Go on, don't be shy - expose yourself! Get out there and show the world just what you're made of. Lawrence Zeegen gets the low-down on the crucial art of self-promotion.
So you want to be a successful designer or illustrator, do you? You've done your training, or you've undertaken a range of placements and clawed your way up in the industry and are now setting up solo. Perhaps you're even an established design company looking to take things to the next level. Whatever your current situation, you've got the kit, the portfolio and you're doing great work, but yet one crucial aspect might still be missing. Yes, you're going to need some clients, some projects and some good luck. One thing is for sure: work isn't going to fall into your lap or onto your laptop without some hard graft on your part. So, start making your own luck by getting out there and exposing yourself!
Self-promotion shouldn't be considered the icing on the cake; it's the meat and potatoes and the gravy, the veritable main course of your entry into the design world. Without a body of work to promote, though, you'll be on a hiding to nothing, so make sure you have the goods up-front and resist the temptation to start communicating with the movers and shakers of the design world until you're good and ready. However, if you have genuinely interesting, innovative work and you promote it, yourself and your skills well, you could be on the road to winning clients, picking up new projects and running a successful design business.
Know your audience
The first stage, way before you even consider chucking a bunch of beautiful stickers in an envelope or creating a cool email update, is to consider carefully what it is you're attempting to achieve and exactly who your intended audience is. The scatter-gun approach might work for some, but a far better tack is to take aim and fire off your campaign at a well-considered target. Start by asking yourself a few key questions: Are you looking to win a new client, or get some press about a new project for an existing client? Is your campaign about promoting your old work to new clients or new work to old clients? Are you looking for the chance to meet with a commissioning editor for a publishing company or an art buyer in an ad agency? Ask yourself these questions and more and then, armed with the well-considered answers, you're ready to start the process of drafting, designing and distributing your calling card to the world.
Next up, think about the task ahead and exactly what types of marketing and self-promotion are going to communicate your message best to your intended audience. Nowadays it seems that there is potentially a never-ending stream of design possibilities, from the humble printed postcard or mailer to the creation of your own website or the staging of exhibitions. Miles Donovan of Peepshow, the illustration and animation collective, agrees: "There are so many media platforms that you can use these days, it's a minefield," he states from Peepshow HQ, deep in the heart of Hoxton. Choosing the right approach can come down to budget, of course. "The last five years," continues Donovan, "have seen a massive swing to digital promotional items which is great in many ways - it's certainly cheaper and quicker, but I can't help but think it's missing something!"
Ensuring that its own digital output isn't missing anything is Hyperkit, a London-based design studio run by Tim Balaam and Kate Sclater. Hyperkit specialises in commissions informed by its own diverse interests and self-initiated projects. The Hyperkit website, launched at the same time as the company in 2001, takes a unique stance on self-promotion. An online journal records and presents all projects, press and news about the studio. There's nothing particularly unusual about that, but it's the addition of two other sections - Outings and Found - that give Hyperkit its flavour. Balaam and Sclater travel constantly in search of modernist architecture and record these outings on the site as well as scour thrift and charity stores for interesting findings which, again, are uploaded regularly.
"We've had a website since we started out," Sclater confirms, "which we use as a form of self-expression and add to it every couple of weeks. Along with posting up our work, we also display things which tell more about us and our interests - from architecture-themed photos to interesting car-boot finds. We like the connections that we often make with people via our website, which can also lead to commissioned work." Hyperkit's approach to website content gives the company a unique appeal, and being different can be a real asset.
"I try to send regular email updates of new projects," offers Jasmine Raznahan, a solo graphic designer with an impressive portfolio and client list. "I send these out to the people I'd most like to work with, but email updates certainly aren't the only route I take." Raznahan lets us in on her own approach to creating something unusual and unique. "I tend to try and think of what everyone else might do, and then do the complete opposite," she states, before quickly adding, "and hope it pays off." Raznahan's recent promo - a limited edition screen-printed rubber poster for recipients to 'colour in' with biros - gathered immediate responses. ''What the **** is this? was the first," admits Raznahan, "but it surely beats sending a bunch of A4 printouts of my work, which will probably end up buried under client briefs, a pile of magazines and the remains of lunch."
Designer and illustrator Emily Alston agrees with this approach. "The best self-promotional material has to be a little different from the norm; it has to stand out from the hundreds of mail-outs that art directors receive daily," she states. "A printed A4 sheet in an envelope just won't cut it - the likelihood is that it'll just end up in the bin," adds Alston as a harsh reality check. One of Alston's very first self-promotional campaigns saw her over-print her illustrations and typography onto found postcards, then create a flip-down mailer - "Just like the postcard booklets you get at seaside resorts." And the results? "Design company Aboud Sodano liked it so much that I was invited to create images for an invitation to a Paul Smith show of bags in Japan," she recalls. "A dream first commission!"
