I’ve been meaning to do a write up on my experiences at ICON8 (the illustration conference) that was held recently in Portland. I got sick a few days after the event wrapped up and my mind was a bit of a blur post-ICON— with hundreds of attendees to meet and dozens of inspiring talks and workshops, it was a lot to process!
1. What’s the current state of illustration? Are there any trends that are coming about?
There are a lot of illustrators out there, and the quality level coming right out the gate is really high! I had the privilege of knowing a lot of the student volunteers (a lot of them were my students!) and meeting many of them; I’m equal parts inspired and intimidated by the talent level both out there currently and coming soon. I won’t say that there are any trends I noticed that are brand new, more that they’ve been steadily developing over the past few years. I noticed a lot of animals, a lot of hand lettering, a lot of people incorporating color and pattern into their work. Lots of illustrations of forests and characters, and a steady dose of humor threaded throughout.
I think for me personally, I’ve learned an important lesson to step outside of the illustration world for inspiration; everything is so visible all the time that the visual language could get easily diluted. But the bigger thing outside of visual trends that I was encouraged by was the sheer number of illustrators (especially at the Roadshow) with a story to tell, or an entrepreneurial spirit. Their interests, loves are on full display, which leads me to #2:
2. Don’t discount your point of view— making things you are excited by is contagious and can develop an audience.
The theme of ICON8 was work and play, and through its myriad speakers, a recurring anthem of ‘do what you love’ came through. Of course, this is sometimes easier said than done— how do you do that when you’re just starting out or struggling? It takes a lot of grit and a near-quixotic determination to bust down those windmills of self-doubt, that’s for sure.
The talks that stuck with me most were:
- Spotlight Stories, where Jan Pinkava talked about Google’s new storytelling form focusing on smartphones.
- Nelson Lowry’s talk about his work both for Laika and in his spare time, and how the personal work (robots! paintings!) feeds both exploits.
- Uncool: The Anti-Gun Violence project at Art Center was something I’d never heard of and probably would’ve glossed over but was one of the most emotionally impactful projects. Geared to children through books, trying to solve the problem of gun violence being so invasive in culture without being preachy or condescending to its audience.
- Carson Ellis, because she’s a delight— but also because you can see her life is creative, both in the work and in the way she spends her time. Seeing her pull lessons from gardening or quilting and applying it to her work, finding no distinction between her creative practice and her life really engaged me.
- Calef Brown’s talk about his work because his work is so playful, is thoughtful but doesn’t take himself seriously, and wouldn’t let up with the humor. The strength of his personality and spirit shone through the work.
- Souther Salazar’s talk about how play informs his work, and how little things can inspire big projects.
- Robynne Raye (of Modern Dog) talking about the struggles and victories of fighting for your work, even against a giant like Disney.
- Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen about their exploits collaborating on two books together. Really taught me a lot about the power of the page turn and where you can surprise and delight your audience.
There were takeaways from each talk of course, but these ones stuck out the most. So what did I take away from these?
- You can take your practice seriously but you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously.
- Every project has a problem to solve and an audience to impact in some way.
- Whether projects were spurred out of a need to heal or an outburst of joy, you can see the pleasure of making and discovering something important in someone’s work. Work and play feeds us and the result feeds our audience.
- Although I’ve heard you should make a separation between your work and yourself, many of the speakers seem to have blurred the lines even further. But this leads me to my next point:
- It’s important to nourish yourself with playful endeavors that aren’t WORK. This can be creative, but if you spend your creative time only making things that feel portfolio-ready, there’s no opportunity to make mistakes and learn and grow from them. And these things can lead to new processes and ideas as opposed to just repeating yourself.
Of course, this doesn’t just mean ‘follow your bliss!’ because frankly a lot of those sort of statements are pithy and useless. I read something earlier this year that talked about how following your passion doesn’t mean ‘what you’re interested in’ but rather ‘what are you willing to suffer with?’ Which is a funny statement to correlate with making room for play in your work— but you’re always going to struggle a bit with playing feeling too self-indulgent (aka the "BUT WHAT IS IT FOR??!?!"
crisis), and you might suffer through some ugly results but it’s better to take those risks than just turning creativity into a 100% business. You won’t benefit from that, your clients won’t benefit from it, and your audience won’t benefit from it.
3. Who’s your tribe?
I heard the term tribe bandied about a handful of times (guess who’s read Seth Godin?) and while sometimes I think it’s a little bit overused, I get the point. We are in an age of audience, and forgetting our audience can sometimes be a detriment (although trying to please your audience too much might not be good either). One thing I kind of wanted to hear more at ICON8 was 'how do you really connect with this audience?' beyond ‘oh post to Instagram! Post to a personal Facebook page! And have an outside life! But show that online. Etc.’ Because it’s amazing to have so many people following your work but keeping up with it is exhausting and honestly a lot of the time leads me chasing a weird dopamine high that a little heart or retweet can provide. And sometimes it just feels like I’m oversharing. I feel like we need a more soulful social network. One of the things I’ve thought the most about Twitter is that I miss what it was when I first joined— a little water-cooler to talk with people about things. Now I hunger for conversation and deeper connection— two things I found a lot during ICON8 but don’t find as much on social networks. Or maybe it just takes more time online and I don’t have time for that noise.
And beyond that, the big question I had: how do you actually find a way to slow the stream? Because there are so many people on so many social networks, so many creatives sharing what they make and so many consuming and moving onto the next shiny thing. Which okay, this is how we are now; but I want to find ways to slow down with the things I enjoy, ask questions and also stir dialogue. And I want to encourage my audience to connect deeper and slow down.
So who is my tribe? I know that there’s over 130k people following me on any number of social networks (as one of them, I can’t thank you enough!). But that’s not really enough of a metric, because I only really connect with a sliver of them. Or maybe that’s enough? One thing that I found interesting was talking about Kickstarter with a friend of mine; I’ve always shied away from it because I usually just think ‘it has to be good enough, something really important’ or ‘I could just save up and fund it myself.’ But I also realized in that platform, your audience can find joy in supporting something they connect with and help bring it to life. Instead of just being a set of eyes glancing on something they get to be a part of the birth of something new. The audience gets to invest their interest and money into the creative. Which was kind of neat to think about and made me wonder about that as a possibility at some point.
4. You need to make time for play in your work, and you need to continue learning and trying new things in order to trust your point of view.
Hard lessons for me to learn but really vital. In the past few years as a teacher, I’ve gotten really good about encouraging others to push their point of view and explore their passions but I’ve lost faith in mine a bit. The whole ‘but is it ________ enough?’ complex— which is a deadly game to play. I have started so many projects and given up before the concepting stage was complete because it didn’t seem to be enough; so many lost little ideas. I don’t regret this because it’s made new attempts stronger, but I am remorseful. So in my own personal practice I am trying silly ideas (more on that in a future post) just because I can, researching things I’m fascinated by that have nothing to do with my field, writing more to develop ideas and stories, trying to draw things I have no idea how to draw well, and pursuing little personal and collaborative projects to refill the creative well. I’m learning a lot. All the meanwhile trying to shush the ‘is it enough?’ voice. I’m not sure these exploits will ever turn into a freelance project officially, but right now I am satisfied enough that I’m doing something that will feed something else somewhere down the line. The thing I wrote down in my sketchbook twice: this is a planting time.
I have more insights to share (including things I would’ve loved to see at ICON8 and what I’d love to see at ICON9!), but I’ll save that for a post on Friday.