This is the first of an occasional series of interviews with creative entrepreneurs who are living the principles we write about at Lateral Action.
We are delighted to start the series with John T. Unger, an artist whose inspiration is not limited to his sculptures and designs, but extends to his whole approach to business.
1. You call yourself an ‘artist, designer, entrepreneur and impossibility remediation specialist’. What do those names mean to you?
Really, each of those names applies to a subset of what I do.
In conversation, I prefer to just say that “I get paid to be me,” but that doesn’t really fit in the standard box where you describe what you do for a living. Getting paid to be me means that whether I’m making art, writing code, consulting on software design and UI or speaking about business strategy, what people really pay me for isn’t the just the end product, but the process I use to get there. They choose me out of a crowd of creatives precisely because of the personal style and method I bring to the table.
I’ve learned to exploit the specific ways my brain malfunctions so that I’m able to harness a deeply lateral approach to problems, combining creativity with research, critical analysis, experimentation and testing. The key is bringing all of these skills together on a project to meet a specific goal that includes deliverables.
It’s not enough to be just clever or creative, you have to be effective as well.
As an Artist
As an artist, my job is to communicate ideas clearly, reach people emotionally, inspire or incite change and to fill in the blanks in the world… finding new ways of seeing things, or creating the things that don’t exist but so obviously should have once they do. I try to create objects that will endure by drawing from primal metaphor and classical elements of design that speak to what it means to be human and alive. I revisit history to translate the eternal into the contemporary. I feel like the artist’s job is to bring the unexpected, to practice the art of surprise, to create the new obvious, to explore the unthinkable.
I work primarily with recycled or re-used materials. I feel that creative re-use has the potential to spark new ways of looking at the world… if one thing can be turned into another, what else can we change? Successful recycled art and design encourages creativity in others— it’s alchemical, magical, subversive, and transformative by nature.
I’m just as interested in finding uses for new materials… I spend a lot of time researching new products or calling manufacturers and asking to speak to their engineers to talk about tolerances, potential applications, and product specs.
I like to joke that I’m the world’s most well-educated self-taught artist — I’ve learned pretty much everything I know by doing it. I work in a lot of different styles using a wide variety of materials. I find that each new medium, motif or material sharpens both my critical thinking and my physical skills so that my work improves across the board with each new project. The fifteen years I spent pursuing a poetry career, for instance, has had a direct effect on how I deal with subject matter, meaning and nuance as a visual artist. The structure and theory I learned as a musician applies directly to my use of pattern, rhythm, lyricality and syncopation in metalwork.
As a Designer
As a designer my job is much like that of the engineer: this is where clarity, usability and functionality are most important. Functionality is the core of design for me and most of my work is intended to be useful as well as beautiful. I enjoy the practical aspect of art and feel that engineering is as critical as ingenuity in the creation of solid works of art.
For me, the design process also includes craft: developing the physical skills to create work which is durable, well conceived, and well executed. A brilliant idea poorly executed won’t live up to its potential.
As an Entrepreneur
The entrepreneurial component of what I do is about taking the ideas and finished products and getting them out there. For me, being an entrepreneur is what makes everything else possible: It pays the bills, finances new product runs, opens opportunities for collaboration, brings me the reputation to connect with companies who make the products I use and consult with them to improve those products to our mutual benefit.
I started my art business as a full time occupation after going an entire year without freelance design work after the dot com bust. I had about five bucks in my pocket, 20 grand in debt, and no tools but a laptop. I joke that “I did it with nothing, because nothing is free,” but there’s truth in this… I was able to market ideas and products which had little overhead to produce and turn those into a business that was capable of supporting more expensive production models. By keeping my initial overhead low, I could put nearly all the profits into building a bigger, more successful business. I don’t use credit at all. All of my new ideas are developed using capital from the existing lines of work.
Relaxing makes me tense. I only get excited about projects that feel new to me: if I know exactly how to do something, I feel like it’s already done and there’s no incentive. I like to break some kind of new ground at least on a personal level, which means that there’s always an element of risk.
A good project has high stakes: It will either completely implode in failure or go super-nova with success. It’s all the same thing in the end— I wake up most days thinking about how I want to change, fix or improve some aspect of the world. And after a couple cups of coffee I get started on it.
