Surface Pattern Design: some tips and thoughts
"How do you become a surface designer and approach the companies that you want to work with?" "Do you have some tips for those who want to be a surface designer?" Well, I get these questions a lot, so today I'm going to share with you my personal experience on becoming a surface designer.
"Trade show or not?"
I launched my surface design career at Surtex in 2015. Before that I didn't even know such industry exists. (If you're curious, I found out about Surtex from Elizabeth Olwen's article in Uppercase Magazine.) I got lots of good contacts in the first year, but not much has happened that year after the show. I returned to the show again the next year with more work. I got lots of new contacts from the show, and a couple of deals actually went through. But, it wasn't until last year, 2017, that I finally gained some traction. A prominent retail company specializing kids' products, whose creative director came to my booth in 2015, finally licensed a whole bunch of designs from my new portfolio. And this year, I got to work with a company whose founder came to my booth in 2016. So, if you ask me if the show was worth it, I'd say yes. The result wasn't instant for me, but it has finally started to build up. Other than getting business contacts, I think the trade show was beneficial to me for the following reasons:
- A boost in confidence. Before I went to my first trade show, I wasn't sure if I was ready for the industry. But once I got there and showed my work, I realized that it wasn't so hard! I got lots of positive feedback, and that definitely gave me the courage to keep going.
- International level. Attending an international trade show also allows you to explore opportunities outside your usual circle. If I didn't go to New York for Surtex, I don't think I'll ever have the opportunity to work with so many clients from around the world.
- Meeting clients in person. Having the opportunity to meet with prospective clients is priceless. Sometimes a business opportunity may result from you meeting them in person. True Story.
"What if I can't afford a trade show?"
Yes, trade shows are usually super expensive. That's why I decided to join an agency to exhibit with others at Surtex in 2017 & 2018. You can also form a collective with other artists and share the booth cost together.
"How do you find potential companies to work with if doing a trade show is just not an option?"
Well, don't worry. After attending Surtex for 4 years straight, I noticed a decline in the show size as well as attendance. I'm not sure what that means, but I've also started to get business inquires from Instagram. So, if you don't want to do a trade show, working on your social media marketing is definitely a must. Another way to find potential companies to work with is to go shopping! By that I mean browsing through merchandise and taking note of the brands that you'd like to work with. Not every brand would work with artists; many of them have in-house designers that design products for them. It will be your job to find out whether they license/buy artwork from independent artists. Sometimes it's easy to determine by doing some online research; sometimes you just have to contact them directly.
Before you start to contact the companies on your list, you might want to consider the following:
- Understand different markets. There are different product categories in the licensing world, such as wall art, home textiles, stationery, kids, bolt fabric, etc. You can consider taking Lilla Roger's "Make Art that Sells" courses to learn more about each market.
- Find your style & know your strength. Once you have a good understanding of each market, try to think about your art in context. What market(s) is/are your style suitable for? It is hard to tackle every single market at first, so pick your battle.
- Have a solid portfolio. Some companies have a specific guideline for submission on their website. In other cases, you want to show them the work that's relevant to their products. Ideally, you should have different portfolio books (PDFs) for each different market. For example, if you're pitching to a wallpaper company, your book should include relevant artwork as well as some wallpaper mockups. You book should focus on quality rather than quantity.
- Have a nice website. Some companies would look beyond your portfolio, so the website needs to do a good job representing you in the digital world. Include the projects you've done and a bio about yourself.
- Keep your email short. Introduce yourself and tell them why you can help them with your work. Keep it brief because people are busy.
Exhibiting at trade shows has definitely helped me when I first started out, but I feel that social media has become a game-changer in the surface design industry. Whether you're going to do a trade show or just focus on your online marketing, the bottom line is, keep updating your portfolio and submitting it. DO NOT spam your contacts though.
I'm only in this business for a few years. I haven't mastered everything, but I hope by sharing my own experience, I can at least answer some of your questions about the industry. You're welcome to share your experience in the comments too!