A slide talk presented to the annual meeting of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators in Fort Kent, Maine, July 7, 2009. This is part of an ongoing series on business development for artists and illustrators.

My premise in this series of slide talks is:

1. that an artist can design a business based on the same business concepts and rules that govern any other business from Fedex to the owner of a hot dog stand. This will require adapting these principles to fit the illustration business. But it will first require a shift in the world-view and self-perception that we probably learned from others. From here on, we will think of ourselves as “owners of an illustration business.”

2. Learning to think for yourself like a business-owner is better than listening to someone tell you what you ought to do to. I honestly don’t know what you should do, and I’ll guess that neither do you, unless you have already studied these principles. And it costs nothing to learn to think like a business-person.

Does Business thinking work? Evidence that these principles work is all around us–almost everything we see in this room was designed, manufactured, marketed, bought and sold by someone who had a business plan to do exactly that.

Even if you are a fine artist, working only to explore and develop your own inner ideas, this still applies. I would guess that, besides yourself, you would like to please art critics, and get some recognition from your peers. Admit it: you’d love to have someone buy your edgy and avant-garde work for thousands or millions of dollars. If you think about it, Andy Warhol, a brilliant businessman in his own right, made this statement with his Campbell’s Soup Can paintings back in the 1950s. Not only is popular culture a valid subject for high art. As much as it tries to avoid it, high art also exists in that world of buying and selling.

The problem, for the artist is the reverse of the traditional entrepreneur. An entrepreneur goes out into the world looking for a market, or a need, then creating a business to fill that need. Artists start with their own work, their product, then they must go out and find a need for it.

Is anything wrong with this picture?

I was recently going through some old art magazines, and as I leafed through them one more time before tossing them into the recycling bin, I kept passing this ad. I had seen it before, but this time, it stopped me and I stared at it. I had to ask.


Of course it is. Absolutely. It is true on one level that the quality of your work is a baseline factor in you getting hired. But, like all myths, it has a hold on us because it is partially true. The view that improving your art is a business plan is part of a belief system that ultimately undermines your work. Just try out that thought for a few minutes while we follow this thread. (I don’t want to focus on the particular art school that produced this ad–if you go there you will definitely become better at your art work.)

Understanding why this is not true is at the core of the change in consciousness that is the subject of this talk. And it is essential to change this limiting belief.

Let’s go over a little science.

In 1975, Pepsi Corporation initiated “The Pepsi Challenge”. Pespi sent its people out into public places around America with two unmarked cups–one containing Pepsi and one with Coke. They gave them out free, just asking which they liked better. Their findings were encouraging: most people preferred Pepsi. The mystery was, why did Coke continue to dominate the market by a large margin if people seemed to like Pepsi better?

In 2003 neuroscientists using new fMRI brain scanning technology repeated the Pepsi challenge study again–and got the same results. Their subject’s brains registered positive in the regions associated with enjoyment and liking a taste. Their neurons really did like Pepsi better in a blind taste test. BUT when the study was repeated, letting people could see what they were tasting, many of them changed their minds. In fact, 75% claimed to prefer coke.

The results can only point to one thing–the power of the Coke brand. Coke has been around longer and it’s had decades to promote and perfect it’s ads that appeal to our emotional memories and associations. It’s “the real thing.” What does that mean? Anything you want it to mean. When you appeal to the emotional mind, the less specific your claims, the better. Just make those nostalgic associations with everything from Santa Claus to beautiful flirting women. Buy her a coke. She’ll love you for it.

So, what if branding can make colored, carbonated, sugar water into a multi-billion dollar industry? Can I as a sole proprietor artist get anything usable from this? Do I have to be multinational corporation to use this idea?

Artists already have been using this idea for centuries. What is the object in the picture? Could your kid brother have done that napkin scribble?