When I’m told that something is impossible, I ask people to give me six reasons why it can’t be done. In most instances, I’ll find at least one argument which is flawed and come up with a way to achieve the goal.
One of my favorite personal mantras is:
If you can’t think anything at all,
you can’t think anything at all.
By which I mean that in order to think clearly and accurately, I believe you must be willing to consider a problem from any angle, no matter how disturbing, personally distasteful, contrary to public opinion, unpopular, ridiculous, or scary. I could make the statement clearer by saying:
If there is anything you are unwilling to think about,
you have lost the ability to think.
But that’s just not as succinct. In order to create something that is truly new, one of the best paths is to explore the “unthinkable.” I practice experiments of imagining exactly how it feels to take a position opposite to my own, or imagining things backwards, sideways, upside down and generally examining the opposite of everything I come across. A large number of my best ideas have come from this practice as well as an intellectual flexibility that serves me well both as an artist and a social being.
Another way of putting this is that I’ll go way out of my way to mess up dogma, but I don’t do this to people antagonistically. I just try to eradicate any preconceptions or assumptions I catch myself with because I know that they’re always holding me back from a more complete view of the world and how I can interact with it.
2. What do you create?
As an artist, my primary product is a line of artisanal firebowls in modern and ornate designs, hand-cut from 100% recycled steel. The Great Bowl O’ Fire was my first Artisanal Firebowl design and remains the most popular. The idea came to me instantly… Getting the name right took me three whole days.
There’s a poetry to the design— using a torch to cut flame images into a flammable gas tank to create a firebowl is a perfect example of how I like materials and ideas to work together. The meaning of the finished object is encoded in it‘s raw materials. That kind of layered metaphor is what I enjoy most about working with recycled materials. This kind of overlap between pattern and meaning can start with either the goal or the object: Sometimes I look at an item and imagine what else it could be, sometimes I have an idea for something I want to create and look for items that are similar to the desired shape or function and could be used as a staring point to make the piece.
I also make sculpture, glass and marble mosaic, fences, gates, jewelry, and more. I’ve been making art professionally since about 1995, and have made a full-time living as an artist since 2000. On the way to a successful art career I’ve been a poet and writer, a tech geek, a print and web designer, illustrator, industrial designer, musician, teacher, actor, set designer and even a paid guru once.
3. What business model(s) do you use?
I’m a big fan of Hugh MacLeod’s concept of the Global Microbrand:
A small, tiny brand, that “sells” all over the world…The Global Microbrand is sustainable. With it you are not beholden to one boss, one company, one customer, one local economy or even one industry. Your brand develops relationships in enough different places to where your permanent address becomes almost irrelevant.
About 98% of my sales come to me via the internet, including wholesale and gallery contacts as well as individual customers. This works well for me because I can manage all of it from home and home can be wherever I want it to be.
Seth Godin wrote about Turning Strangers Into Friends And Friends Into Customers. but I find that for me it works pretty much the opposite way— my customers frequently end up becoming good friends. This makes sense to me because when someone buys my work, it’s immediately obvious that we have at least some shared tastes and goals. There are something like six billion people in the world… I don’t need all of them to be customers, friends, fans or even aware of me. All I need to do is find the ones whose interest overlaps with my own. I’ve worked hard to build a reputation for honesty, results, quality work, customer service and approachability.
I’ve also learned that although I like to work on a broad spectrum of projects, it’s best to let one of those take the lead in terms of income. Last year I had at least five full-time business running which were related, but distinctly different as well: There was Artisanal Firebowls, TypePad Hacks, Emoodicon , my one of a kind artwork and consulting for web 2.0 companies like TypePad, PayPal, etc. This was exhausting (and exhilarating). At the end of the year I realized that I’d put the bulk of my energy into developing the new businesses and projects but had made more than 80% of my income from the firebowls which I had put no real time into developing further. All of these projects had helped raise my profile online, and I’ll be continuing most of them on a smaller scale, but my main focus will be the firebowls.
4. How do you market yourself?
Mostly by doing cool things and talking to people, both online and offline.
