A consumer packaged goods expert recently divulged to me that she never, ever looks at her competition. That really took me by surprise, because I always over-research everything. (My local branch librarians know all about me and my extensive interlibrary loan requests.)
Instead of looking at the competition, she told me, she examines parallels. What else do people in the target market desire? [Related: this customer profile worksheet from my book.] How can she make the product remind them of those other things, or draw on the best qualities to incorporate into her own design? For a high-end chocolate product, for example, she might look at Sephora’s prestige cosmetics packaging for inspiration. She pays no mind to Hershey and Nestle.
She confirmed what I’ve been thinking lately, that the best ideas come when you’re looking where no one else is. I love trolling through old books and magazines. You might love hiking in the woods or beachcombing or looking at art or gardening or visiting factories. All of these places are rife with things that could inspire you to make something you’ve never made before. Chris Glass refers to this as grazing. Cows do nothing but chew on grass all day. It doesn’t seem like they’re doing much of anything. But if they didn’t graze all day, they couldn’t produce milk. It might not feel like you’re working when you graze, but without taking that time to browse and nibble and ruminate and digest, you can’t make anything of value. This video of Chris Glass’s talk from Creative Mornings Cincinnati (which includes his bit about grazing) is 43 minutes of awesome:
I know a lot of writers, artists and designers who straight up don’t read blogs about their industries. When you spend a lot of time “keeping up” it can start to feel like an echo chamber. There’s a difference between keeping up on the news and falling into a state of obsessed self-flagellation. This is even applicable to journalists. Sure, there are lots of interesting blogs about the journalism business, and it’s important to follow your competitors to make sure your coverage is on point. But staying inside your bubble of contemporaries isn’t going to help you find great story ideas. Lisa Congdon recently illustrated this quote from Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”
Hunting down your inspiration should also help with avoiding committing plagiarism and following trends. Craft trends bug the hell out of me. It’s not that I hate mustaches (except that I totally do) — my problem is more with the idea that some crafters feel like they have to jump on a bandwagon to be successful. It’s much better to be a trendsetter than a trend follower, and to do that, you have to look outside your field. If you’re a crafter, stop scrolling endlessly through Pinterest. When you’re trying to develop a new product or design, look at anything other than other crafters: grocery store displays, florists, flea markets, old magazines, architecture books — whatever gets you going.
I also kind of hate pre-packaged “inspiration” for crafters, designers and artists. The idea that someone can hand you a pile of stuff to be inspired by seems counterproductive. It just keeps the same aesthetics and motifs circulating. (I also really really have no patience for step-by-step craft books. Partly because I hate following directions, but also because I don’t see the point in making something to look exactly like something someone else made. You feel me?)
We recently had an Etsy #craftparty here in Cincinnati, and as people were arriving, I made examples of what people could do with the materials we had. But I wasn’t making things for people to imitate or really following the provided instructions at all. I let myself go with the flow and make whatever felt right at the time. Being truly inspired is allowing yourself to be in the moment and do what you feel. And all of what you’ve seen and read and digested before helps you find your way.
Q. Do you have any tips for networking? I’ve debated asking a fellow freelancer about getting work, but I’m afraid of stepping on her toes.
A. When I started freelancing, I thought that meeting other freelancers was the best way to get gigs. They get gigs, and I want gigs, so they can give me some of their gigs, right? But I quickly realized that other freelancers aren’t the people I should be hitting up for work. (Those are the people who control the budgets — editors, project managers, publishers.)
Networking with other freelancers is a great idea, but you should just approach them human to human. We all have people who we would like to be when we grow up — and the dream networking situation with them would involve porting all their knowledge and connections straight into our brainmeats. But play it cool. If you’re desperate for work and approach everybody as a conduit to finding work, yes, it can be awkward. (Grilling strangers for work leads is never a good look.) Networking, when you’re doing it right, feels like making a new friend — or at least pleasantly interacting with a coworker you like. And when you’ve shown them that you’re cool (even if you’re freaking on the inside), they’ll be much more likely down the road to potentially share leads or introduce you to other people.
