My Best Year Ever

In my very first year of running my own business, I had a great year financially. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was a VERY atypical result for most independent graphic designers. At the end of that year, I made the hubristic goal to increase my profits by 150%. I made a sign. I pinned it on the wall of my office and waited for all my money to roll in.

Six months later I was still waiting. Twelve months later I tallied up my profit for the year and it was lower than the year before. Yikes. Apparently, new clients weren’t just going to fall from the sky, and my goals weren’t going to self-fulfill. 

Clearly, I needed a new plan. 

Try Try Again

Over the years, I haven’t gotten much better at goal setting. But in 2019, I stumbled across a book recommendation from the bishop in my diocese. He had named it as the No. 1 book all his priests should read to have a productive year. I was intrigued and picked up “Your Best Year Ever: A 5-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals” by Michael Hyatt.

The book, YBYE for short, is a practical system for setting and achieving goals over the course of one earth year. It breaks down the process of goal setting to be both manageable and challenging. Best of all, it’s a short book with a simple system.

I developed seven goals for the year. I assigned each goal to a quarter and spread them out evenly across the year (as recommended).

Results So Far

But how about my actual goals? Am I hitting them? Well yes and no. I’m happy to say that my main success has been the goal of tracking my time and reviewing my progress on a weekly basis. As for the rest of my Q2 goals, they have been absolutely wrecked by the coronavirus.

What can you do? Adjust. Like a lot of business owners, I’ve pivoted my plans in 2020. For example, I hit pause on publishing and promoting my second Heyward the Horse children’s book. In its place, I created a new goal of developing an author/illustrator website by May 1st. And I made it!

Secret Sauce

OK, so what really changed in 2020? A few factors: 

  • The Magic Book? – Michael Hyatt’s book is not magical, but it connected with me. I like the way he communicates and his system.
  • The Flex – I adapted his system to work for me. There’s a recommended worksheet that I tried, but it just didn’t fit my workflow. I’m still following the key concept, but I tweaked the method a bit to fit me. 
  • The Weekly Review – I gave myself permission to spend time every week reviewing my goals. Game changer. 

Lastly, my mindset shifted. In mid-2019, I admitted to myself that I was dissatisfied with some things in my life and I was ready to do something about it. So I did. 

Have a great week,

sig

Post-apocalyptic Survival Skills

An adventure in primitive pottery

Have you ever thought about what you would do if you found yourself in a world without electricity?

pencil drawing of sandwich

I’ve been wondering about this ever since I was a teenager. The question occurred to me while reading Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams. The hero finds himself stranded on a primitive planet and realizes that despite all of his modern sensibilities, he has zero survival skills. Eventually, he identifies something he’s good at and settles on the honorable profession of village sandwich-maker.

While that story isn’t exactly post-apocalyptic, the scenario is the same – when the lights go out for good, how are you going to be a valuable member of your tribe? It’s almost certain that the cannibalistic clans that emerge from the chaos won’t need insurance salesmen, Realtors, or graphic designers. We’ll be the first to go. I’m not worried though, because last year I figured out what my new profession will be.

My First Taste of the Dirt

Some 15 years ago, I worked at a summer camp in North Carolina. Despite having no previous pottery experience, I found myself in charge of the ceramics hut. Pretty quickly I learned how to work with clay and I quickly fell in love with the craft.

While I loved that summer, pottery is not a hobby I’ve kept up over the years. I got distracted by my new profession: graphic design.

pencil drawing of bucket of mud

Fast forward to our family vacation at the lake last summer. I watched as my kids played in the water and kicked up muddy clay from the lake bottom. A family friend casually mentioned that when she was a kid, she used that same clay to form small cups and bowls, simply sitting them in the sun to harden. It was a lightbulb moment. Even though I’d seen this same cloudy clay-water dozens of times, I never realized that it was the same basic stuff that potters use every day.

Armed with a shovel and under the gaze of many an odd stare, I dug up a bunch of mud and brought it home. Over the next couple of months, I researched the best way to strain this bucket of muck into usable clay. It took many tries. Eventually, I ended up with my first baseball-sized lump of clay. This was – no fooling – one of my proudest moments ever.

