What We’re Talking About: Balancing New Designs With Real World Demands

This week I’m really excited to launch a special new column for the summer. Now that the bulk of our crazy season has passed (see you next year, ICFF, NSS, Surtex and offsite shows), we’ve had more time to sit and talk around our communal desk, talking about everything and anything. Some days I wish I could record the conversations that take place in our office, because they raise some really interesting topics and always make me want to open them up to a wider audience. I thought about trying to turn them into a round table radio show, but I thought it would be fun to try them as an open-post format, where everyone reading could comment. So once a week we’ll share the biggest issue or topic we’re talking about and give you the chance to chime in to share your opinions, ideas, thoughts and suggestions. Discussions will range from trade issues and design-world thoughts to more personal conversations and life questions. Today we’re tackling something inspired by last month’s trade shows: the challenge of pushing trends forward while meeting real world demands.

I’ve often left trade shows disappointed by the lack of “new”-ness. The feeling of seeing more of the same was one of the main reasons we didn’t cover the Stationery Show as intensely this year and rather than stay disappointed, I thought we should talk about what the reasons for that might have been. My concern has always been wondering what the real challenges are facing an indie paper-goods designer. Do the trends we love, consume and then move on from not move as quickly in the retail world? For example, if everyone’s tired of chevron and ombre, does that mean that those cards aren’t selling anymore? My hunch is that retail moves more slowly that the trend and taste-demands of the online community. So while we’re ready to see something new and fresh, the buying market is still demanding more of the past year’s trends.

What do think? As designers, what are the real challenges when it comes to making new work on a timely basis. Is it costly? Not time effective, or is it something you DO do regularly and find a way to fit into your collections? I’m really curious to learn more about the realities of being an independent designer (paper or otherwise) and how you balance those with the demands of an online audience that always wants to see MORE and NEW as soon as possible. xo, grace

Elizabeth

I think of the main current issues is that large companies are cashing in on the Designer Maker look and turning it into a trend. This would be fine except that that they are mass producing products with the look so they can sell them at costs designer makers just can’t compete with. This is certainly the case in the UK.

cintia

When I was a handmaker to sell (had my own indie children’s clothing label) I always found I got tired of making a particular style or idea before my customers really warmed to it. It takes quite a while for the public in general (not trendsetters or early adopters) to get comfortable with something new. As creatives we want to move on to out next idea, often to hastily to really profit from it, and it can be frustrating when you’ve moved on that the public is going gaga for something that was in your collection months/years ago.

susy

I didn’t participate in NSS this year largely because I have come to feel that model, and probably, large trade-shows in general, may not be the right fit for the things I would like to be making, and the way in which I’d like to be connecting. I needed space to re-form my ideas. Nailing it all down for a trade show– “committing” — was not what I wanted to do, deep down. I doubt if I will participate again in the future.

Primarily, I wanted to write a comment in support — purely to say that it’s nice to see this question asked, and asked here. I’ll be interested to see what people have to say.

Shira

I work as a buyer for a small design shop (and have experienced the exact same feeling of disappointment that you mention at trade shows, seeing the same old trends repeated over and over). I follow the design world closely, and my theory is that trends flash rapidly through the blogosphere while moving much more slowly in the “real world”. I’ve seen so many customers get excited by trends that are new to them, but which for me are old news (since I’ve seen them fifty times over on every design blog). I’m guessing that designers to some extent have the same constraints, when it comes down to it you need to be able to sell (and not just to a limited, design-forward audience) to make it!

Michelle Smith

I love this idea – and think it would be really cool as a virtual video chat – although honestly I wouldn’t contribute as much that way. ;)

Like you I am able to spot trends a mile away and am always super excited about what is coming up next. However, I have found that at least as far as design/interior trends it seems that the general public is about five years past the time I feel like they should be “over it”. In the past I’ve always leery of decorating or designing in a way that is too trendy but I’m starting to realize just how long trends last and embracing the trends more these days because they do seem to have such longevity.