I don’t spend money on advertising and have pretty much stopped doing art shows or investing in traditional promotional materials. Instead, I put that energy into twitter, my blog, interviews, responding to queries for articles in newspapers and magazines.
I am trying some new ideas this year:
- I’ve created a newsletter for wholesale clients and a password protected site where they can order firebowls.
- I’ve invested in purchasing my own bar codes so that I can list products on Amazon.com.
- I’ve developed a catalog hosted in PDF form on my blog for those who want to download and print it (which is useful for galleries or designers who don’t carry my line of firebowls physically but want to sell them to clients and order them dropshipped).
- I’ve started using HighRise to manage customer data so that whenever I get an email or phone call I can take notes and assign tasks based on whatever followup is needed.
- I’ve been marketing more aggressively to wholesale clients by searching for artists who are in some way similar to my work and reaching out to galleries who carry their work.
- I’ve set a goal of sending out a new press release at least monthly.
- I get journalist queries through an art and design website called Seeking Designers and I respond by email to all the queries that would apply to my work.
- I have a press page with print quality photos and other support materials for journalists.
5. Can you describe your typical working day?
I get up around 10 am and spend the first two hours catching up online, responding to email and phone calls and doing any other business related tasks while I have my coffee.
After that, it could go any of a dozen ways. From noon to dinner might be spent in the studio, or working on consulting projects, or writing, or making business calls, or traveling, or buying supplies, etc. Whatever is at the top of the list gets priority during those hours. I typically schedule based on payment… money gets you on the schedule. The second line of priority is whatever project I’m most personally interested in at the moment.
From dinner to nine or so is personal time for my girlfriend and I. She’s a morning person, so that’s our best window to spend time together.
The rest of the night is usually more research, reading, projects, writing and internet. Or reading comics and drinking bourbon.
6. Any tips or advice for Lateral Action readers?
One of the biggest lessons I try to get across to other creatives is this: Business is fun. If you do it right and you give people something they want or need, they will shower you with money and affection. And who doesn’t want that? This doesn’t mean selling out or making work you’re not proud of just to get paid, it means finding the people who really dig exactly what you want to do and getting it in front of them. Running your creative practice as a successful businessperson is what makes it possible to do all the creative projects you want to work on.
If you want to make a living in the arts, not only do you have to be good at business, you have to be really good at it. People may need art, but most of them don’t need it as badly or as often as they need food, shoes, etc. You’re selling a luxury. Even if you make functional art you aren’t likely to be at the top of the shopping list. Your business model has to be as creative as your product. For me, this has become as exciting as the actual art itself—it requires the same kind of thinking.
I used to do a lot of commission work, which was fun because it was a kind of collaboration where clients would bring me new ideas and I could put my own spin on them. Now, I’ve learned to do it the other way round… Instead of waiting for someone else to propose a project, I’ll take my new ideas to people who have the interest and resources to make them happen. Everyone wins.
Okay, sure, you still have to manage bills, inventory, taxes, and so on—that’s work—just as putting paint on the canvas is work compared to the visionary thrill of conceiving the painting. If you have cash flow, it’s well worth outsourcing some of these tasks to a bookkeeper, accountant, or virtual assistant. But you still have to interact with your support people enough to make sure that they have what they need and that you understand what they’re doing for you. It’s worth looking for someone who can work well with you and then discussing the structure and strategy so that you’re both on the same page.
But no one can sell your work as well as you can. The passion you feel for what you do will always be a strong sales tool. If you want your business to be as successful and enjoyable as time spent in the studio, you need to approach it with the same qualities you bring to your creative work: research, experimentation, playfulness, honesty, openness and seriousness.
Get the visionary thing going for you, so that the work becomes absorbed into your overall creative practice. Approaching business as an extension of your creative life gives it the same edge that brought you to the arts in the first place. That edge sets you apart and gives your business the novelty and excitement that you strive for in your work. When you work in the studio it often feels like play—there’s a dialogue between you and the material—there’s passion, flirtation, experimentation, satisfaction. Rock on. Bring those feeling to the table as you work on your business and marketing.
John T. Unger is an artist, designer, entrepreneur and impossibility remediation specialist. He pioneered catablogging at johntunger.com and is also lead author and developer at TypePadHacks.org. Follow John on Twitter.