Getting Lit

The next puzzle was how to fire the clay without a kiln. I settled on the ancient technique of the pit fire. It’s the same method primitive peoples used. Basically, you dig a hole, insert your greenware (dried creation) and light a fire over it. My friend Ken, a real-life and ridiculously talented potter, pointed out that I could use my chimenea instead of a pit. So thanks to Ken, Google, YouTube and the weird chimenea that conveyed with my house, I successfully “pit” fired my first self-harvested clay. I couldn’t believe it.

Christmas Gifts

OK, so I had figured out the process, but what was I going to do with 10 pounds of clay? I needed something to justify the dozens of hours I’d spent on this project. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds because pit-fired pottery is not “food safe”. Luckily, my neighbor had her yearly candle-pouring party coming up (just in time for Christmas). Candles would make a great gift!

I turned the clay into 20 hand-sized bowls, fired them and then poured the candles. My wife decided to knit washcloths to go with each package. Then our kids created bookmarks that we added to our gift packages. (What can I say, we’re a creative family!)

It’s empowering to know that even without my precious computer, I can be resourceful and make practical art. And like I said at the beginning, when the lights go out and the world descends into another dark age, I’ll have a skill to help feed my family and justify my existence in the village. If you’re still around then, swing by my pottery hut and we’ll swap goods.

What will your survival skill be?

Have a great week,

sig

Explainer Videos: From Complex to Clear

As a marketer, one of the key roles in my profession is to clearly communicate the client’s message. Believe it or not, it can be a real challenge to identify and articulate that message. Sometimes, the client doesn’t even know what their message is. This happens when they are so close to their work that they can’t envision what it’s like to learn about their product for the first time.

In some situations, particularly start-ups or new technology, the benefits they offer are enormous but hard to explain. Simplifying complex messages is one of my favorite parts of the job. And clients appreciate an outsider’s perspective as we work through the process. I ask them to (temporarily) let go of buzzwords and internal analogies in order to embrace a more “user-friendly” language. It requires an extra level of trust on their part.

I recently completed an animated explainer video for meQuilibrium. My challenge was turning their science and technology into something anyone could understand. As their Google listing summary says, they are an “engagement and performance platform that harnesses behavioral psychology to unleash your workforce resilience, agility, and full potential with a fascinating, yet complex product.” 

tl;dr

If you work in the HR space, you might be able to make sense of this paragraph. The rest of us, need a tl;dr. (pssst .. “tl;dr” is internet jive for “short summary”). Here is that summary in the form of an animated explainer format:

tl:dr They provide a “digital coaching platform” so your employees can be more resilient.

In our video-crazed age, explainer animations are a terrific way to demonstrate how a product works. A video like this can take anywhere from six to eight weeks to produce as we work through the process of writing, storyboarding, creating assets, animating, etc.

It’s an involved process, but the end result is a piece clients can use on their website, on social media, in email campaigns and even in sales meetings. And if I’ve done my job right, we’ve taken something complex and made it clear and simple.  

I was really pleased with how this video turned out, and so was the client. Wondering if an explainer video would work for your product or service? Let’s talk!

Have a great week,

sig

My 1 Million Cups Experience

Networking + Coffee + Sketches

In 2019, I decided to expand my networking efforts to meet other professionals and better connect with fellow entrepreneurs in our community. Sure, I might end up with a new client, but what’s really great is learning about other businesses and meeting new people. For me, it’s an excellent way to boost creativity and spark ideas. 

Here in Charleston, there’s no shortage of business groups and networking opportunities. But after trying out 1 Million Cups (1MC), I committed to attending each week’s event in 2019. The first thing to know about 1MC – and they tell you every week – “it is NOT a networking group, it’s a relationship-building group.” Take this with a grain of salt – it’s definitely network building. But, it’s the best kind of networking. I have truly made some new and enjoyable friendships there.

The Format

The weekly format, if you’re curious, is basically a Locals-only Shark Tank Lite + Coffee Meet and Greet. Each week, an entrepreneur gives a 6- or 7-minute presentation about their startup business. Then follows 5 to 10 minutes of helpful questions, friendly feedback and positive affirmation from the audience.