Making contacts and connections
As Alston has proven, successful self-promotion can be so much about getting your work in front of the right people at the right time and, when the fit is just right, contacts and connections can start to slot neatly into place. Jasmine Raznahan's first foray into self-promotion worked a treat and started with the humble business card. Raznahan created her own quirky range of cards, remarkably inexpensive to produce, based on real quotations from old school reports. School Report 1996: "If Jasmine was to put as much effort into French as she does her artistic conquests, she could do brilliantly." And School Report 1995: "Never one to shy away from self-expression, Jasmine will excel in a career path that allows her to articulate her opinions and channel her growing artistic talents. Unfortunately, I cannot think of what that might be." Both quotes encapsulated her irreverent approach to self-promotion, and promoting less than positive aspects cleverly worked in her favour. The cards were featured in the design book Business Cards 2: More Ways of Saying Hello, leading directly to The Gallery of Contemporary Arts in New York checking Raznahan's website and then requesting to stock some of her design products. The publicity from the business cards led to an offer to undertake a stint of lecturing at Chelsea College of Art and a request from ID magazine to feature her work in an upcoming issue. "I think it's all about planting little seeds," Raznahan offers openly, perhaps without even truly recognising how the beautiful simplicity in the concept behind the cards engaged her audience.
Al Heighton is a designer and illustrator who understands the notion of sitting tight and waiting, as he recalls how it took months after his initial mail-out for commissions to start coming in. "I honestly thought with my first set of cards that I may well have put them down the drain," Heighton admits, "but then straight out of the blue, six months later, calls started coming in for jobs and work. It goes to show that art directors and art buyers do keep and collect samples."
Keeping it real
While keeping things digital can be a cost-effective way of promoting yourself - there's no need for expensive print, envelopes and postage and no time-consuming printing, labelling or envelope stuffing - it does seem that for Alston, Raznahan and Heighton keeping it real is where it's at.
So too for BB Saunders, a London-based design and branding consultancy with clients including Nike, Channel Five and Heart FM. BB Saunders decided to go one step further than just producing a regular piece of printed publicity in order to promote the company. 365 Pages is a printed journal intended to be used "to do what you will - that never-ending to-do list, those phone numbers with no name written against them, the ingredients you mustn't forget for tonight's dinner or that idea that might just save mankind". Managing director Martin Saunders takes up the story: "Ever since we started, most of our promotion has been word-of-mouth and we have endeavoured to get press coverage where possible - however, it's hard to target this towards potential clients. We have carried out small-scale mailings of some of out self-initiated work but 365 Pages is our first piece of promotional print." A luscious example of great design meets superb print, 365 Pages has been mailed to lucky clients and those keen for BB Saunders to work with them, but what about others who might want to get their hands on a copy? It's online and on sale at the BB Saunders website for just under £20. Shrewd self-promotion meets blatant commercialism? You decide.
Back at Peepshow HQ, Miles Donovan muses upon his next piece of promo material, although admits much of the promotion for his work is either handled by Peepshow or his agents, Art Department, in New York. "They produce two booklets or series of postcards each year - normally on a theme," offers Donovan. "Personally, I'd love to go back to producing a lovely hand-printed book or a series to send out to clients. Thinking about it, I may just do thatâ€¦" He adds: "I think people really respond well to handcrafted materials these days - everyone seems to be sat in front of screens all day and when a lovely little something pops through the letterbox it cheers you up!"
Martin Saunders agrees: "We get many packages from graduates and, at the end of the day, good design and execution and interesting formats get you noticed. We are well aware of budgetary limitations, so we're never expecting to see eight-colour litho printing with numerous embosses. It's quite amazing what some people produce from their studios with an inkjet printer and a scalpelâ€¦"
Keeping it unrealâ€¦
For some, the contrasting issue of digital or real world will never quite cut it because they yearn to impress with more direct action. Austin at NEW promotes his design and illustration studio with an intensity that continues to win him an impressive number of innovative projects and clients. "I've sent bananas, potatoes, a slice of toast, a toothbrushâ€¦" recalls Austin, "all to grab people's attention." NEW has hit time and time again with its own brand of witty promo items. "We've customised and brand-alised floppy diskettes, CDs, video cassettes, even a Butch-style dog collar complete with engraved brass dog-tag for the recipientsâ€¦" Austin also once took to the streets to make an impression. "One time," he recalls "years ago, I stood across from Time Out magazine's offices on Tottenham Court Road with a huge GOLF SALE-style sign that read ARTIST - NEW STUDIO in fluorescent orange." NEW was soon working on projects for Time Out.
Whether parading in the street to make your mark or taking the more traditional route of sending a postcard, it's important to invest in creating the right profile for your business. It may be about attending key industry events to schmooze the in-crowd, offering your services to speak at a conference or creating a press release for magazines or PR companies. Getting the tone right is a key aspect of being the best in the self-promo stakes.
But it so often comes back to creating that all-important promo product. "It's a balance of finding a way of creating that certain something that is distinctive, is of some value to the recipient and hopefully communicates a message - it's very hard to achieve all threeâ€¦" admits Martin Saunders. Jasmine Raznahan recommends making your mail-out special: "Send something that is more a present, rather than just a selection of workâ€¦" And Miles Donovan throws down the gauntlet to all those about to embark upon creating their own self-promotional items: "Go on - get your thinking caps on and produce something really gorgeousâ€¦"