Also, as much as I like creating new products I find that the newer ideas that I am excited about don’t always translate to sales of those goods – until again – it catches on, years later. Also, a lot of my bestsellers are goods that have been in my line a looong time. It’s weird. I’m ready to move forward but don’t think the consumer audience is.

I think designers are super cautious about introducing innovative new ideas because we all know that if we aren’t able to promote it and bring it to market quickly and effectively it will most likely get ripped off by a larger company who will saturate the marketplace before we’ve even had a chance to.

Also, at my Rock & Shop events I’ve found that though people like to see emerging trends that doesn’t necessarily equate to what they are buying.Participating in trade shows is a very expensive and time consuming endeavor and frankly if I were putting forth that much time and investment I’d probably focus on what consumers are buying as well to make sure participating was worth my while.

Cyn

I did my first trade show last month (NSS) and balancing trend vs. new at a show is a challenge. My aesthetic as a designer does not look like anyone else’s work, but enticing press or buyers to take a chance on something new, instead of something proven, is difficult. I saw many people walking the aisles with a list of booths to visit that did not look at their surroundings. Seeking out something new may require a little more work or time than some people are able to give. But I do believe if you design or create art that represents who you are, trends or uniformity, will not matter in your journey.

Leah

I’m an artist. To stay true to my practice it’s important for me to work an idea through so that discoveries made in the making lead to a natural next step. I LOVE looking at what others are doing , so inspiring, but my innovative pace is what it is. Online trends move too quickly for me to process let alone try to keep up with.

Briana and Jason

This is an issue that we mull over often in our studio. We are glad you brought this up. The following response is just our opinion and personal perspective as designers and printmakers that produce prints in-house. We’re interested in how other people are dealing with this as well.

Being a creative business owner is riddled with challenges, especially when there is always a new way to navigate. There are so many more people to please, different markets to cater to, a different site to get your images going viral. You want to release new work often, but you worry if your shops will want to carry it. There are also followers and blogs that want to see you constantly producing work. You need to be fresh, consistent, creatively open but curated, and competitive. You need to have impeccable timing.

Our two sources of income are retail stores and our online retail shop, but the speed at which those two operate are very different. This poses a challenge. Even though they are different, everyone wants to be the first to know about something, the first to SEE. So who do you show first? We try to work as fast as possible and react to whats changing on the internet. However, it is very difficult for a designer who is also producing their own work in-house to keep pace with aggregation, blogs, social media, and rising demand from online and physical markets.

I think what has kept us sane through all of the challenges of running this business, is the desire to make work that makes US happy. Staying true to what you know how to do, and working hard to do it well. Also remembering that old saying that you can’t please everyone all of the time. That helps too!

DNA

Very interesting discussions. From the point of view of a consumer with a house already full of loved things, I find I am pleased to look at pretty things online, but would have no space to put anything. The rare occasion I do purchase something special, it practically has to speak to my emotions, rather than be trendy. But in my 20s, it really was more about trends.

Brannon

Thanks for bringing up this important discussion. I exhibited at the NSS for the second time this year and believe that staying new and innovative in your art and product design involves being aware of the trends (past, current, and future), while also being willing to follow your own path and stay true to your vision. I think some designers may attempt to put their own spin on a proven trend or aesthetic that they know has mass appeal, perhaps in an effort to stay safe or to appeal to a wide array of buyers, yet their attempts end up looking like “more of the same.” Echoing Cyn’s comment above, I agree that there seemed to be many buyers attending NSS this year solely to reconnect with existing accounts and not seeking out fresh talent, which can contribute to a “more of the same” feeling as well.
Sarah Tolzmann’s addressed a similar topic on her blog this week that is definitely worth reading. http://www.notetoselfblog.com/note_to_self/2013/06/advice-04.html
As a designer, I have to constantly ask myself if I am pushing myself outside comfortable boundaries, exploring where my inspiration comes from, and staying true to my own style.