The presenter lineup is impressive and frequently fascinating. I’ve heard presentations ranging from professional mermaids to biohazard cleaners to business development software solutions. The organizers do a great job of curating the speakers and protecting the culture – which is great, because 1MC has really good energy and attracts interesting people from a wide variety of professions who are ready to help. And helping is definitely a core tenet of 1MC. One trick I’ve picked up is to ask people, “How can I help you?” It’s a much better way to connect (and help) people than to simply push them your business card.

And to top it all off, 1MC is free.

The Sketches

As regular readers of my blog know, I never leave home without a sketchbook, so during the presentations, I often do sketches while listening to the speaker. I try to pull out interesting or key pieces of information to include in my sketches. I do the initial drawings in pencil and ink them later.

Here are a few:

Benchmarq: This company specializes in website design and development for nonprofits that conveys their mission, engages supporters and raises more money.

The Brain Diva – Carrie A. Boan NeuroLife Coach: Carrie helps executives and entrepreneurs position themselves to control their thoughts, words and actions for success in professional communication, mindset and sales.

PrepMonsters: This company creates gamified software to help students prepare for standardized tests. Students watch short YouTube-style videos to learn concepts and then reinforce these via practice questions built into video games. 

Annnnd … here’s a few more. I like doing these. 🙂 

My weekly networking experiment in 2019 was a success, so I’ll be back at 1MC each Wednesday in 2020. Will you join me?  

Have a great week,

sig

Are business cards dead?

I do my fair share of networking and I’m always surprised when I meet anyone who doesn’t have a business card. They usually say – with some embarrassment – that they haven’t gotten around to it but it’s on their list.

The other day I met a successful small business owner who said he intentionally doesn’t carry one. His strategy was to immediately connect with people on LinkedIn via smartphones. My curiosity was piqued and it got me thinking. In our smartphone, digital contacts, LinkedIn world, do paper business cards still make sense? 

I’d argue business cards aren’t dead or outdated, but they have evolved. Business cards remain a relatively inexpensive way to market. They’re a tangible reminder of a great new professional contact or a meaningful conversation you shared. They, of course, aren’t the only way you market yourself, but they can serve an important function in providing a first impression of your business. 

As we approach the start of a new year, most people are turning their attention to growing their business. That usually means attending networking events, joining an entrepreneurs’ organization or signing up for a business owners’ mastermind. This could be the perfect time to reconsider your current cards. Is it time for a refresh? Ask yourself these three questions:

1. Is it worth keeping?

Consider adding something beyond your company logo and basic contact details. Add to your card a concise description of the problem you solve, your specific services or the value you provide. If I come home from a networking event with four business cards from insurance agents, how will I know the difference between them? What can you add to your business card so you stand out from others in a similar industry? 

2. Is the “feel” right?

Does your card express who you are and what you do? Does the tone fit you? Casual. Fun. Secure. Trendy. Timeless. If you’re in a creative industry, have a creative business card. If you’re not in a creative industry, how could use creativity to make your card (and business) stand out? You can also consider an unusual size or texture to express your creativity.  

3. Is it up-to-date?

Does it have all the necessary information? This may seem obvious, but check and double check that your card has easy ways for people to get in touch. If you’re rarely at your desk, add a cell phone number to your business card. Make sure you have an email address (not just info@) and a physical address, especially if you have an office or storefront people can visit. 

Networking season is just around the corner. Do you have networking events, professional conferences or trade shows on your calendar for Q1? Now’s the time to give your business card a critical review and make some edits.

Have a great week,

sig

Putting ink to paper to Instagram in October

People be lovin’ a time-limited challenge – whether it’s writing a novel, eating healthy or doing a plank every day for a month (nope). Artists are no different and – even though getting “excited” is out of my comfort zone – this month I’m excited to be participating in an annual creative challenge called Inktober.

What is Inktober?

Every October artists from all over the world commit to creating one ink drawing each day of the month. The rules are pretty simple: make an ink drawing and post it to social media using the hashtags #inktober and #inktober2019. Search those hashtags on Instagram and you’ll find millions of posts – of varying quality and subject.

The subject matter is up to the artist, although Inktober’s creator, Jake Parker, does provide an official list of interesting prompts. I did this challenge two years ago and did my own thing but this year, I’m traveling with the masses and sticking to Jake’s list.

