Studio Snapshots #6 / by Paul Pensom

In his latest column on life as an independent designer, Paul Pensom examines the unique pains (and pleasures) that come with trying to get your work noticed.


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When yet-to-be-discovered Scouse beat combo The Beatles took to the stage at Hamburg’s Indra Club, venue owner Bruno Koschmider was wont to encourage a lively performance with the spirited cry of “MAK SHOW BOYS! MAK SHOW!”. I often think of dear old Bruno during my professional life, since MAK SHOW seems to be what we spend a great deal of our time doing.

There’s a reason for this. Graphic design is largely a sedentary and silent pursuit: I’ve worked in studios where the highlight of the day might be a Palomino Blackwing falling off a table. It is, in fact – Sagmeister excepted – about as far from The New Rock ’n’ Roll as you can get, despite what some of our bearded brethren might tell you.

Which raises a problem. It’s a crowded pond we’re floating in. We all need to put our heads above the lilly pads and draw attention to ourselves. To croak “LOOK AT US! WE”RE BETTER THAN THE REST! YOU NEED US IN YOUR LIVES!” In short, to MAK SHOW.

But it’s not easy. If I were to hazard a generalisation, I’d say that designers, whilst not shy exactly, are nevertheless quite content to achieve symbiosis with a 27-inch retina display in pursuit of an idea. Such absorption doesn’t naturally lend itself to the rigours of self promotion.

Yet promote we must, so what is to be done? We have to extricate ourselves from the screen and make some noise. The first thing that comes to mind for most people is social media, because, hey, it’s there, and it’s free.

Some social media platforms remind me of CB Radio. For those too young to remember, Citizen’s Band Radio was a short-lived but fascinating trend of the late ’70s, whereby hordes of enthusiastic youth acquired the kind of transceiver equipment usually reserved for 18-wheel HGVs, the better to contribute to crackly exchanges along the lines of “Breaker Breaker 19, you copy?” “Breaker 19, I copy”. 

I spent many an hour, eavesdropping on truckers discussing jams on the M40, nervously awaiting the moment to chip in with “SIDE” (CB argot for “can I join in?”) and announce my carefully chosen handle, or CB alias.

Twitter feels much the same, but with added cats. I’m still spectating on other people’s often mundane chat, yet having a similar lack of success in ‘starting the conversation’ as modern adspeak has it.

In truth I struggle for subjects to talk about. My study of successful creative Twitter accounts points to two strategies: quality or width. Width merchants keep up a constant daily stream of commentary. No one post need be especially pertinent, creative or witty, but the aggregate presence is one of a wise and valued commentator. 

The quality merchants aren’t too far behind in terms of activity, but what they lack in industriousness they make up for in presentation, for they seek out the novel, the outré and the sensational, and are rewarded for their efforts.

What successful accounts don’t do, is to constantly advertise their own work. There seems to be an unspoken agreement that the benefits of social media are reflected glory, rather than direct advertisement. In short you have to give out as much as you give back.

And there in fact, you have the hidden cost of using social media as a promotional tool: time. Whether you become a quality or a width merchant, both are time intensive pursuits, which for a small studio means taking you away from other, perhaps more immediately lucrative tasks. 

What other options are available to us? Worth considering is the humble newsletter. We had disregarded this option, but I recently read an interesting book by David Hieatt which points to the spectacular success his company Hiut Denim has had with a well researched, carefully targeted customer newsletter. 

In this format, Hieatt argues, small businesses have an advantage over larger rivals, through increased agility allowing them to adapt to changing moods and markets faster. Certainly we’ve enjoyed curating and creating content, and have had a much better take-up than we expected. It’s a great forum to present the ethos and enthusiasm of your brand, delivered direct to people who have actually requested it.

The ultimate MAK SHOW of course is to really make a show: to put on a party for prospective and existing clients, or some such other promotional event. We did this to announce the launch of our new studio. If you plan something similar though, I do recommend you do a little more research into events management than we did.

The most important thing to bear in mind is what events people call attrition, which is the drop off between those who RSVP and those who actually attend. Early responders are the easiest to lose, and and regular updates are advised, to ensure that the click happy don’t give you their assent, only to forget about you on the night. Estimates of RSVP attrition range from 5 –15%, which might not sound like much, but is significant for a small party. At our event we watched the hours tick away in dismay, like some forlorn blind date beneath a station clock, as the big names who’d pledged attendance failed to show, and a goodly proportion of the others too.

Rather than just put on a shindig though, you could organise an exhibition or competition. This is a good way of getting your name out there whilst also ensuring you get a decent attendance, since you should at least be able to count on the people whose work is on show. A few years back I contributed to an exhibition along these lines, where every piece was created to the same brief and the artworks were sold for charity. The studio in question did a sterling job of amassing a variety of quality entries, and the resultant show stayed up for several days. The MAK SHOW quotient was significant, and the charity made a tidy sum too. So what are you waiting for? Get up on your lilly pad and start hollering!