Kandy Christensen

I don’t want to say that I ignore trends, because I am aware of them and I am sure they influence me in some way, but I don’t make anything to follow a trend. That is partly because I make things out of upcycled and vintage materials and so what I make is dictated by what materials I find to use. Maybe upcycled is the new trend, but I’ve been doing it all my life!

Noëlle

What a great topic! I wonder if one of the reason trends last as long as they do, is that once they hit the mainstream marketplace, they’ve already been “hot” in the indie community for quite a while. Just a thought…

As much as I would love to fit in with the trends, it usually only happens to me by chance- I can’t just make a design because it’s the “new great thing”. Like with my cat pillow cases- I truly just love cats, and their grace and beauty inspires me daily. So, it’s difficult for me to design with trends in mind- I just need to follow my own interests and try to be as unique as possible. That is really tough to do in this day and age. I always do multiple, quatriple searches on the Internet before I commit to a new design. The last thing I would ever want to do is accidentally copy someone else’s design, or do something that’s already been done a million times.

For me, trying out a new design is really not so much about the cost. Since I’m able to keep the majority of my production in-house, I try to experiment whenever I have time. The creative ideas definitely have their ebb and flow, but I’m trying to seize on them as much as possible (sketchbooks are key)! Of course it’s always disappointing when you really believe in something you’ve put out there, and it doesn’t do as well as you hoped, or people don’t respond the way you thought they would. Unless you are playing to trends, you’re always going to be taking that chance.

If I do follow any trends, it’s been to gear my work towards a more home-based market. I’ve been able to reach a whole new audience that doesn’t necessarily want to wear my t-shirts. That has helped my business a lot, as well as my creativity. Before starting my home goods line, I was actually feeling really stuck, and I started to get a little upset when people asked me when I was going to make new designs! Now I feel like I’m on the right track, more than ever, and I’m really energized this year!

For people that want to see “more and new” as much as possible- well, I know even though I’ve had a design out there for a while, it will still be new to a huge audience- it’s just a matter of getting my work out there for them to see. I try to keep that in mind when I’m feeling tired of a design, even if it’s always done really well for me. I really think it is also up to the big Indie craft shows to bring more new to people and the marketplace in general. I’ve been rejected from all of the majors repeatedly, and yet I see the same thing there year after year. I always ask myself, “Why wouldn’t they want more variety? I would!”

Thanks for putting this question out there, Grace! I am always hoping to see more new-ness, that’s why I love your blog!

Katie Covington

Love this column idea Grace and everyone’s thoughtful comments! I used to have a boss that always said “People don’t buy cool. They buy pretty.” As a designer this was incredibly frustrating but giving customers things that make them feel pretty, or loved started to feel a lot different. I think beyond just new trends and products we find that what the online design community gravitates to and what customers end up buying vary wildly. The images that circulate with online audiences tend to be editorial and trend forward but not necessarily practical or affordable. The products that end up doing really well for us are often the ‘hero’ pieces that work day in and day out for many different kinds of people. At first this was really surprising and kind of underwhelming but after connecting with our customers one on one we realized that creating something that will live in their home is such an honor. This doesn’t really help the online communities need for something new but made us more excited to offer a larger variety of products besides just the newest. Balancing the newness that gets you excited about your work with things that people will buy and love is all part of the fun- as long as there isn’t the expectation that everyone will love everything.

Sarah at Lazerwood

We participated in the NSS for the first time this year. First Show. First NSS. Lots of Firsts. We are not in “paper” but found a niche at the show and felt like it was the right place for us. BUT the bigger issue for us is that the classics, that sell over and over, underwrite our outliers; the risks. Every piece in our line is there because we wanted it and couldn’t find it on the market, so we made it ourselves. And invariably, the beautiful walnut pieces, which grow glossier with age, sell and sell and sell. Because who gets tired of looking at beautiful walnut! And we get to keep collaborating with new artist and creating something “seasonal” and keep our creative juices flowing because there are just enough like minded people out there who want to try something edgier. But it’s the classics that keep us in business. Thank goodness!

