To Niche or Not to Niche

That is the question many designers face. You are not alone. I’ve heard arguments for both sides of this dilemma. As a designer of 20+ years, I’ve often persuaded myself one is better than the other, only to swing back the other way again. Mostly I have been in the generalist industry camp, but out of geographic need rather than some profound decision. I live in SW Colorado, and have about half of my clients nearby in the region and then others much further away, but I serve numerous industries including outdoor, bicycle specific, tourism, development, restaurant, specialty food and cannabis. Fairly broad in scope. I’ve even had a client in securities! I had always intended to narrow down and niche, but new projects kept popping up and I never committed to one. I’ve had the benefit of being a part of both through colleagues and close friends. Here’s my thinking on each.

Camp Niche

I’ve gone to many bicycle industry trade shows and demo events. I have a few clients in this arena and have worked these shows on their behalf. I have also had the benefit of seeing up close and personal what a tight knit and veryyyy small industry this truly is, and more importantly how challenging it can be to break in to. My beloved has been in this industry practically since he started working and has stayed the course in it for over 25+ years. At this point not only are his many friends those who grew up with him in the industry but they are now running the companies or are the owners of many elite brands. He’s respected, a known entity as it were and his opinions are sought after. It’s humbling to walk through one of the big shows with him and watch how he laughs, shakes hands, jokes around, chats etc etc with someone at almost every booth. He will tell me this gal was PM for this brand then became this for that brand, but she used to work with this guy who is now the CEO of this company. You get the picture. That’s what following your niche does. It creates a close community that you can only get with time. Period. And it’s very cool. I’m always a little combination of inspired and forlorn after these events as it’s a piece of my direction that I truly feel I’ve missed out on. You get to be an expert in the industry and an expert friend to many. Win win. From this advantage, finding work becomes a much easier task. You simply don’t have to work as hard with business development. You have to stay relevant and current, but you have to do this regardless of your business approach.

Focusing your creative efforts in a niche industry creates a close community that you can only get with time.

Camp General

Let’s cross over and look at the other side of this. In my case, living in a remote part of the state and not close to any major urban area, getting started was effectively taking any and everything I could. I met a lot of people and built a solid reputation for being very creative and excellent and what I do. I have used this to push the referral network out further and over the years have touched quite a variety of types of projects and businesses. I know a lot of people in a lot of different industries that don’t necessarily cross over. This is where being a generalist gets interesting. One core value of my work is the unflinching belief that what I learn and do in one industry can feel very fresh in another. You become a mini expert in a lot of interesting fields, maybe a little bit of a know it all. That’s fun, but you also see something working really well over here and wonder why it’s not being done over there. SO you get to bring that to the table. For example, when you are involved in a conversation about driving tourism in a market and you can speak intelligently about events or things that are happening in a market segment that tourism might want to target, that makes you somewhat of a expert from afar. This helps. Because of my work in the bicycle industry, I can speak knowledgeably to the tourism board about what might appeal to this demographic. Like Camp Niche, this too takes time but gives you a different set of skills that are quite valuable as a creative professional. I don’t have the vast network and therefore biz dev can be challenging at times, but I can honestly say to someone that I’ve design identity systems and marketing materials for almost any industry they throw at me, and for some clients this is important to them. We creatives know that the same principles of design for one industry apply to the next and having direct experience in designing a logo for a realtor without having actually done that prior may not be as challenging as thought if you are good at what you do. Yet it’s helpful sometimes to show that you have, or certainly that you have worked in very corporate fields to very trendy fields and can swing either direction. We are natural thespians after all.

One core value of my work is the unflinching belief that what I learn and do in one industry can feel very fresh in another.

I’m certain that I will continue to swing back and forth as long as I hold a mouse and a pen. There are aspect on each side of this that I really love, and now the challenge becomes how to blend the two. If this has hit a chord with you, please share your thoughts. I would love to hear other opinions from a creative professional POV.

