My Journey to Surtex | Let's Do This!

It's hard to believe that Surtex, something I have been working towards for nearly a year, is less than a week away now! I've had lots of friends ask me how I'm doing as the show approaches and my response is always the same, "I am completely prepared, but I don't feel ready." 

My Journey to Surtex May 2017 Update: Ready or Not, Here I Come | shannonmcnab.com

Although to be honest, I don't think there is a way to feel completely ready for something like this. It's a huge milestone moment for me in my surface design career, so I'm just trying remember that all these trade show jitters mean is that I care a whole heck of a lot about what I'm doing!

Surtex Booth Prep

Up until this point in my Surtex blog series (if you missed any, I've linked them all up at the bottom of this post), I've talked quite a bit about my show prep in general terms, but haven't actually shown and explained that much.

The reality is that there are many moving parts to prepping for the trade show, so today I'd thought it would be helpful to show you just a few things I've done to prepare and explain my reasons behind them (which also means today's post is longer than usual).

Marketing Mailers

Exhibiting at Surtex is wonderful because it puts you in front of hundreds of companies who may want to use your designs. However, there's no guarantee that just because people from your dream companies are attending, that they'll make it to your booth. And that's why marketing mailers are an important part of trade show preparations.

Surtex 2017 Marketing Mailers | designed by Shannon McNab

The first and most time consuming part was compiling a list of potential buyers/clients, but then I had to decide exactly what I wanted to send them. After researching what people have done in the past, I came to the conclusion that the simpler and more straightforward I could be, the better, so I opted for a 5x7 double-sided postcard mailer.

The reasons behind that decision were three-fold. 

  1. Simple means less time. I could have come up with a more complicated, multi-piece mailer, but that would mean taking time away from other trade show prep that needed my attention. 
  2. Many mailers end up in the trash. It's a sad truth, but I've heard this from several other designers and art agents. And as much as I would love to have everyone save my mailers and meet up with me at the show, that's not realistic.
  3. Environmental impact. I'm a bit of a recycling nut, so I hated the idea of creating complex mailers with lots of resources, especially when many will end up in the trash (reason #2). By sending out a single postcard, I saved paper by not needing envelopes.

Now you may notice in the picture above, that I designed three different mailers and may be wondering why. My reasoning is that the companies I'm contacting are from a variety of markets and cater to different audiences. By sending them something that is a bit more catered to their overall product aesthetic, I'm hoping I increase my chances of success.

Press Kit

There's lots of debate on whether press kits are needed as much as they were in a pre-internet age. For example, in the Surtex hosted webinars, the presenter reiterated the importance of having lots of them to hand out.

Yet on the other end of the spectrum, I've heard from several designers that they spent loads of time and money on press kits for Surtex only to end up with dozens of them leftover. So I decided to approach my press kit much like I did with my mailers, by keeping things simple. For me, that meant creating a digital press kit.

Especially nowadays when most press opportunities are online, it made sense for me to create my press kit online (not to mention the environmental savings of doing so).


However, even with a digital press kit, I knew I needed something tangible to leave in the press room and hand out in my booth. It also needed to hold a decent amount of information and needed to be sized accordingly.

Surtex 2017 Digital Press Kit Rack Card | shannonmcnab.com

So I opted for a double-sided rack card (it's roughly the dimensions of a letter-sized envelope). On the front, I included a good representation of the art I create (see above) and the back has my contact information along with a brief introduction to me as an artist. However, the most important part of the rack card is the QR code I included which when scanned with your phone, takes you to the digital press kit on my website.

The best part about this solution is that as I add to and update my press kit, the URL will remain the same, so I won't ever have to "reprint" press kits. When I get a press request, all I have to do is send them to that webpage. It really felt like best solution, especially for longevity sake.