No, because now we know it’s a Picasso. That is something suddenly quite different to our minds. This napkin might be worth thousands of dollars. Picasso knew this when he drew them. He used to play with people’s perceptions of value. In one reported case a matador used on of Picasso’s napkins as a, well, a napkin, and eventually threw it away. He was mortified to find out years later what the value of that simple napkin was.

As another story goes, Picasso did a napkin sketch for a woman at an expensive NY restaurant. When she asked to have it, he told her it would be $10,000. Shocked, the woman told him that it had only taken him a half a minute to draw. “No, madame,” he replied, “it took me 50 years!” Picasso priced his work based on investment value, not time or materials.

In recent decades, the value created by a business’s brand can become more important than the actual manufactured product. This idea has been used with spectacular success to sell essentially generic commodities that cost very little for a high price.

So to believe that just improving your work will improve your business violates a principle long known in the business thinking community. Product-oriented thinking is a major cause of small business failure. So if we are not in the business of making a good quality product to sell for as much as we can get, then what are we doing?

Look at the chart. In the first case, the product-oriented businessperson thinks, “If they don’t think like I do, at least they SHOULD. So I’ll try to SELL them on my product. I’ll try to get them to LIKE it by listing all of it’s wonderful qualities. Then they will BUY it.”

This is not only the typical stance for the trained artist, it is common in new small businesses start-ups. It is a difficult concept to grasp at first. After all our product is what we are about, isn’t it?

Traditionally, entrepreneurs go out and find a need, then create a business to make something to fill that need. Artists are in a difficult position because we are understandably attached to our art–it’s out own creation. Artists have to do their own work, then find some non-artist who wants it for some other reason of their own. Artists almost have to work backwards from that traditional entrepreneur. But we still need to address this question if we want to operate like a business.

In the second case, the customer-oriented business, you can view your business itself as one of your creative products. You can search through the possible groups of people until you find the easiest match for what you already do, and you may change your style slightly, or dramatically, to come closer to their needs. You still have to love what you come up with. It still has to be fun and come easy for you. Now you are laying the foundation for a viable business.

Since Freud, it has been well established that there are at least two minds at work in human decision-making. It’s like we have two brains, two selves living together inside us–and they don’t really understand each other!

The one we think we know most about is the conscious mind. We like to think we make important decisions with this part of our brain.

This brain is emotional and not necessarily rational.

These emotions tend to be simple–you could write a grade-B movie script around them. They are also based in either attraction to pleasure or avoidance of the unpleasant or stressful. Little or no language skills or higher processing is involved: they just want what they want.

It’s not Spock. Studies show that purchase decisions are driven by expectations of emotional gratification or avoidance of the unpleasant.

The conscious mind will use logic to explain and justify it’s decision to others, but the decision was made long before that by the subconscious emotional brain. Yes you need both: your client will have to justify hiring you to her boss based on logical, quantifiable reasons that make sense to the boss’s conscious mind.


Consider this: you are selling the FEELING that your customer gets when they receive your product, your finished design or painting. What are they likely to feel? A sense of the beauty of it, relief at meeting their deadline with an acceptable product, satisfaction at getting credit for praise from their client’s client? Maybe a mixture of these and other feelings that you don’t yet know about.

People in general buy to express their values. Find the values of your target market and it will tell you a lot.

What I’m saying is that it is not all about the quality or qualities of you of your physical artwork. In a way, your precious artwork is a commodity: it’s bought and sold like many other things. You could probably train an apprentice to create work indistinguishable from yours. And, if not, there are ten other artists waiting out there with work as good as yours or better in their portfolios. What makes you different?

You don’t want to be a commodity, if you can help it. You don’t want to hear on the business news that the price of black and white line art went up by .25 per square inch to day on the market. You would rather be a brand. Brand thinking leaves a fascination with the product itself behind. Clients are not really buying that product–they are buying the feeling they get from working with you.