Continue reading “To Niche or Not to Niche”

A few tips for creatives suffering from disorder syndrome

How do we measure success? Depending on the day that will change dramatically for me. Some days it means I have enough work flow to keep me busy for the next month at a time, for other days it’s more directly about how much am I making after expenses and all of life takes it’s piece, and yet others it boils down to whether or not I’m thriving as a creative. Us creatives are challenged in so many ways. If you’re one, you know what I’m talking about. We can be emotional, passionate, moody, euphoric, contemplative and borderline catatonic all in the span of five minutes. We are a litmus test for what’s happening around us daily. We’re the dipsticks for social currents. In short, we don’t stay focused long enough to see two weeks ahead of ourselves much less the distant future where you could utter the word retirement. Creatives truly live in the moment. Isn’t that a good thing?

I read a lot. I read just about anything, and lately I see quite a bit more about the challenge of staying in the moment! Stay present. Live in the moment. Embrace all that’s around you now. Which makes me wonder what it must be like to be ping-ponging back and forth between today, next year and last year. That sounds exhausting. This always cracks me up as I can’t seem to really get out of the moment. I can brood and dwell on the past no problem, and I can dig out an idea I might have had ten years ago and find the right fit for a current client, but my day is my day. I can also worry with the best of them about my future because as I get older that reality becomes more relevant, and it scares the crap out of me. So, what’s the takeaway here? Am I successful because I live in the moment?

Creatives already live in the moment. We need to figure out how to tackle the future.

I’ve worked for myself for the past twenty years, and one might think that by now I’d have made a pile of money. Here’s the thing, working for yourself means that you get to be every person in the agency, including the person that is supposed to be working on “biz dev”, as it’s affectionately referred to these days, and be the person actually doing the work, the stuff that pays the bills, which also takes time. This is something I have really never figured out. How to do both well, and I wish someone would tell me. Hey, it’s easy. Here’s how to keep consistent workflow going. I also recognize, however painful it is, that when I started working solo, and how we went about “biz dev” is not how it happens today. While I was busy working hard to develop the best creative I could for each and every client, I somehow failed to learn the new rules of how to get more work. I believe this is something many suffer from as well.

Should we be building Google Ad campaigns, a consistent Instagram following, attend every social gathering for your niche possible, tradeshows, lunches, ask for referrals, mailers, public speaking, guest interviews. I don’t know. It seems impossible to do it all and more than a bit daunting. Personally, I still remain an unflappable believer that your work speaks for itself. Perhaps this is naïve, but I’d like to think it’s not. I know for a fact that once I can get past the wall and break through to a new potential client, the response to what I do for them is positive through and through. I have honed my craft and am confident in what I do, because I do actually care about each client I work with. In the moment, I am all theirs. I am simply not capable of thinking about another project while I am working on something else. I’ve got this piece dialed.

What’s a creative to do? Get organized. Period. If you are also this person I have described, what has been most successful for me is to get organized and get in a consistent flow. I may not have the answers for better business development, but I can truthfully say that organizing my day helps me get closer to doing all I need to, including a little bit of new outreach. There needs to be a time set aside, each day, to work on different tasks. It’s the best solution I have come up with to date, yet I’m open to other opinions and suggestions. If this is helpful for you, this is what my workday looks like.

Get up at the same time every day.
I know this seems dumb. If you think it is, this list isn’t for you. If you’re the “creative” you know exactly what I’m saying. Building routine is hard. We actually don’t thrive on routine, we thrive on change. So creatives, get your butt up every day, at least during the work week, and act like you are a regular worker bee. Whatever you need to do in the morning to wake up, do it. I like to run in the warmer months, and stretch in the colder ones. Make coffee, drink your lemon water, shower! This is routine and it is good for you! And please put on nice clothes, or at a minimum, just put on clothes. Show the universe you are serious about your career and invested in yourself. I have never had a great idea in my sweat pants.