Portfolio Prints

Another source of debate among exhibiting designers is what form your portfolio should take to best represent your work in your booth. There are three options that are the most popular and oftentimes, designers will choose to have more than one option with them at the booth:

  1. Loose Portfolio Sheets: They can be stacked directly on the table, corralled into a binder with page protectors, or collected by category into folders. The advantage is that if you sell a design outright, the buyer can leave with the print.
  2. Bound Portfolio Book: A bound book can either be used to show your entire portfolio or a "highlight reel" of your favorite work from the year. The advantage is that it's a lot less cumbersome to travel with and look through than loose sheets, but it may also be harder to keep track of which pieces are no longer available.
  3. Digital Portfolio on a Tablet: Definitely the simplest and most travel friendly option, especially if the app you use allows for keyword searching (you'd need to add metadata to your images ahead of time for this to work). However, I've heard that many clients/buyers still like to look through physical pages.
Surtex 2017 Portfolio Loose Sheets | shannonmcnab.com

Personally, I decided to go with options 1 & 3. I'll have 11x17 loose sheets of my designs organized into three stacks (Christmas, floral, and other) and also have a tablet where people will be able to search by keyword. I originally had planned on also having a "highlights" Blurb book, but since it's my first year and I don't yet have a portfolio consisting of hundreds of pieces, I didn't feel it was worth the time investment to create the book.

Lesson Learned: Setting Goals

One aspect that I feel doesn't gets discussed very much concerning Surtex and trade shows in general is goal setting. Understanding your expectations for a trade show ahead of time is crucial step if you want to grow your art business. I mean you put all this effort into creating new work and exhibiting, so you need to make sure you know what you'll be happy to leave with. 

The goals you set should be based on what you hope to gain from your trade show experience, but be sure to not make goals too general. They should be specific enough so at the end of the show, you can easily assess whether the show was a success.


Everyone's goals are (and should be) different, especially when it comes to how long you've been in the industry. Someone who's been a surface designer for years will have a much different experience and be focusing on completely different goals than I will as a first timer.

Here are my three specific (and somewhat lofty) goals for the show:

  1. Attempt to strike up a conversation with at least 50% of the people who walk past my booth. This is the most challenging and nerve wracking goal I've set for myself, but it's very important. Personally, I never been that comfortable talking with strangers about myself, but that's a big part of being an artist. In order for me to get better at that, I need practice.
  2. Come home with at least 20 solid leads of people/companies I'd like to work with. I have my intake forms ready to go and will be writing down the information of any buyer/client that's interested in my work, but I also know that everyone who's interested will not necessarily be a good fit. So while I plan on filling out way more than 20 intake forms over the course of the show, I'm hoping that I'll walk away with a stack of company contacts who I feel are an especially good match for my art.
  3. Sell 3 portfolio pieces during the show. This is the most lofty goal of all. Why is that?? Well, I've heard that many companies are cautious to do business with first time exhibitors. It makes perfect sense – I'm a completely unknown entity to them.
    So while I know it's a risk to set a goal knowing full well I may not achieve it, I'm still going to make selling my designs at the show a priority. Not only will selling work bring in income to offset some of the costs of Surtex, it will also fuel my confidence and make it easier to talk to art directors and buyers after the show (basically it makes goal #1 easier).

Although I have these goals in my head, there's no way to know whether I'll actually achieve them all, but it's ok. And that's because I can walk out of the Javitz on Tuesday evening, knowing I put a lot of heart and effort into exhibiting and can feel good that I took such a take a huge step forward in my surface design career.


If you'd like to follow along my journey during the show, be sure to follow me on Instagram. I'm hoping I'll have time to post at least one daily update! And before I forget, here's the links to the rest of my 2017 Surtex preparation series:

Part 1: My Journey to Surtex Begins
Part 2: 100 Days to Go
Part 3: 2 Months and Counting
Part 4: Only 1 Month Left

Also, I'm hoping once I've handled all the immediate follow up from Surtex that I'll have time to share a recap of the show sometime in June.


My Journey to Surtex | April 2017 Update: Only One Month Left!

Exactly four weeks from now, I'll be hopping on a plane to New York and gearing up to exhibit at Surtex for the very first time – and it feels so surreal! This past month of prep has been very intense, but I'm happy to report that I've had a very productive and mostly positive month.

My Journey to Surtex April 2017 Update: Only One Month Left | shannonmcnab.com

What I've Been Up to This Month:

I feel like April was definitely my "in the trenches, get it done" month in terms of Surtex prep. Over the past three weeks, I've ordered nearly everything I need for my booth from fun giveaway items to sample products showing off my designs to the all-important booth banners (can't show those yet, I want to keep them a surprise!).