Most ad people agree: word of mouth. Why? Because it inspires trust confidence from a known source, a friend. People see an ad for what it is: an attempt to persuade you to buy something. A recent global survey by Nielson Research found that 78% of people trust a referral from another consumer over any form of advertising. This is the Holy Grail fro branding: to inspire the level of confidence of a referral from a friend.

(Source for illustration: Nuetron, LLC http://www.neutronllc.com/ideas/brand_illustrated)

Originally a brand was a graphic mark or style that made the maker of a product identifiable from the competition. After the industrial revolution, brands became important in allowing mass-produced products to compete with locally made products. Companies wanted to inspire the same predictability and confidence through their identifying mark as consumers had buying from a known local source–because that was probably someone in their community that they knew and trusted.

The essence of Branding is still the same: to inspire trust and confidence. Now advertisers have gone further than that: a brand is a means for identifying yourself with a set of values, aspirations and states of mind as they exist in the mind of the customer.

Since it exists created in the minds of it’s customers, a brand must be built over time and using many media simultaneously. Because of the power of this idea, a brand can be so much more valuable than the actual physical product. Brands are even bought and sold for more than the net value of an inventory of the product.

Beginning to think in terms of brand and defining yourself as a brand is the beginning of a marketing plan. It’s not just for global companies. We can start with questions like, “What are the values that might be in the mind of an art buyer?”

In marketing you must alleyway’s keep in mind that PERCEPTION IS REALITY.

Meaning lies in the emotional perceptions of your customers.

You must position your brand to resonate with the perceptions of your target market. To do this you must get to know them intimately well.

This idea goes beyond creation of a log or even a graphic identity plan. These things are secondary and, in the case of the logo, not always necessary.

Your brand is a promise of emotional gratification, a result, or benefit, not the technical work of features of your product. Not the look of your graphic design. But the look of your graphics must fit in with your brand identity and communicate it.

Ultimately, when you have a good brand, you don’t have to do “selling” in the traditional sense. You have already communicated to your potential customers who you are, that you know their needs and desires, and that you will fulfill those. They will come to you.

A mission statement conveys the business founder’s purpose for starting the business, usually contains the core beliefs and values.

It’s your vision.

It is for your own use to help make decisions, planning and inspiration. If it does not fit your MS, you don’t waste time with it.

Be able to describe what you do to someone at a cocktail party, in terms that actually sound interesting to them.

Einstein was once quoted as saying that if he couldn’t explain the nature of the universe to a child, his theory was probably not yet correct.


Marketing starts here, with the customer. Define who will produce the best results for your business. Focus only on them. This area will also be your area of greatest strength, where your abilities shine, where you most enjoy. That’s the only area where you can be seen as an expert, a master in your field. That is what you want to become, in the eyes of your best clients.

Don’t be seen as working for just anyone. Bad or inappropriate clients may pay some bills in the short term, but will use up your time and energy, and in the long run destabilize your business. Also, if they are not a good fit, you will eventually have a conflict, which will only tarnish your reputation becaue they will consider YOU at fault.

By dedicating yourself to satisfying your TM, you will set the foundation for a stable business.

You must feel exited about working for the people you identify as your target market. They inspire you and you feel creative working on their projects.

This is a sample of the definition I worked out with my artist representative and business partner, for the kinds of clients we wanted. I have it posted by my desk for ready reference. (I also have the stuffed head of a Cape buffalo on my wall across the room. I lookup at it when I am negotiating a project.) Since I have written down this definition, mysteriously, I have acquired more and more clients who meet these criteria.

A definition also excludes those who do not fit within it. One of the hardest exercises I have done is to exclude clients that don’t meet my criteria. You must imagine something like an underwriter, a doorman, or a Central Scrutinizer that qualifies everyone who comes in your virtual door.

It’s an insecure feeling to send a potential client elsewhere, but consider this scenario: You have a client and they have you, but you are just not a goof fit. Sooner or later, a problem will arise. SInce you are not a good fit, chances are a simple miscommunication will become a falling out. Your dissatisfied client will not take personal responsibility for teh issues between you. It will be your fault. And they will tell others that they know, maybe others who are your appropriate clients.