Lori

What a great conversation! When I worked for a home decor company one of the large fabric vendors I worked with shared their research that only 5% of the population has a “decorating IQ”, meaning the early adopters, trend seekers etc. The general populace and majority of consumers are months if not longer behind the proverbial eight ball. Most people need to see a trend evolve to the mainstream before they feel comfortable buying in- that their friends won’t laugh and they wont regret the purchase.

This makes it very difficult in a fashion based business, particularly with the proliferation of market exposure via the internet, to know how much on trend or newness is viable at a given time. You almost have to use that product to show you’re on your game without expecting sales to justify the investment for a little while. To get editorial coverage you need new and innovative, but customers are just getting comfortable with your last couple lines (after they see it in Pottery Barn or all over Pinterest).

Personally, I believe only design with provenance is immune from this phenomena. With so much available to consumers, they need to bond with the story behind the product be it the maker, materials or history.

As always, many thanks for your intuitive and insightful topics.

K

I own a small food business. A lot of the challenges discussed here about design trends also apply to food trends too, especially the time lag between digital trends and the general public’s awareness and interest. It can be really frustrating when my bread-and-butter products are some of our oldest, and new, interesting stuff is seen as ‘weird’ or risky (especially for food retailers that we supply). One thing we’ve done which has helped is creating a small loyalty club for our customers who are open-minded and interested in trying new stuff; they get monthly, small-batch limited edition products. It gives us a chance to play around, get feedback, and sell directly to the public, and inevitably it’s those products that get us the most media coverage too.

valeriewabisabi

Yes, great idea for a column and the comments are all fascinating! As an artist, designer and business owner, I have different views with each hat I wear! The artist often comes up with the idea and then later sees it in the blogs as a “trend” and loses interest. The designer in me says “this is what is hot” and wants to fill that need on the part of the buyer, but with a slightly different twist. As a business owner, I see it takes a while for “trends” to catch on.. And yes, by the time they catch on with the general public, we are sick of it!

Holly

I’ve been on both sides of this challenge: buyer, creator, sales rep…..it is a delicate balance for sure.
1. Manufacturers and artists have the challenge and cost of producing new goods for each show not to mention the cost to participate in shows- booth fees, transportation, styling a booth, food, lodging, etc. it is a costly endeavor for a new Indy designer for sure so sometimes it’s cost prohibitive to keep churning out new items. Even well established manufacturers have years they produce less new sku’s in an attempt to sell through existing merchandise. ( I think some years this has been the reality)
2. Trends…..another place where you must find that sweet spot of producing new things without being too ahead of the curve. As a buyer and a creator, often times the general public has not embraced the newest trends until a year or two after production or creation of such goods….. So, yes. This is a challenge indeed. As a retailer, the bottom line is that you must sell merchandise so the consumer dictates your re-orders.

As a retailer, your shopper is also looking for the latest and greatest and you want to be seen as innovative.

3. Which brings me to this. Twice a year for over twenty years we attended The NY Gift Show for inspiration, trends and ultimately to BUY. We looked to those designers and manufacturers to ignite that fire in us to determine our stories…..what colors were strong? What materials were trending? Who had the greatest new products? . So when those seasons or shows fell flat, so did we.
In the end, it is all about balance. And that’s what makes one a success – creating goods with the consumer in mind. Creating things that aren’t too over the top, bearing in mind price points that translate to RETAIL all while keeping things fresh.
I see things in the marketplace that we were carrying in our store ten years ago – as soon as I turn my nose up, I am reminded that the consumers are buying these goods or a buyer wouldn’t keep re-ordering. It is tough to criticize when it is such a challenge to keep Indy boutiques open…..