It was also a busy month in terms of marketing. I signed up for a trial month of LinkedIn Premium so I could track down the names of art directors for the companies I most want to work with. The scariest part??? Actually contacting them with an InMail message hoping for a response. It's a pretty humbling experience to put yourself out there, hoping that companies like what you do.

Social media is another thing I've been focusing on as I've started posting the previews I spent a lot of time working on in February (like the example below). It's important to post regularly to Instagram, so I'm sharing snippets of new work and trade show prep in-between Surtex previews. And because automation makes life SO much easier, I already have ALL my preview images between now and the show uploaded to Later.com with captions so I don't have to think about it. 

Shannon McNab SURTEX 2017 Preview | Booth 3037

However, I always strive to be honest about my artistic journey, so despite accomplishing a lot this month, I want to share my setbacks too. One place where I feel like I've "fallen behind" a bit is in creating new work for my portfolio. Since my March Surtex update, I've only managed to create five new pieces instead of the 8-10 I was hoping for. I know that my creative energy runs in cycles, but this past month has seen a dip in energy, even in my most creative periods.

It's hard to pinpoint just one thing to blame my lack of creative energy on as it's usually a combination of factors, but one important difference between this month and last is that I've started overthinking things. In times of extreme stress, I typically default to what I affectionately call "worry wart mode" and until now, I've been fairly good at managing my stress level and taking time off when I feel I need it.

Happy Hour Cocktails Illustration by Shannon McNab ©2017

But now that the show is actually right around the corner, I've found myself starting to nitpick and revisit every decision. From theme to color choices to the overall presentation of a design, I've been doubting everything. Sometimes I get so caught up worrying about what buyers and art directors might want to see that it's been almost paralyzing. So much so, that I took this entire week off from creating any new work to give my creativity tank time to refill.

Constant creativity is hard, so it's important to know when you need a break, and it's something I relearn over and over again.

I absolutely LOVE what I do for a living. That moment when I get a pattern to repeat perfectly or I finally master a new technique in Illustrator – it truly makes me giddy! But it can be easy to lose sight of that when I start to worry about what others think (art directors or otherwise). A very wise fellow designer recently said to me that I should "design for one", create the things that make me happy, and everything else will fall into place. It's great advice and I'm going to keep that in the back of my mind as I run towards the Surtex finish line.
 

Lesson Learned: It Takes a Village

I'm sure you've heard the saying "it takes a village to raise a child." Well, I believe the same is true when preparing for a trade show while also trying not lose your mind.

When I made the decision to exhibit at Surtex last year, it was just me. And you know what?? It was lonely first couple of months. I was still finding my footing, but I knew I needed help if I was going to be successful and stay sane.

First, I asked my husband for help and he could not have been more supportive – he'll even be working in my Surtex booth with me! And while my husband's encouragement has been wonderful, it still wasn't enough. I needed someone else; someone who knew exactly what I was going through.

That's why I'm so grateful for my accountability partner and fellow Surtex attendee, Lizzie Clark. She reached out to me at the end of 2016 and we've been in constant contact ever since. We schedule Skype chats every other week and email in between to keep each other on-track. She's been an incredibly supportive partner-in-crime and I can't wait to meet her in person next month (and luckily she's only 2 booths down from me!).
 

I've also been thankful to be part of Jennifer Nelson's Facebook group Advice for Artists. It's a large group of incredibly knowledgeable and encouraging group of designers where you get really thoughtful answers to your questions.

Another place where I've been able to connect with many fellow designers who are always eager to encourage each other is Instagram. And while I've heard many say that the industry can be very competitive and cutthroat, I'm lucky that my experience with other surface designers has been nothing but positive.

So my lesson learned this month is that if you're considering signing up for a trade show or embarking on a big new business endeavor, don't go it alone. The journey is way more fun (and A LOT less stressful) if you have a village of support around you.


My Journey to Surtex | March 2017 Update: Two Months & Counting

I'm back with my March Surtex update and there's exactly TWO MONTHS LEFT until the show... eeeek!! And even though my last update was only five weeks ago, I've tackled lots of items on my to-do list since then.