The best way to avoid feeling like you’re encroaching on someone’s territory is to realize that we’re all in this together. You’re a freelancer, I’m a freelancer: Let’s get together and dish. An email to a fellow freelancer might look something like this:
Hey, [awesomely successful person]!
I’m a freelancer also living in [your city], working on [whatever you do]. I really loved that project you did about [an awesome thing]. Could I buy you a coffee some time? It’d be great to meet up and share war stories!
Recently I set myself a goal of meeting one new person a week, whether it’s by going to a networking event or reaching out to a specific person. My trick is that I don’t only aim to meet people who I might get work from. Sure, I love to meet editors and publishers, but I’ve also met other writers, marketing people, tech entrepreneurs and nonprofit folks. I love going to networking events where editorial freelancers are in the minority, because meeting people from other fields is really interesting. And as a bonus, I’m likely also a curious specimen to them.
[Tangent: Don’t be that guy who gives his business card to literally every single person at a networking event, even people he didn’t talk to. One deep connection is worth more than 100 shallow ones.]
An acquaintance here in Cincinnati seems to know everybody and frequently offers to help me like it’s no big deal. At first I was like, what’s your game, friend? Who offers to help without expecting something in return? But then I read “Never Eat Alone” and totally got it. Networking is about focusing on what you can give other people. She’s a connector of the highest order. She helps people by meeting everybody and learning what they’re working on, and then she connects the dots by introducing the right people to each other at the right times. As one of the recipients of her professional matchmaking, I can tell you that I have frequently introduced other people to her. The song never ends. (Related: Ann Friedman’s Shine Theory)
By saying that networking is all about giving, I don’t mean to imply that good networking involves divulging all your proprietary info and personal contacts to anyone who asks for them. (I protect my best editorial contacts with all the power of Xenu.) When you connect successfully with a fellow freelancer, what you walk away with might not be a job but a rec of a must-read blog or a referral to another person you should meet or just a new lunch buddy. And when you meet a freelancer in need, you share alike. You’ve been there.
Designing a great lottery logo isn’t easy. You’ve got to convey the idea that the average person could win a crap ton of cash — and that you’re not completely throwing your money away by entering. I collected all the U.S. state lottery logos I could find (plus an international one), both new and old. Some states have definitely left their lotteries in the 1980s, but a few states stand out with bold design solutions.
Here are some of my favorites — Washington State’s simple lottery logo reminds me of an embossed seal:
Colorado’s bold lottery logo reminds me of a beer label, and it plays up the mountainous landscape of the state. Idaho’s lottery logo is a close second in the mountain category:
Washington, DC’s lottery identity has a gorgeous palette, and the stylized cherry blossom evokes the outline of the District:
Conveying the idea of luck is hugely important — that’s why I like Oregon’s simple logo of crossed fingers:
I believe the United Kingdom’s National Lottery logo used to be exactly the same, but I couldn’t find a photo. Here’s the current UK lottery logo, and the Virginia lottery’s crossed fingers also make a nice V:
I present the rest of the lottery logos without comment. Which are your favorites, and which are just incredibad?
Still trying to wrap up your Christmas shopping? I’m nearly done, but I know it can be hard to buy for the makers, designers and crafters in your life. After all, what could you give them that they couldn’t just make themselves? My guide has 7 places to get gifts sure to please any crafty person (including me).
I just discovered this shop this week, and it’s a regular valhalla for makers. Can’t decide whether your crafty friends would prefer powerless illuminating tubing or a giant hunk of aluminum foam? Get ’em an Inventables gift certificate for any amount you want, and let them choose for themselves.
Moo prints cards and stickers on demand from your own images — you can make all 100 of your business cards look the same, or you can go for Printfinity and put a different picture on every single one of them. Crazy, right? Give a friend a gift card (available in denominations of $10, $20, $30, $50, $70 and $100), and print away!
Temporary tattoos have never looked so good. Big-name designers lend their visions to these just-add-water wonders. Tattly’s got a few curated $25 gift boxes that look real sweet. You can also give a gift card in any amount you like, or give a Tattly subscription and keep your friends in temporary tattoos for six months.