One of the traditional ways to define a target market uses modeling. This is a whole science in itself and it illustrates the degree you might want to go into really knowing these, your potential customers. That’s how important it is.

I read somewhere that Proctor and Gamble used to send new executives to a sort of field camp–they would live with a family that was solidly within their target market for a period of time. The idea was that they intimately get to know the needs, problems, strategies, and values of these people first hand. I also imagine these would-be executives took off their suits and changed a few diapers. I’d love to spend a week working in the offices of some of my good clients.

Most likely, for a consultant, you will be concerned mostly with the profile of your client’s business. But the common characteristics of individuals within that business will also deserve some thought. Usually it’s an individual who will decide to hire you as a consultant.

This is another science concerned with the mental and emotional characteristics of your target market. How they see themselves, their environment, expectations, and conscious and unconscious decision-making patterns.

How do they think? How do they see themselves? How do they see their world? What stresses do they deal with daily in their jobs? What to they day-dream about. What makes them laugh? What do they have for lunch? How do they decide who to hire?

Because their perceptions are your reality.

This can seem to get very detailed and academic. And it’s hard to know anything for sure. But one technique defines different gratification modes and purchase preferences.

Some analysts say that people can get their subconscious emotional gratification 1. through interacting with other people, 2. interacting with objects, or 3. interacting with ideas.

Their purchase preference is how they consciously justify their actions to themselves and their bosses. They may like something that is experimental, new, innovative, or cutting edge. They may decide based on performance and quality. Or they may be shopping for value–the best price.

Interestingly, you can use occupation as a rough indicator of personality. I noticed in this data that artists, designers, inventors, and marketing executives tend to value the experimental mode. And these types of people also prefer to purchase based on a cool idea, the introverted mode.

So one could infer that art buyers in design firms want to hire free-lancers they feel have an up-to-date, innovative style, and that show strong conceptual thinking.

Of course these are not the only factors.

You can track your potential customers and their thoughts and behaviors as they move through the different stages of your sales cycle–from knowing you exist, to having a positive impression, to having a job come onto their desk, deciding to go with illustration, deciding to call you, and interacting with you in the creation of your product.

Notice that satisfaction is in this sales cycle–it goes past the completion of the project to when your client relaxes, having made his own boss or client happy, and thinks about how you helped him do that, and how satisfying it was to work with you.

This can be a whole lecture in itself.

These are some of the attributes, then, that we can hypothetically place as value for a design or illustration client. You can add others. Some may not fit certain markets. You want to communicate that you have these qualities. You can do that because it’s true. Then everything you do expresses this. That is the beginning of your branding.

Without first establishing your brand identity, or emotional connection that creates trust and credibility, you may have paid this months bills, but you have no long-term foundation for your business. No one will regularly buy from you, except by accident, no matter how many times they see your work in formal ads. And the people that come to you may not be your most probably client, except by accident. And it does happen.

But once you have a personal brand in the minds of your target market, they will buy from you automatically without having to be sold.

A note on the last item, “business-like attitude”. I’ve found that clients want to work with someone who sees themselves as a business-person. After all THEY are business-people too and want to work with others like themselves. That, in itself, is enough reason to start thinking about yourself and what you do as a business.

It doesn’t take any fancy graphic to personally brand yourself. It can be done with plain text.

The idea is to get people asking to see your work. They may not even respond, but they expect your next mailer. They want you to keep in touch. They are your people. Advertise only to these people for the most advertising value for your money.

This is my next lecture, but I’ll quickly summarize the media one can use to communicate your brand id.

So, to conclude and repeat, narrow yourself down. Put blinders on. Sounds wrong, but it’s right. The only way to get results is to focus without distraction on one thing at a time.