Why do this?

Good question – I have three kids ages 5 and under. Where will I find the time and energy? The answer is simple: neglect. Neglect is the artist’s way! 😉

Why do it? It’s fun. And it’s about growing, improving and committing to doing something even when I don’t feel like it. I know I’ll run out of easy ideas (or steam) halfway through the month and that’s when I really have to stretch myself and get creative.

Another reason is the communal aspect of the challenge. Several other artists I know in real life are also participating: Tami Boyce, Morgan East, Abdul Shabazz, and Samantha Bell. And here’s some folks I don’t know IRL but I wish I did: This Northern Boy, Roxannimus, Ania Przybylko, and Ataliefite.

As for me, in addition to the official prompts, I have committed to including a person in each daily drawing. Drawing characters is an important skill for an illustrator and it’s an area in which I need improvement. The only way to get better at drawing people is by… drawing people. The timing is great because I’m working on the sequel to my children’s picture book Heyward the Horse and I’m at the people-adding-stage.

Slogging Through

By day 7, this challenge was definitely feeling like work. In life and art, I put a premium on being “clever” (I don’t recommend it) and when I can’t think of something clever with the daily prompt, I get nervous. But somehow, if I show up, ideas flow in from wherever ideas come from. For example, on this day, I was around people watching football.

On this day, I was reading a book about tigers.

Another example, on day 10, I had literally no ideas. I just started doodling a bunny and then – to meet my requirement – added a little boy doing a handstand. The daily prompt was “pattern” so I just decided to make a simple pattern. I let myself go and didn’t try to overthink it. You can see the finished product below. Turns out, this has been one of my favorites and has connected with other people. 

So you see, Inktober is a bit like running a race – ups and downs (and a finish line). Have you ever done anything like this in your business or personal life? Tell me about in the comments below or shoot me an email. And, if you like, follow me for the rest of my #inktober journey.

Have a great week,

sig

Upping Your Print Game: Part 3

In this blog post, I finish out a series on why you should give printed marketing materials a second look. If you’ve been focused largely on social media and digital advertising, now’s the time to consider adding printed materials to the mix. If you’re on the fence, check out this blog post for three reasons to consider print marketing. And if you’re concerned about the cost, read this post for tips on how to be smart and cost-effective with your printed marketing plan.

Now, for some real-life examples. Here are some printed materials I’ve created for clients.

Southeastern Wildlife Exposition

Thousands of people attend this event each February in Charleston. Many are repeat attendees – both locals and visitors – so a mailer is a great way to let people know what to expect in the coming year’s festival and how to get their tickets. This one is a self-mailer so it’s sealed on the bottom and eliminates the need (and cost) of a separate envelope. Plus, when it lands in mailboxes, people immediately see a beautiful image and the SEWE branding so they are more likely to open the piece. We also chose to do a vertical format to make it stand out more than a traditional tri-fold brochure.

Alhambra Hall

This sales brochure positions Alhambra Hall in Mount Pleasant as an ideal wedding venue. This printed brochure includes all the information a bride or wedding planner would need: a site map illustration, a map of the facility and surrounding property, pricing details and plenty of photos to showcase the venue. The design mimics a wedding invitation with its pearlescent paper that gives the piece a metallic sheen. And the cover has a registered emboss that makes it stand out and is similar to what you might find on a wedding invitation or ceremony program. The size of the piece is 4.625 x 11 inches tall and skinny – giving this printed piece an uncommon size and makes it stand out.

Lowcountry Food Bank

Most nonprofit organizations produce an annual report as a way to showcase their good work, detail how they spent their donations and to recognize large sponsors and donors. Oftentimes, an annual report can run multiple pages, thus, driving up the printing costs. To make this Lowcountry Food Bank annual report both budget-friendly and readable, we opted for an oversized tri-fold brochure (10.5 inches x 5.5 inches). Keeping the piece shorter means you pick out the most critical items for print and then you can supplement with more details on your website if needed. Annual reports typically have stats and numbers so it’s important to present those in an impactful way. For this report, I presented the numbers in a pie chart shaped like an apple (apple pie chart?) matching the image of the apples on the cover.