My Journey to Surtex March 2017: 2 Months & Counting | shannonmcnab.com

What I’ve Been Up to This Month: 

My preparations for the last month have run the gamut from "mundane" tasks like creating invoice forms and securing booth insurance (something I didn't even know I would need) to more "exciting" endeavors like building the pages of my printed portfolio and booking my flight to NYC – both of which make my dream of exhibiting seem much more real!

And of course I've continued to create new work – 8 pieces since early February. I decided to spend most of my time this month focusing on character design and stand-alone illustrations to help round out my pattern-heavy portfolio.

Flowers for You Greeting Card Illustration | ©2017 Shannon McNab

I've also been developing my Wacom tablet skills, since I've had one for two years and barely used it for anything more than finishing touches. My "old" way of designing (especially with more complicated illustrations) was usually a long process:

  1. Create a rough pencil sketch
  2. Use tracing paper to trace over the original drawing in pen
  3. Scan the pen drawing into the computer
  4. Use Live Trace in Illustrator to vectorize my pen drawing
  5. Tweak, color and refine the illustration
  6. Add texture with my Wacom using the brush tool, if needed

However, I've realized that if I intend to make this a full-time career (which I do), I definitely need to become faster at creating work and that means getting quicker with my design process as much as I can.


Enter my Wacom Intuos! For the past three weeks, I've challenged myself to create every new design ONLY using my tablet and pen in Illustrator. To make things more exciting, I bought a fantastic AI Brushes bundle from Retro Supply Co. to help create more depth in my work (like the flower vase illustration above or the space collection below).

Space Dogs Collection | Copyright ©2016, Shannon McNab

And I'm happy to say I'm REALLY hopeful after looking at my progress in less than a month! As long as I have a clear initial design concept, it now only takes me half as much time to complete an illustration versus my "old" process. Here's a look at my new design process:

  1. Create a rough pencil sketch
  2. Scan the pencil sketch into the computer
  3. Trace over sketch in Illustrator with brush & blob brush tools
  4. Tweak, color and add texture to the illustration

I know that as long as I continue to practice, I'll only get better and faster. That means I can create more work and take on more commissions, but it will take less time. It's a total WIN-WIN!

Lesson Learned: Don’t Get Too Precious with Your Art

As I turn the corner towards the "finish line" of exhibiting at Surtex 2017, I thought it would be helpful to share some words of wisdom I've learned through my journey towards my first trade show.

This month's Lesson Learned is from Jennifer Nelson, a successful art agent. I was lucky enough to schedule some one-on-one time with Jennifer in December. We spent the entire time looking through my portfolio pieces and strategizing ways to make my designs stronger and more appealing to buyers.

One thing she reiterated (both in my one-on-one session and in her monthly Prep Talk series) was that you can't get too precious with your designs and that you should go to Surtex ready to sell the majority of your work outright.


That's not to say she's against licensing contracts (on the contrary, she believes licensing to be an important aspect of generating income on your work), but her point was that it's better to sell a design rather than letting it sit on your computer unused because you weren't ready to let it go. I mean wouldn't you rather see a piece you created out in the world on amazing products instead of staring at it on your desktop?!? I know I would!

Herb Garden Illustrations by Shannon McNab

One caveat to this is to not "give your items away" and take the first offer you get on a design. You need to know what $$ you're willing to let each design go for before you show up on the trade show floor. Then when someone has an offer for you on your work, you're in a much better place to negotiate because you've already thought it through.

Another thing to think about is although you should be ready to sell most of your art, consider keeping your most "unequivocally YOU" designs only available for licenses (especially if they are character designs). To be 100% honest, I'm still trying to identify what those pieces are in my own portfolio, but I know it's something I have to stay aware of as I'm creating new work and getting ready for Surtex.

But no matter what, the absolute best part about this business is you can ALWAYS create more work! So even if one of your favorite pieces sell, you can still create new designs you love just as much. And that just makes my passionate surface design heart go pitter-patter!


My Journey to Surtex | February 2017 Update: 100 Days to Go!

It’s been nearly six months since I announced that I signed up to exhibit at Surtex and a lot has happened in that time!

My Journey to Surtex February 2017: 100 Days to Go | shannonmcnab.com

So what exactly have I been up to?? Well, about 90% of my time has been spent on building new pieces for my portfolio because having a healthy-sized portfolio is the most important part of preparing for the show.