Then narrow down your focus a little more. You can only really understand one market niche. You can only be considered an expert in one small area. You can only afford to give all you have to give to the select people who will be helped by your expertise and will appreciate you. You will really need to satisfy these people once you find them. Then go further and exceed their expectations. That’s what a good business plan requires of you.

Then define a couple of smaller side markets you will also put some resources into.

If you are chasing just any and all potential clients because you need business, any kind of business because you need the income, you might pay this month’s bill, but you will not have a viable business. It’s like dating–you will not be able to make a solid connection with any one because you are not being selective. What you want is a long-term relationship.

Making that connection is what branding is about. Creating that brand identity can be simple–every contact your TM has with you embodies that trust and confidence that you are their expert provider. It can be as simple as plain text in an email. It does not depend on a logo or a graphic identity program. It is more fundamental than that. You must be truly believable; you can only do that by being authentic.

Start with a specific list of companies you would like to work with that use your style. Try interacting with them. Get nibbles, be patient and consistent, eventually you will pull in a whopper.

I’d like to end with a recent email from one of my best clients. It was great feedback for me that this process works. This client was willing to go beyond company precedent and offer me some of my requests (not all of them). Why? As they say, because we have a great relationship. By “quality”, they mean that their clients are happy with my work because it fits in with their specific criteria for their own market.

With this client, I know that there are other illustrators who are better than be out there. I sometimes worry that my client will see these other artists work and immediately move over to them.

But people are not really like that, even in business. What I want to think, and what I believe is true is this: They hire you, out of all the others because of who you are. Clients work with you because they have a good relationship with you. That is an important business concern, even though, when asked, people will often give other reasons for hiring someone, like style and quality, etc. But for some reason, they are attracted to you, whether they know how to explain it or not. They may even like you. Their unconscious mind, their inner baby, just wants what it wants: that’s to have you do thier illustration.

That’s what I mean by your personal brand.


Suggested reading

My advice, just as an exercise, if you are really serious about making a living in a creative business, is to read a couple of books about business that don’t have the word, “artist”, “illustrator” or “designer” in the title. Just about business in general.

The E-Myth Revisited, by Michael E. Gerber

Gerber is the small business guru. Most small businesses fail, die a slow death, or keep up appearances through pure effort that ends in burnout. These businesses are started by a technician who wants to be his own boss–a craftsman that is so good at making that gismo that she forgets how to spell entrepreneur. It does not have to be this way. It’s just that most people do not know how to manifest a vision in the real world. It’s not intuitive. But the knowledge is there, free for the taking, if you are wiling to change everything you think you know. Read this one before you read “E-Myth Mastery”


E-Myth Mastery, by Michael E. Gerber

The author here goes a few levels deeper into what one really has to do to make any business succeed. It’s not for the faint-hearted–he really means it when he says we must aim for Mastery. It turns out that creating a successful business is almost as complex as creating a good painting.

Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, by Martin Lindstrom and Paco Underhill
Neuroscientists use new brain scanning techniques to probe the dark secrets of the human desire to buy. Freud would have loved this stuff. Don’t read it if you are afraid of too much self-knowledge.

Book Yourself Solid: The Fastest, Easiest, and Most Reliable System for Getting More Clients Than You Can Handle Even if You Hate Marketing and Selling, by Michael Port


My current favorite book on marketing, which is essentially a means to make real any idea or plan you have in your mind. It reads like a good novel, not a business book, and it has a free workbook that you can download. You’ll learn more than you did in art school and you’ll like it.

Click on “steal this idea.” Really, it’s ok. A sample: when all the others ZIG, you should ZAG, and you’ll do ok.

Love is the Killer App, by Tim Sanders

In this new post-internet economy, the customer has all the power, and the old way of doing hard-nosed business may not work anymore. The companies and people that prosper now, will do so because they can manage the intangibles: knowledge, networking, and yes, compassion. That’s dedicating yourself to the benefit of your chosen customers. Your clients work with you because they like you.


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