It starts with the shows and the creators…….it’s a vicious circle …the ones ahead of the curve are 20% of the population. The consumers just loving ( and buying) ombré and neon are just gobbling it up so it’s going to be around as long as it keeps selling… And so it goes…

Love D*S for posing the question and providing a forum for all of us! Xoxo

Anne

Great question and great discussion. I find myself taking notes on many of the comments. I am the owner, buyer and merchandiser of a small folk art shop. All of my products come from another country, Mexico. I don’t go to trade shows but actually visit artisans and markets all over the country and purchase directly from them. This is an issue that affects all creative people, wherever they may be. I find this question–new vs traditional– goes through my mind often when I’m in Mexico. I’ve seen many of the traditional Mexican items and designs for years. What I’m personally attracted to are the new twists on tradition. But like many other retailers/designers/creative people I have to keep a balance of the traditional (displayed in a way that is “pretty”) in the shop with the new and unique. There is a subset of customer who loves the quirky and new. I love K’s idea of a small loyalty club for those early adopters, keeping in mind that it’s the minority of people with a “decorating IQ” and maintaining balance. Mil gracias for the discussion!

Naomi McEneely

I have worked in the design/craft work for almost 35 years. The bigget challenge I have always had is how to make something truly unique and orignal at a price point that people will part with thier hard earned money. If I had not had a partner that for all of these year,s has provided the stable income, this simplay wouldnot have been possible as a career. I work in textiles, weaving, quilting, sewing and every kind of hand work possible and the hours of creation time along with the hours of fabricating time are difficult to price. Stop creating? Never. It is my labor of love. I am fortunate that mypartner is understanding of this need and is willing to support it. I wish I was able ot be self-supporting from my work, but the manufacturing that is done at a fraction of the cost ,when my work has been copied, makes it impossible to be so. I would that it were not so.

Patricia Shea

You are talking here about the exact thing I am struggling with myself right now. My work is very time intensive and takes a while to be created so the roll out of brand new designs is an infrequent event. Thus in between freshly created work I am scanning and getting ready the tons of artwork I have in my flat files from my days working for large companies attending SURTEX and visiting showrooms when I created huge portfolios of work – most designs of which never got to market because of course only one or two would be chosen. Still I feel the pressure to always be promoting something new to satisfy the immediacy of today’s online world. For me the newness comes in the refining of my own style to dovetail with the larger trends that roll along. Thanks for this discussion – it is a challenge but how fantastic that I can now sell directly to the public through print on demand like Society6 and Etsy, and market through Facebook and Pinterest – I think despite the pressures of keeping up, this fast paced, new online world is astonishing and something I longed for in my younger designing days.

Claudia

Thanks so much for the insight about the NSS this year and last for that matter. I did exhibit because I as well as the person I exhibited with do have a new message and appearance. I talked to many buyers as well who have indicated that they are over the whole cute letterpress look but as you pointed out the market has not caught up yet and it can takes years for that to happen. The model used to be 10 years from uber cool designer to mass market but that was before internet and instant media to help drive the “new”.
Had great feedback from the buyers who sought us out and orders from the demographic I wanted to hit. More noodling of designs and messages so look forward to the next installment.

Rebecca

Quirky gets compliments but very few sales. I have started making smaller and less expensive items to reduce risk. I have also toned down my color palate.

Gabrielle Treanor

Such an interesting post with great comments. I’ve only been in business a couple of years (I illustrate and design patterns for my stationery business) and I’m realising that the blogosphere goes at a completely different pace to the real world. Everyone online was totally over cupcakes and ‘keep calm and carry on’ years ago but it seems it’s only just died out in the last year in bricks and mortar shops. Ombre and chevrons have been all over the web for a while but I feel like it’s only just hitting the high street properly now. This could be wrong but it’s the impression I have. I try to be aware of trends but not to pay too much attention to them. I want to create designs that feel 100% me and I hope others will love as much as I do. At the last trade show I did in London quite a few retailers said they saw a lot of the same style appearing over and over (they didn’t include me thank goodness!) and while I don’t want to be lumped in that group I also worry that if I’m too different that won’t sell either! But I know that if I try to create designs because I think I should to be on trend, they won’t be any good because my heart won’t be in it.
PS I’m one of those silent readers who never comments but I do love Design Sponge!