Like I said, printed marketing collateral can be a great tool in your marketing toolkit. You might be surprised at the reaction you get from potential customers who appreciate the time and effort you put into giving them a tangible takeaway.

Have a great week,

sig

Upping Your Print Game: Part 2

Tips for Keeping Print Costs Down

flashing money symbols

In our last blog post, I gave you three reasons to add printed marketing materials to your strategy. You took my advice and paid a graphic designer to create a beautiful piece. Now that you’re ready to turn your PDF into a physical print piece, you may be concerned about the cost. I get it. I feel the same way when I print marketing materials for myself. The trick is to be smart when it comes to your printer and to create pieces with a long shelf life.

Here are five tips for keeping printed costs from busting the marketing budget:

1. Befriend local print shops. If you plan on printing several pieces over time, develop a relationship with a local printer. And don’t settle for the first salesperson you meet. Once you establish a face-to-face business relationship, you can more easily negotiate costs. Better yet, get a few local printers and get multiple quotes for each job.

2. Use quantity control. Do NOT overprint. I launched a kid’s book a couple years ago. To prepare for my launch, I ordered some 1000 beautiful promotional rack cards. I sold all my kid’s books. I still have ~983 beautiful rack cards. There is a savings for printing large quantities, but make sure you need them. If the savings is minor, print a smaller amount and then reprint as needed.

trees

3. Go with evergreen content. For your high-quality printed materials, create pieces that will last. Avoid putting any information on a brochure or rack card that might change in the next few months (employee names/photos, event dates/times). Keep content high level and direct consumers to your website where they can find more detailed information. There’s nothing worse than putting information on a printed item only to have it inaccurate two months later.

4. Design with print in mind. Check with the printer before you start the project. Give the print vendor an idea of the project and ask them what can be done from a design standpoint to lower the printing cost. For example, it’s often cheaper to print something that is a standard size. You can also find interesting cost variations if your project is printed on a traditional vs. digital press.

5. Shop online. If price is more important than quality, use an online vendor. There are some very good online printers. Some of my go-to online resources are primoprint.com, smartpress.com and 4over.com. I avoid vistaprint like the plague. My caveat for online printers is that quality isn’t always a sure bet. And if you hit a snag, customer service won’t be nearly as easy as dealing with your local printer.

One last tip on creating printed marketing materials: give yourself plenty of time. Factor in the design time, edits and approvals as well as the turnaround time for the printer – which could be anywhere from two days to two weeks.

Print doesn’t have to be a major cost investment if you take a smart approach. Let’s talk about how to add print into your marketing budget. 

Next month, I wind down this three-part series on print marketing collateral with several examples of print materials I’ve created for client projects.

Have a great week,

sig

P. S. I sprinkled in some animations on this blog post. Thumbs up? Down? LMK.

Upping Your Print Game: Part 1

3 Reasons to Give Print a Try

business cards hand sketch

These days we consume most advertising and marketing messages online. But that doesn’t mean print marketing is dead. In fact, it can be a novel way to showcase your products or services. Much in the same way, people today cherish receiving a hand-written note in the mail versus an email.

tri-fold hand sketch

When clients ask me to design a printed product, I get excited. I love the stuff you can hold in your hand: brochures, catalogs, business cards, annual reports, maps and rack cards. I’m forever collecting samples when I’m out and about.

If most of your work lately has been online, consider printed marketing materials for these three reasons:

1. Keep your message simple. A limited amount of space forces you to craft an uber-clear marketing message and communicate that message in a visually appealing way. Unlike websites with unlimited scrolling, something like a postcard or brochure forces you to be concise with your wording and requires an eye-catching design.

opened brochure hand sketch

2. You can go big or small. From billboards to business cards, you can select a size that fits your business and creative needs.

3. Stand out with your marketing. Everyone has a website, but not everyone has a printed brochure or catalog. Not every business in your industry has a look-book of ideas or a booklet of work samples. This is a great way to separate yourself from your competitors. And, if you really want to go the extra mile, select a high-quality paper, embossed lettering, foil touches or a glossy shine.

Ready to give print collateral another look? Don’t miss next month’s blog post for tips about how to keep print costs at a minimum.

Have a great week,

sig