Go to work.
Do you work from home? My boyfriend does, and he’s good at it. I tried it once and became so distracted that I never seemed to get work done. Oh I got laundry done, soup made, did a longer than usual run, walked the dog, played with the dog, napped and maybe made cookies, and online shopped, but no work that pays bills. I have an office, that I drive to, that is not super close to my home. It’s a daily commitment. And I like it. Church and state. This is mission critical for me, my state of mind and my creative flow.

Task list.
So, you’re sitting at your desk staring at your computer. What needs to happen today? When are you at your best, when are you a slug? Figure out your own rhythm, and build your day around that. I have the most attention for emails and chatting earlier in the day, by midmorning I want to be deep in my flow until I notice I’m hungry around 1:00. Then I’ll take a breather, take a class, move around for an hour and tackle the second half of my day. Remember we are building a routine. I know. I know It’s weird. After lunch/workout/break I can go back to my list I made first thing, and either smugly cross things off or panic that I’m off track. Then get serious about getting it done. By the end of the “work day” you will be pleased at what you have accomplished.

Review for tomorrow.
Before I leave my designated work space, it’s important that I do a quick review on what I did, and what needs to happen tomorrow. I do this because I have found that my retention for things is better if I mentally review it a few times. It’s that frequency thing. For example, if an idea pops into your head while you’re driving, do you find that if you noodle it over and over again it sticks with you. If it pops in and flows right out the other side, it might be gone forever. Capture those ideas, and you’re golden. Capture your to-do list and you’ll get it done. Anything that didn’t happen today, needs to happen tomorrow. Review, re-write the list and rest the evening knowing it will be there tomorrow.

That’s it. Seems easy doesn’t it? For those that are actually still reading and wondering what the fuss is about, clearly you don’t struggle from this affliction. For those who relate to what I’ve said, I hope this helps you a little. Please share in the comments anything I’ve missed, because if I know nothing else, I do know we are better for constantly learning new tricks! Never stop learning.

Tugging on the lines at Tradeshows: Prep and Prospecting

In my designer hat I’ve wallowed in and out of tradeshows for many years. Sometimes they are successful and sometimes they’re just fun, which I suppose is a form of success. The reality is, cold calling on people you’re asking for work from is hard. Period. Unless you’re the type that can saunter along and make new best friends left and right, it’s a challenge. Add to this, your “creative” personality, ie. socially awkward, it goes exponential. Currently, I’m getting myself ready for Outdoor Retailer in Denver, which should be fun and with this extra effort rewarding as well. 

Getting ready to head in to Outdoor Retailer, follow the blue bear.

My goal is to build more of my illustration business up. Why do I want to do this? The short answer is that I love illustrating, and have sort of abandoned it these last ten years. There was a time when I did quite a bit more, and really enjoyed the process as well as the end result for my clients. It gets noticed. It’s uniquely your work, and eventually clients will recognize your style. It seemed to have lost favor in exchange for a minimalist approach to graphic design and photography, but it appears to be trending again. The longer answer is that I need a shift in what I do. I have tried for years to entrench myself more and more into the outdoor world, and it’s a small, close knit, lots of good friends in the field, kind of world. It’s been a little tough to break into. To really break into. So with that in mind, I’m going back at it with illustration as my super power, and a focus on the girl-power/female outdoor enthusiasts advertising we’re seeing more and more of. 

Hanna is badged up and ready to roll. Our companion and diversion.

Personally, I have been standing on a soap box for years wondering why women haven’t been marketed directly to more in this outdoor-world. We play too. Honestly, we buy more gear than men, well at least we buy more clothes and accessories, but we do buy the bigger ticket items as well. The point is we are 50% of the audience. Now we’re seeing full page ads in Ski magazine of some female launching off of something, generally shredding and smiling in all her bad-assery glory. I want to illustrate to that! 

So how am I getting ready for this event? 

Identify what it is exactly you’re going to offer up

I’ve found that if you offer creative services that feel less committed to a client, it somehow makes you more approachable. I’m not walking into a booth and saying, hey your design stinks, hire me. I’m saying, I’ve got an idea for you to consider in your female specific marketing that would be fun and make a little splash. Consider illustration.