Eleanor from e.m.papers

Great topic. In some ways, it’s hard for me not to lay this squarely on the shoulders of the internet. Ideas go viral so fast. As a designer and internet lover, it’s incredibly hard not to let these trends influence my work even if I don’t want them too, it’s like being hypnotized. I sometimes think the best way to come up with fresh ideas would be to pull the plug on the www for 6 months and detox, but that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.

I also agree with the sentiments expressed here about how the trendy stuff sells. My favorite designs (and those of my design-y friends) sit on the virtual shelf gathering dust.

Designs that I created and once found fresh and original but now find predictable and almost corny, continue to be my bread and butter. Isn’t this the same reason we have so many mediocre Hollywood movies? or sensationalist journalism? Just givin’ the people what they want…I dunno.

I met a fellow stationery designer at the Hive conference in Berlin last month. She said something that stuck with me: “You know, that when you really design something with conviction, those always turn out to be good sellers” I sure hope that’s true, and plan to put it to the test in the coming months.

nole

I think the frustration with the slow progress of trends is something that most editors – both online and print – struggle with in a unique and particular way. We see SO MUCH of everything, both in our submission inboxes and in reading other publications. It often feels like something is completely over saturated just as our wider readership is beginning to catch on to a particular trend.

As the editor of a blog that bridges the gap between design and weddings, I’ve had this exact conversation with my wedding blog colleagues for years. I don’t struggle with the same feeling of frustration with lack of newness quite as often as they do, but I know they constantly remind themselves that just because they’ve seen the same thing a million times it doesn’t mean that their readers have seen it before – much less their wedding guests. We might be sick to death of any given trend, but it’s brand new and special for them.

This was my 5th year attending NSS, and I was actually really excited about the amount of newness at this year’s show, but more from the perspective of seeing a ton of new exhibitors as well as a ton of new designs from veteran exhibitors. I’m just happy to see lots of small design studios exhibiting at the show and producing well-crafted products that are true to their individual styles.

Outside of the tradeshows, I do think there is quite a bit of innovation happening within the stationery community – but it’s happening largely in custom design. Wedding invitations, birth announcements, and even business cards: that’s where I see stationery design trends develop and then make their way into greeting cards, calendars, etc. Custom design affords the greatest freedom, has much larger profit margins, and the customer actively wants something unique and different from the existing products on the market.

I could ramble on and on, so I’ll stop there – thank you so much for introducing this discussion!

dana

I’m so glad we’re having this conversation as well. My work is such that it’s relatively low risk to try new things and see what captures people’s imaginations and what doesn’t. I sometimes forget how those of us who don’t spend all day consuming visual inspiration see the world. I am an illustrator who makes prints of my artwork. I was at a craft show this weekend when a very well-meaning person came into my booth and told me I should have more owls in my work because they are the new trendy animal.

Sarah

I’d say there are conflicting factors contributing to me creating new designs for my company. Creative urges and a need to produce more products / stay relevant contribute to me producing new designs. On the other hand, the high cost of production slows me down; preventing me from releasing many new designs and keeping current designs in ongoing production. Further, I hate feeling that, as a designer, I’m just contributing to the existence of more stuff in the world. That creates a very deliberate choice to slowly & methodically release new designs.

Roxana

I am an artist working in the visual and aromatic realm. Instead of watching trends, I use my heart as my compass, producing work that is as authentic to what’s happening within my sphere. This keeps me engaged in the work.

The cost of production has been extremely challenging lately, but, it also has made me delve deep into my creativity to innovate. Although this process has been difficult it has produced a fruitful outcome and dialogue with my customers.

Greg Spalenka

Trends are irrelevant. Authenticity is timeless. I am a professional artist and teacher that presents workshops to colleges and universities that encourage artists to embrace an entrepreneurial model for their art businesses. One of the key components to art (all creative disciplines) career sustainability is to focus on authentic visions. There will always be a market for a well crafted idea that comes from the heart.

The cult of the new is transitory. Solid products can find an audience that will support it for a very long time. Whether it is sold online or in a retail environment becomes irrelevant.

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