How to be commercial
Making a living as a creative is exciting. I knew I was going to be a designer since I was twelve, and I never wanted to do anything else as a profession.
It comes with the perks that are much talked a lot — you get to do the “cool” stuff, the research is fun (whether it’s an inspiration trip to your favourite museum, or looking through fashion magazines while researching new trends), you are allowed to have interesting wardrobes and “personality “at work. Yes, sometimes being a creative doesn’t feel like work at all.
Is it hard making a living as a professional creative? No, if you know your job market and the industry well. Is it hard to make a living as an artist? The answer is usually yes, if you don’t have a back-up plan or knowledge on how to monetise your craft.
Am I a successful creative? Well, I’m still here doing it independently after deciding to go freelance several years ago. The early days were absolute hell, especially when managing administration work and choosing the right assignments. One day, I had an advice from an interior designer friend, who runs his own business: “You are too much of an artist. You have to be more commercial.”
It took me two years to understand what he meant.
So I’m sharing a few tips with you, just in case you are considering a sustainable career path as a creative.
1) You are not an artist
Firstly, please erase the images of famous starving poets and painters from your mind. You are here to have a good living NOW, in this lifetime. Unless you want to enjoy posthumous fame after you die.
Being a creative is a profession. You are not an artist — especially if you’re a designer. You are using art as a language to communicate a brand message. You don’t have a personal voice; instead you speak using the “brand voice”. An artist can work on a project until it’s finished, whenever that maybe. A creative must adhere to deadlines, job briefs, consumer demands and budget. And you have to work hard to keep your standard high and stay relevant with the current trend.
Does it make you a whore that peddles art for commercial ends? Leave the criticisms to the art critics. You are simply too busy to engage in this type of conversation.
2) Your work is not about you
I’m also a photographer producing work for lifestyle brands. I apply the same work ethos on my lens work — I speak the brand voice. It means that my work will not turn me into the next Mapplethorpe or Arbus. But it’s OK. Sometimes my commercial clients would give me opportunities to push the creative boundaries. They asked for something highly conceptual and spectacular. It is possible for a spectacular artistic work to result from a commercial commission. However, it is a luxury that doesn’t happen every day.
3) It’s a seasonal business, just like the fruit market
I live in Fulham, close to the busy North End Road street market. I love to observe the market traders and the punters during my lunch break. Running a creative business is not different from selling fruits and veg to the crowd. You need to understand your service, your target audience and have a great rapport with your customers. Most importantly you must remember that business activity is seasonal. Watch the kind of fruits and veg sold during the different seasons. You get strawberries in springtime, and Brussels sprouts in winter. It’s the same with the creative business. Be prepared to adapt and change the services you offer according to the demand of the season. Anticipate and identify the quiet and the busy times.
4) Listen to the people outside your creative tribe
A good creative knows that the best of inspirations come from the outside. Albert Einstein famously said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” The best career advice I got was from non-creatives — an accountant (“You are your worst boss”) and an Italian restaurant owner (“If you’re not the fucking benchmark, be yourself”). Don’t try hard to be cool in order to fit in with the “in” crowd. That will only set a ceiling to your potential and give permission to others to shit on your dream.
Listen to your accountant, or find one soon.
5) Have a plan
This sounds boring, but it’s not rocket science. Write down a simple business plan and your target for the coming months and years. Ask yourself, is this realistic? Will this fly? Is it easy to produce and duplicate as a process? The plan is not set in stone. If a product doesn’t perform as well you’d hope, visit the drawing board again. It’s your business, so you have the power to modify whatever needs to be changed.
6) Respect yourself and your craft
A good creative looks after his or her well being. This means that you make sure you get paid fairly, work during decent hours and give yourself a quality holiday. Yes, sometimes you have to burn the midnight oil to meet the urgent deadlines, but this can be avoided if the team is organised and the production time is well managed. A tired and grumpy creative can’t perform well. As a professional you don’t have to love your job. However, it does show in your work when you are inspired and motivated. It also helps to have a clear vision and artistic integrity, especially when overseeing a high level project.
7) Look on the bright side
Creative professionals are averse to unnecessary suffering (see point no.1). You don’t get off the dark and the morose in life. You need a positive state of mind to champion the job brief in order to produce a good commercial work. It’s not that you don’t care or indifferent to the painful issues in this world. You job is to solve problems and be a part of the solutions.
Shortly after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, the Thailand Tourism board approached my team to produce a new travel guide to persuade tourists to return to the country. We decided to commission a photographer to document the beautiful sceneries that were unaffected by the tragedy. The result was a colourful travel guide that functioned to restore travellers’ confidence and boost the morale of the industry.
This article is not meant to draw a division between the creatives and the artists. Many are able to strike a successful balance between the commercial and the arts. The key is understanding yourself and your role as a professional. You might end up as one of the greats like the late Zaha Hadid or Andy Warhol, who managed to be both commercial creatives and artists at the same time.
Zarina Holmes is a designer and lifestyle photographer. She is creative director and founder of GLUE Studio, based in London. Zarina has produced successful brand identities and campaigns for tech, fashion e-commerce and lifestyle brands. @zarinaholmes @alohaglue