American Science & Surplus
This is a well-kept crafty secret, like a Big Lots for nerds. (And I love that along with every product photo they also have a hand-drawn version of the item.) American Science & Surplus is all amazing deals on things you didn’t know you ever wanted: glass test tubes, fallout shelter signs, donut magnets and “robot partz.” SciPlus doesn’t do gift cards, but you’ve got about a week left to place orders to arrive before Christmas.
If you’re sweating a gift for a shutterbug friend, stop right here. Photojojo sells amazing smartphone accessories and camera accoutrements, like recycled film roll magnets and Holga iPhone lenses. Gift cards come in denominations of $10, $25, $50, $100 or $200, and if you pick an amount of $25 or over, you can get it mailed with a free tiny camera keychain.
I actually had to unsubscribe myself from Fab’s email newsletters because there were just too many things I wanted to buy! It’s just ludicrous how many well-designed things can live in one online shop. Fab just started offering gift cards — you can get them in denominations of $25 and up.
Oh, I love these Futura-heavy notebooks so much — I have two in my bag at this very moment. Grab a bunch of the original kraft-covered Field Notes, or select one of the limited edition color packs. You can also get a subscription for $97 that’ll keep you in notebooks all year. And by “you” I mean whoever you’re getting a gift for. (You.)
The biggest handmade marketplace just started offering gift cards this year, in denominations of $25, $50, $100 or $250. They can be used in any U.S. Etsy shop that accepts direct checkout payments, and you can have the gift cards emailed or print them out at home. I’d be happy to get an Etsy gift card, but as a seller, I’m also really excited for everybody else to get Etsy gift cards so I have a strong sales month in January! :)
Edited to add: I just received a subscription to Whimseybox, which is a great addition to this list! It’s like Birchbox for crafters, or Pinterest in your mailbox. Every month you’ll get a reusable box with a DIY project, instructions and an art print. You can send a friend (or yourself) a gift subscription for 3 months ($45), 6 months ($90) or a year ($165).
I’ll be the first to admit it: I overextended myself last year. In addition to making Crafty Supermarket a legit LLC and putting on two wildly successful shows in Cincinnati, I traveled to sell my wares at shows in Pittsburgh, Bloomington, Columbus, Indianapolis and Columbus again. I spoke at the Midwest Craft Caucus in Columbus in June and the Conference for Creative Entrepreneurs in San Francisco in August. And then I headed back to San Francisco in November to be a host at the HOW Interactive Design Conference as part of my new job. Oh, didn’t I mention? I switched jobs in August and now am the executive editor for HOW Interactive and the community manager for HOW and Print magazines! Oh, and then my publisher decided they wanted to do an updated and revised version of Crafty Superstar, which I’m wrapping up in the next few weeks.
So my major resolution in 2012 is to breathe. And to focus on projects that I really love and that are worth my time and attention. I’ll likely be traveling for fewer craft shows, but I’m really looking forward to the next Crafty Supermarket (May 5!) and I’ll probably apply for just a handful of favorite shows in the fall. (Pittsburgh and Columbus, it’s on!) And once the bigger and better Crafty Superstar comes out, I’ll likely do a mini-book tour around the midwest. :)
My new job with HOW means lots more travel: I’ll be hosting and working at the HOW Interactive Design Conferences in the fall in Washington DC and San Francisco (two of my favorite places ever!), and I’ll get to be at the big HOW Design Conference in Boston in June for the first time! I’m also going to SXSW Interactive for the first time in March, and I just can’t wait. (I may be helping the fabulous Willo with some craft programming for it, even!)
But amid all that craziness, I’m trying to maintain a level of peace. A few non-goal goals for this year include to keep going to the gym three times a week (on it); read the New York Times weekend editions that I just started subscribing to in their entirety (on it); and volunteer at an animal shelter every week (on it). One thing I’ve found that really helps me stay focused is to not go online in the mornings before work. And I’ve also totally made peace with the idea that I will pretty much always want to be in bed by 11.