatic on ensuring that I get enough time to work on the project. Communication with your client is critical and one of the key pieces of discussion is education – specifically about what it takes to complete a project. What you need to know, as a creative, is how long it takes you to work on a type of project and then make sure your client knows that. There’s no real set answer, because creating a new brand and identity takes a lot longer than throwing together a set of business cards. No one will advocate for you, so you will need to do it.
Who are your clients?
I do a lot of commercial photography and my clients are restaurants, lounges, and high-end boutique bars. I do some fine art work on commission and that’s done via word of mouth (which sucks if you have to depend on it for an income!)
Any advice for beginning designers?
Oh yeah! If you’re freelancing, don’t undersell yourself. Believe in yourself because if you don’t then no one will. But here’s the most important thing: be you. It’s tempting, especially in the beginning, to take the “low hanging fruit” and accept any and all gigs. That can help bring in a bit of money and will give you some experience in a wide array of styles and genres, but you will plateau fast. Avoid being a generalist; that’s a great way to remain mediocre. Specialize and be known as “the only guy to go to for _________” Only you can figure out what that is but, assuming you work hard and keep at it, specialists always earn a better income and are happier. Your friends and family will urge you to take any job you can but push back. It may take longer to get any real traction but, when you do…
What do you think of your work?
I am proud of my work and I have no problem showing it and selling it to others (okay, selling is still uncomfortable). But, regardless of how good I think a particular piece may be, if I look at it too often, it starts to seem really plain and pedestrian.
If you could choose your best piece of art what would it be and why?
As an artist/creative, I’ve seen my style evolve over the years so, if you ask me today, I’d tell you it is a black and white photograph of a wooden ball sitting on a piece of handmade Japanese Washi paper with a black background. (you can see it here: http://500px.com/photo/31764179) Why do I like it? Because through its simplicity and balance, it does a perfect job of expressing my artistic vision and approach to design and composition. Also, experienced photographers will know how difficult a shot that was to light and execute.
Have you ever submitted art to a client that you were unhappy with but it is what the client wanted?
This happens quite a bit. let me start by saying that, it depends on *why* I don’t like the piece. If I feel that there are technical flaws to the piece I’ll probably not submit it. If I just don’t feel it’s as strong (artistically or technically) as I would like but the client is happy with it, then that’s fine with me. Finally, there are times when the client is looking for something specific and I may not agree with their choice. A perfect example is in commercial work. As the artist, I see the entire art piece but, as the manufacturer or retailer, they are looking only at a specific part of the finished piece (they might not notice that the model has some skin imperfections because they love how great the necklace looks).
Typically, I only submit pieces that I am happy with. One of the things a client pays us for is our ability to truly listen and hear what they both want and need and then deliver something that addresses it. At some point, you’re going to just “phone it in” and submit a weak piece. You’ll feel like total shit for having done so, but it gets it off of your to-do list and lets you bill it. When that happens, let it go and remember that that should be a once in a while thing, not your standard practice.
Once you get good at listening to your client and (as I mentioned in my previous email) you’ve become a specialist known for a particular style, you’ll find that clients typically hire you because they want what you produce and will not ask for what they think they want. In other words, they’ll hire you to produce a piece for their new product instead of telling you something like “we need this to look outdoorsy with a a lake and a mountain with a cougar in the background, while the model relaxes, puffing on a cigar.” Lots of people like to think they are art directors but, over time, they’ll stop once they become comfortable with your ability to deliver what they need. When that happens, you’ll find you’re much happier on a regular basis with what you’re submitting.
Tell me a success story where you saved your client money and how you did it?
Currently I am doing hybrid photography (combining audio, stills, and video) to produce short (25-30 second) videos that my clients can place on their Yelp pages as well as other places that showcases their location and (possibly) a high end item. You don’t want to save your client money – if you are, then you’re playing in a low-cost environment and your clientele will be problems. Case in point – I used to be a wedding photographer and the way that I (successfully) eliminated the “bridezilla” was by tripling my rates. Sure, I got fewer gigs but those who hired me saw my work as an investment and not a commodity. That absolutely applies to all creative areas. So, don’t worry about saving your client money, worry about whether or not your client’s investment will result in higher profit. For example, I charge $400 for the videos I produce and my expectation is that the restaurant should be able to make that back in added sales in just one weekend, if not one night. So, is that a worthwhile investment? It sure is but it didn’t save them a penny.
Describe the most collaborative creative team you’ve worked on?
A few years ago I did a shoot for a jewelry maker and she had been convinced (by someone else) to hire a set designer and a stylist. It was a dream shoot. I had two light tents and was able to direct the designer and stylist to set up one tent while I shot the other. Then they would break down the set I just shot while I shot the one they just set up. It cost the jeweler more money at the outset, but we did the entire shoot in 6 hours whereas I would have spent (and charged for) 2-3 days. In the end, I think the images were superior for having had both a stylist and a set dec, resulting in higher sales (better return on the client’s investment) while paying for only one day of my time. While I didn’t make as much, I was far happier with the outcome, didn’t have to spend hours in post production, and the client was thrilled.
BTW, when Overstock.com’s marketing department sent her a complimentary email on the images, all four of us were thrilled!
Give me an example of a project where you disagreed with the client’s direction and tell me how you handled it?
Since I work collaboratively with my clients, I don’t often have that type of disagreement. Early on, I would have allowed them to dictate what the result would be but, today, I feel a lot more comfortable discussing my point of view and point of reference. If their direction really goes against my vision and there’s too much arguing, I’ll decline the job AND suggest a different photographer for them to contact (and do so sincerely). If it’s a mild disagreement, I’ll probably give them what they want.
Here’s the basic thought process for me – my income-generating work is where I can/need to compromise and make sure that the client is happy. That’s why I still do personal projects to make sure that my own artistry is maintained and given integrity. It’s not selling out, it’s about being able to deliver and earn an income.
Thanks for reading? How would you have answered the questions?