Next Wednesday, March 15, I am getting on a plane with my mom and my licensing agent, headed for China.
And I thought I would finally share more details about what is bringing me to the opposite side of the world.
First of all, when I started my business in 2008 in the hopes of making about $200/month to help out with some bills and living expenses, I didn’t even have a whisper of a thought that one day that business would take me to China. Even last summer when the initial invitation was extended, I just sort of laughed it off. Yeah, wouldn’t that be pretty cool?! But the idea of it actually happening seemed pretty remote.
To tell this story, though, I need to back up a bit further.
A few years ago, I started working with a licensing agent, Debby. She had been following my blog and, while she has always represented artists (who create flat art that can be printed on various items), she loved my look and my brand and thought she could find some good opportunities to me. So, I signed on with her and we started working together.
We had to get over a couple of hurdles, though. The top two being…
a.) I wasn’t an artist who created flat art and designs that could be printed on various items and
b.) I had never done any product design beyond designing one-of-a-kind pieces without any real thought to how they could be economically reproduced or how I could portray a product vision to someone who didn’t share my brain.
So, I floundered a lot. I would sit down to try to design something that she could pitch to clients and I would draw a blank. I would feel frustrated with myself and my lack of any kind of design training smacked me in my face in those moments.
But, Debby was persistent and believed it was just a matter of time before the right person saw the potential she saw.
Last year, she was heading to a large art and design convention and she asked me for photos of pieces I’ve done that are a good representation of my style. She made a large banner out of those images, including my branding, and hung it in her booth.
And someone saw what she saw. The company asked if I could design products for them in the same style as the images on my banner. Debby called me as soon as the event was over and presented the opportunity.
Now, this is the moment when the optimist in me kicks into high gear. I can do it! It doesn’t matter that I haven’t done it before. I know it’s in me.
So, I said yes.
I received the contract the same week I received two book contracts and another product design contract (which I have yet to share about in detail). After Lucketts, I had made plans to beef up my online store. I was already working on the logistics of shipping furniture, hiring help for packing and shipping, and formulating a schedule to launch the ideas I had.
Well, all of that went out the window. I was now working on two hand-drawn books as well as sketches, descriptions, and inspiration photos for over 300 physical products. I hit my art supply store and loaded up on graphite pencils, pens, markers, sketch pads, rulers, squares. I can at least look like I know what I’m actually doing.
Now, designing the products in my head wasn’t an issue. I know what I like and I have been designing products in my head for years. Getting it from my brain to a piece of paper in a way that other people can not only understand it, but have enough information to make it is a totally different ball of wax.
The company that hired me, though, has been great about transferring my rough sketches and ideas into a 3d product. Here’s an example of my sketched design and then the physical product…
As I’ve been designing products, I think about what I like and dislike in mass-produced, reproduction pieces and tried to think through ways to create a great look that was still economical to produce. In the case of signs, I hate it when a flat picture sticker is slapped on a piece of wood to look like an “old sign”. It might look good from 20 feet away, but it’s missing texture and character. So, I suggested that we add cutout metal lettering to a planked wood base. And I love how it turned out.
This specific sign made it from the manufacturer’s market to the wholesale market and will hit retailers this Christmas (2017).
I’ve designed a few hundred products so far… everything from signs to plates, pillows to Christmas ornaments, wall art to furniture. Along the way, I’ve gotten better tools for it (like my iPad pro and Apple Pencil, so I can create my sketches in a digital format) and I’ve learned a lot as a product designer.
This trip is the next step.
The company that hired me is the actual manufacturer of the products. The advantage of that is I can submit a design and a sample can be produced in just a few days. It’s also nice that I get to work with the designers who are physically at the factory. And now, I get to be there physically, too. I can be a part of the process and actually see the items being made and show them what I mean by “lightly distressed around the edges” or “chippy paint finish”. We can also review materials and their capabilities, so we can make even more products. And I’m really looking forward to meeting the people I’ve been working with through e-mail since last summer.
Since the company that hired me is the manufacturer, it’s pretty far removed from the customer. They sell to wholesalers who then sell it to retailers who then sell it to the customer or the manufacturer sells to large chain stores who then sell to the customer. This means that my products will be scattered all over the place, depending on which wholesalers and retailers add it to their lines. Some could be in chain stores and others could end up in small boutiques who purchase from the wholesaler who purchased my products. So, it’s going to be very difficult for me to tell you exactly where to buy my products, but I will let you know when I know.
I have really enjoyed the design work, even more than I thought I would. And the timing of everything is definitely providential. I’ve had this sudden swell of love for art at a level that I’ve never experienced before and it turns out that I really needed it for this season of my business.
It has been a challenge, though, because after a day of sketching and submitting measurements and details for products, I don’t have much to share on my blog. It’s not like working on a one-of-a-kind piece of furniture that I can share in real time. I can’t share the designs until they at least hit the wholesale market, so they aren’t copied before my version is out in the world. That means a lag of several months or, in some cases, well over a year!
I’m still trying to figure out how to balance it all, but I feel like I’m starting to find my rhythm as I’m juggling design deadlines as well as prep for Lucketts. There is always room for improvement, though.
As far as the trip is concerned, we are flying to Beijing first to do a little sight-seeing. I actually just booked a tour to see the Great Wall and was chatting with my mom earlier about other things we want to do while we’re there. We’ll then take one of the high-speed trains south to the province of Fujian, where I’ll be working at the factory for a week.
It still hasn’t sunk in, even as I’m typing it out!
I got my vaccines, purchased an international cell phone plan, notified my bank, bought a smaller suitcase, so it’s easier to manage in transit, and have even started packing.
I plan to write a few posts while I’m traveling, but I’m not sure what websites I’ll be able to use and which ones I won’t. I’ll share, if I can, though. I do view this trip as a chance to step away from the familiar and get some inspiration from a totally different culture, so I don’t want to be glued to my computer! I will be glued to my camera, though, and I’m hoping to do lots of watercolor landscapes and sketches of the sites.
So, that’s what the trip to China is all about.
Any tips on traveling to China from those who have been there? I’ve been trying to learn some basic words and phrases, but I am not proving to be a natural…