Identify and narrow down your targets

It’s virtually impossible to hit up every booth in a large show. Even if all you did was run through throw your stuff at them and move to the next, I don’t think you could actually make it through the entire show. So who is going to be interested in what you’re offering? There will be the obvious targets and these are absolutes, but open your mind up a little and see how what you are offering could appeal to someone unexpected. Yes, I can talk with all of the clothing brands, but I think it would be as or more interesting to talk with some of the gear brands about how a wild colorful illustration could be a great idea for their women’s specific skis or bikes. I’ll be sure to have those on my list as well.

What are you handing out?

Business cards are fine, but consider how many they receive. Now when these exhausted people return home and dump out all they have collected, while they were working and actually selling to their customers, do you think they will remember you specifically? Not unless you’re marching around with a mohawk, it’s highly unlikely. (I’ve done that) I’m not mohawk material any more so I’ve decided to put together a small packet, that packs easily in a suitcase with an illustrated mini poster of previously mentioned bad-ass girls getting after it, a business card, and a small CTA on what I do and why illustration is a good idea, closed with an equally cool sticker with my contact on it again. Make it easy, and maybe just maybe one of them will hang it on their wall of cool posters! 

Collect their info. Collect their info. Collect their info.

Because you too will return home, exhausted and it will all have blurred together. Do yourself a favor and get organized right away. Collect business cards, make notes on them, and review your pile of stuff the minute you’re back at your desk while it’s fresh. Then set about to make a list of those that were interested or pretended to be, and those that could be persuaded and follow up


We all learned this in Marketing 101. Frequency is important. We are all busy busy bees, and don’t have the brain capacity to remember everyone we talked with. I don’t. Assume that your potential new client doesn’t either, and help them out. Follow up with them within two weeks, and put it on your calendar to follow up again in another month. You don’t want to be obnoxious, but you also don’t want to disappear and lose the valuable and expensive momentum you have gained. Find a balance and follow up. I’ve been on the other side of this formula working in a booth and I get those stopping by to generate leads. I get it, but I also need someone to follow up with me after the fact. It’s helpful.

Well it caught my eye…

That’s it. Simple right? No it’s not, and it takes effort to make it work, but at the end of the day trade shows are valuable for so many reason, the least of which is generating new business. It’s an opportunity to stay connected, keep your finger on the pulse of trends and stay inspired. I hear rumors of trade shows going the way of the dodo, and this makes me sad. I understand they are expensive and supposedly large brands do better selling in new more innovative ways, but trade shows have the energy and vibe that I believe is beneficial to brand and consumer alike and a valuable piece of what makes the outdoor industries so wonderful would disappear with it. As long as they continue to exist, I will continue to go and do my part to support them. 

Can you Improve Your Creative Condition?

Exercises for visionary verve.

Years ago, I was asked to teach a class on creativity. Specifically, I was asked to teach a class on how to be a more creative person. As always, I don’t say no to any new challenge. Say yes, figure out the details later. “Of course, I would love to do this”. I don’t know how to do this, and I’m not absolutely certain it can be done, but we’ll give ‘er a go. Why not? And so, began the process of how to teach a person to be a more creative human.

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.
Lewis Carroll

To start I had to look at my own creative process. What I realized, without realizing I did it, is that each day began with a mental exercise. Whether a simple sketch, or looking up a random word, or as quick as really looking at something, anything, as if I have never seen it before. This is actually really hard to do. These actions all had something in common. They are all strategies to effectively waking up my brain. Mental stretching, active warmup for your creative id. 

You don’t usually pop out of bed in the morning and go burn up a 10k without a little stretch and warm up. So why would you think you can just sit down and BE creative. You have to ease into this. Fantastic. This would be a core component of what would become my curriculum. 

  • Do exercises to warm up your creative juices. Brain yoga.