Since my last Surtex blogpost, I managed to complete 24 new designs in 2016 (the majority of those were during my Christmas Art Countdown challenge). And so far this year, I've added 14 new pieces to my portfolio. Right now, I'm staying focused on creating new designs that will cater to the markets I'm especially interested in working with so that I can hopefully attract the right buyers at the show.

There's that old saying that you can't be all things to all people, and I feel like that also applies to art. 

I have my own unique design style that is colorful, whimsical, and just a little bit "cutesy". That means that my designs won't be suited to every market, like women's fashion or high-end home decor for example. But children's wear and the greeting cards/gift market??? Well, I think my designs are perfectly suited for them!

Besides adding to my portfolio, I've been busy soaking up every bit of information I can about exhibiting at the show. I've read countless blog posts, listened to webinars, scoured the Surtex website and they all gave me great background about what to expect at the show.

But when talking about the nitty-gritty details (like buyout forms, pricing your art appropriately, and specifics about what buyers are REALLY looking for), I'm SO glad I found Jennifer Nelson! She runs a series called Prep Talks that has been invaluable to me prepping for the show. I think she's considering running the series again after the 2017 show concludes, so if you've been thinking about exhibiting at a trade show, I highly recommend you sign up for them! 

So, What Comes Next for Me??

With just over 3 months to go until Surtex, I still have a huge to-do list that I'm chipping away at each week.

Of course, adding new work to my portfolio will still be my #1 focus until about mid-April. The goal I set for myself is to add 2-3 trade show ready pieces each week. Beyond that, I'm keeping a close watch on how many pieces I have in each design category (Christmas, florals, animals, everyday, etc.). I hoping that Christmas & florals will make up about 50% of my entire portfolio as I've been told those are the two categories buyers ask for most.

Besides creating new designs, I'm also starting to ramp up on marketing and building a solid plan to keep me sane as the show gets closer. For example, I've already built a few Surtex ads that I'll roll out in my Instagram feed later this spring. Each design can be quickly modified into a postcard-size design that I can print and send to prospective buyers – saving me time later on when it comes time to creating my printed promotional pieces.

I'm also planning on continuing this blog series with monthly updates until Surtex and maybe even after the show concludes. There's so many tiny details that go into exhibiting and although it's my first time at this rodeo, I want to chronicle my journey. Not only for myself (as I'm a scrapbooker, I'm always prone to preserving stories), but for anyone else out there who interested in a career in surface design.

I won't always have the answers, but I'm hoping my journey will resonate with you and your own artistic journey :)


Hopscotch Value Kit for Becky Higgins

Last summer, I had the chance to work on another project with Becky Higgins and I'm happy to say that it finally made its debut at the Creativation trade show last week! 

Hopscotch Value Kit for Becky Higgins LLC designed by Shannon McNab

Back in August 2016, Becky's team contacted me and asked if I would be interested in designing a value kit for their 2017 CHA lineup. After we worked so well together on their Magic Memories cards last spring, I couldn't say yes fast enough!

The concept for Hopscotch was centered around the idea of "play". It's a theme I'd been developing for awhile, I was just waiting for the right project to come along. So I'm was incredibly happy when Becky's team was 100% on board with the idea! 

The value kit was larger than my Magic Memories card collection, so it took a bit more research and lots of sketching to fulfill my vision for the kit. Here's just a few pages from my sketchbook for Hopscotch:

After a whirlwind couple of weeks, Hopscotch was finalized in early September and all that was left was to wait a few months for it to debut.

This is the first time in four years that I haven't gone to CHA's January trade show, so I'm a bit disappointed I wasn't able to see it in person on the show room floor. However, I'm hoping to have this kit in my hot little hands in the very near future!

Hopscotch Value Kit for Becky Higgins LLC designed by Shannon McNab
Hopscotch Value Kit for Becky Higgins designed by Shannon McNab
Hopscotch Value Kit for Becky Higgins designed by Shannon McNab

If you're wondering where you can find Hopscotch, it's now available to purchase on Becky Higgins' website. However, if you're looking at your local scrapbook store (or Michael's), it likely won't be in stock for a few more months.