I arrived early to set up my classroom. I asked for five round tables with enough chairs, and no other options. I covered the tables in white paper and laid out markers, paper clips, tape, M&Ms, gum and other various things to play with or eat, and then I left. I gave the class a solid 10 minutes before I arrived. This was my test. I wanted to determine whether the class in general was of the follow the rules camp, or take risks camp. I felt it would be a fairly even split.

In I strolled, glancing around to see what had been messed with, and was shocked to find that only one person had started playing with stuff. The rest sat there quite uncomfortably, uncertain and maybe seemingly slightly annoyed with the lone ranger happily munching M&Ms, and with me for being late.

What did this tell me? It confirmed what I had believed was the second and more important aspect of being a creative person, thus teaching creativity. Self-editing gets in the way. If you’ve attended classes on brainstorming, one thing you will hear is to leave the judge at the door. By nature, we are taught to self-edit. We actually get further in life when we are good self-editors. This is the mechanism that helps us shut up when we should, re-write to improve, re-think to build confidence, re-evaluate to lend certainty. Editing is the re- of all we do, and it’s an integral piece of maturity. 

But it gets in the way of being creative. Rather than re- we should be thinking free-. Free-flowing thinking, free-flowing concepts, free-flowing sketching. You get the picture. To better free- anything, you can’t have any smartass making comments about your free- and you need to feel confident to let your free-freak fly. That’s brainstorming.

  • Leave the self-judge at the proverbial door. Allow yourself to just free-flow. You can always fix it later.

This was another component. I needed to teach this very well-behaved crew how to be a little more willing to jump in, damned the consequences. So, I added a daily brain blizzard to the mix where we were all free to add to ideas. They were given the task or problem ahead of time so they would be ready to. Afterall, your dumb idea may trigger the next genius idea. Let’s throw them all into the pot. You need them all to make great things happen. Which leads me to the next element.

Sometimes, oftentimes, creativity needs fuel to fan the flames. You can’t always be creative in your lone little bubble. You need feedback. You need inspiration that comes from outside of your normal world. You need others to build great ideas. It’s fine to get a start with your own bad-self, but use others to check in.

  • Creativity magic happens when others get in the mix. You can start idea generation solo, and even fine tune it solo, but bring in the people mix along the way for a sounding board.

Inspiration is the next piece to this creative puzzle. Similar to bringing fresh eyes in, practice recall on your mental visual catalog. And if you don’t have one, then start. Personally, I’m about color, patterns, texture and draw a great source of inspiration from these literally everywhere. I take photos of interesting textures and color combos, and from time to time I’ll revisit those. Try it, you’ll be amazed how this can un-stick your brain when you are at a loss for where to go next with your piece.

This would be a weekly activity- let’s look around and see what we can find that inspires.

  • Draw on EVERYTHING for potential sources of inspiration, and document things you are intrigued and moved by. 

I also looked at when I felt most creative and did I have any triggers that helped process. Exercise has always helped me with mental clarity, and I suppose that it also helps with my “flow” If I’ve got all the jitters out, and if a bit tired, I tend to have less mental clutter. Getting outside is another big one for me. Two birds with one stone. Get out for a run. Figure out what reduces the mental fuzz, and do more of it. Yoga, meditation, dancing, cycling. It doesn’t matter, only that you determine if clearing your head helps you. I’m guessing it will.

I would love to say that we had a ten minute meditation each class, but students would have left. We chatted about this, rather than practiced it.

Clearly there can be many other means to increasing creativity. The takeaway here, is that yes you can do quite a bit to stimulate that part of you and much to aid in the process along the way. These are a few tried and true ideas. I’d love to hear more if you have some to share!

A few of my preferred creative tools!

Karin Brush Markers 
These are plain FUN! I use them to fill in and when I want a rough edge to my illustrations. They come in every color, but I am particularly fond of the grey pack. get some here

Pigma Micron Pens
You’re not really a doodler unless you have these. buy here

Rainbow Colored Pencils
Because why wouldn’t you want these? here